An exhaustive how-to guide on getting starting thinking about and recording, editing, and publishing your first podcast.
The other day I realized that I'd been podcasting for over four years over at MetaFilter. It's a casual thing I and two other moderators do about once a month, but in that time I've amassed a great deal of knowledge mostly through trial and error. I've shared lots of these tips to friends before so I thought it might be handy to write down everything I've learned about podcasting and put it all in one place.
Time for podcasting
Time commitment is the first stumbling block of podcasting. Podcasting is a special thing in that to me it feels perfectly natural to go on way longer than a typical radio or TV interview, and I am drawn to podcasts that are in the one to two hour range because the host and guests can cover a significant amount of ground and go very deep in interviews about a subject.
Chances are that you are busy doing other things so you'll need to make time for recording and more importantly, editing your podcast. I've found that most 2-3 person podcasts can easily go 60-90 minutes naturally if you are good friends and used to talking to one another. Anything less than 30 minutes of recording feels too short to me and I've often ended podcast interviews as a guest wondering if we had enough time to explain or go deep enough into anything.
I typically carve out two hours to do my podcast and I usually have to warn my two other hosts about 3 days in advance via email and once we coordinate schedules, we all show up at the agreed upon time ready to record. Editing is more important and I've found in my experience that there is an inverse relationship between length of podcast and hours of editing. My first couple podcast episodes were tight 20 minute long affairs. I was recording for about 45-60min at first so the editing was brutal, taking out lots of material, trimming conversations of all tangents, then I would spend hours cutting out ums, ahs, and pauses. My first 20min episode took about eight to ten hours to edit and nearly sapped all my motivation to ever do another podcast.
At some point in the last four years I was once a guest on a Leo Laporte TWiT-world show. The guy is an old radio pro and basically when he says go, the show is on, and everything that gets recorded soon goes online. I really envied the efficient, live style of his shows and after that I urged my other hosts to keep our meta-commentary to a minimum (we used to often say "I know you'll cut this but..." and talk for five minutes). At this point, we record for about 90 to 105 minutes and typically shows are around 80-90min long edited. Editing only takes me about two hours per show these days, both because the hosts and I all stay on topic and editing is streamlined to a single pass where I just cut out pauses and anything obvious, add music, and finalize it with podcast file info.
I would stress to anyone planning a podcast to give yourself enough time to get deep into the subject matter with your hosts and any possible guests and to also try and keep it as all-business as possible to minimize your editing time. Editing is the hardest part and a total time sink, but if you do your best upfront, you can minimize the toil of editing.
I listen to a lot of podcasts and the most typical format is 2 or 3 hosts and sometimes one guest. I've never subscribed to a single-person podcast before because I've yet to find a single-person-talking podcast that is interesting enough to stick with. I've tried a few but one person talking is usually pretty boring after a while. Two or three people chattering to each other is the most common format but it's possible to take it too far. The other day I heard a six person podcast that was an utter nightmare. Everyone talked over each other and when it came time to make small quips and jokes you had to wait for five people to make a wise crack. Stick to 2-3 people on your show.
Interviews are an obvious fit for podcasts and even if you have a good established show about a topic with a couple of hosts, bringing in the occasional guest is always a nice change. A pure interview show also works, though I'd say the 80 or so years of radio interview history may fight against you in terms of finding something new to do with an interview format. Still, if you can book a steady stream of guests and you're ok with scheduling time around your guests (they are after all, being on your show for free) then regular interviews can be great.
Keep calm and carry on podcasting
Before we dive into hardware and software and the nitty gritty details of recordings, it's important to think about your mood or your presence or whatever you want to call how you feel before you hit the record button. Remember to relax, even though you might be nervous at first. You're just a person sitting in a room in front of a computer talking, so try to avoid thinking about how famous your guest is or how anxious you are about not knowing what to say and be as relaxed as possible when you start. It's ok to do several takes if you're recording an introduction. On the flip side, it's good to relax but you don't want to come off as low-energy in the recording because that can quickly bore listeners. Try to let your enthusiasm for whatever subject the podcast is about come through. Podcasting is like any acquired skill: practice makes perfect, and now that I've done sixty shows and probably well over 100 hours of recording I'm completely calm when we start but it took 5-10 shows before that became the norm.
I know a lot of podcast hosts were former musicians and can talk for hours about microphone selection, positioning, and use, but I've tried some high end equipment as well as low-end stuff and my advice to anyone new to podcasting would be to stick with what is most simple and simply works. I would highly recommend a USB headset headphone/mic combo and I would say you should expect to pay about $30-50 for a decent headset. They are available on Amazon (here's a search) and at office stores these days and I've personally had great experiences with whatever Logitech is selling for about forty bucks.
Again, you can spend hundreds of dollars on microphones, splitters, A/V switch boxes and more, but in all honesty when recordings get mixed, edited, and compressed down to a mp3 in the end, a forty dollar headset sounds just fine.
If you're doing interviews with remote guests, buying an extra USB headset is a good idea as well. I know some shows will ship out a $40 USB headset/mic to guests a few days in advance to ensure they get a decent enough recording.
I use nothing but Macs, so this will be Mac-centric, but I typically record podcasts remotely through Skype, while each person in the podcast records locally using Call Recorder, a companion recorder app for Skype. In the radio business I hear this is called a "double-ender" but basically you record your conversations locally, then put the locally recorded voices back together in your audio editing app and the effect is close to sounding like you were in the same room together (you don't end up using the recorded remote skype sides of the conversation so voice quality doesn't really matter).
You start off installing Skype and Call Recorder (I set my Call Recorder settings to record in AAC at a quality setting of high), and every time you launch Skype a record window will automatically pop up. Now, it's not totally important for all your hosts to coordinate the exact moment when you start recording (just make sure everyone is recording before you start the show), but it's super important for the person hosting the Skype chat/call to keep everyone recording until they kill the call at the end. This creates a nice end point that you can later match up all the audio files to in your editor.
So you hit record on Call Recorder, run your show in Skype then have the host kill the call so everyone ends at the exact same moment. At this point, every person that recorded the show will have the show sitting in the default "Saved Calls" directory. You should also have a directory on your Mac called "Movie Tools" that installs with Call Recorder. You'll want to drag your recorded call over the app called "Split Movie Tracks" (or Split Sides of a Conversation). You'll get two tracks as a result, with the same file name as the original but with track 1 and track 2 appended to them. You'll just be using track 1. If you are doing the final editing, have your hosts/guests FTP their own split track 1 files to you (everyone usually uploads to their blog's web server in my case). Then you download the files and now you have everyone's raw locally recorded full-fidelity recordings.
I use Garageband for audio editing because it's pretty simple to use. Note there are some reported iChat/Garageband features specific to recording live podcasts but I've had Garageband crash on me multiple times while recording a podcast conversation, essentially losing hours of work in the process so I would never suggest anyone try recording live in Garageband.
You'll want to first set up your tracks in Garageband. I have two male hosts and one female host so I add new tracks to match. I immediately go into advanced audio properties (audio/edit on the right side panel) to set Master Reverb to 0. I don't know why Garageband insists on adding a crappy-sounding echo to every podcast voice but I kill it immediately. Next, I make sure I have one track for audio jingles (we have a theme song and sometimes toss in music or sound clips) and the main podcast track is for album art.
Once tracks are set up, I take each person's track 1 recording and drag it over the appropriate track. I line up the ends of the tracks to the same moment, since I made sure to close the call and cut everyone's recording at the same time. I add theme music at the top, then cut the beginning of the sound recordings to the point where we started the show.
The specific steps are: move the play head to the right spot, highlight your voice tracks, hit command-t to cut across all three, then select the three tracks to the left and delete by hitting command-x to cut, Select your three remaining tracks together and slide them into the start of the podcast just after your theme song.
Sometimes, it can take Garageband a while to analye and show the audio spectrum for all your tracks, and there are times when I've first important tracks, saved the podcast in Garageband, and then left it open while I went to lunch only to return after to see nice peaks and waves in every track. This helps visually with editing, as you can learn to spot dead sound areas or high spots of clipping.
Garageband is pretty easy to edit audio in, but when you're dealing with a podcast, make sure any cuts you make are selected across all your tracks at once (in other words, if you want to cut out a 10 second pause where no one said anything, make sure you cut ten seconds from all tracks, not just one). Since you have multiple tracks covering a long time period it's important to move all your voice tracks together when editing so they never get out of sync with one another. Every time I mention "editing" when talking about a podcast, I just mean doing this over and over again, hundreds of times.
Try to conduct all your editing from start to finish, as adding a song to the beginning when all editing is complete is actually kind of difficult, requiring you to move possibly up to hundreds of track edits to make room for the song.
I go through and edit usually in just one pass though it might take you a few passes on your first show. You'll want to remove any pause that lasts more than a couple seconds, if there is a sneeze or lip smack that sounds annoying, you can highlight a single track and cut just those bits. When you are done, make sure the sound levels sound good and even across all your hosts and music tracks. This can be difficult and requires some trial and error. Lots of podcasts come out sounding too quiet but it is easy enough to solve (be sure to select a track and adjust the entire track's volume individually).
I finish a track by using the Share menu to send the podcast to iTunes. This takes a few minutes to compress, convert, and import to iTunes. Once in iTunes, I've found that Garageband typically strips all my podcast info from the track so I have to Get Info on the track and provide the correct info. In the Info tab, set the genre to podcast and make sure the title and artists reflect your podcast. In the Options tab, check the box marked Remember Playback Position and you might want to tweak the volume up from None if it sounds quiet. On the lyrics tab I usually pop in my Podcast site URL, and on the Artwork tab I drag in a 300x300 podcast logo I've saved in GIF format (JPEG and PNG work too).
If you continue to have audio issues with the final file (like everyone is too quiet or one speaker is much louder than the rest) then you might want to try running your output mp3 file through the free program Levelator. It does a pretty amazing and fantastic job bringing everyone's levels up to match. The final file will sound a bit more compressed but your audience will appreciate being able to hear everyone for the loss in dynamic range.
Since my podcast is a recap of a website and we're talking about other sites and online things we found on the podcast, I produce notes for each show with every URL mentioned so listeners at a computer can follow along and click on stuff as we are discussing them. This isn't quite a transcript, but it is nice, especially if you are watching a video on a podcast and talking about it and need a way for the listener to be able to watch that video too. I've heard there are resources out there that will do full text transcriptions at about $1/minute but I find the show notes are a pretty good substitute. Also, if you get really efficient at editing, doing up the HTML for your notes post on your podcast show blog is a good way to pass the time and have something that adds to the show at the same time.
Now, chances are you have a blog somewhere and you might want to go to the trouble of doing a podcast-specific blog that downloads from your site, but I've found the more simple approach is to use a cheap podcast service that does all the hosting and podcast feed-making for you. Liberated Syndication (libsyn) is dead simple to use, and starts at just $5/month for a 50Mb podcasting plan. Soon after I started podcasting I moved up to their 250 plan for $15/month but keep in mind the 50Mb and 250Mb are meant to be your "active" file storage earmarks. The "active" window is the sum storage of your shows for the past month. You can have four years of archives like I do totalling many hundreds of Mb, but they only charge you for what is active, not in your archive. Additionally, they don't seem to monitor bandwidth, so if you have a popular show, you won't be docked for thousands of downloads. For five to fifteen bucks a month, it's a super reliable and easy to use service. I upload my files to Libsyn (via FTP, which they support), then I make a new podcast episode in their publishing platform. The libsyn publisher makes a nice podcast blog and podcast feed, but I use libsyn as background plumbing.
The next thing you'll want to do is create a new feed at Feedburner. Plop in your libsyn podcast feed, make sure you tell Feedburner it's a podcast feed and give it a handy easy to read name. You'll use your Feedburner feed to display on your blog as well as to apply to be included in iTunes' podcast listings (Open iTunes, go to the iTunes Store, select Podcasts, then look for the Submit a new Podcast option in the side menu). Sticking with a Feedburner feed means you can move your podcast to other systems someday if libsyn doesn't fit your needs.
Finally, you'll probably want a blog to post all your shows to. It helps to get a good domain and simply map the domain to whatever blog software you prefer. You can promote the podcast with links to it in iTunes and provide a link to your feedburner feed. Typically I make a new post for each episode of the show and I embed a player (libsyn provides an embeded player for each episode or the entire show's archives).
That's about it! Anyone can go from zero to podcasting for less than $100 and you'll definitely get better with practice, so jump in and give it a try. I've found that after a year of semi-regular recordings I not only got better at recording, editing, and talking in a relaxed way, it also helped my public speaking and definitely helped me be relaxed when doing radio and other podcast interviews.