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Control those podcasts!

For those who don’t know, I’m not really a fan of podcasting. However, over the last few months, there are a few podcasts, audio and video, that I’ve chosen to subscribe to, though I rarely get the chance to listen to them—between work and family, and not having a long commute nor travelling all that much, I just don’t get to them as often as I’d like to.

And that’s how I discovered a couple of surprising limitations in iTunes’ podcast support. First, there’s no time-based method of retaining podcasts. Through iTunes’ Podcast preferences, you can choose to keep all; all unplayed; the most recent; or one of the last 2, 3, 5, or 10 episodes. But there’s no way to say something like “regardless of the number of episodes, I know I only want to keep two weeks’ worth on my Mac, as I know that’s all I’ll ever have time for.”

Perhaps even worse than the lack of a time-based expiration method is the fact that your settings apply to all of your podcasts equally. There’s no way to distinguish, for example, between a fact-based series that you’d like to retain forever, and a joke-of-the-day podcast, for which you really want to keep only a few days’ worth on hand. Whatever settings you choose are applied to all of your podcasts.

Enter Cast Away 1.2 (   ), a $7 shareware application (no limitations prior to registration, just some nag screens) that fills this obvious gap in iTunes’ options, and does so in a relatively simple, yet powerful, manner. Using Cast Away, you can control, on a podcast by podcast basis, not only how long to retain a given podcast, but how long to keep it active, and whether or not to archive it.

Before you use Cast Away, launch iTunes, which needs to be running first. You should also visit iTunes’ Podcast preferences and set the “When new episodes are available” pop-up to Download All, and set the “Keep” pop-up to All Episodes. You might also want to visit the iPod preferences and check the “Only update checked songs” box (to prevent inactive podcasts from being copied over).

Once you’re in Cast Away, you’ll see that the interface is a single four-tabbed window, with the tabs labeled Main, Podcasts, Schedule, and Info. The Main tab is used to control which playlists will be checked for podcasts; by default, only the Podcasts item is checked. But if you store your podcasts elsewhere, you can easily enable those playlists as well. There are also some options for looking at the date in a podcast’s name, whether or not to physically delete the removed playlists, a button to set the archive folder’s location, and a few other minor things.

The Podcasts tab is where all the “heavy lifting” happens—this is where you set the schedule for each and every podcast in your collection. You control how long to keep the podcast before removal, how long to leave it active (checked), whether or not to always keep the latest version regardless of the other settings, and whether or not to archive the removed podcast. When you first launch Cast Away, you’ll find all your podcasts set to never delete, and to be marked inactive after seven days. From there, you customize the settings as you like. For instance, here’s how I’ve got mine set up:

Although this screen can look a bit confusing, it’s really not that bad. The Remove and Uncheck columns hold numbers that indicate how many days to keep a podcast before deleting or marking it inactive. A “0” in a column means “forever;” any other value is a number of days. So as seen above, I’ll keep all episodes of this WEEK in TECH , as its Remove value is zero. The Macworld podcasts, on the other hand, will be removed after seven days—though I also archive them, so they’re available if I want to revisit any of them. For both the Macworld and iTunes New Music Tuesday podcasts, I have them set to be always active (the “0” in the Uncheck column). For each podcast, you just need to consider how long you’d like to retain it, how long to keep it active, whether or not to always keep the latest version, and whether or not to archive episodes when deleted. After you’ve gone through the list of podcasts, that’s it—each of them will then follow the set schedule, assuming you move on to the next tab.

The Schedule tab is used to set up a recurring event to automatically run the Cast Away script—just set the schedule clock to your desired time and click Set Schedule. At the appointed time each day, Cast Away will launch, update the podcasts as needed based on your settings, and then quit. (You can also run the program manually; just click the Remove Podcasts Now button on the Main tab.)

The Info tab contains the help for the application, along with a self-policing “I have paid the shareware fee” check box, and a button via which to actually pay said fee.

I’m not sure if Cast Away meets the needs of “heavy” podcast users (though I suspect it would), but it’s perfect for me—now I don’t have to worry about forcing time in my schedule to listen to a podcast, or about keeping a bunch of podcasts around that I’ll never listen to. Having the ability to set these values on a per-podcast playlist is an excellent idea, and I fully expect that Apple will eventually include such a feature in iTunes; until then, however, $7 seems a very reasonable price to pay to gain that capability today.

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