So You Want to Start a Podcast

So you want to start a podcast. That’s great! Podcasting is still a very open medium, like blogging, where anyone can participate, provided they have some basic tools. It’s new enough that individual podcasts are just as easy to find as ones created by large organizations. The playing field is relatively level at the moment, so it’s a great time to join the game.

But be realistic. You are not going to get rich podcasting. Even if you do find sponsors, chances are good you’ll only make enough money to break even or buy yourself a few sandwiches. Unless you have a huge following going in or the backing of a well–funded network, you almost certainly won’t be able to make a living off your podcast. Podcasting should be a labor of love. Do it because you have something to say.

New podcasts spring up every day and that’s a great thing! But the proliferation of content means it’s a challenge to capture the interest of listeners. They have so much to choose from; it’s more important than ever to make sure your podcast is the best it can be.

What do you want to say and how do you want to say it?

Content is king. Think about what you want to share with the world and build your podcast around that. Do you want to have a conversation about genre news? Critique specific media properties? Or will your podcast be fiction—either read aloud or performed by a cast? If you’re creating a podcast that’s similar to others, what’s your angle? What makes your podcast special? These are questions to answer before you even think about picking up a microphone.

Next, determine who will be involved. It’s easiest to schedule recordings for a solo podcast, but it can be intimidating to be alone in front of the mic. If you’re going to bring friends or colleagues along for the ride, will you all be in the same physical space? Or will you record online? If you’re recording with friends or doing interviews from afar, are they in different time zones? That can make scheduling difficult, but it’s well worth it if it gets you the right voices.

Having the right voices (or voice, if you’re going it alone) is crucial. For conversational podcasts, nearly all podcast listeners choose what they listen to based on the personalities of the hosts as much as the subjects covered. In a crowded marketplace, chemistry is key. This is true for fiction podcasts as well. Good readers/performers will pull in more listeners.

You can’t force chemistry, but you can give it a boost. Diversity of opinion is a great way to do this. Podcasts get boring when the hosts agree all the time, so for a panel–style podcast try to bring in people from different backgrounds with different life experiences. Bonus: you might learn something! It’s fun to start a podcast with a friend or two because you already know what your communication–chemistry sounds like. Adding another viewpoint to shake things up can make for great podcasting.

Make it sound good

Content may be king, but sound quality is a very pushy chief advisor who has far more control over the kingdom than most people realize. Audio quality is the easiest way to set your podcast above the throng. To use a writing metaphor, producing a podcast with poor sound quality is the equivalent of intentionally publishing a book where the words are difficult to read (think grey text on blue paper—yikes!). Podcasting is an audio medium. When you create a podcast, you’re harnessing that medium, so it’s important not to neglect it. (Would you ignore the use of color in a painting?) There are plenty of listeners who will give up on a podcast immediately if the sound quality is poor.

To achieve the best sound quality for your budget, you’ll need some tools. The good news is you don’t need to make a huge investment of either money or time to turn out some fairly pristine tracks.

Step up to the mic

You can get a solid, quality mic for very little money. (Do use an external mic for podcasting, not the computer’s onboard microphone. Even earbuds with a built–in mic usually sound better, though we don’t recommend using those unless you have no other option.) An easy place to start is with a USB mic you plug directly into your computer. The Blue Snowball and ATR2100–USB mic from Audio Technica are used by podcasters worldwide and usually cost $50–$60. For slightly more cash and quality, the Blue Yeti is a good option. It has great sound and multiple settings: cardioid (solo recordings), bidirectional (two–person recordings), and omnidirectional (group recordings). For more nerdy gear–goodness, check out this detailed breakdown of microphones, complete with audio samples.

A pop filter is another important investment. For $15–$20, a pop filter will minimize the popping sound of p’s and t’s when you’re speaking, it can also deaden the room noise that a sensitive mic will pick up. If you don’t want to spend the money, you can even bend a metal coat–hanger into a square and stretch a pair of pantyhose over it. It works!

Roll (virtual) tape

Your computer probably comes with basic recording software built in. If you have a Mac, you have QuickTime, which records .m4a files. If you’re a PC user, Sound Recorder will work in a pinch (outputting .wma files), but we don’t recommend it because it doesn’t give you the option to select which microphone it records from. Many PC podcasters (and Mac users as well!) use Audacity, which is a free program that can also be used for editing.

If your podcast cohort is spread across the globe, you’ll need to use some kind of online calling service like Skype or Google Hangouts. If you do this, we strongly recommend having each participant record their own audio track locally using one of the programs listed above. This will result in much better audio quality, especially on days when Skype is being temperamental. This will require a bit more work on the back end (editing), but that doesn’t have to be difficult.

To record yourself and the online call audio, you’ll need something more robust. (It’s wise to record the call audio even if each party is recording their own track. It can be a life–saving backup if someone’s local recording fails.) Call Recorder and Audio Hijack Pro are popular Mac options. On the PC side there are oodles of choices including Total Recorder and Pamela for Skype.

There are even a few new paid services designed with podcasters in mind, including Cast and Mumble. These allow you to circumvent online calling services (Skype and Google Hangouts). These services connect you to your co–hosts/interviewees, record the audio locally on each end, and send the files to you.

Fix it in post

If you have a Mac, you already have GarageBand, a popular audio–editing program. Many PC users who record with Audacity use that for editing as well. (Again, it’s free!) If you’ll be using many tracks for multiple hosts or music and sound effects, you might want something more robust like Adobe Audition, Reaper, or Logic Pro. If you already have video–editing software, you can use that too. Simply delete the video track(s) and export the final file as an mp3.

Editing can be as easy or as time–and–effort–consuming as you want to make it. You can simply line up the individual tracks, add some theme music, export the file, and call it a day. Or you can get intricate and treat it like a jigsaw puzzle—one where you wield the jigsaw yourself and assemble the pieces as you please. (Or you can hire someone to edit the podcast for you!)

Put it out there

Now that you have a podcast episode in the can, you need to make sure people can find it, which you do via an RSS feed. While some people upload files directly to a blog like WordPress or use a free hosting service like Archive.org, most podcasters choose to host their files somewhere designed for podcasting. Podbean, Podomatic, and others offer free options. One of the most popular and stable services is Libsyn, whose plans start at only $5/mo. Many services (Libsyn included) offer a stats package so you can see not only how many people are listening to your podcast, but where in the world those listeners are as well.

Once you have an RSS feed for your podcast, you’ll need to submit it to iTunes and Google Play. Most other players pull their podcast lists from iTunes, so as long as it’s there, it’ll be accessible to most listeners. Google Play is new to the podcast game, so it remains to be seen how much influence they’ll have.

Get the word out

Hooray! Your podcast is out in the world, just waiting to be heard. Time to find an audience. You do that the same way you find an audience for anything else you create. If you’ve ever published a written work or done a Kickstarter or any kind of crowdfunding, you already know some great strategies to get the word out.

Social media is a great avenue to get people to try your podcast in the first place, and it’s a great way to let folks know when a new episode drops. Tweet/tumbl/post about it. Use pertinent hashtags/tags. Then tweet about it again a day or two after it comes out. (Beware of overdoing it. Constant reminders can annoy people or encourage them to tune you out or unfollow altogether.)

Conventions, conferences, and meet–ups are great places to meet (and even interview) people with similar interests. Bring some business cards and tell people about your podcast. Have an elevator pitch ready. (And be ready to stop talking about it if people don’t seem interested. The hard sell rarely works for podcast listeners because listening can be such a solitary, personal experience. If someone finds you off–putting in person, they already know they won’t want to listen to the sound of your voice later.) If the format of your podcast lends itself to guests or interviews, have a variety of different people on early in the run. Each guest is one more person to help get the word out.

Consistency

When it comes to posting episodes, consistency is your friend! Some podcasts do well with a random release rate, but they do it despite an erratic schedule, not because of it. Set yourself a realistic, regular schedule and stick to it. When listeners know you’ll be there for them on the same day every week or month, they’ll make you part of their routine. If you’re unsure how much you can commit to, start with infrequent episodes and ramp up later. People are delighted to get more. They’ll complain if they get less.

Consistency can help you avoid burning out as well. When podcasting is part of your routine, it feels natural. If it’s something you have to go out of your way to do, it can feel like a chore. Just because you’re podcasting consistently doesn’t mean you can’t play around and have some fun with it. If you feel like you’re getting stale, try something new. Add a segment. Bring in new guests. Change the music. And if you do get overwhelmed and need to back off a heavy release schedule, be sure to manage expectations. Explain to your audience what you’re doing and why. If they know to expect fewer episodes, they’ll be much more supportive.

Engage

Engage with your audience as much as you can, whether it’s meeting people in person at events or simply being responsive on social media, email, or even on the podcast itself. Listen to feedback after the first few episodes—via iTunes reviews, blog comments, social media responses, etc. Don’t be afraid to change things up if the way you started isn’t working. (Of course your podcast is your own, so don’t change it only to please the audience. Do it if there’s a good reason.)

Stay true to your vision. Perhaps the most important thing to remember is to have fun! The human voice is an integral part of podcasting, and listeners will pick up on your emotional state. If you don’t enjoy it, there’s a good chance your audience won’t either. If you’re having a good time, that will come through. Make a podcast you’d want to listen to, and others will too.

Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky

In addition to co–producing Uncanny’s monthly podcast, Erika and Steven run a small podcast empire out of their Edmonton, Alberta apartment. They co–host the coziest Doctor Who podcast around, Lazy Doctor Who, and host/produce/play on may others. Steven: Radio Free Skaro, The Memory Cheats, and Hockey Feels. Erika: Verity!, The Audio Guide to Babylon 5, The Incomparable, Total Party Kill, and she launched and produced the first 17 months of Hugo Award–nominated Apex Magazine’s short fiction podcast.

When not in front of the mic, they work in communications and write occasional genre essays and articles for books and magazines. They also tweet as @HollyGoDarkly and @Legopolis. Erika blogs at hollygodarkly.com.

If you’re thinking of starting your own podcast, Erika and Steven can help! Their company, Castria, does freelance podcast production and consultation. You can find more info at wearecastria.com.

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