So You Want To Start A Podcast?
What’s wrong with you? Why would you want to do that? Are none of the four original and frequently updated CPT podcasts enough for you?
So you’re gonna start your own brand new podcast, huh tough guy…well what’s it gonna be about? Who’s story will we be following? What kind of talent do you need for your show; actors to read scripts or guest to interview? How long does it take to produce one of your episodes with your team? How frequently will you release episodes? Where will you release episodes?
So maybe you don’t have all the answers after all, up tough guy?
THAT’S OKAY! These are some broad strokes that you do need to consider before you can really bring your product to market, but really they are nothing more than that; things to consider.
When Andrew and Chelsea brought the idea of expanding the work of CPT into this audio median, it was a foreign concept to a lot of us. Serial had just exploded, but a lot of us couldn’t tell you why, just that we liked it. Even our resident ‘experts’ were more podcast fans than anything else; we had no idea how much work it would be! But we did the research and the work together. We grew as personal artist by trial and error and we helped each other grow by pooling our collective knowledge together.
Don’t go it alone, you have to have a solid team. Podcast are a lot of work, a solid team not only helps divide the number of tasks at hand, but also helps keep you sane while you do it.
Already know what it’s going to be about more or less? Then things are looking up for you! You have your idea, now how are you going to share this story with the world?
Write a script, and keep an eye on the time. This took us forever to learn. You might say, “but our show is just our buddies shooting the shit, or talking about comic books.” Still, write a script. Even if it’s just for the transitions, top of show, and so forth. There is nothing that slows down a show more than the hosts sounding like they don’t know what’s next. Have fact sheets with you, we don’t want to wait for you to look something up. Time out your segments, know what the ideal length of the show is. Your podcast shouldn’t be over an hour just because you don’t want to edit anything out.
Those are the broad strokes. Find out what your show is about, surround yourself with supportive people who want to do the work, and write the script! Sounds easy right? Only to say; doing the work is tough, and if you aren’t willing to do it, it will not happen.
Here are some style-specific tips from the people who have helped us do the work on our podcasts.
When we started recording for The Grayscale, around this time last year, we had already been working on the series for over two months; multiple scripts, each with multiple drafts had been written, we had had several meetings about both the content and tone of the show, as well as endless email chains recommending movies, TV shows, and other podcast that we wouldn’t to emulate in our execution. After that we had meetings about casting; who did we know, who could play these parts, who did we want to try and work with? Then we had to find more writers for more episodes, and as we read episodes we had to make sure the parts we were writing were ones that could be played. There was great deal of moving parts, and they all had to move as one; towards the same unified vision we had spent hours talking about.
I think Radio Plays are an incredible exciting use of the medium, but if I had to stress one thing it would be this: You cannot make it work in the moment, or in editing, it is truly all about the preparation. From initial concept to episode release, I would say that each episode of The Grayscale takes about four months to produce. Since we want to release more then three episodes a year, that means we are constantly working on multiple episodes all of which are existing in various levels of completion. As we start are second season we are trying to streamline the process by collecting scripts earlier, recording multiple episodes at a time, but that is only possible if all collaborators are on the same page. And how do you accomplish that? Through prep work and solid communication. We just started the second season, and without giving anything away, I can tell you that we are already having meetings and setting things up for season three in February 2017.
If you want to create a polished, enjoyable piece of radio theatre, than do not rush it, do not just wing it, expect things to fall into place. Do the work, the whole time, not just the one part you are excited about. The whole team has to be in, and they have to be in all the way.
I’m not gonna claim to be any kind of a master of radio-improv, but in my explorations over the past couple of years I’ve learned a thing or two.
The first and most important thing I picked on was to make sure my first forays into the medium were with people I trusted. Improv can be intimidating under any circumstances and when you don’t have any kind of physicality to fall back on it can be all the more so. When I first sat down to record the very first CCRH, I made sure to surround myself with friends and improvisers I trusted implicitly. None of us were totally sure what to expect but we started up and jumped right in head first? The result? Well, it was terrible and will never be released to the public. But you know what? We had a great time and I learned a lot of dos and donts for moving forward.
I wouldn’t record the actual first episode for another couple years but when I did, it was significantly better because I had that terrible first episode to look back on. So while I could sit here and tell you each and every little thing I learned, I think the best advice I could give someone looking to do it for themselves is to just go for it. Have fun. And if it sucks, no one ever has to know!
It’s sometimes scary to rely on other people’s stories to make up your content, but audio from perspectives different than your own are usually radio gold. I think Sunday Night Supper is the hardest show to create (but i’m biased) because it requires so much shaping of different audio sources to turn it into one cohesive idea.
If you are going to do a show that uses personal storytelling, then you have to be very patient. Some stories take longer to report on than others, so don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Contact multiple leads simultaneously and go with whatever is most available. Not all stories are going to be knock outs. It can be tempting to use any story you get, but you have to set a bar for your quality and stick to it. It will hurt, but you will have to throw away stories that you’ve sometimes put a lot of hours into already.
Don’t just look for stories in the area around you. Reach out to someone interesting, even if you don’t know them that well or maybe you haven’t talked to them in a while. People naturally like to tell their stories. If you give them a platform, they will take it. If you want to interview people remotely, you can record a phone call, but it will sound like a phone call. Instead, do a Skype call with your headphones plugged into the computer while both parties record their own audio on their cell phone. Then take the two files, sync them up from a common starting point (like a countdown or a clap) then you’ve got a clear interview that sounds like you were both in the same room. The difference is evident in the Skidmore segment of episode 20 vs. the Zaida segment of episode 22.
Look for those who want to plug projects, they will absolutely appear on your show! Look for one-man show performers, bloggers, actors, stand ups, charity organizers, basically anyone who has a project that involves talking and storytelling to begin with.
People can be sensitive with the information that they want to share, and you must respect that. Keep them in the loop while you edit their stories. You don’t want the first time your subject hears how they were represented to be after the episode drops.
I have to let you in on a secret. I love reading, but I barely get a chance to read books anymore. Instead, I’ve become a news junkie. I think it’s because I was born for this, as the child of journalists who ended up often working as a freelance writer as a day job to support my life as an artist so far. So, as a news-enthusiast and resident know-it-all, I have a few tips for anyone who’s making a current events podcast.
Unless you already are a reporter, don’t try to be one. Being a journalist is a job that takes a high degree of technical skill. And it’s rare that podcasts work in a straight-news format – this is much better suited to written articles or television reporting. Instead, embrace your “spin” on a given issue that’s already been reported. Listen to what you’re hearing about an issue, investigate it from all sides, and then give your take. Many of your listeners won’t have done the depth of research you have on the issue and you’re providing them with perspective.
Understand the difference between “soft” reporting and “hard” reporting. Some people call these “human interest” stories. Arguably the greatest podcast of all time is This American Life, and they have mastered this approach. Instead of spending their time trying to “break” a story – and again, as an average person or non-journo it is very unlikely that you will be the first person to do so, because you just don’t have the resources to compete – take a depth approach and find a personal way to connect into the news. When Planned Parenthood became a rallying cry in politics this fall, I didn’t try to really go into the funding issue at all. What I did do was gather stories of people I knew who had been affected by Planned Parenthood. It’s the best way to embrace the podcast format and the power of storytelling. People are interesting. Find out how.
Read everything, and be prepared for the response. I hate echo chambers. Social media has made it worse. I see a lot of people relying on flawed news sources that support their point of view. It’s nauseating and it’s not nuanced. I think we can all agree that the political views of our Facebook friends can be cringe-worthy. I try to read conservative blogs. I try to read liberal forums. I try to read the comment sections on news articles and even YouTube videos, in which the most outlandish people come out of the woodwork. I don’t want to just have the opinion everyone expects of me, and this way, I know what’s coming when I hear opposition to my own view. When we decided to do a story concerning #gamergate, I knew how that community thought and responded because I personally read the forums that the movement posts in. So when a stranger posted a thread about the podcast, it didn’t bother me and I knew how to respond.
Embrace your ignorance and come out swinging. Some of my episodes, I have worked really hard on and they came out way worse than I expected. Some stuff that was easy for me generated a nice response. Try stuff and see what sticks. Everyone has bad episodes. Do a lot of episodes (we did over 50 in the first year here at CPT…), experiment, and let it all hang out.
Toys and Doodads
With the CPT Broadcasting Team
To produce a good podcast you need an audio source, a mixer, and editing software.
You can do this cheaply or for lots of cash. It depends on what the needs of your show are. If it’s just going to be you talking, or maybe two people talking who don’t mind being close to each other, you can do it all for under $50.
For the cheap people, get a usb microphone that talks directly to your computer. This way, you don’t have to get a mixer, because your editing software (Audacity is free across all platforms, and garageband is free for Mac people) will mix for you. Maybe you want to record people in the field too. You don’t need to get a microphone for this, just use the one in your smartphone.
You’re saying “I’m not cheap. I want to do a multitude of shows, just like you guys!” Great, then let’s go through what we use, and why.
The audio you hear on The Grayscale, Sunday Night Supper, and most episodes of CCRH and SJW comes from MXL small-diaphragm condenser microphones. I’m not going to get into the difference between small and large diaphragm and condenser and dynamic, but what I will say is that the mics we use have provided professional sounding vocals for all of our needs from narration to acting, and with very little issue. We have four of them, but just one or two is enough. For on-the-go interviews and recording when we travel, we use the mics in our phones, with a small attachment like the iRig Mic Cast, that adds a little more control. We have also used a Blue USB Snowball mic in a pinch, but it does have a clear difference in sound quality (see the first episode of CCRH to compare the MXL in the opening to the snowball in the interview portion of the show) and requires more prep to the recording room for ideal audio quality.
We have two mixers, both from Tascam, the 2×2 and the 4×4. The numbers correspond to the inputs and outputs available. Podcasts don’t deal with the outputs all that much, so what the input number tells us is the exact number of microphones you can record with. The bad part about a mixer is that they usually won’t work with USB mics and you must make sure to do your research beforehand to ensure that they will talk to your computer and operating system. The positives about a mixer are amazing. They allow you to monitor your levels as you are recording, and to adjust the levels of volume for the microphones in real time. The mixer also has less issues with static/metallic sounding audio than a usb mic going directly into the computer. If you can afford it, the mixer and microphone with a cable are the way to go.
We mainly use Audacity. It is a free open source editing software that is updated constantly, has a number of features, and has a billion youtube tutorials for anything you don’t know how to do. The members of CPT are split on Audacity. Andrew and Julia love it for their story/journalism shows. Matt finds that on his non-mac, Audacity crashes a lot. Chelsea knows that for the effects and more complicated editing that a radio drama like Grayscale requires, Audacity doesn’t cut it. If you want to level up, you can shell out some money for Logic or Pro Tools. You can also use Garageband, which is just fine for the basics. If you are doing layered effects, you can mix and match software, example, for many of the effects on Grayscale, Chelsea will edit the dialogue in Audacity but create the sound in the film editing software Final Cut.
XLR cables. Can’t have enough of them. Headphones. Get a few good pairs, some for editing purposes, and others for your guests/actors to use while recording so they can hear themselves. Speaking of, you can get a headphone amplifier for pretty cheap that plugs into your mixer, and allows everyone to monitor the levels at the same time. We have found that for radio dramas or just recording narration, that we sound better when we’re standing up rather than sitting down, so mic stands and music stands are great for accomplishing this and also for getting rid of any sounds that come from fumbling around holding scripts.
About 3000 words into this guide, it’s evident that there is A LOT to think about when deciding to make a podcast. Do we have all the answers? Absolutely not! You’ve still got to think about marketing, hosting, scheduling, logos, music!
It’s daunting. Don’t let that stop you. The most rewarding part of making podcasts is getting better at them as you go along. The advice we would give you a year from now would be much different that what we are giving you now. It’s a learning process. One that builds real, marketable skills.
It’s a noble endeavor. Now go out and make it count.