How to Start a Podcast

January 08, 2020

Every year or so a friend or family member will reach out to me and ask about starting a podcast. I’ve started a few podcasts and have a modicum of experience in this domain, so here’s my standard advice…

First off, should you start a podcast?

Answer: YES!

My only exception to this would be if you’re 2 or 3 white guys and you’re planning on doing a podcast about Apple products. Not to punch down on white guys, but this is well-trodden territory.

If you’re an underrepresented minority and it’s an industry-specific podcast, then my answer is: DOUBLE YES!! If you’re planning a new show, consider including underrepresented voices, it can only be beneficial to have broader and more diverse perspectives.

Podcasting 101: Your first season

Okay. Hopefully that convinced you. Let’s start a podcast! Here’s what you need to know about getting started.

  1. Write down a list of ~50 show ideas. I think I stole this from Gary Vaynerchuck’s book Crush It. But if it’s a sustainable idea, then you should have no trouble coming up with content. You can diverge from this list, but it’s a good compass and you can share it with friends to find out if your ideas are interesting or compelling.
  2. Figure out your formula. How’s the show going to work? What’s the formula? Are you a 30-minute show? A 1-hour show? Topics? Q&A? Turn on the mic and go? There’s a handful of paths and approaches you can take here.
  3. Record 10 episodes. You’ve got your list of ideas, you’ve got your formula, now record! Do whatever it takes to get to 10 episodes. These 10 are probably not going to be great as you get your footing and find your voice. They’re almost throw away. The 10 episode mark is a great place to re-evaluate your formula, upgrade your equipment, add a theme song, tweak audio quality, start selling ads, or abandon the show altogether.
  4. Consistency > Quality. This may be a sad fact of podcasting. But consistency, showing up every week, is probably two or three times more important than quality of content. Blocking out time to record in your schedule is super important. This also helps with scheduling guests because you can firmly say “we record at such and such time” and saves a lot of “let’s find a good time for everybody to record” hassle.

These all feed into each other. Having a formula and a list of ideas helps you maintain consistency and power through the trough of disillusionment. Find what works for you and you can even experiment a bit as well.

One giant caveat is: Maybe you decide your show’s formula is only 5 episodes. That’s awesome, some of my favorite podcasts are just single arcs. More recently, I’ve been listening quite a few “short run” seasons like Scene on Radio’s Men, Dolly Parton’s America, Finding Fred, Marvel’s Wolverine, and Serial: Season 3. Temporal podcasts (as opposed to endless podcasts) are a valid and enjoyable format.

Equipment

Abide in this simple rule: Decent mic, working headphones, quiet room, good internet

Audio stuff can get expensive. There’s a lot of advice out there on what to get. I’ve settled on a pretty minimal setup that dollar-for-quality is a pretty good deal and will make you feel like a podcaster which is the most important thing.

  1. Rode NT-USB Microphone. I like this microphone a lot. It was originally my travel mic, but now it’s my day-to-day mic. Buy Now
  2. Sony MDR-7506 Studio Headphones. Any headphones work but I have nothing but good things to say about these headphones. Buy Now
  3. Rode PSA1 Swivel Mount Boom Arm. If you want to reduce echo without carpeting your walls, get a boom stand for your microphone. Pull the mic close to your face like a radio person and dial in your audio levels. Buy Now

Hell hath no fury like an audiophile scorned. If you have bad audio, you’ll hear about it from listeners. To be fair to people who groan on Twitter, your podcast goes directly in someone’s ear or is played in a car that’s plagued by traffic and road noise, so it’s important to get a good crisp sound.

How to record

The “Industry Standard” for the best sound quality is have everyone capture their own audio. You share those large files in a Dropbox and an audio whiz mixes that audio down in an app like GarageBand, Audacity, Adobe Audition, or Logic. This adds a technical hurdle, but everyone recording their own audio increases quality and avoids potential issues like robot-voice from Skype audio compression or Internet connection drops.

QuickTime on Mac and Voice Recorder on Windows 10 are great options for local audio capture because most people already have this installed. A short countdown before everyone hits record helps the audio all line up when mixing it down.

On Aside Quest, we have been flirting with web-based options like Zencaster where everyone joins a room and with 1-click we capture everyone’s audio and with a couple other clicks I have a levelled audio file ready to ship out. As expected with web based software, we’ve had a few technical issues where everything didn’t go as planned and audio was lost. But if you want something as easy as sending a link and are willing to take a slight risk, these solutions might be perfect. I know other podcasts that broadcast their Zoom call to Twitch or YouTube and snag the audio from the broadcast and/or the Zoom call. It’s all about finding your quality vs. risk vs. ease of use comfort zone.

Hosting

Now that you have an audio file, where do you put it so everyone gets it? Well, you need a website. More specifically, you need an RSS feed to syndicate your show to iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and other various podcatchers of choice.

You can run a podcast off your own self-hosted site (WordPress/Gatsby/whatever). This works great. But with audio files averaging around 40mb each per listener per episode, you might rack up quite a hosting bill. Entry level web hosting or S3 buckets start getting expensive.

That’s why I can truly recommend modern podcast hosting services like Simplecast and Transistor. They give you a basic website, an RSS feed, an interface for uploading your episodes, and an analytics dashboard to help you grow your podcast. It costs some money each month, but hey, it’s a hobby and hobbies cost money! It’s a great way to dip your toe into podcasting without having to manage a whole danged website too.

Guests

Guests are a great idea to inject some variety and expertise into a show. But bringing another guest in can sometimes overcomplicate things. On Shop Talk, we send guests notes before recording to make it go as smooth as possible.

  1. Interviewing: Interviewing isn’t as intuitive as it seems. It’s tough not to sound like Chris Farley on The Chris Farley Show. I recorded over 100 episodes before I even started feeling comfortable interviewing. My only advice here is write questions down.
  2. Let the guest know you’ve started recording or broadcasting: This is courtesy and guests can feel betrayed if you don’t go thru consent steps. We do a big “3-2-1… Record!” countdown ceremony.
  3. Stay in their wheelhouse: It’s going to be a better show when the guest appears and feels knowledgeable.
  4. Minimize Banter: Get to the point of the show as quickly as possible.
    1. Keep housekeeping short. Some housekeeping is inevitable, but try to keep the sponsors, excuses, whatever to a minimum especially when a guest is awkwardly waiting to hop into the conversation.
    2. Don’t talk about the weather: It’s so tempting to open with casual conversation. Unless the weather is a “character” or important influence on the show (big season change or nearby forest fire that effects the mood), best to skip this part.
    3. Don’t discuss the guest’s accent: People talk differently. Listeners will notice this. No need to bring it up (unless its Canada because that’s hilarious).
    4. “Why don’t you tell us about yourself; who you are and what you do?”: After a soft introduction, this is the easiest way to put the focus on the guest, let them establish themselves and their expertise. The earlier you ask this, the better in my experience.

Sponsorships

Sponsorships for podcasts is a tough one and probably worth it’s own book of posts. In my experience, advertisers don’t fall out of the sky unless you’re of a certain size. My only practical advice here would be: Share stats and create space. Setting an expectation for potential or future advertisements for your listeners will prevent fallout if you suddenly go from no-ads to complete sellout. Beyond that, you have to figure out which monetization strategy best fits your show and your audience:

  1. NPR/Patreon Route: Be listener supported. Maybe offer swag or access to a private community on Discord or Slack. It’s hard to convert listeners to active contributors unless the incentive package is good.
  2. Jumbotrons: One of my favorite podcasts, My Brother, My Brother, and Me, did “Jumbotron” ads which I think are great. For $10/20/100, the hosts read a custom ad from a listener (for another podcast, a marriage proposal, whatever). This is good if you have a strong community. A lot of Twitch streamers have this model too, for X number of bits, a message will appear in-stream.
  3. Sell Your Own Thing: Lots of podcasters have a related digital product (app, service, ebook, online learning course) they promote in lieu of advertisements. This can be “salesy” but also puts money directly into your pocket.
  4. Show-by-show Ad Sales: For every X number of shows you have X number of ad slots and it’s first come first serve. This is probably the best way to make good money, especially if your show has a specific industry or is in high demand.
  5. Buy Outs: Have a new season or arc of episodes? Maybe work on pitching one company to buy out the whole season in advance is the best strategy. You maybe sacrifice some money in the unlikely event your podcast is a runaway success, but at least your means were met. The most famous example of this is probably Mail…kiimp?’s buy-out of Serial: Season 1. I like this strategy.

Additional FAQ

  1. Listener counts: Most podcasts have under 100 listeners. And that’s fine. Don’t get discouraged by that. Growing a podcast is hard work.
  2. Drinking: I love a good drinking podcast. “Drinking + Microphones” is a pretty common podcasting formula. It’s important to remember your audience probably has not been drinking. You’re coming in at a ten, everything is funny to you, and might not be as hilarious for your listener. Even pros get this wrong. One time the McElroy Brothers ate edibles, got super high, and recorded a show and it was borderline unlistenable, but… it was also the beginning of The McElroy Brothers will be in Trolls 2 which is the greatest subarc to a podcast ever… so what do I know.

This is some hard earned advice but let’s be real, it’s podcasting. It’s an entirely decentralized form of media and there are no rules whatsoever. Lots of podcasts break all these rules and succeed. That’s what makes podcasting great; each podcast has the potential to bring something unique to this lawless medium.

Hope this advice helps and happy podcasting!