What is a podcast?

I have a podcast. It’s called QuOTeD – The Question of the Day Podcast. Yet it can still be difficult to succinctly explain what a podcast is. When I first tried to write a short description, I used the phrase “on-demand Internet radio.” But a fellow podcaster pointed out that “Internet radio” is its own thing, sort of like satellite radio is a distinct thing.

Podcasts are like radio shows

For the sake of keeping things simple, let’s focus on audio podcasts and not the podcasts that include video. If you understand one, you’ll have no problem with the other.

An audio podcast resembles any radio show that you might hear on your local radio station using a… well a radio, right? It’s different from traditional (also called “terrestrial”) radio in that podcasts are available on demand over the Internet. Compare that to listening to A Prairie Home Companion on Minnesota Public Radio at a specific time and within a certain broadcasting range.

You can subscribe to podcasts

It is possible (and encouraged!) to subscribe to podcasts so that new episodes are automatically downloaded to whatever device you are using to listen to shows. Most of the podcasts I encounter are free, while others charge for access. We’ll cover how to subscribe to a podcast later. To distinguish them from a random audio file on a website, it’s useful to say that podcasts are serial. The individual shows in a podcast series are called episodes, similar to television episodes.

Why do we call them podcasts?

Podcasting is a form of broadcasting that uses the Internet to transmit media (audio/video). In the beginning, to listen to audio shows, people would download them on their iPods (a media player by Apple). So in 2004 The Guardian reporter Ben Hammersley coined the phrase. Now it’s more common for people to listen to podcasts on other mobile devices such as a smartphone or tablet. But the name stuck.

If you were Hammersley when podcasting got its name, what would you have called this new media form? I put this question to the Twin Cities Podcasters group and here’s what I heard:

  • Radio on Demand
  • NetShows
  • Earblogs
  • Audio Episodes
  • AudioBlogs
  • BlogCast

While there has been a bit of hand-wringing about the word “podcast” because the meaning is not immediately apparent to someone new to the medium, ultimately I think it is the best option. Someday podcast will be what it is, untangled from its history, a word that just means what it means.

Let’s listen!

To get a better idea of what a podcast is, let’s listen to some podcasts.