Tips for Starting a Podcast
Cult of Pedagogy 2019-09-15
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I have had my own podcast for six years now. I love doing it, partly because it doesn’t require me to dress up, put makeup on, or leave the house. I also love it because I have been a podcast listener for ages, so I know how it feels to hear a person’s voice in my ears week after week while I get dressed, clean the house, or run errands. I feel like I intimately know those people even though we’ve never met, and I have learned at least the equivalent of a master’s degree from listening to them. So providing that experience for other people is something I really enjoy.
Every now and then I’ll be approached by someone who wants to start their own podcast. I really believe that anyone could create a podcast about anything, so I’m always excited to have this conversation. But whenever the person starts asking for advice, when they start asking for tips and tools and so on, there’s so much to say that I don’t know where to start. I’ve been meaning to put it all in one place—one blog post and podcast episode—so I can just direct people to that when they ask.
That’s what this is. I’m going to share the tools and processes I use to produce this podcast, some do’s and don’ts I’ve picked up through trial and error, and just general advice for anyone who wants to start their own show. Because most of the people in my audience are teachers, I feel I should mention that this particular post is meant for anyone who is interested in podcasting, and that includes your students, their parents, other community members, and so on. So feel free to share this one widely.
This is not going to be a totally thorough, step-by-step tutorial, though. You can find some excellent ones online that will walk you through all the details from start to finish. The one I would recommend is from someone named Pat Flynn, and you can find it here. So rather than provide a full, step-by-step tutorial, what I’m going to do here is just share my own process and tips.
Let’s get started.
What Exactly Is a Podcast?
A podcast is a set of recordings. These can be audio or video files, but most of the time when people refer to a “podcast,” they’re talking about audio only. The recordings work a lot like a TV or radio series, except that people listen to them on-demand through an app like iTunes or Stitcher or just by listening on a regular computer. Most podcasts put out new episodes on a regular basis, but listeners can still access all the old episodes whenever they want. Finally, most podcasts are completely free to listen to.
New podcasts come out every day, and there are podcasts on pretty much any topic you can think of: fantasy football, gardening, aviation, bible studies, and fitness. There are podcasts to help you sleep, learn a language, or fix your marriage. There are whole podcasts devoted to collecting vinyl records and others on collecting coins. One explanation for this incredibly wide variety, I think, is because podcasts really don’t cost much to produce, it’s not too hard to learn how to make one, you don’t need a lot of special equipment, and once you have created a podcast, you can distribute it on lots of channels for very little money. I repeat: Pretty much anyone can have a podcast about anything.
Part 1: Content
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how you actually make a podcast, let’s consider what you’re going to talk about on your show.
My best advice to anyone wanting to start their own show is to listen to a lot of other podcasts. The incredible variety of topics, formats, lengths, and styles out there will expose you what’s possible, and the more you listen to, the closer you’ll get to finding just the right setup for your own show. Specifically, you’ll need to make decisions about the following things:
Narrowing Your Focus
The first thing you need to do is figure out what your overall topic is going to be. Ideally, it should not be too broad: A podcast about “life in general” won’t grab enough listeners unless you happen to already be famous, in which case people will tune in just to listen to whatever you have to say. Then again, if you pull your focus in way too close, you might only appeal to a very tiny audience, or you could run out of material pretty quickly.
Here’s an example: Say you’re really into sewing and you want to do a show about that. A podcast about sewing needles is way too narrow, whereas one about sewing in general would give you room to explore lots of topics within that larger umbrella. Still, you might want to narrow it down a bit from there by making it just about quilting, or specifically for teenagers who sew, or only about sewing projects that can be done in a weekend.
My podcast topic is very broad: I cover any topic that relates to teaching, and this gives me the freedom to explore all kinds of things, but because my audience has a wide variety of specialties, I have to be careful not to spend too much time on any one thing: If I spent three episodes talking about math teaching, I could start to lose the attention of all of my other listeners who don’t teach math. Other education podcasters have focused in tighter on topics like educational technology, classroom management, homeschooling, or teaching a specific subject area, like languages. While they don’t have quite as much choice in terms of topics, they can really dig into their specific target area without fear of alienating a segment of their audience.
If you know your general topic but are having a hard time narrowing it down, try making a list of possible episode titles. If it’s easy to generate 20 ideas and all of them have some connection to each other, you probably have a topic that will work. If your ideas are kind of scattered and random-feeling, it might be too broad, and if you can’t think of very many, it might be too narrow.
Naming Your Podcast
At some point, you’ll also need to think of a name for your show. This is another decision that will be much easier if you just browse through the names of hundreds of other podcasts. Some will jump out at you, while others will fall flat. Write down the names that really appeal to you and see if you notice any kind of pattern. Then, with your own topic in mind, brainstorm a big, long list of possible names that follow the same pattern and eventually something will start to feel right.
At this point, it would be a very good idea to run your short list by some other people: Even though your favorite name might make perfect sense to you, if a few of your friends don’t quite get it, you might want to look for something else.
Most podcasts have a predictable format that listeners come to expect in every episode. For example, on a “teenagers who sew” podcast, each episode might start with a brief intro, then a 3-minute segment where the host offers a “sewing tip of the week,” followed by a 10-minute interview with a teenager who sews. Other podcasts are much more free-form, where the hosts just jump on and chat about a chosen topic.
Another format consideration is whether you’re doing a solo podcast, which is just you, an interview podcast, which will feature a different guest or guests every episode, or some kind of a panel podcast, featuring a group of hosts discussing a different topic each episode. You might also jump around between these, like I do, because some topics just lend themselves better to certain formats.
Developing and sticking to some kind of regular format can give your podcast a nice professional tone, which can boost your credibility and make your audience feel like they’re in good hands. If that’s not what you’re going for, though, then really the sky’s the limit. Plenty of people out there will appreciate something that’s a lot more random, so if that’s your thing, have at it.
I have seen podcasts that pass the 2-hour mark every episode, and others that are only 3 minutes long, so you really can choose whatever length you want for your episodes.
As a general rule, shorter podcasts are more likely to be listened to in their entirety. This is just common sense, really, but it doesn’t mean that people won’t listen to longer podcasts. If I’m really into a topic, I’ll just keep pausing an episode every time I get interrupted and will just pick up where I left off the next time I can listen, just like I would with an audiobook. So don’t be overly concerned about making your episodes too long, as long as what’s there is good quality.
What’s probably more important is consistency: If you want to grow a loyal audience of listeners, it’s a good idea to put out episodes that are roughly the same length. I haven’t always followed this advice—some of my episodes are an hour and a half long, while a few are only around ten minutes, but most of my episodes are about 25 to 40 minutes long. I’ve never really asked my audience whether this is something that matters to them, but I know that as a podcast listener myself, I kind of like knowing what I can expect from the podcasts I listen to, and it’s pretty jarring when things diverge dramatically from the norm.
Something else that I don’t think is important at all is having episodes be exactly the same length each time. Unlike network TV shows, which used to have to fit precisely into a time slot, podcasts have no such time restrictions, and you can drive yourself crazy with editing trying to make an episode fit a precise time limit. Really it seems like more of an exercise in perfectionism. If that’s your thing and you get some kind of pleasure from it, then go ahead and enjoy the process. In general, though, your listeners probably won’t care.
With all of this said, it’s important to be aware of time when you’re editing. If you or your guests tend to ramble, take long pauses between thoughts, or just engage in a lot of time-wasting conversational practices that really aren’t going to be interesting to your listeners, then cut that crap out. A long episode that’s filled up with a lot of inside jokes and random side trips will just annoy your listeners.
Along with length, you’ll need to decide how often you want to publish new episodes. Some podcasts put out new content every day, while others release new episodes once a week, once every two weeks (like mine), or even once a month. It really doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as it’s a schedule you can maintain consistently. If your audience comes to expect new material at certain intervals, and then you deliver on that promise, you’ll develop a loyal following. On the other hand, if you’re not concerned with growing an audience, then produce episodes whenever you feel like.
Duration: Fixed or Ongoing?
Most podcasts are set up in an ongoing format: Episodes can be added and added for as long as the host wants to keep it up. An ongoing podcast can go on for years and have hundreds of episodes.
In other cases, like with the massively popular Serial, the podcast is designed to have a fixed number of episodes, because the host is telling a story. In other words, it has an end. Another example of this is Seth Godin’s Startup School, which is basically just the audio of a workshop Godin did with a group of entrepreneurs. It has only 15 episodes, and that’s all it will ever have. These short-term podcasts are more like projects, and I think this would be a great way to dip your toes into podcasting without feeling like you’re making a lifetime commitment.
You might also divide your schedule into seasons, where you decide ahead of time that your show will run for 10 episodes per season, for example. Break as long as you want to, then if you want to do more seasons, you can, or you can just stop after one.
Finally, one popular way to handle the duration question is to just produce a podcast that’s meant to be ongoing, then lose steam after a while and stop making episodes. Not the most elegant option, but it happens all the time. Don’t let the fear of this outcome stop you from trying a podcast. It’s still worth a try.
Other Content Considerations
- Unless your show is purely “personality” driven (think Howard Stern), then a lot of idle chit-chat may annoy your listeners, so keep the personal conversations to a minimum. Most people who come to your show are interested in the topic you’ve advertised in the episode title, so if it takes you 20 minutes to even get to that topic because you’re telling a funny story about your cat, you’ll eventually lose people.
- Keep a list of show topics to pull from. Before you ever launch your podcast, have at least 5 episodes completely finished and ready to go, then roll them out one at a time on the schedule you’ve decided for your show. Try to always have ideas for at least 20 episodes on your list and at least two finished episodes in your queue so that when life gets in the way, you’ll still have a buffer.
Part 2: Technical Stuff
So how do you actually produce a podcast? Depending on the type of computer you have and how in-depth you want to get with equipment and stuff, you have a couple of options, some of which are covered in Pat Flynn’s tutorial here.
Here I’ll cover the basics and share what I use:
Recording and Editing the Audio
Most podcasts are produced in their final form as MP3 files, which are just digital audio files. To make these, you’ll need some software and some hardware.
- To record solo episodes—where it’s just me talking—I have always used a free software called Audacity. You can download it here and learn how to use it in this tutorial.
- If I am doing an interview I use a software called ZenCastr, which works through the Chrome browser to record both sides of the conversation, then uploads each file as an MP3 into Dropbox. From there, I pull the files into Audacity and edit as I normally would.
- Along with recording, I edit the audio in Audacity as well.
- When I’m done, I export the recording as a WAV file, even though Audacity allows exporting in MP3 files. I made this decision because the MP3 exports kept creating these random files all over my computer and I couldn’t stand it. So now I just export the WAV file, then I use Emicsoft MTS Converter to convert the file from WAV to MP3. There are free file converters online, but many of them have file size limits, and WAV files tend to be very big. Plus I like that with the paid converter I can adjust some of the settings, like the audio bitrate, which affects the final file size.
- To get good quality sound, you need a microphone. Many amateur podcasters use a USB microphone, which can be plugged right into a desktop or laptop computer’s USB port. When I first got started, I used the Samson GoMic, and then I upgraded a few years later to the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB.
- Along with the new microphone, I also decided to buy a cheap windscreen. This is a soft foam covering for the microphone that helps block plosives, the popping sounds that happen when you say words with “p” and “b.” (demonstrate the difference by taking it off, then say “pepperoni.”)
- I also invested in this sound shield that sits right on my desk behind my microphone while I’m recording. Its job is to absorb echoes and other sounds that would otherwise bounce around the room. It does an OK job, but nothing like a proper recording studio would. I have heard from quite a few people that they prefer to record in a closet because the acoustics are so good.
- Finally, it’s a good idea to have a few reliable sets of earbuds or headphones around. These are important for listening closely when editing your audio and for use during interviews.
Intro and Outro Music
Most podcasts start and end with some kind of music. The most important thing for you to know about this is that you are not allowed to use copyrighted music. In other words, you can’t just pull fifteen seconds of a Lady Gaga song and add it to your podcast. That can get your podcast pulled off the internet and could possibly get you into trouble, because technically you’re supposed to be paying Lady Gaga royalties every time that chunk of her song is played on your podcast, and those royalties, I promise you, are way out of your budget.
What most podcasters use is royalty-free music, which has been created for situations like this and does not require you to pay royalties to the artist. Typically, you pay a one-time license fee for a track, then you can use it in your podcast forever (sites like Melody Loops and The Music Case currently charge $29 per license). The hard part is choosing your track: If you’re like me you’ll lose hours of your life just sampling all the different tracks available. What’s nice about these sites is that you can download free samples to play around with until you figure out exactly what you want.
If you’re planning to publish your podcast to any kind of an audience outside of your immediate circle of family and friends, you’ll need cover art, which should be in the form of a PNG file or JPG file. Podcasts currently all use square cover art with a minimum size of 1400 x 1400 pixels and a maximum size of 3000 x 3000 pixels.
So how do you create this file? I would recommend you try a design site like Canva, where you can create and download a custom piece of art for free or close to free. Follow these guidelines for using custom dimensions, set the size at 3000 x 3000 px, then play around until you find something that represents you and your show.
In order to share the audio files with the world, you can’t do it straight from your home computer or phone. You need a podcast “host.” This is basically a website dedicated to storing your audio files so they can be shared through various podcast directories, where people will actually find and listen to your show, like iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play Music.
The hosting site is also where you will store your cover art, the title and description of your show, and the titles and descriptions of every single episode. Once you plug all that information into the hosting site, it gets sent out to all the directories without you having to do anything else with it.
If you don’t feel up to the task of handling some of these technical jobs yourself, you can hire podcast editors and producers through freelance sites like Upwork or Fiverr. The people you hire can do the work from anywhere in the world; all they need is access to something like a Dropbox folder where you’d send the files that need editing. I have always done all my own editing and production, so I’m not totally familiar with how the process works, but just know that it is possible to put out a podcast without really touching the tech end of things.
Part 3: Interviewing
If your podcast is going to include interviews, here’s some more advice:
- Prepare your questions ahead of time and send them to your guests at least a few days in advance so they can prepare. I have found that it’s helpful to also ask the guest to sketch out their responses ahead of time as well and share these with me before the interview. Having this to refer to really helps make sure that we cover every point the guest wants to make; it also helps the guest know exactly where we are in the interview and when we should be finished. I have created this Google Docs template for that purpose, which you can adapt for your own use as well. (The link will ask if you want to make a copy for your own Drive.)
- While interviewing, really listen to your guests and reply to them thoughtfully, rather than just running through your questions. As a listener, it’s so easy to tell when the host isn’t really listening to the guest, and it makes for a bad interview. Active listening is easier said than done, though, because you have a lot to pay attention to, but do your best to remind yourself throughout the interview to focus on what your guest is saying.
- An efficient way to schedule interviews is with an online calendar like Calendly. Using this tool, I don’t have to go back and forth through email to try to find a time that works. I can just send my guest a link to my online calendar, then they sign up for a time, I get a notification, and it appears in my Google Calendar.
Part 4: Other Bits and Pieces
- Podcast website: Your podcast will reach a lot more listeners if you set up a dedicated website or web page for it. This would be another place to find the episodes apart from the directories and apps. My host, Libsyn, offers a kind of website for this purpose, but I had a lot of trouble getting mine to look the way I wanted, so I just created a page on my website for the podcast. If you want the easiest route, you might try a site like Wix, which offers a huge library of beautiful website templates, including sites that have podcasts. This is not a tool that I personally use (my site is built on WordPress), but it seems like a solid option.
- Show notes: If you’re going to have some kind of web presence, you will probably also want to create show notes for every episode. Show notes can be as simple as a few bullet points that summarize the episode, along with links to any resources that relate to the episode: articles you referred to, personal websites or social media links of people you interviewed, and so on. Here’s an example of show notes from one of my favorite podcasts, Pod Save the People.
- Transcripts: In addition to show notes, you also have the option to produce a full, written transcript of your show. A lot of podcasters don’t do this because it’s kind of a pain, but I do for two reasons: (1) I want the content of my show to be accessible to everyone, including people are hearing-impaired and people who would just prefer to access it in writing. (2) Because having a transcript published online improves SEO (search engine optimization). In other words, if someone is online searching for a particular topic, Google is more likely to find my podcast because of all the words in the transcript that relate to that topic. I only do transcripts for my interview podcasts, because when I do a solo podcast like this one, I just write everything out ahead of time and use it as a blog post, so all the words are there.
- Generating Revenue: If your podcast starts to gain a large following, you might start thinking about taking on some sponsors. This is a way to actually start earning money from your podcast. This guide to podcast sponsorship from John Lee Dumas is a pretty good overview of how the process works, but keep in mind that these are just general guidelines. I didn’t start taking on advertisers until I had been producing my podcast for about three years, and I currently set a limit of just two ads per episode, which I run right in the first few minutes. I want to give my listeners a great experience, and I don’t think a lot of ads provide that. I also make sure I only take on advertisers whose products I really believe will be valuable to teachers, and who have a good reputation.
I’d like to leave you with this: There is something really wonderful about the human voice, something that allows us to connect to each other in ways that words on a screen just can’t achieve. In some ways, technology has put more distance between us, with all the screens and whatnot. But in other ways, like with podcasts, it has given us access to each other like never before. And right now, that access is basically free. If you’ve listened all the way to the end here, my guess is that you have something you want to share. I’m here to tell you there are people are out there right now who would love to hear it. So get to work.