How To Start A Podcast: Part 1

A no-nonsense, practical guide for the aspiring hobbyist podcaster.

Podcasting 101

Podcasts: the good ones are like toddlers; they need your time and your energy. We’ll get into the figures later, but just assume that making a podcast isn’t the kind of thing you pick up in an afternoon. Think about the last time you dove into a new hobby without figuring out what you wanted to get out of it — how long did it last? If you don’t spend a few minutes thinking about why you’re interested in a new hobby, you’ll probably get burned out halfway through and give it up, like that time you tried learning programming for 2.5 hours, or that time you decided to become really into yoga right until your first downward dog. Podcasting is like any other hobby: figure out why you’re doing something, so you can remind yourself of those reasons when the going gets hard.

“Just figure it out along the way and don’t overthink it — it’s just a podcast.”

There are a lot of people out there who say stuff like this, right before telling you to buy a $600 microphone. I agree that it’s important to remember to keep your hobbies in perspective, and I definitely agree that you won’t feel like you have things 100% figured out before you launch. However, I’m going to get on my soapbox and say something a little controversial: I don’t think you should just do whatever in your show without having a goal or a plan. Are you trying to build a side project you can put on your resumé? Are you trying to make other people laugh? Are you trying to become recognized in your field? Are you trying to connect with other people who share your interest or think about things the same way you do? It doesn’t matter whether I think your reason is a good one, but it matters whether you think your reason is a good one. Knowing your own motivations will help you make decisions along the way, and help you keep your podcast motivating for you when you’re tired and don’t wanna work on the show. Let us remember the words of Ron Swanson:

I think the human lifespan is a beautiful, glimmering soap bubble in the great car wash of eternity, and we should use our time wisely. Podcasting takes your precious time, and it takes your precious attention, and you shouldn’t give those two things away to a half-assed notion. So let’s make a commitment to ourselves to whole-ass this thing. What’s next?

I know, your buddy Chuck is “really funny though”

So what should my show be about?

It should be about anything that you really, really like to talk about and learn about, because that’s what you’ll be doing a lot. Up to now, I know I might have sounded a bit discouraging, but now I’m going to flip the script — no matter what you’re passionate about, if you are truly passionate about it, then it’s a great podcast subject.

Rubber Canada is “Canada’s monthly latex fetish podcast”, and good for them. Facelock Feministas is all about the world of underground luchadora fighting. Amazing. One enterprising Welsh woman named Brenda Dayne ran Cast On — a podcast about knitting — for ten years. There are podcasts about stamp collecting, gardening, seashells, Pokemon, 80s video games, as well as dealing with grief, going through divorce, raising special needs children, moving to a new country, you name it. If the Internet has taught us anything lo these many years, it’s that you are almost never the only person on the Internet interested in that Thing. There are so many people on the Internet interested in that Thing.

Important Caveat: Please understand — and this might seem obvious, but man, it comes up more than you’d think — please understand that if your Thing is very niche, that means your audience may be niche, too. That’s okay! If only 300 people on Earth care about collecting dinosaur fossils in mid-Montana, get out there and rock their world. Be at peace with what makes you unique and different. You may well be the one to break this wide open and get a whole generation buzzing about the bones of the Badlands. But don’t expect thousands and thousands of listeners. Y’all mid-Montana archaeology enthusiasts gotta stick together.

Okay, I have a Thing. Is that good enough?

I’m so glad you asked! This is the best single piece of advice I’ve read about starting a podcast — or attempting any creative work, really:

In other words, you need an Angle on your subject. The Angle is what makes your show worthwhile: either it’s filling a niche, it’s discussing something in a new way, or it’s tackling a subject better than any other show is doing. Always, always ask yourself: Why should anyone give up an hour of their one wild, precious, soap-bubble life to listen to my show?

Acceptable answers:

  • They’ll learn something
  • They’ll laugh
  • They’ll think about something in a new way
  • They’ll feel better

These are not acceptable answers:

  • They’ll give me money (hahahahahahaha)
  • They’ll boost my SEO rankings (hissss)
  • They’ll [indecipherable garbage about “leveraging” and “content”]

Are you making the lives of your listeners better through listening? Are you truly whole-assing this thing? One reviewer of Facelock Feministas wrote, “When it seems every other pro wrestling fan has a podcast, it’s nigh impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. The work that Facelock Feministas is putting in is both important and enjoyable.” Remember that knitting podcast we mentioned earlier? One iTunes reviewer called it “the standard by which I measure other knitting podcasts.”

People are giving you two precious resources: their time and their attention. Honor that time and attention.

If you want people to listen to your show, share something worth hearing.

Okay, I have a Thing and an Angle. Is that good enough?

You’re almost there. Now you have to ask yourself: Do you have the time?

In early 2015, your friendly podcast host had just gotten dumped, real bad. :( One pint of ice cream and many therapeutic pizzas later, it was clear that I needed something to take my mind off of The Breakup. I did a LOT of hiking, and listened to a lot of history podcasts to get my mind off things. It’s amazing how much perspective you get on a breakup when someone’s describing, say, the Manson murders to you for several hours.

Somewhere along the line I searched for a podcast on my true passion, French history. French history was the thing I loved learning about — I watched every documentary, read every book, brought it up in conversations, talked my family’s ear off about it. Imagine my total shock when I realized nobody was really making a pop history podcast about French history! There was a very good scholarly podcast, to be sure, but there wasn’t anything casual, interesting, entertaining — nobody was making the show that I wanted to listen to. All the elements were there: I had a Thing (French history), I had an angle (New!!! which meant, inherently, Best and Different as well), and above all else, I had Time. Time to learn about how to do this podcasting stuff. Time to write scripts. Time to set up my website. Time to buy a microphone and learn to use it. Time to record. Time to tell my friends. Time to launch.

My particular show takes:

  • 4-5 hours of research
  • 3 hours writing a script
  • 2 hours recording and editing vocals
  • 3 hours adding background music
  • 1 hour building social media posts

So, approximately 13–14 hours of work every 2 weeks. This has changed over time — in the beginning, when I was first learning how to do everything, this took a LOT longer. First, I spent probably 100 hours researching and writing episodes that I abandoned, as I was trying to figure out my narrative voice (my Angle, if you will). It used to take about 3 hours to edit down my vocals into 30 minutes, because I was learning how to speak into a microphone well, so there were lots of errors or poorly enunciated sections that I had to try to fix. It used to take me forever to add background music to my show, at least 5–6 hours, because I had to spend time searching for potential background songs. These days, I already know the tone I want to set in my script, I read my script well on the first take, I know exactly how to edit out my mistakes, and I’ve built up a large library of good background music to choose from faster.

Your show’s own production schedule could look very different depending on how it’s structured. My biggest chunk of time is dedicated to researching and writing my script. Your show might not need scripts or research, but you might spend that same amount of time pitching to guests, traveling to other locations for interviews, and editing long conversations to capture the best sound bites.

Podcasting will scratch your itch for a creative outlet, if you work an office job and want to do something to feel alive again. Podcasting will help you meet cool new people. Podcasting will finally, finally give you a solid answer whenever someone asks you to “Name one interesting fact about yourself.” Podcasting will fill up empty hours otherwise spent watching Say Yes To The Dress marathons. If you have a Thing, if you have an Angle, and if you have Time, you are ready to start a podcast.

Of course, before I wrap up Podcasting Philosophy 101, I’m going to give you a piece of contradictory advice that overrules everything I just told you: You do you. At the end of the day, these guidelines are my attempt to help save the world from another marketing podcast, or two dudes getting high in their converted basement and ranking which 1980s classic tune had the best guitar solo. But what the hell do I know? I just described the plot of Wayne’s World, and I love Wayne’s World. The coolest thing about podcasting is that you don’t need a single person’s permission to do it. Not one single person. Go do whatever the hell you want. Record yourself and your buddy Chuck sitting around talking about whatever comes to mind. You might get 5 downloads a year with that show, but if your motivation behind the show was to give you and Chuck something to laugh about, then you’re crushing it. Throw your podcast out into the world and see what happens. Let me teach you how.

Part Two: Equipment & Space

Want to learn how to produce your own podcast? Check out the rest of my series How To Start A Podcast here.