If you're a podcast junkie like me, you're likely to be big fans of This American Life, Serial, Startup, Mystery Show, Reply All and more. Of course, the common thread between these is that they create well-produced, engaging stories. While I enjoy a long-form interview, crafted podcasts require more hours invested into the structural and editorial process. That's a bright note for the potential of the medium. This means that every content creator, like yourself, can broadcast something unique, too, in the space. It's easy to get started once you get the technicalities out of the way. I spent a weekend gathering together a few pieces and was ready to produce.
Here's how to get started:
Get a primary mic.
I use a Blue Snowball mic that I found collecting dust in a closet. It's only $70 and I bought it years ago while in school, recording terrible acoustic guitar demo tracks. The great thing about this mic is that it uses a USB connector that goes straight into my Mac. No need for a mixer. However, audiophiles will tell you that analog mics and mixers that then feed into your computer will give you the best quality, especially in post. But costs and technical expertise go up significantly with analog so you should weigh this option yourself.
PS. get a good pair of over the ear headphones - doesn't need to be expensive, but be comfortable. Noise canceling is a plus. I use a pair of Grado SR-80s for everything.
Get editing software.
I'm keeping it simple. Garageband meets my initial needs for podcast production for now; it records vocals from my mic, allows basic mixing and tweaks, and can add loops or music. But if you're versed in Pro Tools or a more advanced audio editor, even better. For PC users, Audacity is a free tool that works well.
Get a portable mic & recorder
If you're planning to do interviews out in the field, you must have the right equipment. Interviews are a great asset to stories. If you've heard any of the podcasts mentioned, they've all used audio from various interviews to add realism and engaging cutaways that bring characters to life. This is the gold of your story that listeners really want. A portable mic and recorder captures audio while you're out talking to people, gathering pieces for your story. I personally own a Zoom H4N which I use to record audio for video production sometimes. I recommend something likes this because it allows all types of connections like XLR (which works with analog mics), 1/4, and more. It even has a mic on it so I can record straight into it without adding anything else.
I'd recommend any of these and along with a shotgun mic (if you have the budget). A good XLR shotgun mic is more dedicated than the mic on recorders. However, they will be more intrusive and heavier to carry but capture voices much better. Consider the environment. Also, don't forget to bring those headphones and wear them during interviews to ensure quality and levels. It might feel goofy for a minute, but it's worth it!
Get Soundflower for phone interviews.
Another tool you must get (it's free) is Soundflower. You can't always get in-person interviews; so revert to a phone or Skype conversation. But recording phone calls or Skype in high quality is a bit of a tricky maneuver. I'd recommend dialing all calls from your computer and recording your own voice using your primary mic and usual recording software. For example, I would use my Blue Snowball mic and Garageband. Then, I would dial or Skype someone and record their audio separately on my end. This way, I have more freedom in post to adjust each of our levels or clean up any parts where we may have talked over each other. Soundflower tool allows me to use my computer's own audio as input and output so that any recording software can detect it. So this is my setup:
1. Use Garageband and set up my primary mic as input for voice recording (me). Hit record.
2. Open Soundflower and go to my computer's setting to set BOTH input and output audio on the new Soundflower options.
3. Open up Quicktime and use its audio recording feature. It should be picking up any sound your computer plays. Hit record. (Any recording software should work here)
4. Dial your number with Skype. I sometimes use Mac OS's calling feature that uses my phone's service via wifi.
5. It should be recording both audio (your voice and then your interviewee) in separate tracks. Mix and edit them later for your podcast.
For more details of how to set this up, use this write-up or watch this video:
Get music and sounds.
If you need music and loops, there are plenty of places to buy them. I personally use Marmoset for some video work. For free resources, consider this list, and places like this and this. Always ask for permission from musicians to use it. Reach out to them via email and Twitter; upcoming artists are always more likely to grant usage for exposure. Creating a great podcast that they want to support is the best way, though.
Or convince your amazingly talented friends to create something original. The Mystery Show collaborated with Emmy the Great to create this to close every episode. It now triggers an emotion of beautiful closure for me.
Get better at storytelling.
Of course, with all this technical and production knowledge, you still need to know how to tell a story! Take notes from this recap of Alex Blumberg (CEO of Gimlet media, host of Startup podcast, and former TAL producer) talk where he gives podcast storytelling advice. Or you can purchase the actual talk here. I really love the analysis of an episode of Startup. This American Life also has a page featuring a few videos of Ira glass and other producers talking about the craft of story, including this one:
From all these talks and videos, it seems that 3 basic key elements are needed for every story.
Action is the plot-driven details of the story that first draw listeners because starts the part of the brain that says this anecdote was a real happening. For example, a story about a breakup should establish how old you were, your character and the other person, and even a mini-anecdote that represented the relationship before even getting into the messy details. Reflection is the storyteller's take on how he or she feels, learns, and reacts from the action. This is where listeners relate to the story. Action of a story has rarely happened exactly to most people, but feelings about it can be a universal meeting point. Maybe a listener never had a breakup like yours, but they can certainly empathize with it. Stakes keep listeners tuned in so that they don't get bored. A story needs stakes to maintain engagement because they're connected to it and feel as though they need closure and only you can provide that. The breakup story is truly interesting when you introduce the fact that you were planning a grand gesture to win him or her back. Listeners' empathy turn into a need to know what happens in the end.
So here's the final bag of things I have:
- Primary mic - Blue Snowball
- Editing software - Garageband
- Portable recorder - Zoom H4N
- Phone recording software - Soundflower & Quicktime
- Music and sounds - Free resources, Marmoset, and friends
- Storytelling chops.
Any variation of these will work. I went the minimalist route and used equipment I already had. You can get more economical with options or upgrade and get more professional. If you get started and launch a podcast, let me know about your experience and where I can listen.