Why Are Podcasts Different?
It's sometimes difficult to separate new tech from old tech that has a shiny new name. Engineers have a tendency to reinvent the wheel, and the market often gets very excited about a new set of wheels, always chasing the cool new thing, sometimes in circles.
Podcasts are a technology that sort of crept up on me as something different that doesn't seem like it should be different but somehow is. We've been streaming and downloading mp3's since the dawn of the internet (remember Napster?). There was even a service in the late 90s called MP3 Newswire which was essentially news radio delivered in mp3 downloads.
So when I started exploring how to set up a podcast, I was a little surprised that there is a very definite structure to'podcasts' which is different than simply throwing an audio recording up on your website.
The main thing that surprised me is that there are two companies, Apple and Google (surprise!) that control pretty much all podcasting content. They don't host it, but if you want to have a podcast, and you want people to listen to it, you need to publish your feed to the two big boys and hope that your content is approved (I'm actually still waiting for that approval as I write this).
That subtle difference, which can be summed up in the word distribution, is very different than back in the Napster days. In the early days of the Internet the term'Wild West' was tossed around a lot; people pretty much posted what they wanted, often hosting it on their own personal computers at the end of a DSL line (or even dial up). The idea was to share files, regardless of the content.
So partly we have a sheriff, well two sheriffs. Google and Apple have the distribution networks in Google Play and the App Store, even if you can listen to a podcast simply by downloading the mp3. And those sheriffs have some rules that have created the rise of, shall we call it a posse of services.
This posse of services are the actually the hosting companies. An entire collection of blogs, like my own dating back over a decade, might only be less than a few megabytes, even including images. One podcast can be 1 megabyte a minute, so even a relatively short ramble might be a fairly large file by comparison.
The sheriff wants fast response time, the posse provides hosting for the big files separately from your own blog or website. The sheriff also wants to know everything is in order, so both Apple and Google have adopted a somewhat different format for the file that describes your postings – this is an RSS feed, which again, has been around for eons, but podcast feeds have some odd additions, in particular, special fields for your itunes or google identifier.
These hosting companies provide a service, for a fee, that not only put your large audio files some place that the can be retrieved quickly and in volume, but they also manage that podcast RSS feed for you.
I was surprised that there weren't really good WordPress plugins that build your own podcast RSS feed. Personally I don't really feel like giving someone my credit card to host what is honestly a very casual experiment in hearing myself read my blogs, and while I was able to create what I think is a valid podcast RSS feed and put it on my own, custom coded blog site, it was really, really hard to figure out.
If I was going to do a podcast for work, I would totally pay a hosting company in the podcast posse to manage the files and feeds. But while I don't really feel the tech has changed that much, the culture definitely has.
The cowboys aren't out on the range anymore and the sheriff keeps the town so safe, it's not even worth questioning his assumed authority.