Podcasting: Content Available Anytime, Anywhere
Have you been hearing about podcasts for the past year or so but are still not sure what they are or whether they are accessible? Or have you heard of podcasts, such as Blind Cool Tech, ACBRadio's Replay, or Blind Access Journal, but simply have been downloading the audio files by visiting each web site and saving each new file on your computer? If you answered yes to either of these questions, or even if you have been listening to podcasts for a while, this article will help you get started and offer some new tips and tricks to increase your enjoyment of this fun and rapidly growing multimedia phenomenon.
A podcast is like an Internet radio show. A show, often an audio one recorded as an MP3 file, is posted on the Internet for interested listeners to download. What makes podcasts unique is users' ability to subscribe to them and have the files automatically downloaded on a computer without having to remember to look for new content on each web site that hosts a chosen show.
In this article, I focus on how to listen to audio-based podcasts, give you some tips on which podcatching software you will want to install on your computer, and describe how to find podcasts that interest you. Podcast topics range from music to computers and technology, from cooking to knitting, and from storytelling to podcasts about podcasting and podcasters. Independent authors narrate their books on <Podiobooks.com>, and book enthusiasts record books in the public domain for inclusion on <LibriVox.com>. You name it, and there is bound to be a podcast about it. If there is not yet one that covers a subject about which you are passionate and knowledgeable, perhaps you will consider starting one.
No iPod Required
The term podcast is misleading. Many people believe, for example, that an iPod is required to access these multimedia productions, but this is not the case. Also, since posting MP3 audio files is the predominant method of podcasting, those who are new to the world of podcast listening may assume that audio files are the only kind of content to which you can subscribe. In fact, although audio and video podcasts predominate, in theory, almost any kind of media may be posted in a subscription feed. I have seen documents included in some of my subscriptions, and sometimes, I have seen audio file formats other than MP3. Here, I focus on MP3-based podcasts for the sake of simplicity.
The automatic downloading of content is accomplished by the merging of technologies that have been a part of the World Wide Web for some time. Podcasted content uses similar technology to blogs. Content, in a variety of media, is posted to the Internet. Then, listeners subscribe to this content using Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds.
Some people think of podcasts simply as nontextual blogs in which amateurs create audio or video recordings to update friends and family members about their lives and perhaps include some sound-seeing adventures when they visit special places. While some podcasts resemble audio journals, others function more like downloadable Internet radio shows. Podcasters may play music that is considered to be "podsafe"; they may interact with their audience via show notes and blogs on which listeners post comments; and sometimes, listeners contribute to shows by submitting their own recordings or leaving voicemail messages to be played on the show. Even the mainstream media, such as radio and television stations, have joined the podcasting revolution to offer listeners a choice about when, where, and how they want to consume content.
Podcasts were first discussed in the mainstream press in fall 2004, but they took hold in spring 2005. Throughout 2005, the podcasting community grew to the point that by the end of 2005, podcasting had become so well established that the word podcast was chosen as the word of the year by the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary (see <www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/12-05-2005/0004228195&EDATE=>).
The availability of free, open-source, cross-platform software has helped to make it easy to subscribe to podcasts. A user installs this software, subscribes to podcasts, and configures the software to check for new content, and the program downloads new files on the computer whenever a scan for updates to subscriptions is initiated. Because audio and video files tend to be large, it is helpful if you have a high-speed connection. Often, people schedule downloads to happen overnight so that they can load their portable MP3 or video player in preparation for their commute to and from work.
What is common in the so-called podosphere is passion for a topic and a commitment to sharing that passion with the world. Podcast creators may choose simply to use a computer with a microphone and some basic recording software. Other serious enthusiasts may build podcast rigs with complex mixers, additional computer sound cards, and professional sound-manipulation hardware and software. The quality of audio may vary as widely as the quality of shows, but by investing some time and by seeking recommendations that may be mentioned on shows that you like or that are suggested by your friends, you will soon find a range of podcast topics and individual shows that suit you.
Joining the Podcasting Revolution
People who are blind joined the podcasting community early. The Blindcasting list, established by Jeff Bishop in spring 2005, became extremely active as blind people learned how to install accessible podcatching software, such as the Juice Receiver (or simply Juice) at <http://juicereceiver.sourceforge.net>. Soon people on the list began to create their own podcasts, as well as share the locations of new podcasts they discovered. Today, Blindcasting list members continue to offer advice about creating and posting shows. To join the list, visit <www.tdspodcast.com/BlindCasting.html>.
Some Sample Podcasts
The first podcasts I listened to did not focus on blindness-related topics at all. One of the first programs I listened to regularly was the Daily Source Code <www.dailysourcecode.com>, hosted by the former MTV celebrity, Adam Curry. This show has evolved into a platform on which Curry frequently discusses the PodShow company's activities. Podcast 411 <www.podcast411.com> is an approximately 20-minute weekly interview show that introduced me to podcasters and the shows they create and enjoy. Shelly's Podcast <http://shellyspodcast.blogspot.com> covers a variety of topics, from comments about developments in the Apple Macintosh World to adventures in house remodeling.
One of the most active podcasts that focuses on issues of interest to people who are blind or have low vision is Blind Cool Tech. Hosted by Larry Skutchan, a technology expert at the American Printing House for the Blind, this podcast initially highlighted new assistive technology releases, provided demonstrations of audio equipment, and presented career casts in which participants discussed their careers. The show now has quite a listenership, and nearly 900 shows have been posted to date. Blind Cool Tech has become a community-driven show that still features Larry's personable chats with listeners as he and his dog guide, Jake, walk to or from work, but also includes people's descriptions of their living spaces and sound-seeing tours contributed by participants from around the world.
For those who are exploring the world of podcast listening for the first time, Blind Cool Tech may be one of the easiest places to begin because the web site is simple to navigate. Individual shows are easy to find, since the opening page consists of a long list of the most current shows. Of particular interest to newcomers may be the tutorials for downloading and listening to podcasts with the Juice Receiver, formerly known as iPodder. Alternatively, contributors describe methods for catching podcasts with other products, such as WinAmp. You may want to search the opening web page for keywords, such as podcast, Juice, iPodder, and WinAmp. Checking the archives may also prove helpful, since the Juice Receiver has not changed much during the past year.
Soon, you will realize how much easier it is to use a podcatcher, rather than to read through and select from a long list of a show's episodes. If you put Blind Cool Tech's feed into the Juice Receiver, however, you want to be sure to unselect the shows that do not interest you, or you may find yourself downloading far more content than you expect.
Although tutorials on Blind Cool Tech tend to focus on Windows-based options for podcatching, Linux and Macintosh users can download podcasts automatically, too. Macintosh and Linux users tend to use a standard scheduling utility to run a set of commands, in a script, to collect new podcasts. Others have mentioned a free open-source application called Podracer, available at <http://podracer.sf.net>. Because most people who are blind or have low vision use Windows, I touch briefly on getting started with the Juice Receiver.
After you download and install the free, open-source Windows-based software, Juice, you will want to search for podcasts so that you can add feeds to your list of subscriptions. Sometimes, the code you need to put into your podcatching software can be hard to locate on a web page, especially because podcasters often host blogs that accompany their podcasts. Show notes are included in these blogs, along with news, commentary, and links that accompany the podcast.
One of the best ways to find the code that you need to paste into your podcatcher (such as in the edit box that you find when you choose Add a Feed under Tools in the Juice software) is to skim the blog for a little while. Be on the lookout for keywords, such as subscribe, feed, XML, or even iTunes or Yahoo! Although sighted people subscribe to podcasts using iTunes or Yahoo! I have not found them to be as accessible as the Juice Receiver. Juice works adequately with JAWS or Window-Eyes, and the developers are to be commended for working with the blindness community to build accessibility into the product.
Although you may or may not want to subscribe to podcasts via Yahoo! or iTunes, searching on these two keywords usually brings you close to the subscription link that you need. Sometimes, you will need to select a Subscribe link that will take you behind the scenes to the XML page that generates the feed. If you do, do not worry about what may appear to you to be gibberish. Simply use the appropriate key combination, such as Alt-D with Windows, to access the title or address bar in your web browser. Use Control-A to "select all" the content in the address bar, use Control-C to copy it to the clipboard, and use Control-V to paste it into the location for adding feeds in the Juice Receiver. To add a feed in the Juice Receiver, press Alt-T for Tools and then Control-N to enter the Add a Feed dialogue box that includes the edit box for the feed location. For some examples, to get you started, see the references at the end of this article.
This process of downloading and installing software, finding feeds, and adding them may seem complicated, but once you have added a few feeds, it becomes easy enough, especially when weighed against the inconvenience of having to remember and taking the time to check through a number of web sites for new shows.
How to Give Juice Some Juice
You can locate new shows that interest you in many ways. One approach is to explore the directories that are accessible in Juice. You will notice that there are many entries in these directories.
If you skim some of the directories, and you are not enticed by the offerings, or if you are feeling overwhelmed, you may try using your favorite search engine. Start by searching on some keywords, combined with the word podcast, and see if you find some sites that are worth exploring. For example, a quick Google search on "blind, podcasting" presented me with well over 3 million hits.
Be Entertained by New Voices Away from Your Computer
I have become such an avid podcast listener that I cannot recall the last time I turned on my television set. Right now, I have 43 active subscriptions, and I have had as many as 60. One of the best things about podcast listening is that if you want to, with the help of the right device, you can speed up your listening without distorting the sound. I like to listen to podcasts at high speed while doing other mindless tasks, such as housework. I tend to use my PlexTalk Recorder (the PTR1) with perhaps several episodes of a show in a folder on the PTR1's Flash card. Sometimes, I use the American Printing House for the Blind's Studio Recorder as a computer software playback option. When I do, though, I frequently use an FM transmitter, so I will not be tied to my computer.
Using a portable DAISY player offers you the option of putting MP3 files of podcasts onto a CD, putting that MP3 CD into your player, and speeding up the playback. You may especially enjoy the ability to move through files by jumping by time increments with players that have that capability. You can even load podcasts into your personal digital assistant (PDA) if it has the ability to play recorded audio files. If you just listen to podcasts on your computer, it is possible to adjust the speed of the audio if the player you are using allows it. For example, in Windows Media Player, in the Play menu, you can select Play Speed and then choose from Normal, Slow and Fast.
If you enjoy meeting new people, would like to learn about almost anything you can imagine from enthusiastic amateurs or well-known experts, or simply want some variety in your music-listening or entertainment free time, podcasts may be for you. The ability to control when and where you listen is liberating and makes this ever-growing alternative to accessing content appealing. To make it easy for you to get started, please take advantage of the resources that follow. Happy listening, and welcome to the podosphere.
Podcasting Feeds to Get You Started
ACBRadio's Replay, <www.acbradio.org/news/xml/podcast.php>.
Blind Access Journal, <http://feeds.feedburner.com/blindaccessjournal>.
Blind Cool Tech, <www.blindcooltech.com/bct.xml>.
The BBC's Download and Podcast Trial, <www.bbc.co.uk/radio/downloadtrial/>.
CBC Radio's Podcasts, <www.cbc.ca/podcasting/>.
NPR Podcast Directory, <www.npr.org/rss/podcast/podcast_directory.php>.
Podcasts from the New York Times, <www.nytimes.com/ref/multimedia/podcasts.html>.
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