Podcasts Worth a Listen

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2421, 2006-05-26, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 16 and 18) and their website.

Podcasting, the publishing of audio and video files over the Internet via subscription technologies, was inevitable: At the same time that potential subscribers were increasing their Internet bandwidth as well as their interest in listening to audio files on their iPods and other audio devices, potential publishers were packaging more content as multimedia files, to complement their offerings served as Web pages.

While it may be impossible to determine exactly how many podcast are available online — now or at any given point in the past — all evidence indicates that the growth in podcasting is tremendous, and shows no sign of stopping. An article published by First Monday stated that, from November 2004 to August 2005, the number of podcasts on feedburner.com alone increased from about 200 to well over 13,000.

On the other side of the coin, the number of subscribers signing up for those podcasts has exploded. According to Bridge Ratings, approximately 5 million radio listeners downloaded at least one podcast in 2005. Perhaps more significantly, that organization expects the figure to almost double in 2006.

This exponential growth is similar to the equally impressive increase in the number of websites, year after year. Just as this resulted in a huge number of personal — and even corporate — sites that were truly awful, the information superhighway is quickly getting littered with less-than-stellar podcasts, all capable of wasting your time in addition to your Internet bandwidth.

To help you identify the more promising podcasts available, we will consider some of the many excellent podcasts to which one can subscribe, covering countless topics. But we will need to limit our survey to just a few categories.

Getting Technical

Internet users tend to be technology aficionados, in its many forms, and so we begin with this popular and broad category. National Public Radio (NPR) offers a number of radio programs dealing with technology. They then package up the best segments from these shows, and combine them into a podcast entitled, appropriately, "NPR: Technology".

The Web page for that podcast provides the same type of information that the podcast subscriber will find on most similar websites: a summary of the podcast's contents, a URL ("link") for subscribing to the podcast, the time of the next update, and the duration of the program. The appropriate URL to use depends upon the podcasting tool that the reader would like to use. In this example, NPR lists the links for iTunes and My Yahoo, as well as a generic URL for other podcasting tools.

If your interests in technology tend to be "out of this world", then you will want to explore the five podcasts offered by NASA. They are listed on the NASA podcast portal, NASAcast, and feature audio and video segments covering recent launches, human-robot interaction projects, space communications, astronomical findings, and much more.

One of their podcasts, "NASA Brain Bytes: Munchies for Your Mind", unlike the typical podcast, is captioned, making it far more accessible to people who are deaf or have other hearing impairments. That particular podcast is likely intended for children, as it answers such burning questions as "How do you go to the bathroom in space?" and "How do you scratch your nose in a spacesuit?"

Another respected podcast is "The World: Technology WGBH", which is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. It features the latest news in global technology, and is updated twice a week.

By the Book

Any bibliophile who also must hold down a steady job or take care of a family, well knows that there never seems to be enough time in the day for reading. Fortunately, books on tape — and now on CD — have certainly made it easier for the busy commuter to get in a remarkable amount of "reading" while never taking their eyes from the road. Those same books are increasingly appearing in the form of MP3 files, among other audio formats, thus making them available to be played on iPods and other portable music players.

Yet what is the advantage of listening to a book, regardless of convenience, if it turns out to be not even worth your time? Reading book reviews from trusted sources can be a wise method of avoiding the literary lemons. But for that same busy commuter, it can be difficult to find the opportunities for reading the latest New York Times Book Review or a similar publication. Again, podcasts can be a big help, because there are a growing number of them devoted to book commentary.

Retired English professor Don Noble comments on books for Alabama Public Radio (APR), which hosts his podcast, at http://www.apr.org/donnoble.html. Although he is an expert on Southern literature, the titles that he examines run the gamut from fiction to prose, religion to politics, and points between.

Some avid readers equally enjoy hearing the unedited thoughts of their favorite authors, in addition to their works. If that sounds like you, then let your ears read "Between the Lines", a weekly author interview program that has satisfied listeners of WABE-FM 90.1 in Atlanta for more than five years. It is hosted by Valerie Jackson, a former First Lady of the city, who seeks out the more notable writers now active in the world of words.

Money Matters

So how are you going to pay for all those recommended books, to say nothing of a higher capacity iPod? Increase your net worth — or at least your financial smarts — with some podcasts that can help you stay on top of the business world and financial markets.

CNN not only offers general news via podcast, but also a podcast devoted to business news and market analysis. The same content can be downloaded as an MP3 file, which is another approach you can take, if you would prefer to collect a number of business or financial news presentations as audio files, and burn them onto a CD-RW. They can then be played in your car or — courtesy of your laptop and a discreet earbud — during boring meetings.

Lastly, if you are in the information technology (IT) field, and you need to stay abreast of the latest IT business news, check out the podcast offered by InformationWeek, which is updated daily.

By the way, if you are still wondering how you would scratch your nose in a spacesuit, the trick is to rotate your head towards your microphone (which is fixed in place), "make contact", and then swivel your head up and down like a remote-controlled robotic arm… out of control. Houston, we no longer have a problem.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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