What has television networks and radio executives running scared? Podcasting, the relatively new way to broadcast audio and video through iPods and other portable music players.

Since 2006, when Apple incorporated podcasts into iTunes, these easy-to-download audio and music files have grown rapidly in popularity, leading many media experts to predict they will eventually eclipse cable television and radio waves.

Part of podcasts’ allure is their portability — people can watch television programs while commuting or play their favorite National Public Radio program on a walk. “You can listen or watch when it’s convenient for you,” says Dani McKinney, PhD, a psychology professor at SUNY Fredonia, who studies podcasts and other forms of educational technology.

While people are mostly downloading music and television shows, educational podcasts are also gaining popularity, McKinney says. By recording their talks as podcasts, professors are lecturing to broader audiences than they ever imagined. Taking it a step further, some psychologists are producing shows with interviews, transition music and even advertising. One such program, Shrink Rap Radio, by David Van Nuys, PhD, has 15,000 subscribers, and thousands more listen in through the Web and YouTube. Another popular show, The Psych Files, by Michael Britt, PhD, broadcasts to 4,500 subscribers.

Though psychology podcasts differ in their focus and production, one thing they have in common is a desire to share psychology’s riches with a worldwide audience, says Van Nuys, a professor emeritus of psychology at Sonoma State University, in California.

“This is the largest classroom I have ever had,” he says.

Who’s listening?

David Brodbeck, PhD, a psychology professor at Algoma University in Canada, had only a small classroom in mind when he started podcasting his intro psychology lectures in 2006. His daily downloads now top 4,000 — which is certainly more than can be accounted for by his students.

“There are only 1,200 undergraduates in this whole school,” he says.

Some of his listeners are students from other universities, but, from surveys and listener e-mails, he’s found that most are ordinary people with an interest in psychology. That includes a truck driver who tunes in while doing cross-country hauls, and a cable-television installer in Denmark, who listens to Brodbeck’s podcasts as he works.

“Why he wants to hear me explain T-tests, I don’t know,” Brodbeck says.

The podcasts have also benefited Brodbeck’s students — their grades have gone up 5.5 percent since he began broadcasting his lectures, he says.

In fact, students may learn better from podcasts than live lectures, perhaps because podcasts allow students to take extensive notes, according to a study by McKinney, published in Computers & Education (Vol. 52, No, 3). In her research, she had 66 students learn about the inner workings of the eye either through a live lecture or a podcast, examined their notes and then tested their knowledge.

Overall, the students who listened to the podcast tended to take better notes than those in the live lecture. Note-taking in both groups correlated highly with test scores, she says.

“We think what happened is that the students with the podcast stopped and started the lecture, and reviewed parts that didn’t make sense to them at first,” says McKinney.

Students who didn’t take notes in the podcasting condition did poorly on the test, she adds. The take-home message for professors: Make sure students know that learning via podcasting only works if you take notes and listen actively. That’s not to say that Brodbeck’s casual listeners aren’t learning, says McKinney, they just may not remember all the details of a lecture a college student would.

“Podcasts are a great way to spread the idea that psychology isn’t just clinical psychology or therapy, but that our research touches language comprehension, judgment, decision-making, learning, health — there are so many different areas,” she says.

Getting started

Want to create your own podcasts? While technical know-how can be hard to come by, the equipment it takes to create a podcast is relatively inexpensive, says Brodbeck. For an audio podcast, all you need is a good computer and a microphone, which you can get for less than $100. The software can be had for free — podcasters who run Windows often use a free program called Audacity. Mac users can edit and compress audio files using GarageBand.

The toughest part of podcasting is learning how to transmit your shows to people’s iPods says Michael Britt, PhD, a podcaster and psychology professor at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Like many bloggers, podcasters tag their work with something called RSS, or Really Simple Syndication. RSS allows listeners to automatically download the newest episode when you post it.

“Despite the name, RSS is not that simple,” Britt says. “You have to learn a little XML, and you have to know a little HTML.”

Once you’ve formatted and uploaded the files, you’re ready to submit your podcast to iTunes, the Zune marketplace, and other places that people use to subscribe to and download podcasts. Just click on the “submit your podcast” button. Many people also publicize their podcasts through blogs, personal Web sites and by uploading episodes to YouTube.

Though it took a while to get the hang of it, Brodbeck says it now takes him 20 minutes to edit and post his lectures.

Many podcasters go a step further and produce podcasts that are akin to commercial radio shows. That’s the case for Van Nuys, whose twice-monthly show features interviews with famous psychologists, such as Paul Ekman, PhD, and Judith Beck, PhD, summaries of breaking research and letters from listeners.

Van Nuys spends about an hour editing his podcasts, and several more hours reading up on research and preparing his questions. Though his hobby is time-consuming, Van Nuys says it’s more than worth it. Over the last five years, he’s produced 225 episodes and had the opportunity to interview hundreds of researchers and theorists, he adds.

“Doing interviews for ‘Shrink Rap’ radio lets me stay in touch with my colleagues and keep up with what’s going on in the field, and I’ve generated quite a body of work,” says Van Nuys. “This has turned out to be the magnum opus of my career.”

Suggested listening

  • The Psych Files: A lively podcast that links academic research to everyday life.

  • Shrink Rap Radio: In-depth interviews with top psychologists from a variety of areas.

  • This Week in the History of Psychology: A look at important events from psychology’s past.

  • Family Anatomy: Research-based parenting and relationship advice.

  • Great Ideas in Psychology: A rundown of psychology’s greatest hits, from psychoanalysis to behaviorism and beyond.

  • Psychology Podcast: Easily accessible explorations of topics such as eating disorders, virginity and persuasion. No new episodes are being produced, but the site offers 20 archived podcasts.

  • Wise Counsel: Consumer-focused information on mental health, wellness and psychotherapy.

  • Science magazine: Weekly podcast from Science reports on new research from many disciplines.

  • Radiolab: This show regularly touches on research by psychologists, including work on laughter, deception and how we make sense of music.

  • Science Friday: NPR host Ira Flatow explores the science behind today’s headlines.