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Podcasting 101


Whenever I approach a new online technology I try to factor in the same kind of considerations that I use when making home repairs.

  1. No matter how straight-forward the project seems, there will be something that prevents it from being finished on time

  2. Enthusiasm isn't a good substitute for planning

  3. Sometimes it's more cost effective to hire a professional to do the job

I bring this up because I doubt I am alone in my optimistic perspective when it comes to estimating the amount of time required to integrate a new type of marketing technology or get the guest room painted.

I recently set out to learn all that I could about the how's and why's of podcasting with an eye on how online marketers can use this technology to reach prospective customers. While an understanding of the technology and how it can be applied can be fully understood in seconds, implementing a podcast requires a lot more than meets the eye.

Today I would like to share with you what I've learned during my brief foray, so that you can benefit from my sweat and often distracted thinking. First, let's cover the basics:

  • A podcast is an audio file that can be shared with others. Podcast topics cover a wide range from targeted interest talk shows to independent music feeds to monologues. These programs are recorded by "broadcasters" and placed on servers where they can be accessed by "subscribers."

  • Podcasts that have been subscribed to are automatically updated to that consumer's computer or MP3 player when new content is made available. This is done using RSS feed links and encoding.

  • In only 87 steps you too can start a Podcast of your own.

Well perhaps it's easier than that but the truth is that there are a number of steps required to get a podcast up and running if you're starting from scratch. Perhaps most important is the creation of the podcast recording itself.

Setting up a quick and cheap recording studio

At the barebones level a microphone attached to the soundcard of your computer will allow you to record audio. Using professional sound recording software can give you more options in creating a quality file. I recommend Audacity which stands out as being of good quality, available for both Mac and PC formats (and Linux) and free!

Audacity is a simple audio mixing programming that offers a handful of audio effects and multiple tracks. It's worth checking out.

You may also need to invest in a quality microphone. Audio recording, like most multimedia projects, is generally a case of Garbage In/Garbage Out (GIGO). If you use sub par materials you will often get sub par results. For as little as $20 you can get your hands on a solid condenser microphone/headphone combination at RadioShack that will most certainly be better than the microphone shipped with your computer.

Because most podcasts are not professionally produced, basement offices and guest bedrooms are often the recording environment of choice. Ambient noise is always a problem but with consideration to time of day and use of noise canceling filters in the recording software you can bring the quality of the recording up.

I'll also mention that coming up with an entertaining format for your show is a huge plus. While a monologue format will get your main points across having a standardized 'show' format (think musical intros and information segments) will make broadcasts more appealing and easier to update.

Postproduction considerations

Audio files are generally large. While there are ways to select lower sample rates and compression algorithms that will bring file sizes down, the amount of data being collected for every minute of a broadcast is still sizable. The final file size may not amount to a great deal as far as storage on your hard drive is concerned but the larger the final file, the more data throughput it will require from your server.

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Most of the clients also have built in management tools that help them identify new content so that they don't end up downloading the same file every time they run the play list.

However, getting the files formatted for downloading means that you will need to have a web page for that code to sit on. While most marketing entities have an existing web page, additional coding to those pages is required to get everything up and running.

Another approach is to place podcast links and access to existing blog pages. More and more companies are creating blogs using applications like MoveableType and Blogger to create company weblogs. Because blogs are often regularly visited parts of the company website, it makes sense to include podcast links on these pages. These pages are also a great place to put icons denoting podcast links so that interested visitors can quickly and easily add a broadcast to their podcast clients.

Finally, even the best content broadcast in the world is useless if there are no listeners. To get your broadcasts into the ears of prospective consumers you're going to need to do a little PR. As with the growth of websites in the mid-1990s, podcast numbers are growing rapidly. While you may have something worthwhile to say, the sheer number of other podcasters requires you to find a way to stand out as well as you can.

The first logical step for getting the word out is to let your regular site visitors know that you are in the podcasting business. Adding podcast icons and an explanation on how to access these broadcasts is a good order of business for any responsible website. You will also want to get your podcast listed in as many of the existing podcast directories as possible. Two of the larger sites are Podcast.net and podcastAlley.com. A quick Google search will offer many more options.

Obviously being able to communicate with your audience is a nice thing. Creating web pages that are specific to the podcasts means being able to build in features that allow your listeners to leave messages and comments. A few good examples of podcast sites that you might want to check out are www.geeknewscentral.com. This is writer Tom Cochrane's site and also provides links to his new book, "Podcasting: The do it yourself guide." This is a pretty solid overview of the entire podcast development process.

Another site that I enjoy is www.kenradio.com which covers technology topics and news out of Silicon Valley. This site offers daily half hour broadcasts that are available as computer audio links or as podcasts.

I have only covered the barest of understanding about podcasting in this column. However, I hope its enough to get you up to speed understanding how a podcast might help you get a message out to a target audience.

Check back at iMedia Connection soon as I will be exploring how online marketers can use podcasts as an online advertising venue and some of the things that need to be considered before jumping in with both feet.

With over 14 years in the areas of interactive communication, training and marketing, Rob Graham is an in-demand speaker on topics of rich media advertising, online training and online marketing.

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Most of us do not own servers but rent space from a hosting company. The terms of agreement with these hosts varies but generally you are given a set number of email addresses, a certain amount of hard drive space into which you load the files for your website and a monthly data traffic allotment that can be accessed through that account.

For example, the company hosting my website at LearningCraft.com allows me 600 MB of disk space for my site. I also get up to 25 email accounts. But if I were to host a podcast from my account, I'm allotted 50 GB of monthly traffic. While this seems like a huge amount of data space, some quick math will tell me if I have enough. For example, if I were to create a 10 minute show once a week, then my file size could be around 10 MB per show. Each time a subscriber links up to the server to download my podcast that's 10 MB that's being subtracted from that 50GB total. At this rate I'm limited to about 500 downloads of my program per month. If my podcast becomes popular, which is a goal, I might end up having several thousand hits per month. While most hosting services have plans that cover high traffic, it will cost more. That said, if you go over your monthly allotment the surcharge can be high. In my case I would end up paying $25 more for every 1000 MB I go over on any given month. Perhaps not as shocking as going over your cell phone minutes but increased traffic can certainly add up.

If you currently don't have a hosting server a site like WebHosting.info may help you out. Remember, hosting is an area where you may end up getting what you pay for.

The next step is to get your program packaged up and in place so that your listening audience can start listening. In my next column I will take a closer look at the steps required to get your audio file encoded so that it becomes an official podcast through the use of RSS and linking tools.

How a podcast becomes a podcast

To better understand how podcasts are set up to become distributed requires an understanding of RSS.

RSS stands for Real Simple Syndication and is a way of adding XML "hooks" to text and audio files that makes them available to podcast client software. The goal of podcasters is to make content available to potential subscribers on a periodic basis. In order to have broadcasts download automatically, special software is required that can look for and grab embedded files.

Podcaster clients are basically scheduling tools where podcast aficionados can create "playlists" of broadcasts they want to access on a regular basis. Often referred to as "podcatchers," these programs serve as a jumping off point for grabbing updated podcasts because of their ability to look for specific XML coding on web pages.

There are a growing number of podcast clients available. While features may vary, the main goal of most users is to have a place to manage links (think bookmarks) that are part of a podcast queue. Most of these client packages add and manage web addresses that will direct them to new content periodically. Depending on the schedule selected, these programs will run through the list and check for new programs. If a new file is available, the client will hook to and download that file. This file is then saved on the subscriber's hard drive most often in a format that is compatible with Apple iTunes of Windows Media Player. The user can then listen to the broadcast on their computer or transfer the files to an MP3 player and take them with them.

To get a podcast or RSS feed to be recognized by a podcast client requires special website coding that corresponds with the URL that the podcast client is being directed to. This code identifies that there is a valid content link, passes some information to the clients such as the name of the broadcast, its file size and a short description of the program and then a pointer that shows where on the server the downloadable file resides. If all checks out, the file can then be downloaded.

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Rob is the Founder and Director of Training at LearningCraft, a company which develops training programs related to the areas of business communications and online marketing. Curriculum areas include Multimedia application development, Search Engine...

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