Studioless Podcasting

Adapted from a series of blog posts at C4SS.org


If we’re friends, you know I’ve been podcasting for years. I’ve done a music show (the first incarnation of my first long-running podcast, Smash Walls Radio), many political shows, an attempt at a straight news podcast for my university, and more. I’m currently working on a show called Ruminator, which is a show where I drive around and speak into a microphone. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about how weird it is that I’ve never set foot into a studio.

Actually, no — there was exactly one time where I used the editing bays at my university to record a show with This Land Press editor-in-chief Michael Mason, but that show was less aurally good than other work I was putting out at the time.

Anyway, yeah. I’ve never set foot in a studio.

Let’s be honest, everyone is podcasting, and nearly no one outside of the NPR bubble is doing it in the studio. One of the most popular podcasts around, WTF with Marc Maron, is recorded in the dude’s garage. Another popular show I listen to is an unretouched recording of a damn Skype call.

If you want to create a podcast, right now, without spending a dime on tools, just pull out your smartphone (assuming, that is, that you have a smartphone) and go. Your phone should have a recorder included in your native apps. Most of my podcasts have been done on an iPhone using Voice Memo (and Audacity to piece it together later). This practice is done even by professional radio journalists, so don’t feel like you’re out of place for doing this.

If you don’t feel comfortable just whipping out your phone and talking into it for two-to-45-minutes, that’s fine. I’ll talk you through my process as I did it before I got my new set-up, and then I’ll tell you what I have now and how I use it.

Learn to write like you speak

This is actually a professional technique. I didn’t learn that until recently, when I was flipping through Sound Reporting: The NPR Guide To Audio Journalism And Production while bored the other day. Here’s what Jonathan Kern, the author of that book, has to say:

First, and foremost, say your sentences before you write them down; or at the very least, say them out loud after you’ve written them. […] As you write, ask yourself: Would I ever say this sentence in my regular life, when I am not writing a news story? If the answer is no, change it. […] Remember, expressing your thoughts in short declarative sentences doesn’t require you to eliminate any of your ideas — just to ration them out. You aren’t sacrificing anything by writing less convoluted prose.

I’ve tried podcast writing a number of ways, including: reading from the Associated Press wire; writing whole essays on a topic, the way I would if I were still in school; going scriptless. None of them have worked nearly half as well as when I’m writing the entire episode of a show like I’d speak the show naturally, without any pauses in thought. If you do this alone, the quality of your podcast will improve regardless of what equipment you’re rocking.

Keep things short

The very best advice I ever got was from a podcaster I interviewed, Abby Wendle. She told me that the best idea for a show was one you could implement in a few minutes, as that’s generally what radio stations look for. While I’m not so worried about radio stations, this concept applies to your listener as well. (Note: I said listener, singular, for a reason.) Your casual listener has an attention span that will feel stretched if you go longer on a topic, story or episode than five to ten minutes. Obviously, if you go over that time frame, no one is going to, like, sue you, but your listener might not stick around for the whole thing — at least, not when you just start out.

There’s another, more practical reason to keep things short: production time.

If your podcast is an hour long, and you record like I do, it’s going to take you eight times as long to write and edit your show. So if your show is an hour long, there goes eight additional hours of your life spent staring at WAV files as you try to get them to fit just so.

If your show is only, say, five minutes long, then you’ll be done in an hour at the most. But your production time will vary depending on the level of editing you want to devote yourself to.

Pick Your Recording Environment Wisely

Your environment is as important, if not more so, than your equipment. You can have all the best microphones and soundboards and fancy studio tools the market has to offer, but if you’re sitting in the middle of a construction zone, you’re going to have a bad time.

Find a place — it doesn’t have to be your home — where everything is reasonably quiet, then make it ten times quieter. If you or your friends have a bunch of egg cartons lying around, use those as a do-it-yourself form of soundproofing. Some producers just hide their heads and the microphone under a blanket and they get good results. Try to minimize as much background noise as you can, especially if you use your smartphone.

Here’s why: noise that doesn’t add any context only serves to distract from what you’re trying to do. When I record Ruminator, I don’t mind the sound from the road around me — it’s part of the driving experience. However, if you’re podcasting in a room adjacent to someone who snores, for example, that doesn’t add anything interesting to the experience. It just sounds like someone’s ripping their throat out through their mouth in the next room.

Pick Your Niche

Unlike public radio, or anything produced professionally, by the book, in a studio, podcasting is limitless in terms of both creativity and coverage. This is a double-edged sword, and it is the primary reason you need to take some time to think about what you want to say with your show. Interested in news and politics? As a quick glance at iTunes shows, so do 500 other producers. Narrow things down to a specific topic, and run with it — especially if you believe that topic isn’t covered well in the rest of the media.

Why Podcasting Is Important

Podcasting represents a radical decentralization of the airwaves that can’t actually take place on the airwaves, for a few reasons.

Most people conceive of FM radio as being one giant mass of differently-formatted radio stations and content providers. In actuality, there are three tiers:

1. FM Commercial Radio Broadcast Stations
2. FM Noncommercial Educational Radio Broadcast Stations
3. Low Power FM (LPFM) Noncommercial Educational Radio Broadcast Stations

The first tier, commercial radio, is your average music, talk and sports programming; the FCC allows commercial radio to potentially take up every slot from 92.1 MHz to 107.9 MHz. The second tier is where “public radio” can be found, and the FCC generally allots 88.1 MHz to 91.9 MHz to public radio stations. This is the realm of NPR and its competitor-partners. The third tier, LPFM stations, are generally smaller community outfits that can cover neighborhoods with their broadcasting power, but little else. They have a smaller budget and don’t operate through NPR; they also tend to hire more amateur and independent producers on a volunteer basis. Due to the low transmission power, it’s rare that these producers can get their work heard by more than a few hundred people at any given moment.

Podcasting does for these producers what national syndication does for Talk of the Nation, Morning Edition and All Things Considered: it gets their work out there to potentially anyone. Of course, the latter shows aren’t exactly done by independent producers, which brings me to the second barrier to entry for radio decentralization: just about every production company operates in the realm of old media.

With one notable exception, the companies that operate and compete in public radio hire much in the same way that a newspaper or television station does; only producers that are credentialed (usually in the form of a college degree followed by so many years interning or working at low-power FM stations) can get even entry-level jobs at National Public Radio, Public Radio International, or American Public Media. This is not a good or bad thing — this is just something that they do. Unfortunately, there’s a side-effect: not everyone currently producing audio has a college degree, and not everyone who wants to be in radio can actually afford to go to college for it; therefore, the demographic of people who are actually working at one of the major content providers tends to be very… monochromatic.

That notable exception? The Public Radio Exchange, or PRX. Its slogan is “Making Public Radio More Public,” and its entire infrastructure is set up for exactly that task. Anyone can sign up as a producer for free, and the entry cost to actually make money with PRX is only $50 a year. Unfortunately, the free producer account has a data upload limit of two hours — not exactly conducive to doing a long-run podcast. Also, there are some technical barriers to using PRX as your main distribution tool — barriers that, if you’re not familiar with the inner workings of public radio, might be very difficult to overcome. Studioless podcasting comes with very few of those barriers; plus, it’s all-online.

This is really the crux of what makes podcasting special: its ability to open up new spaces for more voices in almost infinite capacity. You can podcast for fun or for a living; your success isn’t tied to which market you’re doing the best in and you don’t have to worry about broadcast clocks. You don’t have to worry about your show being canceled because the station lost money or didn’t raise enough in the periodic fundraiser to keep it going. Podcasting is made for everyone.

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