Podcasting with iTunes

Podcasting

Podcasting rose to popularity so quickly that some people may be unaware to what it refers. This article seeks to explain what podcasting is, how it can be used and how to do it with a product called iTunes.

A podcast is essentially a series of files (usually audio or video) that are indexed to allow easy access by podcasting software. Each file is referred to as an “episode”, and can be downloaded either automatically by the software, or manually by the user when required.

Podcasts have never been restricted to audio, and video podcasts (annoyingly called “Vodcasts” by some) began proliferating even in the infant stages of the boom. In this article we will restrict our discussion to audio podcasts, however the instructions are equally valid for video and other formats.

Thousands of regularly updated podcasts exist covering just about every imaginable topic. Despite the high quality of many podcasts, most are free to the listener.

iTunes

While there are dozens of programs that can be used to download and listen to podcasts, none are as popular as iTunes.

Other than simplicity, iTunes has several advantages over other podcasting software. It is integrated with the worlds largest online music store, the largest podcast directory and the highest selling portable music player, i.e. the iPod.

iTunes is developed by Apple and ships with every Mac, however it has long been available for Windows. This article will be most useful if you have a copy of iTunes installed. If you haven’t already, I suggest you download a copy from the iTunes website.

Subscribing

The only thing that separates a podcast from a collection of sound files hosted on a website is the way they are indexed. A special contents file tracks information about the available audio files, allowing the user to get an idea of what the episode is about before downloading. When you subscribe to a podcast, you are essentially importing this file into iTunes.

While there are other options available, the three easiest ways to subscribe to a podcast with iTunes are:

1. Subscribe Using The Podcast Directory

With thousands of different podcasts available, the podcast directory built into iTunes is a great place to start. To launch the directory from within iTunes, simply click on the purple podcast icon on the left of your screen, then on the “Podcast Directory” button at the bottom of the screen as shown below.

Select Podcasts

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Podcasts are categorised, and can be sorted and searched based on many criteria. A chart of the most popular podcasts are displayed on the front screen, as are new and featured entries. When a podcast is selected, an introduction screen opens with a description of the series, and a list of the available episodes. From this screen, it is possible to preview the episodes or add the podcast index to iTunes by clicking “Subscribe” as shown below.

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2. By Using An iTunes Enabled Web Link

Accepting that iTunes dominates the medium, many podcast creators provide a special link on their website that opens their listing in the iTunes Podcast Directory. If you come by such a link when browsing the web, subscribing using it will save you having to search through the thousands of podcasts in the directory, or using the manual method outlined below.

3. Manually Enter The Address

The podcast index file is referenced like any other web link. Typically the address will start with the domain of the website you are currently visiting, and end with “xml”, although other options are possible. If neither of the options outlined above are available or you have been sent the link from a friend etc, the most reliable way to manually subscribe to the podcast is:

  1. From the “Advanced” menu, select “Subscribe to Podcast”.
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  3. Enter the podcast address and click “OK”.
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Downloading

When you first subscribe to a podcast, iTunes will automatically download the most recent episode. After this, you can manually download other episodes by simply clicking on the “Get” button to the right of the episode name.

Due to the large number of podcasts I subscribe to and the sometimes slow Internet connections I work from, I prefer to selectively choose which episodes to download based on the description given. The podcast settings I use are shown below.

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Other people may prefer to set iTunes to check for new episodes on a regular basis and download them automatically. This is possible using the following settings.

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To access the above preference panel simply click on the “Settings” button at the bottom right of the iTunes podcast window.

Managing Podcasts

As you subscribe to more podcasts, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the episodes you have listened to from the ones you haven’t. By default, iTunes simply lists all downloaded episodes under the podcast title in the order they were released.

While it is possible to display the play count for each episode, it becomes difficult and time consuming to manually sift through what may become a long list.

Thankfully, iTunes has a feature called “Smart Playlists”. Smart playlists intelligently select audio files based on your specified criteria. While the possibilities are limitless, I’ve described the process of creating a smart playlist that will display all podcasts that haven’t been listened to:

  1. From the “File” menu, select “New Smart Playlist”.
  2. Configure the settings using the following graphic as a guide and click “OK”.

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  3. The new smart playlist will appear on the left. Name it “Unplayed Podcast” and you’re done.

iTunes automatically tracks the number of times tracks in your library are played. As a podcast completes, it will no longer have a play count of zero and will automatically be removed from the playlist. Note that the file isn’t deleted and can be accessed from the main podcast window at any time.

Playback

Podcasting improves over traditional broadcasts by allowing the content to be played back directly on your computer or transfered to a portable music device.

When combined with portable music players, podcasts allow you to take a Yoga class during a lunch break, get a market update between patients, or listen to the latest medical research on a chair lift at the snow.

Apple’s iPod is by far the most popular portable music device on the market and integrates tightly with iTunes as you would expect. iPods come in various sizes and capacities to suit many applications, and there is a huge range of accessories to extend their functionality.

Many other compaines also make portable music devices, and Microsoft has recently announced plans to release its own line of music players to compliment its own software and online music store efforts.

Conclusion

Podcasting went through an amazing boom in late 2005 and 2006, helped in no small part by iTunes. The word “podcast” was deemed to be so significant in 2005 that the New Oxford American Dictionary declared it the word of the year.

Given the short history, the future of podcasting is difficult to predict. More paid podcasts are sure to emerge, however competition will ensure that this powerful medium remains largely free and accessible to the listener. While it’s unlikely that podcasting will replace any of the existing media channels, it is sure to firmly entrench itself as a powerful and popular compliment.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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