Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Podcasts – what, why and how?

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about podcasts – what they are, why they are useful, and how to use them. You can use them to listen to radio programmes you have missed, or to ones that aren’t broadcast in New Zealand, or to programmes that were made for podcast and have never been on the radio. And you don’t even need an iPod – just a computer and broadband.

Read on for my notes, with links at the end.

Q: OK, podcasting. I know we do it, here at Radio New Zealand, but can you define it, please?

A: Podcasting is a way of distributing sound and video files across the Internet. It gets its name from the way podcasted files often wind up getting played on people’s iPods or other digital music players.

Q: So you can listen to the radio on your iPod?

A: Let’s be clear what’s going on. Through podcasting you can get recorded sound files onto your iPod, and some radio stations offer a lot of their broadcast material as podcasts. So, no, you aren’t listening to live radio – if that’s what you want, just use a radio – but you are listening to radio programmes that were broadcast earlier. The effect is a bit like using a video recorder, or even more like using a hard drive recorder, that knows when your favourite programmes are and just records them automatically.

Q: So you can catch up on things you missed?

A: Exactly so. And, even more interesting, you can listen to things that aren’t broadcast here, and would broadcast be in the middle of the night if they were.

Q: How does this all work?

A: It’s the combination of two quite cool technologies. We talked about MP3 sound files last week, and podcasts are mainly MP3 files – probably because they work on all players. So the broadcaster makes a sound file of a programme, and that’s probably something they would be doing anyway, and to make a podcast all they have to do is convert it to MP3. As I said last week, that’s a solved problem.

The other nifty piece of technology involved is what are called RSS feeds. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, and it was designed as a general way for web sites or other news sources to push their updated material to other sites or to interested users. RSS is what drives the feeds you can get from news sites and blog sites – usually they are marked with a little icon showing white concentric quarter circles on an orange background. RSS feeds until recently were generally used for distributing text files, but they can do more, and in podcasting the RSS technology is used to distribute MP3 files.

Q: How do you get podcasts onto your iPod or digital music player?

A: You need a piece of software that gets the podcasts. You can use iTunes, and that works on Windows and on the Mac, and it’s free. You can use Amarok on Linux to do much that same thing as iTunes by the way – Peter Hewet wrote in after the programme last week to say that, thanks, and Amarok will fetch your podcasts for you if you are on Linux.

Q: Give me an example – say I want to get the podcast for this programme, how do I do it?

A: First thing is find out whether there is a podcast – and there definitely is for Nine to Noon, Radio New Zealand makes lots of it’s stuff available as podcasts – and you find the right page on the Radio New Zealand website. I’ll link up the page in the links for today’s programme. You need to make sure you are on the actual podcast feed page, it will just look like a list of episodes of a programme and, on Radio New Zealand’s website at least, the address of the page will end in RSS. Next you copy the name of the page – the actual address of it in your web browser. Then in iTunes you find the ‘Subscribe to Podcast’ option – it’s in the menus – and you paste the address you copied into it. There are helpful instructions on the podcast page itself. If you’re not sure, just go to Radio New Zealand’s web site and follow the links marked Podcast.

ITunes also has a podcast menu built in, and you can poke around in that and see what you can find. There’s lots there, but you can also get podcasts directly from websites in the way I just described it. I get some podcasts direct from the BBC – Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time does it for me, 40 minutes of highbrow discussion about something different every week and it rolls in every Thursday night, ready for me to put it onto my iPod in time for the weekend.

Q: So it just arrives automatically?

A: That’s the beauty of the whole thing. You just set these things up to automatically download – you do need broadband for this, by the way, don’t even think about trying this on dial-up, and the programmes you want to listen to just run up in your iTunes, and if you have an iPod and you plug it into your computer regularly, the programmes just appear on it. If you have some other digital music player then you might have to manually drag new episodes of your podcasts as your computer downloads them.

And you don’t have to listen to podcasts on iPods. You can listen to them on pretty much anything including your computer’s own speakers.

As some listeners have pointed out, there are plenty of alternatives to iTunes out there. Feel free to experiment, especially if you aren’t using an iPod. If you are using an iPod it’s hard not to use iTunes, and the only reason you wouldn’t is if you are running, say, Linux, which iTunes doesn’t support. Anyway, Google for podcatching software and see what you can find.

Q: Are podcasts only sound or are there videos as well?

A: There certainly are video podcasts available. If you’ve got a video iPod or other digital video player, or if you’re happy to watch the things on your computer, there’s a lot of material out there. Use Google, or the iTunes podcast directory to start.

Q: So it’s not just radio stations making podcasts?

A: No, lots of people do it. You don’t need a lot of equipment – a lot less than you need to run a radio station – a microphone and a piece of software is enough. And there are a lot of amateur podcasts out there. Some are even good. There’s a guy who writes horror novels that he reads out as podcasts – they were only available as podcasts at first, now they sell well on Amazon as well. I’m sure there are many other authors doing the same thing.

And we haven’t touched on video podcasts yet. It’s really no harder to make a video podcast than an audio one. You need a digital video camera, but they are pretty cheap these days. Some portable players like most iPods will play video. Or you can play them on your computer. This is a developing area, it’s an example of the democratizing effect of the Net – it lets everyone be their own broadcaster.


The podcast page for this radio programme.

BBC Radio 4’s podcast page and Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time.

Scott Sigler’s page. He writes novels and podcasts them.

Amarok, the open source music player and podcast software for Linux and Unix.

posted by colin at 10:50 am  


  1. Thanks for interesting information about pod-casts etc on 8/12/07. In the absence of good/economic broadband connection I have only dial-up service. SO- please tell me, can I set-up and receive pod-casts if I only have a dial-up connection to the internet??.
    When I seek to down-load 30 minute programmes previously broadcasts from (say) BBC it takes about an hour (which is a disincentive). Is there a way to make it faster ??.
    Regards, A.

    Comment by Albert — 8 November 2007 @ 11:07 am

  2. There isn’t any way to make sound files come through a dial-up any faster. Sounds files are necessarily big – the ones for my Radio New Zealand interviews are about 5 megabytes, for example, and ones that are at music quality will be larger still per minute of playback.

    The only way to make a BBC download faster is to go to broadband, I’m afraid. That does have some other advantages, like being on all the time (so the download can occur automatically as soon as the file is ready on the BBC) and not tying up your telephone line.

    Broadband in New Zealand is improving in quality and slowly reducing in price. I hope you will be able to give it a try.

    Cheers – Colin

    Comment by colin — 8 November 2007 @ 6:04 pm

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