Photo courtesy of Nicolas Solop via Flickr.
September 30 is International Podcast Day, and since here at Listen Closely Productions, we celebrate the power of sound to change lives, I thought I would observe the occasion by sharing some observations from my six-plus years of podcasting.
I became interested in podcasting in the summer of 2009, when I found out that the institution I work for – a major public research university – had developed its own iTunes U platform. I knew that fewer people were clamoring to produce audio programs than wanted to be involved in our video productions, so I spearheaded efforts to produce a podcast for the university’s alumni association, where I worked (and still work) primarily as a magazine editor. Late in the year, after many delays and setbacks, I came out with an episode that recapped the excitement of recent association events, and The Alumni Experience was born.
Six years and more than 50 episodes later, I’ve had an amazing array of experiences behind the mic. I’ve interviewed college football legends, fascinating researchers, university athletics “superfans,” and shadowed career networking experts as they strutted their stuff. And I’ve discovered the backstory to the university’s most intense football rivalry game, as well uncovered the institution’s connection to the burgeoning “Maker” movement.
Here are just a few things that I’ve learned from producing The Alumni Experience.
- Quality matters. It’s been said that video audiences will put up with shaky, barf-cam visuals, but they cannot abide bad audio. As a podcast listener, I’m shocked at how many “brand names” seem OK with audio that sounds tinny, unedited meandering interviews, or narration that sounds like perhaps the host is unaware the microphone is on. Listening to good and not-so-good podcasts encourages me to pace the speed of my narration (my personal bugaboo) and to trim my episodes so that they stay interesting.
- You will never have enough time for the full backstory. I tend to fall in love with topics and characters during the research phase. And I want my listeners to know everything that I know. But just as editing is crucial to telling a good audio story, so is the ability to summarize and build bridges between moments of action and dialogue.
- Ambient sound is awesome. Even if your listeners take in your podcast through earbuds, including sounds from the natural environment of an episode can remind them that being present to their immediate surroundings can have its benefits.
- Everything comes down to the voice. You can pretty up a guest’s appearance for television, and can even coach them to rein in their weird nonverbal tics. But without any visual input, the voice steps up to carry all of a subject’s emotional resonance. It’s important to record the honest emotional reactions of guests, which means helping them hit the sweet spot between corporate numbness or artifice and unnecessary tension or fear.
- Quit waiting for perfect tech setup. Sure, as a writer-producer, I fantasize about hiring sound recordists, engineers and editors who will erase any of my potential glitches and make me sound flawless. But the only way to learn podcasting is to do it, with whatever technology you have access to. You can now podcast from your phone. If that’s the setup you have, use it. The episode you finish that way is better than the one you never start.
- Don’t let technology keep you from creating. Part of the reason I am so passionate about the start-where-you-are concept is because that’s what I had to do to build my podcast. I had access to technology resources at work, but very little guidance on which ones would produce the best results. Because of this, one of my earliest episodes featured my guest and myself shouting at a laptop in an echo-filled room. My persistence paid off months later, when I met some very nice coworkers who gave me access to a more professional studio setup. If I had given up early on, or if I had not kept asking for help, I would not have been in the position to take advantage of their generosity.
- Understand the best use of sound. One of the truisms of re-purposing content is that the same story can play very well on multiple platforms, but that works only if you leverage each medium’s strengths. Podcasts, like radio, work best when you are painting pictures in people’s heads. Your audience has to be able to visualize the engaging conversation you’re having with your guest, or form a mental movie of the story you’re weaving together with narration, ambient sounds, and interview clips. Sound is one of the most intimate of mediums, with a program having the potential to get inside listeners’ heads as you whisper in their ears.
- Listen to other shows. If you want to succeed in a discipline, you need to be a consumer of it. Other people’s podcasts provide you with role models, structural models, and models of inspiration.Some of my favorite shows include:
- 99 Percent Invisible
- The Memory Palace
- The Broad Experience
- For examples of how to achieve audio excellence, How Sound is fabulous, as is listening to Third Coast Audio Festival’s conference sessions.
- Editing is essential. Podcasts, by and large, are not broadcast live. To which I must say, “thank goodness.” Just as few people relish the thought of watching hours of closed-circuit TV footage, most audience members will find your raw tape either boring or overwhelming. The skill brought to shaping the story – including how you edit an interview exchange or how you piece together ambient sound segments – is as important as getting compelling, clean raw tape in the first place.
- Know your “why.” In his book “Start With Why,” author Simon Sinek posits that leaders and companies more easily inspire others to action when they are clear on why they are doing what they are doing. Podcasts with a clear focus build a partnership with their audience. Listeners can trust the podcaster to provide a particular type of content, delivered in a specific type of style. Being clear on your own personal “why” in terms of your reasons for producing in this medium can guide you to show topics you’re passionate about, connect you with sources whom your listeners will love, and sustain you when the going gets rough.
The questions to you
- Do you produce a podcast? Why did you start it up? How has your show grown and changed, and what have you learned?
- If you’re a podcast fan, how did you get into listening to podcasts? What are your favorite shows?