Podcasting Church 101103

I’ve had an idea for a book in my head for a few years now. Since there is a challenge afoot, I started November 2, 2010, to write that book. This blog will contain the very rough draft and I hope I’ll get a chunk of it out this month. No guarantee I’ll write everyday, but I hope this won’t be the last entry

What is a Podcast?

I spend a lot of time online. I’m a little old for it, but since the internet started hitting mainstream when I was in college, I’ll claim the term digital native. I cut my teeth on kermit and my college’s unix mainframe when Gopherspace, Telnet and Pine were terms and tools that all internet users had to use.

I remember when I found a video clip of the Coca-Cola Polar Bears on a Usenet group and spent all day on the 9600 baud connection on in my dorm downloading it. It took about 8 hours to get that postage stamp-sized video, but for me it was the dawn of an era of media online.

Times have changed from when a dial-up connection to a mainframe yielded a day’s worth of work for 30 seconds of video. Now sites like YouTube.com and Vimeo.com deliver prerecorded snippets of old commercials, original content and cat videos. Increasingly, people are streaming their own shows live with services like Justin.tv or Ustream.tv. This is services provide services that would have been unthinkable only 15 years ago.

If you look at comments, you’ll see people talking about episodic video content as podcasts. The similarities are striking, but there are some differences.

By its very nature, Youtube and Justin.tv content isn’t meant to be downloaded and consumed later, even when the internet connection is sketchy or non-existent. I you miss an episode of live content, you miss it unless it’s redistributed another way. It’s almost as if we’re in the days before the VCR when if you missed an episode of a sitcom you had to hope that that was the episode that would be rerun, except there are few streaming channels that have reruns.

YouTube has the advantage of archiving and with ubiquitous 3G and greater connectivity it promises availability, but there are still network issues. While you can subscribe to content, notification of new content is less than optimal. This isn’t an indictment of these services. All delivery mechanisms have their limitations which are counter-balanced by other others. I say this just to point out that what’s available and how to use it.

This is where podcasting steps up and waves its arms wildly screaming “pick me, pick me”. A podcast can be embedded in a website like live or flash, but can be downloaded when your connection is stable to be enjoyed whenever and wherever you want.

Like the “dead tree” editions of newspapers in the previous century, the subscription feature of a podcast delivers the content when you aren’t awake, at home, or unable to immediately engage it. If you’re on vacation for two weeks, when you return the last two Episodes of Twit are waiting for you. Whenever you wish to come back, you can top off your knowledge of tech news with Buzz Out Loud. You don’t need to be there, it’s waiting for you, always ready for the next free moment to fill your brain with information or entertainment.

Once you like a show and subscribe to it, you need never go back to the website to check if it’s updated, it tells you. A show on hiatus for weeks months or even years can return with fresh content even if you think the host has moved on. The power of the asynchronous nature of the podcast means that a busy podcaster can create content well in advance and push out the weekly episodes every Monday as he is in the middle of the woods, onstage, or at home asleep. Likewise, it’s possible to create a new episode every eight days and post them when done.

All of this is made possible as a result of something called an rss feed. Think of the rss feed as a shopping list that your computer checks against the media it has and goes to get anything missing from the list. When I started podcasting in 2005, this was something that you created with external software or by hand. It was something of a black science that made sense to the insiders, but not to people who had no background in web development and coding. We’ll talk in depth about the content of your RSS feed for those of you that love geeking out with code and want to tweak aspects of it, but thankfully, you really don’t need to create rss to have a podcast, there are tons of other way to get that.

Audio, Video and Text?!

Now you know that you can deliver media this way, you might be thinking that there are tons of things that you can deliver this way. “Wouldn’t it be cool if people subscribed to my feed could get flash animations, sound effects in wav format and a Microsoft doc of notes?” I don’t know about cool, but it’s a possibility that RSS 2.0 with enclosures (the specific flavor of rss podcasts use) could potentially support, but the software to retrieve the content probably won’t.

Because podcasts are meant to be consumed on portable devices (and to some extent on set-top boxes) the supported formats are generally limited. I picked my examples above carefully to include things you might think you could podcast, but that generally aren’t.

In my experience, the most popular content type is audio. Since Adam Curry (yes the same one from Mtv in the ’80’s) pioneered the use of the technology, it’s roots in radio were established from almost the beginning. Like modern day Tesla’s and Marconi’s, early enthusiasts pieced together studios in their basements, garages, spare bedrooms, and even cars. My own studio was based on a sound board I rescued from the garbage during my first video job, my laptop, and the cheapest professional mic I could find (which my wife bought at my request for Father’s Day 2005). Early podcast advice included where to place headset mics to get the best possible sound from a microphone that might have come free with your computer.

There are two formats that are widely supported for audio content are mp3 and aac. The first is pretty universal, playing in most audio software and on most players. The second is one that Apple uses almost exclusively. ACC or m4a allows for changing screens at predetermined points in the audio and also smaller file sizes. Many shows offer both due to these advantages, but to also provide support for non-iPod devices.

Attempts at video followed. Some were awful while others approached the level of network tv. In the early days, the advantages of video podcasts were balanced by the disadvantages of needing to watch video on a laptop, tethered to a location.

This all changed when Apple announce the iPod with video. With Android, iPhones, iPod touches, etc., we take this for granted now, but when it happened, this addition opened up podcasting to video in a new way. Now, you could have your own tv channel (actually video playlist) that showed content you wanted to see, not just what happened to be on.

The format for video tends to be MP4, Quicktime, or M4v. Video is much more flexible since different players support different formats. Some video podcasts have tried to provide long lists of compatible formats, both SD and HD, of avi, Quicktime, and others. This can quickly become tiresome so podcasters have tended to shrink their offerings sooner rather than later to bare necessities.

Finally, suppose you wanted to write up notes, or step by step instructions about a task. Make Magazine is great at this. Their video podcast often comes with a schematic or instructions on doing the projects described in the video.

For this, Apple and other manufacturers have adopted pdf as the standard. Since pdf is typically read-only (without special software), and isn’t reliant on fonts installed on the user’s computer, it’s a great format to send a digital copy of a highly formatted document which will look the same (generally) across computers and locations and can be printed on home and small business printers with little difficulty.

There are other formats and other possibilities, but for compatibility, it would be best to keep to these.