A podcast is essentially a “radio-style broadcast” in an electronic file format that is distributed over the Internet. The files are typically in MP3 (MPEG-1 Audio Layer-3) format and, once downloaded, can be played on portable devices such as Apple iPods. If you’ve been anywhere on the Internet in the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard of podcasts by now. But why, you may wonder, would busy lawyers take the time required to prepare and record their own podcasting sessions?
The answer is simple. Podcasts are great marketing vehicles for letting a wide market know how knowledgeable you are in your chosen areas of expertise. And because they are voice- based, podcasts typically provide your audience with a more personal, engaging view of you, since you can use inflections and tone, inject humor and the like in ways that the written word does not allow. Preparing for a podcast also forces you to concentrate intently on a specific topic and focus your thoughts so that you present lots of information in a short period of time for maximum impact. If you podcast with someone else, which is quite common, you have the added advantage of being more conversational in nature, which audiences really enjoy.
If you’re not comfortable with public speaking or freak when confronted by a microphone, then podcasting probably isn’t for you. Even otherwise articulate folks are often sent into paroxysm of “ers,” “ums” and “uhs” when speaking into a microphone. Hence the absolute need to edit your recordings!
How do you go about developing podcast recordings? Let’s address some of the technical requirements, including considerations in creating a professional sound. Beware, this is more complicated than blogging—but it is possible to reap huge benefits if you can master the technology and come up with compelling content.
Recording and Editing Software
The number one requirement for producing a podcast is the ability to record audio. As a basic software component for this task, you can start with the Sound Recorder applet that’s included in Microsoft Windows. This applet only saves files in a .WAV format, so you will need to get the file into MP3 format for final production using an encoder. Overall, the Sound Recorder applet is a very crude way to record and doesn’t provide much flexibility for manipulating or editing a podcast’s sound.
Fortunately, much better alternatives are available. One of the most popular packages is Audacity (http:// audacity.sourceforge.net). It is free open source software for recording and editing sound—although by default Audacity doesn’t output the MP3 file format, so you need to download and install the LAME MP3 encoder to be able to export your recordings into MP3 files. (You’ll find instructions on Audacity’s site.) But just because Audacity is free doesn’t mean that it lacks utility. It is a full-featured piece of software. In fact, it is slightly on the complicated side if you want to take advantage of all its capabilities. It is often said that Audacity is the right program for midlevel production.
Another good application is Podcast Station (www.podcaststation .com). The authors use it and find it to be very powerful and intuitive. It costs $60, which is a minimal price considering its strengths and ease of use. Among other features, you can program “cart” buttons with frequently used sounds, as well as cross-fade different tracks. The cross-fade function is especially useful for bringing in intro music or fading music out at the end of the session. Happily, you can buy the rights to podcast music very cheaply on the Internet. (It’s actually rather fun to listen to all the alternatives in categories from “Heavy Metal” to “Sounds of Nature.”)
You also need some type of recording input device. You can purchase a cheap microphone that connects to the Mic port on your computer, but the problem is that it sounds cheap, too. It is much better to invest in higher-quality microphones to obtain a more professional sound.
Many sources recommend the Shure SM58 unidirectional dynamic microphone (www.shure.com/proaudio). This beauty will set you back around $100 per unit. A better and less expensive choice is to drive to Radio Shack and get one of its dynamic microphones for $25 to $40. The authors use the $25 DM-558B microphone and achieve excellent results. A first-rate add-on accessory for the microphone is a foam windscreen. It will cost around $5 and reduces that “popping Ps” sound, along with other breathing noises that tend to get picked up by microphones.
Also, get a good quality USB headset-microphone combination. Plantronics (www.platronics.com) makes some excellent devices that cost around $50. Inexperienced podcasters tend to move around, turning their heads or reaching for their notes while speaking, which will vary the audio volume if you use a fixed mounted desktop microphone. The headset-microphone combination helps keep the microphone at a set distance from your mouth, thereby keeping the sound level consistent while you record.
Phone Recording for Multispeaker Podcasts
Unless the individual is really a scintillating talker, having just one person speaking during a podcast can tend to put the listener to sleep. (Remember those boring college professors who gave lectures where you were constantly jerking your head up from your chest as you struggled to stay semi-awake?) This is why many podcasts feature at least two people speaking, so there is a conversational aspect to the recording. It is possible to have more than two speakers, of course, but you’ll find the process complicated enough in the beginning. So start small and then grow the total participation. It is technically more difficult to have many people involved in a podcast, especially if they are recording from separate geographic locations.
The technical goal of a podcast is to have the best possible audio quality. This is more difficult when the speakers are not in the same room. A large number of podcasts use telephones to communicate. But do not—we repeat, do not—use cell phones. The quality is very poor and inconsistent.
Communicate with your fellow podcasters over a standard hardwired phone line, even if someone has to pay long-distance charges. When tapping into your telephone system, get a good quality digital recording device. This should run a couple of hundred dollars. The taping devices aren’t as good as studio-quality recording, but they’re a better solution than the cheaper analog-recording systems.
A popular alternative is to use Skype (www.skype.com) to connect the podcast speakers. If you are using the same computer both to record the conversation and to manage the
Skype call, pay special attention to the sound playback and recording source options in the recording software. As an example, if you are using Audacity, set the recording device in the Preferences sections to be the device for your sound support and not the Windows Sound Mapper. Test your configuration before doing your first live recording. The worst case is that you’ll have to use two computers to record, using one computer for the Skype call and the second computer to manage the recording session.
Skype connections are typically very clear, especially if you have high bandwidth for your Internet connection and can control the firewall settings to your network. Unfortunately, no one can control the Internet’s latency, so there is a possibility that there may be pauses in the conversation. Just take a slight break and then rerecord the sentence where the pause or garbled sound occurred. It is fairly easy to edit out a bad section of a recording after you are done with the session.
In addition, if you have control over your network’s firewall settings, you should make some configuration changes. Allow incoming TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol) traffic to the random port that is identified in the Skype options. In addition, allow all UDP traffic out from your network and accept UDP replies to those requests. These firewall configuration changes may be a bit much for most users, so get some capable technical help. Making improper changes could compromise the security of your network.
Skype-to-Skype calls are free, so get all participants to install the software. And have the remote Skype folks use good USB headset-microphones. Skype also supports free conference calling with up to nine participants. This is a great way to interview guests as part of your podcasts, which adds a lot of interest for listeners.
Once you have recorded and edited your podcast, what do you do with the resulting file? Posting it on your Web site is a definite must-do. This is a simple matter of uploading the MP3 file and setting up a link to the proper file on your site. You can then advertise the availability of the podcast on your blog (if you have one), or you can send out an e-mail message announcing the podcast to appropriate parties.
In terms of more full-scale distribution, audiences increasingly want to get new podcasts via RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds or aggregated notices. Details on the methods for full-scale distribution are beyond the scope of this column, but you can hit the Web to review the capabilities of services like www.feedblitz.com and www.feedburner.com, which are two of the most popular distribution mechanisms. Arguably, though, the most popular mechanism is Apple’s iTunes. It has a huge following and provides distribution of podcasts at no charge (which are holy words for most lawyers).
Don’t be misled here: iTunes does not host the actual podcast or the XML file that is used for the RSS feed. iTunes merely provides the mechanism to search and distribute the feeds. Instructions for posting feeds to iTunes can be found at www.apple.com/itunes/store/podcastingfaq.html. Two major items for submission are (1) the media art for the podcast distribution and (2) the RSS feed file, which includes data that the user sees via the iTunes search facility. Several products will create the requisite iTunes XML file. The authors use Podcast Station, which generates the iTunes publishing file through the use of wizards.
Are You Game for Added Leverage?
Admittedly, the foregoing may be a lot to take in for one reading. If your head doesn’t hurt by now, you are probably a budding podcaster. If it does hurt, just remember that there are plenty of IT folks who can help you with the technical end of podcasting so you can concentrate on the content and delivery.
With the burgeoning popularity of podcasts among consumers and businesses everywhere, this is another form of electronic marketing that awaits lawyers who have the foresight to leverage it. Podcasts may be “radio-style” but they are also hot and happening business development tools for the forward-thinking practitioner.
The December 2007 issue’s Hot Buttons, “Ethics in the Electronic Era: 25 Ways to Get in Trouble with Technology,” contained text advising against marketing using bulk e-mail (in entry 3, page 22). The following is a clarification of that text:
“It simply is not legal to bulk market to folks by e-mail unless you carefully abide by the opt-out provisions, identify the e-mails as advertisements and comply with the other requirements of the CAN-SPAM Act.”