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The Making of a Podcast (Part 1)

Volume 8 Issue 2 - The Making of a Podcast (Part 1)

By: Virgil E. Varvel Jr.
Keywords: Podcast, Audio Recording, Syndication, RSS, mp3

The 'hot' topics in distance education as in any field are constantly in flux. One key phrase today is flexible learning or the idea that instruction should be flexible enough to meet the varied needs of distant students. Flexibility can come in many forms, from the assessment of students to the timing of course activities to the actual method of instruction. Into the ideals of flexibility we can thrust the idea that there are certain preferred pedagogies that seem to define an online learning paradigm. Often, this paradigm includes the shift away from lectures and PowerPoints to other means of instruction. Therein lies a conundrum. What about students who actually do learn well from lectures or content that perhaps can be delivered well through a lecture (at least in part)? Perhaps there is such a thing as a monologue that is both informative and dynamic enough to keep the attention of the students. Such an option could be provided as just that, an option, in order to allow for flexibility. Such an option could also be provided not as the central aspect of the course, but as an alternative to other forms of content delivery that are coupled with valid and authentic assessments that integrate the students with the content. Once framed in this way, my own initial resistance to the use of certain pedagogical practices discussed herein began to fade, and I experienced a newfound appreciation of the possible educational effectiveness of propertly utilized podcasts, yet another hot term in the world as a whole today (although the word 'hot' may have been more appropriate about a year ago).

What is a Podcast?

Simply put, a podcast is a syndicated audio file. In other words, a pod cast is a collection of audio files that can be subscribed to so that when a new audio file is added to the collection, those subscribed to that collection are able in some way to automatically receive the updated content without specifically requesting the given file. Podcasts rely on a form of RSS or really simply syndication to allow a device or program to recognize when audio content has been added at a remote site. The device or program then retrieves the updated content and creates a local file, often with additional information that helps to describe the newly uploaded content such as a description, author, image file attachment, etc. So a podcast is a combination of audio files and Web files that index the audio files for audio players.

Walk Me thought the Process, That's Why I'm Here.

Step 1: Prepare

I know that everyone wants to just jump right in, but if you really want a quality podcast, you should start with a little preparation. You should be able to answer all of the following questions before you begin. There are probably other questions that will occur to you as you produce your podcast too.

  • What is your podcast about? All podcasts need to have a topic. For educational purposes, this topic should coincide with the objectives for the given unit of activity.
  • What are you trying to relay to the listener? You need to be telling the students something. Sometimes students need to be directly told what they are going to be told so that they know what to listen for.
  • Is there an educational objective to this particular podcast? Whatever it is that the students are being told, there needs to be a purpose to it.
  • Is podcasting a good way to meet that objective for certain students? If enough students will benefit from the podcast in the given context, then it is a good idea to proceed.
  • Who will be speaking in the podcast? Whoever is speaking will help determine how the recording will be made.
  • Will the speaker be reading from a script? If there is a script, someone will have to write it. If not, there will still need to be some management to keep the discussion on track.
  • How long will each podcast be? How long can I maintain the student's attention with the given topic using an audio broadcast? If you need a lot of time to get a given message across to the students, you may need to break the audio file into parts that the students can separately access.
  • Do I know what I am doing? The more you know about the processes outlined below, the better able to plan each step you will be.
  • What will I record the audio file with? Do I have the necessary equipment? Will I be using an already prepared audio file? (See step 2 below for more on this item)

Step 2: Record or Procure an Audio File

The next step to becoming a podcaster is the easy step. All you have to do is come up with an audio file. Although you could really use any file that you wanted to create an syndicated feed, the preferred audio file currently is an mp3 file, but .wav, .ra, .mid, .mpg, and others could also be used. There are also enhanced podcasts now that use m4a, m4b, or m4p, but you can worry more about those once you have some experience. Generally, you can record your audio in just about any file format and worry about converting it to mp3 in the next step.

To make a recording, there are many options. In the field, I personally use a 60GB G5 iPod with Belkin's TuneTalk stereo microphone. For studio recordings, ION has a small room set up with two professional quality microphones, a mixing board, a phone bridge, and an audio editing computer with several software packages. One could go as simple as using the Sound Recorder application that comes with Windows or Garage Band Suite is a good choice on a Mac. To port audio from a sound or video recording, you may need additional equipment such as a video board or firewire port on your computer to input digital video signals from which the audio can be extracted. When inputing audio from an external analog device, I use an external Creative Labs Audigy board with fiber optic auxiliary input, but there are many options out there.

The key is to figure out what the source of your audio will be. Determine your budget for spending on recording equipment. Then gather the necessary equipment and make your recording or purchase a pre-recording segment that you desire to use.

Tips to/about recording audio

  • It is always good to start with a higher quality audio signal, then you can edit it down to the size that you need and compress the file later.
  • Stereo signals are nice, especially if you want to shift the signal during an interview. The downside is that a stereo coded file is generally larger than a mono audio file.
  • There are many digital audio recorders out there for under $100 that are high enough quality for a typical podcast.
  • Always include some air time at the beginning and ending of the recording. This time will make creating the beginning and ending effects of the final audio such as fade in/fade out and clear cuts easier.
  • Sometimes people tend to speak faster when they are recording audio. The plus side is that you get more information per unit time or file size. The down side is that you may go too fast for some students to fully comprehend the statements or for those that like to take notes. Speak at a speed at which you can maintain clarity.
  • It is easier to speak from a script than it is to transcribe after you have spoken. Some people have difficulty maintaining a natural speaking voice when reading however, which can make the audio difficult to maintain student interest.
  • For licensing audio that is pre-existing, there are many agencies that handle audio files depending on the type of file and the producer. A typical Web search should help locate the licensing agency of the audio. Other starting places include the Copyright Clearance Center (generally books, but sometimes music lyrics and much more), SESAC, ASCAP, BMI, and CreativeCommons to name only a few.

Step 3: Edit the Audio

Once you have recorded the audio, you need to digitize it or move it to your computer and produce the final audio file that will be podcast. If you used a computer-based recording system such as a typical computer microphone and recording software, then the file is already on your computer.

There are many programs out there that allow you to edit audio on your computer. One popular free tool is Audacity. I generally use Cool Edit (now Adobe Audition) or Garage Band components on a Mac, but there are any number of products that provide all of the functionality you will need. All you need is a program that will input the file type that you have and output the file type that you need. The only extra features that are necessities are the ability to crop the audio files to remove parts that you don't want, the ability to merge multiple files together, and the ability to control the volume of the audio file.

Tips for Editing the Audio

  • You don't have to spend a lot of money or any money. There are free tools out there with the functionality you will need.
  • Many people like to add little musical audio segments to the beginning and/or ending of their podcasts. There are many royalty free and sometimes license free or shareware/linkware audio loops available on the Web. Search terms such as 'free audio loops' or 'podcast audio loops' will find many of these files. I have often used Flash Kit.
  • The final audio for a podcast lecture or interview does not need to be high. You can reduce file size by going to mono at lower quality. Try several settings for your final file until you find one that has quality that suits your needs.
  • In general, most people are using mp3 currently for their podcast.

Step 4: Putting it on the Web

This step is actually really easy. All you have to do is find a place on the Web to put your audio files. This can be anywhere on the Web. When you create your actual podcast feed, you can use any URL to direct the user to your audio file. You don't even need your own Web hosting service, which can cost money but can be convenient. There are many sites that are specific to serving podcasts, but you can really put them anywhere. A few of the popular places for serving right now include MyPodcast, MySpace, and any Blog provider that allows file attachments such as Blogger. One you have a site, simply upload your .mp3 file to the site and mark down the URL where the file is at. Most hosting sites will have a Web interface for uploading your file. If not, directions should be provided on how to FTP (file transfer protocol) your files to your space.

Step 5: Creating Your Feed

All of the steps above are pretty easy. This step can be easy, but may take you a while. In order for others to subscribe to your podcast, you need to have an RSS feed that provides information about your podcast. This RSS feed is an XML file that is updated with each additional podcast episode. The feed is a text file that provides specific information about the audio file that is used by various programs such as iTunes to describe and subscribe to the feed. Each time a new audio file is added, the RSS feed is updated with information about the new file so that subscribers can automatically download the new episode. But you have to first create this XML file somewhere, somehow, and then have a method for updating this XML file everytime that you add a new audio file or episode to your podcast. There are at least three ways that you can accomplish this task. I will outline each of these methods in the next Pointers & Clickers article.

  • The hard but completely under your control method.
  • The easy but you have to have a Web server method.
  • The easy and completely out of your hands method.