A Year of Podcasting: Publishing

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, for over a year. During that time, I’ve had lots of folks ask me about how I do it. To celebrate the milestone (and to avoid repeating myself,) I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, and how I edit episodes. This post is about how I publish the podcast.

Publishing is a key component of podcasting. You can record and edit an excellent show, but only a few people will listen if it’s not available for folks to find and download. These two things – finding and downloading — are related but not the same. They’re both crucial.

Let’s start with downloading. Mostly, podcasts are like blogs: content that’s published periodically on a web server where people can access it over the internet. The main difference, of course, is that blogs are primarily text-based, whereas podcasts are primarily audio-based. But still, the underlying technologies are very similar.

So-called podcatchers — the apps that we use to listen to podcasts — are RSS readers under the hood, much like blog readers such as NetNewsWire or the much-missed Google Reader. Besides rendering text, podcatchers provide specialized interfaces to listen to audio files. These audio files are referenced in the podcast’s (text-based) feeds, which are almost identical to the text feeds that power blogs.

I’m giving you this preamble to demystify the publishing process. A podcast is just a blog with audio.

That said, there are publishing platforms that provide specialized features for podcasts. For example, some aim to unify (and therefore simplify) the whole process by bundling recording, editing, and publishing features into one package. I didn’t consider such tools because I didn’t want to be locked into any one vertical platform.

My early research turned up one publishing tool that seemed to be preferred by many established podcasters: LibSyn. It’s been around for a long time, as evidenced by its rich feature set. This gave me confidence in the tool. (I’m always wary of relying on untested companies.) Alas, its longevity was also evident in its user interface, which I found clunky and complicated. My understanding of podcasting as “blogging with audio” was put to the test when I opened an account on LibSyn. Setting up the show and publishing a single episode required learning a new set of terms and filling in lots of information. It was more work than I expected or needed.

Hunting for a new publishing platform, I discovered that the one I use to host this site — WordPress.com — could also be used to host podcasts. I opened a new account on WordPress specifically for the show and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. (Especially for someone like myself, who was already familiar with blogging in general and WordPress in particular.) Publishing a new podcast episode boils down to writing a blog post and including a single audio file in it. Simple.

Of course, there are tradeoffs. A more powerful tool like LibSyn gives you more features and the ability to control things more granularly. More importantly, WordPress also lags in one key area: statistics. The system provides a dashboard that shows how many people have visited, how many pages they’ve viewed, etc. It’s the same dashboard you get if you’re hosting a blog (note I said “pages viewed”), and it’s wholly inadequate for a podcast. I don’t yet have a good way of knowing what episodes are more popular than others.

Still, it’s convenient to use the same platform for my blog and my podcast. Which is to say, WordPress integrates well with my workflows. It’s simple, inexpensive, and reliable. I’m also confident that WordPress (the company) will be around for a while. It’s unlikely I’ll tinker with this aspect of my setup for a while.

So that’s the “web hosting” part of my publishing setup. But as I mentioned above, putting the show on the internet isn’t all that’s needed: folks also need to find the show so they can subscribe. That’s where podcasting directories come in.

There are several of these, but the most popular is Apple’s podcast directory. Apple embraced podcasting early, including it as a feature in iTunes in 2005. They’ve since maintained a structured index of shows that’s used by other podcasting systems as well.

It’s worth noting that this directory doesn’t host podcasting files; that’s why you need a publishing platform such as WordPress. Instead, the directory allows people to find your show, and to rate and review it. (If you enjoy The Informed Life, it helps if you rate and/or review it in Apple’s podcast directory.)

Google provides a similar service through Google Play, but as far as I know, it isn’t as influential as Apple’s. That said, I added the show to Google’s directory late last year to make it easier to find for Android phone users.

There are several other platforms with directories. I often get requests from folks to include the show on platforms like Spotify and Stitcher. I’ve been wary of these and other such systems. I sense that many are trying to build walled gardens around their podcast initiatives. Some break the decentralized model by re-publishing shows in their hosting infrastructure and inserting advertising into shows. The obvious tradeoff? Not being on these distribution platforms is costing me some listeners. That makes me sad. But some of these practices — especially injecting ads into shows — make me even sadder. As a result, you’re unlikely to find my show in these systems anytime soon.

So there you have it, my podcast publishing setup. Of all the components and systems that make The Informed Life possible, these are the ones I’m most satisfied with. The one exception, as I mentioned above, is statistics. I’d love to have better information about how individual episodes are doing. (Apple provides a tool that’s supposed to give me such information. I didn’t mention it above because it’s not very useful.)

So, better statistics is one aspect I’d like to change about my podcasting setup. In the final post in this series, I’ll tell you about some other things I’m considering for the future of The Informed Life. Hope you can join me then!