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The fundamentals of podcast hosting

In podcasting, we often use the word “host” to mean one of two things: either the person presenting the podcast, or the company who keeps the audio files online. In this section, we’re going to talk about the latter: the platform that takes care of your audio file hosting.

What is hosting?

Hosting means keeping files on a computer that’s connected to the Internet, and letting people access them, either publicly or through some sort of security check or paywall. You usually pay that company a monthly or annual fee to keep your files online, backed up and accessible to the rest of the world. Some services roll hosting and website management into one, like Squarespace or WordPress.com, whereas other companies like Amazon’s AWS or Linode just handle the infrastructure, and let you install your own content management system.

How is a podcast host different?

A podcast hosting service not only keeps your audio files online, but keeps track of how many times those files were downloaded. Podcast hosts also provide a file called an RSS feed, which is the most important piece of the puzzle. This file lists all your episodes, and is updated when a new one is published. Podcast apps and directories, like Apple Podcasts and Spotify, periodically check this file for updates, then reflect those updates back in their apps. In the case of Apple Podcasts and most traditional podcast players, the app checks for new episodes and then downloads them for you. (Spotify is slightly different in that they download the audio themselves and play it through their network.)

A modern podcast hosting service not only offers analytics RSS, but also provides a website for your podcast, with a player that works on the web and can be embedded elsewhere. And as more and more podcast directories and listening apps enter the market, it’s important that your host work with those services so your podcast is available everywhere people might want to listen.

Subscribing to a podcast

At some point, you’ll want to present your listener with a call-to-action, so they can get new episodes of your podcast directly to their device, without having to check the web to see if a new one is up. That’s why RSS is so important, as it allows your listeners to know when a new episode is out, shortly after it’s released, so they can listen to it straight away.

This activity is most often called “subscribing”, which is a hangover from the early techie days of podcasting. All it means is that a listener’s app keeps track of the RSS feed for your podcast and checks it regularly. It’s anonymous, doesn’t require any kind of information exchange, and is free.

However, if you don’t like the term or you feel it might confuse your listeners, you’re not alone. Apple tends to favour the verb “listen”, whereas Spotify uses “follow”, which is a little more accurate, as it suggests a relationship, and sets up an expectation of more than one episode. You’ll obviously choose the language that’s right for your audience, but it’s handy to know a little of the terminology.

The lifecycle of a published episode

When you publish an episode to your hosting service, the file is uploaded, and when the release date of the episode is hit — which can be in the past, present or future — info about the episode is added to your RSS feed. A modern podcast host lets you schedule episodes in the future, and those episodes only show up in your RSS feed once they’re ready to be released.

Periodically, podcast listening apps will check that RSS feed on behalf of their users (the “subscription” part). Apps like Overcast and Spotify do this via a central service, so if there are a thousand people subscribed to a podcast, these apps only check the feed once every so often (depending on the popularity of the feed or frequency of episodes). Most other apps, including Apple Podcasts, do all the checking on-device, which means your feed might be checked thousands of times a day.

This “checking” involves looking at a few key pieces of info from your hosting service, to determine if something’s changed. If something /has/ changed, the app will re-download the RSS feed and update itself accordingly. If there’s a new episode, the app will notify the listener and/or start downloading it. If nothing has changed, the app will check again later.

Counting downloads

We’ve already mentioned “analytics” above. In short, this is the act of counting the number of times a file was downloaded. This isn’t the same as counting how many times an episode is played or accurately knowing how many listeners or subscribers a podcast has. The way podcasting was setup in the early 2000s makes this impossible.

While some apps can tell you how many people have played an episode, for how long, and perhaps even which portions of the episode have been skipped over, that data is locked to that app and isn’t representative of your whole listenership. No hosting provider can give you this information, because app developers don’t share it with hosts.

To get an idea of the data a reputable podcast hosting provider has to go on, you can read Captivate’s listener privacy statement, which is a plain-English document that lays out how they gather download numbers. Some companies use cookies and other tracking techniques to infer demographics and habits, but this invades listener privacy and isn’t something ethical providers do.

When to sign up for podcast hosting

If you’ve followed this course, you should already have your first episode ready, maybe even one or two more. You’ll save money by only signing up for a hosting account when you have your first episode ready to go.

However, you need to keep your launch date in mind. If you want to launch a podcast in May, the last week of April is too short a timespan, as you need to submit your podcast to directories like Apple Podcasts — which has an approval process that can sometimes take up to two weeks — and get your web and social media presence ready.

A good rule of thumb is to give around 30 days lead time between uploading your first episode and telling the world about it. So, once you’ve locked in your release date and you have your first episode edited, sign up for a hosting account and get started.

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