So, it’s a pandemic, right? And while we (the responsible, mask-wearing, six-feet-or-more social distancing, prefer to homeschool kids anyway) sane people struggle to keep our sanity in perfectly imperfect conditions, we search for ways in which we might connect with those once reachable creatures known as people. Maybe mother dear just had heart surgery three states away from you, if you’re unfortunate enough to be in the United States during this epic clown show, and it frustrates you the good son or daughter or what-have-you that you can’t be there for aforementioned mother. You think to yourself this is not a wonderful world, not at all. And you’d be correct. But what to do about it? And what to do about it in a way that will consume those gallons of free time in which you now drown? Well, one outlet to explore is to start your own podcast. Now, please, please, please don’t start your podcast if you have not the fortitude for some (not a lot) of hard work. There are far too many badly produced podcasts available. However, if you have a decent idea and a knack for storytelling, then by all means go for it.
If you’re a complete newbie, there are a few things you should keep in mind about podcasts (other podcasters will have different priorities than me so I will preface this by saying these are my personal takeaways).
Podcasting at its core is (1) a storytelling format, (2) absolutely NOT the same as radio no matter what you’ve heard, and (3) as with any good book, entertainment for someone but not EVERYONE. Let’s break these down, shall we?
Podcasting is Storytelling
“Tell me a Story”
What does this even mean? Well, there are a couple reasons why it’s important and helpful to think of podcasts as stories. The most important reason is the audience. When you were a child, you asked a parents to tell you a story. Or maybe as a parent now, your child says, “I wanna hear a story.” What do you tell them? What did your parent(s) tell you? A piece about a serial killer or something along the lines of monkeys and magic ponies with princesses somehow involved? I’m betting it was somewhere in the range of the latter. The importance is that while both a serial killer’s tale and a monkey-riding unicorn might be valid stories, the audience dictates the narrative. Change the audience, you change the narrative. So, think of your podcast as a story and automatically you will have to ask yourself at some point the very important question: to whom am I telling this story?
Okay, so directing your podcast to a specific audience is a vital reason why podcasts should be thought of as stories. But why else?
When you tell your kid a made-up story, you are inherently aware that there has to be a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, there must be a journey that your main character(s) follows and it has to take them somewhere, at the very least from point A to point B. Even more microscopically than that, you understand that every action must have a reaction or a consequence. So, when you’re putting your hero through the ringer, something has to happen–you’re not just going to leave John Wayne in a bloody gunfight and go THE END. No, of course not. Worst story ever. Therefore, since storytelling is just built into our system–into the collective human psyche–your listeners are simply primed to follow a storyline. They might not be conscious of it, and it might not sound like your typical ‘once upon a time’ (because this isn’t Disney Podcasts… although…) but they will be listening for the logic that goes along with every good story. If Tarzan is raised by apes, the consequence of that is he can’t speak English, and then if he can’t speak English when he sees the lovely Jane, he doesn’t know how to communicate, and she inevitably teaches him English, he inevitably learns and they fall in love, but inevitably something gets in their way, Tarzan must learn to negotiate his wildness with his new civility to become a real man, and Jane is like ‘take me now, you sophisticated brute.’ What happens then? Well, you can fill in the rest. But THAT is what the ear listens for, a sequence of events that all depend on each other to make a lovely connected story. When you think of podcasts like stories, you start thinking in this logical, natural way that’s fundamental to everyone. You don’t have to learn it, you know it. But you do have to consciously understand what you know, in order to apply it and apply it well so that others will be able to recognize a good story when they hear one.
Okay, but in an interview situation how can you possibly apply storytelling? Good question. This is where you’ll have to get used to the idea of improvising, just like when you were telling your kid that spontaneous narrative, you have to feed off your guest, LISTEN to what they’re saying when they’re saying it, and do your best to get them to tell a story. They say, “Yes, I was born in a garbage heap.” And if they stop there, well, it’s your job to push and prod to draw the story out of them. Then, in post-production, when you’re sitting there editing (assuming you aren’t fortunate enough to hire someone to edit for you) you listen yet again to what they’ve said and you do your best to cut things, rearrange things, piece portions of the interview together to get your best, most entertaining, most coherent narrative. That. Is. Important. And if this sounds like too much for you, if it sounds like you might not be ready or able to devote hours of your time to properly edit and polish 45 minutes to an hour of raw content, then maybe you should stop right here and put podcasting back on your bucket list. But if you’re game to take a shot at it because you want to lose all those Netflix pounds, then keep going. Podcasting like storytelling requires passion and vision; if you feel like you have both of those things, then you’ll do just fine.
absolutely not radio
You’re listening to…
Firstly, if you think podcasts are just a form of radio, you’d be… not entirely incorrect. To quote somebody I once read (somewhere) podcasts are a little bit like a lot of things but not completely like any of those things. A little bit like blogs, internet radio, audiobooks, radio, programming-on-demand, but not at all the equivalent of any of these. Podcasts are in a league of its own. And because of that, for a long while they weren’t properly understood or taken seriously by radio-lovers and devotees. But what everybody today forgets is that radio in its infancy was also poo-pooed by the old guard of print media. It was nothing but a shiny new object flooded with advertising in America and bad reception everywhere else. Nobody understood the capabilities of this new “blind medium” and nobody at the academic level bothered to theorize radio until decades after radio had revolutionized the world and TV had already threatened the popularity and attractiveness of radio. But time has proved that audio-only delivery of information, education, and entertainment has not gone anywhere.
Podcasts have taken the principle of radio, the democratization of information, and applied it to modern technologies, primarily the internet and in more recent years the Smartphone. Podcast listenership has grown in direct proportion to the use of smartphones and seems to be gender-neutral. And while listening to podcasts in cars has gone down simply because traffic has declined, podcast listening overall has gone up as people are searching for ways to entertain themselves without staring at a TV or a computer screen or their phone. In this way, podcasts are more capable of entertaining during something like a pandemic than radio, which aims to blanket a large geographic region and provide something for everyone. Have you noticed how you might listen to radio stations but you’re not particularly in love with any one of them? Maybe you like one over another, but you’re not head-over-heels for any station. That’s because radio stations (excluding public radio which is actually quite podcast-like in certain respects) aim to be like a Toyota Camry–functional, reliable, inoffensive, but lacking in much by way of style or character. Podcasts are quite the opposite. They are the designer vehicles, some of which are just downright ugly, but they all have some kind of character that appeals to certain people and those people listen because they want to. Not because they HAVE to. No one HAS to listen to a podcast. But they do because content on radio is unsatisfactory or just not built to taste. Podcasts circle the globe and find their audience in unlikely places, reaching the flat-dwelling couple in Vladivostok as easily as the Manhattanite on Wall Street. If the content is good, if it’s telling a story, the podcast will find its audience world-over.
entertainment for anyone, but not everyone
Though touched upon earlier, it bears repeating in greater depth: podcasts are customized entertainment, niche programming. If you have a specific enough topic, you are likely to succeed. For instance, if you start a show about supercars, stick with that. But if down the road you start getting a trite board of the monotony of 0-60 mph in under 2 seconds, you might think to yourself, “Hey, why not cover trains, planes, and boats, too!” While you might be okay doing so, you run the risk of alienating the audience that came to you in the first place because you had something specific to THEM: a love of supercars. If you want, however, to expand into other more functional transportation, then I would probably suggest launching another podcast. But, this does bring me to a good point: if you start too niche, you might end up leaving yourself no room to grow. You’ll be locked into a literal 400 square-foot apartment, and well, in this pandemic, nobody wants to have to live out their reality in a podcast.
How do you pick a niche topic that’s both entertaining and potentially expandable? Select a topic of interest to you, that’s first and foremost. If you have spent a considerable portion of your life on this topic, then it’s very likely that it’s big enough to last several episodes to a few seasons worth of a podcast. If, however, this topic is something that you picked up as a hobby last Tuesday and you’ll burn out on it by next Wednesday, do move on with your life. There are plenty of other subjects, concepts, and questions to choose from. Brainstorm your way to a long-lasting niche podcast and you will have a much better chance of winning over an audience. The size of that audience will completely depend on your topic, but don’t just pick something you think most of the world is interested in because likely there are thousands of podcasts already out there on this same subject. Don’t bother with too much researching on what is popular and what isn’t–none of those top podcasts knew they were going to be top and the truth is it’s very hard to predict popularity or region in which a podcast could do really well. And ultimately, it shouldn’t be about that anyway. Sure, a big fat audience is nice, but satisfying the niche interests of a hundred or a thousand people is much better than mildly entertaining a million for a couple minutes.
To conclude, because every story needs an ending of some sort, if you want to be a podcaster you have to think like a storyteller, respect the media without belittling it as the runt nephew of radio, and aim to find a subject that is niche enough to entertain a specific crowd but large enough to entertain yourself as well. Podcasts are a wonderful way to create infotainment without the sandpit of social media and is a cleansing medium in that sense. Engaging people’s brains with a primarily audio format is practically a humanitarian effort on your part to remedy the world of the malaise that has been brought on by social media, which if you can’t tell I genuinely loathe. And while it maybe a necessary evil according to some, podcasting is a positive antidote. If you have the time, the energy, and the passion, then go ahead and start that podcast.
In subsequent posts, we’ll discuss some of the hard tips and tricks of recording in a pandemic, editing using Adobe Audition (my preferred program), and sound designing. Hopefully, you’ll find all that helpful. If you do, please drop me a line and let me know. And if you need help setting up your pod, let me know that too. Happy Podcasting!
#podcasting #covid19 #podcastinglife #storytelling