Sebastien Babolat wasn't aiming for stardom in July when he started recording weekly French lessons from his living room in Monterey, Calif. He just wanted to try podcasting, a new way of distributing audio programs over the Internet, and thought a handful of people might want to brush up on their bonjours and au revoirs. But within a few months, his breezy and fun FrenchPodClass was attracting 10,000 listeners and ranking among the most popular podcasts around. Babolat, a 26-year-old student from Les Adrets, France, can't explain the free show's overnight success.
There's no mystery about why podcasting is hot. The technology allows anyone to produce a radio-style program that an audience can find, download, and listen to anytime. Podcasts aren't just for iPods; they can be heard on any computer or portable audio player. More than 10,000 of them have been posted on the Web, with topics ranging from politics and technology to vegan cooking and bass fishing. Apple gave podcasting a big boost when it began promoting the shows on its popular iTunes online music store last summer.
The beauty of podcasting is its simplicity. A podcast is nothing more than a digital audio file with a special link that allows it to be delivered via the Web. Chances are, you've got all the tools to produce one on your desk already. Babolat recorded his first show on his aging Dell (DELL ) laptop using a cheap microphone and Audacity, a free audio program he downloaded from the Internet. A Web-based service called Liberated Syndication hosts his podcast for $10 a month. His only upgrade has been a $50 Sony (SNE ) ECM-S80 microphone.
Several companies are aiming to make podcasting even easier by putting all the basic tools into one package. A good example is the Podcast Factory from M-Audio, an Irwindale (Calif.) division of Avid Technology that usually caters to music pros. In researching the podcasting market, M-Audio found that sound quality made a big difference in the success or failure of a show. So for $150, it bundles a decent dynamic microphone; an external "interface" with controls for input and output levels and jacks for headphones, speakers, and instruments; and copies of Audacity and Podifier, a program for publishing your podcast. A bonus: 2,000 professional-quality music clips you can use to begin or end your show or introduce segments.
If you have podcast dreams, plot out your show before getting started. First, listen to some popular podcasts to get an idea of how they're structured. Then, write a script that will let you move smoothly from sign-on to sign-off. Keep it short: Anything over 30 or 40 minutes is longer than most people will listen to.
Next you'll need to assemble your equipment. You could use your PC's built-in mike, but your listeners might think you're recording from the moon. So upgrade to a headset that combines a better quality microphone with comfortable headphones to let you monitor your voice level. Sennheiser's PC150, which can be purchased from online discounters for less than $35, gives you the added benefit of a noise-canceling mike, which will cut down on background clicks and pops.
Keep in mind that most PCs don't have the proper jacks for connecting pro audio gear. Marshall Electronics solves that problem by including adapters with its $150 Desktop Recording Kit that allow the better-sounding condenser microphone to plug into a PC or Mac. An inexpensive mixer like the $120 TAPCO lets you amplify and even out your voice (and your guests' voices) so they can be heard no matter what kind of device your podcast is playing on. "The No. 1 mistake most podcasters make is they have the audio levels wrong," says Todd Cochrane, author of Podcasting: The Do-It-Yourself Guide (Wiley Publishing, $19.99).
YOUR HOST WITH THE MOST
Before you start, you'll need one more thing: a program for recording, mixing, and editing your audio. Audacity works well for beginners, and you can't beat the price. If you have a recent Macintosh, you probably have a copy of GarageBand, a more sophisticated piece of audio software. The latest version is part of Apple's (AAPL ) $79 iLife '05 Suite. Want to see your script roll before your eyes like a TelePrompTer? The $250 ePodcast Producer from Industrial Audio Software can do that and let you record Internet-based phone calls from guests or listeners, too.
Once you've recorded your show, export the audio file as an MP3, the preferred format for podcasts. Be sure to edit the ID3 tags that describe your audio file for listeners. Then upload it to a Web server. Your Net provider likely gives you space you could use, but if your podcast catches fire, it might strain the bandwidth and get you in trouble. A better option is OurMedia.org, which hosts your podcast and stores archived shows for free. If you have a blog, post a link there to let your readers know the podcast is ready.
The final step: Add the link, known as a feed, that transforms your MP3 file into a podcast. That allows your listeners to find your podcast and subscribe to it, which means each new episode will automatically be downloaded to their computers. Sites such as FeedBurner.com will help you do this for free if you have a blog, or, if you're using Podcast Factory or ePodcast Producer, just type in some basic information and they do the rest. Post the link at iTunes and other podcast directories. Pretty soon, you may be a star.
By Andrew Park