Spoutin' Off: Podcasts are another media choice
By Michael E. Rau
July 11 2005
I had planned to save the topic of podcasting for a future column. But in the last couple of weeks, I suppose largely due to the release of iTunes v. 4.9 with its support for podcasts, tech news circles have been buzzing with podcast-related pieces. I just have to pitch in my two-cents worth.
First, I want to give appropriate credit to former MTV VJ Adam Curry, who pioneered the concept of podcasting. Curry is now known as the "Podfather" and he remains the form's driving force (as well as an effective advocate for free speech). His Web site is http://www.curry.com and has a lots of interesting stuff.
Just what is a podcast? While still evolving as a media form, simply put it's a pre-recorded digital audio program formated to be listened to via any device which plays .mp3 files. The name came about because some of the first mass podcasts were created by iPod aficionados, for iPod aficionados.
With the release of the latest version of iTunes, Apple has certainly embraced the media form, but there's nothing about podcasting which is Apple-specific. The audio file itself is created in the ubiquitous .mp3 compressed digital audio format. The other component of a podcast is an easy-to-create text file, written in Extensible Markup Language (.XML) and saved with a .RSS (Real Simple Syndication) extension. Load these two files onto a Web server and you're podcasting! For more detailed instructions, you'll find an excellent step-by-step tutorial at about.com. (http://radio.about.com/od/podcastin1/a/aa030805a.htm).
Technically, the .RSS file isn't necessary to listen to a podcast, but it allows your podcast to be available through software-based subscription, in much the same way Web surfers are now using .RSS aggregators to subscribe to and gather news, columns, and stories on a pre-defined schedule from their favorite online sources.
Most folks are probably more interested in how to acquire and listen to podcasts rather than create them, so here's the deal:
So-called "podcatching" software is readily available for free from many sources and for any platform. They're also available for pocket PCs, PDAs, and even some cell phones. You download and install a small application on your computer and then configure it to regularly check the sources of your choice for new podcasts.
For example, let's say you like to start your day with a little financial news, the headlines from National Public Radio and then a little techno-pop to get the blood pumping. You'd use podcatching software to locate the appropriate sources (the .RSS file) and then configure the program to go to those locations at maybe 6 a.m. and download the newest feed.
Your computer would then sync it to your PDA or digital audio player, which you linked to your system the night before.
At 6:30, you're ready for your morning jog. You grab your player and head on out for your run with everything you wanted to hear pre-loaded and ready for your consumption.
Not surprisingly, the most sophisticated of these applications is iTunes v4.9. After all, who builds cleaner applications than Apple?
But be aware that in terms of portable players, iTunes works only with iPods.
Some of the original podcasters were DJs putting together mixes of tunes for friends.
One of the more unusual phenomena to come from this was the "pod party," a gathering where iPodders would all download the same podcast, start it at the exact same time, and to the casual observer, dance the night away in apparent silence, but perfect rhythm.
Now, pretty much anything that can be recorded is being podcast.
DJs are still putting together their own mixes and offering them online (although I'm obliged to point out that technically, they're illegally, if not harmlessly distributing copyrighted material).
Many of your favorite media bloviators have already discovered this new method of spewing their vitriol for your edification.
Elected officials and political candidates are now recording and offering podcast reports to constituents and voters.
Public relations firms are making audio news releases available as podcasts and corporations are creating podcast reports for shareholders.
I haven't caught the blog bug myself, but if you're into blogs, many bloggers are now publishing audio versions of their musings as podcasts.
But to me, its greatest benefit is in enabling me to go to sources I trust to costlessly introduce me to new music I'm not going to get to hear on commercial radio (insert your own rant here about the decline of that particular media form). As with Internet radio, there are many such programs that are legally distributed and readily available.
So just how big of a deal is podcasting? I perceive it as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But even after the faddishness fades, it still represents another choice in terms of the free distribution of media - something which always benefits society.
Mike Rau is a communications consultant in Virginia Beach. To send comments to Mike or view past columns, visit http://dailypress.asoundidea.com.
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