Thursday, June 24, 2010

How To Listen To Podcasts: A Primer

I had a discussion with my brother the other day about podcasts. Not how to record, edit, publish, etc. (like we do for the sci-guys podcast), but he had some fundamental questions on how to use/listen to them. He is extremely technically competent, so it became clear to me that I need a nice little primer on how to listen to podcasts, since it may be hard to find all this info right in one place.

Just a note: For my example today we will the sci-guys podcast, for 4 reasons:

1: It's awesome.

2: I'm one of the hosts

3: We can use the publicity

4: There is no reason for me not to.

So here we go.

A Podcast: What Is It?

As you probably know, a podcast is essentially an audio or video file that is made available over the internet.

That's it. Some people assume that since it is a PODcast it is somehow tied to Apple’s products. While the term “podcast” did replace “webcast” largely due to Apple's dominance in the digital audio player market, you don’t need and iPod to listen to podcasts. In most instances you don't even need a special program to listen/view them - just web access.

When people talk about podcasts, they are typically talking about pre-recorded audio files - although video is now common as well. Many audio and video podcasts can also be streamed live, but that is not what we will discuss today. We are going to talk about how to deal with the pre-recorded variety. And for simplicity we will just refer to audio podcasts moving forward, although unless specified, video podcasts will behave the same.

How to listen to a podcast

If you know what podcast you want to listen to, you probably can just go to their website, and play the file right directly from there. Most podcasters will use a system that allows playing right off the site. Check out this screen shot from sci-guys:

That big bar in the middle with the speaker and arrow icons is actually a player. You can just listen directly from there. That is unless you are trying to access this via an iPhone, iPad, or any other device that doesn't have Flash support. Yep that is one of those Flash apps that Steve Jobs thinks are unimportant.

Luckily, we also have a link right there to "Download in MP3" under most circumstances you can just follow that link, and you will just start playing the podcast, even without the player.

Pretty straight forward, huh? But wait there is so much more!

How To Subscribe To Podcasts

Now, you might be saying "I really don't want to have to go check each and every one of my favorite podcast's web site's every day in the hopes that there might be a new podcast." Totally understandable! Luckily for you there are options that make this much simpler.

First, a quick diversion, let's talk RSS.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is a technology used by website publishers that allows end users to know what is happening on sites, without checking them. How does it work?

A website publishes their "RSS feed", and end users can then subscribe to the feed using an RSS reader. RSS makes life on the internet way simpler, but for this discussion, we only care about podcasts. Almost every podcast has an RSS feed. To subscribe to that feed, you need a piece of software called a "podcatcher"

If you use a digital media player/manager like iTunes, Winamp, Amarok, Rhythmbox, or Zune you already have a podcatcher. These apps will watch your podcast RSS feeds for you. The program will notify you when a new podcast is available, and once listened to, it will be shown as “not new” anymore. Pretty slick huh? Now you don’t need to even think about whether or not you have listened to a podcast – the podcatcher keeps track of it for you.

Each podcatcher has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, iTunes has a fantastic selection of podcasts that can be searched and subscribed to via their "iTunes Store", but you can only use an iPod/iPhone/iPad to take them mobile. (see the sections Finding Podcasts, and Taking Podcasts With You, below). You will have to experiment to find which one works best for you. And from the stats on, it is clear that most of our podcast subscribers use iTunes.

Finding Podcasts

Now that you have the basics down, how can you find podcasts you might like? If you use iTunes, you can search their store. They have a clearly labeled podcast section which showcases various podcasts, and lets you search for more. Ditto for Zune. Obviously you can use Google or Bing to search for podcasts on subjects you are interested in. There are also podcast directories such as Podcast Alley, or Podcast Pickle which can be a good place to look for podcast. These sites can also be used in place of a podcatcher, as they can act as a repository for all of your podcasts.

Taking Podcasts With You

If you have iTunes, and an iPhone, iPad, or iPod, you can easily sync your podcasts to that device, exactly the same as you do for music, video, or apps. Zune works pretty much the same way. This integration is one of the most compelling features of such a setup, at least in my opinion. But what about other types of mobile devices? Well, you will probably need to look at another media manager. Of course you probably already know this, because you aren't using iTunes or Zune to manage your Creative Zen player, or your Android phone.

So what are some of the other options?

A lot of it depends on your device. Winamp supports many devices, as will most media management software (like Rhythmbox in Linux). You probably already have a media management solution that works for you, and that would probably be what you would use for podcasts as well.

But if you have an android device you can do something really cool. (see below)

OK, You've Given Me A Lot Of Options - What Works Best?

That is probably going to depend on what hardware you have, and how you want to work with it.

I have an iPad and an iPod, and their iTunes integration works very well. But you are basically tied to one installation of iTunes to do all your syncing. This can cause some issues if you work on multiple computers, or if you want to get fresh podcasts on the road. Disappointingly, you still need a computer running iTunes to update your podcast subscriptions, and then sync them to your mobile device. By this I mean that while you can pull new podcasts over the air by hand using those devices, but it won't happen automatically based on your subscriptions.

Because I work on multiple computers, and I also want my phone to grab podcasts when not connected to a computer, it can be difficult to keep it all synced up. The solution that works best for me is Google based.

You see, Google has a podcatcher application for the Android OS called "Listen". It is a nice little app that will pull podcasts over your device's data connection. It also syncs up with Google Reader - which is Google’s web based RSS reader/podcatcher.

So you can load Podcast feeds (or any RSS feed for that matter) into Google Reader, and have them available for you at any location you might go to. Work, home, grandma's house, anywhere you can logon to your google account, you would have a current list of what's "new" in your feeds.

And when you want to go mobile, you just fire up Listen, and you will get an up to date list of your podcasts. Once you listen to one of them on your mobile device, it will no longer show as new in your Google Reader. For someone who has a lot of podcast feeds, and works on more than one computer? It is definitely the way to go.

I hope this helps! Good Luck, and don't forget to subscribe to sci-guys podcast!

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