“How does one make a podcast?”
I set out a few weeks ago (months? What even is time in covid-land?) to “make a podcast.” Turns out it’s way more work than I expected :)
I don’t know almost anything about audio so after much digging I also talked with my friend Jessie Link from Twitter (https://twitter.com/mad_typist) - she’s made four podcasts. Her latest is “Fort Salem Witching Hour Podcast” (podcast) about the show “Motherland: Fort Salem” on Freeform (it’s a show about witches).
She’s a fount of knowledge on so many subjects including podcasts so I thought I’d summarize what I’ve learned so far for others wandering this path:
WHAT IS A PODCAST?
There are many types of podcasts and there is no one format - “I’m going to make a podcast” is a bit like saying “I’m going to write a book” - OK, cool… is it a novel?? Non-fiction? A poetry collection? A cook book? The word “book” is only moderately helpful.
Here is my categorization of the main types of podcasts. There are 3 main types:
1. The interview - this is a podcast with one or more hosts doing interviews with others. It can be edited (see the a16z podcasts) or unedited (see: Tim Ferris, Tyler Cowen).
2. The mini “audio book” - these podcasts cover a certain topic for a certain set of episodes. They are often much more edited and polished to establish narrative arcs and tie together dialogue. See Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, Serial, and Mic Solana’s Anatomy of Next on going to Mars.
3. The niche topic talk radio - these podcasts have one or many hosts just talking about a subject - often without external interviews. See “exponent fm” and my friend Jessies’ podcast for examples.
All of these formats, and all podcasts, end up having a clear sub-structure to help the flow of the show - once you look out for it you can find it. Each podcast has a certain way they intro, a way they break up monotony (e.g., “10 rapid questions” that repeat). This provides the skeleton for shows and helps provide a sense of continuity over time.
HOW LONG SHOULD IT BE?
* 20, 30 or 60 minutes are good options to start with
* Anything over an hour is a big commitment for the audience, however, if it’s a niche topic, people love length (“3 hours? Fantastic!”).
* To identify the length for a given podcast, use the platform analytics. Spotify has the best - they’ll give you minute by minute drop offs and you’ll see drop off rates that says the length is OK. 7 day analytics show you how urgent your podcast is to listen to for your audience - ideally you see steady growth over time
HOW MANY PEOPLE WILL LISTEN TO THE PODCAST?
Turns out the answer is much lower than I expected. From what I’ve found, the average downloads per episode is 50. 50! And this is average, not median so this is likely on the high side. This means a few hundred downloads is pretty great - 500+ downloads and the episode really resonated.
Of course power laws apply - Tim Ferris and Joe Rogan can get a massive audience and amazing guests. But most podcasts are not Tim Ferris.
The bigger your audience, the broader the subjects you cover can be - as Jessie said, “Joe Rogan is selling Joe Rogan, not the topic.” Whereas less well known podcasters do better when the subject is niche.
THE PODCAST STACK
Turns out there are *a lot* of options for how to host and make a podcast:
* Recording: turns out you can use Zoom for this pretty well. It then gives you separate audio tracks that you can use in your editor.
* The audio editor: There are some cool choices here - Descript transcribes your audio so it’s like editing text. Audacity is an open source audio editor that seems to be a crowd favorite.
* Hosting & Analytics: Once you have the edited audio, where do you put it? Again, lots of choices. Anchor is a simple one-stop shop but then it doesn’t let you do various advanced things (e.g., can’t monetize on there; harder to export; more limited analytics). People say great things about Buzzsprout, as Jessie said “buzzsprout is amazing - one of the more pricey but you get good analytics and they aggregate for you.”
* Distribution: Apple has podcast charts which are coveted. You can rank! The downside of spreading your podcast around is you are less likely to trend. However, Spotify has a faster approval process vs. iTunes so it’s more convenient. You can also just go with Soundcloud if you need a place to host some audio and are less worried about distribution.
THE EDITING JOURNEY
One of the main things I didn’t realize about podcasts was that editing is a pain. Sure, I intellectually knew this but actually sitting down to edit audio takes a ton of time.
Before trying this effort I thought it was impressive that a podcast was 2 or 3 hours long - now I’m impressed if it’s edited down to 30 minutes.
Jessie’s rule of thumb was that for every hour of podcast she makes, it’s 3-4 hours of editing! Taking out the dogs barking, listening to every frame, removing every um, fixing poor guest audio, applying fade-ins and outs, compressing the sound… It takes time!
Now that I recognize this, it’s clear there is a big fork in the podcast world: *edited vs. unedited podcasts*. Given the large time commitment of editing, most people go with unedited. That 3.5 hour interview someone posted is WAY easier than the tightly condensed insights of NPR or a tightly packed podcast (see a16z’s “16 minutes”).
WINDING DOWN SHOWS
So you’re over your podcast. You don’t want to do it anymore - what then?
You Irish goodbye it - the graveyard of forgotten podcasts Is huge! If there’s no product market fit, the podcast trails off and dies – one more piece of bit rot on the internet…
Podcasting is a much larger time investment than I expected, particularly if you want to do any editing. While you get a much deeper connection with people, the likely audience is also much smaller than you’d get with a blog post. Even a relatively simple audio track takes a bunch of time - setting up the logistics, researching the subject, interviewing, editing (even if lightly), posting it, managing all of the metadata/branding and then the logistics. A simple tweet this is not.
For most people, podcast creation is enjoyable mostly because you get to have fun talking about niche topics with friends. As Jessie mentions, “don’t do it for fame or the audience, what are you getting out of it and is it fun for you. If 100 people listen and it’s the same 100 people, great!”
Where does this leave me? I’m not sure. I have a few interviews completed and some ideas for doing hybrid tweetstorm + podcasts… going to experiment and have fun in the next few days.
For now, I just have respect for the podcasters - especially the editors doing all the work the background.