Podcasting may be the ultimate democratization of radio. Anyone with an Internet connection and some inexpensive audio equipment can produce a podcast and make it available online. While we've already covered the process of finding, downloading and listening to podcasts in How Podcasting Works, this article will fill you in on the other half of the podcasting equation -- creating your own.
People podcast for many reasons. Most of them just have something they want to express: love for a certain TV show, knowledge about technology or just personality and humor. Some use podcasting as a way to draw attention to their other endeavors. For example, a band could podcast to get more people to hear their songs, or a technology company could use a podcast to advertise itself. Radio stations can use podcasts as an alternate means of distributing their shows to listeners -- many public radio stations in the United States do this. A few podcasters intentionally go into podcasting as a way to make money.
For Al Gritzmacher, creator of the Buffalo Live! Music Podcast, problems with getting the rights to play music in a podcast created an opportunity. "It occurred to me that one way to sidestep the stranglehold of licensing and copyright restrictions [on mainstream music] was to deal directly with the artists who hold the rights to their own music," Gritzmacher said. "Thus the idea of a local music podcast was born."
Of course, there are more lucrative ways to broadcast music, talk shows and other information. But how many people get the opportunity to have their own radio show? The handful that do have to deal with sponsors, commercials, station managers and corporate rules. Podcasting doesn't have these limitations, so it appeals to those with a do-it-yourself attitude. Plus, anyone can start a podcast. You don't need formal broadcasting education, experience or anyone's permission.
The final factor is cost. Starting a radio station costs, at the very least, tens of thousands of dollars. A basic podcast can be created with equipment costing less than $100 (not including an Internet connection and a computer).
Once you've decided you want to start a podcast, the next logical question is: what should my podcast be about? There are countless examples among the podcasts already in existence. Podcast.com lists podcasts by categories, which include comedy, news, health, sports, music and politics. Some examples include Mugglecast, which covers "Harry Potter" novels and films; The Word Nerds, who discuss the etymologies of words and other linguistic matters; Fantasy Football Minute, a podcast to help all fantasy football coaches and general managers; and NPR Science Friday, a podcast version of the weekly show broadcast on local public radio affiliates.
For your own podcast, you might want to try something similar. Perhaps a podcast about fantasy hockey, math or the "Lemony Snicket" books would fill a niche. Or, you could go with something that's completely unlike any other podcasts out there. Interview local politicians and edit them into a podcast about local issues. A student could make a podcast about her school, including interviews with other students, musical performances by the school orchestra and updates about upcoming events. This is one case where the cliché "the only limit is your imagination" is true.
There is one rule of thumb when it comes to podcasting, however: Make sure yours is about something you really enjoy. Chances are you'll never make any money with your podcast, so you might as well have fun with it.
We'll look at the podcasting business, from gauging success to making money off your podcast, next.
The Podcasting Business
If your podcast is rolling along smoothly, you may wonder how to gauge success. This is a matter of individual preference. You can aim high and set a goal of several thousand downloads per episode or set a more modest goal of a few hundred downloads. If your podcast is locally based, or focused on a specific community, your downloads may be fewer, but you could gain local recognition. The point is, just like everything else about podcasting, the podcaster makes the decisions, including what counts as "success."
One thing all podcasters want is more listeners. How do you gain audience members? The most important step is to make sure your podcast feed is listed at podcast aggregate sites, also known as podcast networks. These are Web sites that offer a list of podcasts, complete with information and a link to the RSS feed, for people who are interested in subscribing. Listing your podcast on multiple networks will increase the likelihood of someone finding out about you.
Another important way to publicize a podcast is to target the people most likely to be interested in it. If you have a podcast about poker, and you are a regular at a poker message board, you could include a link to your podcast in your forum signature. Often, small community sites sell banner ads at very reasonable rates. This can be a great way to expose your podcast to the target audience. Just don't spam people -- that's more likely to turn them against you than get them interested.
It is possible to profit from a podcast, but it isn't easy. For most podcasters, putting out a weekly or monthly show is a labor of love. There are a few ways to wring some cash out of your podcasting enterprise, however:
- Sell the podcast itself. You can set up a Web store to charge subscribers for each episode. However, a pay-per-listen podcast is competing with thousands of free podcasts. The content would have to be very compelling to convince very many people to shell out cash, so very few podcasts profit with this method.
- Sell advertising. The business model used by radio won't work, however. If you insert a commercial into your podcast, listeners can easily skip over the ad when playing back the show on their computers or MP3 players. One option is to get sponsorship for the podcast, or even separate segments of the podcast. Instead of "Edna's Scrapbooking Podcast," your show could be called "The Southtowns Craft Superstore Scrapbooking Podcast, with host Edna." Or each podcast could feature "The Southowns Craft Superstore Tip of the Week."
- Web advertising also drives profit for some podcasts. This requires extra effort, because once someone subscribes to a podcast, it is downloaded directly into their RSS reader. They might never see the website again. The key is to tie the podcast into a blog or Web site and mention it frequently during the show. This will drive click traffic to the site and hopefully create some advertising revenue.
- A select few podcasters are popular enough that large media companies pay them to produce podcasts. The Sirius Satellite Radio Network is one company that does this.
Next, we'll look at the equipment that you'll need to record podcasts.
When it comes to choosing the equipment to record a podcast, there's no right or wrong. You can spend as much or as little as you want on gear, with the primary differences showing up in sound quality and flexibility when editing. There are some key pieces of equipment you'll need, however.
There is a huge variation in the price and quality of microphones. It's possible to record a decent podcast with the small plastic microphone that probably came with your computer, although the sound quality will not be the greatest. The typical podcaster will want a durable, dynamic microphone. If you plan to conduct interviews with two or more people using one microphone, an omnidirectional mic is key. The Shure SM-58 is a solid all-purpose microphone that won't wreck a podcaster's budget. Podcasters who plan to record in the field or record musical performances might have different mic requirements.
"I have four microphones I use," says Al Gritzmacher. "A pair of MXL-990 large-diaphragm condenser mics that I use for recording gigs; a Sennheiser MD-46, which is a mic specifically designed for interview work, but I also use it when I record my intros for segments of the podcast; I also have an Audix OM-5, a very rugged dynamic mic; and a boom mike headset, a Sennheiser HMD-280 that I use during interviews."
You'll need a device of some kind to mix multiple inputs, if you have them, and actually record the podcast. There are hundreds of mixers on the market, but smaller units with around four inputs will suit all but the most ambitious podcasts. Some mixers have outputs designed for sending data to a computer via USB or Firewire. The recording can be sent to a separate recording device -- either a tape or a hard disk recorder -- then transferred to the computer later. These are especially helpful for recording away from home. Some mixers come with built-in recorders. This area is where you will find the most variation between podcasts, because there are several possible mixer/recorder/computer input combinations.
Simpler podcasts can record directly into the computer's sound card, especially if you only use one microphone. This may require some adapters to match the plug on the mic to the input on the sound card.
The soundcard itself is another important consideration. Cheap soundcards, or those integrated into a system's motherboard, may produce low-quality sound, introduce a lot of extra signal noise due to electrical interference, or distort sounds at high signal levels. Some soundcards offer additional inputs for simultaneous multi-track recording or are designed to work with specific software or mixers.
Many podcasts follow a talk-show format, so the guests for each episode may be scattered around the world. This type of podcast needs a way for multiple people on multiple phone lines to hear each other and a way to record the conversation. One solution is to use a phone service capable of running a conference call, then run a tap from the phone to the recording device. Podcasters also make use of Voice Over Internet Protocols (VoIP) to accomplish this.
Software is a key element of recording a podcast, and it serves multiple functions. Good audio software allows you to set the proper recording levels, record the podcast and save it in a useful audio format. You can also edit the podcast using software. Very few podcasts are recorded live in one take and sent straight to the Web. There may be pauses when the host is contacting a guest by phone. Or he might need to edit out a mistake or edit together segments recorded at different times and places. Software can also manipulate the quality of the sound itself using equalization filters, noise reduction and volume adjustments.
The Buffalo Live! Music Podcast is edited with an older program called Cool Edit Pro, and any number of high-end audio editing software would be suitable for the task. However, these can cost hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, there is a free option, the open-source audio program Audacity.
We'll look at out to get your podcast out there in the next section.
Putting the Cast in Podcast
Once your podcast is mixed, recorded and edited to your satisfaction, there's one crucial step remaining: getting it out there so other people can listen to it. The podcast itself should be saved as an MP3 file. The higher the encoded bit rate, the higher the sound quality. A bit rate of 128 kbps is probably sufficient for a talk-show podcast, but podcasts featuring music will want bit rates of 192 kbps or better.
Variable bit rate (VBR) is another option -- the bit rate drops for quiet or spoken passages where not much audio information is present and increases for music segments. Note that talk-only podcasts can be mixed down to a single mono track, since stereo sound isn't really necessary. This reduces the size of the file, making downloading the podcast easier. Be careful to name the audio file so that the name of the podcast and the date of the episode are clear. You may also want to edit the ID3 tags of the MP3 file to help people find and catalogue your podcasts.
You have to then upload the MP3 file to the Web. You can use any Web space available to you, whether it's provided by your ISP or another hosting service. Be aware, however, that every time someone downloads your podcast, it is coming straight from your Web host. If the host has limits on the amount of bandwidth you can use, you could incur overage charges if your podcast becomes very popular.
One of the cool things about podcasting is that once someone subscribes to a podcast, they don't have to continually check back to the podcast's Web page to see if a new episode has been posted. Software known as a feed aggregator automatically downloads new episodes when they appear. This is done by creating an RSS feed for the podcast. A feed acts like a "container" for the MP3 file that tells feed aggregator programs where to get new episodes. It can be done manually with some XML coding. Check out Search Engine Watch: Making an RSS Feed for more information. However, most podcast networks and many blog sites can generate RSS feeds automatically.
The RSS feed is what people will click on to subscribe to your podcast. The feed link (usually a small orange button, the semi-official RSS icon) can be posted anywhere on the web. Put it on your website, your blog or on a site that collects links to podcasts.
There are numerous services that automate the process of creating RSS feeds. You simply plug in the link to the MP3 file, and the feed link is generated for you. Some services, such as LibSyn, even host the MP3 file (for a monthly fee). Feedburner is another service that offers additional features to podcasters. Many blogging Web sites have integrated RSS feed plug-ins as well. Apple's suite of productivity software, iLife, includes the programs GarageBand and iWeb, with podcast creation and feed creation integrated with iTunes.
A crucial way to make your podcast available is to make sure it appears in Apple's iTunes store. iTunes' Podcast section allows users to subscribe to and download hundreds of podcasts from around the world. All podcasts on iTunes are available for free. However, Apple doesn't host or serve the podcast itself -- it only links to the RSS feed.
Submitting a podcast to iTunes is fairly simple. The podcast page in the iTunes store has a large button that asks for the RSS link and some additional information about the podcast. A podcast can also be submitted via the Web through the link in the iTunes FAQ.
Podcasts are reviewed before inclusion in the store, so they can take a few weeks to show up. You can also use podcast networks and syndication software to add a podcast to iTunes automatically.
For lots more information about podcasting and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
More Great Links
- Towne, Jeff. "What Microphone Do I Get?" http://www.transom.org/tools/recording_interviewing/200106.microphones.jtowne.html
- Gritzmacher, Al. "Podcast Equipment." http://wnypodcast.com/podcast-equipment/
- LaPorte, Leo. "Podcasting Equipment." http://www.twit.tv/podcastequipment
- Sullivan, Danny. "Making An RSS Feed." http://searchenginewatch.com/showPage.html?page=2175271
- "GarageBand Support: Working with Podcasts." http://www.apple.com/support/garageband/podcasts/