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Receive Podcasts Using Your PC

by Jake Ludington
03/15/2005

In October 2004 I wrote what was arguably the first article on receiving podcasts with Windows Media Player. At the time, client software options were limited, and the process of adding downloaded files to Windows Media Player and subsequently transferring them to your favorite portable device was extremely convoluted.

But that's changed, and the process is now closer to automatic. In this article, I'll show you how to receive podcasts using your MP3 player and Windows Media Player.

Just in case you aren't familiar with podcasting, quite simply it's a process for distributing audio files using RSS 2.0. A podcaster creates an audio recording, posts it to a server somewhere, and references the audio file as an enclosure in an RSS feed. By subscribing to the RSS feed in an app capable of processing enclosures, you get fresh audio content delivered to your desktop every time the podcaster creates something new.

Which Podcasting Client Should I Use?

If you already use an RSS reader like NewsGator or FeedDemon, support for podcasting is just a few application tweaks away. If your RSS reader doesn't support enclosures, you can get started with a few free solutions. Like other freeware, free podcasting clients are not created equal. Currently the only free app I'm willing to recommend is Doppler, because it automates the bulk of the subscription process for both Windows Media Player and iTunes. Most of the other free tools are still lagging in automation features.

What Can I Use to Listen to a Podcast?

Your ears, silly! Just kidding. Most podcasts are available in MP3 format, making them widely available to just about every hardware and software player on the planet. As I mentioned above, if you are an iPod owner, most of the client applications are optimized for connecting to iTunes, so little configuration is required in that realm. If you own one of the millions of portable devices not made by Apple (Pocket PCs, SmartPhones, and brands like Rio, Creative, iRiver, and Dell fit this description), a few initial configuration steps are required in Windows Media Player.

Receiving a Podcast

If you haven't done so already, download Doppler and install it in your favorite program location. As part of the installation process, Doppler asks where you want to store your downloads. For simplicity, I typically create a folder called Podcasts in the My Music folder (see Figure 1) because Windows Media Player automatically watches the My Music folder for new audio content. This isn't entirely necessary, however, because Doppler does a decent job of adding stuff to the library on its own. On the following screen, choose Windows Media Player as your default media player and complete the installation.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Choose the location in which to store downloaded podcasts

After launching Doppler, you need to subscribe to something. Here's where I give a shameless plug for the podcast I produce, The Chris Pirillo Show. We talk primarily about issues faced by Windows users. On the right side of our page, we have three RSS subscriptions, which are shown in Figure 2: one for general text postings; one for the MP3 version of the show; and one for the WMA version of the show. Right-click on either the MP3 or WMA subscription link and choose Copy Shortcut from the menu. In Doppler, click on the Add Feed button and paste the subscription URL into the URL box shown in Figure 3.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Choose a podcast subscription

Figure 3
Figure 3. Add a subscription to Doppler

Click on the "Retrieve now" button, shown in Figure 4, to start downloading the latest podcasts from The Chris Pirillo Show.

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Figure 4. Retrieve podcasts from the Doppler main window--click for full-size image

Once Doppler lets you know the files are finished downloading, open Windows Media Player. Click on the Library tab and expand My Playlists to expose the view shown in Figure 5. You should see a playlist called The Chris Pirillo Show, which was automatically created by Doppler and Windows Media Player.

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Figure 5. Windows Media Player Library view--click for full-size image

If you right-click on the playlist and choose Add to Sync List from the menu shown in Figure 6, all the tracks from The Chris Pirillo Show are ready to synchronize with your favorite portable player.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Add files to your synchronization list

With your portable player connected to your PC, flip over to the Sync tab in Windows Media Player, click on the Start Sync button, and you're ready to roll with a collection of podcast files awaiting your attention.

Automating the Process

Manual synchronization works when you have only one podcast subscription, but it quickly becomes unmanageable with multiple subscriptions to sync on a regular basis. Subscribe to 10 or 20 podcasts and you've suddenly added several hundred megabytes of new audio content to your portable player, sometimes on a daily basis. Time for a better way to manage the process.

A Windows Media Player Auto Playlist is the most effective way I've found to manage podcast subscriptions. Back in the Library, right-click on the Auto Playlists header and choose New from the menu. After naming your playlist, add criteria by clicking on the plus sign under Music in My Library and selecting More from the resulting drop-down list. Select File Name from the Choose a Filter dialog box, which defaults to Contains. Set the Contains parameter, shown in Figure 7, to drive letter:\Documents and Settings\username\My Documents\My Music\Podcasts. The easiest way to do this is by browsing to the Podcasts folder in Windows Explorer and copying the path from the address bar.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Creating an Auto Playlist

In one swift maneuver, you've created a playlist containing everything in the Podcast folder and subfolders. Back on the Sync tab, a little edit to your portable player synchronization options and you're ready to download the latest podcasts every time you connect the player. With the player connected, display Properties and Settings and click on the Settings button on the Synchronize tab, as shown in Figure 8. Make sure the player is set for auto synchronization by checking the box, then select the Podcasts list from the drop-down list of available playlists shown in Figure 9.

Figure 8
Figure 8. Adjust your portable player's automatic synchronization settings

Figure 9
Figure 9. Choose the playlist to automatically synchronize

Ultimately, syncing every podcast you download becomes unwieldy. It's complicated to figure out which files you listened to and which track is the latest podcast for a given subscription, and information overload sets in. By tweaking the Podcasts Auto Playlist, it's easier to keep track of new shows and avoid overloading your playlist. Add the parameter Date added To Library Is After Yesterday to your playlist, just like the example in Figure 10. This limits synchronization to podcasts downloaded in the last 24 hours. This has the disadvantage of loading the playlist with every file from any podcast you subscribed to since yesterday, but at least going forward you won't have the entire back catalog of podcasts cramping the music collection that takes up most of the space on your player. Each time you sync the player, the playlist is refreshed with the latest tracks.

Figure 10
Figure 10. Modify the playlist to sync files added in the last 24 hours

Depending on the size of your player's drive, you may want Windows Media Player to optimize the files during the transfer process. This is particularly important if the podcaster uses variable bit rate encoding to create audio files, because many portable devices offer shoddy support for VBR-encoded files.

Now you need to start building the playlist of podcasts you want to listen to. My favorites include Evil Genius Chronicles, The Eric Rice Show, DVD Talk Radio, and Reel Reviews. After you've digested a few of those, head over to Podcast Alley, where the podcasting cream rises to the top with the help of a listener voting system. Doppler also includes a search feature for finding podcasts, but I consider it fairly unreliable at this point.

Jake Ludington is the author of the best-selling guide Converting VHS to DVD. He publishes audio and video tips at MediaBlab.com.

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