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Podcasts: The Why, What, How, and Which

A lowdown on podcasts.
If you know me, you know there are 10 things I love; podcasts and binary math. In fact, I have to regularly cull the list of podcasts I listen to, because I’m constantly adding new ones to my subscription list, and I can’t seem to squeeze more time into the day, no matter how hard I try. I get made fun of by my coworkers at Bit-Wizards because at any given point throughout the day I usually have my headphones in, and I have the playback speed turned up all the way (more on that later!). So I wanted to write a blog about why you should also listen to podcasts, and also recommend some ways you can get podcasts, and then finally suggest some that might interest you!

Podcasts have been around for over a decade, and the BBC coined the term as a mashup of the words “iPod” and “Broadcast” because they provided a means of getting up-to-date audio recordings that you could take with you on your iPod or other portable music players. The technology behind podcasts is super simple; your device (this used to be a Mac or PC, but now is more likely to be your smartphone) checks in regularly to an RSS feed to see if it’s changed since the last time it checked in, usually, an hour or so ago. The RSS feed is just a very light-weight flat file that lists each episode of the podcast in chronological order, showing the title, date, description, and a few other pieces of info including a link to the storage location of the corresponding MP3 file.

Discovering Podcasts

Let me start out by saying there is a podcast for ANYTHING you can imagine. If there’s a subject that even mildly interests you, guaranteed there is someone else out there who is so heavily into that subject, they host a weekly podcast about it. I can think of half-a-dozen weekly podcasts dedicated to Star Trek… a show that hasn’t had a new episode in 11 1/2 years. My wife and kids were marathoning the old show Quantum Leap on Netflix, and sure enough, I found a podcast dedicated to the show and listened to two people spend three hours talking about an episode that lasted less than sixty minutes.

Probably the best place to find podcasts is in the iTunes Music Store. Don’t let the word “store” fool you; podcasts are almost universally free. The underlying technology behind podcast distribution makes it inherently difficult to put episodes behind a paywall. Typically, podcasts are funded through advertising in the episodes themselves, like broadcast TV or radio. iTunes was the first place to aggregate podcast listings that you can browse and subscribe to. iTunes doesn’t host the actual podcasts; it just provides a directory that anyone can submit their podcast to for potential listeners to find.

Alternatively, your smartphone’s podcast client (sometimes called a “podcatcher”) also lets you search multiple podcast libraries online. Because most podcasters are looking to maximize their potential audience, you can probably find most podcasts on any and all online libraries.

Stitcher is a popular online repository, also, and it makes money through advertising on the podcasts it hosts. Recent entries to the podcast hosting and discovery scene are both Spotify and Google Play, although their selections may be a little slimmer than the more established scenes. Also, Reddit has an entire subreddit dedicated to podcast discovery, with a very active community.

Last, but not least, Twitter is a great source for discovering interesting podcasts. In all likelihood, you’re probably already following people on Twitter with common interests to your own. Be on the lookout for recommendations from them. I’ve found several podcasts I thoroughly enjoy that I discovered through friends on Twitter.

Listening to Podcasts

You’ll need a good app to listen to podcasts. Of course, you can go the old fashioned route, and use iTunes on your Mac or PC, and then sync them to an iPod to take with you, but that’s so late nineteen hundreds. A podcast app will typically have three main features; discovery, management, and playback.


This is pretty basic: Discovery is where you can search online repositories for titles or keywords.


The management portion is where you can subscribe or unsubscribe to podcasts, and load or discard individual episodes. Most apps will automatically download the latest episode of each of your podcasts so that it’s ready to go when you are. If you’re worried about using up your cell plan’s data allowance, you can specify in the app’s settings to only download episodes while on Wi-Fi. You can also usually specify a retention rule because some news podcasts are published every hour, so you may not want a couple of dozen episodes taking up all your phone’s storage. You may want to tell it to only keep the latest one or two episodes, and to discard the rest. Most podcasts, though, are released on a daily or weekly basis.


The playback portion of the app is where most podcast apps distinguish themselves with features. Most podcast apps allow you to adjust the playback speed. I, personally, have a history of video editing, so I’ve trained my ear to listen to audio at high speeds, and still understand what’s being said. So I typically max out the speed setting on whatever app I’m using. Most apps also offer adjustable skip ahead and skip back buttons, so you jump past the commercial breaks, or re-listen to a part you missed. Many apps also provide EQ settings designed to enhance spoken word, since many podcasts are analogous to talk-show radio.

The iPhone comes with a podcast app preinstalled, and it’s certainly a very capable podcast app. However, you may want to consider dropping a couple of bucks on a third party app, because they’re usually in active development, with regular feature updates and bug fixes. They also often offer superior features to the built-in app. My personal favorite is Castro, which lets me playback podcasts at 3x speed, and has great management functionality. I’ve also used Overcast, which has a great “smart speed” feature, which removes all the little pauses in the dialogue.

On Android (and iPhone and Windows Phone!) I recommend Pocket Casts. Alternately, as I previously mentioned, you can find podcasts in Spotify and Google Play.

My Recommendations

So what podcasts should you be listening to each week? If you’ve never listened to podcasts before, I highly recommend you start with Sarah Koenig’s award winning Serial. You won’t be able to put it down. If you enjoy that, NPR has a whole slew of great podcasts; I really enjoy Hidden Brain, Embedded and the always interesting How To Do Everything.

I also really enjoy several of the podcasts from How Stuff Works, especially Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed in History Class. Speaking of history, Unknown History is a lot of fun, and a short listen.

I also listen to podcasts to help with raising kids, improving my grammar and managing my money!

As an IT professional, I listen to about 20 hours worth of tech podcasts every week. The network hosts weekly and daily tech podcasts for all aspects of computing; Windows, Mac, Android, Google, etc. One of the most informative shows I subscribe to is Tom Merritt’s Daily Tech Headlines, which is only about 5 minutes long, and has no ads. I also subscribe to lots of podcasts from Microsoft, to stay abreast of the latest developments in Office 365, PowerShell, Azure and even Yammer.

Probably the best podcast on the planet, though, is hosted right here at Bit-Wizards. When I first started Full Frontal Nerdity Podcastworking at Bit-Wizards, I realized that my fellow wizards and I were always talking about the cool things that were happening in the tech world, so I had the bright idea of recording that conversation and making it a podcast. We call it Full Frontal Nerdity, and it’s hosted by the Managed IT Services crew at Bit-Wizards. You get to know the IT team, and best of all, we have no ads!. We regularly have special guests on the show with us, and we record every Tuesday to talk about all the news you should know in the tech arena. If someone’s gotten hacked, we let you know about it. If new phones are being released, we talk about all the highlights. If Facebook releases another app, we’re there to tell you what you need to know about it. The show is always light hearted and fun, and never overly geeky. We consider it a service to our MITS clients, and to the tech enthusiast community as a whole. You should subscribe!


Samuel O. Blowes, Director of IT
Samuel O. Blowes

Director of IT