Attack of the Pod Penguins: Not Why, Why Not?

Producing a podcast on Linux is easier than you think, thanks to some versatile tools. Here's an intro to the fundamentals.

It's not that no one thinks of multimedia and Linux in the same frame. Many do. They're the Linux and FOSS evangelists, determined to remove all vestiges of proprietary software from their computing lives and yours, too, if you understand what's best. They're the engineers, fascinated with the challenge of bridging proprietary (and often very secret) hardware to the community of open source users. They're small commercial interests, focused on maximizing Return On Investment by minimizing the cost of entry into a burgeoning multimedia market. And, they're users, dabbling in open source for the first time, wondering how on Earth to make that sound card work like it did in Microsoft Windows.

Plenty of people think of Linux and multimedia in the same loose context. Few actually pair them for any useful purpose. Hardcore use of open source multimedia tools doesn't even approach what it could be in the computing world. With two other venerable computing platforms, it's difficult for some to imagine why anyone would need to use open source multimedia tools. It's not that they think it's impossible, or even particularly difficult. The problem is history. Both Microsoft and Apple have sizeable code bases including easy-to-access hooks into multimedia hardware. On the Windows side, hardware designers create new multimedia toys with that code base in mind. On the Mac side, hardware manufacturing is strictly controlled to conform to the Apple standards. While Macs generally take the upper hand in multimedia, both platforms deliver pretty consistently. It's not tough to see why open source-created multimedia hasn't made it onto the world computing stage. Most can't understand why it's necessary.

I've thought a lot about this in the past few years. Most of my weeknights and nearly all of my weekends have been filled with open source multimedia tools. I qualify as any one of the users noted above at any given time: engineer, evangelist, small business owner, and user. As a user, I rip CDs and listen to streaming blues broadcasts. As evangelist, I believe, heart and soul, that the world would be a better place without proprietary software, that the gains from computing should not be exclusive to those who can afford software. Or hardware. Or the seemingly endless cycles of proprietary upgrades required for both. As engineer, I've hacked my kernel and dreamed of schematics for a new sound card. I've also run a business on open source tools, albeit a small one, but one that measures real profit in triple-digit percentages. In all those roles, I tend to see widespread use of open source tools in multimedia delivery and creation as the next great plateau in wide open source adoption. It's still a destination somewhere up the mountain-the next base camp, as it were-but it is within sight.

So, when Don Marti sent me an e-mail a few weeks ago to tell me of his move to LinuxWorld.com (and to drop a line in the lake, fishing for articles), I jumped. My inner writer, a largely theoretical and speculative creature, has, for nearly eighteen months, been subsumed by practice. I've been obsessed with open source multimedia in the quest for the perfect sound for The Roadhouse Podcast and the IndieFeed Blues channel. That's meant some business, as well, to offset the long hours. I've put the tools to use in politics, as editor and producer of The ClarkCast, a weekly podcast by General Wesley Clark. My coder's heart has been filled with scripts to maximize process efficiency. "Tony," said my writer as I read Don's e-mail, "here's your chance to make me happy and write about multimedia tools in Linux." That writer speaks up so seldom and is such a good friend, it seems the least I can do.

So, we embark from this point on a thorough examination of multimedia tools in Linux. A series of articles lie ahead, ranging from the practical to the frivolous to the pragmatic. We'll dive into both hardware and software. We'll overlay the demands of multimedia on the broad rainbow of Linux distributions. For the engineers, I'll detail the processes in both hardware and software that make the music sing. For the users, we'll focus on application of the tools, from commands and frontends to shortcuts and customization. And, unlike those who wonder why, you'll be one who wonders, like me, why not.

Of course, we have to start with what's grabbed our attention these days. We'd hardly be a publication of any rank if we didn't delve first into the buzz, the flash that's lit our collective fuses; if we didn't discover how to stir some of that buzz ourselves. As the collective of open source publications so often does, and is right to do, we have an obligation to talk about what's hot. More importantly, our higher-level obligation is to convey how you can use open source tools to achieve the same ends as the big boys. At its core, that's more than some grudgingly-accepted publisher's mandate. We share your dream: to do for ourselves what others pay to have done for them.

Few trends in the technology world over the past few years offer more opportunity for DIY satisfaction than podcasting. Some estimate that in the two short years since the first widely available podcast, more than 30,000 have sprung from basements and kitchens, commercial studios and mainstream media outlets. Some proclaim the death of terrestrial radio. Others see their growth, especially in the commercial realm, as a complementary service, demanded by the listeners and fed by the advertising dollar. And some, looking beyond the hyperbole that always accompanies such new technologies, see it as both evidence and validation of the new criticality of citizen media. Take those assessments as you will. They're really not the point of the articles to follow.

The point is this. If you have something to say-anything, really-it should be said. Open source multimedia tools exist to help you create that message and to move it to the appropriate, self-selected audience. You don't need to investigate the latest podcasting trialware then pay the price for software that may only achieve half your ends. The hallmark of Free and Open Source Software has always been the ability to utilize a collection of small tools, well made, to achieve a known goal. In podcasting, you can, in fact, have it all. With minimal expense, you can create the message. Utilizing a full kit of open source tools, you can save, edit, tweak, refine, and perfect that message, in context, sound and delivery. If a DIY sound is your preference, it's yours. If you lean toward a more polished production, that's achievable with open source tools, as well. Whether your topic of choice is music, politics, technology, or any other you can imagine, open source tools can make it happen.

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