RSS Feeds, podcast hosts, and iTunes – an introduction to the technology behind podcasting.
Back in 1995, when most podcasters were just starting to log on to AOL, a group at Apple Computer’s Advanced Technology Group was hard at work on a new technology that would eventually give rise to podcasting.
They were building something called RDF site summary to help web users keep up with new content. The problem was that in the early days of the web it was hard to find the best content and dial-up connections were really slow. RDF eventually became RSS feeds which was a way for people to have new content automatically delivered to their RSS reader or email inbox.
Now people could keep up with new content on multiple sites without having to check to see if anything new had been uploaded just by checking their RSS reader. Nearly ten years later, this technology was used to deliver audio files and the first podcasts were born.
So, what is an RSS Feed?
Podcasts are built on these RSS feeds so that new podcast episodes are automatically delivered to your listeners’ computers and iPhones. The feed is really just a type of XML code that tells your podcast app that there is a new podcast available, where your app can find it, and a bit about the episode.
Sometimes you’ll hear people talk about their podcast feed, and that’s the same thing as the RSS feed. Typically, podcasters will include things about the podcast itself (it’s name, artwork, description, etc.) and some information about each episode (episode name, description, artwork, etc.).
Most importantly, as a podcaster, your RSS feed will tell your listener’s apps where to find the episode. You see, your episodes aren’t in iTunes, they aren’t in your RSS feed, they are somewhere else . . .
Where are my podcast episodes?
Your podcast episodes are actually being hosted somewhere. If you read about podcast hosting, or if podcasters tell you where they host their files, what they are really telling you is where those podcast episodes are located.
Your podcast host can be a professional company, a free service, or your own server. But the main purpose is that the episodes are actually made available somewhere on the web so that listeners can download them when they are available.
Some examples of podcast hosts include our company Buzzsprout, or our competitors Libsyn, Podbean, and Spreaker. There are also alternative hosting solutions like self-hosting and using Archive.org which we’ll discuss later.
How does iTunes factor into all of this?
I speak to a lot of podcasters who want to how to upload their podcast to iTunes. We all know iTunes is one of the best ways to find new podcast, but iTunes actually doesn’t host any podcasts.
iTunes is something called a podcast directory and there are actually a lot of them. They are just places where you can list your podcast for people to find. The best analogy is that iTunes is like a phone book; while a phone book tells the world which number to call to talk to you, iTunes tells podcast apps where to find your RSS feed.
This doesn’t diminish the importance of iTunes in the least. Just as it use to be critical for businesses to be listed in the Yellow Pages, it’s critical for podcasters to be listed in iTunes.
What about feed redirect services like Feedburner?
A lot of podcasters use to use a feed redirect service called Feedburner to give them more control over their feed. Feedburner is a service that sits between your podcast host and your podcast listings. The main benefit for Feedburner use to be that you could redirect your feed to a new host quickly and easily.
Since then a few things have changed. First, nearly all of the reputable podcast hosts will redirect your feed for you without any questions. When you’re looking at which host to pick, be sure they will allow you to redirect your feed – you don’t want to get stuck with a host that overcharges you and then won’t let you leave once you’ve grown your listenership. Second, Feedburner is a Google service and they haven’t been investing much into the service for several years now leading some podcasters to speculate that they might shut it down eventually.
My recommendation is to avoid using a service like Feedburner since it just adds an additional step of complexity into the process. You can read more about using Feedburner with your podcast at the Audacity to Podcast.
Where should I host my podcast?
To make your podcast available in iTunes or on your own website you’ll need to host your podcast on a server somewhere. You can go one of three routes: self-hosting, free work-around options, and managed hosting options.
I’m a large proponent of using a managed hosting solution. In my view you want a simple and robust solution so that you can focus your efforts on your podcast, rather than building an maintaining your own hosting platform.
You can host your own podcast on your own server and generate an RSS feed to distribute your audio files. This is an option that provides the absolute most flexibility, though it can be expensive and time-consuming. Adam Mulholland, creator of the AM Podcast Network wrote a good post of how they manage their own hosting.
You can write your own feed or use something like Podcast Generator to help create the XML for your podcast feed. If you do build your own feed, use the Sample RSS feed from Apple to get started and make sure you use the correct RSS tags for Podcasts Connect.
Free hosting options
There are a group of new podcasters that use work-arounds to leverage free file hosting services to deliver their audio files. This is only recommended for really small podcasts since it could be blocked by your file hosting service if you’re using too much bandwidth.
With a dedicated podcast host, you’ll be able to quickly upload your first episode in a few minutes. You can also feel confident that your podcast is secure and compliant with all the RSS specifications. Additionally, your host should be updating their feeds to match any new developments in the podcasting space.
Here are a few things to consider when looking at a podcast host:
- Reliability – How long have they been in business? Are their any complaints about downtime for their service? How many podcasts do they already host?
- Feature set – Do they provide a basic website for you? Can you post embed players on your own website? Are they compatible with your website builder? Do they automatically tag your podcast episodes with ID3 tags? Do they provide statistics about your listeners? Etc.
- Pricing – Does the host charge your for storage, bandwidth or both? This can be one of the trickier points since many of the hosts bill on different terms.
- Redirects – Does the host allow you to redirect your feed if you ever decide to leave? This is a big one. In the past there were hosts that wouldn’t allow you to leave, so you wouldn’t be able to move your listeners if you ever decided to leave. Most of the reputable hosts do this now, but its definitely something to double check.
Hosting with Buzzsprout
On Buzzsprout, you get all of the features I just mentioned and more. You can upload an episode in just a few minutes, and can even start your podcast on a free plan to make sure podcasting is right for you. (For podcasters looking to start a podcast, signup at Buzzsprout.com/50 and you’ll get 50% off your first month of podcast hosting. Plus, if you have any questions along the way you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll be happy to guide you throughout the process.)
After selecting the hosting option that best fits your needs, you will also want to submit your podcast to the various podcast directories for broader reach. Popular options include iTunes, Google Play Music, Spreaker, SoundCloud and YouTube.
Make your interviews easy, too
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alban Brooke, Buzzsprout
Alban Brooke is General Counsel & Director of Marketing for Higher Pixels (Buzzsprout, Tick, and StreamCare). Find out more information about Buzzsprout, the easiest podcasting software for hosting, promoting, and tracking your podcast, at http://www.buzzsprout.com