How Podcasting Works

By: Stephanie Watson & Chris Pollette  | 

podcasting, podcast
An empty studio waits for a podcaster to take the mic in June 2021. picture alliance/Getty Images

Have you ever dreamed of having your own radio show? Are you a recording artist hoping to have your songs heard by the masses? Decades ago, you would have needed a lot of connections — or a fortune — to get heard.

But now, thanks to the internet and its instantaneous connection to millions of people, your dreams can become reality. Just as blogging and social media enabled almost anyone with a computer to become a bona fide reporter, podcasting allows virtually anyone with a computer to become a radio disc jockey, talk show host or recording artist.

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Although podcasting first found popularity within the techie set, it has since caught on with the general public. Log on to one of several podcast sites on the web, and you can download content ranging from music to philosophy to sports. Podcasting combines the freedom of blogging with digital audio technology to create an almost endless supply of content. Some say this new technology is democratizing the once corporate-run world of radio.

Podcasting is a largely free service that allows internet users to pull audio files (typically MP3s) from a podcasting website to listen to on their computers, smartphones or personal digital audio players. The term comes from a combination of the words iPod and broadcasting.

Unlike internet radio, users don't have to 'tune in' to a particular broadcast. Instead, they download the podcast on demand or subscribe via an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed, which automatically downloads the podcast to their computers. The technology is similar to that used in personal video recorders that lets users set which programs they'd like to record and then automatically records those programs for later viewing.

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Podcasting History

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Conal Byrne, Rachel Ghiazza, James Kim and Heather Taylor join The Future of Podcasting panel moderated by Jason Hirschhorn during the Tribeca Festival 2021 at Spring Studios, June 13, 2021 in New York City. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Podcasting was developed in 2004 by former MTV video jockey Adam Curry and software developer Dave Winer. Curry wrote a program called iPodder that enabled him to automatically download internet radio broadcasts to his iPod. Several developers improved upon his idea, and podcasting was officially born. Curry himself has gone on to host several popular podcasts, the most recent of which is a show called No Agenda.

Right now in the U.S., podcasting is free from government regulation. Podcasters don't need to buy a license to broadcast their programming as radio stations do, and they don't need to conform to the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) broadcast decency regulations. That means anything goes — from four-letter words to sexually explicit content. Copyright law does apply to podcasting, though. Podcasters can copyright or license their work — Creative Commons is just one online resource for copyrights and licenses.

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Although several corporations and big broadcast companies have ventured into the medium, many podcasters are amateurs broadcasting from home studios. Because podcasters don't rely on ratings as radio broadcasters do, the subject matter of podcasts can range from the refined to the silly to the excruciatingly mundane. Podcasters often cater to a niche group of listeners. By podcasting consistently on one subject, podcasters not only assert their expertise on the subject matter but also draw a loyal and devoted group of listeners.

Consider a few popular podcasts: Welcome to Night Vale is a show that updates you on the completely fictional yet rather eerie town of Night Vale. Or listen to the Mortified Podcast, in which adults read directly (and often awkwardly) from the pages of their teenage diaries. There's a full spectrum of politics podcasts. You can listen to news from around the world.

Podcasts are also used for informational and educational purposes — self-guided walking tours, talk shows and training are all available through podcasting.

Podcasting has become a profitable business. In its 2019 State of the News Media Report the Pew Research Center found that about 50 percent of U.S. adults had listened to podcasts, half of those within a week before they were surveyed. Many podcasts are supported by advertising, or by patrons who gain access to an ad-free podcast fee in return for a donation. Although large, traditional media companies leverage their brand and reputation for publicity, independent podcasts also achieve success using the same model. Advertising networks make it easier for advertisers to find shows that reach their target markets.

Some independent podcasts have been working together to form their own media collectives, including Pushkin Industries, Radiotopia from PRX and Panoply. In the 2020s, however, larger media and tech companies have begun purchasing successful individual podcasts or collectives with the intent on making them exclusive properties. Spotify acquired Gimlet in 2019. In 2020, Amazon purchased Wondery. In 2021 Apple announced an update to its podcasting app that provides access to its own premium podcast subscriptions.

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Listening to Podcasts

Listening to podcasts is easy. In fact, if you have a smartphone, you probably already have a podcasting app included with your operating system. You can also download an app to listen to podcasts from the "Store" section of your phone. Some of the most common platforms for listening are Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. Some third-party apps include directories of popular podcasts.

If you don't have a smartphone, you can visit online podcasting directories or, if you already know the name of the podcast, you can visit its website directly. Although the top of the podcast charts is a good place to start, don't be afraid to dive into the deep end for less-familiar shows.

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Many podcast websites and apps let you listen to one episode at a time, but smartphone and computer apps will let you subscribe to your favorites. Each relies on RSS feeds. Choosing one in your podcast app handles adding the web address for you, but if you've found a show that isn't already listed, you can probably get the address for its RSS feed on the show's website. Copy and paste it into your podcast app or an RSS reader to receive new-episode alerts, and to have it downloaded to your device.

If you subscribe to podcasts, remember that each episode is an audio file that takes up storage space.

Although these files are not terribly large in terms early 21st-century smartphone storage, it's probably a good idea to go through and remove old episodes or shows you've decided not to listen to every once in a while. Podcast apps usually allow you to choose how many shows to save, and whether or not you'd like to delete them automatically when you're done.

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Creating Podcasts

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Gene Demby accepts the Best Society and Culture Podcast award for 'Code Switch' during The Podcast Academy's First Annual Awards For Audio Excellence at the Ambies, May 16, 2021 in Los Angeles. The Podcast Academy/Getty Images

Got an idea for your own podcast? Recording a podcast is probably easier than you think. You don't need fancy equipment to get started. In fact, you can probably just use your smartphone or computer. If you don't use an app designed to create podcasts, here's roughly how the process works:

  1. Plug a microphone into your computer.
  2. Install an audio recorder for Windows, Mac or Linux (Audacity is a free, well-known and respected option for all three).
  3. Create an audio file by making a recording (you can talk, sing or record music) and save it to your computer.
  4. Finally, upload the audio file to one of the podcasting sites.

After recording your podcast, you will want to share it. Platforms such as Podbean, Spreaker, and Anchor may help with hosting and promotion by guiding you through the process.

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Some of the best publicity comes from your own listeners. Once you begin attracting an audience, word-of-mouth will help you keep going.

As you rise through the ranks, you may wish to upgrade your recording setup with higher-quality equipment and perhaps even a dedicated recording studio space. You may want to pick all this gear up beforehand, but it's expensive and you may want to try your hand at podcasting before you spend that kind of money.

Keeping a regular schedule will help your listeners stay engaged with your podcast.

One way to do this is to record several episodes ahead and keep them "in the can," ready for your release day. You can plot your ideas out in advance, too, to keep yourself on schedule.

You may benefit from writing a script to use before the recording session, but many podcasts' hosts banter between each other in a friendly unscripted conversation on one or many topics. One nice thing about modern recording and editing software, it is not too difficult to edit recordings to remove a flubbed line. Just relax and have fun!

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Originally Published: Mar 26, 2005

Podcast FAQ

What is a podcast?
A podcast is an episodic audio program that is generally focused on one topic, such as true crime, motherhood, startups or any other popular topic. The term "podcast" comes from a combination of the words iPod, the personal digital audio player made by Apple, and broadcasting. Though the word comes from “iPod", you don't need one to listen to a podcast.
How do I listen to podcasts?
Listening to a podcast is easy. The most common platforms for listening include Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Stitcher. You can also listen to episodes on the specific podcast’s website or on their Patreon account, if they have one. You simply need to download the app on your phone, tablet or computer and start searching.
Are podcasts free?
Podcasts are typically free to listen to on your phone, computer or tablet. All you need is an internet connection or data and a podcast app to access thousands of podcasts made around the world. Most podcasts do have ads though (which is why they’re free), so if that bothers you, you’ll need to pay to listen to them ad-free on a platform like Stitcher Premium.
What is the best equipment to start a podcast?
To start a podcast, you need, at minimum, a microphone, a computer, audio recording and editing software and headphones.
How much does it cost to start a podcast?
Currently, all you need to start a podcast is the cost of the equipment. If you’ve already got a computer, you can get a very basic setup for around $200 USD or so. Podcasters don't require a license to broadcast their audio content and don't need to conform to the Federal Communication Commission's broadcast decency regulations.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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