Want to get the word out to stakeholders quickly? Try a podcast, those short and snappy audio broadcasts piping bandwidth from the internet to iPods.

Packed with powerful communications potential for the classroom and central office, podcasts are incredibly simple to create. All you need to get started is a telephone, something to say, a service that will record your broadcast in an MP3 file, and somewhere to post or distribute your podcast.

Sound too simple to be true? Ed-tech guru Bob Houghton, an associate professor at Western Carolina University, recently walked me through my first podcasting experience and I was amazed at how easy it was. (Listen to the result.)

“Any computer can create or receive a podcast, and any MP3 player can handle it,” says Houghton. “All you need is a cell phone with a national calling plan to get started.” While there are a plethora of paid services, such as Blogger.com or Skype.com, that you can use to create podcasts, free services with all the bells and whistles are coming on the market almost daily.

For example, though it was originally started to give fledgling rock stars a leg up in a tough industry, garageband.com now offers toll-free recording services for podcasters.

“Podcasting represents a frontal assault on radio as we know it,” says Houghton. “Usage is just exploding, and even Apple can’t begin to keep up with the surge that’s coming.”

In addition to being a self-professed “technology geek,” Houghton is a former kindergarten and middle school speech teacher who uses podcasting at the university level to build students’ oral communication prowess.

“I see tremendous growth and development in students when they learn to find their public voice and learn how to stand up in front of a group of people and speak their minds,” says Houghton.

“In some ways, podcasting will bring us full circle back to rhetoric and other aspects of the language-arts curriculum that have been neglected for years,” continues Houghton. “Podcasting is an excellent tool to develop reading fluency and writing skills, as [students] have to research, plan, and write the scripts in advance and complete multiple audio takes before they’re satisfied that the quality is good enough for broadcasting.”

For more insights from Houghton regarding blogging, podcasting, and the like, check out his amazing web site: blog-study.blogspot.com.

While researching podcasts for this column, I also checked with my LGA colleague and personal tech guru, Chris Harrington, for some basic insight into podcasts and his advice for educators and school PR professionals.

Harrington has an education background and has some great insights for both classroom teachers and school leaders. Here’s what he has to say:

Q. How do podcasts differ from blogs or MP3s?
A. Podcasts, blogs, and MP3s share a common characteristic: They are all forms of new media communications. “Podcast” is a combination of the words “iPod” and “broadcast.” The differences between a podcast and a blog, or web log, are the formats and delivery methods for the information.

Blogs can be memos, articles, personal reviews, journals, or other forms of written logs delivered on the web through a browser. The text in a blog may be accompanied by links and images. Blogs can also include links to video and audio files.

Podcasts are audio bites that are recorded, produced, and delivered through subscriptions using Really Simple Syndication (RSS) 2.0 XML technology. Through the use of aggregator or podcatching software, a user subscribes to the podcast of his or her choice. Once a subscription is made, the RSS technology pushes the most recently released podcasts to the subscriber’s computer. The podcast file can be played through the computer or transferred to an iPod for easy accessibility. Podcast files are usually delivered as MP3 files but can be delivered in a number of other audio formats.

Q. What are the implications you see for podcasts PR?
A. Podcasts can be created by anyone–an average Joe or major corporation. With that said, I see podcasts as the next great way to market goods, services, and corporate goodwill. Major corporations are beginning to push internal communications, press releases, company news, new product releases, and advertisements through podcasts. For instance, an aerospace enthusiast might subscribe to an aeronautics manufacturer’s podcast for the latest company news or reviews of upcoming flight technology.

I also believe people place more value on word-of-mouth promotion than any other form of advertisement, and podcasts are the perfect form for underground or grassroots marketing. During a recent technology podcast, I was listening to a podcaster voicing his opinions on the latest technology news. To wrap up his “show,” he began telling a story about his search for a new vacuum cleaner. His wife had allergy problems, they had pets, and a new baby was on the way. Not surprisingly, he felt compelled to buy the best vacuum he could. He went on to describe his research for a vacuum and later his purchase of a Dyson. The podcaster raved about the Dyson product line. Coincidently, I was in the market for a vacuum, and I had also been researching online. I found great reviews for the Dyson on many blogs–but when I heard this audio word-of-mouth sell, I was sold. I am now the owner of a Dyson vacuum.

Q. How could teachers or administrators use podcasts?
A. Administrators can build the podcast RSS technology into the school system web site or a school web site. With podcasts, administrators can deliver audio recordings of daily news, press announcements, board meetings, or even weather-related closings. With the growth of large school systems, parents would certainly benefit from new school construction updates.

Teachers can use daily or weekly podcasts to summarize lessons for students and parents. Involved parents could use the podcast to have a better understanding of what is being taught in the classroom. Depending on the content, podcasts can be used to deliver audio books for English or social studies and classical tunes for music classes.

Many kids perform better through auditory learning over visual learning, and a podcast may be a small contributor through new media education.

Q. How hard is it to create a podcast, and what do you need to get started?
A. Podcasts are relatively easy for experienced computer users. Here’s a link for getting started: http://www.podcast411.com/ howto_1.html.

Q. Why are podcasts so hot?
A. A podcast is similar to a recorded TV show. The broadcast, once released, can be listened to virtually anywhere, at any time. Listening is controlled by the user: Forwarding, rewinding, and pausing is a click away. It’s on-demand listening, unlike traditional radio.

Q. When wouldn’t you recommend a podcast?
A. I think it’s all subjective and depends on the goal of the communication. However, I would definitely not recommend a podcast for anything confidential–once the content is out, it’s public.

Podcasting resources

Apple Computer
http://www.apple.com/podcasting

The Podcast Value Chain Report: An overview of the emerging podcasting marketplace (PDF file)
http://www.digitalpodcast.com/podcastvaluechain.pdf

WNYC’s Podcasting synopsis
http://www.wnyc.org/about/podcasting.html

PodCast411
http://www.podcast411.com/page5.html

Wikipedia
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcasting

Blogger.com
www.blogger.com

Bob Houghton
http://blog-study.blogspot.com
http://ecrop.blogspot.com

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.