SFEley (Stephen Eley) writes "Todd Cochrane's Podcasting: The Do-It-Yourself Guide has been heavily pushed in the podcasting community as the first of a wave of podcasting books to be released in the next several months. All of these books will surely cover the same themes, more or less: what podcasts are, how to listen to them, and how to produce your own. The popularity of podcasting is exploding right now, with coverage in every press outlet and Apple hyping it as The Next Big Thing. It's easy to see that there will be a huge demand for these books, even if they don't do much more than state the obvious. So what about this one? Other than being the first, does it offer any compelling virtues for the would-be podcaster or listener?" Read on for Eley's answer to that question.
Before we can even begin to talk about the book, we ought to cover the preliminaries. If you've been living under a rock for most of 2005, you may not know that podcasting is the latest Internet publishing wave, getting most of the same hype that blogging has gotten but much faster. In its simplest form, it's just people producing audio files (talk, music, whatever) and syndicating them over an RSS feed. Listeners can then use one of several apps to automatically download them and load them onto an MP3 player. The mainstream media, feeling some embarrassment for missing the last few Web boats, has jumped on podcasting and given it, frankly, a lot more press than it probably deserves right now.
A note on the author: Todd Cochrane produces Geek News Central, a very popular tech podcast wherein he reads out news headlines and offers commentary. He also founded and manages the Tech Podcast Network, a consortium of other technology podcasts that band together for cross-promotion, content standards and advertising, and he's the main force behind the heavily advertised and sponsored Podcast Awards. It's fair to say that Cochrane has done a lot for podcasters in various ways, and although I've disagreed with him on some of the details of his projects, I respect him highly for his tremendous energy and the work he's done to make podcasting a respectable form of media.
Another note (and disclaimer) on myself: I also have my own podcast, a moderately popular one that narrates science fiction short stories. In a practical sense this makes me both a podcaster and a literary editor. Which means, in turn, that I have a sensitivity both to poor information on podcasting and poor writing.
And with all that said... I'm afraid Podcasting: The Do-It-Yourself Guide is a marginal book at best. It doesn't suck, and there's nothing horribly wrong with the information it gives, but it has two endemic problems. Cochrane's responsible for both, but I put the real blame on his editors at Wiley, who likely ignored them in their rush to get the book out before any others.
The first problem is the writing. It's possible that this bothers me more than it would others. Todd Cochrane may be an intelligent, selfless, wonderful guy -- I truly believe that he is -- but the man can't write. The entire book exhibits a rushed, forced-casual, eighth-grade English paper style that grates on me like nails on a chalkboard. Cochrane even admits this in his acknowledgments: "Early on, I made it clear to Chris [Webb], my acquisitions editor, that I was a geek/tech guy first and that he did not want to see my English grades. Even so, he assured me that I was their man, and I went to work."
Well, Chris Webb, you're a dumbass. You picked someone who admitted he couldn't write to write a book on a breakthrough technology. As a result, the book is vague, meandering, and frequently redundant, e.g.: "You will want to use this Recording Control window to control your default recording device." That phrase ("You will want to ...") crops up everywhere: the book's not only in second person, but it's a second person that tells the reader what he/she wants. The only sentence opener that appears more often is "Obviously" -- which frequently precedes a thought that is neither obvious nor related to the sentence before it.
You will also want to ignore the poor punctuation and comma splices, the frequent intersplicing of Notes and Tips paragraphs that seem indistinguishable (in both font and content) from the main text, and very often, the simple use of the wrong words. In many cases this is simply amusing: "[Dave Winer's] analogy was that it was taking longer to download the video than it was to play it." Uh, that's not an analogy, dude. In at least one case it leads to a technically incorrect statement: "The reading on the software-controlled meter in my audio-recording package showed nearly 40 dB of baseline noise," when what he really meant was a noise floor of -40 dB. Two very different things.
The other major problem is the narrow perspective. It's really Podcasting: The Do-It-Todd-Cochrane's-Way Guide. Everything in this book is about Cochrane. Every example is his own podcast, every screenshot of a Web page is his own, and he's got multiple photos of himself in various dorky situations. Any photos of other podcasters? Mur Lafferty, perhaps, or Soccergirl? You wish. I have no problem with Cochrane using himself as a starting point, but it's a very diverse field, and nobody podcasts with quite the same gear or the same techniques as anybody else. Cochrane says he spent significant time interviewing software developers for the chapters on applications, but there's no indication anywhere that he spoke to any other podcasters in writing this book. That's a huge mistake, rushed deadlines or no rushed deadlines. Not only does it reduce the book's utility, but it also makes the prose seem dreary, monotonic, and egocentric.
So there's my overview. For those who think the book may still have some use to you (and it might, if you can put up with the above) I'll break it down by section:
Part I: Listening to the Podcast Revolution This section has three chapters, and they're useless. The book begins, "Do you have specific interests? How about triathlons? I have to admit, most radio broadcasts don't deal with those kind of subjects. But that's about to change." Yeah, okay. The problem here (beyond the clumsy writing) should be obvious: if you have no idea what podcasting is, you're not interested enough to buy a book on podcasting. The first chapter, "What Is a Podcast?" has Cochrane spiraling around the subject of podcasting for twelve pages without ever giving a simple definition. Then we've got two chapters which together describe the leading software tools used to download podcasts, and tutorials for using them to subscribe to -- can you guess? -- Todd Cochrane's podcast. To be fair, it was a pretty decent overview of the major client applications at the time of the book's writing; which means it's already obsolete, as iTunes 4.9 has totally changed the landscape since then. Of course, that can't be helped. The real weakness of this section is its superfluity: if you're willing to pay $20 for a book on podcasting, it's because you want to make podcasts. Even Grandma's not going to buy this book to learn how to listen to them.
Part II: Joining the Revolution: Your Own Podcast Here's where the book starts to get genuinely interesting. The obligatory but stupid chapters on listening to podcasts are behind us; now it's all about making them. The first chapter here, "Choosing a Podcast Format," actually has little to criticize. His basic message is sound: Follow your passions; develop a show structure and follow it; and be aware of copyright issues if you're playing music. All of that is good advice, and his detailed description of his own show structure and notes is appropriate here. This is followed by a completely unnecessary chapter about computer choices, in which he shows his Windows colors and comes off a trifle condescending toward the Mac. ("In researching materials for this book, I found I could not do the reviews justice unless I had a Mac, so I purchased a Mac Mini ... I knew that if I could record a podcast on a Mac Mini, it would probably make the Mac fans happy.") Then, at last, he delivers the first truly crunchy chapter: "The Semiprofessional Podcast Studio." This chapter's honestly very good, running the gamut of sound cards, microphones, mixers, Firewire interfaces (he dismisses USB interfaces rather unfairly), digital recorders, even quiet case fans. Some of it's hand-waved, and some of it's so vague it's just silly: "A condenser microphone is generally never found in households. People might have them, but they usually are not aware that they do." On the other hand, his discussion of quality sound cards does have much of value (barring the "40dB of baseline noise" misstatement I mentioned above), and he gives one of the best descriptions of mixers and effects processors for novices that I've found. If you have no idea what sort of equipment you might need for quality sound in your podcast, you'll get a decent grounding here. Not an excellent grounding, but perhaps enough to parse a little bit more of the serious sound FAQs on the Web.
Part III: Recording Your Podcast and Performing Postproduction Tasks (Yes, the man can't even name things with brevity.) There's one weak chapter here and two great ones. In "Recording Locations," Cochrane reveals that you can podcast at home, in your car, at a restaurant, or walking around. Whee. Then we get to the actual process of recording and postproduction, and the book honestly shines. He describes step-by-step how to set up Audacity (the excellent freeware Win/Mac/Linux sound editor) to record, how to set up a typical mixer, and best of all, how to set levels properly. Levels are the bane of any audio amateur, and these half-dozen pages are gold; it's the one thing a novice podcaster is likely to turn back to and reference several times over in his first few recordings -- or ought to, anyway. His advice on noise reduction, amplifying, and normalizing is spot-on, the steps listed for MP3 encoding are simple but solid, and he even gives several good options for ID3 tagging. (A step too often overlooked by podcasters.) I could complain about a few weird digressions -- e.g., the postproduction chapter tells you how to upload to Openpodcast.org, which is an utterly bizarre thing to advise -- but they're easily ignored, and overall this section truly shines.
Part IV: Hosting and Preparing to Publish Your Podcast This section's ... okay. His chapter on hosting is mostly a treatise on how to evaluate service agreements, which is valuable enough in itself but can be overkill for someone just starting out. There are a few math exercises for estimating bandwidth -- useless when you don't know your potential audience size -- and a brief list of "podcast-friendly hosts" which is, of course, already obsolete. His coverage of publishing methods is about weblog software -- wait, scratch that, it's about MovableType. He's infatuated with MT, and devotes several pages on a step-by-step for hacking MT's code and templates to support enclosures with full-source RSS code listings, then mentions virtually offhand that Wordpress and Radio Userland support enclosures out of the box. This is another case where having multiple podcaster perspectives would have helped. Finally, we get a chapter named "The Life Breath of a Podcast: RSS 2.0 With Enclosures," just barely longer than its title, which covers how to use FeedForAll to hand-crank an RSS file if you don't have blogging software that will make one for you. It might have been a valuable chapter if he'd spent any real time explaining RSS 2.0 or enclosures.
Part V: It's Show Time A closing section that's nearly pointless, but mercifully brief. There's an entire chapter about using graphical FTP clients -- lame because anyone who's that blinking-twelve was lost back at Chapter 6. The meaty chapter is called "Feedback, Promotion, and Paying the Bills," and it has some moderately useful information and some large gaps. Feedback apparently means "have a mailing list and a voicemail line, and hang out on Skype." Okay. Promotion's about directory listings and exchanging promos with other podcasters; then he offers a long commentary on advertising and why it's a fine thing to have. Unfortunately, other than creating a media kit he has nothing much to say on how to contact and market your show to advertisers. And the final chapter of the book, "Where Do We Go From Here?" offers a few vapid musings of the sort all podcasters talk about over beer: we're going to kill mainstream radio, podcasts will band together and commercialize, all the starving children of the world will have an MP3 player ... And Yes, in his final sentences he invokes the already-tired "Podcasting Revolution" chestnut. Not much to say here, but rest assured, he says it.
So there you have it. That's the entire book. Worth buying? That depends. If you're itching to get started with podcasting, if you're an absolute beginner when it comes to sound recording, if the online resources at Podcast411 and other sites don't float your boat, and if you can't wait a few more months for books like Podcast Solutions and Podcasting for Dummies to come out ... then sure. There are at least three or four good chapters in here with information you can use. It's not all the information, and you have to take Cochrane's style and limited viewpoint with a big grain of salt, but it'll get you started. For less than twenty bucks, at least it isn't a high-risk investment.
On the other hand, if you're the bootstrapping type, or you already know most of what you're doing, then there's not much in here you can't figure out online and through experience. And if you're patient, there will be other books, and I'm almost positive they'll be better written.
You can purchase Podcasting: the Do-It-Yourself Guide from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.