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ALTOM: Podcasts still have a place in cyberspace

July 16, 2011

Maybe you’re my age and you remember podcasts. A few years ago, podcasts were all the rage on the Web. It seemed like every site had a podcast, and often more than one. Podcasts threatened to replace e-mailed newsletters. You could subscribe to them, and they could be downloaded for you automatically. You could listen to them while you jogged or drove to work. Podcasts were hyped to replace conventional radio, in fact.

When blogs came along, podcasts came along with them and became de rigueur. We got used to hearing the thin, reedy voices of website owners, bloggers, entrepreneurs, pundits, promoters and hucksters delivered right on schedule like so many skinny little neighborhood newspapers.

Then the tide receded and podcasts weren’t being offered in mind-numbing abundance anymore. Several prominent distribution sites stopped offering anything recorded after 2009. Google Trends shows that the search term “podcasts” has tapered off continually since the end of 2005. But that doesn’t mean podcasts have gone away. If you know where to look, the ones that are left can often serve up free education.

One of the biggest distributors of podcasts today is Apple, through its iTunes store. Podcasts are free to download and can be uploaded via iTunes by anyone with an iTunes account. The quality varies considerably, as does the subject matter.

It should be noted that some users may still be a little sour about using Apple’s iTunes to obtain podcasts after Apple mounted an effort in 2006 to prevent anyone but Apple from using the term “pod” for anything other than the iPod.

Apple had a point; podcasts were named after the iPod, but it was a misleading moniker, because an iPod was never required to listen to a podcast. Apple should have known better than to mount such an offensive against Web denizens who prize open and free usage. After a few cease-and-desist letters from Apple set off a thunderstorm of protest, the company backed off and stopped objecting to the generic use of “podcast”, although Apple didn’t explicitly renounce any rights to it.

The iTunes store (itunes.apple.com) is filled to bursting with podcasts, on subjects from business to comedy to spirituality. The business section alone has dozens of publishers, and each publisher can have dozens or hundreds of uploads, although many have relatively few. Several are by self-promoting pundits, while others are from highly reputable sources like Barron’s, BBC World Service’s Business Daily, Bloomberg, Wharton Business School and Fortune. A few have video, something that’s still rare in podcasting.

Unfortunately, the iTunes store is also chock-a-block with stale podcasts, just like the rest of the Web. Irrational Public Radio’s most recent listing is from September 2010, its most recent before that is from April 2010, and all the rest are from 2009 or before. In all, they seem to have uploaded only a few each year. CNBC’s “On the Money” podcasts seem to have ended in August 2009.

iTunes isn’t the only reservoir of podcasts. Podcast.com (www.podcast.com) has plenty, too, although it’s harder to browse Podcast.com than it is iTunes, so it’s hard to tell just what they have. Individual publishers usually offer podcasts directly from their sites, which isn’t as convenient as finding all of them in one spot, as you can with iTunes, but it’s helpful if you know that the publisher is one you particularly want to hear from. The New York Times has its own podcast site, for example (www.nytimes.com/pages/podcasts/index.html). National Public Radio has one, too (http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_directory.php), as does the magazine Scientific American (www.scientificamerican.com/podcast) and most business magazines. Interestingly, podcasts have almost never been a charge item; they’re almost always free. This explains why so many are sparse on details; they want you to pay for a fuller service.

Should you be tempted to add podcasting to your marketing efforts, your first step is to obtain recording software, if you don’t already have some. I’ve used Audacity for years. It’s free for download from Sourceforge (audacity.sourceforge.net).

Just load it on your computer, hook up a microphone, and start recording. Of course, if you want to do it right, you’ll need some public domain music to open and close, and perhaps a script. Review some good podcasts to see how they’re being done nowadays and follow suit. But don’t expect marketing miracles out of this medium, as some did during podcasting’s optimistic youth.

To be effective, you’ll need to keep uploading podcasts to satisfy whatever fans you acquire, and probably most will never buy anything from you. Still, if you’ve always yearned to be a disc jockey, it might be worth it just for the fun of having your voice available to millions.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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