Are you podcasting? Here's why you should

While the federal government is already podcasting, states and locals are behind. Here's an explanation of podcasting and RSS and why your agency might consider getting started.

I sat down to begin this blog feeling pretty good about myself. Humph, I thought, I’ll write about podcasting and RSS feeds – I bet many governments haven’t even thought about utilizing them yet. Then, to test my theory, I surfed on over to FirstGov and lo and behold, the federal government is already doing it. Whoa! Perhaps I underestimated government.

So I started looking for some state and local government sites that might be using them and found none. Please note, my search was not intensive, so there may be some out there, but I hit about 10 random sites and came up empty. So perhaps the topic hasn’t caught on at the state and local government level yet.

Just in case you might be scratching your head right now regarding Podcasting and RSS, let me shed some light on these terms for you. I found the following definition of podcasting on Wikipedia, which gives a pretty good explanation of what it is:

Podcasting is a method of publishing audio programs via the Internet, allowing users to subscribe to a feed of new files (usually MP3s). It became popular in late 2004, largely due to automatic downloading of audio onto portable playersor personal computers.

Podcasting is distinct from other types of online media delivery because of its subscription model, which uses a feed (such as RSS or Atom) to deliver an enclosed file. Podcasting enables independent producers to create self-published, syndicated "radio shows" and gives broadcast radio programs a new distribution method. Listeners may subscribe to feeds using "podcatching" software (a type of aggregator), which periodically checks for and downloads new content automatically.

Most podcatching software enables the user to copy podcasts to portable music players. Any digital audio player or computer with audio-playing software can play podcasts. From the earliest RSS-enclosure tests, feeds have been used to deliver video files as well as audio. By 2005 some aggregators and mobile devices could receive and play video, but the "podcast" name remained most associated with audio."

For RSS, I will again turn to Wikipedia for a clear and concise description:

RSS is a family of XML file formats for web syndication used by (amongst other things) news websites and weblogs. The abbreviation is used to refer to the following standards:

The technology behind RSS allows Internet users to subscribe to websites that provide RSS feeds; these are typically sites that change or add content regularly. To use this technology, users are required to download an aggregation service, which presents new articles in a list, giving a line or two of each article and a link to the full article or post. Unlike subscriptions to pulp-based newspapers and magazines, RSS subscriptions are free."

Now that we know what they are, let’s talk about how they can be used and whether it is worthwhile to make the effort. First, podcasting. We can assume that the target audience for podcasting is below 30 correct? Well, maybe not. In fact, while many of the early adopters were indeed quite young, the demographic for portable music players is increasingly getting older. So I think it is safe to say that as time passes a growing number of government constituents are using or will use a digital media player.

Given that you indeed have an audience, what kind of material do you have that can be made available? The answer – basically anything that exists as recorded audio. This can be meetings, addresses, public service announcements, press releases, instructional audio, the weather, radio programs and more. The more you have available, the richer your service can be.

As for the question already on your lips – how much will it cost to provide this service? Not that much. Other than coordinating the creation of MP3 files from your audio sources, creating an RSS feed, and the organization of the whole process by your web admins, this is something you can take on without great expense.

RSS is basically the process of providing your web content in the form of an XML file. As noted above, it is best used for portions of your website that have actively changing content. The federal government uses it for transmitting information on recalls and public safety, data and statistics, changes in rules and regulations, press releases, and science and technology - to name a few.

I can also imagine using RSS to transmit street closures, traffic updates, Amber alerts, public service announcements, event reminders, findings, legislative changes, proceedings – the list could go on and on.

As with podcasting, the effort it would take to implement this technology is negligible and easily can fall into the realm of normal web site maintenance and enhancement. In short, RSS and podcasting provide a way for government agencies of any size to extend their reach to an even greater number of constituents for little cost. Plus you get the buzz of doing something "cutting edge." You can increase the ability for government to communicate with its customer and at the same time possibly building a little "credibility" with the younger crowd. Neither is a bad thing.