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The sad state of podcasting in iTunes

I’ve only really taken to podcasting very recently. Despite having Richard yammer on and on about how fantastic the medium is (which seems to be working for him, he’s had great success with the Gadget Show and is currently finishing up another book on the phenomenon) I didn’t embrace it early on.

My best excuse for those laggardly ways was the ownership of an iPod Shuffle —a device that (rightly or wrongly) doesn’t sync podcasts itself— but my switch to the Nano brought me up to speed. iTunes and the Nano handle podcasting very gracefully, and with the explosion of quality content lately there’s no shortage of good stuff to listen to while I vacuum the floor on a Friday afternoon.

So why the unhappy face? Well, despite its many positives, iTunes misses a few beats with its implementation of podcast aggregation. My main concern: if it ain’t a subscribed feed, it ain’t in the Podcast section of the source list.

Here’s the thing: I don’t want to be subscribed to every podcast in the world, so when something turns up out of the blue (like that interview with Bill Watterson’s mother, or that CIO Magazine interview with Joel Spolsky) I don’t necessarily want to subscribe… I just want to listen to the one episode and be done with it. (Quick aside: that Spolsky interview isn’t even part of a feed, so listening to the one standalone episode is your only option). Unfortunately, iTunes doesn’t handle these standalones so gracefully.

Any audio file you add to iTunes that didn’t come by way of a subscription doesn’t show up in the Podcast department. Drag it, drop it, change the genre to Podcast, copy it into the ~/Music/iTunes/iTunes Music/Podcasts directory, do whatever you like… no dice. The knock-on effect being that when the new file gets synced to your iPod, it doesn’t end up in the Podcasts section there either… nor does it get a spiffy played/unplayed indicator. Sad.

This is Apple’s problem, clearly, and something that needs fixing (along with column sorting, keyboard navigation, and easier non-iTMS subscription)… but until that day comes there is a solution: a solution that requires two middlemen and is sadly very hacky, but a solution nonetheless. The gist? Bookmark the audio or video file you want using, FeedBurn the RSS feed to podcast-enable it ( feeds linking to media files don’t issue them with enclosures… so they don’t cast as expected), subscribe to that burned feed in iTunes, et voilà!

It may be ugly, and it may require you to sign up for two services you otherwise have no use for (hey, I ain’t big on bookmarking and I ain’t big on social software), but it does the job. For unsubscribables like the CIO Magazine interview above, it’s your only choice. In cases like the Watterson interview or other one-offs, it allows you to aggregate something without committing to a whole feed of other (potentially interesting, potentially not) content. Hell, it even allows you to aggregate things that have fallen out of a podcast’s feed by virtue of being too old! Definitely worth a try, if only because it keeps things neater than they would otherwise be.