Podcasting: The Basics
This post originally published at bryn.io on April 16, 2015.
I’ve been asked one specific question many times in the last few months:
How do you go about actually creating a podcast?
After trying to explain what we’ve done a couple times, I decided to write a piece that I could use to share a consistent, thought-out answer to as many people as possible. If you’re looking to start your own show, hopefully this can be helpful to you.
It has been just over 3 months since we released the first episode of the Design Details Podcast. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to be able to very quickly put together a show with a great audience, fantastic guests, and some truly awesome sponsors. We’re still in the early days of the show, but, based on the numbers we can find from other podcasts, we’ve been very successful and are growing in a very healthy way.
Podcasting has been a very popular topic lately and the market is growing extremely quickly. What has been really remarkable is how supportive the existing podcast community can be to new shows. Podcasting is not a zero-sum game — the more good podcasts that exist in the world, the better.
Have a Solid Premise
One day, while using Brian’s Design Details blog for some UI research, I had a random idea. I texted him:
“Hey. We should make a podcast about the designers behind the products on Design Details.”
He was initially hesitant, but, I convinced him to discuss it over dinner that weekend. Over dinner, we refined the concept to “a weekly, design-centric discussion with the people who create our favorite products”. We then determined that if we could get 8 prominent designers or developers to agree to be guests, we would make a show.
When we initially explained the concept to potential guests, the response was overwhelmingly positive. The first day, we received 26 “yes” responses.
At that point, we knew we were onto something.
A lot of shows that currently exist really seem to have no focus. It’s not uncommon to find podcasts on iTunes with the description “A podcast about stuff.” Successful podcasts aren’t really an outlet for self-expression so much as a product. Just like any product, your show must provide value to the consumer if you want them to come back for more.
Play to Your Strengths
Brian and I built this podcast on two things:
- The popularity of the Design Details blog
- 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, talk to a few others about it 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.
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.
Learn from the Best
If you’re thinking about starting a podcast, there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with and enjoy listening to podcasts (if not, you might want to reconsider). The best way to become good at podcasting quickly is to listen to the shows you love, analyze them, and replicate the good parts.
It is not uncommon for podcasters to write up their little tricks or tips in order to help newcomers up their game — I’m certainly not the first to do so. Look for blog posts and tutorials on podcasting from prominent podcasters and you’ll likely learn a lot very quickly.
The Awkward Part: Sponsorships
Sponsors are a weird concept. Why should someone want to pay you to talk about some probably niche topic into a microphone?
Initially, we planned to just use the show to meet some of our industry heroes. It was an innocent and uncomplicated motivation that fell apart immediately. The first episode took us a combined 12 hours of work to put together. 4 hours of recording (we had to record it twice because the initial sound quality was terrible), 6 hours of editing, and another couple hours writing show notes and configuring tags.
It was obvious to us that this was unsustainable — especially without some compensation — but we had no idea where to start. We had a few friends who had done their own podcasts, but none of them had done sponsorships. We kept thinking about it and chewing on the problem for a week or so, then it fell right into our laps.
Brian and I went to a Dribbble meetup at Weebly. We got a little tipsy and were already overexcited about the idea, so we just started talking about the show to anyone who would listen. One of those people was Weebly’s own Dan Veltri. I half-jokingly pitched him on the idea of sponsoring the show because “Hey! Your competitors sponsor tons of shows… Weebly should too!” I spewed some obnoxious numbers that I half-remembered from ATP’s old sponsorship page and he handed me his card and said to shoot him an email about it.
This part was tricky until we lucked into EntrepreneurOnFire’s Podcast guide which has a whole section dedicated to sponsorships.
We quoted EOF’s pre-roll and mid-roll numbers to sponsors verbatim. We estimated that we could get 5,000 listens per episode in 6 weeks based on Design Details’ site traffic, our mailing list, and our guests’ Twitter followers.
Suddenly, we were in business.
You will be bad at podcasting at first.
This will extend to your first ad reads. You will get critical feedback from sponsors.
Take that feedback and adjust accordingly.
Just be sure you put in your sponsor contract that you have editorial control over sponsorship content. That ensures that you’re not on the hook if they’re dissatisfied at how it sounds. It does not ensure that they will stick with you if you fail to get them the return on investment that they need to justify another sponsorship.
Do whatever you can to get them that ROI. Don’t be afraid to share your promo code or special link with friends and family. Every visit and purchase counts.
Having a positive cashflow from the podcast itself is a very cool thing. It enables you to more easily justify better equipment and spending more time fine-tuning your process. A little bit goes a long way, so make sure you manage your contracts well and get paid on time.
There are many examples of podcast or radio ad insertion orders on Docracy and you can easily use an invoicing service (we use Invoiced) to send professional invoices and receive funds via Stripe (especially helpful for international sponsors who can’t easily pay by check).
The Fun Part: Equipment
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.
There are lots of cheap, easy solutions for basic audio editing — Audacity and Adobe Audition are cheap and popular, not to mention that GarageBand now comes with every Mac. These will get you pretty far, but multi-track recording can still be tricky, so this choice will also affect which hardware you should get.
We use Logic Pro X as it has the best multi-track and plug-in support at a better price (and with a nicer interface) than Pro Tools. It has a fairly steep learning curve, but there are lots of videos on YouTube and tutorials from other podcasters that help.
Microphones are the most obvious piece of equipment required for recording. The best low-cost option we’ve found is the Blue Yeti for around $100. The Snowball is cheaper, but picks up too much room noise and only one can be used per computer unless modified by Blue (an intensely frustrating decision by Blue). They all use USB which reduces the amount of equipment and expense required when starting out.
The first thing we did with our sponsorship money was buy the best microphones we could afford. After doing some research, we determined that the best model for our purposes was the Shure PG42 USB. They’ve been wonderfully capable and versatile so far. They still have a tendency to pick up more room noise than I’d like, but we’re also recording in a fairly reflective space.
There are a handful of accessories that will make all the difference in time. The most impactful include pop filters or windscreens and boom stands (we use this one). If you’re recording more than a couple people with USB mics, you’ll definitely want a powered USB hub too.
Many of your listeners will use headphones. Some high-end, some low-end. Spending a couple hundred dollars on a decent set of over ear headphones will prove valuable for both recording and editing.
Brian and I each have a pair of the PSB M4U 2 ($300) and we both adore them. They’re comfortable, portable, and capable with a fantastic featureset including a built-in amplifier and Active Noise Cancellation.
The Hard Part: Recording
Every mic is different and will take some experimentation, but on average, you’ll want to speak directly into the front of the microphone about 3 inches from the grille. If you get too far from the mic or don’t speak directly into the mic, you may sound distant and “echo-y”. If you get too close to the mic, your voice will likely sound “boom-y” and nasal.
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. This can be really tough. It can feel like you’re compromising your goals. That’s actually OK. Your goals don’t matter if no one is listening — that’s just masturbatory radio.
There are only 3 tricks to scheduling.
- Make a schedule.
- Stick to it.
- Triple the amount of time that you think it takes to edit and sell ads.
The Easy Part: Publishing
The most basic thing you need for your show is a place to put it on the internet. You can host a podcast very simply with just file storage and an RSS feed, but you probably don’t want to deal with that. There are, however, some great options with some fantastic perks. Our favorite is…
Simplecast is purpose-built for podcasters — from beginners to whole networks. It’s simply fantastic.
- It will do the basics like hosting your media files and RSS feed. It will also give you a free Simplecast subdomain, though you’ll probably want to make register your own domain name through a service like Hover.
- It will let you schedule episode releases and blog posts for each episode. This is super important when you realize you want to release your show in time for the morning commute in some other timezone.
- It will give you accurate stat overviews. This is all that matter to sponsors. If you overquote listens, you’ll get a lot of money. If sponsors pay you a lot of money once and don’t get an ROI, you will no longer get a lot of money. You might not believe this, but you want money. Use good stats.
- It will host your podcast’s website with embedded analytics, social sharing features (did someone say audio player Twitter cards?), sponsor links, and more.
Use it. Love it. It only costs 12 bucks a month, which is cheap even without sponsors.
(Whatever you do, don’t use Soundcloud — it’s more expensive than Simplecast and it’s just not built for podcasting so you’ll end up switching anyway.)
Submit to iTunes
You really can’t grow a show very well without doing this. It’s kind of a necessary evil. Here’s the link to submit a podcast. You’ll need to have your RSS feed set up first (hint: use Simplecast) with at least one episode. We recommend doing an “Episode 0” or Teaser so that you’re ready to launch your show with Episode 1.
Tell everyone you know you’re starting a podcast. Put it on Twitter and Facebook (make a Twitter account and Facebook page for the show). Make an email signup form. Post it on your blog. If you don’t have a blog, start a blog. Post it to /r/podcasts. Is it tech-related? If so, post it to Hacker News, Product Hunt, and maybe even Designer News. Now, continue to do that for every single episode.
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. If you do make one or this guide helped you out, hit me up on Twitter. I would love to hear about it.