How to develop a storytelling podcast — and finish it!

There are plenty of articles and resources about the technical aspects of creating a podcast: best microphones, recorders, feeds, etc. But very few focus on the creative part and the process of putting it together. Throughout this season at Podcaster@s, I will be sharing a series of articles to talk in depth about how to successfully produce a storytelling podcast. For starters, something no one gives much attention to is how to organize a storytelling podcast project without losing steam.

By Mariano Pagella

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It was 2014 (actually, almost 2015) and with the Demasiado Cine team we were trying to do something different. We had started the podcast over 5 years ago. It had a conversational tone, with a rather radio-centric structure (sections, columnists, duration per episode) and we were overwhelmed. We wanted to do something else. We needed to do something else or we were going to give up. So we decided to enter the universe of narrative podcasts and storytelling.

“How exciting! This is going to be great! We are going to have a great time, yay!” we said… Of course, we then realized we had no idea where to start. We didn’t even understand what this storytelling really was.

I had been listening to this kind of podcast in English for several years, but most of them had a first-person narrative format. This is — in its classic form — the main character telling his/her story and a storyteller who guides the story.

It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind, so we began a very intense research phase. First to understand what was “to tell a story”, and second to figure out every structure, tool, resource, and format we didn’t even know about.

And that’s it, we did it and it was great! No, just kidding. It was trial and error, a ridiculous amount of ideas left half-finished in the middle of our frustration. We constantly considered dropping everything and doing something simpler, like taking a skyrocket to Mars or starting a friendly debate about politics on Facebook.

But that trial and error evolved, we started to discover small things that worked well, and we started to adjust them to the ideas we had in mind.

In the in-between, the podcaster stars aligned to put along our path many professionals who — with complete generosity — put up with our incessant questioning. More specifically, Sam Greenspan, Ana Adlerstein, and Martina Castro in the Encuentro Nacional de la Palabra 2015, carried out in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Then a workshop dictated by Radio Ambulante a few months later in Buenos Aires through the Fundación Gabriel García Márquez for the Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano.

All this created a cocktail that set us on the right path to a never-ending search, but also a very exciting one.

In the same way others shared their knowledge with me, my idea is to share what I’ve learned, the ideas and processes that I developed throughout the years, so you get at least a solid baseline to start… and then change it and discover your own methods.

Let’s start with the basics.

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Storytelling? How do you eat that?

What do we mean when we talk about a narrative or storytelling podcast? Basically, we mean stories.

Telling stories is something completely natural, it even existed before writing. We all tell stories all the time. An anecdote, a memory, a joke, what you did over the weekend, that time you were mistaken for a celebrity and you got a free meal (it didn’t happen to me, someone told me that one). All of these are possible elements of a story.

Thanks to podcasts allowing for an editing process and on-demand listening, it is the perfect medium through which to tell stories.

So, when we talk about “narrative” in podcasting, we talk about format, how to tell what you want to tell. Let’s suppose there’s a podcast where someone makes a report about any topic. He or she could just present the data (e.g. “During that year that happened, during that year this other thing happened”) or it could have a narrative format, with a main character that goes through a series of adventures that make the story evolve to a climax and an outcome.

Of course, there are topics that are easier to take to a narrative format than others. For example, to narrate a biography is rather direct. It may not be the case of a scientific process, where the story is not so clear and you have to build it.

Basically, let’s think of a series of events that happen one after the other. Here’s a practical example: let’s suppose that we have a podcast about film (probably one of the most popular topic for podcasts in Argentina) and someone is going to give a report on The Shape of Water, directed by Guillermo del Toro and which received a bunch of Oscar nominations.

Let’s take a paragraph about the movie from Wikipedia: “[The movie] was also primarily inspired by del Toro’s childhood memories of seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon and wanting to see the Gill-man and Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams) succeed in their romance.¨

This would be a traditional report: you have the information, it is transmitted, and that’s it. Now, what would happen if we wanted to tell that same information but through a story?

Let’s try really quick:

“When Guillermo del Toro was a kid, each visit to the cinema was very special for him. He could spend hours watching movies, one right after the other. But there was one that… was different. It stuck with him.

The creature looked like an underwater being: the whole body covered with scales, fins on the sides of its face and its back, and huge hands with claws on each one of its fingers. It was a terrifying monster. But at the same time, there was also something human about it, because he was in love with the main character, Kay Lawrence.

This caused a great impression on the young Guillermo, because he was holding to his seat hoping that this love story would pay off at the end.

But it didn’t happen. The Creature from the Black Lagoon ends up being riddle at the end of the film.

What if that love had been requited? That idea got stuck in del Toro’s mind for over 40 years.”

This is just an example, it is not a masterpiece, but I believe that the idea is clear. The information is the same: del Toro got the idea from watching The Creature of the Black Lagoon as a kid. But we are telling it differently, we are creating images. It is very easy to picture del Toro as a child in his theater seat. We describe the effect that watching this movie and the romance had on him, which later led him to produce The Shape of Water.

Let’s picture this story being narrated with some intensity, maybe with music or the movie’s audio interspersed — we have a story.

This is extremely simplified and basic, but the objective is to understand that almost anything can be given a narrative format. It doesn’t have to be a story.

Well, I feel the enthusiasm for trying narrative formats emerging. The ideas are starting to pop into your mind uncontrollably. Then comes the question: “Where to start?”

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The secret is in the process

Where to start tends to be the first question to answer in any project. I would also add: “How to continue?” and “How to finish?”

I must admit that this comes more from my parallel life as a graphic designer and digital producer than my podcasting life. I’ve seen so many projects on the verge of failing because they hadn’t established clearly how they would achieve their goals. So, the first step is to identify the different stages, who will carry them out, and — ideally — the time for each one. Basically, to design a production workflow. Yes, I know that this is something that — in most cases — you do in your spare time and it is hard to set deadlines. However, it is essential to have clear deadlines, even if you adjust them over time.

Following these details, we’ll focus on our best ally — the process.

The objective is to identify a possible path toward the dream of the own podcast. It is not the only way, nothing is mandatory, it is just what has worked for me. And maybe it could be your starting point.

So here is how I break it down:

1. Concept:

Put together a phrase that describes the idea behind the podcast. Everything that comes after will be aligned with that. It can suffer some modifications as you progress and find an identity, update or it can even change entirely.

  • What is it about?
  • Are there other podcasts alike?
  • How will it standout?

2. List of possible episodes:

The objective is to verify that the concept defined in point 1 works. An idea that cannot be taken to an episode is useless.

This doesn’t mean that it must be something that works for an infinite podcast. It can be an idea for a miniseries with just a few episodes.

3. Format:

Establish the shape the episodes will have. This can change as you define other things, but it marks a starting point.

  • The style will be a report, documentary, or audio-fiction?
  • Will it have interviews or just narration?
  • Will it have one, two or more voices?

4. Pilot definition

To start to bring to life all the previously discussed, define a pilot episode which you’ll use as a baseline. It will probably be the hardest one because there are many things that will start to change along the way. It would be one of the episodes from the list you created on point 2.

5. Script

There are many ways to face this step. I suggest starting by doing a general draft of the story. Which is the central point? What are the main ideas to carry out?

Then define elements like:

  • Who are the characters?
  • How will the events take place?
  • What scenes can be built?
  • Inflection point (the critical moment of the story)?

With all of those elements, we will put together the story. The objective is to have a first version with which to start an editing process. This will take us back to the script several times until it’s finished.

6. Script editing

After you have a first version of the story, you start polishing details and perhaps enter crisis mode. Is this the best way to tell it? Are there extra fragments? Or missing ones? Does it work as a story? Many things can mute this stage and it can even happen that the story gets killed. (For example, This American Life kills about 50% of the stories they work on).

7. Recording or traffic

It is important that the narration sounds informal. This is closely related to the script — to be written for the ear. The main idea is that the narration avoid sounding like it’s being read. Instead, it should sound like a friend telling you a story. This requires practice and to get to know your way of speaking when you’re relaxed so you can replicate it in the studio or behind the microphone.

8. Post-production

Here comes the mixing and sound design. Here you will also finish defining many of the issues brought up in prior points. There might be modifications on the original format, adjustments on the script or the structure.

9. Verification and adjustments

Once you have your first draft of the mix and can hear it, you’ll have to go back and adjust what’s necessary. It’s possible that the script will require a few modifications and that you’ll have to record again. You can go as far back as to reconsider the podcast’s concept, because things might come up that you hadn’t expected.

10. Other episodes

Go back to point 5 and repeat for the rest of the episodes trying not to despair (too much) in the meantime.

And that’s it!

Well, it might be a bit scary at first, but it’s less crazy than it seems. The truth is there’s only one way to get the hang of it, and that’s to get on with it. Doing, making mistakes, re-doing, getting it right from time to time, practicing writing and narrating, and searching for the best way. The result is definitely worth it.

This text was translated and edited from it’s original publication in Spanish in the Podcaster@s bi-weekly newsletter, where we share the top news and diverse perspectives from fans and producers of podcasts in Spanish. Sign up for it here.

Mariano Pagella is a podcast producer made in Argentina. He leads a double life as a graphic designer and digital producer. Cofounder at Lunfa, Argentina Podcastera, and Podcaster@s. Addicted to audio fictions. @mmarianop //

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