There's a lot about podcast workflow that I've just internalized and don't really think about anymore. Once you solve certain problems, they just kind of stay solved. But something I always keep on thinking about is how the final audio files are served out to the listeners. This last leg of the journey is an important part of the listener's experience, and it's important to keep evaluating how well it's working.
You have a lot of options when you're looking to host your podcast, and I want to take this opportunity to offer a quick survey of the ones I've tried over the years. I'll tell you what I wish people had told me, and if you're the kind of person who would one day try to do this... hopefully it saves you some time and money.
A point of clarification before we get going: When I say "hosting", I'm talking about finding a place online where you can store your audio files, and people can download them. Website hosting is a different problem that, honestly, is a little bit easier to solve.
Web hosting services like Dreamhost offer hosting plans for websites, along with one-click installation for applications like Wordpress, which will create your website and podcast RSS feed for you with the right plugins. These are great for people who are just getting started out because they're inexpensive... Usually about $10 per month. You can add or remove files with simple FTP software, and things are generally pretty reliable... if not slow. Since your files are only hosted in a single place, behind a single connection, your users will likely be frustrated at how long it takes to download your show.
They also offer "unlimited" storage for your files, and "unlimited" bandwidth to serve them. Why the scare quotes? Because "unlimited" is almost never without limit. These services are "shared hosting" which means your web server is shared among several other users. If you start serving out gigabytes or terabytes of audio, the hosting company will likely throttle or cap you because that's considered "unusual use".
That's something you need to think about when you're making this choice early on: are you picking the option that will grow with you? I know I sure didn't. Even moderate success will cause this to happen, and the low cost is not worth the stress of this happening.
This isn't an ad. I know that every podcast ever advertises for Square Space. I know that's how I found out about them, and I like their service so much that I use it to host the Duckfeed.tv web site.
Square Space gives you the option, when you're creating a blog entry, to add an audio block and either upload a file directly to Square Space itself, or point to an external file that is called up by your website's embedded audio player.
I'd feel more comfortable recommending this method than I would telling you to use shared hosting. I did this for a little while until analytics became really important. The uploader can be a little finicky, so be prepared for some false starts... but otherwise it's reliable. Download speeds tend not to be an issue because Square Space is built on a really powerful back end.
Analytics can be tough to implement. There's some voodoo you can do with Podtrac in order to capture your download numbers, but it's not as reliable as I'd like. If Square Space added enclosure download tracking to their service, it would be a tremendous help.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) might as well be the backbone of the internet. They offer cloud back-end stuff that's scalable and easy to get started with. Their web file manager is good enough, and it automatically gives you access to a Content Delivery Network (or "CDN"). This means your file is duplicated to a bunch of servers all around the world, and whenever someone tries to download it, it's served up from the nearest location. This means service is generally fast and reliable.
You can get analytics on this more easily by using Podtrac or Blubrry by prepending their tracking URL onto your file anywhere it shows up on your site.
The thing that will likely lure you into the Amazon ecosystem is the pricing. They lead in all of their marketing with "You only pay for what you use". This looks really attractive when you're small because you won't have to pay very much until you get big. But if you get big... oh boy, you'll pay. Let me walk you through an example.
Part 1 of our Morrowind WOFF! episode was 127.7 megabytes. It was downloaded 4461 times in its first 30 days of release, accounting for 570 gigabytes of bandwidth. At the $0.09/GB that Amazon charges, that single episode would have cost us $51.27 to serve out.
But that's just one episode.
Extrapolate that to a whole show's worth of episodes downloaded in a month, and we're looking at upwards of $375 per month just to host the audio for WOFF!. Then consider that we run a whole network of shows (arguably, none of them are as long as WOFF!, and only one is as popular), and the costs get out of control. It could easily take up half of our Patreon earnings, which is an inefficient use of those funds.
A big part of podcast success is growing your download numbers. Doubling them is always something you have in the back of your mind. When you're hosted entirely on AWS, that aspiration is always coupled with anxiety about doubling your hosting costs.
There are ways to get the upsides of AWS and CDNs, but with lower, more predictable costs.
We used Libsyn for several years at Duckfeed. It worked well when we used it, and there are only a few actual downsides to their service... along with one big intangible one.
First, the benefits. You pay a flat rate every month for hosting. It's "unlimited", but I haven't heard of anyone being kicked around for their success. The converse of that is the fact that they have an "Enterprise" plan for bigger shows, but unless you get as big as Adam Carolla or This American Life, you shouldn't have any problems.
Their cost tiers are kind of wonky. You are limited by how much audio you can upload per month, but this figure can be hard ot calculate ahead of time if you're just starting out. It feels like they're trying to lure you into overages, but their $15 for 250mb should work just fine as long as you're not a windbag like us. This can cut deep if you're trying to import an existing show, since they gouge for bulk uploads. Expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of hundreds of dollars to do this.
A downside to their pricing is that they don't offer a discount for buying hosting a year in advance. That's a real bummer, because those discounts add up if you stick around for long enough.
The end user experience for your listeners is fine. You can serve your RSS feed directly from the Libsyn service itself, and even create a (kind of crappy) website for your show. I'd discourage you from linking your audio hosting and your web hosting so closely, but it's an option a lot of people take.
Two things that are great about Libsyn are scheduled posting and predictable file URLs. You can pre-queue episodes to release, and have an exact idea of where your file will be located once it does. This lets you do a lot of the admin stuff more quickly and sensibly.
Their interface, while powerful, is kind of a nightmare now. Control always comes with complexity, but their jump to Libsyn 4 was a step backwards in usability (in my experience). This extends to the stats, which always used to be quick and comprehensible, but are now quick to hide the information you really want to see behind a gaudy, overdesigned interface.
The switch to Libsyn 4 was a big motivator for me to leave the service, but the biggest one is the fact that they are in real financial trouble. Their parent company, FAB Universal, has consistently been in hot water and I'm put off by what that means for the integrity of their service.
This is where we're at now. All of our currently active shows, except The Level and Those Damn Ross Kids, are on SoundCloud right now. I'm currently in the process of getting The Level on there, but Those Damn Ross Kids might be a problem due to music copyrights in the earlier episodes (I'll talk about this later).
The biggest advantage of SoundCloud is the audio player. It looks really nice, it's customizable, and boy oh boy is it easy to share from. That last one is a big deal. Every time someone sees our content on the web, they can share it to their social media (and even point to specific points within an episode).
Pricing is also incredibly friendly. The Unlimited plan is $15 per month, and there's a 20% discount if you buy a year in advance. This makes it the most cost effective solution I've seen. There are no upload limits like with Libsyn or similar services, so you can hit them with everything you've got. I've never heard of a show being throttled, either.
Files download quickly, because SoundCloud's back end is built on the same kind of stuff AWS is. They are a machine made entirely to move as much audio as possible to as many people as possible.
There are some compromises you need to be willing to make, though.
Signing up for SoundCloud doesn't automatically mean you can podcast from it. Their podcasting program is in beta, so you need to sign up for the Podcast Beta and wait to be manually approved.
Their interface and stats are a little simplistic. You'll be able to do everything you need to do, but it won't be as quick as some other solutions that give you more control. You cannot (yet) schedule a post in advance. This means (ugh) you have to do everything manually on the day of release. Worse, you cannot manipulate the "Posted On" date of a sound after you upload it. So if you are moving an older show over to SoundCloud, you'll have to be okay with inaccurate dates showing up in iTunes. Finally, you can't get predictable direct links to your audio files. To get those, you will need to do some wizardry with the RSS feed that I can't go into here.
The scariest aspect of SoundCloud is also something of a necessity: Copyright scanning. Much like YouTube, they have robots that will examine your sounds for copyrighted material. This has only been a problem for Those Damn Ross Kids, whose first 50 or so episodes used songs by the Eagles of Death Metal (stupidly) as title music. Getting those onto SoundCloud would mean re-editing them, which I just don't have time for.
Consider the risks and implications yourself. I feel confident in my choice of SoundCloud because they're easy to use, and they're a rising star in audio sharing. All I need to do is upload the sound to SoundCloud and it goes directly out to listeners, and then I drop the embed code into a blog post on the Duckfeed website.
Honorable Mention: SimpleCast
SimpleCast.fm is a scrappy upstart that I seriously considered switching to. Their interface is neat, their download times are respectable, and their pricing is exceedingly reasonable. They lost out to SoundCloud only because I liked SoundCloud's audio player better, and because their stats aren't as detailed. I'd encourage anyone reading this to give them a shot, though. They have a good trial program, and very responsive support staff.
Like all of my process posts, this is a lot of detail that nobody asked for. Again, I hope this finds someone at the right moment to save them some time and money. I'm happy to answer any questions you might have in the comments, but please understand if it takes me a while to get to them.