What is a podcast?

What is a Podcast?

Before diving into a lengthy explanation of what a podcast is, let’s look at the word “podcast” itself.  First mentioned by Ben Hammersley in a 2004 Guardian newspaper article in which he rattled off possible names for this booming new medium, the “pod” of podcast is borrowed from Apple’s “iPod” digital media player; and the “cast” portion of podcast is taken from Radio’s “broadcast” term.  As a mater of clarity,  just because it’s named after Apple’s iPod, does not necessarily mean that you have to own or use an iPod — or any portable digital media player for that matter — to enjoy a podcast.

Okay, with that out of the way, back to the original question:  “What’s a podcast?”

A “podcast” is sort of difficult to explain because there really isn’t anything else like it — but rather, many things that are kind of like it.

A good starting point, is to think of a podcast as “Internet Radio On-Demand.”  It’s  similar in that you can usually listen to it on your computer — but it’s more than that.  [However, and not to confuse the issue, podcasting isn’t confined to just audio but can be video as well].

It has well over 100,000 content specific “channels,” which are sure to suit just about anyone’s interests, and is available on the Internet.  So, in a sense, it’s kind of like a Library.

With the amount of content that podcasting provides, regular Broadcast Radio, or “Terrestrial Radio” — as they call it — simply can never compete.  The AM and FM radio band only has so many channels.  Consequently, radio stations “Broadcast” their content — meaning that they attempt to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible.  Because, after all, this is what advertisers are looking for.  But podcasting, by contrast, is not necessarily hamstrung to advertising revenue like its broadcasting cousin.  With its specific and specialized content, it is able to “narrowcast” to only those who choose to listen.  So while a particular podcast’s audience may be considerably smaller than the audience of a broadcast, one could argue that the podcast’s audience is a much more targeted and interested in the content being delivered.  So, in a way, Satellite Radio, with its ability to provide more channels than Broadcast Radio, takes a step towards podcasting — but still does not come close.

Podcasts are “On Demand” and can be listened to on your schedule — not when a Radio Station decides to air it.  So, it’s kind of like TiVo.

Each podcast has a website it calls “home” (like ours at www.firesidebookchat.com) where show episodes can be listened to or downloaded for future listening.  With downloaded media, you can either listen to it on your computer or take it with you by transferring it to an iPod or any other portable digital media player.  So, in this way, it’s kind of like a small paperback book.

But what truly makes a podcast unique, and what gives a podcast its “casting” ability, is how it is able immediately deliver itself to multiple podcast directory websites (such as iTunesPodcast Alley, and Podcast Pickle) and podcatcher applications (like  iTunesJuice, and Zune) through a process of syndication known as RSS (Real Simple Syndication).  Listeners can easily “subscribe” to podcasts (most are free) by clicking on its RSS icon or subscription button (ours is located in the upper left hand column).  The listener is then walked through how to add that podcast’s syndication “feed” to a podcatching application of their choosing — or even good old-fashioned email.  So, when a podcaster releases a new episode, subscribers are automatically notified without having to constantly check back with the podcast’s website to see if a new show has been produced.  And, with the podcatching software, episodes of their favorite podcasts can be automatically downloaded and, if they choose, transferred to their portable listening device — all without having to lift a finger.  So, in this way, podcasts are like magazine subscriptions. You can sign up for our RSS here.

Podcasts can be produced by just about anyone wanting to share and communicate with the world.  They are not exclusive to Big Name Media.  So, you could also say that podcasts are like Blogs.

Because podcast websites usually have ways for listeners to leave comments about each episode, and literally enter into a discussion with other listeners, podcasts are like a community of individuals sharing a common interest.  And with an estimated 47 million podcast listeners out there in 2010, that’s a pretty hefty community.

Kind of cool if you ask me.

Still confused?  The folks over at Common Craft have put together a nifty little 3 minute video that put’s it all in plain English.  Perhaps that why they’ve entitled it “Podcasting in Plain English.”  I encourage you to give it a view.  It’s informative, easy to understand, and entertaining all at the same time.


To add to the comprehensiveness of our podcast explanation above, some might be interested to know that while the “pod” in podcast originally spawned from Apple’s iPod digital media player, a “backcronym” (an acronym developed after the fact) was developed with the “pod” of podcast alternatively standing for Personal ODemand or Programing ODemand.

Our thanks goes out to Dr. Thomas Lamar for providing us with this write.  Please go visit his site and check out his Spinal Column Radio Podcast.