New to the world of podcasting? You might be wondering, what exactly is a podcast? And how do they work? In this article I’ll cover what a podcast is, what they’re used for, and how to get started with your own podcast.
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What Is a Podcast and How Do They Work?
A podcast is a digital audio “show” or program that you can download or stream from the internet on your smartphone, computer, or tablet and listen when it’s convenient for you.
Podcasts are an extremely popular form of media that’s growing quickly. The first podcasts were produced by individuals, but now they’re also made by companies, news outlets, and other organizations. Podcasting has become big business, with companies like Apple, Spotify, iHeartMedia, SiriusXM heavily invested in podcasting.
For the listener, podcasts are a versatile medium! The audio-only format of podcasts makes them easy to consume in various settings, such as while commuting, cooking, traveling, or working.
You can think of podcasts as “background” content, but you can also give them your full attention if you like.
Speaking of content, podcast topics can cover a huge range, from true crime to business strategies to parenting tips to comedy or kids’ content. If you have a topic in mind, there’s probably a podcast out there for it! And if there isn’t, that might mean an opportunity for you to start your own podcast on that topic!
Podcasts are typically available either in seasons with a set number of episodes, or in an ongoing series. Our podcast Flops came out with an eight-episode first season in 2021, while other SPI Media shows like the SPI Podcast and The Community Experience are released weekly on an ongoing basis.
What Are Podcasts Used For?
So what’s the point or purpose of a podcast? What are they good for? A whole lot!
For the listener, a podcast is a great way to learn about a given topic—and/or be entertained!—in a way that’s convenient to them. Podcasts are free (for the most part) and easy to find, and given their growing popularity, cover a wider and deeper range of topics than ever before.
For the podcaster, the uses and benefits of a podcast can be enormous. Podcasts are a great way to build and serve an audience by entertaining and/or educating listeners on a given topic.
One of the key advantages of a podcast for the podcaster is that you get to speak directly to people, using your voice. Your podcast episode may be heard by thousands or even millions of people, but for each listener, it’s just you and them.
It’s been said that podcasting is the best way to scale intimacy and make a direct connection with each of your listeners.
What Is a Podcast Host and Why Do You Need One?
Podcasts are made available to listeners via a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed.
An RSS feed allows content creators to publish notifications of new content such as blog posts or, of course, podcasts.
Here’s how that works. The podcast creator submits their podcast’s RSS feed to a directory, which makes it available to listeners via a podcast app or the creator’s website.
A podcast listener can receive new installments or episodes of a podcast automatically by subscribing to the podcast’s RSS feed in their chosen podcast app.
But how do you create your podcast’s RSS feed?
That’s where a podcast host comes in.
A podcast host is a service that provides a place to store and distribute your podcast’s audio files via an RSS feed. The podcast host automatically generates the RSS feed for your podcast, then submits it to podcast directories, such as Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and others.
You might be thinking, Do I have to use a podcast host? Can I host my podcast on my website? The short answer is yes—but hear me out.
There are several benefits to using a podcast host instead of DIYing it. A podcast host can:
- Provide storage for your podcast episode files, and allow them to be downloaded by listeners.
- Automate the creation and syndication of your RSS feed to podcast directories.
- Offer built-in analytics, so you can see how your show is growing and which episodes are the most popular.
Yes, you can technically host your podcast’s RSS feed on your own website. And yes, most podcast hosts cost money, with those costs generally increasing as your show grows.
You might save a few bucks, but in our opinion, the lack of analytics alone makes hosting your podcast on your website a bad choice.
Thankfully, you have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to podcast hosts. Our recommended platform is Buzzsprout, thanks to its ease of use and helpful features. [Note: That link is an affiliate link, which means we earn a small commission if you purchase after clicking it.]
Types of Podcasts and Podcast Examples
As a medium for entertaining and sharing information, podcasts can take many different forms! Here are some of the most common podcast formats, along with examples.
- Interview (SPI Podcast, Armchair Expert, Fresh Air)
- Solo Talking/Storytelling (Hardcore History, Revolutions)
- Cohosted (Stuff You Should Know, My Favorite Murder, Flops, The Comunity Experience)
- Roundtable (SmartLess, Pod Save America)
- Documentary (Serial, Startup Podcast)
Note that many podcasts are a hybrid, incorporating elements of multiple formats. For example, The Community Experience is a cohosted podcast that incorporates interviews.
How to Listen to a Podcast
How easy is it to listen to a podcast? Pretty darn easy! Here’s what you’ll need:
- A smartphone, computer, or tablet with an internet connection.
- A podcast app
You’ll need an internet-connected device, such as a smartphone, computer, or tablet to access podcasts. Since you’re already reading this post, I’m guessing you’ve got this one covered. 😉
Whether you’re searching for a specific podcast or want to search for a new one, a podcast app will come in handy. Here are some of the most popular ones:
Each of these apps can be downloaded to your device or accessed via the web.
So which one should you choose? To be honest, there’s not a ton of difference between them, especially if you’re just getting started as a podcast listener.
If you’re a Mac/iOS user, then Apple Podcasts is your go-to, and if you use an Android phone, then the Google Play Music app is the easiest option.
Each app also provides a podcast directory that you can search to find new shows. Many of these apps can even provide personalized recommendations based on the shows you listen to on the app.
If you find yourself turning into an avid listener of a large number of podcasts, you might find benefit from using an app like Pocket Casts, which is designed to filter and organize a large number of podcast subscriptions. But for 99 percent of listeners, most apps will do just fine.
Once you’ve found the podcast you want to listen to in your podcast app, you can either stream it or download it to your device to listen later. Your podcast app should also allow you to “subscribe” to a show so you’ll be alerted when new episodes are released.
Some podcast creators also make their podcast episodes available directly on their website via a web-based podcast player like Fusebox.
Here’s an example of an episode of how to use an embedded web player like Fusebox to play a podcast episode right on a webpage (in this case, our AskPat podcast):
How to Start a Podcast
If you’re interested in how to start a podcast, you’re in the right place! At SPI, we have a ton of resources for first-time podcasters (and more advanced podcasters too, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves…).
In order to start a podcast, you need a few key ingredients:
That’s not all, though, and if you want the full scoop, check out our “How to Start a Podcast STEP-BY-STEP” guide.
It includes the lowdown on things like:
- Picking a podcast topic you can commit to
- Writing a compelling podcast description
- Choosing a podcast hosting service
- Recording your episodes
- And much more
The “How to Start a Podcast STEP-BY-STEP” guide makes starting your podcast easy and doable so that you can build your audience—and even start and scale a business with the help of your new show.
You can also check out my video guide to starting your podcast, updated for 2022!
What Is a Podcast FAQ
Here are some commonly asked questions about podcasts, and our answers!
Why Are Podcasts Called Podcasts?
The word “podcast” is a portmanteau (combined word) of “iPod,” Apple’s original portable music player, and “broadcast.” Some people have also suggested “portable on demand” as a “backronym” for the word “podcast.”
Podcasts vs. Radio: What’s the Difference?
Are podcasts the same as radio shows? While podcasts and radio share a lot of similarities, since they’re both audio formats, podcasts are more versatile in a lot of ways. You can think of podcasts as the next “evolution” of the radio show.
Here are some of the key differences between podcasts and radio:
- Podcasts are usually edited, while radio is typically live.
- Podcasts can be streamed or downloaded on demand, while radio shows typically need to be listened to live. Radio stations are increasingly making their previously aired shows available online, but most radio content must be accessed when it goes live.
- Most radio content is aimed at a broad audience, while podcast content can be extremely niche.
- Most radio shows need to fill a specific time block, whereas podcast episodes can be any length.
- Radio shows typically have higher production costs, so they contain advertisements to help offset these costs. While podcast advertising is a growing industry, many podcasts don’t include ads because the cost barrier to entry for podcasting is so much lower than for radio.
Are Podcasts Free?
One of the best things about podcasts is that they are usually free to download and listen to. Yes, you’ll need a device to listen to them and an internet connection to download them, but the content itself is generally free of charge.
In recent years, some podcasters have begun creating additional paid content for their subscribers. These paid podcasts are becoming increasingly popular, although free podcasts are still a lot more common.
Are You Ready to Start Your Podcasting Journey?
I hope this primer on podcasts was helpful! Maybe you’re inspired to go find a new show to subscribe to, or even become a podcaster yourself!
If it’s the latter, you’re in the right place if you’re ready to keep learning about podcasts and what they can do to grow a business and connect with an audience.
And if you’re interested in starting your own podcast, our How to Start a Podcast Guide is the absolute perfect place to go next!