So I’ve been doing podcasts for a while now, between working with Rich and Andrew on Crush On Radio and my own Painful Threshold (speaking of, a new episode should be coming soon!) — and I figured I could maybe help out anyone out there who wants to do a podcast themselves but doesn’t know where to start. So hey, have some advice in a handy-dandy bulleted list!
- LISTEN TO A LOT OF STUFF. Seriously — this should be your first step. All art comes builds on what’s gone before. If you know the genre of podcast you’d like to do, listen to folks who are also working in that genre. Note what works, what doesn’t. Of course, I don’t mean that if you want to do a spooky podcast, you should clone Welcome To Night Vale. But you should LISTEN to it. Same for comedy — if you want a funny interview show, maybe check out Comedy Bang Bang or With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus. If you want to do short form, sketch or improv, check out SuperEgo or Improv4Humans. Pretty soon, you’ll be able to figure out what they’re doing that works, and what doesn’t. (Even Picasso had his off days.) And don’t be afraid to go back in time for inspiration. For your spooky show, check out not just Night Vale but maybe War Of The Worlds. The more stuff you explore, the more you’ll learn.
- PLAN PLAN PLAN. If you’ve got an improv background this is probably LESS important, but it’s still essential. Figure out what you can do that can be recurring segments, and try to do them at the same time in each episode. In the radio industry, these are called “benchmarks”. Radio goes by clock-time, of course — “It’s 7:24 in the AM and it’s time for the Daily Donkey with Buttman and the Otter!” — podcasts aren’t really bound by that. But if you listen to, say, Comedy Bang Bang enough, you’ll start to notice that each show goes “Segment 1: Straight interview with guest. Segment 2: Introduce character. Segment Three: Play a game like ‘Would You Rather’, then do Plugs.” This not only helps the listener know what’s coming, it helps YOU plan material. I really recommend writing an outline for each episode — if not an actual script — and go for it. Even if you’re doing a talk-show type of thing. Don’t just assume you’re gonna be super interesting.
- EDIT. I can’t stress this enough. A lot of podcasts seem to be way too long — and there’s a lot of times where there’s a great 45 minute podcast that happens to be stuck taking up 2 hours. When you’re going through the recorded show, ask yourself on EVERY bit: “Does this serve a purpose? Is it funny to people who AREN’T in the room with people? Does it push the story along? Does it provide some essential bit of information?” If you answer “no” to ANY of those, it’s a good candidate for the chopping block. I know the temptation to think of everything as gold — but again, think about your favorite podcasts. I’ll bet those are edited more tightly than you think they are. Always think about the listener — if you were listening to a new podcast, which would you prefer? A brilliant one that’s only 15 minutes long, or one that’s got its moments but is three hours. If your episode runs short, it runs short. Resist the temptation to pad it out to make it longer. After all, you got stuff to do, right? So do your listeners. I also like to trim laughter where I can. Too much laughter in a podcast makes it sound hokey, like a laugh track. Trust your material to be funny. An individual laugh can stand in for what was actually a three minute laughing jag.
- RECORD IT AS WELL AS YOU CAN. I’d recommend investing in a good microphone, and there are good ones that can be had for relatively cheap. However, if you can’t afford a new mic, make a pop filter, and you’ll be halfway there. (And here’s how to make a pop filter: Get a wire hanger and a pair of old pantyhose. Bend the hanger into a loop, put the hose over the loop, hold it between your face and whatever you’re recording into. That’s IT.) A pop filter will help make you sound a lot clearer — and this can make a cheap or built-in microphone sound passable. Technical problems happen — I’ve had a few episodes of podcasts I’ve worked on derailed by Skype acting up — and your guests might not always have the best mics, even if you have a top-of-the-line Telefunken U47. However, if you aim for quality and miss, you’re still going to sound better than if you don’t aim for quality at all.
- LEARN YOUR SOFTWARE: I recommend using Audacity. Not only is it a robust sound editor, it’s free. And free is awesome. Not only that, but Audacity comes with a lot of very useful plug-ins. You’re going to want to process your audio once you’ve finished editing it. The process I use is: 1) Truncate Silence (this takes the dead-air out of your conversations… and has the by-product of making everyone sound really bright and on the ball! The default setting is a 4:1 ratio, but I like to drop that to 3.5:1. It makes conversation sound a bit more natural, at least in my opinion. But experiment!). After that, comes equalization (or EQ) — I usually boost the bass frequencies up a skosh to make the speech sound a bit fuller sounding and less tinny — less like it was recorded over Skype. It won’t fool anyone, but it WILL sound better. Finally, I run compression – what this does is reign in your dynamic range… or in normal-people speak, it makes the quieter bits just as loud as the normal volume bits. (If you’re doing a music-heavy podcast, you may only want to do this on the speaking bits. Again, experiment with what you think sounds good.)
- DON’T BE AFRAID TO LEARN FROM YOUR MISTAKES. If one of your recurring bits doesn’t seem to work — ditch it or fix it so it does work. Your listeners aren’t going to go “oh no, where’s the part where X happens?” especially if X makes everything grind to a halt for 4 minutes.
- ENJOY WHAT YOU DO. If you’re not feelin’ it, don’t force it. No one’s getting paid for this.
If you’ve got any other questions, throw ’em in the comments and I’ll answer. But honestly — experimentation is one of the best teachers around. See how I said above the thing about learning from your mistakes? Don’t be afraid to MAKE mistakes either. It’s how we learn… and you might just find yourself a happy accident that ends up being the thing that catapults your podcast into the stratosphere.