Sharknado-ise your podcast
And other lessons from wise masters of audio
Are podcasts the new bands? Lately, in our circles, any slightly clever turn of phrase that comes up in conversation is now tucked away as a name for our next audio passion project. I say ‘we’ — meaning both those of us at the Walkleys who produce the occasional Walkley Talks podcast, and those of us across the globe who run through tens of hours of podcasts each week and find our journalistic ambitions molded by the media we’re steeped in.
But how to do it right? How to make something worth hearing? How to avoid all the traps — the plague of Ira Glass imitators, of the three-dudes-unedited-at-a-mic format, and above all of boring people? How to find an audience, and ideally one that will pay you?
“If you look at iTunes on any given day,” says Susan Davis, longtime NPR producer and coach, “there are about 300,000 podcasts to choose from — and about 290,000 of them suck.”
Over the past two weeks we’ve been lucky enough to get advice on how not to suck from some of the best in the business: first at Audiocraft, the recent conference of Australian podcasters, and then at a special two-hour podcasting masterclass with Davis that the Walkleys offered this week with the support of the U.S. Consulate in Sydney.
This rises to the top:
“Listen,” Davis told us. “See what you like, see what you don’t. … When you’ve edited something, close your eyes and hit play. Don’t watch it. You need to hear everything. Try really hard to be a listener, and to consider the world that way.”
Here’s a smattering of the rest.
Choose format carefully
Eric Nuzum, SVP of original content at Audible.com, declares that you should be able to describe your project in 10 words or less. The tagline for the movie Sharknado is “Enough said!” That is … it’s sharks, with tornados. “Sharknado-ise your podcast,” he says. This is a process of whittling down what you’re doing and not doing — for yourself as well as for those you’re pitching.
Then, more decisions. What will your release schedule be? Sophie Harper of Not By Accident, a documentary podcast about choosing to be a single mother, chose also to release her podcast every two weeks, indefinitely. In hindsight, she wished she’d opted for seasons, because the pressure was intense and constant. “The show would have been better. And my life would have been better.” On the plus side, she got a lot of feedback that improved her work as she went. Which she wouldn’t have gotten if she’d released a polished, whole, bingeable season at once.
How long? Caitlin Thompson, U.S. content director of Acast, a Swedish end-to-end podcasting company that matches shows with advertisers, suggests thinking of it as dayparting — the broadcast term for making different shows for different times of day. Davis points out that most people are doing chores when they’re listening. So pick the activity you imagine people will be doing while they’re listening to your podcast. How long does that activity take? There’s your length. The activity may also determine the rhythm of your podcast.
Tailor your dreams to your resources, Thompson suggested. You may want to sound like Invisibilia or Radiolab. But those shows take hundreds of thousands of dollars — high six figures for the former, low seven figures for the latter, she estimated—and a staff in double digits to produce.
Susan Davis: “If it sounds like a lot of work, it is a lot of work. If it’s just going to be you, the interview is a good way to go.”
Speaking of interviews, don’t forget your pre-interviews. “You are listening for their bliss,” says Davis. Sometimes, the thing people are expert on bores them to talk about. Pay attention and adapt.
Head into interviews with a skeleton of the story you think you’ll want to tell, the plot points you think you need. The art of repeating questions without annoying your guest is worth practicing.
Your job as an interviewer is to be a proxy for the listener. “Listen back to yourself,” Davis says. “Not so you can hate the sound of your voice, but so you can hear when you are awkward.” Listen to the masters (Terry Gross, Anna Sale), the interviewers you like, and take notes. When you’re speaking to “regular people”, Davis says — people who aren’t professional talkers — “you have to pick the pace of their story. Regular people need that help, or they’re going to bore you.” Likewise, when you’re setting a scene, remember that the right music can take a listener there quickly.
Related listening: Jesse Thorn’s new podcast The Turnaround (not 10 words but two: “Interviewers, interviewed”). In the first episode, he interviews Ira Glass.
Sound quality and fancy production is “not the most important thing,” according to Acast’s Thompson. The first show Acast signed was Call Your Girlfriend, which had terrible mics, little editing and a die-hard audience: “People will forgive you if you’re authentic, expert and passionate,” she says.
But listeners do punish poor audio, Davis notes, and you needn’t spend heaps to get decent quality. Invest in modest equipment (see Transom.org for recommendations, and try Zencastr.com for remote interviews). Record in a closet, a car or under your doona, and never in the bathroom. Spread some velvet out in front of your guest. Listen back. If you must include bad audio, like a phone call, let your listener know (by playing the dial tone, or even just saying, “We called so and so”) and they’ll be more forgiving.
Writing and editing
Davis wrote poetry before she wrote for radio. “The building blocks of audio are not dissimilar to the building blocks of good poetry. Those are; the distillation of speech, the importance of silence and meter and cadence and breath. And the fact that the basic tool of good audio is the human voice.” Sound is “a medium unto itself.” Voice is primary, the first sense that you pick up in utero, and intimate, especially now that everyone’s on headphones. Use those qualities to connect with your audience.
You may find yourself drowning in a sea of tape. Advises Megan Tan, who obsessively records her own life for her podcast (Millennial, from Radiotopia): “Approach your tape with purpose.” Seek conflict, cringe, arguments. Know what you’re looking for. And “don’t think it’s all gold”. Tan also labels obsessively, a habit we admire. (But Harper does not, and she still does great work.)
Susan Davis stresses the importance of always keeping the medium foremost in your mind. “Writing for radio is different from other writing. There’s a reason that good radio isn’t just your blog, read out. It’s much more casual. It’s the way people speak.”
“All you need for a good story is a character or twenty thousand characters,” she says. “You need plot: you send your character up a tree. Once they get up there you throw rocks at them: that’s conflict. Then you need resolution: they come down from the tree.”
The audio version of you
If you’re making a podcast about yourself, there are special considerations. Tan established boundaries: She created a character she thinks of as “Millennial Megan”, who is similar to but not exactly Megan. She talks about herself in the third person when editing. Meanwhile, Australian Harper did the opposite with Not By Accident. She is obsessed with authenticity, which shines through in her work. At the same time she is forced to relive difficult moments when she is working, and she cannot work with another person on it.
This surprised us: Both Tan and Harper said podcasting their lives improved their relationships with other people. For Harper, it became a way to show her gratitude to other people in her life. For Tan, the podcast became a way to communicate more deeply with her family.
On the business side
Find your audience
Over and over we were advised to seek out the super-niche audience. Thompson: “REI [the U.S. outdoor retailer] doesn’t want 100,000 curious thinkers; they want 5,000 very outdoorsy people.” Acast is creating sponsorship deals for packages of shows with small but specific audiences that otherwise wouldn’t be able to attract such large advertisers. “Listen to what else is in the space. Try to understand who will be your most ferocious fan,” she said. Eric Nuzum at Audible offered the counterexample of Richard Branson, whose consistency in interviews makes him “the definition of sameness” and a thing Nuzum is allergic to.
Asked what his favorite Australian podcasts were, Nuzum said, “So many of the podcasts I heard were speaking to someone else and not me — and that’s good.”
“Think beyond Australia,” Sophie Harper said. Here’s how she describes who her show is for:
This series is a record for my child, and for people like her. It’s for anyone struggling with the momentous decision, some way along the journey or living as a ‘single mother by choice’ or ‘choice mum’ like me. It’s for those trying to understand decisions and actions being taken by someone they love. It’s for all the wonderful unconventional families who make the world a much more interesting place, and for all the wonderful people who accept and support us.
Tan shared a private page she uses to sell her podcast to sponsors. It includes the short pitch for the show: it’s a podcast about coming of age. It lays out data on her listeners — where they are, their gender and age breakdown, what devices they use — as well as the monthly growth in downloads, the current industry standard for metrics (this will probably change, since downloads are a poor proxy for listens). It includes testimonials. And it provides basic options for ad spots at various points in the podcast, sold by CPM (millions of downloads). One can also charge a flat fee per episode, especially with a specific engaged niche audience. And before she found an audience, Tan wisely promised sponsors a certain number of episodes, not downloads.
“Don’t bake in your ads,” Thompson recommends, pitching Acast’s dynamic ad insertion platform. Apparently, Serial staff spent many hours editing out Mailchimp ads once that contract was up.
More tips from Thompson: Those making one-off episodes might consider applying for grants. They’re less likely to find advertisers, since it’s hard to predict who the audience will be and show a track record. Crowdfunding requires good networks and a huge amount of work. The Patreon model can work for those with a small, dedicated audience.
When a dream becomes a job
Tips from Audiocraft panelists Tan, Honor Eastly, Miles Martignoni and Hannah Reich: Get an accountant. Don’t forget about your superannuation. Get one app to track your expenses (like Money Brilliant or Mint), and another to track how long it really takes you to make things (Toggl). Know your deductions: e.g., you can claim 75 per cent of the cost of subscriptions (Netflix as research!). Read up on income averaging for special professionals. Rent a studio space, or use a separate office — it’s tax-deductible. Some books to check out: Making Your Life as an Artist and The Barefoot Investor.
Define what success means for you. “Is it making someone’s heart beat faster in Australia — or in London? Who are you making it for? Set your expectations accordingly,” Nuzum said. Many of the independent podcasters we’ve met have found themselves artistically or journalistically fulfilled, but financially less so.
And if it does finally pan out, and you find yourself with a staff, a salary and a suite of happy sponsors?
Then, says Millennial’s Tan, who would know, it’s time to find a new passion project.