In the quest for finding the proper answer to life, the universe, and what the heck is a podcast, really, there’s no magic 42. In fact, The answer is quite clear and simple.
What is a podcast?
A podcast is an episodic multimedia program (usually audio, but can be video as well), that is published on the internet and announced via an RSS file. RSS being the more important part of the definition, as explained below. The term originates from the way the content was meant to be distributed and consumed: there is no standardized platform, instead you used a tool on your computer to download (mostly) automatically the new episodes that appeared in the RSS announcement, and placed the downloaded audio files on your iPod.
This is pre-smartphone technology, but it caught fire with the advent of the smartphone. You could have an application on your phone that does that for you automatically. The „download” part is essential: bandwidth was and still is an important issue, and you wanted to make sure you could download over next-to-free WiFi instead of your 3G data plan. This way, you had the content you needed readily available when you were on the go - when you didn’t have access to free or cheap internet, but you had a cache of things to listen to in your car or on the public transportation.
The past few years people (especially snake-oil salesmen) really hyped the term „podcast”, and it has been twisted to mean many things. It’s trendy and cute to create a podcast and invite your friends for a few interviews. It’s a nice thing to annoy the people around you with. But they also extended the term to cover things that are not really a podcast: say a youtube show, or paywalled show. The label podcast is applied nowadays to almost anything that is episodic, without defference to the definition I offered.
Enter the netcast
Adam Curry, who helped popularizing the term of „podcast” (even if he is not necessarily its creator), offered a different name for these programs that end up locked under a paywall, in a special application that makes the content unavailable to other, competing applications, like Spotify, iTunes, or YouTube does. The term he suggested in the latest episode of the Podcasting 2.0 podcast is netcast. And I think it’s an amazing term, catchier than the old podcast, and it should be adopted en-masse.
It makes sense, really. The podcast refers to a very specific operation - the broadcasting towards pods that will hold that content temporarily until dismissed by the users. The netcast instead is meant to be streamed, consumed via the internet, maybe even via a unique dedicated application. Netcasts can be podcasts as well if they publish an RSS announcement, but can be many different things too. They can be clubhouse, or fleets, or whatever you want to be. Knock yourselves out.
RSS is the hill to die on
The requirement for the RSS file announcement is important, in fact, the most important part of the definition. Maybe the episodic requirement is superfluous for someone who intends to publish a single episode. The audio, or video, is also less than mandatory - maybe in the future we’ll have content for brain implants that will be neither audio or video, who knows, you might want to cast smells and feelings via the internet. But the thing that is non-negotiable is the RSS feed. We might accept changing the file format, although there’s really no need to. RSS is XML - by definition eXtensible. More on this later.
This is the most important part because it ensures a few things. First of all, it ensures that anyone can publish their content anywhere they want, need, or afford to. Second of all, the content is available in a standardized format for anyone with access to the announcement. You don’t depend of anyone else to do magic behind your back. If you have the RSS, you can add it in your favorite application and consume the media that is announced there via standard protocols. The RSS is basically a sophisticated public index page, that indexes freely available content, and that’s how things should be.
Then what’s the essential difference?
Having a program published via a standardized format (mp3, for example), accessible with anyone via an open index/announcement published in a standardized format (rss XML in this case) means that you empower publishers who don’t need pricey access to publishing platforms, but can publish the content by themselves. It means that you empower listeners, who can reach their favorite content even if it doesn’t fit the moods of someone like Apple, or if Spotify doesn’t like the publisher’s political views. It means that you don’t have to pay to look sexier in the Apple or Spotify index to catch more people’s attention, and you don’t depend on others, only you need to make yourself available and known.
You don’t need to be part of Spotify’s strategy for disseminating content. You can say „here’s my RSS feed” and listeners can add it to their application. If the ones that make the application don’t like you, or you don’t like them anymore, you can download the subscriptions as a standard OPML file and move to a different tool to listen your podcasts. Heck, it takes a few minutes to write a tool in Python to read the XML and download the files that are announced there.
I think that the difference will help others to identify new ways to distribute their content and obtain the things that they want from the program. If you go full-Spotify you might get very accurate stats about who listens to your program, and, who knows, in the future you might have a clear statement for your sponsors: look, 10.000 people listened to your commercial. Podcasts are really not traceable - a download doesn’t mean a listener, a download means 0, 1, or 1000 listeners, if someone does some caching for you, or someone decides they want to broadcast to the entire park your program. Podcasts are ways to deliver content that you can consume independently of the broadcaster. I put the content out there, you consume it any way you like to consume it.
We don’t like you
Perhaps the only counterargument I heard for keeping the proper name for the right content is that people don’t like me. Or Adam Curry, or anyone who asks people to use the proper names for things. That’s a fair and valid point. But think about it. You can be pioneers of netcasts. Everyone has a podcast, Gary Vaynerchuck keeps bugging you to make a podcast, but you’re ahead of the curve. You’re doing netcasts. You build strategy with netcasts - something better than podcasts. One-up everyone! Turn it up to eleven! And you can get away from pesky, bothersome people that use the f word like that. Freedom, I mean.