Many people are confused about what a podcast is and how they can listen to or watch them. This is a basic explanation of what podcasting is and how you can subscribe and possibly become a podcaster yourself.
Podcasting is a way of distributing any type of media file through a subscription based service. While we use the word subscription to describe a podcast, the vast majority of podcasts do not cost anything. You may hear podcasters talk about how many subscribers they have, but most of them are not getting rich because podcasts are usually free. There are, however, some podcasters who are doing well with paid subscriptions to their content.
The technology that delivers the media file, usually audio or video, is what sets a podcast apart from any other piece of media on the web. For example, there are many different video sharing services available on the Internet (YouTube, Vimeo, etc.), but they are not podcasts in and of themselves. A media file becomes a podcast when it is delivered via an RSS feed. More about that in a moment.
There are many different types of media that can be podcast. The two most popular are audio and video files. But any type of media, like word processing files, photos and PDF files can be served as a podcast.
Audio Podcasts: When podcasting first became popular the vast majority of podcasts were audio only programs. Because of the nature of anything new on the Internet, in the early days (2004 to 2006) these were typically technology related programs. Tech journalists like Leo Laporte and CNET were some of the earliest podcasters. Quickly the idea of creating an audio podcast caught on and people were making audio podcasts about almost everything.
There were people using podcasting to describe how to knit and do crafts. Some very popular programs were (and still are) interview type programs. People would pick a topic and interview people related to the field. There are also short lived programs that exist for particular events. There are also fan podcasts based on TV shows and public figures.
As popularity of podcasting grew, many long time radio programs began to release their content as podcasts. For example, NPR still has their normal radio programming available on the local stations, but most of their regular programming is available as a podcast through the Internet.
Video Podcasts: Though video is much more intensive to record and edit than audio, there is still a lot of video being produced. Just like audio podcasts, these programs are released on a subscription model. Usually they are shorter programs because of the size of video files. Some of the early, popular video podcasts included shows like Ask a Ninja and GeekBrief.TV (now called GeekBeat.TV).
Video podcasts are gaining in popularity today with the richness of content that is available. More people also have higher speed Internet connections in their homes to allow them to download larger files. Still the most popular shows are relatively short compared to audio podcasts.
The magic of podcasts and podcasting is the method in which the files are delivered. This is also what separates a podcast from any other media file on the web. Pre-podcasting days it was necessary to manually go to a website to consume the media that was being offered. However, by using RSS technology, the media files can be delivered to the subscriber's computer in the background when a new episode is released.
RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a technology that allows you to "subscribe" to a website. This subscription is done through an RSS reader. The reader will check the website that it is subscribed to for new content on a regular basis. This could be hourly, daily, weekly, or as often as every minute. When new content is available, your RSS reader downloads the new information onto your computer so that you can read it at your convenience. By using an RSS reader, you can subscribe to the content of many different websites without having to manually visit each one.
The way podcasting works is exactly the same thing. But instead of just looking for new content in general, an RSS reader that is made for podcasts is looking specifically for new media files. These special RSS readers are called podcatchers. A very popular podcatcher is iTunes. No, you don't have to have an iPod to use iTunes or listen to podcasts. iTunes just happens to be the most popular podcatcher, but there are many others like Miro, Winamp, Zune and Amarok.
Once you are subscribed to a podcast then the media file will be downloaded when you have your podcatching software turned on. It will download the podcasts in the background and make them available to you when you are ready to listen to or watch the episode. It is also possible to automatically fill a playlist with podcasts that gets transferred to a portable media player, like an iPod, when you synchronize the device.
The subscription portion of podcasts is what sets them apart from any other media file you can find and consume on the web. While videos from YouTube can be released as podcasts, they are not a podcast just because they are on YouTube. Providing a way for the consumer to automatically download the program through an RSS feed is the defining element of podcasting.
To find a podcast to subscribe to, you can either visit the podcaster's website or use a podcast directory. If you already know what the web address of the podcast you want to hear is, then it is simple to go to their site and subscribe. If you are interested in looking for a podcast based on the genre you are interested in, then a podcast directory is a faster and easier place to look.
More details about subscribing to a podcast can be found in How to Subscribe To A Podcast that I also wrote. You will be pleased to find out that you don't need any special equipment to listen to podcasts. If you are able to read this article on the web, then you already have all the tools you need to consume podcasts. Podcasts can be more enjoyable when you are able to carry them with you in the form of a portable media player like an iPod or a smart phone, but these devices are not necessary.
There are many great podcasts available. Take some time to look around and find some that you would like to watch or listen to and you can have a whole new world of information and entertainment available to you.