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Podcasts versus Audio Files? What's the Difference?

Updated on February 15, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.


Podcasting is becoming one of the hottest content marketing platforms. Why? Because it's easy for listeners to access on the go and, in some cases, easier to produce than other media forms.

But what exactly is podcasting? And how is it different than other audio content and media?

What is a Podcast?

Podcasting really came into being with the introduction of Apple's iPod MP3 audio player. That's where the "pod" in podcasting comes from. Essentially, a podcast is a "broadcast" on an iPod. The shortened mashup of terms gave us the concept of a "podcast."

With the convenience and audio quality that the iPod delivered through the Apple iTunes platform and apps, people could now to listen to all types of audio content on these devices, including the spoken word, on demand anytime, anywhere. Talk radio, news programs and other non-music audio content creators embraced the opportunity to reach their audiences unbound by the space and time restrictions of live broadcasting. Today, video podcasting is also offered.

Listeners subscribe to the specific podcasts they want to hear. As the word "subscribe" suggests, podcasts are usually a continuing series or are published on a regular schedule like a magazine.

Listeners can hear or watch any podcast listed in the iTunes Store for free (as of this writing). To help subsidize the podcasts, content providers may have advertising sponsors or may advertise their own products and services in the podcast.

In addition to being delivered through iTunes, podcasts may also be hosted and delivered through other podcasting platforms which help podcasters by managing subscribers, hosting audio or video files, delivering content to subscribers, and possibly some promotional help. These platforms may be subsidized by advertising, may charge podcasters a fee to host their podcasts there, or may allow podcasters to monetize their programs by charging fees to subscribe. Even though they may not be associated with iTunes or iPod, they are still referred to as "podcasts."

Are Podcasts Different than Other Audio Content Files?

Yes and no. An audio podcast is technically an audio file (usually MP3 as of this writing). However, what makes it a genuine podcast is that it is regularly delivered and consumed through iTunes, an RSS (Rich Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication) feed, apps or other podcasting platform. Podcasts are usually a continuing series OR regularly broadcast program (like the news).

In contrast, simple non-music audio content files may be posted on blog or website pages almost as easily as image files. Web visitors may be invited to listen to or download this content while on the site. For example, audio files uploaded to a WordPress site's media gallery may show a player on the post or page so site visitors can listen to the files right there... no need to access with an iTunes-like service. Also, unlike podcasts, there is also no expectation that these one-off audio files will be part of a continuing series or regular broadcast (even though some might be).

These days, many people have come to use and understand the term "podcast" to mean any "non-music audio content," even if not technically so.

These days, many people have come to use and understand the term "podcast" to mean any "non-music audio content," even if not technically so.

— Heidi Thorne

Are Audio Books Podcasts?

No. Just because audio books may be sold and delivered through a platform such as iTunes, does not make them podcasts. Although authors may choose to provide segments or samples of content from their books as audio files via podcasting, a true audio book must conform to a strict audio production standard. As well, audio books are usually sold as retail products and are delivered in their entirety to buyers all at once, as opposed to in installments.

Audio books also have a finite number of installments or chapters and combine to create a unified whole. Conversely, podcasts may publish regular installments of material until the podcast is officially discontinued (which could be many years into the future!).

Podcast Best Practices

Interestingly, good podcasts share some best practices with blogs:

  • Deliver Value. Like talk radio, the ramblings of a popular celebrity or respected podcast host can provide information or entertainment value for listeners. But for most non-celebrity podcast publishers, those ramblings better provide solid content and value in terms of information or art. Know your audience, know what they want! This is especially critical for paid subscription podcasts where expectations for exclusive content and value are higher.
  • Tell Them How to Subscribe. Like webinars, sometimes subscribing to and accessing podcasts can present challenges to listeners who are new to podcasting or the platform being used. Always provide instructions on how to subscribe and listen.
  • Offer Alternative Access for Free Podcasts. Some people may not always wish to listen to podcasts on platforms such as iTunes or apps, choosing instead to listen via the Internet, either on their computers or smartphones. If the podcast is free content, consider offering it as an audio file on a standard website page or blog post for downloading or listening to help expand the audience.
  • Understand Podcasting Expectations. When people subscribe to magazines or blogs, they expect that it will be a regularly and continuously published program or content feed. Same can be true with podcasting, especially for paid subscriptions. If you're not committed to podcasting on a regular basis, consider offering your audio content as standalone "resources."

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2016 Heidi Thorne


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