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Podcast tip: Special characters will break your podcast feed

With a keen eye, you can spot those pesky special characters and ensure that your podcast feed is always available to your audience.

There are times when I encounter an issue as I'm producing a podcast that can either make or break the feed. Being that I've received some requests to share these tidbits of knowledge with some of the loyal Buzz Out Loud fans, I'll go ahead and throw a few pointers into the blog as they arise. I don't plan on assaulting this blog with millions of posts, but if I encounter something that might be valuable to budding podcasters out there, I'd love to help out. Having said that, welcome to my first "no-duh" tip.

Recently, CNET upgraded everyone's work computers to Microsoft Office 2007. To me, this was a welcome change, but I have encountered one feature in the new Office that will certainly make my job a bit more difficult. OK, so it isn't the end of the world, but it is a small detail that will grind my podcast delivery to a screeching halt if I don't spot the difference, and it goes to show just how delicate an XML feed can be.

Special characters are bad
Special characters are bad

Often, I receive the title and description of a podcast direct from the people who host their own show, written by them in Microsoft Outlook. In the past, I would copy and paste these blurbs from the e-mail and paste them into the XML feeds before publishing live. Now, however, I have to be a bit more careful because Office 2007 does some automatic formatting on the fly as you type. This formatting creates special characters that can be very tough to spot in the context of a block of text. They are a bit easier to spot when compared side by side with their valid equivalent.

These special characters will result in ? marks within the Firefox feed reader in place of each instance. In other readers, such as Internet Explorer 7 and even worse, in aggregators such as iTunes, the feed URL will return an error message saying that the feed is either invalid, or doesn't even exist!

If you are using Microsoft Office 2007 to type out anything that might end up in your podcast feed, make notice when you type a punctuation. Notice that a special character is inserted. Hit CTRL-Z immediately after typing the character. This will not undo the last character entirely, but rather it will remove the special formatting and revert to it's "dumb" equivalent. Make sure you have corrected all of these special characters before copying this text into your feed and publishing it.

You should always check the validity of your published podcast feed by visiting Feed Validator. There, you can plug in the URL to your podcast feed and it will report right back to you with any errors that the feed currently contains. It even gives you the ability to check out why a specific rule exists, and what you can do to fix each problem. So please, do what I didn't do. Validate your feed before assuming that your work is done.