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Godcasting uplifts your congregation, and is easier than you think
by John Pritchard
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Since the advent of podcasting a few years ago, religious groups of all denominations have been turning to digital distribution to get their message out, and have been finding a lot of listeners.

When our church first decided to venture into the world of podcasting last year, the process seemed daunting. We had only ventured into multimedia development a little bit – mostly in recording and burning our sermons to CD. The internet, however, and things such as podcasting, seemed completely foreign to us.

Our friends in other congregations who already had podcasts running kept extolling how wonderful the technology was, and how it enabled them to get the message out for a relatively low cost. When our daughter showed us that she was getting weekly updates from every church in the area apart from ours, we made the decision to make the leap as well (no, there isn’t any sense of competitiveness here. Certainly not!)

This article is the end result of the past year of our endeavors, and hopefully will serve as a primer for those that want to get their church podcasting as well. The hardest part of getting the podcast up and running was understanding exactly how a podcast works, and getting everything properly prepared. I hope to help you through that learning curve, by explaining everything in simple language. The concept isn’t difficult whatsoever!

First, let’s define what a podcast is.

A podcast is a text file located on the internet that points to a group of media files. This text file is called a newsfeed (or an RSS feed), and acts like a roadmap to media files that are also located on the internet. When someone views a podcast, what they are actually doing is reading this text file, and being pointed to the appropriate media files.

The program that reads the text file (newsfeed) is called an aggregator. The aggregator reads the text file, and grabs the media files that it is being pointed to. All of this is done in the background, giving you the illusion of “single” show that has multiple episodes. In reality, however, it’s just a bunch of files located on the internet tied together via this text file.

This text file must follow a certain format, in order to assure compatibility across the range of aggregators out there (e.g., iTunes). The structure of the text file defines the details of the show (the show’s title, description, etc), and where to find the show’s episodes. It’s done in a pretty straightforward manner.

For an example of how a newsfeed looks, check out Apple’s technical document on podcast structure. http://www.apple.com/itunes/store/podcaststechspecs.html#_Toc526931673 “Channel” defines the shows, and “item” defines the episodes. Once you have the file created, to add more episodes, you simply add another “item” pointing to a new file.

That’s how a podcast is structured.

Next, we’re going to tell you what you need to get your podcast up and running. There are two options. The first is what you will need if you want to do it all yourself. The second (and our preference) is the simpler route, which is to get a podcast host. These instructions presume that you already have your sermon, or other audio file, converted into MP3 format and ready to go.

To set up a podcast by yourself, you will need to do the following:

1: Find web space available for you to upload your media files to.

There are plenty of web hosts available for you to choose from. From Google, do a search for “Web Hosting”. I recommend getting a Linux/PHP based host – because they are simpler to configure than Microsoft based hosting. As a general rule, try to find the most web space available, with the greatest amount of traffic allotted for your site. As your podcast grows in popularity – you don’t want to get sacked with extra traffic fees.

Before settling for a host, it also is in your best interests to do a little research to make sure they have a decent reputation. Lots of hosts over-sell their plans in order to get more business. There are lots of horror stories I’ve read of people that found their websites censured for excessive traffic when they were nowhere near the limits their plan advertised. A little research can help you avoid falling victim to an unscrupulous host.

2: Upload your media files (mp3 files, pictures and video files) to your new host.

You will most likely transfer your media files to your host through what’s called FTP. FTP is “File Transfer Protocol”. On Windows, I like http://www.wise-ftp.com/ “Wise FTP” by AceBit the best. On Macintosh, my favorite is http://cyberduck.ch/ - Cyberduck.

One thing to keep in mind is whether or not your media files are supported by your web hosting company. If you’re simply podcasting your audio sermons, MP3 is pretty much universally supported. If you’re podcasting video files (M4V or MP4), you might need to configure your server to recognize those files. This is done via what’s called a “mime type” and is set up in a file called .htaccess on your web server.

To find out more information, if you need it, google “.htaccess mime types” for a detailed explanation.

3: Once you have uploaded the files, and thereby know where the files are located, it’s time to create the newsfeed.

Make sure that your newsfeed mimics the format we showed you earlier. If you follow that format, you should be good to go. Create your channel, and add all of your items.

Once you have created your newsfeed file, upload it to your server as well. Test it out by going to http://www.feedvalidator.org. If your feed comes back invalid, it will give suggestions as to how to fix your feed. If it comes back saying the feed is valid, then you’re good to go! Start submitting it to channels like yahoo, and the iTunes music store.

Those are all of the steps required to get a podcast up and running, if you wish to do it all yourself!

The other alternative is to get what is called a podcast host.

Podcast hosts take care of all of the hosting, newsfeed creation and testing for you. When you contract a podcast host, you don’t need to worry about file types, ensuring that your feed is valid, or finding web space. They take care of all of that for you. With a podcast host, you simply upload the media file, give it a name and a description, and you’re done.

After a few months of maintaining our podcast and constantly updating the feed to reflect new additions to our podcast, this is the direction we chose to go. It really simplified the production process, and actually ended up costing us less per month than what we were paying before.

There are a lot of podcast hosts out there offering different packages. When determining which one to contract – look at the following things:

1: How much do they charge vs. how much space do you get for your podcasts?
2: Do they limit your bandwidth? (This is particularly important. One host we went with charged for bandwidth beyond a certain point, and it cost us a pretty penny.) It’s best to get a podcast host with “unmetered bandwidth”. This means they don’t charge you extra if your podcast becomes popular.
3: Do they support transferring of the podcasts to another domain? This is also very important. If you, for whatever reason, become dis-satisfied with the service or want to transfer it to another location, will they facilitate this for you? We had to recreate two of our podcasts from scratch because one host wouldn’t give us the ability to redirect our existing podcast to our new host.
4: Do they have good technical support for questions you may have?

Our favorite podcast hosts are http://www.avmypodcast.com and http://www.libsyn.com (although Libsyn has some issues with downtime.) Both have unmetered bandwidth and great plans available for very reasonable charges. AvMyPodcast is especially great for it’s technical support, and includes automatic iTunes and Yahoo submissions. They even teach you how to podcast!

Whether you decide to go it yourself, or contract a podcast host, it’s definitely worth getting into podcasting. Our weekly subscribers have grown dramatically, and a good number of people have become aware of our little church as a result of our podcast. It also gives me joy that my daughter has ours FIRST on her list, too!

Good luck, and happy podcasting!

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