Sunday, July 06, 2008

Managing Podcasts

To round out this podcast post hat trick, I'd like to describe how I keep track of all of these subscriptions. There are at least a couple of iTunes and/or iPod/iPhone behaviors that drive me towards the solution that I currently have. Like anything else, I'm always interested in a better way, so please pass along any suggestions.

The first behavior to work around is the fact that iTunes does not play podcast tracks continuously. It plays one track and then stops. You have to select the next track. It plays that one, and then stops again. If you have a multi-track podcast, or are behind on your podcasts and have several episodes available, this is really annoying. You can't just simply hit play and walk away. The various iPods and iPhone I have used over the years behave the same way.

The solution to this is to use playlists. But regular playlists aren't a very good solution to the problem. Podcasts are dynamic by nature, and playlists are static. Sure, you could grab the 5 episodes you want to listen to, and create a playlist containing just those 5 episodes. But when a new episode is posted, it will not show up on that playlist. However, playlists do play everything in them continuously. So we need the playback behavior of a playlist, along with support for the dynamic behavior of podcasts.

The real solution is to use Smart Playlists. Like playlists, Smart Playlists will provide continuous track playback. However, Smart Playlists are defined by rules, and crafty use of those rules can result in a nice, dynamic, updating of content to pair nicely with podcasts. You can use Smart Playlists to sort your regular music, too, but I'm only going to focus on podcasts for right now.

In order to get the most out of Smart Playlists, you have to decide what behavior you want. In my case, I want to be presented with any unfinished podcast episodes. Once an episode has been completed, I generally am no longer interested in it. Also skipping ahead a bit, I want some pretty specific ways of organizing my subscriptions. What this means is that while I certainly could have a single Smart Playlist to show me all unheard episodes, that isn't going to be particularly useful from an organization standpoint. I have found that for my needs, I will use one Smart Playlist per podcast subscription. Anytime I subscribe to a new podcast, I need to create a new Smart Playlist. (If I ever get around to learning AppleScript, I'm going to automate this) This does require some up-front work, but once deployed the payoff is pretty good.

The first challenge in creating a Smart Playlist is determining how to identify a particular podcast by rule. The rules I started with when I only had a couple of subscriptions wound up not working so well as I added more. This is because different podcasts identify their episodes in different ways. Some podcasters do a pretty good job of putting something common into each track name. For example, the MacCast:

Although for some reason it changed from "Maccast" to "eMaccast" earlier this year, the root - "Maccast" - is still there. So a first step in building a Smart Playlist could look something like this:

Name contains whatever. However, not all podcasts are named this way. For example, the Big Ten provides a few podcasts for various sports, and it looks like this:

There really isn't anything common in the name of each track to reliably key off of. So you have to find something else.

When you first create a Smart Playlist, the default item to make a rule for is the Artist. At first glance, this seems like a pretty good option. The artist info for the MacCast is "Adam Christianson (Mac Geek)", which should be sufficiently unique for a reliable rule. However, in practice, using Artist alone can fail in a couple of different ways. First of all, if you subscribe to multiple distinct podcasts from a single source. For example, the Big Ten football podcast is distinct from the basketball podcast, but the artist either way is "Big Ten Network". It then becomes more difficult to separate football from basketball. The second way Artist can fail is if you have non-podcast content by the same artist. For example, Bob & Tom have been producing albums for years, and I have hundreds of non-podcast tracks with Bob & Tom as the artist. This example is easier to get around than the first, because one of the Smart Playlist rules is basically a true/false test of whether or not something is a podcast. Still, it would be nice to have a rule that works in every case.

What I really want is a way to identify a given podcast by subscription name. It isn't really obvious that you can do precisely that. If you go back and look at the screen shots again, you'll notice I left a column in there that gives the solution: Album. iTunes groups all podcast episodes together as if they were part of the same album. So the first rule for our new Smart Playlist should look like this:

Album contains whatever. iTunes will even try to smartly fill in text as you type, so chances are you won't have to type in the entire album name yourself.

At this point, we have a list that contains all episodes of a given podcast. Now we need to implement the desired behavior. I want to see episodes that I have not finished. When trying to decide how to implement rules, it is probably a good idea to spend some time look at the various options in the first pull-down menu. There are many different ways of describing the metadata of a particular track, so it is useful to know what options Apple has provided. In this case, the only option that really applies is the Play Count. Play Count gets indexed when any track is completed. You could start and stop 50 times, but the Play Count will remain zero until you actually finish the track. So that's my next rule:

Album contains whatever AND Play Count is whatever. Ooops, I should probably point out that the "AND" is performed by choosing the "Match all of the following rules:" option at the top. If you set it to "Match any of the following rules", then you wind up with "OR". So, my list could be anything with the Album MacCast, or Play Count is 0. The result of that will be all episodes of the MacCast, plus anything in my library that I have not yet listened to. So as you experiment with Smart Playlists, if you wind up with too many or too few results, verify that the all/any option is set correctly.

If you have defined your rules properly, you should see the appropriate results:

Apparently I'm a few episodes behind. However, now that these tracks are in a playlist, I can press play and walk away; listening as I do other things. As tracks are completed, they will instantly disappear from this list. When a new episode is available (I have iTunes set to automatically download new content), it will automatically appear in this list. iTunes will not stop playing until it comes to the end of the list, at which point I will have listened to all episodes, and the list will be empty.

As I mentioned previously, I have decided to use one Smart Playlist for each podcast subscription. And I'm not kidding:

Adding folders helps to organize podcasts by topic.

As you can see I have 30 or 40 Smart Playlists, and I consider this to be my first tier of podcast sorting. But I'm not quite done yet, for one main reason: If I have one playlist with 15 minutes of content, and another with 4 hours of content, I'd like a way to join them together so that I can listen to both. I try to minimize the amount of fumbling with my iPhone that I do while driving. So on my 45 minute commute, if I choose the 15-minute podcast, that means somewhere along my drive I'm going to have to choose another list. I'd rather not do that.

One of the nice things about Smart Playlists is that you can make Smart Playlists of other Smart Playlists. Wha-huh? Yep, "Playlist" is one of the item types that you can create a rule against. Now I have to decide how I want to group different podcasts together. In my case, I have decided on essentially three classifications of podcasts: 1) I love them, 2) They're ok, 3) Everything else. Here is what this looks like:

Playlist is whatever, and then you just choose which ones you want. Very important is the use of "any" for this rule set. If you use "all", chances are you're going to wind up with an empty list. In this case, I'm pooling together 6 of my favorite podcasts. If I have some listening time available, I go right to this list and start playing. Generally, I try to make sure I clear everything off of this list before listening to anything else. This list alone has the potential for over 20 hours of content per week, so it can be tough to keep up.

Next up is my medium priority list, and it is basically the same idea, though there is one capability I just learned about recently and want to point out:

You can use folders instead of (or in addition to) specific playlists. This doesn't work for me everywhere, because I may not want all of a given topic on the same priority level. In this case, I decided that TV and financial podcasts are of a similar priority for me, so selecting the folder saved me having to add several more line items to the list of rules. Also, if I should subscribe to any new TV podcasts in the future, all I have to do is create the podcast-specific playlist, then add it to the appropriate folder. It will automatically appear in my medium priority list.

I use my low priority list as basically a catch-all. If I'm too lazy to create and organize a podcast-specific playlist, I wanted a handy way to still find those items. So this list basically needed to be "everything except the high and medium priority lists". Here is what that looks like:

I use a couple of Playlist is not whatever lines. That opens it up to my entire iTunes library, basically. So I narrow it down by requiring that the item is a podcast, and narrow down further with the play count. This leaves me with all unheard podcasts not already on my important lists.

For what it is worth, I have similar lists for all of my music. I spent a lot of time going through my library and assigning star ratings to each and every song. I then have Smart Playlists by rating; 5 star only, 4 star only, etc. I have a Smart Playlist to find anything that does not have a rating; this is useful for when I add new music. I even have a reminder list that basically boils down to "you have rated this song as 4 or 5 stars, yet you have not listened to it in over 6 months, you should probably do so".

Each morning, I will sync my iPhone before I head to work. This will give me all of the content downloaded automatically the previous day. The stuff I listened to already on the phone will carry the play count info on it, so when that information is reported to iTunes during a sync, those tracks automatically drop off the appropriate lists. The end result is a fresh set of content without any further interaction needed by me. Computers are great!

This does lead me to one of my biggest complaints about the iPhone: Smart Playlists are not smart on the iPhone. They basically come over as dumb lists. This means that as I listen to tracks, they do not automatically disappear. Or, if I change my mind about the rating of a song, it does not automatically jump to the appropriate list. The lists only get updated during a sync. For all of the computing power the iPhone provides, I consider this to be quite an oversight. The 40GB iPod I used for a couple years was able to come very close to doing this. It wasn't a live update, but if you went to a different playlist and then came back to the original, it would re-evaluate the rules and populate with songs accordingly. The iPhone won't even do that.

I'll leave you with an iPhone tip. You don't really have any means to sort the track list in any given playlist on the phone itself. It uses whatever sort order you last used for the playlist in iTunes. If you last sorted by Artist, then the tracks will appear by Artist on the iPhone. That's fine, but in general I want to listen to older podcasts before I get to newer stuff; first in, first out. Or, if I decide to jump to current stuff, I'd like an easy to know which is the newer stuff. Track name doesn't always give that away. This is yet another example of where the perfect solution exists, it just isn't obvious. In any given view with columns, you have numerous types of information to display: Name, Time, Artist, etc. If you right-click (ctrl-click) on the column headers, you are presented with a full list of possible types. The one that I found to be most useful is Release Date:

Turn that column on, sort by it, and now the iPhone will show the same sort order. At a glance I know which stuff is older and which is newer.

So that's how I stay on top of dynamic content. I'm always open to improvements, so if you have suggestions, please pass them along.

1 comment:

Mike said...

Thanks for going into so much detail!

I just switched to using an iPhone and this seems like exactly what I was hoping I could do.

One question though... you have 3 smart playlists for your high, mid, and low priority podcasts.

So do you then have a top-level smart playlist to bring them together somehow using the priorities? How does that work?