As you might know I’ve been podcasting with the Doctor Who Show for many years now but it wasn’t my first rodeo in podcasting land. Before it there was the Who Wars podcast, and before that, The Comic Book Show. And those are just the old podcasts that I’ll still put my name to! Suffice to say I’ve made my share of programming and have also listened a lot of stuff over the years, analysing what made certain shows great, and how other shows could have done better.
So I feel I have some sense of the landscape and what can make for a good podcast across a variety of genres.
But let’s pause before we go any further because I need to emphasise the article you’re about to read isn’t meant to be prescriptive. You could do the complete opposite to what I’m about to talk about and have a huge hit on your hands. It’s an obvious thing to say, but I want to head off messages like, “I didn’t do any of this and my podcast is popular so there…” when that’s not the point of what I’m doing here. What I’m about to impart is simply my own experiences in making and listening to podcasts and something for you to think about, rather than something like, ’10 steps to podcast like me’.
I should also note here that this article isn’t about what microphone to buy, or what editing software to use, or which podcast host to spend your hard-earned with. All of those are topics covered in 101 other excellent articles and videos on the Interwebs. I could regurgitate similar information, but it would add little to what’s already out there, so I won’t.
This document is to tease out some themes and, frankly, what I think are the mistakes I’ve come across in podcasting. Sometimes because I’ve made the mistakes myself, and other times what I’ve seen from others. I hope it will give you something to think about when planning your own show, or even thinking about an existing show you’re making.
- Why are you doing this? This doesn’t apply to just podcasting, but a lot of hobbies people get into. And it shouldn’t be confused with the third point, which is a separate issue. Basically, are you starting a podcast because you’ve had two free weekends in a row (or maybe it’s something like the holiday season), and have had the random thought, “Hey, I’m a bit bored and I seem to have some time… I could make a podcast!” or have you thought it through a little longer and deeper than that? It’s very easy to fall into doing something half-arsed if you don’t really understand why you’re doing it in the first place. Just having some time on your hands is, frankly, a terrible reason to start a podcast. What’s your thought process?
- Do you have the time? Related heavily to the first point, just because you’re bored and have some free time on your hands, or perhaps have listened to a podcast recently that really inspired you to rush out and make something, do you actually have the right amount of time to commit to your project? Or will you make two or three eps and quit the project? I’ve lost count of people talking a big game yet, a couple of months in, they’re already making excuses why episodes are late. Podcasts aren’t a job, agreed, but if you want to be taken seriously, find a schedule that works – and stick to it. This isn’t just to respect your audience, but also gives you a timetable to work to which can be wonderfully motivating.
- What’s your goal? Also related to the first point, where do you want to end up? Are you doing this just for some kind of personal satisfaction (learning how to use podcast tools? hanging out with a mate?), or are you wanting to reach enough listeners to monetise the results? Is that realistic? If the landscape – which we’ll touch upon next – is already very crowded are you comfortable with the idea of making content (and even spending hard-earned money in most cases to make that content), and having next to no one actually listening to it, or engaging with you? Be honest with yourself.
- What’s the landscape like? As I just touched upon, having some sense of the landscape is important. Whether that’s to better understand your ‘competition’ or whether it’s to find what niches might exist that aren’t being filled for listeners, knowing the landscape is key. And there’s no wrong or right here. I would never tell anyone to not make a Doctor Who podcast, for example, simply because there are already heaps of them. Everyone has a right to make one, just as everyone has a right to express themselves online. And besides, that person might have a stunningly original idea that hasn’t been done in Doctor Who podcasting before which should be pursued, post haste. But whatever your show idea is, will you be able to cut-through in the field you’re seeking to play in, to the degree you will be happy with the result?
- Team or solo? Is this project going to be just you, or do you have a team? I find people who leap too quickly into podcasting are generally solo and it’s not the best option for a number of reasons. Even for the six months of The Doctor Who Show before Dave came onboard, I had guest co-hosts. And that’s because my personal preference when listening to podcasts has always been for double acts, sending the conversation back and forth in a very focused way. Close behind are trios, where a third voice can take the pressure off two people carrying the whole load. Trios also help if one of the team has to miss an episode, leaving a double act to carry the show without needing to search for a replacement. Meanwhile, I find teams of four to be messy. They often prohibit everyone from getting their point of view across as conversations can change direction before all four people have had their say. Then, in the rarer cases that the podcast is being well-moderated and the conversation stops to include everyone before it moves on, it causes the podcast to be quite lengthy, which is a topic we’ll address in the next point. Suffice to say that teams of five or six – which do exist – don’t work for me at all. Such podcasts have people almost fighting to have their say, talking in shortened soundbites when they do get their turn, and are just deeply unsatisfying to my ears. Which brings us back around to… solo. Can you pull it off? I listen to some podcasts that are hosted solo and if an individual has a pleasant voice, can vary their tone, and knows what they want to achieve in an episode in a set amount of time, ie: no waffle!, solo hosts can work. If they can’t make those things work, however, a solo host can be a recipe for total disaster. My strong advice is don’t host solo simply because you don’t think you have anyone to podcast with. Try harder to find someone first before going down that path.
- Length. There was a time, some years back, where it felt like Doctor Who podcasts, in particular, were competing to see who could make the longest show. It didn’t matter if the content was rambling or meandering, it seemed that size mattered. This isn’t the way to do things. People’s time is valuable. You have a far better chance of being listened to, and getting repeat listeners, if you make a tight 30-60 minute show. Trust me. If people want more, they’ll dig into your back catalogue, or eagerly await your next episode. They don’t need you to put every single thought in your head at this moment onto audio in one single recording session. There are exceptions to this, of course. If your content needs to run long on a particular episode – and not because you’ve rambled off-topic for 50% of the show – that’s fine, that can work. Just remember your listeners are real people, with real lives, and as fascinating as you think you are, less is always more.
- Editing. Related heavily to the sixth point, please understand that not everything that springs from your mind to your lips is gold. When you’re editing your podcast, really think about what’s being said. Did you just say the same thing twice? Edit one of them out. Do you and your podcast partner go in circles on a topic but ultimately say nothing? Throw it out. Do you go down a rabbit hole on a topic that doesn’t really relate to the podcast? Throw it. Your audience doesn’t need it. Your five-minute story about buying cat food really wasn’t as interesting as you think. I realise good editing is a skill that’s learned over time, however, so if you’re new to podcasting and the software you’re making it on, don’t beat yourself up. Being able to remember sections of audio that are several minutes long, and then knowing where to go back, and what to snip, can be tricky. I get it. Even knowing what to snip at all can seem daunting at first. But always think about what you’re hearing and if the audience really needs to hear it too. Keep it tight. Slowly but surely, you will learn to edit really well.
- Theme music. This might seem a small thing (which is why it’s down the list), but just as shorter episodes are a good thing in general for a podcast, shorter theme music is advisable, too. Now, as someone who produces a podcast with one-second theme music (Primary Sources), I might seem like the poster boy for this and you might think I’m biased but, truly, I think you should think about theme music no longer than 30 seconds and work backwards from there. 20 seconds is better than 30. 10 seconds is better than 20. And so on. If the intro to your show is over 30 seconds, I guarantee people will be hitting the skip button on their player and not listening to it once they’ve heard it once or twice and deduced that there’s no reason to hear it. So why do it? It might be fun to have a substantial theme tune, but think of the listener. If you must have one, can I recommend playing it at the end of the show, and using a cut-down version at the start?
- Monetisation. Everyone gets really awkward about this topic as there are two sides of the coin and they obviously don’t see eye to eye. Personally, I don’t monetise any podcast, video, or whatever else I create. I do it as a hobby, and I’m grateful anyone shows up at all to hear me talk about Doctor Who. I don’t need them to be giving me a monthly tithe or even, “buy me a coffee” on an ad-hoc basis. I’d feel weird about it, frankly. But that’s me. If your goal is to create some sort of small business around your content, then you have every right to pursue payment. What I see a bit of, however, are podcasts which are new (or new-ish), have next to no following, next to no back catalogue, patchy release schedules… and their hand out for money. Are you folks serious? Nothing will turn potential listeners off faster than asking for money. You may find a few ‘suckers’, willing to back something that isn’t really delivering an experience worth actual money, but they are the minority, compared to those who will just slip through your fingers completely and seek out another podcast instead. My suggestion, if you are trying to build a business, is to get your act together, produce good content, and develop a real following. I’m talking at least 1,000 downloads per show – and even that’s on the low end. Preferably more. Once you have that under your belt, then create new content (on top of the content you’re already doing for free), and see if anyone in your audience wants to back you to gain access to it. It’s a sustainable and honest way to do things.
- Are you having fun? This is for people who have been making a podcast for a little while more so than absolute beginners. Obvious as it seems, I think it needs to be said. If you’re still in your first 12 months of doing this and maybe haven’t even cracked 1000 downloads, then you’re clearly doing this as a hobby, not for world domination. And there’s nothing wrong with doing things for fun. But if you aren’t having fun… well, just remember Resurrection of the Daleks.
Tegan: My Aunt Vanessa said, when I became an airline stewardess, “If you stop enjoying it, give it up.”
The Doctor: Tegan…
Tegan: It’s stopped being fun, Doctor! Goodbye.