Literary podcasting made simple with WordPress.com

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology

As I opined in the first episode of the Woodrat Podcast, poetry is above all an oral art — to say nothing of storytelling. At the literary magazine I help run, qarrtsiluni, we started including audio recordings of the authors reading their works more than two years ago, once we figured out how easy it was to get the recordings. Starting this past September, we decided to repackage this feature as a daily podcast, which basically just meant adding an extra spoken introduction and a musical theme, and submitting the main RSS feed to iTunes.

Here’s the thing: for reasons of security against hackers and dependability of service, qarrtsiluni resides at the extremely reliable yet restrictive, hosted version of WordPress, WordPress.com. Anyone else with a WordPress.com site, given the right software and hardware, could podcast the same as we do. A lot of mystique surrounds the mechanics of podcasting, but nine tenths of the work is in making the recording. Beyond that, it’s as simple as uploading an audio file to any file storage site (which can be your own blog); adding the audio file link to a new post on your blog, along with an optional Flash player; and hitting Publish. That’s because WordPress feeds are designed to be correctly parsed by iTunes and other podcatchers. (This is equally true for Typepad, by the way. Blogger/Blogspot users have to route their feeds through Feedburner, I think.)

What is podcasting?

Let’s back up a second. What is a podcast? Basically, it’s an internet radio program, which may or may not be affiliated with any actual radio station.

Imagine getting new “radio”-style talk and music shows to listen to on your iPod or other MP3 player every day. You wake up and automatically have new shows ready to listen to while you exercise or commute to work. This is the podcast listening experience. […]

Podcasters are creating very raw and real content and listeners are responding. Free from corporate radio and broadcast regulations, you can create whatever kind of show you can imagine.

Some podcasts are “talk show” style. Others introduce you to the latest bands and music. With podcasts you can stay current on the news, get a glimpse into someone’s life, listen to movie reviews and the list goes on.

Not only do you not need an iPod (source of the “pod” part of “podcast”), but you don’t even need a portable digital device to listen to podcasts. Many people, me included, access them through a regular computer (though good speakers or headphones are a big help). Literary podcasts are still a little thin on the ground, which is one reason why I’m writing this article. I’d especially like to hear more writers doing their own shows in the style of T.M. Camp or Joe Milford, who uses the hosted podcast platform Blog Talk Radio for live and unedited, talk-radio-style interviews with poets. It would also be fun to hear personal bloggers talk about what they’ve been reading, writing, observing and thinking.

The Wikipedia article on podcasts has a good technical definition, attributed to journalism and communications researchers at the University of Texas:

A podcast is a digital audio or video file that is episodic; downloadable; programme-driven, mainly with a host and/or theme; and convenient, usually via an automated feed with computer software.

I don’t know anything about video podcasting, so this article will focus solely on audio. As the foregoing definition suggests, you don’t really even have to make your audio stream available through iTunes to qualify as a podcast. The fact that your site generates an RSS feed that handles audio enclosures takes care of the “convenient” part, really. It’s the other stuff — the style and content of the audio files, and the regularity with which you post them — that really differentiates podcasting from just putting up audio whenever the spirit moves you. But somewhere around 70 percent of all podcast listeners on the web do use iTunes, and it’s safe to assume that a good number of them don’t know how to enter an RSS feed in the iTunes store themselves. (Those using other podcatchers, by contrast, probably do understand such things.) So let’s go through what’s involved in submitting a WordPress.com-hosted podcast to iTunes.

Main feed, category feed, or dedicated blog?

For the qarrtsiluni daily podcast, we simply submitted our main RSS feed to the iTunes store. Previously, we had had a tri-monthly podcast in which we tried to cram the contents of entire issues. It might have failed as a podcast, being too difficult both to produce and to listen to, but again, the actual distribution part worked fine. For that earlier incarnation of the qarrtsiluni podcast, we created a new category, “podcast,” and submitted the feed for just that category.* In WordPress.com, simply add “/feed/” to the end of any category URL to get the RSS feed for that category.

If you anticipate making audio posts that are not part of your podcast, you’ll definitely want to restrict the podcast to one category. You’ll need to advertise the category RSS alongside the iTunes link for the benefit of people who want to subscribe through other podcatchers or feed readers. Obviously you can still assign a given podcast episode to multiple categories, just make sure that your podcast category is one of them. If you use your main feed, as we do now at qarrtsiluni, be mindful of the fact that iTunes and other podcatchers will treat every post with an audio link as a podcast episode.

A third option is to start a new blog just for the podcast. This gives you the most control over what image, name and description show up in iTunes, but it does mean you’ll have to work a little harder to attract an audience. Episodes won’t show up in email and RSS subscriptions for those who already follow your main site unless you cross-post them. You could of course use an RSS widget to display links to the latest episodes in your main site’s sidebar.

Podcast image and metadata

The image that iTunes will use for your podcast comes from what WordPress.com calls your blavatar (your blog’s avatar, not to be confused with your own avatar as a user of WordPress.com), and is uploaded via the General Settings page of your WordPress dashboard. Be sure to upload the largest size supported there, 128×128 pixels, to avoid pixilation… while at the same time picking something simple enough to look half-decent as a tiny favicon in browser address bars. This can make for an interesting design challenge.

The title of the podcast is simply the title of your blog, and the summary below the image is the description you entered in the general settings (which in qarrtsiluni’s case is not very illuminating: “online literary magazine”). If you use a dedicated category, the title will appear in iTunes as “yourblogtitle » podcastcategoryname,” which is slightly ungainly, and the summary will still come from the blog’s description. Optional iTunes fields such as subtitle and keywords have to go unfilled when podcasting from a WordPress.com site.

You can use the Excerpt box to make manual summaries of your posts for iTunes to use as descriptions of each podcast episode (which appear in the pop-up when you click on the little “i” with the circle around it). Otherwise, iTunes will simply include the first 65 words followed by an ellipsis. Also, these descriptions are not pretty: even apostrophes, let alone ampersands and other special characters, will be in HTML code, and links will not appear. One thing to keep in mind when crafting episode summaries or writing the first few sentences of your post is that they will be used for keyword indexing, along with the post titles.

Recording and posting

As I said at the outset, most of the work of podcasting is in making the recording, and this is where you really don’t want to cut too many corners. Yes, there are any number of ways to record spoken word, and as we’ve discovered at qarrtsiluni, even a bad telephone connection recorded over Skype can be perfectly adequate for a three-minute-long poem, especially if the reading is a strong one. But for anything much longer, it does help to have a decent external microphone. That heavy layer of electronic noise you get with the internal mike in your Mac will become tiresome to listeners after more than five minutes. You’ll need to learn how to use decent audio editing software. If you plan on interviewing a lot of people over the phone, you’ll probably want to pay for phone-out privileges in Skype, and also get the premium version of one of the several recorder software applications (I use Pamela), the free versions of which tend to limit you to 15-minute calls.

My point here is that you don’t need to pay a lot of money for equipment and software, but if you are on very a tight budget, you might not want to take up podcasting. If you’re not, the $20/year that WordPress.com/Automattic charges for the lowest file storage upgrade to 5 GB, necessary to upload any audio files to your WordPress.com blog, is a really good deal in my opinion. There is apparently no limit on file size now (it used to be around 70 MB), and no limit on transfers, bandwidth, or downloads. Yes, there are free file storage sites you can use, some more reliable than others, but what you get with WordPress.com is virtually uninterrupted service and fast, cloud-based streaming. In fact, I even use it to host the audio for my podcast here at Via Negativa, an independently hosted WordPress site. My webhost is pretty good, but it is a typical cheap shared web hosting service with occasional blips in service, and I don’t want people to be cut off in the middle of a half-hour show.

The official WordPress.com support page on how to post audio is a decent summary. Many more options for the design and positioning of the audio player are detailed at the very useful, WordPress.com-focused WordPress Tips blog.

Including a player is optional — though a very good idea — but including a link to the audio file is essential if you want podcatchers to pick up the episode. Even if you’re just posting audio and not really podcasting, including the audio file link is still a good practice to get into, since otherwise feed and email subscribers won’t have any way to listen without clicking through. Plus, not all visitors to your site will have Flash enabled, so they won’t all even see the players.

One thing to keep in mind is that iTunes and most other podcatchers will only grab the first audio file in a post, so if you produce, say, a monthly podcast in several parts, each part will need to go up in a separate post.

Submitting your feed to iTunes

First you have to post at least one episode. Then test your feed in iTunes, and if it checks out, submit it — making sure to choose the most relevant iTunes categories — and wait. As with most things Apple, the approval process is shrouded in secrecy, but I’ve done this three times now, and the longest I’ve had to wait was something like 36 hours. Once you’re approved, take the link they give you and advertise it in your sidebar and wherever else you want to promote your show.

Stats and Feedburner

At this point, WordPress.com doesn’t give bloggers any way to track the number of downloads on a podcast or other audio file, so a lot of people recommend routing your feed (main or category, whichever you’re using) through Feedburner, and submitting that instead of your WordPress.com feed. Feedburner does provide stats, but I’m not sure how reliable they are — they tend to fluctuate wildly from day to day, in my experience. Also, I found it sometimes took up to 12 hours for Feedburner feeds to update with new content, though it’s been many months since I’ve used the wretched service — perhaps it’s improved in the interim. Feedburner’s SmartCast feature does, however, give you more control over iTunes metadata, so it might be worth using for that reason alone, though I gather that getting your podcast description to update in iTunes using Feedburner is a bit of a hassle.

Good luck, and please let me know via the comments if you start a literary podcast (or already have one) so I can follow it. I may or may not be able to answer technical queries; I’m very much still a learner here, just sharing what little I’ve been able to pick up.
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*This is also my approach here at Via Negativa with the Woodrat podcast, though being independently hosted I am able to use a plugin to get some extra control over the display both on-site and in iTunes. For other self-hosted WordPressers who might be curious, I am using the newish Blubrry Powerpress plugin, though I haven’t been using it long enough to really be able to evaluate it.

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12 Comments


  1. Since just beginning to dabble in audio blogging last week, I’ve been surprised by how easy it is (at least for WordPress users). I didn’t realize until reading this, though, that making a podcast available through itunes is so simple.

    I fiddled with Blubrry but felt a little in-over-my-head so I started with something simpler, especially since I wasn’t thinking of podcasts so much as just audio. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Blubrry after you’ve been using it a little longer.

    Reply

    1. Well, I highly recommend the 1-Pixel Out audio plugin you’re using now. I kind of miss it, actually. You could definitely podcast with just that plugin (or another) for the player, especially if you were willing to hand-code the RSS file, which is the approach T.M. Camp uses (he was kind enough to share some podcasting advice at my request). Without doing that, I’m not sure how you’d fill the image field in iTunes.

      I have found Blubrry quite easy to use so far, especially after a fiasco with the unmaintained, but once standard, Podpress. Matt Mullenweg says that they’re planning to take over development of Podpress as one of the first “core plugins” for WordPress sometime this year, and when that happens, I’ll definitely take a look at it. But I have no specific complaints about Blubrry so far.

      Reply

  2. Very nice information, i was looking for this. Thanks for all your efforts.

    Reply

  3. So wordpress now concentrating on pod casting, it seems that in long term wordpress is willing to control the whole blogosphere!

    Reply

    1. Well, the decision of core WordPress software developers to make the Podpress plugin one of their first few core plugins just comes from the recognition that too many WP users are dependent on it, and so its maintenance has become a make-or-break issue for people who are trying to decide whether to use or stick with WordPress. As for WordPress.com, the focus of this article, no, I don’t think they’ve focused specifically on podcasting at all. I wouldn’t have written this if there were already a good tutorial anywhere, or even some coherent advice in the WordPress.com forums.

      Reply

  4. Great info! just what I needed TY

    Reply



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