Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Use your mp3 player to listen to podcasts instead of talk radio on your commute

I have a 15-minute commute by car to work – so that’s about 2.5 hours I spend in the car going to and from work on a typical week.  Occasionally I listen to music in the car, but most often I prefer listening to talk.  Historically, I would typically listen to AM radio on the commute: sports, news, or just whatever was on any station I could find that wasn’t on commercial.

For the past couple of years, though, I’ve listened to podcasts on the commute instead.  For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a typical podcast is essentially a talk radio show that you can download online for free, and listen to on an mp3 player.

Listening to podcasts have several significant advantages over AM radio:

  • Choice of Topic.  At any given time, there are only a few topics available to listen to on talk radio shows.  By contrast, there are a podcasts on a multitude of topics available for free download online.  I’ve replaced listening to general news and sports talk on my commute with topics that are specifically of interest to me, like software engineering, Christian apologetics, and video games. 
  • On-Demand / Pauseable.  With a podcast, the show starts exactly when I sit down in my car in the morning.  And when there’s something interesting being discussed as I arrive at work, instead of missing the end of the discussion, I can just pause my mp3 player, and pick up the show right where I left off when I begin my commute home in the afternoon.
  • Limited or No Commercials.  Whereas a typical radio station plays commercials as much as 15% of the time or more, many podcasts are produced on a volunteer basis and are totally commercial-free.  In my experience, in those podcasts that do run ads, the ads are fairly limited.  And as a last resort, you can always skip past any particularly intrusive commercials that do happen to be present using the fast-forward function on your mp3 player!

My current mp3 player is an Apple iPod, so I use Apple’s iTunes software to subscribe to podcasts, and have the latest episodes automatically download to my PC.  Then, when I sync my iPod with my PC (which I typically do once a week or so), I get several new episodes of my favorite podcasts to listen to on my commute over the next several days.  Easy!  (If you don’t have an iPod, there are several free RSS software packages out there that support audio files that you can use to subscribe to podcasts, and have the .mp3 files automatically download for you.)

The only remaining challenge, then, is how to get the mp3 player output to play through the car speakers (since it’s for obvious reasons dangerous, and apparently in many places illegal, to drive while wearing headphones).  With an older car, you can get an inexpensive device that converts an audio cassette player into a line-in jack for an mp3 player.  Many newer cars these days come with a line-in jack built directly into the stereo system.

However, I drive a model year 2005 car that has neither a line-in jack nor a cassette player.  The solution I landed on for listening to my iPod in my car was a Griffin iTrip FM Transmitter / Charger.  The device is essentially a short-range FM transmitter does a a short-range FM radio broadcast of whatever is playing on your iPod, using an FM frequency that is unused in your area (a frequency that you specify).  Then, you just tune your car radio to that same FM frequency, and you can hear your iPod podcast (or music) over your car’s stereo system! 

I’ve actually bought two copies of the iTrip device – one back in late 2007 for myself, and a second one a year ago for my wife.  Both devices are still in great working condition.  Although the iTrip has an MSRP of US $70, it’s currently going for about $34 shipped on Amazon.com as I write this.  Highly recommended, particularly at that reasonable price.

Finally, a brief plug for a specific podcast: If you’re into video games, check out the Gamers With Jobs podcast.  It’s a group of a few adult gamers that talk weekly about current games (across all of the major console platforms and the PC), and interesting gaming-related topics.  The group has great chemistry and the show is often pretty funny.  And it’s commercial-free!  It’s my favorite podcast.

So – try making your daily commute time more interesting and/or productive by listening to a podcast on a topic of interest to you while you’re driving back and forth to work, instead of just defaulting to whatever happens to be on the radio!