I wrote about podcasts recently in an article I did for a local club magazine here in Hamburg. Since then many friends have asked for more information on the technical aspects of using podcasts and podcatcher software. I decided to post those answers here. (If you don’t know what a podcast is, you might first want to have a look at this.)
You may already be familiar with searching for and downloading music and/or video from the Internet to your computer. This is essentially what happens when you identify a podcast you want to listen to — you download it and then either listen to it directly on your computer, or copy it onto an iPod or other MP3 player to listen to on the go. But what makes podcasts special is that you can subscribe to them, just like you would a print magazine or email newsletter, and have your computer automatically download new episodes of your podcasts as soon as they become available. The tricky bit is, how do you do that? That’s what this article is all about.
How Do I Find a Podcast?
Setting up all this great technology is useless if you don’t have something to listen to! Finding a podcast to interest you isn’t hard (there are thousands of them, produced both professionally and by ordinary people in their basements), but you need to know where to look and what to look for.
Podcasts can be found anywhere on the web. And remember, since podcasts are in effect linkable web content, you will often find the same podcasts linked from multiple sites. Here’s some places and ideas to get you started (of course these reflect my tastes, these are just suggestions!):
- Collections of links to podcasts from a media information sites or stores, such as:
— Apple’s iTunes Store is a popular distrubution point for many podcasts. You can access it from iTunes running under either Windows or Mac. “Tips for Podcast Fans” from Apple.com provides details.
— Podcast Alley: http://www.podcastalley.com/
- Podcasts are offered by many traditional media outlets: TV, Radio, Magazines, etc. Check the websites of your favorites, such as:
— National Public Radio: http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_directory.php
— ESPN: http://espnradio.espn.go.com/espnradio/podcast/index
- Even private companies and individuals might offer subscriptions to their home-produced podcasts from a small private website.
— German Grammar Pod: http://sites.google.com/site/germangrammarpod/home (This is privately produced by a British language professional and is GREAT if you’re trying to learn, or are just interested in, the German language!)
“OK,” I hear you ask, “so what exactly am I looking for on these sites?”
A podcast series is basically referenced by a link, just like the sort of link that you enter into your browser to call up a web page. These links look very similar to the normal “www.site.com” you’re used to seeing, and are called “RSS links” (RSS stands for “Really Simple Syndication”, but you don’t need to know anything about it to use podcasts other than what they’re called). Most sites that distribute podcasts make it easy for you by making clickable text links or buttons that say things like “Subscribe” or “Subscription via SomeSiteName”, but some may have slightly more cryptic links like “Subscribe via RSS Feed”. Here are a few examples:
I Found a Podcast, Now What?
Now that you’ve located a podcast you want, you’ll want to create a subscription for it. When you set up a magazine or an email subscription, you tell the publisher that you would like her to send you the newest issue, to your mail- or email-box, as soon as it’s available. For podcasts that works kind of in reverse. The podcast publisher (or “podcaster”) places episodes in a specific location online (located by the RSS links), and you monitor this location for new postings. You do this with a “podcatcher”.
Podcatcher software (sometimes called a “podcast aggregator” by those who like sounding nerdy at parties) is basically a subscription manager. You tell it what podcasts you’re interested in, and it automatically makes periodic checks of those podcasts to see if there’s something new available. If there is, it downloads it. It also keeps track of which podcasts it has already downloaded, and which episodes you’ve already listened to.
Obviously this only works if your podcatcher is installed on a computer that is at least periodically connected to the internet. It doesn’t need to be permanently connected, but your machine can only check for and download new episodes while it has an active internet connection. Once the episodes have been downloaded and saved to your computer, you don’t need the internet connection. You can then listen to them directly from your computer using speakers or headphones, or you can copy them to your iPod or MP3 device to listen to at your leisure, away from the computer.
How Do I Find a Podcatcher?
The good news is there are many good quality free podcatcher softwares available, so you don’t have to spend a bunch of money to get one. You may also have gotten a podcatcher included with the purchase of your MP3 device, or already installed with your computer’s operating system. However, you do need to know where to look, and how to select one that works best for you.
Where you go next depends on what type of computer you have. Up to now we’ve discussed the general concepts of podcasting that apply to everyone, regardless of what type of computer they use. I don’t want to bore the Mac users with Windows advice and screenshots, and vice versa. Therefore, I’ve continued the tech discussion into separate posts. Click on the appropriate link for your computer type to continue to the next post.