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Top Ten Lessons From a Podcasting Veteran

As Harrison Ford famously ad-libbed in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “It’s not the years, honey, it’s the mileage.” For something around fifteen years, I have participated in the world of podcasting, as a listener to internet “radio shows” since before RSS feeds existed, and as a creator since 2007. I have watched as the form has grown from a niche hobby thing to a mainstream media form. I am especially glad to see so many voices in the Star Wars fan community jumping into this realm. I am consistently amazed at the quality of discussions, the diversity of personalities and opinions, and the opportunities that have been created to communicate with and meet the creators behind the saga.

My credentials aren’t extensive, but here they are: I started the As-Yet Untitled podcast in 2007; rebranded as Things are Looking Up in 2008; contributed voices on multiple audio projects; wrote and produced (with the help of many friends) Star Wars – Codename: Starkeeper, a fan-made audio drama that was a finalist for a Parsec Award in 2009; hosted The 49ers Fancast from 2008 to 20012; then rebranded the main show again as The Adventures of Indiana Jim in 2012.

Suffice to say that, between the many fits and starts and hiatuses, I have learned a fair amount of what not to do. I have seen a lot of things from amateur podcasts–mine among them–that could be done better. So I offer this with much love to the greater podcasting community, in hopes that a rising tide will float all pods. Ignore these things at your peril. None of them are requirements, but not improving these things will needlessly alienate certain listeners to your program. And we all want as many listeners as possible, right?

If you have questions or comments, email me at survival@visionarycreativeworks.com, or find me on Twitter @SurviveStarWars.

1. Decent Audio Quality is Affordable
If your podcast is important to you, then invest in it! That investment can be nominal, as USB Dynamic microphones are not expensive. Plug it into your computer with a shareware program and you’re off and running. I stress dynamic because a condenser microphone will pick up a lot of room noise. You can spend more on better quality options, but there comes a point where you can overspend on the gains you receive.

2. Learning Public Speaking is Free
You can, of course, be content with going off the cuff in a conversational style. However, I’ve seen podcasts that invest the time and resources to have a professional website, great album artwork and branding and spectacular content–only to have the same frustrating lack of audio quality that they had at the beginning of their show. And the microphone is the least of their concerns. It is not hard to learn how to speak professionally. Listen to mainstream media shows, read books on the topic, watch YouTube! Seek out Voiceover artists, actors, audiobook narrators–even speeches from politicians.Learn the different rhythms between conversational speech where participants use body language and gestures, and speech intended to be listened to. Learn to enunciate your words clearly and succinctly, learn to take your time and not rush through your words. Learn how words are pronounced! Understand that muttering through multisyllabic words is lazy and unprofessional. Learn your own habits of speech: um’s and ah’s, repeated words and redundancies. Learn to identify them and you can learn to weed them out of your habits.

3. Audio Editing Software is Free
In that software, it is not hard to learn to do simple noise reduction and compression. A free program like Levelator can also make your audio sound presentable with a simple drag-and-drop on your computer. Contrary to what you might have heard, you do not have to go through and edit out every single ‘um’ and ‘uh’ and flub. It is considered a kindness to your listeners if you do! The more you do, the more professional your show will be. At least consider doing some, especially if you have a lot of one particular thing or another. Your listeners will thank you, and you will learn to avoid them to save the extra work!

4. Record Separate Tracks, not Your Skype call
These things can work in a pinch, especially if you have a guest or a lot of panelists. However, it is much more ideal to have each individual (with affordable microphone and free audio editing software) record their own sides of the conversation. Then the show’s publisher can use that free software to put the two files together. Use a countdown and start your recordings at the same time, or create a ‘marker’ in your audio waveform by clapping. This will help the editor put the files together, and the final product will sound like a conversation in the same room. Don’t ask your guest to do this unless they are podcasting-savvy like you are. IF they are a podcaster, they ought to be ok with doing this.

“But Indy!” I hear you say, “Those .wav files will be huge! How can I possibly send them to someone?” Easy. Dump it down to MP3. You’re recording speech here, not a symphony orchestra. A voice file compressed at 48kps Mono will sound just as good as a 320kps Joint Stereo. And the loss of quality from wav to mp3 is not that significant with the human voice. It will still sound better than most Skype recordings, which are compressed anyway!

Please note the old sound guy adage, “You’re only as good as your source.” Getting clean audio starts and ends with your microphone. The better your source, the less any loss to compression will affect your sound.

5. Have a Clear Content Objective
Know what you are going to talk  about and be specific! A simple list of talking points is sufficient for most shows. Have the content clearly indicated in your title information in your feed. I can’t tell you how many podcasts I’ve seen title their show with a number, feature the same default text in the episode description, and have no show notes to explain what is discussed. I don’t listen to these shows because I like to know what I’m getting ahead of time.

6. Get to the Objective
In gaming you might say PTFO (Play the flippin’ objective). If you have taken my advice and clearly indicated your content, then that is what people are tuning in for. While there certainly are listeners who enjoy when the hosts of a show engage in a conversational repartee about their lives, don’t spend thirty minutes bantering before you get to the point! Your listeners’ time is valuable. If you get to the specific content early, you respect the time of those who listen to a lot of podcasts. Don’t be stubborn and needlessly alienate potential listeners here! Your faithful fans will stick around for your banter at the end of your show. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned to fast-forward through that stuff to get to the point of the content, sometimes an entire half of an episode!

7. Panels – Ruthlessly Organize the Flow
Look for recordings of debates or convention panels. There is always a moderator, and your show needs one, too. Panelists and cohosts can learn jot down notes as the other participants talk, saving replies and rebuttals for natural lulls in the conversation. Stop talking all over each other, especially over Skype! Learn to manage the natural delays of VOIP , it’s really not that hard. If you have several panelists, establish a turn order, or have a moderator direct the conversation. Handle these things professionally.

8. Shorten Your Intro
Your musical montage may be cool, but do you really want to force people to listen to it every single show? Worse, your listeners will start fast-forwarding through your intro, possibly more, and the last thing you want to do is give listeners a reason to start fast-forwarding the beginning of your show. Limit your intro noise to 30 seconds and start talking, because that’s all it is–noise. This I have learned from experience.

9. Establish Your Identity and Contact Info Early
Let your listeners know who is talking. I came across one show in particular that had a brief musical intro, but it was like we jumped into the middle of a conversation without any indication of who the hosts were, or what the show was.

If you want people to participate in your discussion or send you feedback, let them know right away how to contact you. They will be more apt to respond to an interesting point in the conversation if they know how to do that right away. Otherwise they might forget what they want to respond about if they have to wait 45 minutes to know how.

10. Length, length, length!
This appropriation of an old real estate adage can help you stand out in a vast pool of competition. Obviously it’s not a direct competition–we’re all in this field together–but you are competing for time. This one is related to getting to the content. Delete the fluff. Better yet, avoid recording fluff to begin with. Learn the essential parts of your content and stick to it. You will have more episodes, so you don’t have to talk about everything. Length should be directly commensurate with your release schedule. A monthly show should be longer than a weekly show. A weekly show should be no more than an hour. Opinions differ on this, but I’ve listened to many a two hour show that had about a half-hour’s worth of good content.

Conclusion
There are so many things you can do to improve your podcast that will ensure your maximum reach. Ask your most faithful listeners what you can do to improve, and it’s likely they may not have a lot of input. I hope you accept this in the spirit it is given, and if you would like to discuss this further, ask for advice or tell me I’m full of it, I provided my contact information early. *grin*

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