A podcast is an on-demand audio program that’s distributed via the internet to computers and mobile devices. Podcasts cover various topics including current events, pop culture, fictional stories, and historical documentaries. Although many established media brands create popular podcasts, anyone can create and distribute podcasts.
How Podcasting Works
All podcasts start with recording the audio. However, not all podcasts are born in a studio with expensive microphones, mixers, and soundboards. Anyone can start a podcast with nothing more than a smartphone. Some podcasts are uploaded to the internet with minimal editing, while others go through a post-production process to make them as entertaining or informative as possible.
When a podcaster has a finished podcast episode file, they upload it to the internet. More specifically, episodes are typically uploaded to a hosting service. These services provide a central location for your podcast audience to find, download, and listen to episodes. Hosting services also publish RSS feeds for each podcast. Ideally, the RSS feed will be listed in multiple podcast directories, which is where podcast apps pull their search results from.
Once a podcast episode is published through its RSS feed, it can then be downloaded to a computer or mobile device using pod-catching software. Programs like Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify constantly monitor these RSS feeds. When a feed is updated with new content, they automatically download the new episode so that listeners can easily access the episode.
Who Podcasting Is Right For
In many ways, podcasting has leveled the playing field between the professional broadcasting industry and common internet users for the attention of potential audiences. Because it’s so easy and cheap to get started, pretty much anyone can be a podcast host. However, before you order your new podcasting headphones, ask yourself these questions:
Are you passionate about the subject?
The amount of time and effort you’ll put into creating a podcast should be directly proportional to how strongly you’re connected to the subject matter. Fewer things make for a worse podcast than a host that has nothing to say. Plus, nothing will sap your energy more than a show that you’re only somewhat enthusiastic about.
Can you perform?
Podcasting is a performance medium. You can be the best informed, most organized, and prepared host on the planet, but if your on-air performance is lackluster, you’ll struggle to find an audience. For some people, keeping an audience captivated and engaged with just their voice comes naturally—but most people have to learn that skill.
Do you have the time?
Podcasting can take up more of your time than you think. A good podcast is more than a host sitting in front of a microphone and chatting for an hour. There are dozens of hours of work involved in researching topics, organizing the show’s content, setting up hardware, editing, and more. It can become a life-consuming project if you let it. However, if you’re happy creating the content and outsourcing the rest, by all means—do.
Costs of Podcasting
The cost barrier to starting a podcast is quite low. All you need is a computer, recording software, and a microphone to get started producing a podcast episode. There are plenty of affordable podcast hosting options available. If you already own a computer that’s capable of recording audio, you can start podcasting for less than $100.
If you’re planning to take your podcast beyond a single microphone setup, how much you spend on equipment like microphones, audio interfaces, computers, displays, cameras, lights, recording, and editing software, is entirely dependent on what kind of podcast you’re trying to make. Two co-hosts recording from their kitchen tables in separate cities can be done for a few hundred dollars a year, whereas in-studio production with a full staff of writers, producers, audio engineers, and more can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
A final result of a finished podcast episode is an audio file that’s distributed across the internet via pod-catching software. However, there’s a great deal of care that goes into planning, recording, and publishing that file. While there are countless podcasts available in all shapes and sizes, most podcasts have the same core features in common.
- Hosts: A host is the primary personality at the center of a podcast. They open the show, present the content, offer commentary and analysis, and interview guests. Although a host is not strictly necessary for a podcast, almost all podcasts have at least one host.
- Format: A podcast’s format is the type of show it is. Whether it be a single host presenting the news of the day or interviewing guests, a panel of hosts chatting about movies, a narrative-driven audio drama, or a documentary about true crime or historical events, your format is one of the defining aspects of your show.
- Subject: This is what your podcast is actually about. There are nearly infinite topics you can center your show around. Podcast subjects can be as broad as current events and popular culture, or as narrow as gardening, table-top gaming, crafting, or any other niche theme you can think of.
- Style: The style of a podcast includes everything from the energy and performance of the host to its theme music, recurring segments, jingles, and other bits of the show’s personality that audiences will come to expect as part of the overall feel of your podcast.
- Metadata: This includes all the non-audio bits of your podcast necessary to allow it to be listed on podcast directories and findable by your audience via search results. This includes not just the name and artwork of your show, but also the description and keywords of the overall show and individual episodes.
Podcast Hosting Services
The most common on-going cost of a podcast is the hosting service. A podcasting hosting service is where you’ll upload your finished episodes for distribution across the world. Some services, like Anchor, are absolutely free and provide every tool you need to create and distribute your podcast. Paid options like Podcast Webpages roll in services like website hosting, give your podcast a true home on the internet. The price of podcast hosting services ranges from free to more than $100 per month.
You’ll want to choose a podcast hosting service that has most, if not all, of these features:
- Hosting storage space: Storing large amounts of audio content takes up a lot of bandwidth. Choose a host with packages suitable for how many hours of audio you upload every month.
- Distributes episodes to podcatchers: Every time a new podcast episode releases, a podcatcher automatically downloads your episodes. These episodes then get distributed to subscribers. Many podcast hosting services integrate with podcatchers.
- Metadata management: Metadata provides details about your podcast episode. The majority of hosting services have built-in tools for inputting and changing this metadata as needed.
- Analytical tools: Because people can listen to podcasts on many different podcatchers, there’s no easy way to collect all of the listener data across platforms. Your hosting service should have its own tools for determining how many downloads there are and where your audience is listening from.
- Monetization options: Most hosting services don’t allow you to monetize a podcast if you’re using their free version. Some have built-in tools to help you make money from your podcast.
- Website and domain hosting: Having a website for your podcast makes it easy to share show notes and behind-the-scenes of podcast episodes. A domain is also known as your URL—a custom domain is much easier to share than a long URL given by the podcatcher.
- Promotional tools: Providers with built-in promotional tools will make it easier for you to share your podcast episodes for others. For example, Buzzsprout has a feature that creates a video snippet from your podcast episode for a small fee.
There is no shortage of podcast hosting companies to serve you. With so many choices, telling the good from the bad can get confusing. Reputable, popular and affordable podcast hosting services include Blubrry, BuzzSprout, Libsyn, and PodBean.
Types of Podcasts
The rapid proliferation of podcasting in recent years has given rise to shows that cover nearly every topic and genre including pop culture, news, political commentary, long-form interviews, narrative storytelling, true crime documentaries, educational programming, and call-in shows. iTunes, which contains the world’s largest and most popular podcast directory, divides podcasts into the following categories:
- True Crime
- Society & Culture
- Health & Business
- Kids & Family
- Religion & Spirituality
- TV & Film
Podcasts as we know them today were invented by Adam Curry. In 2003, the former MTV personality and tech entrepreneur developed the idea of having MP3s delivered via RSS feed to iTunes.
His idea took root and in 2004 he launched Hipcast (then Audioblog.com), the world’s first podcast hosting service. From there, podcast downloading software, or podcast catchers, were quickly developed to facilitate and organize the hundreds of feeds that started to pop up around the internet.
Journalist Ben Hammersly coined the term “podcast”—a portmanteau of “broadcasting” and “iPod”—as the format first widely spread via iTunes and became popular on the then-popular iPod Classic. The term was adopted and kept, even when the market moved beyond Apple products.
Pros & Cons of Podcasting
Starting a new podcast can be an exciting time. You’re starting something new, you’re passionate about your new show’s subject, and eager to jump into the public dialogue. However, it can also be a time filled with nervousness about your performance and what might come from becoming a public figure.
Pros of Podcasting
Podcasting has several benefits for both the host and the audience. The host gets to create something new, engage with an audience and possibly make money. The audience learns something new and has an interesting voice and perspective to listen to.
- Creative satisfaction: Podcasters are generally a creative, performance-oriented group. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be podcasters. Podcasting, even for a small show, provides an excellent creative outlet for the hosts, a place to put out everything that’s on their mind, and a productive hobby for passionate hosts.
- Connect with your audience: The relationship between a podcaster and their audience is one that runs deep for both parties. It may take a while for your audience to find you, but when they do, it forms a deep, personal connection and emotional investment in what you’re doing.
- Make money: If your podcast is successful in bringing in a large audience, there are many ways to turn that into a profit—ads, donations, affiliate deals, etc. However, if you go into podcasting expecting to cash in, calibrate your expectations to the fact that most podcasts cost more to produce than they’ll make throughout the life of the podcast.
Cons of Podcasting
First-time podcasters often run into walls they didn’t expect and their shows quickly falter. These include a heavier than expected workload, not building an audience fast enough, and waning interest after the first few episodes. Veteran podcasters know there are definite downsides to long-term success. These include managing a growing enterprise, the stress of becoming a well-known figure, and burn out.
- You become a public figure: While you shouldn’t expect instant fame when you become a podcaster, you should be prepared for what might come your way should you be widely successful. You could lose some privacy and become a target of online criticism and abuse—especially if you’re discussing controversial topics.
- Takes a lot of time: Even as a hobby, podcasting can quickly consume your life. The show goes beyond recording your voice and posting it online. Researching your topics, finding audio clips, writing up metadata, scheduling guests, interacting with the audience, and managing the show’s finances all take time and effort.
- Burn out: When your podcast first takes off it’s an exhilarating ride, but long-term success means putting out high-quality content on a regular schedule. Months or years of that can wear a person’s interest in podcasting down and make them bored with their chosen subject matter—leading to an abrupt end of the show.
Alternatives to Podcasting
If you want to have your voice heard on the internet but podcasting doesn’t suit you, there are plenty of other venues to scratch that digital itch. You can share your message through livestreaming, vlogging, and blogging. No matter which option you choose, the important thing is that you get started and remain consistent.
One of the most rapidly growing ways of participating in the online conversation is by livestreaming. Services like YouTube and Twitch now allow you to broadcast yourself to potentially millions of viewers. Like podcasting, it’s cheap and easy to get started. Live-broadcasting offers real-time audience interactions that build the vital special relationship between the host and their viewers in a way that pre-recorded podcasts can’t.
If performing to and reacting to a live audience isn’t appealing to you, vlogging can achieve many of the same effects as livestreaming without the live audience. Pre-recording videos before they go live allows you to write, organize, shoot, edit, and polish your videos in a more methodical way. And since all the major video platforms for vlogging are free, you’ll only have to pay for your camera and microphone.
While video content has grown evermore dominant in recent years, the written word is still a powerful force. If recording your face and/or voice isn’t the best way for you to express yourself, a traditional blog is a great choice. A well-crafted blog post, think-piece, researched presentation, or opinion can capture the attention and imagination of an audience as well as a polished podcast performance can. There are plenty of free blogging services that you can use to start publishing today.
Podcasting Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Whether you want to dive deeper into the question “what is a podcast,” or you’re interested in listening to podcasts or creating one, there are answers to the most commonly asked questions about the emerging technology below. If you still have questions, leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
What is the difference between podcasts and radio?
Podcasts are the 21st century digital successor to traditional 20th century radio. Podcasts often follow the same formats and subject matter of terrestrial radio shows. The two biggest differences are that radio shows are broadcast over the airwaves to AM/FM receivers in real time, whereas podcasts are recorded (or streamed) in advance, then distributed via the internet to computers and mobile devices, and you can listen to episodes on demand.
Are podcasts free?
Most podcasts are free to download or listen to. However, there are some that reside behind a paywall or produce exclusive content for listeners who contribute financially to the show. There are even some podcast networks that sell subscriptions to multiple podcasts for a flat rate.
What are some examples of popular podcasts?
With millions of downloads for each episode, “The Joe Rogan Experience” is one of the world’s most popular podcasts. The standup comedian and reality TV host launched the podcast in 2009 when the format was a new frontier in media. In many ways, the success of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” and that of his fellow comedian’s “The Adam Carolla Show,” proved that podcasting was a financially viable medium.
More and more people are getting their news via podcasts. So, major news corporations now produce podcasts. As of this writing, the most popular news apps are “The Daily,” from The New York Times and “Up First,” by NPR. However, legacy media doesn’t hold all the cards. Newcomers such as “The Ben Shapiro Show” from The Daily Wire and “Pod Save America” by Crooked Media provide both news and commentary for both sides of the American political spectrum.
One of the most popular and fastest-growing podcast genres is True Crime. Podcasts like “Detective Trapp” from the L.A. Times, “Dr. Death” by Wondery, go in-depth into real-life criminal cases. “The podcast Cold,” by KSL Studios, covers the 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell, and subsequent investigation into her husband are reviewed in detail, along with introducing new details about the case that have never been released to the public.
What makes a good podcast?
As with any entertainment medium, a podcast will succeed or fail largely on the quality of its content. The most pivotal element of that is the host. Podcast hosts should be well-spoken, easy to understand, charismatic, and engaging. If a show has more than one host, co-hosts should have natural chemistry and rapport with each other. Interview-based podcasts should have a host that can engage guests in a way that keeps the audience invested in the conversation.
Good podcasts also have high-quality audio. If a podcast is hard to listen to because it was recorded with substandard equipment, poor recording settings or bad editing, it won’t grow a substantial audience.
Successful podcasts have a regular schedule for when they release new content. Podcast audiences come to anticipate when a new episode is available for download. A weekly podcast that misses an episode risks losing their audience who may go search for something else to fill that slot during the week that they’re gone. That only compounds itself if the show is gone for a longer period of time. Consistent, regular, reliable new content is the hallmark of every high-performing podcast.
How do podcasts make money?
There are a variety of ways to monetize a podcast. The most common is advertising, which can take several forms in itself. Hosts can do an in-show ad-read for products and services. They can also play prerecorded ads during their shows just as traditional radio shows do. Essentially, any kind of advertising you see on radio and television is also possible with podcasts.
Crowdfunding is also a popular way to fund a podcast, which involves asking your audience to donate money to your show directly. Many podcasters use services like Patreon to facilitate monthly donations and create special perks for donors. Others take more direct payments through services such as PayPal and Venmo.
In many cases, a podcast may be just one component of an overall media brand. And the podcast serves as free content to gain an audience that’s willing to buy a premium membership to get access to additional content behind a paywall.
Bottom Line – What is a Podcast and How Does It Work?
Podcasting came into its own in the 2010s and is now an established part of our digital media lives. No matter what you’re interested in, whether it be gardening, politics, sports, fishing, or narrative storytelling, it’s a near certainty that you can find a good podcast about it. And in those very rare instances that you can’t, it’s more than possible for you to fill that void yourself.