Thursday, July 31, 2008

Podcasting : An Introduction

Over the last couple of years, I’ve listened to over 1000 hours of audio on my ipod, but fewer than 10% of it has been spent on listening to music. The bulk of it has gone into listening to various podcasts. Podcasts are essentially audio files that are delivered to the listener through RSS feeds. They can be on any topic, ranging from movies to technology to news. There is nothing very technical about podcasting, the actual audio file, it is a plain mp3 file that can be played almost anywhere. However, you need a “podcatcher” program that can parse the RSS feed, make sense of the content and download the audio file for your listening pleasure. The best podcatcher software by far is iTunes. In my view, there are three different elements of podcasting that Apple has really nailed

Subscribing to content: The itunes store is the most comprehensive repository for finding podcasts. It is neatly categorized and subscribing to a podcast is a single click process. In the rare event that you have a podcast that is not present in the itunes directory, Apple allows you to enter the URL of the RSS feed

Tracking episodes: Most podcatchers offer this, but none work as elegantly as iTunes. You can set it to automatically download all new episodes, it keeps track of episodes that have been played and can clean up older episodes automatically. If you are like me and want to control the entire process, you can set everything to manual mode and take care of it yourself.

Integration with portable devices: This is the area where itunes+ipod pulls ahead and leaves everything far behind. You can control how many episodes are downloaded to your ipod, once you hear something on the ipod, it automatically shows up as played content on itunes. If you have heard part of an episode on the ipod, once you sync back to itunes, it even resumes playback at the same place!!!

There is a veritable treasure trove of content out there and most of it is free. Some of the podcast feeds that I listen to are

CNN-IBN : This is the feed from CNN-IBN. They mainly feature programs like Devil’s Advocate with Karan Thapar (I hate his interview style, but I still listen to him) and some interviews with prominent personalities from the film and arts world. They like to throw in their news bulletins, which is one of the main reasons why I resort to manual control of downloads.

TWIT: twit.tv is a podcasting network started by Leo Laporte, a prominent tech journalist for many years. He produces over 20 shows a week and I listen to a few of them like This week in tech, Windows Weekly and Macbreak Weekly

Buzz out loud: My favourite source for tech news is cnet.com, this is their daily podcast that presents tech news in a light hearted manner. They are up to episode 780 now, I’ve been listening since episode 380, which means that I’ve devoted almost 300 hours of my life listening to BOL.

NPR Science Friday: I believe this is a very popular science program in the US, the podcast is just another distribution medium for them. I have learnt more things about more subjects in the two years that I have been listening to this podcast than in the previous 15 years since I left college.

The one caveat to keep in mind with podcasting is the bandwidth. Each episode is usually around 10 MB, so you could easily use up over 1 Gig a month just keeping up with your favourite shows. That’s one of the reasons why I always prefer an unlimited slower connection over a faster metered one.

Sadly, there is very little quality Indian content, I wish other networks like NDTV, Times now etc start putting some of their content on the Net soon.

Video podcasting is an offshoot of podcasting with video files (usually MPEG4) instead of mp3s. They haven’t taken off because they are extremely bandwidth intensive (a typical episode is > 100 MB) and unlike audio files which you can listen to while doing your other tasks, you need to be actively watching the video. I’ve usually given up on most video podcasts after a couple of episodes and switched to the audio version.

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