What’s in it for me? Stop fearing failure and make the podcast you’ve always dreamed of.
In 2010, three brothers – Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy – launched their own podcast called My Brother, My Brother and Me. They had no special skills, and by their own admission, only an average amount of talent. And yet, ten years later, they have several number one podcasts and regularly tour the US to perform live shows in front of huge, adoring crowds.
How did they do it? That’s what you’re about to find out. In these blog, you’ll learn all the nuts and bolts of creating the podcast of your dreams, from coming up with a topic to making the final edits. You don’t need a lot of money or even technical know-how. You just need a unique idea that makes you excited, and the persistence to doggedly keep going even in the face of failure.
In these blog, you’ll find out
- why your closet makes the perfect recording studio;
- how to turn your unique obsession into an entertaining podcast; and
- why consistency is key to building a loyal audience.
Make a podcast about something that obsesses you.
So you want to start a podcast. But where do you begin? Think for a moment about what you’re obsessed with. What lights you up when you talk about it? What is it that leads you down countless internet rabbit holes?
For Justin McElroy, it was workplace training videos. For you, it may be the mating habits of moths! Whatever your passion is, enthusiasm can’t be faked. And it’s this genuine inspiration that will engage your audience.
The key message here is: Make a podcast about something that obsesses you.
Once you’ve chosen your topic, do some research to find out what else is out there on the same subject. Podcasting has become mainstream, and there are now some 850,000 podcasts available globally. So if you’ve chosen a well-known topic for your podcast like, say, the reality show Survivor, there’s a very big chance that someone else has had the same idea.
If your research uncovers several similar podcasts, it might be time to go back to the drawing board. Or instead, you could push to find a novel angle. Because even more important than the topic itself is your unique approach to it. So while there may be five other podcasts about Survivor, you could focus on a new angle, like the strategy behind the show and how it’s changed over the seasons.
When trying to decide on your angle, draw on any specific expertise you have. For example, Justin and his wife Sydnee built their show about strange medical history on the strength of her experience as a physician. If you’ve got particular knowledge or training, use it!
Once you’ve got your topic, it’s time to refine it into a one-sentence pitch. You’ll want to make sure that people can understand what your podcast is about in one line so they can tell their friends about it. A recent McElroy brothers podcast can be summed up by the tagline “Three non-celebrities try to con their way into a major motion picture.” That single line is informative enough to let you know if you’d want to listen to the show.
Now that you’ve come up with a topic, angle, and one-line pitch, stop to ask yourself two questions. First, are you willing to devote your most precious commodity – your time – to making this?
And, second, would you love to listen to this podcast if someone else made it?
If the answer to both questions is yes, you’re onto a winner. Stay tuned for the nitty-gritty of pre-production.
To build a loyal audience, make sure the format of your podcast is consistent.
What was the name of the last podcast you were addicted to? Did you listen to it on your drive back from work? Or as you were gardening on the weekend?
Listening to podcasts is a habitual behavior. That means that people like to fit it into their lives and build listening around regular activities. When you create a podcast, you’re creating a set of expectations for your listener. If you meet their expectations week after week, you can build a loyal, engaged audience.
The key message here is: To build a loyal audience, make sure the format of your podcast is consistent.
When you start creating your podcast, there are some important decisions you need to make about the show’s format. One thing to consider is whether to host the show alone or bring on a cohost. If you’re doing an information-packed biographical podcast then another voice could just distract. But if you’re doing an informal, chatty film review podcast then having a cohost could help keep things lively and offer contrasting points of view. Just make sure that your cohost is as committed to the project and theme as you are and will stay with you for the long-haul. Sudden changes mid-season can be disorienting for the listener.
Another important question is, how long do you want your podcast to be? Again, this really depends on your particular content. Some shows, like Memory Palace, need only 15 minutes to deliver a short and punchy message. Others, like Hardcore History, require four to five hours! Whatever you do, never just ramble on to fill up time. Your audience’s time – and attention – is sacred. Treat it with respect by making sure that every minute of your podcast counts.
You should also think realistically about how often you can release new episodes. Are you up to releasing one a week, or is a biweekly or even a monthly schedule more realistic? Consistent releases make for loyal listeners.
Making a podcast is a process of trial and error. You may plan on making an hour-long podcast, only to find that 45 minutes feels more organic. It may take a few episodes and lots of mistakes to find out what works for you. But once you land on a good formula, stick to it.
Whatever the genre, aim to entertain your audience.
Have you ever chosen to listen to a podcast on a very interesting topic and then had to turn it off because it ended up being a snooze fest?
Even the most interesting content can fall flat if it’s not told in the right way. When you’re figuring out how to present information in your podcast, first, ask yourself what the primary aim is. Do you want to make people laugh? Or inform them about an important subject? The goal behind your podcast has a big influence on how you select and frame your content. That’s true whether it’s an interview show or a history show.
The key message is: Whatever the genre, aim to entertain your audience.
Take Justin and Sydnee McElroy’s medical history podcast Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine. The show takes listeners deep into the medical history of some of the strangest medical treatments over the centuries. But the McElroys always knew their key objective was to entertain their listeners, rather than providing a comprehensive historical overview.
So, they made sure that rather than just assembling a bunch of facts, they’d tell fascinating stories. That meant they were very selective about the information they chose to include. If it didn’t have a strong narrative and lots of entertainment value, they left it out.
A great way to keep listeners interested is to break up the show into predictable segments. Shows always have intros. That’s where you give listeners the title of the show and explain what it’s about. This is followed by the middle, which is the meat of the show. The middle can be divided into several smaller blocks or segments. You could have one segment where listeners can call in with stories, another where you and your cohost discuss a pressing topic, and so on. Having reliable segments helps your audience know what to expect from you. It’ll also help you as a host to keep things interesting. If one segment is dragging, you can always move on to the next to keep up the momentum of the show.
At the end of the podcast is your outro, where you bid farewell to your audience, plug your other shows or preview your upcoming episode and beg listeners to subscribe. This should be short and punchy or listeners will tune out.
With the right framing and good storytelling, the most obscure information can become fascinating.
Deck out your closet to create a perfect recording studio.
So you’ve researched your content, decided whether to appoint a cohost, and determined how to structure your show. But how do you actually record your podcast?
You may be tempted to do it all on your smartphone but the sound quality won’t be that great if you do. An investment in some basic equipment is probably a wise choice. But don’t worry, it won’t break the bank.
The key message here is: Deck out your closet to create a perfect recording studio.
First of all, you need a good microphone. But good doesn’t have to mean expensive. In fact, you can get a decent microphone for around $100. When you’re just starting out, it can be a good idea to look for a USB microphone which plugs straight into your computer.
If you’re more established or want to record with multiple mics, then an XLR mic will serve you best. XLR mics don’t connect directly to your computer and require cables and a soundboard to operate. A decent soundboard can be bought for around $100.
Of course, you also need a stand for your microphone. And, even more importantly, you need a place to record. If you’re starting out, you probably can’t afford a professional sound studio. That’s okay. Any spaces with lots of carpets, books, and soft furnishings that absorb sound are good for recording. Do you have a closet full of clothes that’s big enough to sit in with the door shut? Then you’ve found your space.
You also need software for recording and editing your podcast, specifically a digital audio workstation. The good news is that some are completely free – the McElroys have always relied on the open-source program Audacity to edit their podcasts. They say that Audacity is easy to use, and offers lots of room for learning new skills which can be applied to other programs if you want to change later on. It’s allowed Griffin McElroy to edit very sonically complex podcasts like the 30-track Adventure Zone.
As you can see, money doesn’t have to prevent you from setting up your first studio. Sitting in your closet with a decent mic, you’re already well on your way to making a podcast that sounds pretty good.
Good hosting requires focus and enthusiasm.
Think of a podcast you love. What did you think about its host? Chances are, you really felt a connection.
Hosts are the bread and butter of good podcasting. They mediate between segments, bring out the best in their guests, and give the subject a personal feel.
So, how can you learn to be a great host? There’s no one secret formula. You’ll notice that good hosts come in lots of shapes and sizes. Some are funny and irreverent, others serious and intense. People think that hosting is about being themselves, and that’s true – to an extent. Hosting a podcast is a performance. So you can be yourself, but you need to be your most enthusiastic, engaged version of yourself. The self that comes out when you’re telling a story at a party. Not your hungover self mumbling to your mother on the phone.
The key message here is: Good hosting requires focus and enthusiasm.
The most important task for you as a host is maintaining your focus throughout the podcast. You can do that by making sure you’re in a good mind space before you start recording and by eliminating distractions. Close all your browsers and switch off your phone so there’s nothing stealing your attention.
Podcasts can be improvised, scripted, or a mix of the two. If you perform an improvised podcast with cohosts or guests, you need to become a very good listener. Make sure that you actively follow the conversation, and use body language to show your cohost or guest that you’re listening to them.
At the same time, you need to reserve a little corner of your brain for thinking about how you can respond and contribute to the conversation so that it doesn’t fall flat. When making contributions, use the improv tool “yes, and . . . ”. That means that you acknowledge what your conversation partner has said and build on it, giving momentum to the conversation. On rare occasions where you feel the conversation is going nowhere, you can use “no, but . . . ” and actively swing the conversation in a new direction.
And remember that the great thing about recording a podcast is that you can edit it. So all those boring lulls in the conversation or dogs barking in the background can be neatly wiped out afterward. In fact, editing is the most important skill you can learn as a budding podcaster. How do you do it? Read on to find out.
Editing a podcast requires multiple stages of refinement.
Imagine you have a big chunk of marble that you have to carve into Michelangelo’s David. That’s what editing a podcast is like.
It requires multiple stages of cutting, sanding, and polishing before you get it right.
First, you need to hack out the chunks you definitely know you don’t want to keep. Things like chewing noises, or dogs barking, or someone saying they need a bathroom break. This is easiest if you’ve already indicated those places while recording by leaving a long pause or making a noise with a dog clicker.
The key message here is: Editing a podcast requires multiple stages of refinement.
Taking out the really bad parts is easy. What’s much harder, is deciding what you actually want to keep. You should listen to the recording from beginning to end, writing down edits you want to make with the timestamp so you can find them again easily. Don’t make the cuts as you go along in case you eliminate something that proves to be an important reference later in the conversation.
After you’ve listened to the whole recording, you can start to make edits. If you’re trying to create a tight 20-minute podcast from an hour of tape then it’s best to just select the juiciest bits and make a compilation of those parts. If you’re making a more meandering, conversational podcast then just cut the bits that disrupt your flow.
Once you’ve got all the bits you want to work with, you can start the polishing stage of the process. Make sure all your transitions are smooth and sound natural. You can also remove extraneous ums and ahs and cut out awkward silences if they’re not adding to the story.
At this stage, you can also add music to your podcast. Where can you find music? Well, Coldplay may be out of your league. But you could reach out to smaller bands to ask permission to license their songs or look for freely available music on sites like creativecommons.org. Or, if you’re musically inclined you can even make your own tunes with programs like GarageBand.
Once you’ve got a good version of your podcast, it’s time to send it out for feedback. Ask for specific advice, like, what do you think of the transitions on this podcast? And, make sure you ask someone whose opinion you trust.
Once you’ve got your feedback, you can make your final round of edits. And then, finally, you’re ready to launch.
A good hosting service and online presence are essential.
So now you’ve toiled over your podcast and finally created a version you like. But how do you get people to listen to it? Well, you can’t just leave it on your desktop. To have any chance of success, you’re going to have to release it online.
The first – and most important step – is to find a hosting service. This is a big server where your podcast will live. Changing hosts is an enormous hassle, so it’s worth taking some time to find the right one. Some things to consider are: Has the service been around for a while? Is it trusted by other good podcasters? There’s a better chance of an established player sticking around.
The key message here is: A good hosting service and online presence are essential.
You should also investigate what the service charges are for hosting your podcast. Some offer free uploads when you’re just starting out. Some hosting companies also provide access to advertising networks that can insert ads into your shows retroactively.
Another consideration when choosing a hosting service is analytics. Does the service provide helpful information about how many times your podcast is downloaded? Are there details about where your listeners come from? The McElroys use this kind of data to improve their episodes and plan where to host live performances.
Finally, you should investigate what kind of value the hosting service gives you in terms of a web presence. Does it profile your podcast on its website, and is it nice to use? Does it offer an embedded player so people can easily listen to your podcast?
Once you’ve chosen a hosting service that works for you, the next step is to register your podcast on major platforms like Apple Podcasts and Spotify. These platforms act like phone books for podcasts, making them findable to millions of people. You can register your podcast for free, but do it carefully and make sure that the metadata on your podcast is accurate, and that it’s listed in the right categories.
Now that people can find your podcast, it’s time to start building your audience. Take the time to email back if someone writes to you, and make sure your audience knows you’re listening to feedback. And, of course, social media can be a great way to engage your audience. You can use platforms like Facebook or Twitter to announce new episodes or special events, post behind-the-scenes content, and get user feedback on the episodes you’ve released so far.
You can make money from podcasts if you’re creative and persistent.
And now that you’ve published your podcast, the money’s going to start rolling in, right? Well, probably not.
The truth is, it’s not that easy to find fame and fortune in the world of podcasting. But while your new podcast may not allow you to buy a Caribbean island, there are ways you can fund your podcast, and maybe even turn podcasting into a full-time career.
The key message here is: You can make money from podcasts if you’re creative and persistent.
One of the best ways to make money, especially in the early days of your podcast, is through crowdfunding. Platforms like Kickstarter or Indiegogo allow you to directly ask your fans for money. It’s also a great way to give your project more publicity. Platforms like Patreon allow your listeners to become regular contributors – or patrons – that fund your project incrementally. The upside of crowdfunding is it allows you to simultaneously build engagement with your audience. The downside? It requires a lot of time and energy.
If you’ve already built up an audience, you could think of selling branded merchandise or doing live events as a way of raising money. It can be a good idea to test the water by participating in a podcast festival or opening for a bigger podcast before you go it alone. This will give you valuable experience of performing live before you take the financial risk of booking out a theater.
By far the most lucrative – and common – way of making money from podcasts is through advertising. Dynamic advertising allows new ads to be automatically inserted in podcasts at the moment they’re downloaded. Ad agencies mediate between podcasts and commercial brands and negotiate a fair rate for the hosts. The amount you earn depends on the size of your audience and the amount of work you’re prepared to do for the advertiser. Most lucrative is a sponsored episode where the content of your podcast is geared to promote the commercial content. Of course, it’s very important to keep the lines between your content and the commercial content sharp to avoid muddling the integrity of your show. And finding a good match between your show and a product is essential.
Let’s be honest, you may never be able to afford that island from the proceeds of making your podcast. But after eight years in the business, the McElroy brothers were able to quit their day jobs and do something they loved all day long. And that’s worth a lot.
The key message in these blog:
The best way to make a podcast is to start and learn through trial and error. You don’t need fancy software or a perfect recording studio. You also don’t need above-average talent. All you need is persistence and the willingness to learn new things. You’ll make lots of mistakes along the way, but that’s all part of the process. The golden rule for any podcaster is to respect your audience’s time. Time is precious, and your listeners are giving theirs to you. So make every minute of your podcast count.
Find the microphone that fits you best by listening to demos on Youtube.
There’s a bewildering array of microphones for sale online. Finding one that you like is often a matter of personal taste, as each yields a slightly different sound. Luckily, most microphones have a demo on YouTube. Listening to a bunch of demo videos will help you to find the one that’ll work best for your podcast.