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You don't need an iPod to hear a podcast

What do you call a series of free downloads that automatically arrive on your computer? A podcast.

TMC recently reported on a study by TDG that shows that while approximately 11 percent of online consumers listen to at least one podcast a month, for most people the concept of podcasting remains a cipher.

Some of it may have to do with the confusing etymology of the word -- a combination of iPod and broadcasting to describe something that's not broadcasting and doesn't require an iPod.

The study suggests that many people perceive podcasting as a complicated process. I think a lot of well-meaning jargon-laden explanations have added to the confusion about these free downloads. So let's jettison the jargon and forget word origins, and take a fresh look at this elegantly simple process.

Think of a podcast as an audio magazine -- a series of  programs posted at more or less regular intervals on a website.

Just as you might keep revisiting a bookstore to see if the latest issue of your favorite print magazine is available, you could repeatedly go to a podcaster's website to see if there's a new episode to download.

But there's an easier way. If you subscribe to your favorite print magazine, it conveniently shows up in your mailbox whenever it's published -- and you never miss an issue. Similarly, you can subscribe to a podcast, and the latest episode will automatically download to your computer whenever its posted. You don't have to keep going back to the website, and the subscription is almost always free of charge.

So how do you subscribe? Well, you don't need an iPod - in fact, you don't need an MP3 player at all. TDG found that almost half the podcasts downloaded are only played on the PC they're stored on. All you need the right program - and fortunately there are many good ones available for free. Juice, for example, has versions for Windows, Mac and Linux. Podcasting News has an extensive list of similar programs available.

While you don't have to move a podcast to an MP3 player to listen to it, you certainly can. Many of the free programs also have some interactivity with portable players. And there's brand-specific software, too. Creative's ZENcast.com, for example, is a free aggregator designed specifically for use with their players.

And, of course, there's always iTunes. With iTunes, you just click on the Podcast library heading, and then the Podcast Directory link in the lower right-hand corner. When you find a program you're interested in, select "subscribe." That's it. As new episodes are posted, they automatically download and are filed by iTunes, ready for you to listen to on your computer or synced player right away, sometime that week, or whenever you choose.

So what kind of content is available in these free automatic downloads? That's a subject for a future post - but here's a sampling to whet your appetite.

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