iTunes 4. 9, released last week, now supports podcasts. But why care about podcasting — isn't it just the latest fad to the hit the...

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iTunes 4.9, released last week, now supports podcasts. But why care about podcasting — isn’t it just the latest fad to the hit the Internet, and as interesting as a 1970s pet rock? Sure. And an iPod is a glorified hard drive.

Podcasting combines the idea of the portability of an iPod and the mass reach of broadcasting. Podcasts are media files that are linked to from an RSS feed. Software polls the RSS feed looking for new shows and downloads them when they’re available. Podcasts are typically in the MP3 format that can be played in iPods and other players.

Tens of thousands of sites of all scales now produce podcasts or convert existing broadcasts into the format. They range from random and absurd to techie talk and Rush Limbaugh.

Although dozens of programs now handle podcasts in audio and video format, they took their lead from a small demonstration program last fall that used a feature added to RSS in 2001 to make podcasting take off.

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Podcast subscriptions can be made through single-purpose programs or built into software with more features. For instance, Seattle-based Ranchero Software (www.ranchero.com) added podcast subscriptions to its RSS news reader NetNewsWire Pro 2.

Podcast features in iTunes 4.9 are stapled on rather than neatly incorporated, but they’re a good first effort. It’ll get better.

After downloading and installing the free iTunes 4.9 (www.apple.com/itunes), a new Podcasts item appears in the Source pane at the left of the iTunes window for managing subscriptions. But it’s Apple’s Podcast Directory that should be your starting point. Click the Podcasts item and then click the Podcast Directory link at the bottom of the window. The Podcast Directory looks like any other genre of music in the store.

You can look through what is currently a very limited number of featured entries, or search to find results from a much larger list. For instance, KUOW’s podcasts aren’t listed under Public Radio, but they do appear when you enter KUOW in the search field.

When you find a program, you can click the Subscribe button under the Price column heading. (Podcasts are all “free” for now, but it’s easy to see subscription fees for premium content in the future.)

If a show you want isn’t listed, you have to find the podcast RSS feed link, copy it, select Subscribe to Podcast from the Advanced menu in iTunes 4.9, paste the link, and click OK.

iTunes polls, downloads and retains programs based on settings in the Preferences item in the iTunes menu. Click the Podcasts icon and you can choose how frequently to check, how many episodes to download at a time and how many to keep. You can also set automatic iPod transfers of those programs.

Click Podcasts in the left-hand Source pane in iTunes to manage subscriptions. Each podcast feed shows up as a separate entry. Click the expansion triangle next to the name and you can see what episodes are listed in the feed and not yet downloaded (click Get to download those manually), and what you have stored for a show.

A few rough edges remain. If interrupted, downloading podcasts don’t resume where they were left off. Podcasts can’t play while downloading. They don’t show up in the overall Library, and can’t be included in Smart Playlists. Download preferences can only be set globally, not show by show. I’m looking forward to a future refined version.

Is podcasting just the domain of a few Internet geeks? Apparently not. Early returns show that a mass market may have already emerged. Apple recorded 1 million podcast subscriptions in the first two days, although the number of individual subscribers wasn’t released.

More interesting, public radio station KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., had a vast increase in its podcast downloads when iTunes 4.9 shipped almost two weeks ago featuring a few KCRW shows, according to Assistant Publicity Director Debbie Adler. KCRW produces several nationally distributed programs, including “Simpsons” and “Spinal Tap” actor Harry Shearer’s “Le Show.”

In May, podcast downloads were 3,500 per day. In June, they reached 12,000 per day after Steve Jobs announced future podcast support in iTunes, Adler said. Within 12 hours of iTunes 4.9’s release, KCRW had more than 80,000 downloads. By evening of the first day, it allowed Apple to cache its podcasts, reducing its server strain.

KUOW saw a jump in the several local programs it podcasts, from about 8,300 downloads and 26,000 RSS page requests in the week before iTunes 4.9 was released to 9,500 downloads and 31,300 page requests in the week of the program’s release.

Podcasting might wind up being dominated by those who already produce high-quality audio and video, but just as some blogs and Web sites are run by giant corporations and others by intense individuals, Apple’s move just makes it easier for an average Mac or Windows user to tune in.

Glenn Fleishman and Jeff Carlson write the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to Glenn at gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists