The Importance of Editing to Your Podcast

For many podcasters, editing is the least appealing part of making the podcast. I can understand the sentiment. After all, recording the show is the fun part: You get together with your pals, drink a few beers and talk about stuff you like. If you’re a geek like me, even the research phase of making an episode can be fun. But for many podcasters, editing is boring. It’s like washing the dishes after a meal, or sweeping the floor after a party.

Screenshot of Audacity, the open-source editing program (from http://www.audacityteam.org/)

Unsurprisingly, many podcasters choose to skip this part of the podcast-making process. They convince themselves that editing is unnecessary in their case, since their show “has to sound spontaneous”, or because “the listeners don’t care that much”. They do the minimum amount of editing, or sometimes none at all — and release the episode as it was recorded, in a state otherwise known in its more professional term: ‘unedited piece of crap unfit for human consumption.’

Well, I edit all of my shows, and I’m here to convince you that not editing your episodes is a bad mistake. Here’s why.

1. Audio Quality

Here’s an experiment: open iTunes and check the 50 highest ranked podcasts. You might find that some genres are more prominent than others in that list — but you’ll also find that no matter what the podcast is about, its sound quality is excellent, or at the very least adequate. By ‘sound quality’ I mean good volume levels for all hosts and no distracting background noises, at the minimum.

What that means is that Sound Quality is the most important characteristic of a podcast. It precedes content by a mile. The fact that all the top ranking podcasts boast good sound quality means that you can’t have a successful podcast without one.

What makes sound quality so important? well, one explanation has to do with what is sometimes called ‘Ear Fatigue’: when the act of listening takes too much effort and focus, the listener can get “tired”. It takes dedication and determination to keep listening to a podcast whose volume levels are too low, or one with distracting background noises.

But the most important factor, I feel, has to be with ‘first impression’. As web designers, product designers and behavioral economists know — subconscious decisions made within seconds of encountering a new situation or product have a big influence on our behaviors. Problematic audio can and does make a potential listener form a critical mindset about your podcast within the first few minutes of listening. It is then up to the content of the episode to correct this bad first impression — but by then you’re already fighting an uphill battle.

2. Pruning, or: Less is More

As an author who’s background is in the written word, I can appreciate a well-known idiom about creative writing: “Good Authors Write — Great Authors Erase.” I came across this important principle in Stephen King’s book ‘On Writing’, and I have since came to learn that it’s just as valid in podcasting as it is in writing.

What makes More is Less an important guideline? It has to do with our brain’s tendency to enjoy well crafted stories. A great story evokes strong feelings in the reader/listener — but strong feelings are also emotionally draining. They require a sort of mental energy and focus that can only last for so long. Think of a roller coaster, with its sharp turns and surprising falls. Now imagine the roller coaster slowly climbing up along the tracks. For the first few seconds there’s a feeling of suspense: are we heading for a great fall, full of adrenaline and fun? But now imagine the climb continuing on and on. A minute. Two minutes. Now five. At some point the climb stops being fun, the suspense is gone and is replaced with irritation. The fall at the end of the climb should now be extremely fun for it to compensate for the boredom of the last five minutes.

This principle applies to podcasting as well. A natural conversation between two or more people tends to follow random tangents: the more people participating in the conversation, the more likely it is to stray away from its main topic. Each such tangent is like a climb in a roller coaster. At first, the listener (who started listening to the episode based on the premise that you’ll be talking about what was in the episode’s description) might be intrigued by the tangent and its potential to be related in some way to the main topic. But as the conversation veers more and more away from the main topic, curiosity turns into frustration. The mental energy is wasted, and before long the disappointed listener presses the Stop button, never to return again.

That’s why editing is so crucial, especially for podcasts rich with natural conversations and interviews. Personally, each interview I record goes through a careful editing process which results in roughly half of the original material being left out. Is it a waste? no, on the contrary: it makes the interview two times as powerful. Even more.

Bottom line: Less is More. Edit away the tangents, and only keep the good parts.

3. Make it an Art

The third reason for editing relates to some types of podcasts more than others. In podcasts built around natural conversation — e.g. interviews and panels — there isn’t usually much room or need for additions such as music, archive material, etc.. The free flowing nature of conversations does not lend itself easily for pauses and tempo changes.

Yet in other types of podcasts — from single voice narrations to audio dramas — there’s a lot of room for additions that will benefit the show greatly. For example cinematic music to emphasize certain feelings in appropriate moments, or archival segments to strengthen or demonstrate topics.

These additions are always optional, of course, but they have the potential to lift your podcast from a mere audio program — to a true form of art. Award winning podcasts such as RadioLab and This American Life use various editing techniques to create breathtaking episodes.

How hard is it to learn editing?

Surprisingly easy. Open Source tools such as Audacity lower the entry barrier greatly, and mastering the basic techniques needed for improving the audio quality of a podcast or pruning unneeded bits takes about half an hour of YouTube browsing and practice. It is more than worth your time to learn them.

To be sure, the more advanced techniques take about the same length of time to learn — but require much more practice to master. If editing is not your passion, go for the more conversational formats of podcasting, or hire the services of an experienced Sound Editor.

To wrap up: editing is not an optional part of the podcast production process. It is a vital part of making a good podcast. It can also help you raise your show above the general clutter of ‘audio programs’ and make it a true piece of art, if you wish it to be so. Take the time to learn the basics of editing — which will the focus of my next article.

Ran Levi 
ran@cmpod.net

Podcasters — Check out my Podcast Cross-Promotion Database initiative! more than 30 podcasts are already there, willing to swap pre-recorded promos and host-read testimonials with your show.

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