Podcast User Magazine

Articles written for Podcast User Magazine

WordPress Workhorse

Published in the June 2007 Issue (#17) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Producing a podcast, whether it’s daily, weekly or whatever, is only half the battle. You’ll find that as well as having to concentrate on the audio side of things, you’ll need to spend a good portion of your time having to update the website, the RSS feed, and so forth, so anything that can help save you time has to be a good thing.

When I helped put together the Podcast User Magazine website, I knew instantly we were going to need something to cut the workload to a minimum, because although we are not a podcast, we still publish on a monthly basis and make use of RSS feeds. I plumped for Blogger, one of the many popular online blogging tools, primarily because it was free and it was also what I knew best at the time. However, as my own personal requirements grew, I soon realised that whilst Blogger is fine for occasional use, or for people new to blogging, its limitations are soon reached if you blog on a regular basis.

I know many people – one of our own star contributors, Mr Vobes, being one of them – have an aversion to blogging tools such as Blogger or WordPress. One of their main objections is that results can tend to look pretty much the same, or at least very similar. Whilst there are numerous templates available, it seems that many people seem to stick with the designs that come with WordPress, and I have to admit they’re not the most awe-inspiring designs. As well as focusing on blog-style content, WordPress also supports ‘static’ pages, which are pages that very rarely change (such as contact or product pages). Whilst this support is welcome, it’s not overly packed with features but does go a long way to making WordPress somewhat more flexible than Blogger and various other blogging tools.

So if you want to use WordPress, where do you begin? First off, you are going to need to install WordPress to your hosting site. If you are using Go-Daddy, BlueHost or any of the other full-featured hosting services, much of the hard work can be done for you. With Go-Daddy, for instance, you can log into your account, choose WordPress from the list of applications available, fill in a few boxes and – voila! – your new WordPress blog is installed. If your hosting service does not support auto-installation, it is a matter of downloading WordPress, unarchiving it, uploading to your hosting service and running the installation script. Full details are available on the WordPress site.

The next step is deciding on the look of your shiny new WordPress blog. WordPress usually comes with a few sample themes for you to choose from, but there are many thousands of free and commercial themes available. Remember that just because you select a template for your blog, it doesn’t mean you can’t customize the template to incorporate your own design ideas. This can seem a little daunting if you do not have any experience with HTML (the code that makes up a web page), but to those who are familiar with HTML, this can be relatively straightforward, depending on the template’s complexity.

Once your blog is installed and ready to roll, the next thing you will probably want to do is install some of the most popular plugins. These are little pieces of code that extend the functionality of WordPress. There are many different plugins available, but I will touch on a few of the most popular and free ones that I have now installed on many of the blogs I manage. There’s no shortage of others for you to investigate.

1. Podpress : This is practically a no-brainer for podcasters. It enables full support for podcasts within post entries and also takes care of all the RSS feed issues.

2. FireStats : An excellent plugin, providing detailed stats on what is being read and downloaded.

3. SpamKarma : The ultimate spam-killer for WordPress

4. WP-Cache : Protects the web server from high-volume page views. This is a life-saver if a site is featured on Digg or similar news sites.

5. WP Database Backup : A fantastic plug-in that not only backs up a database but also emails it to you; it can also be set to do this automatically every day.

There is a whole gamut of plugins to choose from, many of them depend on the kind of blog you are running. Check out the links at the end of this article.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this whistle stop intro to WordPress.

Go forth and be productive. If you have any favorite themes or plugins, please feel free to drop me a line on colin@colinmeeks.com

A Step Closer to Podcast Prime-time

Published in the May 2007 Issue (#16) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Podcasting has undoubtedly come a long way in the last few years. However, it still has a way to go before it manages to be accepted in the same way as regular radio. I think that as with any new technology, the biggest problem is the classic barrier to entry. At present podcasting still seems only to thrive amongst people who have some kind of computer know-how. Admittedly, iTunes has done an awful lot to raise public acceptance, and it indeed jump-started podcasts for the masses, but there’s still a problem with adding podcasts that do not have the correct iTunes form of URL. iTunes once used URLs that began with ‘itpc://’, but these seem to have been replaced with the more usual ‘http://phobos.apple.com/’ prefix.

So what can be done to make podcasting easier for the general masses? The first thing is to have a URL standard that is specific to podcasts. Yes, there is the iTunes-specific variant, but what if a listener doesn’t have iTunes? If every podcasting client used the same form of URL (for example, podcast://feeds.feedburner.com/indielaunchpad), there wouldn’t be this awful mess, where users click on the podcast link and get that page of XML/RSS gobbledygook. The browser would know that this was a podcast and pass the request through to the registered podcast client/aggregator. We also need to ensure that if that gobbledygook does appear, then clear instructions need to be the first thing people see on that XML/RSS page.

When the podcast link on a website is clicked, the user should be prompted whether they want to add the podcast to their installed client/aggregator. It should also be easier to remove a podcast from a client/aggregator, so that if a listener clicks on a link to a currently subscribed podcast, there should be an opportunity to unsubscribe. There’s even a possibility for a variety of query commands that could be added to the end of the URL, but development of those tools is probably far off and better left for another article.

Another simple thing a podcaster can do is add an audio player to the podcast’s main page, allowing new listeners to easily sample podcasts. I know many people also use this as their primary way to keep up to date with podcasts, but I’m sure that’s because the alternatives are at times confusing.

So that’s at least one thing to make subscribing and unsubscribing to podcasts easier. The other thing that needs to be addressed is the terminology. The term ‘subscribe’ still seems to leave a sour taste in the mouths of people who are not used to podcasts. ‘Subscribe’ still seems to evoke in many the thought of paying money. Again, listeners who are computer savvy are fairly used to the term ‘subscribe’, which is commonly used in reference to joining email lists and websites that offer user-specific content. I don’t think there is any one right term. I racked my brains and the best I could come up with was ‘Add to Podcast Presets’, taking the terminology of a radio on which favourite channels can be saved. Maybe it’s not the perfect term, but at least it seems less scary than the dreaded ‘subscribe’.

With AppleTV now shipping, it looks as if Apple is again going to raise public awareness of vidcasts and, to a slightly lesser degree, podcasts. With the ability to subscribe, watch and listen to favourite vidcasts and podcasts on regular TV, the future indeed looks rosy, but we don’t want to let Apple become the driving force. One look at the average podcast will show that probably 95% of the listener audience comes from iTunes; that is certainly the case with Indie Launchpad. This is a scary fact. In essence, iTunes controls the majority of podcasts. At present their power is benign, but that may not always be the case. We need to seize control of our podcasting destiny and ensure that it’s easy for our audiences to listen to our podcasts, no matter what software solution they choose to use. We also need to ensure that we publicize as many different podcasting clients/aggregators as possible. We also need to badger the vendors and programmers of clients/aggregators to adopt some form of standard, such as the one I proposed earlier.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying what I’ve proposed is perfect. I’d like to think it’s a starting block, a place to begin discussion and to try to light the fire up the podcasting community’s backside. After all, a lot of hard work goes into making podcasts, and the more listeners we can attract, the better.

So, podcasters and listeners, do you agree or disagree? Do you have any other ideas to make it easier for new listeners? If I get enough response, I’ll do a follow-up article with the feedback I receive. You can email me at colin@indielaunchpad.com. I look forward to your views.

Greetings Pop Pickers

Published in the April 2007 Issue (#15) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Undoubtedly one of the biggest winners in the podcasting revolution, has been the numerous independent and unsigned musicians, who now have a viable alternative route to get their music heard by hundreds of thousands of eager listeners, hungry for great music. Many of these artists have been otherwise ignored by the major record labels, but work relentlessly to build a reputation for themselves, ultimately getting their CD’s into the hands of the people who matter most, the fans.

There’s numerous music podcasts about, but the real difficulty is finding the good ones. I just wanted to cover a few of the ones I listen to, just to give you an idea of what’s about and hopefully point you in the right direction.

Three from Leith
From PUM’s own Grant Mason, this is a great podcast, that play many great Scottish artists, as well as a smattering from around the world. Most tracks are usually on the lighter side. His show generally comes out once a week and runs around 30 minutes.

PC Podcast
If you’re looking for eclectic, this is the place for you. Pete Cogle your host, does an amazing job of digging up some music you’ll be hard pressed to hear anywhere else. Admittedly some of the tracks, raise my eyebrows in the best tradition of Roger Moore, but he also uncovers some absolute gems.

Dark Compass
Rowland Cutler, the grumpy old sod of podcasting, has a style all of his own. He recently came back from an extended hiatus and it’s glad to have him back. Rowley’s musical tastes are on the heavier side of rock. I have to say there’s been a few songs, that are just a tad too wild for my delicate ears, but I love to keep my musical ears open to a bit of everything.

Not a podcast for your granny, unless she’s used to drinking down the docks, but nonetheless very entertaining. Hank and Carlos are the brains behind the Binary Star Music record label. While they do indeed feature artists from their own label and indeed have one artist, Rayko as a regular on the podcast, their main interest is the music, no matter where it comes from. Probably aimed at the teen to 30 year old age group, the musical genres covered are pretty much what you’d expect for that kind of demographic.

CBC Radio 3 Podcast
A weekly podcast from Canada’s equivalent of the BBC, covering Canadian independent artists exclusively. I’ve lost track of the amount of great artists I’ve discovered in this podcast and look forward to it each week. Quite an interesting cross section of genres are covered in this one hour show.

Indie Meltdown
From the ashes of Bitjobs for the Masses, comes Phil Coyne’s new podcast. Phil’s aim is to release two different podcasts each week. The Melting Pot, featuring upbeat tracks to ‘get your toes tapping and your arses-a-shakin’. His other show The Acoustic Meltdown is a more sedate affair, showcasing the mellower side of indie music.

Lynn Parsons
Lynn is one of the exceptions in podcasting at the moment, having come from a professional radio background. If I’m not mistaken, she and I used to spend many hours at night together. I was at work and she was on Radio 2 I think it was, on just before one my radio Gods, whispering Bob Harris. Lynn has two different shows that are released on alternative weeks, the Chalet Show, with a mix of good music and personalities and The Red Light Zone, which is a more laid back and mellow show.

This is in no way a definitive list of music podcasts, but you’re sure to discover some amazing new music. Apart from the music, what really makes these podcasts is the personalities behind them. If you have any suggestions, please do not hesitate to contact me, colin@indielaunchpad.com. Some of them may already be on my listening list, but it’s always great to discover something new. Happy listening.

Happy New Year

Published in the February 2007 Issue (#13) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Happy New Year to all our readers. 2006 was certainly a doozy of a year for podcasting and vidcasting. Indications so far are that 2007 is going to be even more exciting. Apple in particular started the year with some amazing news. The new iPhone was finally announced, with availability some time in June, pending FCC approval. Yes it’s a phone, but more interesting are the other capabilities and cool features Apple has bestowed on it. Certainly a nice device for listening to podcasts. Apple also announced their Apple TV, formerly know as iTV. This is a really interesting device allowing you to stream music and video from your PC to the Apple TV box and from there play directly on your television. It also has a 40 gigabyte hard disk that allows you to store a good few hours of video. I’m kinda of undecided on this device. I personally use a Mac Mini as my media station, which works very nicely and allows me access to music and video via iTunes and also video via the Democracy player, which is an open source video aggregator available for Windows, Mac and Linux.

So aside from Apple, there’s also a hive of activity elsewhere. One of the projects that’s gaining lots of media exposure is The Venice Project, or Joost as it’s now called, after they dropped their work in progress name. This is a really neat, video on demand system, which is still in beta and available at present only via invitation. Early indications are very favorable, but content is still a little patchy. Joost are looking to provide a more user friendly immersive experience, like you’d get from the digital box via your TV.

Castblaster, the podcast creation environment now has a Pro version in the pipeline, which gives may more slots for sound effects and music. Other than that I have no further details, but you can be sure it’s going to be good, especially with Mike Versteeg, the man behind the Winpodder podcast player behind it. Mike is also working on a vidcast version of CastBlaster, which you can bet is going to be very interesting.

The previously mentioned Democracy aggregator, is also due for a new version, This is a beautiful looking piece of software, even on the PC. For the nerds out there, it suffers a bit speed wise by being based on Python, which is an interpreted language, but being cross platform more than makes up for this.

While there was an influx of new podcasts last year, including my own Indie Launchpad, many of these fell by the wayside, after 30 or 40 shows. It takes a lot of work to produce a show that’s of a consistently high quality and it can sometimes be somewhat overwhelming. I used to do mine every Friday night, but this became too regimented and began to take some of the fun out of it. Once I realised this I switched and just stated that the podcast would come out over each weekend. This can mean Friday, Saturday and even Sunday, which takes some of the pressure off. One of my favorite podcasts, I Miss Blighty was pressured into closing up, which was a real shame. The Little Show, which was also one of my favorite rock music podcasts, just dropped off the face of the earth. Another firm favorite Dark Compass, also took an extended hiatus, but thankfully is now back and it’s good to have the miserable sod back again.

We also had a bit of controversy regarding the word Podcast. Apple looked like they were going to claim the word as their own, but after much public outcry, they seem to have seen the error of their ways. But it’s never over till it’s over. This blip on the podcast radar however found people looking to find an Appleless alternative. Leo Laporte, the Twit guardian and defender of the faith, came up with the term NetCast, which he has adpoted, but now realises the term podcast is pretty much here to stay.

After using Juice as my aggregator of choice, I switched to Google’s Reader and haven’t looked back. Just when you think it’s the perfect solution they come up with more stellar features and take it to a whole new level. I can now listen to podcasts at home, work or anywhere else I have access to the Internet and my subscriptions are all available to me, along with the shows still not listened to. There’s still no sign of Transistr, the aggregator formerly known as iPodderX. This was due for release last March, but has still to open it’s doors to the world. Finally on the subject of aggregators, I still use Egress on my Pocket PC and listen to podcasts while on my way to work on the bus. I could easily use Egress as my main aggregator were it not for the fact that my Pocket PC seems to suck the life out of my battery quicker than you can say Wolfschlenglehausenbergerdorff

I couldn’t finish off this article without mentioning Podshow, more specifically PodShow+ and it’s UK counterpart BTPodshow. Previously Podshow was better know as the play to get music safe for podcasting. They’ve now branched into a podcast directory and hosting service, which has gained many firm favorite podcasts, at the expense of those very annoying GoDaddy mentions. Not that I have anything against GoDaddy. I’ve used many of their services myself, but hate hearing the constant reminders of how I can save 10%.

So there you have it. That’s a very brief look at what happened last year and some things to expect this year. It’s an exciting time to be associated with podcast and I’m sure there’s going to be the odd surprise or two.

Zune Podcast Gloom

Published in the January 2007 Issue (#12) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Podcasting was a niche area, albeit a fairly small one, until Apple in their infinite wisdom decided to add podcasting support to iTunes. With one swoosh of Apple’s magic wand, thousands of podcasts were available to the masses in a way that was much more accessible than it had been. You no longer had to know anything about RSS or have to fathom out what an aggregator was. Couple that with the iPod, undoubtedly the most popular portable audio player, and you have a combination that’s hard to beat.

Microsoft has missed the boat on more than one occasion: They underestimated the enormous potential of the internet, giving their competitors a huge head start. This time Microsoft is on their scooter, pushing hard to catch up yet again, seeking to eke out a slice of the portable audio pie with their Zune portable music player. Let me say at the outset that I do not have a Zune and am basing this overview on other users’ feedback and on internet reports. I did approach Microsoft’s press agency to secure a review unit but was told it was currently only available in the US. I will, however, try to secure a unit upon its launch in Canada to do a follow-up, hands-on article.

A cursory look at the Zune’s specifications shows it to be a very capable music and video player. Indeed, with a three-inch colour display, it’s more than adequate to view movies on the go. A 30-gigabyte hard disk enables you to store up to 7500 songs, 25,000 pictures or 100 hours of video. It also has wireless networking, allowing you to share media files, and it has an FM radio receiver. It’s available in three colours – black, white and the more interesting brown model that has been stirring up a considerable amount of interest. So on the surface, the Zune looks like an excellent music player that holds up pretty well in looks when compared with the iPod.

The Zune software is Microsoft’s equivalent to iTunes and accesses Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace. The software will function only on Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or on Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2. No other operating systems are currently supported, and that includes, surprisingly enough, the newest Microsoft operating system, Windows Vista, although I believe the recently released Zune update has done something to alleviate these problems. Even though I didn’t have the Zune itself, I thought it would be interesting to install the software to see what artists were available, and although I had Service Pack 2 installed on my PC, the software still insisted that I needed an update. Once I performed the update, the software installed fine.

Running the software for the first time, I was prompted that the system wanted to do a download of the catalog. This went on for a long time. I left the machine at around the 20-minute mark and it was still going. I only got back to the machine the following day, and unfortunately my machine had reset itself due to a power outage. I relaunched the Zune software, and it had obviously remembered where it was up to, as I was now prompted to create a user account. Not only did I need to create a Zune account, I also needed a Microsoft Live account. Fortunately, my Hotmail account worked just fine. This initial registration probably took 20 minutes or so.

Scanning my laptop, which didn’t have much music on it, the software found five albums, and they played as was to be expected, without a hitch. I searched for several popular artists in the Zune marketplace, and they were all available, so at first glance, it looks like the catalog is pretty extensive. I have to admit, however, I’m not a great fan of the Zune software’s user interface. It looks very sparse, and the software itself is very unresponsive. My laptop is by no means a state-of-the-art machine, but it’s no slouch either, with its 1.7 gigahertz processor.

The Zune software currently has no support for podcasts. This isn’t to say you can’t copy podcasts onto to your Zune device and listen to them, but it is not a patch on the iTunes-iPod integration. This is a major failing if you are used to the iTunes way of doing things. For me, however, this isn’t a major drawback, as I currently copy podcasts manually to my PocketPC, so the Zune would be a natural replacement for the way I currently do things.

One of the most worrying things about the Zune is the absolutely awful byline Microsoft are using for their advertising: ‘Welcome to the Social’. This may sound great in the US, but in the UK, the ‘Social’ is where people go to sign for their unemployment benefits. I can’t believe no-one at Microsoft raised this as a possible problem.

That byline, though, is the least of their worries. For me, the biggest drawback is the Zune’s best feature: wireless networking, enabling the sharing of tracks. Whilst digital rights management, or DRM, is considered by some a necessary evil, I have no problem with it, as I choose not to buy from places that enforce DRM of any kind. However, the Zune takes DRM to a whole new, rather uncomfortable level. If you send a music track over to another Zune, or ‘squirt it’, as Steve Balmer, Microsoft’s CEO, likes to say, the recipient Zune can play the track only three times, or for three days, whichever comes first. That’s fine if the track has been purchased and has DRM protection, but Microsoft in their infinite wisdom have decided to enforce DRM even on freely available MP3 tracks – that includes music and podcasts – which is potentially a breach of these works’ Creative Commons or similar licences. Yes, you read me right: If you were to send a copy of my Indie Launchpad podcast from one Zune to another, the recipient would have three days to listen to it, or three plays, whichever came first, as the Zune adds its own DRM to the file you sent.

Adding DRM in this way is especially interesting, given the fact that Bill Gates was recently reported to have told an influential group of bloggers that copy protection for digital music and video is too complex for consumers to understand. That’s an understatement. It is surprising, however, that Microsoft has all but abandoned their PlaySure DRM, which is used by Napster, and has gone about yet again reinventing the DRM wheel. This has not gone down well with manufacturers who built devices compatible with the PlaySure standard.

The Zune’s addition of DRM to an otherwise free file is totally unacceptable and is, for me, a total sale breaker. Having said that, though, I have discovered that there are ways to circumvent these kinds of restrictions. Whilst not the most intuitive methods, they do work and give your Zune capabilities that Microsoft deemed verboten. Gizmodo has a couple of useful articles that could prove useful reading if you are a Zune user or are considering a Zune and need this kind of functionality. Be forewarned that these tips haven’t been tried by Podcast User Magazine, and we accept no responsibility for fried Zune players. That being said, many users seem to have successfully implemented the tips in those articles.

The Zune has been out for only a few months, and Microsoft has already issued a firmware update for it. This update addresses some of the compatibility problems with Vista and also improves performance, but it adds no new features. Leo Laporte, tech guru extraordinaire, originally gave the Zune a favorable nod, but oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Zune was recently called “Doggie dookie” by Laporte in a fairly critical video segment that is available on YouTube. He noted all the shortcomings mentioned here and also revealed the deal Microsoft made with Universal Music, to give them one dollar for each Zune sold. The inference is that Microsoft is admitting that their audio device will be used for pirated music. Microsoft’s agreement with Universal Music could now open a floodgate for all other music labels that will want to renegotiate deals, after their current agreements expire with iTunes, and this can only be a bad thing for the consumer. It does, however, play right into the arms of independent artists, many of whom make their music freely available in MP3 format.

Microsoft has a huge opportunity to make serious inroads on Apple’s iPod market share, but they are going to have to try a lot harder, giving the users the features they want and freeing off some of the restrictions they don’t. It’s certainly an interesting time for those seeking to purchase an update or new portable media device.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand… in the Podcast Sense of Course

Published in the December 2006 Issue (#11) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Facing a blank word processing screen each month is no fun, especially when you have no idea of what you want to write about. So after scraping the inside of my brain, I ended up with a big fat nothing. Then the trees cleared and I could see the wood again. Podcast User Magazine is all about informing and enlightening both seasoned podcast users and also new users who have never subscribed to a podcast before. I’ve run a sort of ‘podcast 101’ before, but I thought it would be useful to go over some of these points again for people who are still a little tech shy, or for new readers who are looking to find out how to try the latest podcasts.

A recent study apparently showed that podcasts are still taking a while to find popularity. I think the main thing that still seems to scare people off is the jargon and the mistaken belief that you need to pay for the podcasts you subscribe to. Yes, there are some podcasts that are only available for a fee, but these are few and far between.

So what is a podcast? Simply put, a podcast is an audio file that is available by subscription, using RSS. Real Simple Syndication (RSS) is simply a text file that is formatted to include all the vital information on each episode of a podcast. You do not need to know anything about RSS to make full use of podcasts. In fact, you don’t really need to know anything about RSS to start your own podcasts, but for podcast creation it does help to have some rudimentary knowledge. To subscribe to a podcast you need to use a ‘podcast aggregator’. This is just a fancy word for a piece of software that handles your subscriptions and regularly checks for new shows and downloads them. Some of the most popular podcast aggregators are iTunes, WinPodder, Juice, Doppler and my current favorite, Google Reader. So you’ve got your podcast aggregator and installed it; now you just need some shows to add to it.

Depending on the podcast aggregator, subscribing to a podcast can be as easy as clicking the ‘subscribe’ button. For some, however, it can be slightly more complicated, but relatively straightforward once you know how. If you are viewing a podcast’s web page with a ‘subscribe’ link and finding that when you press it you get a page full of gobbledygook, this gobbledygook is in fact the RSS file we talked about earlier. You can either select the address that appears in the address bar of your web browser and copy this to the clipboard by either pressing [CTRL] +[C] on the PC or [Apple]+[C] on the Mac, or hit the back button and instead of pressing the subscribe, right click on subscribe and select the ‘Copy Link Location’ in Firefox or ‘Copy Shortcut’ on Internet Explorer. Then go to your podcast aggregator, hit the ‘subscribe’ button and click in the box that’s prompting you for the address, then press [CTRL]+[V] on the PC or [Apple]+[V] on the Mac. You should now see a the address you copied, pasted in the web address box. Just confirm this address by pressing the [OK] button, or whatever button you need to click to confirm this on your podcast aggregator, and you should now see the podcast is now part of your subscribed list. You can then either load your podcast aggregator each day and check for new podcasts, or where available have the podcast aggregator check for new podcasts at intervals you set. This is how I used to use the Juice aggregator, having it check for new podcasts every six hours.

So that, in essence, is all there is to subscribing to podcasts. A basic level of understanding is often the main barrier to entry when it comes to new technologies. I hope this has helped you to get over that initial hump.

There really is a wealth of podcasts available for every conceivable subject under the sun. The next hurdle is finding them. As mentioned before, iTunes is the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to podcast directories. The reason for this is it’s so easy to get up and running with no prior knowledge. This really shows when it comes to my own podcast’s stats. Approximately 95% of subscribers to Indie Launchpad subscribe using iTunes. This doesn’t include users who just download the latest episode from the web, of which there are also a quite sizable proportion. Although iTunes is the daddy, it can still be difficult to find what you are after. For this reason it’s good to have a few other resources to hand. Two of the most popular are Podcast Pickle and Podcast Alley, which provide a wealth of ways to search for podcasts in their respective directories. One problem, however, can be the amount of entries that are apparently no longer valid. Podcast User Magazine uses Podcast Alley to select the podcasts used in the podcast roulette feature. We do this by using a spreadsheet that selects podcasts at random. Unfortunately many times a podcast selected does not seem to have recent shows. That being said, between those two directories and directories such as Odeo, Yahoo Podcasts and Podcast.Net, there’s still a whole ton of great podcasts to be found. Let’s not forget one of my favorite methods of find podcasts, Google. Just enter a subject and add ‘podcast’ to it and you’ll be amazed at what you can find.

I hope that if you’ve been wary of dipping your toes into podcasts, this has helped. Also remember, never be afraid to send us your questions. If we get enough people asking about the same thing, we’ll try our best to answer your questions in the magazine. Happy podcast listening.

Google Breeds a Reader

Published in the November 2006 Issue (#10) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

I’ve spoken a lot about the perfect podcast aggregator, or podcatcher as they are more affectionately known. Always at the top of my wish list is the ability to have access to my subscriptions from anywhere, so I can see what’s new and knock them off the list as they are listened to. There are many PC, Mac and Pocket PC-based podcatchers, but where they all have their stand-out features, none of them has this ability. That was until Google Reader.

Google Reader has been around for a while. It originally started out and is probably better know as an RSS aggregator, giving the ability to keep up to date with the latest news on the Internet. Recently, however, they’ve added the ability to subscribe and listen to podcasts, all from within the browser. This new ability was on the cards, as you’ve been able to listen to MP3s received as attachments in your Gmail account, using a little Flash player that was automatically inserted in the email with the attachment. It was a logical extension to add this to Google Reader, and it’s something that changes the whole nature of this aggregator.

The first thing I did with Google Reader was to import my existing Juice subscriptions. This was relatively easy, as Juice allowed me to export my subscriptions in the de facto OPML format. Google Reader is also able to handle OPML files, so after uploading my subscriptions to Google Reader, within a short time, my subscriptions were all accessible in front of me. The final step I had to do was re-categorize my subscriptions. I have a variety of podcasts, vidcasts and RSS feeds, and it’s nice to be able to view each of the groups at the touch of a button.

One of the only bug-bears about using a web based aggregator is that you have to always have the browser open. That in itself isn’t a huge pain, but it begins to get a little tricky when you have many Gmail accounts and you want to check your email on them. It’s easy to check the other accounts, but if you want to continue sifting through your podcasts, you have to ensure you log back into the account you use for your podcasts. I mainly use Firefox as my browser, so I circumvent these problems by using Internet Explorer for Google Reader and Firefox for everything else. You might also want to investigate an application called Netjaxer Desktop, which not only allows you to create shortcuts to websites but also allows you to minimize the launched website to your system tray. I’ve been using this in conjunction with Google Reader for a few weeks, and it’s been working very nicely for me.

I’ve managed to trim back my podcast subscriptions of late, to around 60, and have so far had problems with only a couple using Google Reader. For example, whilst one side of the screen showed me I had podcasts not yet listened to, when I clicked a show with unread items, it showed all podcasts for that show as read. No big deal, as you can see all read podcasts, and the unread items are usually going to be at the top of the list. This can, however, be a pain, but it’s something I’m prepared to accept, given the benefits Google Reader gives me. A couple of the other problems has been with the Dr Karl podcast, which for some strange reason (probably something to do with the audio compression) plays at nearly double speed. I’ve also had some problems with the Vobes show, seemingly ending in mid show. I haven’t had the time to tell whether this was just Richard having a problem with the show he’d uploaded, or whether Google Reader had a problem determining the show length. Of all my podcasts only two of them are in Apple’s MP4 format, so consequently they will not play in Google Reader. It will be interesting to see if Google manages to find a solution to this.

In conclusion, I have to say Google Reader has impressed the pants off me. I’ve been using it for a few weeks, and apart from the odd glitch, it’s been a joy to use. In fact I’ve been so impressed, I no longer use Juice or Winpodder. I have access to my podcasts no matter where I am, on no matter what operating system I’m using at that time. The only thing that would be nice to have is some kind of software that allows me to synchronize to my Pocket PC so that I could be able to listen to selected podcasts and read news offline. Then, when I next synchronize, it updates the status of my podcasts and news. That’s not much to ask? Is it?

Je Suis Un Plonker

Published in the October 2006 Issue (#9) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

I should know better. I’ve been a professional programmer for nigh on 20 years and I probably know better than most that eventually what [ital]can[/ital] go wrong, will go wrong. Most podcasters rely on numerous services: the web site hosted under one service, the podcast file served from another and the inimitable Feedburner doing all the magic of creating the correct RSS feed so podcast aggregators can know that a new file has been posted. That’s not to say this is the kind of setup everyone is using, but usually it will be along those lines.

On Indie Launchpad, from creating to posting, I usually do the following steps:

  1. Create my podcast
  2. Upload to Libsyn
  3. Post blog entry via Blogger
  4. Wait to make sure Feedburner has updated my feed

As is usual, last week I did the above steps and waited to make sure Feedburner had recognized my new show, and then I went to bed, as I usually do all this in the wee hours of the morning. The following morning I saw my podcast both in Juice on my PC and on Egress on my Pocket PC and thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until Wednesday, when I checked my stats, that I saw in shock and horror, only seven people had downloaded the latest show and they all did that all via Juice or directly via the web. As with the majority of podcasters, most of my audience is made up of iTunes subscribers, so seven people is quite a kick in the proverbial goolies.

My first port of call was Feedburner. When I click on my Feedburner ‘Subscribe’ link, I usually see a ‘Play’ button, which links through to the MP3 button. This button is inserted by Feedburner.

When I checked this, out of all the previous 20 or so entries, this was the only entry that didn’t have that automatically inserted button. The first thing I did was to inset another duplicate entry for show #36. For some reason, this was still not getting picked up under Feedburner, even though I waited nearly 25 minutes. The next thing I did was remove the original entry for show #36 and leave the new entry. This still didn’t work. I finally moved the download URL link, the one that gets converted to a button, at the top of the page. This time everything sprung into life. I checked Feedburner, and the icon was back again. I then checked iTunes and, lo and behold, there was my latest show. Fortunately, within three days my stats were back to where they usually were, but it was a near miss.

Now I realize that one or all of the things I did to rectify the problem may not have been the ultimate solution. I hate it when you do several things to fix something and not know for sure what was the root of the problem. However, out of this comes some sage advice. When you have gone through all the hard work of creating your podcast, spend those extra few minutes to make sure your podcast is visible in Juice, iTunes and the rest of the aggregators from which you know your podcast is being downloaded.

The next time there’s a problem, it could be something quite different, but at least if there is another problem, I will be all over it like a nasty rash. Talking of rashes, I’m off for a bacon sandwich. Auf wiedersehen.

Imp(rss)ed with Egress

Published in the September 2006 Issue (#8) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

I’ve already reviewed Egress from Garish Kernels for Podcast Launchpad, but I wanted to do a follow-up review after having actually used the product over a few weeks whilst being on holiday at home. I turned to Egress because I hated to think I was going to get back to work with hundreds of podcasts to catch up on. WinPodder alone wasn’t an option, as it doesn’t track what’s been listened to and what is still outstanding. I also decided against installing Juice on my laptop, as disk space is at a premium and sometimes it slows my laptop to a crawl. Egress was perfect solution for me, as I could keep a track of the new podcasts and listen to them when I got a chance using WinPodder on my laptop. We have the laptop in our kitchen, which overlooks the living room, and it’s a great way to listen to various podcasts using WinPodder and music from my main computer in the basement via iTunes.

So over the last couple of weeks, I’ve used Egress each morning to see what new podcasts have been released and to mark entries read, as I’ve listened to the podcasts on my Pocket PC. I found it funny that with over 60 subscriptions, all being handled by the freely available Juice receiver, I was missing an amazing amount of information. For instance, I’ve been subscribed to the Adventures of Mr Behi, an Iranian podcaster, for the last eight or so months, but in that time I’ve received only a couple of podcasts. What I didn’t know was that he also posts a blog entry a few times a week, which makes for very entertaining reading. I’ve been missing these blog entries as they just don’t appear in Juice. Actually, of the 60 podcasts I’m subscribed to, there are 20 or 30 that post additional information in their feed that I have just not known about.

The reason that Egress picks up and shows this additional information is because it’s not a podcatcher as such, but more of an RSS aggregator that has been expanded to handle podcasts as well. I’ve used RSS aggregators in the past on my PC but have always preferred to view the main websites rather than read the RSS entries and then be forced to view the web page anyway. I can actually do this very simply by using Firefox. I have about 50 websites I check regularly, so I just put them all in their own folder and then open them all at once in their own tab, which Firefox makes very easy. However, the benefit of having the websites’ RSS feeds available on my Pocket PC is that I can update them anywhere I can get wireless access, and I can then read them at leisure when I’ve got a few minutes to kill.

So Egress makes it easy to listen to podcasts and also to keep up to date with the news from my favorite websites. On the whole, it is an excellent piece of software. I did have an annoying problem with Egress losing my subscriptions, but I have to say that this could well have been caused by my Pocket PC, as it’s been a bit flaky and in need of a clean out and fresh install. A couple of times, though, Egress has been unable to find my subscriptions. I cured this by just reinstalling to no ill effects; everything worked fine again after this procedure.

Egress is more than happy to download any podcast found either automatically or on a user-selectable basis, but bear in mind that this is going to require a substantial amount of free memory space, should you have close to the same number of podcast subscriptions that I do. Even with three or four new music podcasts, you will need around 90 to 120 MB of required storage memory space. That being said, this is still a nice aggregator to have, especially if you want to have available a few podcasts on your Pocket PC for those times you are going to be away from your main computer.

Thus, Egress is nearly perfect. I say ‘nearly’ as I have a few great ideas for features that will make it the perfect application. (That is, perfect in my opinion). One great addition would be a desktop version of Egress that I could use on my PC. Then a great feature would be the ability to synchronize my desktop subscriptions with the handheld. This would allow me to dispense with Juice and easily carry my podcast subscriptions with me. If I listen to some podcasts at home, I just mark them as read on my Pocket PC, and then when I get back to my desktop machine, it makes the required changes, so at all times I’m kept up to date, whether at home or in the office. Another good option to use in conjunction with this idea would be the ability to save all unheard podcasts (that is, the downloaded MP3s) to the Pocket PC, giving a nice level of flexibility for going places where there is no internet connectivity.

Conclusion : If you listen to podcasts and have a Pocket PC, Egress is a must buy, especially at the ridiculously low price of $12.95 with free upgrades
for life.

Hands in My Pocket

Published in the August 2006 Issue (#7) Podcast User Magazine (Download)

Whenever the term ‘podcast’ is mentioned, many people automatically think of iPods, iRivers and other such portable audio devices. Many people, however (such as yours truly), listen to most podcasts by using a regular desktop computer. I have around 60 subscriptions (massively pruned back of late) currently active and listen to them throughout the working week. Yes, I am lucky to be wired for sound while I work. However, there are only so many hours in the day, and come Friday night, I’ve often got between five and 10 podcasts still in my download tab in Juice. I’m one of those anally retentive people who likes to listen to every podcast that is delivered to my computer. I do, however, wish some podcasters would do slightly fewer podcasts in a week, especially the ones that do a podcast every bleedin’ day (*grin*…hmmm… I wonder who that could be *grin*)!

So come Friday I have a choice: delete all podcasts still waiting to be listened to, let them carry over to the following week, or copy them to a CD or flash device so I can listen to them over the weekend? I’ve copied them to CD before. I’m fortunate that my DVD player is wired to the stereo and is able to play MP3 CDs, but this means that in order to listen, I’m stuck around the house. This is where my trusty Pocket PC, a Dell Axim X50V with a 1 GB SD memory card, comes in.

Copying files to a Pocket PC using the default Activesync method is a pain. Not only is it slow, but it can also be unreliable when the files are fairly large. I could take out the SD card, put it into a card reader, then copy the files to it and put it back into the Pocket PC, but I have a much better solution.

Using a piece of software called Card Export, I can switch from regular Activesync mode to Card Export mode, so that when my Axim is plugged into the docking cradle, it appears as a normal drive in Windows Explorer. Then I just copy across the files that I want to listen to over the weekend. This means that those podcasts can go where ever I go. No longer house-bound, I can happily listen to podcasts while mowing the lawn. Yes, all of this can be done with an iPod, but why would I want to buy one, when my Axim does all that and a whole lot more? How much more? Because Card Export is installed on the Pocket PC, I can also go to almost any Windows computer, even if it doesn’t have Activesync, and copy files (any files), to and from the device. Thus, a decently sized SD memory card can also be used as a thumb drive, albeit a very expensive one.

Now that all these wonderful podcasts are on my handheld device, how do I play them? Most modern Pocket PCs now come with version 10 of Microsoft’s Media Player. To be honest, this is fine for playing the odd file here and there, but as a media player, it isn’t very good. There are a few really good free solutions available, and they each have their charm. For basic playlist support and streaming, GS Player is a great piece of software. It’s a fairly basic package, but it has a nice and simple interface whilst also supporting streams and offering various skins. For me, though, it’s hard to beat Mort Player, which seems to have every feature imaginable and then some. There are many other commercial packages available; two of the best ones are Pocket Music and Pocket Player. All of these packages, both free and commercial, have their pros and cons, but fortunately you can give them all the once-over before deciding which one is for you.

For the avid podcast listener on the go, the next piece of software caught me off guard. I’d seen Pocket PC RSS readers before, and some of them are pretty good, but I hadn’t seen one that supported RSS enclosures or, in our case, podcasts before. This is one of those pieces of software that’s a joy to find. Aggregation software can be pretty confusing for the first-time user, but Egress is a sync to set up. I haven’t had a really good chance to put this piece of software through its paces, but am hoping to do so in the next few weeks. For $12.00, it’s pretty good value for money, and as is always the case with shareware, it can be tried out before purchase.

So podcasts and other files can be stored on a Pocket PC and listened to. Podcasts can even be subscribed to and downloaded directly to a Pocket PC, but did you know that a Pocket PC can also be used for recording them? I haven’t had a good chance to test out these pieces of software fully (although I hope to for future articles), but my limited experience has been quite positive. Again, the cost of these pieces of software aren’t too prohibitive. Of course, I can record on my Pocket PC using the built in recorder program, but this only supports recording in wave or raw format, which is very hungry for space. NoteM is a free program that expands on the basic recorder program, that allows the recording and storage of audio files in MP3 format. Two of the heavyweight recorder programs are Audio Recorder from Resco and Sound Explorer from Vito Technology. Each has too many features to mention here, but they should give a flavor of what is possible on the humble Pocket PC.

I hope I’ve whetted your appetite. Pocket PCs have become very powerful and exceedingly adaptable. Where else can you find a thumb drive, MP3 player and recording studio all rolled into one and still have space left in your pocket for large wad? My wad is much smaller than it used to be, but that’s a whole different story. If you have or know of any podcast products or services that are Pocket PC related, do not hesitate to contact me. Similarly if you have any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me, colin.meeks@podcastusermagazine.com

Card Export – $14.95 – Softick
GS Player – Free – Green Software
Mort Player – Free – Sto-helit.de
Pocket Music Bundle – $19.95 – Pocket Mind
Pocket Player – $19.95 – Conduits
Egress – $12.00 – Garish Kernels
NoteM – Free – Alexander Zavorine
Audio Recorder – $19.95 – Resco
Sound Explorer – $24.95 – Vito Technology