Podcasting for Authors – Part 2: The Tech of Podcasting

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Podcasting for Authors - Part 2: The Tech of Podcasting
By Dan Shaurette

In part one of this series I wrote about podcasting, explaining that it is the next step above having your own blog. As an author, a blog is a great vehicle for sharing your thoughts with your readers, and since it is the written word, it shows off your talent as a writer. Even still, verbal communication is valuable and a podcast allows your fans to hear your wit as well.

On my podcast, I talk about everything and anything. I do talk about my writing and web projects, but it's more about sharing my interests than promotion. Yet, it is promotion, and that cannot be denied. It's one more medium where you have a chance to connect to a reader.

In this article, I want to talk about the technical side of podcasts and explain how you can create a podcast of your own. Please note that there is more than one way to make a podcast. If there is interest in this, I will devote future articles to different methods.

This is the process that I have used for nearly a year. Various things have changed in how I go about producing a podcast. The recommendations I give below for software, hardware, and websites are from my own experiences. Whichever products and services you choose to use instead is of little difference, but the steps involved are virtually the same.

High-level guts of a podcast
As I explained in the last article, a podcast is nothing more than a text file. For those of you that like acronyms, it is an XML marked up file (a cousin of HTML that you might have seen which make up websites). This file is usually in a format called RSS 2.0, aka Real Simple Syndication.

However, a podcast's RSS file needs one extra feature, called enclosures, which give direct links to audio files that live on a web server. Except for uber-geeks like me, most people do not want to create these RSS files from scratch, so they look for other ways to make them.

By far the easiest method is with a blog. Most blog servers and software today provide the ability to generate an RSS file from a blog. Some of the blogs have the ability built in to include enclosures in their RSS, but not all. There is a website known as Feedburner.com which comes to the rescue to help with enclosures. I'll discuss their website later.

If you have your own blog, you have discovered how easy it is to share your wit and wisdom with your fans. The savvy fans probably subscribe to your blog with an RSS aggregator. Turning your blog into a podcast is simple enough.

All you need to do is record yourself talking about various topics close to your heart, and then upload your audio file to a web server. Perhaps even the server your blog lives at. Then, you include a link in your next blog post to that audio file.

Technically, that now makes it an audioblog. However, if the RSS feed from your blog has enclosures, that feed is your podcast. If it doesn't link to enclosures directly, the free Feedburner service can repackage your RSS feed into a version with enclosures. Voila!

That sounds easy, right? Yes, in concept it is that easy. It's the execution of the steps that can get tricky. Especially if you don't have a blog. Or worse, if you don't know how to go about recording yourself.

What follows is a list of software and hardware and some high-level steps you could follow in order to bring your words to life as a podcast.

It is beyond the scope of this article to walk you through setting up accounts with these services or downloading and using the software. Future articles can delve deeper if interest warrants it.

Each of these services has excellent documentation and support. Everything listed below is free to use or download. Sure there are pay/pro versions of each. But as far as I'm concerned, the only thing you may need to buy in order to produce a podcast is a microphone.

Software and Services
Here are the websites you need accounts on, and software you should download and install.

1. You need audio editing software. I recommend Audacity, which you can download from: http://audacity.sourceforge.net
2. You need a blog with an RSS feed and enclosures support. I recommend WordPress. You can create a free blog at http://WordPress.com or, if you have your own website, you can download the WordPress software from http://WordPress.org and install it.
3. You need a server for your audio files, which 99% of the time should be different than your blog server. I recommend creating an account at http://archive.org and using it to host your audio.
4. Even with WordPress, or any blog that has enclosure support, you may want to create an account on http://FeedBurner.com as it can make the process easier, ensure widest compatibility for your listeners, let you see how many subscribers you have, and more.

Audio editing software
Audacity is a free, open-source program that will work on computers running Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. It will record for you and save the audio for later editing. Yes, most computers come with software for recording audio, but they are very limited.

Audacity on the other hand is a fully featured, multi-track recording and editing program. It can do just about anything you need to do for mixing tracks, etc. Are there audio programs that are better? Yes, but they are expensive, and often, more complicated to use. Mac users who have worked with GarageBand swear by it, but it sells for $79 as part of iLife. Feel free to investigate different programs, but know podcasting can be done well even on a budget and with any computer.

Blog services or software
WordPress blog software automatically generates the enclosure tags you need to create a podcast. So, if you have a blog hosted on WordPress.com, or if you download their software to run on your own web host, you will have the core foundation at your disposal. You can read more details at this link: http://codex.wordpress.org/Podcasting

If you are already using another blog, most offer plug-ins that can create the podcast enclosures from your posts. However, if you have a blog which can at least offer an RSS or Atom feed, you can still use the Feedburner.com service.

Burning your feed
Feedburner.com is a necessity if you use a blog other than WordPress. What their service does is search the posts of your RSS feed for regular HTML links to media files. When it finds them, it generates the enclosure tag for you.

Even if you do use WordPress and have the right links to your audio files (see below), you may still want to use Feedburner. Sure, it's an extra step, but one that puts a little bow onto the whole package. I highly recommend you check out the service to see everything they provide, all for free.

Audio file hosting
Besides recording your audio, another next tricky part is finding a web server to serve the audio from. You will probably not be able to host your audio files on the same server as your blog, so they will need to live somewhere else.

Why? Well, for one, they can be quite large. For an average hour long podcast you will have an MP3 file that is over 30 MB in size. If you post a new podcast regularly, you may fill up what server space you have fairly quickly.

Secondly, hopefully, your podcast will become quite popular, and when it does, the audio will be downloaded a lot. As such, your bandwidth usage may get maxed out. Some web hosts cap how much can be downloaded from your server, so you might get cut off at some point.

Finally, some hosts don't want the legal hassle with letting people host their audio files on their servers. For these three reasons, for example, you cannot upload your audio to your blog at WordPress.com. Even if you run the WordPress software on your own server, make sure they have no such restrictions.

So as an alternative, you can find a web host just for your audio content. One such host is archive.org. Archive.org is a free website whose sole purpose is to provide massive amounts of web space for archiving websites around the world. Recently, they began providing a service called OpenSource Audio. http://www.archive.org/details/opensource_audio

With this service, you can create a free account and upload your podcast audio files. There are no limits on size or bandwidth usage. They only ask that you set a Creative Commons License for your audio so that people know how they can listen and use your audio. For files of a large size (10 MB or larger, which most podcasts are often larger) they provide a program to run on your PC for uploading to their service.

After they are uploaded, you are given a web link to the audio file. That link is what you would paste in you blog entry to include your audio file. Well, almost.

Archive.org uses redirects to provide a nice URL that they can track downloads with. But WordPress doesn't like the redirect and won't make the enclosure with it. The easiest thing to do is open the URL that archive.org gives you then see what URL is redirected to. That URL will be a version that WordPress likes.

For example, for my podcast, the following URL:

http://www.archive.org/download/DanShauretteIsThisThingOn23/ison20060621.mp3

Is redirected to:

http://ia301130.us.archive.org/0/items/DanShauretteIsThisThingOn23/ison20060621.mp3

If you place that "uglier" link into your WordPress post, you will be all set for it to make the right enclosure for you. As mentioned before, if you use Feedburner, it will make the enclosure from either type of link.

Hardware Setup
On to the hardware side of things. You need a way to record audio and get it onto your computer to edit and upload to the web. If you have a computer that you can plug a microphone into, and speakers or headphones to listen, then you have all you need. Most of you should have this minimum equipment, and many podcasts use this very setup. I did for about nine months.

You can spend anywhere from $20 for a headset with a mic, to $100 for a quality microphone and even more for mixing boards and equipment. This all boils down to what level of quality and professional control you want over your podcast. Beginners should start simple. With enough demand, you can always improve.

What I can personally endorse is M-Audio's Podcast Factory setup which retails for $179.95 USD. This is what I have invested in within just the last couple months. This kit comes with a high-quality studio microphone, a small mic stand, a USB audio interface, and has all of the necessary software and cabling. It's the best deal for someone who wants the step above simple microphones, but does not have the resources or experience to get a professional studio setup.
http://www.m-audio.com/products/en_us/PodcastFactory-main.html

It should also be noted that you can certainly use a portable voice recorder. In fact, the iRiver media player has a good recorder for portable recording sessions. Myself, I have used the Voice Memo feature of my Palm Zire 72s PDA. As long as the quality is good and there is a conduit to your computer for later editing, then by all means give it a try.

Audio Quality
The only major requirement is that your audio be saved into MP3 format, or be saved and then converted into MP3 format. The MP3 format allows for high quality even with a high compression of the audio data.

When it comes to a podcast, since the audio will predominately be voice and not hi-fi music, you can even tweak the quality levels down to make the audio files even smaller. Here are what I have found to be the "magic numbers" of podcasting.

Sample rate/Frequency: 22050 Hz (AM radio quality)
Bit rate: 64 Kbps (in between the quality of AM and FM radio)

This combination yields a compression of roughly 2 minutes of audio saved as 1 MB of data.

What do these numbers mean? The sample rate is how often your voice will be sampled to record digitally. 22050 Hz is literally sampled 22,050 times per second! As impressive as that is, that is "only" AM radio quality of audio. Double that at 44100 Hz is audio CD quality. So while you might be tempted to record your podcast at that level of quality, remember it is sampled twice as much data and therefore the file size will double, bringing you to one minute of audio being 1 MB of data.

Bit rate is a similar metric. This is the measure of the amount of data it samples per second. Kbps is kilobits per second. Again, the more data it records, the higher the quality, and larger the resulting file.

It took me a while with some trial and error to find these magic numbers, including some wisdom from Evo Terra (co-author of PODCASTING FOR DUMMIES) about ensuring all of my samples were at 64 Kbps, lest I discover my audio sounds like the latest Chipmunks album. You can feel free to experiment as well. But I have found that even music sounds good at these levels.

So, in the end, this means that an hour-long podcast becomes a 30 MB file for you to upload, and your listeners to download. That's not a tiny file by any means, but one that most listeners seem to be willing to handle. As mentioned before, the brilliance of podcasting is in the catching of files, which can be done in the background. Yet as cable modems and DSL become the more common form of internet connection, a 30 MB file downloads very swiftly.

Besides MP3, there are many other formats, Ogg Vorbis and MP4 files being then next popular. Some podcasts carry more than one format, and a few carry Hi-fi and Lo-fi versions of their podcasts, for users of different bandwidths of download. However, MP3 is the de facto podcast audio standard.

Having said that, you may find MP4 files are relatively common. These may alternatively have an M4A extension. These are MPEG-4 files with audio encoded in AAC format, which provides digital rights management favored by iTunes. This is a format made popular by Apple, and these files cannot be played without iTunes, an iPod, or Apple QuickTime on your computer.

Why use them then? They offer a certain level of copy protection in some cases. It is the format used by audio for sale on iTunes. If you intend to sell your podcasts, this is the media for you. For example, you might prefer to record a podcast of your novel and provide it in the MP4/AAC format. Just remember, the software to make them is not free and it may cost more for the rights to sell them.

My advice is to stick with MP3. It's free for you to create and can be played by everyone. After your podcast becomes popular, you might consider switching to a secured format.

The Politics of Dancing
Speaking of copy protection, what devices can play what audio, and who owns rights to do what, let's discuss copyrights. There is a term that you may have heard regarding podcasts, music primarily, known as "podsafe".

Podsafe music refers to the license under which the music was released. If a song is podsafe, then anyone is free to include that song on a podcast without paying a royalty.

This does not mean the music is in the public domain, however. It means that the copyright owner has granted the public specific permissions to use it.

To make this easier for the legal playing of such audio, some artists use a Creative Commons license with explicit permission to share the music.

Even if you don't intend your podcast to showcase podsafe music, if you want to have theme music, segment bridge music, sound clips, etc., you need to know what rights you have for using it.

Ultimately, I mention this because, even if you have no intention to use music of any kind, you need to decide what kind of license you intend to release your podcast under. As the creator of your podcast, you do own the copyright to it. Yet, because of the inherent nature to share your audio with others, the license with which you podcast it will determine how broadly it can be distributed. For example, here is a link to the license that I use for my podcast: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.5/

Visit CreativeCommons.org for more details about their licenses, and for more about podsafe audio and music, read more at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podsafe

Recap of Producing a Typical Podcast
1. Record your audio.
2. Edit and mix your audio.
3. Upload to your web server.
4. Post an entry in your blog with a link to your audio file.

For the next article in this series, I will focus on recording interviews with Skype and HotRecorder. Not only will this help you if you plan to conduct phone interviews of other authors, for example, but if you simply want to be able to do a podcast with a co-host and don't have the resources to buy a mixing board.
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Copyright © 2006 Dan Shaurette.
Besides being the editor of the newsletter for http://selfpublishedauthors.com/, Dan is the author of LILITH'S LOVE, a modern vampire romance novel, which you can learn more about at http://liliths-love.com/. He also hosts "Is This Thing On?", an eclectic podcast featuring chat, interviews, and independent music at http://is-this-thing-on.net/. You can find out more on his blog at http://danshaurette.com/.

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