A podcast is a kind of personal radio broadcast. At its simplest level a podcast can consist of just one person with a microphone recording themselves as they talk about their favourite topic – whether it’s politics, sci-fi, or the latest Apple news and rumours. There are plenty of interviews, sport and comedy shows that work well in this format too. The podcast can be saved as a straightforward audio file – very often in the MP3 format – that can then be distributed over the Internet and played on any Mac, PC or mobile device. 

There were some very successful ‘talking-head’ podcasts in this format in the early days of podcasting, with people like Ricky Gervais getting millions of downloads for their podcasts. However, the podcast format has evolved from those simple beginnings, and there are now some very professional dramatic productions, such as the X-Files-esque Limetown, or the real-life investigative journalism of Serial, which has been one of the biggest podcast hits of recent years. Other podcasts, such as Freakonomics and The Nerdist also have a worldwide following, while the BBC releases podcast versions of many of its radio programmes, such as Desert Island Discs and even The Archers, that regularly feature on lists of the most popular podcasts. President Obama even gave his seal of approval to the medium last year when he appeared on the WTF podcast, recorded by comedian Marc Maron in his garage in Los Angeles. 

Podcasts can include video too. Apple has an archive of all its big product launches that are available as ‘vodcasts’, and there are plenty of gaming and film podcasts that incorporate video clips. But podcasts do generally work best as simple audio recordings. The audio files are relatively small, so they’re quick and easy to download onto mobile devices, and you can listen to them pretty much anywhere you want.

Finding Podcasts On iTunes

As we’ve mentioned, most podcasts are recorded as simple audio files, so anyone that has a web site can record their own podcast and upload it onto the Internet for other people to listen to. Many podcasts are still distributed in this way, but it’s hard to trawl around the entire Internet and find podcasts that you might like. Not surprisingly, it was Apple that solved this problem and brought podcasting into the mainstream when it added a podcasting section to iTunes back in 2005. 

The great thing about iTunes is that it allows anyone to broadcast their podcasts – subject to a few modest technical requirements – which means that you can find podcasts covering just about every subject under the sun. Unfortunately, the Mac/PC version of iTunes is a bit of a mess these days, so the podcast section isn’t immediately obvious. You need to click on the Options menu – indicated by three dots (•••) up in the top-left corner of the iTunes window – and then select Podcasts from the list that appears. That will take you into My Podcasts, which shows the list of podcasts that you’ve already selected. 

Of course, if you’re new to the podcast scene then you probably won’t have anything in here yet, so you also need to click on the tab marked iTunes Store in the centre of the iTunes toolbar in order to view the podcasts that are available on the iTunes Store. This looks just like the main music section of the iTunes Store, with a list of featured podcasts running along the top of the screen, along with lists of podcasts in various categories, and charts of the most popular podcasts (for more details you can read Apple’s podcast FAQ here).

Finding Podcasts On iOS

Things are even easier on iOS devices, as Apple has removed podcasts from the Music and iTunes Store apps, and created a completely separate Podcasts app. This means that the Podcast app on iOS avoids all the clutter of iTunes on the Mac and PC, and can just concentrate on highlighting featured podcasts, along with charts of the most popular podcasts in categories such as Comedy, Music, Tech, and Arts. There’s also a search tool so that you can look for specific titles or topics that you’re interested in. 

All the podcasts available on the iTunes Store and the Podcast app are free, so you can download as many as you want. There’s a vast collection of different podcasts available, ranging from professional programs produced by organisations such as the BBC and our very own Macworld podcasts, down to a couple of blokes chatting about stamp-collecting or football. If you find a particular podcast that you like then you can also ‘subscribe’ to that podcast, which tells iTunes or the Podcast app to automatically download any future episodes of that particular podcast as they become available. New podcasts that you haven’t yet listened to are kept in a separate ‘Unplayed’ list, so that you can quickly see which episodes are next in line. 

The Podcast app on iOS, and iTunes on Mac and PC are the quickest and easiest ways of finding podcasts, but there are a few other options as well. There’s an iOS app called Stitcher that provides access to a good selection of podcasts and Internet radio stations. The US-based Pandora music service recently signed a deal to distribute the popular Serial podcast, and you can find a few music-oriented podcasts on the SoundCloud music service too. Spotify has also announced plans to add a podcast section, although we’ve not seen this appear in either the Mac or iOS versions of the Spotify app so far.

Do It Yourself

Most people will be happy just downloading some of their favourite podcasts from iTunes or the Podcast app, but it’s not hard – or expensive – to create your own podcasts too. Apple’s GarageBand used to provide a project template specifically designed for recording podcasts – which, with impeccable timing, it removed just as podcasting started to enjoy its recent surge in popularity. However, you can still use GarageBand to record and edit simple podcasts and then submit them to the iTunes Store (and there’s advice for budding podcast stars here).

Conclusion

From its hobbyist beginnings, podcasting has grown into a thriving media industry that attracts audiences of millions from around the world. The fact that podcasts are relatively cheap to produce and distribute also means that you can find podcasts on any subject that you might be interested in. And, best of all, most podcasts are free, so why not fire up iTunes or the Podcasts app and check out the latest podcasts today?