Walt Mossberg

Podcasting Is Still Not Quite Ready For the Masses

The process of receiving, and creating, blogs has gone mainstream and become quite simple. Anyone can compose and post a blog — a personal, diary-like Web site filled with text and photos — in a matter of minutes using free online services like Google’s Blogger or Microsoft’s MSN Spaces. Last month, I explained how to do it in my guide to blogging (see http://ptech.wsj.com/archive/solution-20050615.html).

But text blogs are yesterday’s news. The hottest new trend in personal online content creation is something called a podcast, essentially a short personal radio show or audio blog. They can be downloaded and played back on a computer or a portable music player like Apple’s iPod, whence the genre draws its name.

Podcasts range from slick productions offered by big media companies and amateur broadcasters; to clever and entertaining offerings from smart, undiscovered talent; to crude diatribes and snooze-inducing lectures by people the mainstream media proved wise not to hire. Some are just talk, some include music. Some sound like they were recorded on a 1971-vintage RadioShack cassette recorder, others — even from amateurs — are studio-quality.

These audio blogs, once the province mainly of techies, took a big step toward the mainstream last week when Apple began offering thousands of them, free, through its market-leading iTunes music store and iTunes music software. Anyone can submit a podcast for distribution through iTunes, and any iTunes user can download it. The company doesn’t charge a penny for listing or downloading podcasts.

So, this week, my assistant Katie Boehret and I set out to see how easy it is to get and create podcasts. The good news is that, with its iTunes move, Apple has made receiving podcasts as simple as downloading music. The bad news is that neither Apple nor anyone else has made it nearly as simple to create a podcast and get it online as it is to create and post a text and photo blog. Until that happens, podcasting won’t be truly mainstream.

Getting and Listening to Podcasts

Since its introduction last week, the iTunes podcast directory has become very popular, and is the easiest way to get and listen to podcasts. Apple has over 4,000 podcasts listed on iTunes today, and has been overwhelmed with new submissions. I expect that most of the podcasts on the Web will be available from Apple within a month or two.

To get podcasts from Apple, you don’t need an iPod or an Apple computer. You will, however, have to upgrade your copy of iTunes to version 4.9, and, if you plan to listen to podcasts on your iPod, you’ll need to download and install Apple’s latest iPod updater software.

To find podcasts, you merely enter the iTunes Music Store from inside the iTunes software, and go to the podcast section. There, you can search for a podcast, or browse through various categories of podcasts to find one you like.

You can either download a single instance of a podcast, or subscribe to the podcast. If you subscribe, iTunes will display new episodes of the podcast as they become available. You can unsubscribe if you tire of the material.

To get the podcasts onto your iPod, you just perform a manual or automatic synchronization, just as you do with music. In our tests, all of this worked quite well.

The only twist to the iTunes podcast experience stems from Apple’s decision to ban from its listings podcasts it deems to be pornographic, or to contain hate speech, or copyrighted material, such as music, which the podcaster lacks the right to distribute.

Apple also labels some podcasts it accepts as “Explicit,” if they contain obscenity or sexual content, but aren’t considered pornography. To enforce these rules, Apple reviews each submitted podcast. But there are flaws in that system. First of all, it delays the appearance of podcasts for as much as a week after they are submitted. Secondly, it means some podcasts won’t ever be included on iTunes, and will have to be located manually. Third, at least in its first week, Apple applied its own standards haphazardly.

In our tests, we found a number of openly pornographic podcasts that had slipped by Apple’s reviewers, and others that should have been labeled “Explicit,” but weren’t. We stumbled onto one podcast titled, “She Said, She Said” in the Talk Radio category, and found that its first entry was all about an unmentionable four-letter word. This didn’t upset us, but it might bother a parent whose child downloaded it.

And Apple reviews only the initial episode of a podcast. If the topic changes next week from M&M’s to S&M, Apple won’t know about it. We don’t care what Apple lists and doesn’t list, but, as long as it says it has rules, the company should apply them. Apple admits the errors, and says it is cleaning them up. The company also points out that it will be relying on consumers to use a feedback feature to point out problems in the future.

Creating a Podcast

There are three steps to creating a podcast. You have to record it as a sound file, usually an MP3 file. Then, you have to find some place on the Web to house, or “host” it. Finally, you have to find a way to let others know about it and make it available for easy downloading.

Unlike with text blogs, it’s hard to find a service that combines the creation, hosting and distribution steps. We found one Web site that came close — GarageBand.com, a site for unsigned musicians that includes a podcast creation “studio” anybody can use, regardless of whether they are musicians or even include music in their podcasts. More on this site later.

To see how hard this is, Katie and I walked through the process of creating, uploading and distributing our own podcasts. First, you have to record the audio. Since few desktop computers have microphones, you will likely have to buy one, or use a laptop with a built-in mike. We each used a microphone-earphone headset that plugged into our computers for one test, and used a phone for another. (We’ll explain that later.)

For her first podcast, Katie downloaded the Audacity MP3 recorder for Windows, free recording software. She spoke into the microphone and recorded a simple test file, but had to follow some confusing steps to save the file in MP3 format. I recorded a similar simple test podcast using the free GarageBand program on a Macintosh (which is unrelated to the aforementioned GarageBand Web site). Again, this involved configuration and file conversion steps that were a pain.

The GarageBand Web site (www.garageband.com) offers a quick, convenient alternative: It lets you dial a toll-free number and dictate your podcast over the phone. Katie and I tested this method from landline phones and from cellphones, and we were very impressed by how easy it was to do and with how good it sounded.

Who Will Host Your Podcast?

After recording a podcast, you must figure out where to post it — on a Web site or on a personal blog with an RSS (really simple syndication) feed. (RSS allows Web browsers and other software to present constantly updated summaries of the headlines on a blog.) Unfortunately, the big blog-hosting sites such as Blogger.com and MSN Spaces, don’t offer provisions for hosting podcasts. This is probably because podcasts are audio files that require much more online storage than regular blogs without audio.

Again, the GarageBand Web site came to the rescue. It is willing to host podcasts, assigning a Web address to each and providing RSS syndication for them. But there were several sometimes confusing steps to do this at GarageBand, mainly because the site was really created to help people find new music. For instance, any audio content you wish to add to your podcast must first be loaded into a “Master Playlist,” which is managed from a separate part of the GarageBand service.

GarageBand.com has a simple player built right into it, so we could hear our recordings right away. With a little knowledge, you can post this tiny player directly into the HTML version of a text blog.

I did this by opening the HTML guts of my personal blog on Blogger.com and embedding the player. It works so that users can hear the podcast as soon as the site opens. Try it out at waltmossberg.blogspot.com.

Distributing Your Podcast

Apple’s newest version of iTunes is a real help for folks who have recorded podcasts but don’t know how to distribute them. You start by going to a section of the iTunes store called Publish a Podcast.

The main piece of information you need to give Apple is the Web address for the syndicated feed of your podcast. Nontechies might not know this. GargageBand.com tells you, but unless you know what you’re looking for, you may be stumped.

We pasted our podcast feed addresses into the correct space in iTunes, then entered our iTunes account passwords, and added some information that would display in the iTunes catalog of podcasts, including our names, a short and long description of the podcast, and a category for the podcast (we chose Technology as the category and Podcasting as the subcategory). In this section, you can also mark your podcast as “Explicit.” My podcast took four days to show up in iTunes, and Katie’s still hasn’t been cleared for listening as I write this.

It’s still way too complicated for the average user to create a podcast. Apple has solved one part of the problem, but more solutions are needed.

With reporting by Katherine Boehret

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com


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