Podcast Primer
9/27/2009
Learn how to find, subscribe to and listen to online radio shows in this step-by-step guide.

Audio communication has come a long way since the 1930 census first asked our ancestors whether they owned a "radio set." Now, instead of gathering around a big wooden box for news and entertainment, you can listen your favorite programs via mp3 player or online streaming audio. And rather than tuning in at a program's regularly scheduled time, you can listen to the podcast at your leisure.

This technology would certainly seem foreign to our forebears—and maybe it's a little alien to you, too. If you're not familiar with podcasting, you're missing a great source of information and inspiration: Numerous family history podcasts have popped up, featuring interviews, research ideas and more. As the host of two of those programs—Genealogy Gems and Family Tree Magazine's podcast—I've learned the tricks to finding and using podcasts. Let me show you how to tap into the wealth of genealogical information for your ears.

What is a podcast?

Since arriving on the Internet scene in 2004, podcasts have grown tremendously in popularity: PodcastAlley now links to more than 41,000 shows. The word podcast derives from iPod (Apple's popular mp3 player) and broadcasting—but podcasting doesn't have to involve an iPod at all. Rather, it's a method of publishing audio files to the Internet.

Think of a podcast as a pre-recorded online radio show you download to your computer or play directly from the Internet. Most podcasts have RSS feeds (short for "really simple syndication") that allow you to subscribe for free and automatically receive new shows on your computer.

Because podcasts are pre-recorded, you can listen to them whenever and wherever you want. For example, put an episode on your desktop computer to listen while you're checking e-mail, or load it onto your mp3 player to play while you're driving to the library. You also have the option to fast forward and rewind, as well as stop and start at your convenience. The format puts you in control of your listening experience.

Podcast episodes can run anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. They may be as frequent as weekly, or several weeks or months may elapse between episodes. Some podcasters choose to publish on a regular schedule; others broadcast whenever the podcaster feels inspired. It's like the Wild West of communication—anything goes. But genealogy podcasters generally stick to a fairly regular schedule.

Finding podcasts with iTunes

Although you don't need an iPod to listen to podcasts, the companion software, iTunes, is the ideal way to find, listen and organize genealogy podcasts. All you have to do is set up a free account, download the program to your computer, and you're on your way.

To install iTunes, go to Apple's Web site, enter your e-mail address in the box on the left and click the Download iTunes 7.6 Free button, then follow the prompts. Once you've installed iTunes on your computer, locating genealogy podcasts is as simple as clicking on Store in the left menu bar, typing the word genealogy in the search box (upper right corner of the window) and pressing enter on your keyboard. Narrow your results by clicking the Podcast window link.

To subscribe to one of the listed shows, click the podcast image, which will bring up the podcast's listing page. Then simply click the Subscribe button. (All podcasts in iTunes are free.)

Subscribing to and playing podcasts

Watch our video "How to Locate and Subscribe to a Podcast" to see the process in action:


Now you're ready to start listening—which you can do by following these steps:

  1. In the left menu bar under Library, select Podcasts. A list of shows you've subscribed to will appear in the middle of the screen.

  2. Click the small triangle next to the podcast title to reveal all episodes. The newest episode appears in black type, indicating it's been downloaded and is ready for listening. All other episodes are gray.

  3. Click the Get All button to download all the previous episodes. Or click the Get button next to individual episodes you want to download. You'll see a spinning orange circle to the left of the podcast name as it downloads (this can take several minutes). When it's done, the episode title will turn from gray to black.

  4. To listen to the episode, double-click the episode name. The play, pause, stop, fast-forward and rewind controls are in the upper left corner of the iTunes window.

Besides using iTunes, you can listen to episodes on the podcast's Web site—many offer buttons for streaming audio. You also can click on each episode's mp3 audio file link to download the file, then listen using Windows Media Player, QuickTime, RealPlayer or whatever audio player is installed on your computer.

Show notes

When it comes to genealogy podcasts, listening is only half the fun. You won't want to miss the companion show notes posted on the podcast Web site (look for a link in the upper-right corner of the podcast's iTunes listing page).

See more in our video "Navigating Podcast Web Sites":

Show notes usually include links to all the referenced Web sites, plus additional information, photos and resources to help you get the most out of the episode. They're typically published in blog format, with the most recent at the top. Notes for older episodes are usually in the Web site archives.

Don't stick to just genealogy-specific shows—look for cultural heritage and history podcasts, as well, to get additional perspective on your ancestors' lives. Episode 39 of my Genealogy Gems Podcast reviews available history programs; find a complete list with links in the show notes.

As my listeners often tell me, once you get the hang of podcasting, it's easy to get hooked—just like you did with genealogy.

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