What are Podcasts and how they work

They're one of the media phenomena of the moment, and they're growing in Italy too. We are referring to Podcasts, whose meaning has taken on all new nuances especially in times of pandemic. Period in which they have managed to take root on an absolutely heterogeneous audience, able to rediscover the power, and the pleasure, of the word in a society as dynamic and interactive as ours.

In fact, it is a radio or video broadcast digitally recorded, and made available on the Internet to be downloaded and played at a later time, even on a portable player. Basically, whenever you happen to miss an episode of your favorite radio show, you can easily jump on the station's website and, if they use podcasts, locate the episode you're interested in and listen to it on your PC or any portable device. Wherever you are. However, this is not all, and now we'll find out why.

Podcast: meaning and history

The last, very particular, period has undoubtedly changed our lives, forcing us to redefine space and time. Together with e-learning and smartworking, another phenomenon has emerged strongly, though not exactly young: that of podcasting. It's no coincidence that, at the beginning of 2019, music streaming giant Spotify decided to buy Gimlet Media, the world's leading podcast producer, for more than $200 million. A choice that only testifies to the growing global importance of this alternative form of communication and entertainment. Before understanding how it works and discovering its history, let's start from the basics: the meaning of podcast.

To understand what is meant by Podcast, we must premise that the term appeared for the first time in an article published by Ben Hammersley for The Guardian newspaper on February 12, 2004, and that it derives from the fusion of the English words iPod and cast. The translation of Pod refers directly to the Apple iPods that, at the beginning of the 2000s, have strongly contributed to the spread of podcasting. Cast, or broadcasting, means to transmit. Putting the two words together, we can consequently say that the meaning of Podcast is literally to transmit through an iPod or, of course, through other means of reproduction.

To be honest, the history of Podcasts is even less recent, and can be traced back to the late '90s, thanks to the advent of home Internet connections fast enough to upload and download massive amounts of data. Likewise, some of the major audio production tools began to be digitized around that time. The release of the first iPod in 2001 did the rest, allowing everyone to download audio content in digital format to play anytime, anywhere.

Four years later, in 2005, the late Steve Jobs, announced a new feature for iPods, now equipped with an ad hoc feature to download podcasts and store them on your device. However, we have to make a big leap to 2014 for Podcasts to become mainstream. The mass success is in fact mainly due to the audio program Serial, which all by itself made the history of this medium. The one under consideration, not surprisingly, is the first program that gives Podcasts a serial nature: several episodes are narrated by a journalist, who tells a real news story, murders, in this case.

The audience to date is about 250 million, for a phenomenon destined to become absolutely popular. Also in Europe, including Italy, podcasting is freeing itself from the mere reproduction of radio programs on demand, and embraces the idea of a new and original format, especially thanks to the commitment of independent broadcasters.

What are podcasts

Now that we understand the origin of the term Podcast and its meaning, we will also have understood that from a purely technical point of view it refers to an audio program, usually serial in episodes and specialized on certain topics, that the various authors upload on dedicated online platforms. And that you can then download from the Internet on your smartphone, computer or tablet through these platforms.

They are not only radio programs, although it happens very often that broadcasters use Podcast distribution platforms to host on-demand replicas of their programs. On Podcast platforms, however, we can do much more: not only download the whole series, in case the author has made it available immediately, but also download only those episodes that interest us and subscribe directly to a podcast to stay up to date on releases and news.

With no fear of exaggeration, we can say that Podcasts have redefined the fruition of audio content. While before we could only listen to a radio program when it was on air, now we can download a podcast to listen to it wherever we are and through the medium we prefer. With times and logics that are now completely autonomous. In addition, if usually a radio program has a fixed length and is punctuated by pauses and breaks well defined, a podcast is instead structured by episodes in free form and is defined through the topic that you choose to treat. There are therefore no particular impositions on the duration and format of the "transmission", for an extraordinary fluidity that in fact characterizes this medium.

At this point, you might still wonder what the difference is between podcasts and the more common streaming technology, now used daily by almost everyone to play and download audio and video content from the web. The main feature of streaming is that it does not allow the use of multiple download channels, resulting in the impossibility of listening to multiple broadcasts at the same time.

With Podcasts, however, we're going to download a real compressed copy of the transmission on the hard disk thanks to multiple simultaneous downloads, to listen to the program later and on a different support from the PC. In this way, the Internet connection is not strictly necessary during the listening phase.

How to listen to podcasts

With the meaning of Podcasts, the origin and the functioning of the medium metabolized, it seems evident that on the net it is possible to find podcasting activities for all tastes and interests. Online we could listen to serial stories or news about a particular sector, as well as radio drama, chats between friends on a specific topic, intimate confessions, or even language courses and personal growth. Between the creativity of the authors and the growing ease of use, the horizon of podcasts is potentially limitless.

To use it, all we need is any smartphone, computer or tablet, and maybe a good pair of headphones!

To use it, all we need is any smartphone, computer or tablet, and maybe a good pair of headphones, with immediate access to an infinite amount of free content, without having to subscribe. It goes without saying that, to really understand what Podcasts are all about, it seems appropriate to start browsing the distribution platforms and listen to a few episodes.

While Spotify is still in a growth phase and early push in the industry, currently the most popular Podcast collection and distribution platform is Apple Podcasts. On the other hand, as widely explained in the previous paragraphs, it was the Apple iPods that started the well-oiled machine of podcasting. On the platform made in Cupertino the creators of podcasts upload what is defined as their "feed", with which they transmit to the system where to find all the files of the episodes to download, along with all other useful information on the programming.

With our iPhone we can then access Apple Podcasts through the application of the same name, to download from AppStore for free, usually installed by default on Apple devices. Once launched, we can search for a podcast by tapping on the lens icon at the bottom of the screen. When we have found the podcast that suits us, select it to scroll through the list of all available episodes, and then tap on the one we want to start playing the audio.

There is also the possibility to subscribe for free by selecting the logo of the podcast and immediately after the "Subscribe" button. The content we have decided to follow is collected in the Library, and the download of new episodes will start automatically. In addition, from the "Discover" menu we'll have the opportunity to consult the rankings and the catalog of Podcasts by categories, while with the "Listen" screen we can now check the episode playing at that moment.

Other platforms work very similarly to the Apple one. For Android users, the application of reference is Google Podcasts, also free, but on the virtual shelves of Google Play Store. From the very first startup, it will put us at ease by proposing a list of the most popular Podcasts, while the search by titles or topics is done with the icon visible in the top left corner. To subscribe, you must then use the "Subscribe" button in the specific screen of a Podcast. Both on iOS and Android there are other platforms for Podcasts other than Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, which all go together to give importance to the value of hearing, a sense that manages to "resist" even in the era of the ostentation of images and social sharing at all costs. These differ in terms of interface, functions and any content created exclusively, as happens for example with Audible, owned by Amazon.