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What is a Podcast? An Explanation in Plain English

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This post is also available in: Português

What is a podcast? Simply put: a podcast is an audio programme, just like Talk Radio, but you subscribe to it on your smartphone and listen to it whenever you like.

How do they work and how do you listen to them, though? Read on to find out!

In a little more detail, a podcast is a series of spoken word, audio episodes, all focused on a particular topic or theme, like cycling or startups. You can subscribe to the show with an app on your phone and listen to episodes whenever you like on your headphones, in the car or through speakers.

Or some shortcuts, if you know what you’re looking for:

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Editor’s Note

Our ‘What is a Podcast?’ guide was initially written in 2018. We update this post periodically to reflect changes in technology, our recommendations, and because we’re always learning new things!

What is a podcast you might have heard of? If you’re new to this, it can be easier to understand if you look at how radio stations are turning their shows into podcasts. But, remember, Podcasts have gone way beyond radio – you’ll find out more about that in a minute!

First, though, BBC Radio 4 have run a radio show called ‘More or Less: Behind the Stats’, all about interesting economics and number facts. That show is on at the same time every week, and you have to tune in on your radio to listen. But… to make it easier to listen to, the BBC publish every episode as a part of the ‘More or Less Podcast’, too. Each podcast episode is a recording of a ‘More or Less’ radio episode, and they’re all organised into one podcast series.

So, if you’re a fan of the radio show, you can subscribe to the More or Less podcast and episodes are delivered to you each week. That means you can listen to them any time, rather than be stuck to the radio at the same time each week.

Bonus resources:

Listen to our audio episode answering: What is a podcast? Subscribe to the Podcasting Advice show on your listening app of choice.

Podcasts are Far More than Repurposed Radio

The example above might give you a picture of what a podcast is like, but it isn’t a full answer to the question: what is a podcast!

The vast vast majority of shows tend to be completely original content, not just repurposing the radio.

Many escape the shackles of traditional radio formats to explore brilliantly original approaches and completely niche subjects. For example:

  • They can be any length, from a 1 minute news snippet, to a 3 hour in-depth interview.
  • They can be any frequency, from daily to monthly
  • They can be any format, from simple solo shows up to mammoth, multi-person audio dramas
  • They can cover ANY topic, many of which would never make it onto radio

No matter what you’re into, you’ll find a show that suits the topics you love and the time you have.

When Did Podcasts Start?

The term “podcasting” was first used in February 2004, but podcasting as a medium has arguably existed since the year 2000. You’ll find a whirlwind tour of the history in our When Did Podcasts Start? article.

Are Podcasts Audio or Video?

One confusion around the ‘what is a podcast’ question relates to the media type: audio or video?

Most Podcasts today are audio-only, even though video podcasts do exist. Podcasting has really grown out of a need for background content. That means something that can entertain you, educate you or inspire you in the background of other boring or rote activities.

For example, one of the most common ways people listen is in the car. You can’t watch video there, of course, so audio content is great. In the same way, podcasts are great for listening at the gym, while you’re mowing the lawn, or on your journey to work. Any moment of wasted time can be a moment for audio!

Of course, that means you need something to listen on, so you might need to get yourself a set of headphones to connect to your smartphone. Otherwise, connect up to your car via Bluetooth, or start listening on Echo or another smart speaker!

What is a Podcast Supposed to Sound Like?

When you listen to a podcast, you’ll discover that many of them are quite familiar. You’ll have heard similar types of content over the years, from the radio to a TV talk show. On the other hand, you’ll also hear podcasts that are completely new and entirely different to the norm, thanks to the freedom that podcasting allows.

how do podcasts work?

Most podcasts will be themed around one particular topic. The host or hosts will talk about that topic on every episode. Sometimes it’s really specific, like triathlon racing or dog training, and other times it’s more general, like how to lead a happy life.

Next, each episode of that podcast will talk about something specific within that topic – nutrition tips for taking part in a triathlon, or how to stop your dog fighting with other dogs.

Each episode is normally run by one or two regular presenters, talking about that subject, and they’ll often get outside guests on to contribute, or to be interviewed.

A lot of podcasts are really simple, just a few friends chatting about something that they’re all really passionate about, like movies, knitting or running a business. But some are really polished and super professional, including theme music, sound effects, professional editing and more.

The more professional podcasts are great to listen to, but they take a lot more time and money to produce. The amateur shows, on the other hand, might have a few rough edges, but it means they can get it out, every single week, and grow a loyal following.

Most people listen to a bit of both types. The biggest factor in most podcasts is the host or hosts, and you’ll gravitate towards topics and hosts that you like, more than the approach they take.

What is a Podcast vs a Podcast Episode?

The terminology is confusing! So, let’s break it down: what is a podcast series built on?

A podcast is a series of episodes, and refers to the programme as a whole. Then, a podcast episode is just one recording from that entire Podcast.

It’s just like TV, really. A TV show is made up of a whole series of episodes.

So, think of ‘Friends’ as the series and ‘The One where they Got Married’ as the episode. In this case, Friends is the equivalent of a Podcast and ‘The One Where They Got Married’ is the Podcast Episode.

what is a podcast?

What’s the Difference Between a Podcast and an Audio File?

If you just want to listen, you don’t need to know this bit. Not unless you’re thinking about starting your own podcast! But, if you just want to listen, go right to ‘How to Listen to a Podcast.’

The most complicated aspect of answering the question – What is a podcast? – and where many people get confused, is in the difference between a simple audio file and a full-blown podcast.

The most simple explanation is that an audio file and a podcast episode are technically the same. If you’ve downloaded a Podcast episode from a Podcast site, you’ve already discovered the fact that you’re just downloading an audio file. The difference comes when you add the option to subscribe to that series of audio files.

So, if you use a Podcast hosting service to allow people to subscribe to your series of audio recordings, then you’ve suddenly turned them from simple audio files into a fully functioning podcast! They’re still just audio files, but alongside the subscription, you can now call them a Podcast too.

The subscription aspect is done for you automatically if you use a good Podcast Hosting company, but you might want to know a little about how it works. It’s run through a technology called RSS (that’s the tricky bit…) and it’s just a computer language that lets your Podcasting software talk to a Podcasting website.

Essentially, if you give your Podcasting software (such as Apple Podcasts) the web address of a Podcasting Website, it’ll read the RSS feed and it’ll be able to download all of the old episodes of that Podcast and download new ones as they’re released.

So, when you use Apple Podcasts (an app built into every iPhone), Google Podcasts (built into Android Phones), Spotify, or any other good podcast listening app, it’ll keep track of all of your subscriptions via each Podcasts’ RSS feed, and it’ll automatically download new episodes as they’re available. This is much easier than normal audio files where you would have to search them out on the web and download them yourself.

The big thing to remember is that an audio file on its own is nothing more than that, just an audio file.

But, if you upload that audio file to a website and allow it to be subscribed to via an RSS feed then it’s suddenly a Podcast. Easy!

What is a Podcast: Next Steps

Now you know what a podcast IS, here are some next steps for you….