In part one of our advanced podcasting guide, we pointed you to all the gear you might need to make a great (and original!) show. Now that you’re fully kitted out (or just have a bulging wishlist) what about some practical tips to help you stand out from the crowd? In part two, we speak with four industry experts about everything from getting the right recording, to turning your passion project into a money-making empire (maybe).
Argin Hutchins, NPR Trainer
How to nail the recording
If you want to have that NPR sound, then Argin is your guy. He’s a member of the training team at the broadcasting network so knows a thing or two about how to get that intimate radio style. Below, he shares his thoughts on everything from recording basics to sound design.
“It always begins with a recording, and that is that if you don't really record something well, it's a lot harder for you to get good sounds out of it, so obviously the phrase goes, ‘junk audio in, junk audio out.’
Not everybody has a lot of money to buy all these expensive microphones, so you just need to learn how to get the most out of the microphone that you own, and understand its limitations.”
But what about the endless choice of microphones? Hutchins is obviously less worried about the price, at least if you’re just looking to upgrade your old karaoke mic plugged into the 3.5mm port of your PC.
“I think the only microphones that you can have a challenge with are the ones that... as far as podcasting goes, are the ones that are just quite frankly sometimes too expensive, and I mean by that is they give you a lot of options, they give you figure eight, they give you cardioid, they give you hypercardioid, you don't need a very expensive mic.”
That’s great for the studio, but what if you find yourself out in the field without your gear? Simple, use your phone.
“With the phone, the microphone is really good at picking up our voice as if we were holding it to our ear, especially the iPhone and the Android-based phones. The microphones they put in them are really amazing for picking up a conversation, and so I always tell people if they want to record in the field, number one, you can always use voice memo, but I would always suggest getting an app that will record non-linear recordings or basically waveforms.”
Proceed with caution though, you need to make sure your guest addresses the “mic” properly. “I hold it upside-down, microphone towards me, and I hold the flat face towards the person, so I don't hold it sideways or the thin way towards us back and forth.”
And what about all those background noises and so on that really make you feel somewhere? “When you're using ambient [foley sounds] in a story, usually it’s for one of two things, to either introduce a scene, or to demonstrate action. Like a car honking or a car whizzing by or something, or someone doing something. ‘Ambi’ is more used for pacing, than it is for ... I don't want to say setting a scene, but for controlling how the story builds.”
A good recording is one thing. What you do with that audio next is also vitally important. We won’t go into the details and finery of mixing here, as that’s a whole article in itself, but there are some tools you can reach for to give your audio a more professional sound.
“A lot of times people use channel strip equalizers.” These are common tools in most audio editing applications, similar to the EQ settings you might find in a music app (or your Dad’s old Hi-Fi). “And those are great, but to really get that surgical precision in terms of your sound you definitely want a linear phase equalizer, because it won't add any coloration to your sound.”
“The next thing I'd do is I'd put it through an automatic fader.” Essentially, this is a plug-in you use in your main audio editing software that adjusts the volume in real-time to ensure your dialogue remains at a consistent level. “If you learn how to use it correctly, it will save you literally hours of time.”
With your levels all set, if you want to match the standards of your favorite network or show, you’ll have to think about overall volume levels. “Make sure that you have really good metering, because a lot of podcast companies now have standards in which they want people to deliver their content. You definitely want a meter that can measure LUFS, or loudness unit full-scale, it's another way of measuring loudness, which is better for mixing.
Jack Hart, Author: Storycraft
How to make a great narrative
A good recording is one thing, but how are you going to tell a story in an engaging way? There are many books on the subject, but most of them have fiction as their focus. Storycraft by Jack Hart focuses entirely on narrative non-fiction. The second edition has also been updated to include new sections specifically on podcasts.
“There are similarities and identical elements of storytelling across so many media. Storytelling is the universal thing that is ingrained in our brain.” Hart told Engadget, before pointing out the key difference with podcasts.”The voice of the storyteller is right there, front and center. That has some implications. And that it's easier to create a sense of intimacy.” That intimacy brings with it another question: “Point of view is one that is often neglected. It is absolutely essential to effective storytelling. Whose story is it? Is the question that you really need to ask.”
If you’ve already read Storycraft, you’ll know that Hart is a proponent of the “complication,” that important challenge to be overcome that keeps people listening. “What is the problem? Good storytelling is about solving the problems or at least struggling with the problems, even if they are not solved. And focus, the beginning podcasters I've worked with, that's been a principal problem — the failure to decide what's relevant and what isn't. With the open-endedness of the format, often the pressure for focus is not nearly as great as it would be in a space-limited print version of the story.”
If you are looking to do something with a story arc you need to think in terms of how your show progresses. “One of the basics of good narrative storytelling is scenic construction. You build things out of scenes. If you're doing a 10-episode podcast, I would think of how long is each episode going to be? If it's, say, 30 minutes, well then it maybe gives you time for three or four scenes.”
Hart comes from a journalistic background and has been an advocate of non-fiction narrative for most of his career. If anyone knows how to make sure you get the right answers from your subject for a story, and not just dry information, it’s him. He advises priming your source by telling them "This is not going to be a conventional journalistic interview, so I want you to think of this as a movie and describe your participation [...] in terms of the scenes that you can recall as specifically as possible." This should give you the anecdotes you need so you won’t need to rely on narration to make up for anything your subject skimmed over too quickly.
But be careful not to go too far the other way. Hart also thinks the current trend for narrator-less documentary isn’t necessarily a good thing. “I think a narrator has an important role to play, particularly in a podcast, because the narrator becomes a continuous presence and the voice of the narrator becomes an element in how the story is absorbed.”
Perhaps the main strength of podcasts over other narrative formats is the most obvious one. “I think it's important that the narrator not be metaphorically stuck in a studio somewhere, but get out. Sarah Koenig [creator of Serial], I recall when she went somewhere you would be in the car with her and her friend, and they would go to a particular location. There would be some detail about the appearance of the location, and getting out of the car with the audio of the car door slamming and walking down a path and those kinds of things will help introduce some movement. That's really important to keep the audience engaged.”
Carmen Dukes, Head of Editorial for Podcasts at Spotify
How to be heard
Carmen Dukes has an enviable job: Listening to podcasts for a living. Among other responsibilities, Dukes and her team curates the podcasts you’ll see highlighted on the platform. Her ear is the ear you want to impress, basically.
The first thing that Dukes reveals is that comedy, not true crime, is the most popular genre of podcast on Spotify. “I think that everybody at this moment would like to laugh because things are so challenging, personally, mentally. And I think that it offers a nice escape. I think that's the cool thing about podcasts in general: You have the opportunity to help people go to a better place.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to try to be funny if you want to make it up the rankings. Dukes says that even if you and your friend are doing a podcast about something you care about, there are ways to stand out. “There are two that come to mind, one is Dope Labs, which is a Spotify podcast, and then Back Issue. And Back Issue is about the exploration of nineties pop culture.”
“I think what's interesting for those two shows is this... I think if you're going to do a duo podcast, you have to complement each other. And obviously come at the subject matter from different viewpoints [...] And I think that tension, healthy tension, actually makes for good drama. All of a sudden, you either identify with one or the other.”
Whether you’re doing a classic buddy podcast or trying something different, there are still some important things to consider, she says. “I would encourage people to obviously listen to a bunch of podcasts and take notes on what you like and what you don't like, things that you would improve. And just be comfortable with experimenting. Obviously, when you start a podcast, you're not going to get tons of listeners right away. And that actually gives you some flexibility to try different formats out and just evolve as you go, keep that learning mindset.”
Dukes also has enough experience listening to know that, sometimes, the simplest things can be a turn off. “I think one thing is, get into it. Sometimes, beginnings of shows, they take a long time to get into the actual subject matter.” The same is true for the length of your show. If you’re figuring that out by just how long you’ve been recording for, you might want to be a bit more conscious. “Be aware of how long it's taking you to tell your story and to be deliberate about it. But also don't feel like, oh man, it has to be 10 minutes and then stop the recording. Or [feel that] it has to be an hour.”
Playing with time can also happen at the macro level. Dukes reminds us that if you or a guest reveal something important, deep or profound, feel free to let it linger and allow people to digest it. Nothing too long, but a dash of silence at the end can work wonders, “I think it’s really powerful. I mean, that's very cinematic too.”
When it comes to highlighting the best podcasts on Spotify, there are a few simple things at the top of Dukes’ list: “We look out for stuff that transports us to other places. Whether that's hearing from an astronaut who went to space or hearing from, like, homeless people in Toronto. Take me someplace that I can't go. And that could be your hometown. It doesn't even have to be somewhere like space.”
Yes, your humble home town can be as interesting to someone else the vast expanse of space is. They might seem (literal) worlds apart, but if your listener hasn’t been somewhere and you can take them, that’s a valuable thing.
More important than where you live, is where you are coming from. Something that Spotify is very focused on. “We just think that this is a medium that can be democratized and we can create stages and places to show just the diversity of the people and creators that we have. And so definitely looking for diverse stories, diverse storytellers, as well as interviewees.”
Want to know what someone that works with podcasts all day thinks is original? Here are some of Carmen’s picks for shows that do something different:
Jesse Thorn, Founder of the Maximum Fun network
How to turn your side gig into a job
Jesse Thorn is the man behind Maximum Fun, a podcast network with a focus on, as the name suggests, the lighter side of life. Max Fun shows include My Brother, My Brother and Me, The Greatest Generation and the inimitable Beef and Dairy Network. Thorn started podcasting in 2004 and has grown Maximum Fun from a literal one-man operation to a booming business. But how can you get your show on a network like his?
“At Maximum Fun, we specialize in comedy and culture. So we're looking in those two relatively broad categories. We actively seek shows from voices that might not otherwise be heard. In the world of podcasting, each show has to have a distinctive enough personality that it will connect with an audience who has a choice of listening to any of 50,000 shows.”
When I asked Thorn about any “no nos” — ideas that he wouldn’t consider — he was pretty clear: “Shows about nerd stuff. There are plenty of them. I'm not against them existing but if your pitch is we're three friends talking about geek culture, only do that podcast if it's a hobby that you want to do with your free time no matter whether people are listening.”
Assuming that your show idea isn’t about geek culture, what then? “I would try and be realistic about goals. Like, is your goal to make enough money to quit your job? Is your goal to get rich? Is your goal to spread an idea? Is your goal to get more clients as a graphic designer or a plumber?” Knowing why you’re doing this is as important as what you’re doing, basically. “As far as pitching goes, you're going to have a hard time pitching to big podcast networks if you don't have a track record.” But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t, or at least, don’t rule it out.
“If they're [pitches] coming from someone who has a distinctive voice and notable talent, then we work on it with them and try and get it to the point where people can respond to it. Jarrett and Tre'vell, who host our podcast Fanti, pitched us a few different ideas and we barely knew them. They were just such smart, charming, brilliant folks that we said, ‘let's pound this out. Let's find out what's most distinctive about the things that are special about you and make a show out of it.’”
Thorne also points out that the open-ended format of a podcast can be a burden as well as a positive. “People often forget that they have to come up with an idea that's repeatable ad infinitum.” He said. “There are successful short-run podcasts but even those have a really hard time supporting themselves. If your show is done in eight weeks, you don't have any way to sell advertising on it because it takes four weeks to prove that there's an audience and then two more weeks to call the right people and find the deal.”
Of course, you don’t need to have your show backed by a network, that’s the joy of podcasting — anyone can do it and rub shoulders (or at least thumbnails) with the big budget productions. “There are platforms that can help people sell adverts and raise subscription revenue or donation revenue that didn't exist when I started Maximum. If it was me, and I was starting out, I would be inclined to think about the scope of my show and whether it's something that I could do myself in my free time, whether it's something that I could do myself but only if it's full-time or whether it's something that I need help and money to do.”
If you still think you have something that deserves a spot on the digital shelves of a company like Maximum Fun, Thorne is all ears. “We have an email address, email@example.com, and we are glad to take pitches from anyone. If you include audio, we will listen to some of it.”