Podcasts: An infotainment buffet

When the new iTunes version 4.9 came along, I and thousands of other iTunes users suddenly discovered the wild and wonderful world of podcasts. They are an amazing additional source of content, and if I didn’t already love my iPod for the music I might get one just for listening to podcasts.

What’s a podcast?
A podcast is an audio program (i.e. show, not software) that you download to your iPod or other portable audio device. Imagine a radio show of this week’s movie reviews or you can also think of some of them as audio blogs. Some are short updates (2 to 5 minutes) and others are a full 45 to 75-minute show with regular segments. Users subscribe to podcast feeds and get automatic downloads of new shows each week (or whenever there’s a new episode), and it’s all free. People who don’t have an iPod or iTunes can still subscribe by using pod-catcher programs to download the podcasts and transfer them to mp3 players.
Most podcasts are home-grown: two or three people with mics recording their thoughts and discussions about their favourite topics. However, even though they’re not commercially produced, they can be really well done. Hosts are often very well-informed and professional. They’ve done some research and have a lot of interesting stuff to talk about. There are all kinds of topics, ranging from gizmos and games to families and finances. Seeing as their natural habitat is the internet, they do tend to skew in the “geek” direction. That means there are plenty of podcasts about sci-fi, technology, gadgets, etc., but the landscape continues to expand daily. Plus, they aren’t all informational. There are many comedy podcasts and even serialized podcast novels. Many professional media institutions are also getting into podcasts by snipping together some of their programming to put out there in the podcasting world, including CHUM-FM, CBC, Wall Street Journal, ESPN, BBC, Nightline, Ebert & Roeper, and Disney.

The podcast world
Once you start wading into the world of podcasts you might be overwhelmed by the number of them out there. It’s kinda like going to a large buffet with hundreds of new dishes: it’s hard to know which ones are good. Having tried a couple dozen, I’ve concluded that the top 10 or 100 podcasts charts don’t always tell the tale. Also, the topics and content are only half the story. The hosts play a big part in whether I’ll enjoy a podcast or not. For example, I’ve tried several podcasts about computers and new technology: some that are really popular, and some that aren’t. I like hosts that are down to earth; listening to them is like a chat over coffee. Some are a bit wacky, and many are just too much into annoying “dude-speak”. I imagine them all in their parents’ basement passing brewskies around while playing their X-Box live or something. I like hosts who (this may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s often overlooked) know what they’re talking about. Supposed sci-fi geeks cannot not know the name of Ewan MacGregor, or should know the difference between a Vorlon and a Centauri (maybe that last one’s asking a bit much) … anyway. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • Geek Speak Radio
    This is my number one and I look forward to each weekly show because the hosts seem like really cool guys who just enjoy talking about technology and geek culture. They know their stuff, but are honest about the stuff they don’t know. They don’t dumb down the tech talk, so occasionally it goes over my head, but it’s still a pleasure listening to them talk amongst themselves.
  • Cinecast
    This is the best film review podcast I’ve found so far. The hosts are knowledgeable about film and their reviews are intelligent and well-explained. They love to hear differing viewpoints from listeners, but are good at defending their opinions as well. Their tastes skew towards the gritty, guys’ films (i.e. movies with Al Pacino or Paul Newman). Each week they have a top 5 list (e.g. top 5 comic book films, anti-hero films, sci-fi films, etc.) and they have a fun contest called Massacre Theater, where the two hosts “act” out a scene from a film and listeners try to guess what movie it’s from.
  • The Signal
    This one is really specific: it’s a podcast about Firefly/Serenity, the cancelled TV show and upcoming movie from Buffy/Angel creator Joss Whedon. The podcast’s goal is to get the word out there about the movie and promote the show (which is on DVD). Each weekly episode has magazine-style segments such as News from the Verse (every news tidbit about events, fans, or actors related to Firefly/Serenity), I Like Chinese (tongue-in-cheek Chinese language lessons using the phrases from the TV series), and Guerilla Marketing (tips on how to promote Firefly/Serenity among your own personal sphere of influence). I am only a medium-level fan of the show (I do own the DVDs), but the enthusiasm behind each podcast makes me feel like an excited part of a fan movement.

Each week I keep adding more and more subscriptions to my iTunes podcast directory. This week I’m going to try a new Harry Potter-themed podcast, and a podcast called The Word Nerds, which explores the English language, and interesting ways we use it.Podcasts are a great, free source of information and entertainment, and a cool diversion for a one-hour commute.

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