Podcasting Basics, Part 4: Hosting & Distribution

podcastbasics4_FEATURED

Intro from Jay Allison: Finally... what you've all been waiting for! RSS, XML, Validators, Plug-ins, Syndication, Statistics, and MORE! Really, you have to deal with this stuff. Even if you don't code yourself, you need to talk to coders, right? Be smart and read Jeff Towne's amazingly crystalline explanation of all this stuff. You'll be surprised at how much you actually understand. There are lots of places to pay for this kind of high-quality instruction; Transom gives it to you for free. (ahem... a preview of our 15-year anniversary fundraising pitch.) By now, if you've been following our podcasting series, you've got your gear and software, your processing and volumes are good, now it's time to get your podcast out there. Go forth.

The Structure of a Podcast

You’ve recorded and mixed your first podcast episode (perhaps with the help of our earlier articles) but now you need to distribute it to the world. This is the truly revolutionary aspect of podcasting: it’s long been possible to make your own audio productions with relatively modest resources, but until the podcasting model was designed, sending it out to the world was impractical.

There are two parts to a podcast: the audio file, and the XML file that tells subscribers about it. The earlier articles in this series concentrated on making the audio file, but just as important are deciding:

  • How to create the XML file that allows users to find your podcast
  • Where to store those files

RSS and XML

RSSThe distribution structure of podcasting is an outgrowth of blogging, and other similar forms of internet-based self-publishing. In particular, podcasting uses RSS, an acronym for “Really Simple Syndication,” or “Rich Site Summary,” depending on whom you ask. Using RSS is a way to automatically send out updated information, whether it’s text, photos, video or audio. A user can use various computer programs to subscribe to an RSS “feed” and automatically get updates that the content creator makes. A user would typically use RSS to stay current on news headlines, or to automatically see new content on favorite blogs or websites.

The creators of content make an RSS “feed” by writing a text file that includes some relatively basic code to make it into an XML format. That’s a standardized language that allows a wide variety of other programs to read the contents. That XML file includes the information to be distributed, or an abbreviated summary of the contents, along with some standard “metadata” that will tell the user about the contents of the feed. It’s a fairly simple format that even people not familiar with coding can usually understand.

The Code Behind a Podcast

Here’s an example of an RSS file, written in XML, from Wikipedia:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSS

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″ ?>
<rss version=”2.0″>
<channel>
<title>RSS Title</title>
<description>This is an example of an RSS feed</description>
<link>http://www.example.com/main.html</link>
<lastBuildDate>Mon, 06 Sep 2010 00:01:00 +0000 </lastBuildDate>
<pubDate>Sun, 06 Sep 2009 16:20:00 +0000</pubDate>
<ttl>1800</ttl>

<item>
<title>Example entry</title>
<description>Here is some text containing an interesting description.</description>
<link>http://www.example.com/blog/post/1</link>
<guid isPermaLink=”true”>7bd204c6-1655-4c27-aeee-53f933c5395f</guid>
<pubDate>Sun, 06 Sep 2009 16:20:00 +0000</pubDate>
</item>

</channel>
</rss>

 

Sometime around 2003, a few different people figured out that an audio file could be included as an “enclosure” in an RSS feed. That enclosure is a string of code within the XML that points to an audio file, which causes that audio file to automatically download to a subscriber’s computer. In those early days, it was presumed that most users would listen to these audio files on their iPods, so this was a form of broadcasting for iPods, hence the term “podcasting.”

Soon, there were several “podcatcher” programs that could subscribe to, and play, podcasts. Within a couple of years, Apple integrated podcast subscription and playback into iTunes, and now, iTunes is the most common way that users subscribe and listen to podcasts. There are many other ways that listeners can get podcasts, but because iTunes is the most-used pathway, it’s important to make sure that your podcast’s feed is compatible with iTunes. And you almost certainly want to submit your feed to iTunes for inclusion in the iTunes store, because that’s the most common way that listeners search for and subscribe to podcasts.

At its fundamental level, a podcast feed could be a basic RSS feed, as shown above, with the code for an enclosure that points to an audio file. But to be practical, you should include some extra code, to make it compatible with iTunes.

Podcast IconApple has extensive resources to help you make a podcast here:

http://www.apple.com/itunes/podcasts/specs.html

Most important are the additional iTunes-specific tags. They are not required for your podcast to be a valid feed, but it’s a good idea to include this additional information so that your podcast will display properly in the iTunes store, and when playing back in iTunes. Here’s an example of the additional code Apple asks for, from the page linked above.

<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>

<rss xmlns:itunes=”http://www.itunes.com/dtds/podcast-1.0.dtd” version=”2.0″>

<channel>

<title>All About Everything</title>

<link>http://www.example.com/podcasts/everything/index.html</link>

<language>en-us</language>

<copyright>&#x2117; &amp; &#xA9; 2014 John Doe &amp; Family</copyright>

<itunes:subtitle>A show about everything</itunes:subtitle>

<itunes:author>John Doe</itunes:author>

<itunes:summary>All About Everything is a show about everything. Each week we dive into any subject known to man and talk about it as much as we can. Look for our podcast in the Podcasts app or in the iTunes Store</itunes:summary>

<description>All About Everything is a show about everything. Each week we dive into any subject known to man and talk about it as much as we can. Look for our podcast in the Podcasts app or in the iTunes Store</description>

<itunes:owner>

<itunes:name>John Doe</itunes:name>

<itunes:email>john.doe@example.com</itunes:email>

</itunes:owner>

<itunes:image href=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverything.jpg” />

<itunes:category text=”Technology”>

<itunes:category text=”Gadgets”/>

</itunes:category>

<itunes:category text=”TV &amp; Film”/>

<item>

<title>Shake Shake Shake Your Spices</title>

<itunes:author>John Doe</itunes:author>

<itunes:subtitle>A short primer on table spices</itunes:subtitle>

<itunes:summary><![CDATA[This week we talk about <a href=”https://itunes/apple.com/us/book/antique-trader-salt-pepper/id429691295?mt=11″>salt and pepper shakers</a>, comparing and contrasting pour rates, construction materials, and overall aesthetics. Come and join the party!]]</itunes:summary>

<itunes:image href=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverything/Episode1.jpg” />

<enclosure url=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverythingEpisode3.m4a” length=”8727310″ type=”audio/x-m4a” />

<guid>http://example.com/podcasts/archive/aae20140615.m4a</guid>

<pubDate>Wed, 15 Jun 2014 19:00:00 GMT</pubDate>

<itunes:duration>7:04</itunes:duration>

</item>

<item>

<title>Socket Wrench Shootout</title>

<itunes:author>Jane Doe</itunes:author>

<itunes:subtitle>Comparing socket wrenches is fun!</itunes:subtitle>

<itunes:summary>This week we talk about metric vs. Old English socket wrenches. Which one is better? Do you really need both? Get all of your answers here.</itunes:summary>

<itunes:image href=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverything/Episode2.jpg” />

<enclosure url=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverythingEpisode2.mp3″ length=”5650889″ type=”audio/mpeg” />

<guid>http://example.com/podcasts/archive/aae20140608.mp3</guid>

<pubDate>Wed, 8 Jun 2014 19:00:00 GMT<pubDate>

<itunes:duration>4:34</itunes:duration>

</item>

<item>

<title>Red,Whine, &amp; Blue</title>

<itunes:author>Various</itunes:author>

<itunes:subtitle>Red + Blue != Purple</itunes:subtitle>

<itunes:summary>This week we talk about surviving in a Red state if you are a Blue person. Or vice versa.</itunes:summary>

<itunes:image href=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverything/Episode3.jpg” />

<enclosure url=”http://example.com/podcasts/everything/AllAboutEverythingEpisode1.mp3″ length=”498537″ type=”audio/mpeg” />

<guid>http://example.com/podcasts/archive/aae20140601.mp3</guid>

<pubDate>Wed, 1 Jun 2014 19:00:00 GMT</pubDate>

<itunes:duration>3:59</itunes:duration>

</item>

</channel>

</rss>

 

Creating Your Feed the Old-fashioned Way

Even if you’re not a coder, that XML file is fairly understandable: you can simply go through the document and manually type in replacement text to customize the example with the correct information for your podcast. For each new episode, you would copy all the code in-between

<item>  and </item>

and paste it above the previous “item” and update that top version, leaving the earlier data in the file below the new. As you add more and more episodes, the XML file will get longer and longer, with more and more “item” entries, but if you want listeners to have access to earlier episodes, you should leave those earlier “items” in the document.

It’s not as daunting as it looks: most of the information in each item listing remains the same, you just need to update the unique information that has changed, such as:

  • Title
  • Description
  • Date
  • Enclosure information that indicates where the file is saved, and how large it is

You may eventually run into a problem if you get too many episodes, or if the XML file gets too large. In iTunes, you can show 300 items (episodes) but some podcast players have limits as low as 50. The more important limit is the size of your XML file. You should keep that file smaller than 512KB or some devices might not be able to read it. Text doesn’t use much data so it shouldn’t be hard to keep the XML file size under that limit, even with hundreds of episodes.

You may want to drop very old episodes from the feed, for various reasons, and you can do that by deleting that “item” entry (the code between <item> and </item> for that episode).

The danger of updating a feed by manually typing-in info is that you run the risk of “breaking” the feed by making small errors, e.g. pasting-in a non-standard character, such as a “curly quote” or a letter with an accent or other diacritical mark, making a typo in a URL, or even writing the date in the wrong format. A tiny mistake like that will make the entire feed “invalid” and your podcast will not update. It’s tricky to track down those kinds of errors on your own, but thankfully, there are web-based services that will inspect your feed and tell you where the problems are.

Here are a few:

http://feedvalidator.org/

https://validator.w3.org/

http://www.rssboard.org/rss-validator/

http://castfeedvalidator.com/

Even if you don’t think you have a problem, if you are updating your XLM file by hand, you should use one of these validator services before submitting your podcast to iTunes: Apple won’t add your podcast to their directory if it doesn’t validate.

Of course, updating all that information by hand for each episode you create is pretty tedious.  Thankfully, there are many podcasting services that make it easier: podcast hosting sites or WordPress plugins will update that RSS file automatically, simply requiring that you fill-in a few fields in their form for each episode you create.

Where to Put Your files

There are many options for where to save your podcast’s RSS file, and where to save your audio files, and they don’t have to be hosted together in the same place. In many cases you might want to save the RSS “feed” file on your own website, but save your audio file on an external service, such as Soundcloud, or Libsyn.  or you could save your audio file on your own website.

If you have a website, you can save both your audio and RSS files on the same server your website files are stored on.

It’s a good idea to make a new directory on your website for your podcast audio files, just so that they’re not scattered.

Audio files can be large, especially if your podcast is long; in theory, you could run into storage limits on your web service, but in most cases, web-hosting plans allot much more space that you’ll use. Storing even a large number of .mp3 or .aac files will not cause you to exceed your storage limits (but you should check your particular website hosting plan to make sure that’s the case).

Similarly, most website hosting plans have limits on bandwidth: the amount of data that can be transferred from your site each month. If your podcast gets very popular, you could run into a bandwidth problem, but similar to the storage limits, most hosting plans allow for more bandwidth than you would typically use, so unless your podcast becomes a huge sensation, you can probably host it yourself. But many podcasters choose to use an external podcast hosting service to avoid any potential problems with storage or bandwidth.

Wherever you choose to save the audio file for your podcast, enter the full URL for that audio file in the “enclosure” field of the RSS document, and also in the “guid” field. You also need to update the file size (in bytes) in the “enclosure” field.

Your XML/RSS file needs to have a permanent URL. You will submit that address to iTunes, and/or list that as an address for users to subscribe directly. Save your XML file with a fairly simple name, and each time you update it, re-save it with the same name and overwrite the old file on your website.

As soon as you upload an updated XML file, your podcast will begin to update, whenever a subscriber’s device checks to see if the file has changed. You should subscribe to your own feed, and as soon as you update the file, refresh your podcast reader and make sure that your file downloads correctly. If it doesn’t, try again in a few minutes, and if it still doesn’t, check to make sure that your feed is valid, using one of the feed validators listed above. It will take a little while for the index of episodes to update in the iTunes store, there’s nothing you can do to speed that up, the store will eventually scan your feed and add the update.

Podcast Hosting Services

Despite the fact that it’s not that complicated to update your podcast RSS/XML file manually, and that your existing web hosting package can probably handle both storage and bandwidth, there are many good reasons for using a separate service to host your files.

Storing Your Audio

Even if you update and host your podcast XML file, you may want to store your audio on another site:

  • Using a separate site can prevent overage charges for either storage or bandwidth, and make it less likely that your main website could get bogged down by delivering audio to podcast subscribers.
  • It’s notoriously problematic to collect statistics on podcasts, and using an external host can make it easier to track usage.

soundcloud_460x290Many podcasters choose to store their podcasts on Soundcloud. You’ll want a Soundcloud Pro account. A standard (free) Soundcloud account won’t give you enough storage space to save many episodes for an extended period of time. You don’t HAVE to keep all your podcast episodes available forever, but you’ll want to keep several episodes, maybe all of them, available for as long as is practical, so that people who’ve just discovered your podcast can easily listen to earlier episodes. Soundcloud Pro gives you 6 hours; but the better solution for podcasting is Pro Unlimited. Those are paid services, but not too expensive for what you get.

Soundcloud has recently simplified the way audio stored on its site can be used as a podcast, adding automatic generation of an RSS file into the service.  Read more about this integrated service here: Soundcloud for Podcasting.

Soundcloud also offers additional ways to share your productions: they have a very flexible embeddable player that makes it easy to place your audio in webpages and to share them on social media. Additionally, Soundcloud has an active internal community that shares and promotes audio within the site, so you can find new listeners from within Soundcloud.

And perhaps most important, Soundcloud Pro can give you some pretty detailed stats about your downloads.

The major downside of hosting on Soundcloud, or any external service, is that you’re counting on that host remaining in business, and being reliably accessible. These things are out of your control. Be sure to keep copies of your audio productions on a local hard drive, in case you need to re-upload them to another site.

Archive.org is a free service for storage of audio files. It’s not very flexible, but allows unlimited storage and bandwidth.

Amazon S3
Amazon is very flexible, and can host any amount of storage, even extremely large archives, and can provide any amount of bandwidth necessary. But — you pay for it! You’ll never hit any limits, but the fees will increase as your storage and bandwidth needs increase. There is a free option that may provide enough space and throughput, or at least serve as an introduction to the service.

http://aws.amazon.com/s3/

Hosting, Syndication, Statistics, and More.

There are several companies that offer complete hosting solutions: storing the audio, automatically creating the feed, and providing statistics and other services. These are generally paid services, but using a service like this will guarantee that you have sufficient storage space and bandwidth, even if demand gets very high. And you avoid the tedium of hand-writing an RSS feed file.  These services can usually provide more detailed statistics than you’ll get from your self-hosted web stats. In addition, some of these companies can provide additional services, such as cross-promotion and ad solicitation.

Libsyn

LibsynLibsyn is one of the longest-lived services, and is used by many of the most popular podcasts. They offer unlimited bandwidth, and many options for sharing smoothly to social media. There are a variety of hosting packages based on storage space required, and other options, even including optional custom mobile apps based on your podcast.

https://www.libsyn.com/

BlubrryHeaderBlubrry

Blubrry offers a WordPress plug-in to assist with podcasting, but they also can provide a full hosting solution. It’s optimized for use with the WordPress plug-in, but can be used with other publishing systems. They provide unlimited bandwidth, detailed stats, and a variety of packages based on storage space.

http://create.blubrry.com/resources/podcast-media-hosting/

Acast

AcastOne of the newer services is Acast. They offer unlimited storage and bandwidth, as well as sophisticated user statistics. They also have tools for adding links, images and videos to your podcast. Their model can add advertising to your podcast, which they solicit, splitting revenue with the podcast creator. They also have their own app for listening to podcasts that can do sophisticated cross-promotion.

https://www.acast.com/podcasters

Other Services

New services pop up just about every day, be sure to look closely at what they offer, and which other podcasts are using them.

Here are a few more:

http://www.podbean.com/

https://www.podomatic.com/login

https://www.buzzsprout.com/

https://podcastmachine.com/

And there are many more, just do some googling…

WordPress Plug-ins

It’s fairly simple to create a podcast from within a blogging platform, such as WordPress. It’s NOT so simple on WordPress.com, the free service that runs on their servers. But if you host your own website, and have installed WordPress from WordPress.org, you have a much more flexible platform, with a huge variety of optional plug-ins that can make podcasting simple.

In most cases, you’ll make a post, and then use the plug-in to simply indicate that this post is a podcast episode. The plugin will use the information you’ve entered into the post to update the information required by a podcast RSS feed.  The plugin will create a new custom field where you enter the location of the audio file. That file can live on your website, or as discussed above, you can host your audio on an external site.

Blubrry PowerPress pluginBlubrry PowerPress is the best-known plug-in, and provides many extras, including free stats (or more detailed stats for a fee) and optional paid hosting of your audio if desired. There are also options to add custom players to your web pages and for sharing on social media.

https://wordpress.org/plugins/powerpress/

Seriously Simple Podcasting

Seriously Simple Podcasting LogoSeriously Simple Podcasting is another WordPress plug-in, and offers automatic creation of the RSS feed by simply making a WordPress post. They also provide free stats.

https://wordpress.org/plugins/seriously-simple-podcasting/

Podlove

Podlove LogoPodlove also offers integrated stats, and support for chapter markers to synchronize links and other information to your podcast’s timeline.

https://wordpress.org/plugins/podlove-podcasting-plugin-for-wordpress/

Of course there are more — and more will be developed every day (a Libsyn plug-in, currently in beta, should be in a full release soon). Be certain to make sure that any plug-in is compatible with the version of WordPress that you’re running, and check user reviews. But using a plug-in can be one of the easiest ways to integrate a website or blog with a podcast.

Submitting Your Podcast to iTunes (and Other Services)

Once you’ve created your first episode (or episodes) you should submit your podcast to iTunes, which is where most listeners will search for it.  There’s a good checklist on the Apple site that walks you through what you need to do.  You actually submit through the iTunes store, and you’ll need an Apple ID to do it.

You might also want to submit your podcast to Stitcher, and other aggregators.  The tools people use to collect and listen to podcasts is changing all the time, but Podcast 411 keeps a pretty current list of who you should list your podcast with.

Go Forth and Podcast

We’ve given you some tips on audio gear and software you might want to use to create a podcast, and some guidance on making it sound polished.  Now you know how to get it out to the world. So go make something!  It’s good policy to keep to a fairly regular schedule if you can, creating new content every week, or two weeks, or once a month. Many podcasters choose to publish new episodes on the same day of the week, so listeners get in the habit of looking for the latest update on a certain day.  But the beauty of this form is that you have a lot of freedom: you can make a new episode every day if you want, or take a few weeks off if you need to.  Just be sure you have something interesting to say, and before you publish a new episode, give it a listen and determine if it could use some editing (it probably can…).

*Thanks to artist Rob McDonald for the RSS feed image.

Jeff Towne

About
Jeff Towne

Jeff Towne has been producing radio programs since he was a teenager, back then with a portable Marantz cassette deck and a Teac four-track reel-to-reel tape recorder, and now with digital recorders and computer workstations. After honing his broadcasting skills at high school and college radio stations, Jeff has spent over two decades as the producer of the nationally-syndicated radio program Echoes. At Echoes, he has done extensive recording of interviews and musical performances, produced documentary features, and prepared daily programs for satellite and internet distribution. As Transom.org's Tools Editor, Jeff has reviewed dozens of audio recorders, editing software, and microphones, and written guides for recording, editing and mixing audio for radio and the web. Jeff has also taught classes and presented talks on various aspects of audio production. When not tweaking audio files, Jeff can probably be found eating (and compulsively taking pictures) at that little restaurant with the unpronounceable name that you always wondered about.

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  • Dave Jackson (@learntopodcast)

    1.08.16

    Reply

    Jeff, Just so yo know Soundcloud is not a great solution for podcasting. In 2015 they changed the way they generated the URL to the mp3s and rendered everyone’s downloads worthless. They are also losing money like nobody’s business. They recently got sued by the recording industry in the UK. See http://davidjackson.org/2015/08/why-soundcloud-makes-me-nervous-and-why-it-should-make-you-nervous/

    • Kristofor Lawson

      4.18.16

      Reply

      I saw the articles about Soundcloud’s finances as well. It definitely has me concerned. Although the thing that got me annoyed was when they killed playback of audio on Facebook – we saw a significant decrease in the number of listeners through the Soundcloud platform once that happened.

      Another service to look at could be Spreaker which does offer a free tier – https://www.spreaker.com/. Have heard some good reviews.

  • Jeff Towne

    4.19.16

    Reply

    I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict the long-term stability of any tech-sector companies, but for what it’s worth, Soundcloud seems to have made some important deals with music publishers, and has stabilized a bit, so the company as a whole is looking a little more reliable. It’s frustrating when any company changes the behavior of their products, which might have a negative impact on how you’re using them, but it’s impossible to guard against that completely. There are many people still using Soundcloud as a podcasting platform, so it’s worth taking a look at…

  • Marc

    5.31.16

    Reply

    A service that can highly recommend is Simplecast (http://simplecast.com).

  • statestraveller

    6.09.16

    Reply

    Jeff, do you have any opinions on which platform is best for paid podcasts? I’m considering starting a business where I offer the first section of a podcast for free and then customers would need to pay to listen to the rest. I’m totally new to podcasting and can’t find a platform that can help me do this. I have a blog already on WordPress.org so a plugin for that would be the easiest thing for me, but the plugins you recommend above don’t seem to support paid options. I’d very much appreciate your thoughts.

  • XciledTv

    11.02.16

    Reply

    I need help syncing my RSS feed to the iTunes from blogtalk

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