Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Why There Are Free Podcasts

Podcasting, unlike other media forms, almost never has
charges for services, and the vast majority of feed
producers distribute free podcasts. This puts at odds
with, say, online radio stations, news sites that offer
media to subscribers, or the online music industry
general. Even though podcasting has very direct
correlations with industries like news and music that
have strong business models, podcasting differs.
Podcasting does not really have a business model, and
hardly anyone is podcasting in order to profit from it.
There are some businesses and news sites that podcast,
but they do it as a way to supplement their companies
and to gain technological geek credibility, not to make
money. This is an odd thing, but explainable in light of
what podcasting is.

The free podcast problem is not difficult, and
podcasting differs in several key ways from other media
areas. First, podcasting involves the physical transfer of
a file from the host to the users computer. An online
radio station does not do this; all that they provide to
their listeners is a streaming sound file that cannot be
saved without difficulty and work. If someone did
manage to do so, the station would have strong grounds
for suing them since they were never given the rights to
keep and store the files. By podcasting the complete file
to the users computer, express permission is granted the
user to copy and use as they wish. Second, the podcasts
are, for the most part, made by individuals who have
low costs involved in creating and distributing the files,
as opposed to a news broadcast or song by a music
company. These individuals have little reason to charge
for their work since there is little cost to them to do so.
Because the files are distributed in a way allows their
copying and does not control the media, and since
podcasting is a very low cost media outlet, feed
producers have little reason or ability to charge for their

What is Podcast Video?

A growing trend online is podcast video. While
podcasting was originally only for audio files, more
people are beginning to send video, especially with
broadband connections more accessible. To podcast
video, content distributors enclose it in a web
syndication file that users can download and view when
they want. Users subscribe to the different files,
checking them for updates regularly, and download the
new offers when they become available. Each file is
often referred to as an episode, and may be part of a
video blog, or vlog.

Podcast video, and other types of podcasting are thus
part of the blogging revolution. Individuals and groups
around the world, with a small investment in equipment
and time, can become content producers. Because it is
so simple to use and cheap to set up, many people are
getting involved. They can podcast video around the
world, becoming producers and directors for any small
niche they want to exploit.

Many of these podcasters have small audiences that
download their podcast video, but larger groups are
getting involved. News organizations and websites that
serve massive audiences are discovering that podcasting
and podcast video can distribute their content to
millions of people easily. These groups have found that
podcasting video is yet another way to distribute their
news and information. Since podcasting is so easy to
use, it's likely that even more people will start using
podcast video.

What is a Podcast Feed?

A podcast feed is a way of sharing files over the
internet. It involves the use of a small, machine
readable file that is regularily updated to reflect changes
in the files available for downloading. The internet
addresses of these files are embedded into the feed file
and can be automatically downloaded when wished. At
this time, podcasting tends to refer to the use of feeds to
share only media files. Podcasting originally occured as
a way to share audio mp3 files, and has only recently
begun incorporating video into podcasts. However, the
technology that allows the files to be shared is not
limited to such media files and there is not reason that
other files may be shared via podcast in the future.

Today, however, a podcast feed tends to refer to the use
of a feed to share media files. Most podcasts are done
with audio files, and the individual files that are created
and shared are called episodes. These audio files may
contain a variety of things; there are music, comedy,
news, technology, even podcasts about wine.
Podcasting, because of the low entry cost, especially for
audio podcasting allows nearly anyone who believes
they have something to say to broadcast it over the
internet. Even more established groups have found that
audio podcasting works well. Some radio stations
podcast portions of their content, sharing it over the
internet to allow listeners who missed a specific show
to catch up on it later. NPR now does this with its news
breaks, and the NPR show "This American Life" offers
a podcast of its shows to subscribers who pay a small

One of the newer innovations in podcast feeds is the
vlog, or videoblog. These blogs usually contain a feed
that distributes a video, rather than an audio file to feed
subscribers. Although that would not have been feasible
a few years ago, growing numbers of broadband
internet subscribers has meant that most users are able
to download large files, even video files, relatively
quickly. These video podcasts have been readily
accepted by mainstream news organizations. They have
found that podcasting portions of their content is a way
to share their tape and reach a wider audience. The BBC
currently does this with parts of its news content. Pieces
of the news show that is played over the airwaves is
taken and placed online, along with a link to the content
placed inside the RSS feed. Those who subscribe to the
BBC feed can download the news clip and watch in
from the comfort of their home computer.

In the future, podcast feeds may be used for a number of
purposes besides simply sharing media files. Some
analysts predict that the feed system could also be used
to share software updates, or any of a myriad of other
file types. For now, however, podcasting is dominated
by small audio and video files.

Using a Podcast Directory

A podcast directory is a listing of syndication feeds that
link to a podcast. They are often organized by category
and topic, and allow the user to find a feed that podcasts
about almost anything. Just as search engines help
people find sites with the information they need, a
podcast directory presents a searchable list of podcasts
users can subscribe to. Users may even be able to play
the available feed episodes from within the site.

Unlike most search engines, though, a podcast directory
rarely searches out and finds content on its own,
automatically. All the feeds are either contributed by
users who want people to find their podcast, or added
by the staff. Nearly anyone can set up a podcast, but
gaining visitors can be difficult, and so podcasters can
submit their feeds to the directory to gain readers.

Since its so easy to make a podcast, a podcast directory
often uses ways to separate the very good feeds from
the ones people do not enjoy as much. A directory may
have a ranking system, feature certain special feeds on
the front page, or even allow visitors to comment with
their thoughts on a feed.

Visitors to a podcast directory can thus add their own
podcasts, search for feeds on topics or regions that
interest them, and even comment on those they like or

The Howard Stern Podcast Problem

Because podcasting is such a new, exciting, cutting
edge phenomena, many people are eager to get
connected, and hence the Howard Stern podcast.
Everyone wants to be part of the next big thing, but not
everyone is suited or ready to do so. The Howard Stern
Podcast was created and shown on iTunes, the Apple
company's music store. However, the podcast was never
updated, and the only clip ever provided didn't even
include Howard Stern. This has brought a lot of flack
down on Howard Stern, as well as Sirius Radio, which
broadcasts Stern. Many of these people would have
preferred to hear Stern when they wanted to, as a
podcast, and were disappointed that the feed was not
being used.

The Howard Stern podcast is probably an example of
some of the problems that can arise with podcasting. Its
new, and very hyped, so everyone wants to be a part of
it. However, the podcast is designed to be free. RSS
feeds are designed to easily distribute files, that can
then be redistributed and shared by the users who
download them. It would be close to impossible for a
podcaster to charge for their content. Either the
podcaster would have a small circle of people who
enjoy the feed, and very few who would want to pay for
it, or be very popular, as Stern is, and have the problem
of paying customers possibly redistributing the content
so others won't need to pay.

Podcast Software

There are many podcast software programs available to
use. Many of them are even free. Because of the
decentralized, geek adopted nature of podcasting, a
wide variety of programs are available, from large
programs with a big footprint that do many different
jobs to tiny little software packages that do the bare
minimum. A package is available for podcast
subscribers of almost any type, and more are being
created everyday.

While some podcast software is designed for home user
computers, much of it is designed to be used online.
There are many packages created so that feed
subscribers can view the podcasts they enjoy from
within a web browser. These software packages contain
both the feed reader like the home user software does,
but usually also incorporate a way to view or listen to
the podcasts online from inside the browser. Much of
this software is used at the podcast directories that
maintain listings of podcast feeds.

Another type of online podcast software is the category
of feed creators. PHP scripting is usually used to create
the RSS file that tells the feed readers where to
download the podcasts from. The scripting can either
create a hard copy of the RSS file and write it to the
server disk when the feed is updated, or it can make it
virtually. When the RSS file is generated virtually, it
doesn't actually exist on the host's server. Instead, the
address of the PHP script is distributed as the address of
the feed. When the script is accessed, it generates the
file by looking at the recent posts at the site and sends
the results to the feed subscriber.

The Podcast for This American Life

The podcast for This American Life allows listeners to
download the the shows and listen to them at their
discretion. The This American Life team contracts with
a site called to distribute the shows to
listeners who want to hear them. Despite calling their
offering a podcast, however, it is not, at least in the
normal sense of the word. A podcast refers to an online
setup with an RSS feed that is regularily updated, can
be subscribed to, and provides links to sound or video
files that can be downloaded and watched by the
subscriber. and This American Life do not
offer that. Instead, the show's team allows
to receive money for allowing listeners to download the
sound files to the computer from's web
site. The only RSS file involved is one specific to the
user which allows that user access to the shows they are
interested in. Even odder than charging for a supposed
podcast, the sound files downloaded are tied to the
specific user who downloads them. Unlike the vast
majority of podcasts, which allow the files to be
distributed and redistributed as the end user wishes,
without placing limitations on such, the This American
Life podcast restricts the file to a single user.

The podcast for This American Life misses the point of
what a podcast is intended to be, the free distribution of
information. The This American Life team is exploiting
the term podcasting, and the credibility and hipness that
is associated with the term in order to boost their own

On the other hand, the podcast for This American Life
may be where the rest of the industry is headed.
Although the technology was first adopted by
independent media groups that enjoyed it because of the
low cost of distribution and the close possible ties to
end users, that may change when podcasting becomes a
wider phenomenon. If podcasting is adopted by more
mainstream, corporate entities, the face of podcasting is
likely to change to one where a profit plan is required.'s plan of forcing users to subscribe and
pay for the feeds they want may be the way the
corporate world decides to latch on to and use
podcasting. The advantage of podcasting, direct
distribution of the media files to the user's home
computer quickly and easily, is not lost if the system
moves to one revolving around profit.

Regretfully, the podcast for This American Life is
probably an example of what podcasting will be in a
few years. As much as locked media files that restrict
distribution may be repugnant to many of the free
information activists that curently dominate podcasting,
there is little to stop those who want to use the system
to make a profit from doing so.