Podcasting: The Basics (v2)

I wrote Podcasting: The Basics about 3 years and 400 episodes ago now. Looking back, there’s a lot I would change based on the advice I give people who ask me today:

I want to make a podcast. Where do I start?

Planning

Know your audience

Design Details — the most popular show I’ve ever worked on by a large margin had a sizable market: anyone interested in product design, and a gap in the market that we could seize upon: at the time, there were no product design podcasts.

Even with that open market, if we’d changed any number of variables, it likely would’ve made the show a failure:

  1. If it had been just us talking about our own experiences in design instead of interviewing prominent designers/engineers, it probably would’ve failed.
  2. If we hadn’t chosen to invest in sound quality, I think it likely would’ve failed.
  3. If we hadn’t booked the initial guests in advance, I think it likely would’ve failed.
  4. If we hadn’t booked prominent guests at the start, I think it likely would’ve failed.

Play to Your Strengths

Brian and I built this podcast on two things:

  1. The popularity of the Design Details blog
  2. The fact that we live in San Francisco

Brian did such a great job putting together deep, thoughtful posts for Design Details that many of our prospective guests already knew and used his work. These people were some of the easiest to convince.

The others primarily came through our fantastically supportive friends. Having helpful friends isn’t particularly difficult — but friends in San Francisco are a whole different thing. Everyone in SF knows someone prominent in tech and our friends were able to connect us with many of our heroes very quickly.

Not everyone has these luxuries, but not every podcast needs prominent guests either. If you know a lot about a certain subject, demo a test episode to a few people and see if they enjoy listening. Developer Tea is a great example of a successful show that is generally just a host speaking about a particular subject or two that he is uncommonly knowledgeable about.

Plan Ahead

Brian and I first reached out to potential guests the week after Thanksgiving 2014. Our first episode went live on Monday, January 5th.

In the month between those dates, we were able to record and edit 5 episodes of Design Details, negotiate our first sponsorship, set up our RSS feed, write 2 promotional blog posts, and acquire about 1,500 email addresses through a mailing list sign-up on Brian’s blog.

These are almost all things that take more time than you would expect. Give yourself plenty of prep time so you don’t have to rush things.

Sponsorships

Ads are bad for everyone, but they’re also the way radio has monetized since its inception. I think this model sucks and can’t recommend it unless you’re getting >50,000 downloads per episode in which case, the sponsors will come to you.

Honestly, don’t count on sponsorships and probably don’t spend too much time trying to find sponsors. If you think that your audience might support you through patronage, that could be cool and probably far more sustainable.

Equipment

Room

Every piece of equipment you buy should be based on where you’re recording. How reflective does it sound? How many people will be in the room with you?

Try recording your voice with a smartphone or laptop in the space you plan to record in. Are there any noises from the room itself like electrical buzz, AC, or street noise through a window? You’ll likely need to do some careful editing to minimize these. Does it sound echo-y? If so, consider adding sound-absorbing materials. These can be anything from hanging clothing to thick rugs to pro-grade acoustic foam to reduce the effect on the final recording.

Software

You’ll need an audio editor called a DAW (‘Digital Audio Workstation’).

If you have a Mac, Garage Band is free. If not, Audacity is free too. If you want more control, use Logic Pro X (You’ll probably want a computer with a name that ends in “Pro” to run Logic. It’s a resource hog.).

Microphone(s)

A mistake a lot of podcasters make early on is buying a cheap condenser mic like a Blue Yeti. These may make your voice sound radio-y, but they’ll also pick up every noise in the room.

You’d be better off with a stage mic like a Shure SM57 that is good at rejecting external noise and will STILL make you sound good. If you’ve got the cash, the Shure Beta 87a Supercardioid is far cheaper than the competition and it’s the best mic out there for the money.

I was skeptical of this mic back when Marco Arment first raved about it in his Podcast Microphone Mega-Review, but he convinced me to try it over drinks at XOXO 2016 and I must say — it’s fantastic. It’s now the most-used microphone at SpecFM.

Accessories

With these mics, you don’t really need windscreens unless you’re recording outside. They also have internal dampeners to prevent vibrations from messing with your recordings so you probably don’t need shock mounts. Definitely get a desktop mic stand that has enough range for you to sit comfortably.

You’ll need a way to get audio from your microphone to your computer. This is called an ‘interface’. If you’re recording by yourself or remotely, I highly recommend the Shure X2U. We’ve got several of these and they’re fantastic, cheap, and convenient.

If you want to record more people than that, my favorite pick currently is the Zoom H6. We’ve had all sorts of interfaces over time, but this one is cheap, convenient, portable, and they’re available pretty much everywhere that sells sound equipment. Can’t recommend it enough.

You won’t need a mixer. Every DAW has a software mixer built-in. If your audio signal is too quiet, turn up the gain on your interface or use a compressor.

Headphones

We bought amazing headphones early on thinking it would be important. It’s really not, don’t blow a bunch of money on headphones for podcast mixing — it’s very unlikely that you’ll hear something that’ll make a difference. Get some ATH-M40x’s (nice flat response for super cheap) and listen to your episode through them and through your computer’s speakers.

Recording

Mic Technique

Get all up in your mic’s grille. Hold it about an inch from your face directly in front of your mouth. Get a mic stand to do this for you.

Content

I’d say that this is probably the most difficult thing to figure out at first. You not only have to come up with a premise, but now you have to convince real human beings that this premise is valuable to them. If you have guests, you need to convince them that it’s worth it for them to spend their time discussing this premise with you. Then, regardless of format, you have to get listeners. Then, you have to take user feedback. Then, you need to evaluate that feedback and iterate your show until it meets the audience’s needs.

Scheduling

There are only 3 tricks to scheduling.

  1. Make a schedule.
  2. Stick to it.
  3. Triple the amount of time that you think it takes to edit.

Publishing

Go set up a Simplecast account and upload your audio files there. Make sure to submit your podcast’s RSS feed to iTunes and maybe Spotify.

That’s it.

It takes very little to actually create a podcast. It takes lots of time and care and attention and money to make it valuable. This post should help you get to the point where you can at least make an educated decision about whether or not you want to make a podcast.