Podcasting Part II: TURNING MP3s INTO PODCASTS

In Uncategorized by tfwm

Compiled with masterful advice from veteran Christian Podcaster Steve Webb.

When we last talked about podcasting [TFWM November 2005 issue], we basically established the fact that there is really no mystery in the audio’s newest craze. Simply, a podcast is nothing more than an mp3 audio file that’s “parked” on a web server along with a file that describes what it is. That file is called an RSS file and you can sort of think of it as being the digital equivalent of a CD cover. It’s a description of contents. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication (file extension .rss) and what it does is spell out in Internet language the “who, what and where” of the audio show contained in your mp3. This RSS file is also like a digital card catalog entry in that it points podcasting subscription software, aptly termed a podcatcher, to the mp3’s position on the Net.

The ultimate objective of podcasting is for you to build a relationship with listeners so they want to listen to every episode you produce. Once you post the Internet location (URL) of your show in podcast directories such as www.itunes.com or www.christianpodder.com, listeners can discover you and begin to build a relationship. By the way, the two most popular directories among podcasters appear to be Podcast Alley (www.podcastalley.com) and Podcast Pickle (www.podcastpickle.com). (Note, these are “mainstream” sites that offer the gamut of content.) Granted, many local church ministries already post sermons as audio files to a web site. What makes podcasting so cool, however, is that listeners can “subscribe” to their favorite content, which is usually free, and have a new episode arrive in their iTunes (or other podcatching software) automatically.

Step 1 (to repeat) is creating the mp3. Step two is to fill in your ID3 tags for the mp3 file. (This information is very important, because most of your listener’s mp3 players use it to display the title, artist, genre and other important information about your show.) Step three is to test (validate) your RSS code and write your ID3 tags.

Step four is FTP (move) your mp3 file and RSS information to your web space and finally, step five is posting the link for your shows to your favorite podcasting directories.

REALLY SIMPLE SYNDICATION (RSS)
To discuss syndication language (RSS), we actually have to leave the arena of audio creation and go into the World Wide Web to create the proper code to position an mp3 as a podcast. To clarify, the RSS is not actually “inside” the mp3. RSS and mp3 are two independent files. When it comes to creating podcast code, in my opinion, we’re in a period reminiscent of 1994, when web design software was still in diapers. In order to make this process a “no brainer”, I have a dream that some day there will be a “publish as a podcast” feature in audio programs (such as Sound Forge’s Audacity, a free program or Adobe Audition, the software I use) or in Internet software such as Macromedia’s Dreamweaver or Adobe’s Go Live. Raise your hand if you remember when you had to hand code HTML to simply bold a word. We’re sort of at that point in creating the RSS file, but as you’ll discover, some software upstarts are taking up the slack.

RSS OPTIONS
It’s always nice to have options where creativity is concerned and you have six main ones when it comes to the creation of the RSS file. Option one, you could turn to a “do-it-all” program. For example, PodProducer (http://www.podproducer.net) is a free program that holds your hand through every single step we just mentioned, including recording your mp3, creating the RSS feed, writing show notes and uploading files to the server. Veteran podcaster Steve Webb says show notes can be as simple or as detailed as you want them to be. “I include a description of what the episode is about, the artists’ names I use on the show, links to their websites, scripture references I use and a link for people to download the episode in case they have not subscribed. Sometimes I’ll even put a photo in my show notes,” Steve says. Another software choice that accomplishes all of this is called CastBlaster, owned by Podshow (www.podshow.com). Steve just signed an exclusive contract with Podshow. This software is still in Beta, but a finished version is expected soon. Option 2, you could use a blogging site to host your mp3. Most blogs already use RSS, so there’s no need to write out any “mysterious” language oneself. This seems to be the choice of the majority of podcasters.

Anybody who’s fooled around with blogging or Internet news feeds immediately recognizes RSS and XML as icons that make subscribing to content reality. So it makes common sense that creating a podcast as a blog entry is the simplest way to generate the necessary code without a lot of effort. Blogging services such as www.blogger.com or www.blogspot.com include very well done, illustrated steps that show you how to publish your podcast inside a blog, so we won’t repeat this information here, but I do recommend you check these sites out.

Option 3, you could upload your podcast to a dedicated podcasting service. It’s widely agreed that http://www.libsyn.com is probably the best right now, but Podshow (www.podshow.com) is about to roll out some really cool stuff for podcasters we’re told. To clarify, Libsyn does not have a recording application. It does offer a blog for show notes with its service, however.

Option 4 is to write your own RSS code. If you choose this route, there is no fancy software needed. You can use a simple text editor like Windows Notepad. What we’re talking about here is just a little text file with enough code and tags to describe the file contents in Internet language that points podcasting subscription software to the file’s position on the server.

Option 5 is to find someone else’s RSS file from their podcast and modify the RSS code to make it yours. If you want to look at the RSS code of the nation’s first Christian podcaster and today still the leader in the field, in my opinion, check out Steve Webb’s RSS file at http://www.lifespringonline.com/rss.xml. When you inspect a RSS file, you’ll be able to pick out the parts of this Internet mumbo jumbo that needs customizing for your own file. But I’m not particularly fond of modifying somebody else’s code because one character accidentally erased can make the code invalid and subsequently unusable. (Steve Webb does hand code his RSS feed.) So that leaves the sixth way to create RSS code and that’s with a cute little piece of inexpensive software that I’ve found called Feedforall. (There are currently only a few software options for creating RSS whether the platform is Mac or PC.) Feedforall’s wizard collects the information from you to build the RSS and it can even FTP your RSS file to your server. Feedforall does not do ID3 tags.

COMPLETING ID3 TAGS
It is true, you don’t have to include ID3 tags but if you want your episode information to display correctly on your listeners’ players, you should fill them out. There is no mystery in ID3 tags. To repeat, what we’re talking about is the information that displays on listeners’ iPod or other mp3 player. In iTunes you can input this information by going to “Get Info” under the File menu. You’ll see the tabs for “information” which is where the name, artist, title, etc., of your episode go and “artwork” which is where you can provide a photo. To clarify, the ID3 tags are not really “tags”, per se, they’re imbedded as meta data in the mp3 file.

There are several free ID3 tag editors available for download, but the one Steve Webb and I use is included with iTunes, which is free on both PC and Mac platforms. Steve says if you’d like to learn more about filling out these ID3 tags, check out http://www.podcast411.com/id3tags.html for a great tutorial.

CHECKING YOUR CODE AND TAGS
Believe it or not, we’re almost done! You need to make sure your code is good. In other words, you must validate it. Simply go to the web site http://rss.scripting.com/ and type in the Internet address (path) of your RSS feed. Based on Steve Webb’s file, it would be http://www.lifespringonline.com/rss.xml. If it checks out bad, you must recheck all of your entries, including your MP3 file name and URL (or path). Just as the aforementioned site validates your RSS, Steve reminds us of an excellent RSS tag checker at http://www.nobodylikesonions.com/feedcheck/. “RSS can be very plain, with the most basic of information,” Steve explains. “Each item of detail in your RSS is called a “tag”. They’re not required, but they’re helpful. It’s very important to remember if you want your tags to display correctly in iTunes, you complete their special tags. This is where the nobodylikesonions site is helpful.” Be careful, with shows on this site, Steve warns. Not all will be “family safe”. But we agree the tool is very useful.

UPLOADING YOUR FILES
Like the mp3 file, the RSS file will be uploaded to your server. As we mentioned, some “do-it-all” software handles this step for you. If you’ve created your own RSS code and mp3, you’ll have to transfer them to a server. In doing so, it is very important to remember to first upload the mp3 file, then the RSS. If a subscriber’s podcatcher hits your server looking for a nonexistent file, there is a good chance that the error can “break” the listener’s subscription.

Several good FTP programs are available like Cute FTP Professional, www.cuteftp.com (which is what I use) or free Coffee Cup Free FTP (which comes highly recommended). Find it at www.download.com. (FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol.)

POSTING YOUR PODCAST
Finally, you need to post your podcast link in the directories where you want to be discovered and heard. “If you do a search in your favorite search engine for ‘podcast directory’, you’ll see that there are dozens, if not hundreds of directories,” Steve explains. “Adding your podcast to their list is often as easy as filling in an online form at the directory’s website.”

Sure, there’s a little learning curve here. But once you’ve successfully created your first podcast, the fear factor will be gone and you’ll be hot stuff on the World Wide Web. Most importantly, you’ll have a brand new path for a message the world desperately needs to hear.

You can hear master podcaster Steve Webb at www.lifespringpodcast.com. And stay tuned here for Part III: Podcasting: Secrets to successful show creation and marketing.