10 simple rules for making a podcast

I listen to a lot of podcasts. I cycle through a bunch of new ones every once in a while trying to find new stuff to listen to (I listen faster than my favourites get made) and I inevitably just crash and burn out of a few of them despite them being decent shows. Sometimes the flaws are too annoying for me to cope.

Doing this today made me think… All the podcasts I really, really like have some things in common. A bunch that I find just kind of bearable have some things in common. And then all the podcasts I couldn’t get on board with have some things in common too.

So I made a list.

First, my bona fides. Here’s my top 5:

1) Hello Internet
2) Caustic Soda
3) How Did This Get Made
4) Freakonomics
5) Filmspotting

This list is not great. Well, the first 3 are great. The last 2 are radio shows, and I don’t think they should count. But I’ve really struggled to find decent, independently produced stuff that I like.

Get a better mic.

Seriously, just do it. There’s no excuse. A decent mic is like $100 (and up, of course). And while you’re at it, learn how to EQ. There are podcasts (like Stuff You Should Know) that I just can’t listen to because their mids are too dense and the whole mix is muddy. Do the minimal post-processing. It’s a world of difference.

Get to the point

If this blog post was a podcast, it would be pretty crappy. Too much frontloading is not interesting. Remember, you’re not a radio show. You don’t have to try to pick up the previous show’s audience with a catchy lead-in. A podcast I canned (notably; this sticks out in my mind as a particularly egregious example) is Doug Loves Movies. The first episode I listened to was a live show, which probably wasn’t the best place to start, but the lead-in was something like fifteen minutes of blabbering on about nothing. No fun, unsubscribe.

Now all that stuff could have been done in the context of the show and it would have been fine. I mean How Did This Get Made does this all the time, and it’s fine when it’s wrapped up in content. But if you’re talking for more than a minute or two and you haven’t gotten to the thing you’re about, you’re doing something wrong.

Ads are good, good ads are better

I don’t expect you to starve, I don’t want content for free. I understand that the sort of unspoken social contract behind subscribing to your podcast is that I’m going to listen to the things you say, including ads. But I’m not going to listen to terrible ads. I’ll pick on Freakonomics here. Their podcast ads are horrible. Same thing every time.

If I’m listening to your podcast, there’s a good chance I trust you more than the average joe on the street. I am, after all, listening to what you’re saying. If you shill a product with generic advertising, that’s no good. If you shill something well, something that you use and recommend (thank you How Did This Get Made for hooking me up with Squarespace, and Hello Internet for getting me knee-deep in Audible).

Your personal recommendation, funny, sincere, fast, slow, whatever, means ways more to me than just another ad. An ad is okay, your personal recommendation is better, an interesting person recommendation is best.

You’re not on the radio

All that stuff that radio shows do because they have to, like be a certain length, have a certain format, come out on a certain schedule, have seasons, etc, etc… None of that has to apply to you. Caustic Soda, for instance, generally separates itself into two segments with a song in the middle.

That’s not to say that having segments or a theme song or ad breaks or whatever is a bad thing… You just don’t have to be constrained by the hard limits of radio broadcasting.

Be about a thing

Very few podcasts (with the exception of Hello Internet) can be just two humans talking to each other. You need a theme. Stick to the theme. Be a thing. If you want to be two things you can always start another podcast.

On the other hand, podcasts about everything are interesting if you’re especially interesting. There are people I could listen talk about just stuff for days. These people are few and far between. You are probably not one of them.

Edit ruthlessly

Editing your podcast ruthlessly will help you get rid of cruft but it will also help you find cruft in real time and prevent it (a sort of self-modifying feedback/ operant conditioning loop).

All that frontloaded crap? Gone.

When in doubt choose quality

Don’t use Skype. Record on both ends and mash the recording together in Ableton or whatever. Yes, this is harder. Yes, it will take more time. Yes, it will sound 1000x better.

Don’t be afraid to be funny

Some people just aren’t. That’s okay. But humour is this sort of conversational and topical lubricant that helps stuff slow along. Caustic Soda for instance is incredibly informative but also really funny. Well, except for the puns.

Don’t forget about guests

Especially great guests. I know some shows are built around guests, but others aren’t and just don’t have them. But what makes Caustic Soda (with Dr Rob), Filmspotting (with Michael Phillips), and How Did This Get Made (as I say for all things ever, more Adam Scott please) so occasionally wonderful is the guests. Plus it breaks up the same-old same-old. Tired of Joe Fulgham stumbling around blindly looking for some quasi-scientific explanation for things? Enter Dr Rob! (If this doesn’t make any sense, go listen to Caustic Soda for a while.)

Prepare, prepare, prepare

You can over-prepare. You can stifle the creative spirit. You can also ramble on for hours having said nothing substantive or interesting while your audience just kind of… dissolves. Your choice.

Pacing is a lot more important than you might think. It’s great, it’s really wonderful when a podcast takes a minute to linger on one topic. But in general, brisk is better.