The Next Big Thing: Podcasts

October 2005

It’s crazy. You blink, and suddenly there’s a whole new Internet culture in place. And then you have to start catching up. Just when I figured out weblogs (or blogs) and RSS, along comes podcasting.

And podcasting is big: the New York Times ran two major articles during the summer. There are now thousands of podcasts. And the whole thing has happened quickly, with the word “podcast” only being coined in September of last year. (And while the name suggests that you need an iPod to listen to them, in fact they play on any computer or device.)

So what’s the excitement about? At first it’s not obvious. A podcast is simply a sound file on the Internet that you can listen to. Most often it’s in MP3 format, and most often it’s not music but more like a radio talk show or news report.

But there are a couple differences. One is that the vast majority of podcasts are amateur productions: people sitting in their bedroom recording on the home computer.

A second difference — and this gets to the heart of the matter — you can “subscribe” to podcasts and have them automatically download to your computer so that you can listen to them with your music software. And if you have a portable music player like an iPod, you can have them automatically transferred to that device.

There’s a lot of wild and crazy stuff out there — people can be endlessly inventive. Some of it is almost voyeurism: the repartee of a married couple or a group of college students sitting around at a party.

I immediately latched onto a weekly 10-minute news report on the topic of archaeology and indigenous cultures. I put the podcast on my Pocket PC and listen to it when I’m walking from here to there. I also listen to a weekly 45-minute podcast related to the Pocket PC industry recorded by an avid and very intelligent Pocket PC user in Tennessee.

Early on most of the podcasts were home-grown, but once it got big, the established media jumped in. The top 20 podcasts as of this writing include Newsweek, Ebert & Roeper, Nova, ESPN, BBC documentary archive, Foxcast, Al Franken, NPR, George Bush, and The Simpsons.

Categories of podcasts include arts & entertainment, business, comedy, education, family, food, health, movies, music, science, sports, technology, and travel. You can find directories of podcasts at ipodder.org, PodcastAlley.com, and Podcast.net.

But the best way to interact with podcasts is, in the opinion of many, Apple’s iTunes software, which is a free download for both Windows and Macintosh. When Apple released iTunes 4.9 during the summer, the new version included a podcast directory and a strikingly easy way to subscribe, organize, and listen to podcasts, the phenomenon really took off.

And here I digress: Everyone should download this free software. It lets you play and organize music and video files, as well as to purchase music from the iTunes music store. Thanks in part to iTunes, more people are now purchasing music online than illegally downloading it.

iTunes has a reputation for being easy to use while allowing you to effectively organize your music.

Back to podcasting: The iTunes software has a link that lets you connect to the online iTunes music store from within the software. Once at the store, click on the Podcasts icon in the left men. That will take you to the podcast area. In the left menu a little ways down you’ll see the podcast categories.

This is where the fun starts. The first time I tried this, I sampled scores of podcasts. You can browse the categories, read the descriptions, and listen for a few seconds to see what the particular podcast is like. (Double click to listen via streaming audio.) It was addicting, and an hour passed very quickly

On the right you’ll see a list of the top 20 podcasts.

If you find a podcast you like, you click on the subscribe link and iTunes automatically begins downloading the most recent program to your computer and adds it to your iTunes library (you really need a high-speed connection like DSL to for this). It also shows you a list of earlier programs offered by that particular podcast and lets you easily download those as well. When you come back to iTunes subsequently, you simply click the Update button to get the most recent podcasts that you’ve subscribed to.

So that’s the latest buzz. Who knows what will be next? Vidcasting is starting to pick up — but we’ll save that for another time.

© 2005 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

Just like buying televisions it's a good idea to read up on any piece of electronics before you spend money. The same is applicable to MP3 players, which can be an expensive piece of electronics in many cases.

E-mail Jim Karpen