By Jon: First published in Online Currents – 20(9) November 2005

Computer people are good at inventing things, not so good at naming them.  Daft names from the history of computing include CD-ROM, which has nothing to do with ROM, PCMCIA card (allegedly People Can’t Manage Computer Industry Acronyms) and USB (Universal Serial Bus), which makes a sophisticated data handling package sound like an under-25’s road trip through Thailand.  A more recent entry in the daft name stakes is podcasting: the automatic transmission of sound broadcasts to a user’s computer in a form they can then listen to on a portable music device.

The name, of course, comes from the equally daftly-named Apple iPod, which happens to be the currently fashionable brand of music player.  Don’t be put off by that, though; the technology is device-independent and will hopefully be around for many years, long after the cutting-edge iPod has become a risible antique.  You can even listen to podcasts on your PC.  In fact, podcasting follows on naturally from the Internet Radio (IR), which I wrote about in an earlier issue (Online Currents, 20 (2), March 2005).

The problem with Internet Radio is that you have to listen to a broadcast when the broadcaster wants you to, not when it is convenient for you.  Podcasting jumps that hurdle and allows you to download a sound file, usually in MP3 or a compressed proprietary format like WMA, which can then be stored, duplicated, copied to a portable player, and played back at your convenience as many times as you want.  However, most podcasts are only available for a limited time.  For a weekly radio program like Sunday Night Safran on Triple J, for instance, the current program is available for one week from the conclusion of the actual broadcast; after that it’s replaced by the next one.  If you want to go back more than a week, bad luck. And – unlike Internet Radio – you don’t really need a broadband connection, although, if you don’t have one, you’ll spend a lot of time waiting for downloads.

A standard podcasting protocol allows the whole thing to be automatically managed by podcasting client software. Podcasting, in fact, is a variant of RSS (Rich Site Summary), and a podcasting client is essentially a modified Web browser.  Instead of linking to pages, though, it links to XML files, which contain structured information about podcasts and where they are to be found.

In the future, podcasting clients will be incorporated into Web browsers.  In the meantime, many podcasting programs are available through the Web.  iPodder, for instance (http://www.iPodder.org ), is a typical example.  After a 6 Mb download, the program sets itself up quickly and goes to work downloading its own welcome message.  It comes with a searchable list of podcast sources, which is updated regularly through an Internet connection.  (An even longer list can be found on the iPodder site itself.)  You can add your own selections to the list by copying podcast URLs into the subscriptions panel; the program then looks up the URL and finds out the program details for itself.  Once a subscription is set up, iPodder can be made to download current podcasts immediately, or scheduled to do a download run at a particular time of the day or week.  Several podcasts can be downloaded at once; depending on the sound quality, the download speed over an ADSL connection will be between a tenth and a sixth of the length of the program.

Podcasts can now be found on many Internet Radio stations, including the ABC (http://www.abc.net.au ), the BBC (http://tinyurl.com/7oar2 ), and the Canadian Broadcasting Company (http://www.cbcradio3.com/podcast ).  Many of these are experimental, and the choice of programs is still limited, but more are being added all the time.  Non-radio-related podcasting sites are also beginning to appear.

Podcast programs are mainly voice-based; copyright restrictions still bedevil anyone trying to incorporate any music other than their own into their broadcasts.  The ABC Radio selection, for instance, along with Sunday Night Safran, includes This Sporting Life, Hack Daily, Dr. Karl, Ockham’s Razor, The Health Report, The Law Report, AM, PM, The World Today and film reviews.

Once on your computer, podcasts can be downloaded like any other sound file on to an MP3 player, a data CD or DVD, a memory card, a PDA like the Palm, or even a music CD.  Most large-scale media players, like the Windows Media Player, RealPlayer and – of course – Apple iTunes – will automate this part of the process for you too.  All that remains (and this is the hard part) is finding the time to actually listen to it all.

For anyone with sound files to distribute, podcasting feeds are relatively easy to set up.  I was able to copy and modify these XML codes for a BBC podcast and set up a podcast link on my own site in a few minutes.


The best of the Chris Moyles show from BBC Radio 1.  Weekly highlights taken from the breakfast show, as broadcast by Chris and team every morning on Radio 1 from 7am to 10am.

BBC Radio 1



“>BBC Radio 1: Best of Moyles

(C) BBC 2005

Fri, 09 Sep 2005 14:26:28 +0100

Chris moyles chats to Robbie Williams, Aled gives away T-shirts in London, Jay-Z surprises Rio Ferdinand, and hear Dom’s amazing Westwood impression

2005/09/08 – Robbie meets Moyles

Chris moyles chats to Robbie Williams, Aled gives away T-shirts in London, Jay-Z surprises Rio Ferdinand, and hear Dom’s amazing Westwood impression

Thu, 08 Sep 2005 18:00:00 +0100





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 What’s next?  We are obviously moving towards a situation where every bit of publicly broadcast – or printed – information will be available to everyone, everywhere, all the time.  The interesting question now is, whether we get there by express or by an all-stops local, and what kind of scenery we see on the way.