So you’ve taken the decision to get podcasting: at this point, no number of “don’t”s are going to deter you from having a go. Good. I don’t really believe in “dos” and “don’ts” – for every rule there will be a counterexample and if those successful podcasters had spent time worrying about getting their podcast “right” they would never have made it “good”. Making a good podcast, not a perfect one, is rule 2.
A little background. I am currently involved in four podcasts. I’ll tell you a bit about them and give you links so you can work out if there are any ideas you want to use or things you think work particularly badly.
1) Answer Me This! is a weekly comedy podcast which has nothing to do with research but seems to involve a lot of public engagement. I live produce, make music for idents, and act as a sort of sidekick on air. It is completely independent and unfunded – we record it in my living room. Since 2007 we have built an audience of tens of thousands of listeners, won two Sony awards* and have an amazing community of contributors, all completely without funding.
2) Bright Club is a weekly public engagement podcast run by Steve Cross of UCL in which a comedian chats to a researcher about their work. I live produce it. This means I sit with a pair of headphones on and shout at Steve when I can hear spit hitting the microphone.
3) The Sound of the Ladies is a monthly music podcast that I use to release a new song I’ve written each month. The chat exists to tell listeners about the song and any gigs I have on or albums I have out. I do everything for this one – present, produce, edit, make the music…
4) The (as-yet-untitled) CASA podcast will be a fortnightly podcast dedicated to geospatial and tech news – mapping and cities in essence. This is still in the planning stages.
Ok, so onto some common queries.
Let’s put aside the initial setup time – which can be spread over weeks. Once you have a system in place, how much time would it take? Elizabeth Hauke does her Short Science podcast from soup to nuts in 4 1/2 hours. I suspect Bright Club takes about the same per episode – here economies of scale come in, as we record 4 in an afternoon and split them up. This will longer or shorter depending on the format and frequency – not including the time taken to write and the record the song, The Sound of The Ladies takes me about 1h a month – and between the three of us, Answer Me This! takes at least 3-4 man days per week! A middle ground might be a podcast which came out every two weeks and takes an average of two hours a week – not an unreasonable time commitment, but a reasonably frequent podcast.
I think there are advantages to making a podcast regular. It creates an expectation in your audience and they will build it into their routines. Also, my opinion is, if you are recording less than once a month, you never build the momentum to improve; if you only do it 6 times a year, say, you’ve forgotten everything you learned by the next time.
You can do a weekly podcast recorded once a month – this is what Bright Club does (see above) – and don’t be afraid to take scheduled holidays. But I think people get annoyed with podcasts which come out irregularly.
So, my advice would be regular and at least once a month. Take holidays but schedule them and give listeners plenty of warning.
I think access to a computer for editing is essential here; I use a mac, and GarageBand, which is great. Macs have a built-in mic which will record audio – but I advocate getting access to something a bit better. The big secret isn’t that you can record crappy-sounding audio for free – it’s that you can record great-sounding audio for cheap. As in “buy a £50 USB microphone” cheap. Sites like Thomann.de and dv247.com are your friends. Get yourself some a microphone stand, and some headphones so you can hear the audio as it’s recorded, so you know it’s not distorting**.
So, behind the curtain time: a £500 mic does not sound 10x better than a £50 mic. It may sound somewhat better, but for speech you may not even notice the difference. Factlet 2: a BBC production doesn’t cost thousands of pounds just because they’ve got expensive microphones. They paid an independent production company who have receptionists, who in turn paid a studio who have a Christmas party, and of course having a “name” attached to the project costs money. You don’t have to pay for any of this infrastructure, so you can do (almost) the same on very little budget.
There are a couple of provisos – firstly, that the studio and scriptwriter and presenter all get paid a competitive wage because they know what they’re doing (at least in theory). You’re going to have to learn all that yourself. Excited?
Secondly, the room you record in does make a difference. As Frank Dondelinger has pointed out, a small reflective room will sound boxy. Not the end of the world, but there are ways to fix it namely: record in a large room with high ceilings (the Answer me This approach), get a small room and hang up duvets, or use a lot of location recording (as Elizabeth Hauke suggested).
Of course, if you work for a university or any organization with a broadcast remit, you may well be able to get access to computers, microphones and decent-sounding rooms without having to buy any of it. This is where it can be useful to be friends with people with audio kit, or in the extreme case of my wife, marry a musician.
After the podcast is recorded, you will probably want to edit and process the audio – making sure that the voices are clear and audible. The BBC and other professional podcasts use things like compression, limiting and noise gating. The short version is that you don’t need to worry about this. Answer me This! uses virtually none of this audio trickery for rather technical reasons***, and did I mention we won a Sony*? The slightly longer comment is that compression makes things sound louder, which makes it worth experimenting with. (If you do use it, bear in mind that you will be able to hear the room more, so initial recording becomes more important. That’s why noise gates become relevant. I knew an old lady who swallowed a fly.)
There is a lot of other stuff I think is useful, and I could go into EVEN more technical detail, but I think this blog post is plenty long enough. Remember, this stuff can be useful, but don’t lose sight if your central tenets: 1) Do it. 2) Do it well. 3) (1)comes before (2).
Please leave comments below if you have any questions about the above, or things which you think are missing – and I will get onto it! Alternatively, twitter me on @sociablephysics
*The Sony Radio Academy Awards are a bit like Radio Baftas
**audio engineers use the term “clipping”. Use words like “clipping” and “headroom” a lot to persuade Broadcasting Professionals that you are One Of Them and not an oiky podcaster recording stuff in your bedroom/living room
*** compression tends to raise the noise floor (another audio nerd term for “background noise” – remember to use it next time you meet a Broadcasting Professional) and thus abrupt changes in background caused by razor-sharp editing become very apparent. Helen Austwick Zaltzman, Answer me This!’s editor, does this a lot, and so avoids using too much compression. There are clever audio ways around it, like using a noise gate, expanders and creating automated cross-fades, but this really is swallowing a cat to catch the rat to catch the spider to catch the fly and we generally can’t be bothered. What is the result of not doing all of this audio fiddling? Well, people need to turn their iPod RIGHT UP when listening on the tube. Not the end of the world.
POSTSCRIPT: Elizabeth Hauke has written up a more comprehensive guide to podcasting which is definitely worth reading – it covers things like content/planning questions that I will get onto later, but also stuff like setting up a podcast feed, which I probably won’t cover. So I recommend giving it a read.