Have you ever wondered what a podcast actually is and how it differs from a plain MP3 track? If so, then this article should shed some light on the matter.
In our quest to dissect the true nature of a podcast, it may first be helpful to understand the origins of the word itself. Podcast is actually a combination or portmanteau of two words; iPod and broadcast. Knowing the derivation of the word should give us a clue as to what a podcast is, and by association, what podcasting is all about and therefore help you to answer the question, what is a podcast?
MP3 Players and iPods
While the word iPod was originally used in the derivation of the term podcast, this has more generically come to refer to any MP3 or portable digital media player, regardless of make and model. So don’t think that you can only make use of podcasts if you own an Apple iPod; it’s not the case at all, they will work on pretty much any MP3/digital media player or personal computer, in fact any device that can play digital media files such as MP3s.
As the word podcast is an amalgamation of the words iPod and broadcast, it may also help us to define what is typically considered to be a broadcast. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, broadcast is defined as:
disseminate (news, music, etc.) by radio or television
In this definition, radio and television are two examples of media through which the information (the news or music) is transmitted or disseminated to the consumer (listener or viewer).
The key point is that information is sent (e.g. news) from the author or content provider (e.g. the BBC) to numerous users through some delivery mechanism (e.g. radio).
While broadcasting has traditionally been considered to be either via radio or television, we now have a new medium for the global transmission and transfer of information, the internet.
So, looking at the definition of a podcast again with the new transmission systems available on the internet (e.g. e-mail, web pages etc.), podcasting can be considered to be broadcasting information through the internet to digital media players.
Typically, this information will be a non-musical audio file in MP3 format. However, the term podcast doesn’t specify the media or file type, so you can have different file formats (e.g. MP4 files) and different media types (e.g. video files), all of which can still be considered to be podcasts.
The Essence of Podcasts
Episodes and Series
While in the broadest sense of the word a podcast could be a single digital media file made available on the internet for download, the common definition of a podcast is a series of episodes made available for download over a period of time. This episodic nature of podcasts has become intrinsic to what podcasts actually are, be they audio or video.
Again, while the word podcast and its original derivation don’t give any indication as to how podcasts are made available for download, the accepted definition of a podcast implies the ability to subscribe to the downloadable series of episodes via a web based syndication system, e.g. iTunes.
As in traditional broadcasting mechanisms where media is transmitted to you, a podcast is also normally sent directly to you. However, while the podcast file could be sent to you directly, the podcaster will normally just send you a link to the podcast for you to download at your convenience.
You may be sent this information by an e-mail, if you have subscribed to a mailing list, but by far the most common mechanism for distributing podcasts is by RSS feeds, with the actual podcast media file linked to via enclosure tags. If you’re not familiar with RSS feeds or how to subscribe to them, don’t worry, as a previous article on this blog explains all about them, helpfully titled: What is RSS?
So, in summary, podcasting is simply a way of disseminating a series of individual episodes of media files in common digital formats (e.g. MP3) via an RSS feed using enclosure tags over the internet for later playback on your media player or PC.
Additionally, the term podcast can refer to an individual episode of a “podcast”, or the whole series of episodes, e.g. “I’m listening to a podcast” or “I subscribe to that podcast.”
Although podcasts come in a variety of different flavours, overwhelming the most common variety, and the form most commonly associated with the word podcast, are regular, subscribable episodes of spoken word audio “shows” in MP3 format.
In this respect it can be helpful to think of audio podcasts as a bit like video recordings of TV shows but for radio, insomuch as you can listen back to an episode at a later date and time of your choosing.