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What is a podcast? It’s a question you asked yourself every time someone mentions the latest thing they’re listening to. But you still don’t know what a podcast actually is.
Fortunately, it’s very straightforward. In this article we explain what a podcast is, where you can find podcasts worth listening to, and, crucially, how to listen to podcasts.
What Is a Podcast?
This should be a straightforward answer, but over the years the definition of a podcast has changed somewhat.
In the simplest terms, a podcast is an audio presentation that you can download or stream from the internet. It might be available on iTunes, or your favorite streaming service. Alternatively, you can find it on the web and just listen to it through your browser.
As noted, other definitions of a podcast exist. Some people substitute “podcast” when describing vlogs (video logs). Others liken them to audio versions of blogs.
Podcasts can cover almost any topic. Some shows feature just a single host, perhaps explaining an idea or performing comedy. Others might be discussions about a topic, or an interview with someone of interest.
The most important thing about podcasts is that anyone can make one. All you need is a recording device and the means to upload the recording to the internet. Find out more in our article explaining how to start your own podcast.
A Brief History of Podcasts and Podcasting
While recording material and sharing it via the internet was possible before this, the first podcasts appeared in 2003.
Following the 2003 BloggerCon event, a piece of software called “RSS-to-iPod” was released. The aim was simple: allow iPod owners to download audio files from the internet. Several services popped up offering the facility to host and “push” audio files to Apple’s iPod audio players.
It wasn’t until 2004, however, that the term “podcasting” was coined by journalist Ben Hammersley. Months later, Dannie Gregoire referred to “the podcaster” when describing a podcast creator, and the term “podcast” entered common use.
How Do Podcasts Work?
Podcasts are basically audio files, typically in MP3 format, that are distributed via an RSS feed. This has only been possible since 2003, when a change in functionality to RSS (what is RSS?) enabled audio files to be “enclosed” within the RSS feed.
At this time, RSS (Really Simple Syndication) was widely used by websites to update readers of new posts. A feed reader app would notify you if a new article had been published, for example. In the case of podcasts, iTunes would download the latest episode of the subscribed podcast.
This has become the standard behavior. When a podcast is subscribed to, it is automatically downloaded to the device ready for you to listen to.
While RSS has largely been abandoned these days in favor of social media, it remains important to the distribution of podcasts.
Where Can I Find a Podcast?
You have several ways to find a podcast. If you use Apple hardware (a Mac, iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or Apple Watch) then the best option is to find a show via iTunes or the Apple Podcasts app.
For example, MakeUseOf’s Really Use Podcast can be found on iTunes. It’s been the go-to destination for new podcasts and listeners since the beginning. While Spotify is certainly giving users a strong alternative to iTunes, other options are available, including SoundCloud and Player FM.
Whichever service you use, podcasts are grouped by genre, enabling you to find one or more shows on a specific topic that you might be interested in listening to.
Ways to Listen to a Podcast
Now you know everything about podcasts, it’s time to start enjoying them. But how do you listen to a podcast?
1. Listen to Podcasts on the Web
The easiest way to start listening to a podcast is via your PC’s browser. Thanks to Spotify and SoundCloud (among others), you can simply open a website and click Play. Some services require you to create a free account, although this may be supported by audio adverts.
Note that while you can browse iTunes from your desktop browser, you cannot currently play any podcasts this way.
2. Enjoy Podcasts on Android
If you use an Android phone or tablet, several good options are available. One of the most popular is Player FM, which is ad-free and features some topic-based discovery tools. There’s also a sleep timer, as well as a choice of themes.
Note that although Player FM is free, you can upgrade to one of three plans:
- $1 per month (Gold)
- $4 per month (Pro)
- $10 per month (Patron)
Each of these offers enhanced features, such as synced history, full backups, and insider access to get new features in advance.
Download: Player FM for Android (Free, in-app purchases available)
Check our list of the best Android podcast apps for more suggestions.
3. Listen to Podcasts With iTunes
As noted, the dominant podcast player is iTunes, which is perfect for listening on macOS and Windows 10.
With iTunes installed on your computer and an Apple account set up, you’ll find recommendations, top episodes, and top podcasts. These come from a variety of sources—pretty much everywhere you can think of—which is why iTunes is the “home” of podcasts.
Even podcasts found in other locations (such as hosted on SoundCloud) can be found on iTunes. If you’re using Windows or macOS, iTunes is the optimum podcast solution.
Download: iTunes for macOS and Windows 10
4. Download Podcasts on iPhone and iPad
Want to listen to podcasts on the go on your iPhone or iPad?
The Apple Podcasts app gives you access to all the podcasts on iTunes, without making you browse the entire library. By narrowing down on the most interesting subset of audio content on iTunes, Apple Podcasts lets you find the shows you really want to listen to and subscribe to them.
Apple Podcasts is free to install on iOS. In fact, it is probably installed already.
Want more options? Our guide to the best iOS podcast apps should help.
5. Grab Podcasts Through Your TV
It’s even possible to enjoy podcasts through your TV. This might be by using a Chromecast-like solution or using media center software like Kodi.
Various audio and video podcasts can be found in the official repositories on Kodi. These include tech podcasts such as TWiT, but you can just as easily install the iTunes extension for Kodi and access any existing subscriptions that way.
You Can Now Start Listening to Podcasts!
So, now you know what podcasts are: basically, downloadable audio presentations, usually discussions, but occasionally drama or comedy. You’ll typically find them on iTunes and Spotify (among other locations) and can either download or stream podcasts to your mobile device, PC, or media center.
In short, podcasts are just a different way of communicating thoughts, information, and experiences. There’s no reading required and no screen to look at. Simply hit Play and start listening today!
Still not sure where to start? Then check out our guide to the best podcasts on Spotify.