Eight lessons learned from eight years of podcasting

EIGHT LESSONS LEARNED FROM EIGHT YEARS OF PODCASTING

8 years of podcasting

Recently I was directed towards an article by Miranda Sawyer which criticised the state of UK podcasts decrying that they didn’t have the same productions values of their US counterparts. She hailed the likes Serial and Freakonomics while in the same sentence dismissing the output of the BBC. Let’s not instantly discard this opinion based on the fact that those named shows all have their origins in public service broadcasting and instead let’s accept that maybe she has a point. As an independent podcast producer, I’d like to offer a defence of sorts and share everything I’ve learned from eight years of podcasts and attempt to explain why we’re not quite up to standard.

Lesson 1: Podcasting is not the same as radio

My podcasting career started when I was hosting a radio show on community station Leith FM. After my journalism Masters, I’d been invited by my peers to join a show they were cooking up. For me, it turned into a weekly presenting slot on a chat show that we’d call Leith Tonight that I’d host for the next 18 months, travelling from my home in Glasgow to the capital to do so. I spoke to a huge variety of people including artists, comedians, musicians including a few famous individuals but mostly local talents. The reach was small but we decided to put it up as a podcast as a supplement to the live show. It earned a decent audience, particularly during the Edinburgh Festival shows, and showed me that this could be a decent alternative should my radio days ever come to an end. It’s fair to say that they did end fairly abruptly following some minor disagreements between the show team and station hierarchy. C’est la vie.

But I had the bug. I loved broadcasting and I loved talking to people. I’m a shy and awkward individual at the best of times but in front of the mic, I felt confident and capable. In my own mind, I’m a pretty decent interviewer too. I wanted to do more so I saved up all of my money and spent it on a little Marantz recorder. I bought a domain name and hosting package and set out to interview musicians in something I’d call This is the Show. I conducted long form interviews with unsigned talent. There’s some really great stuff out there, and if you’re curious listen to the shows featuring The Acid Fascists and Babylon Dub Punks.

However, I only made 9 shows. Without a regular slot and the comfortable base of a studio, I didn’t have the discipline to release regular episodes and chase down guests. In my head I imagined I’d create a few shows and then some talent hunter would hear and I’d end up taking a job on on some innovative radio station but life doesn’t really work like that. It’s also gets harder to motivate yourself when you see that almost nobody listens and even your friends can’t be bothered to leave you an iTunes review. That’s no slight on them by the way. Why should they care? But then how do you build an audience? You try and create relevant social channels and you gain followers. You post where you can without being obtrusive. You can maybe even pay to promote it but ultimately when you’re broke and working alone, that’s not an option. It has to build organically and that takes time and patience and even if you do anything right, growth won’t necessarily happen.

Starting from scratch on your own is really hard and I wasn’t up to the task. didn’t mean for that show to end, but it just fizzled out. It’s just not the same as having a studio space and guests that will turn up in an official capacity. Not having that authority of being part of an institution makes booking an absolute far more difficult. People don’t want to talk to a random man with no reputation, but they might come into a real studio to talk to someone who works for a radio station.

Lesson 2: Releasing shows to a schedule is really important

It was during my This is the Show days that through a mutual friend I was invited to join Movieing On, a podcast on the Csicon Network. It’s hosted by the prolific Breki Tomasson with a panel of three others and we talk about a movie from 1999 or earlier for around 45 minutes. For me, it’s a really painless experience. I watch a movie and then just go online and share some random thoughts. Breki is a machine and has probably featured on more podcasts than any other human on the planet. The show is recorded over Skype and released more or less unedited. That’s not necessarily how I would do things (more on that later) but he hasn’t missed a release slot since the show’s inception and has built a decent following. He’s doing great work and if you want to support it then please visit his Patreon page.

A really important lesson (and one I haven’t quite learned) is that posting regularly is perhaps the most important thing to help build an audience. If you are lucky enough to get subscribers, it helps then stick with it if they know they’re getting a new show every week or even every month.

Lesson 3: Nobody wants to listen to you for hours

I also volunteered to contribute to a new Red Dwarf fan site, Gazpacho Soup. It was launched by multi-talented Alex Newsome following the news that the show was to be revived for a full run on Dave in 2012, to act as an alternative voice to the long established Ganymede & Titan. Red Dwarf was essentially one of my gateways into geekdom and writing about it was a dream come true. Along with the site’s other main contributor James, we formed The Garbage Podcast and our pilot run was us talking about the new series of episodes. We did the first couple over Skype with Alex recording the input, but after listening we decided that we wanted to stand out from the crowd a little, and attempt professional production values.

Much of the necessary structure was already in place as Alex is a skilled musician and had recorded original music for the cast. We would chat on Skype and each individually record our own bits and then send them to Alex who would then take out the background noise and edit them into a podcast shape. They turned out pretty well considering that we were all in different locations and using a variety of qualities of microphones. In the early days we tended to go on a bit too long and realised probably nobody wants to just listen to us talking for 2 hours.

We learned reasonably quickly, mostly from listening back to ourselves, that it’s probably best to keep it between 20 and 45 minutes or risk alienating your audience. No one cares how you are or what you’ve been doing throughout the week. They want to get to the meat of it.

Lesson 4: Quality control really matters

After all went quiet on the Red Dwarf front, I was looking for a podcast for my new website, The Spoilist, and when Alex told us that he hadn’t seen Star Trek: The Next Generation, we decided that we would take on the introcast format with two fans guiding the newcomer through the show. First Contact was born and we’ve done more than 50 episodes. I think we’re funny, sometimes insightful and most of all, I just really love chatting with these guys.

I should emphasise that at this point, none of us had met in real life. We were strangers who had come together because we liked a TV show. During the early days of this cast, some weird magic happened and we discovered some amazing chemistry and all became really good friends. For some reason, we just work well together. It’s not unlike the Clarkson-era Top Gear, although far more wet, liberal and based on a 50 year old science-fiction franchise. Star Trek is an excuse to hang our various routines on. We’ve done sketches and created some decent running gags, but most of the good stuff just comes from our conversations.

Have I also mentioned it’s an absolute bitch to create? We record two episodes at a time and sessions last about three hours. Then I take that and edit three tracks together to create a single episode that lasts about 20 minutes. This editing process takes around 8 hours and at this point, I’m releasing about 1 episode a month. For more elaborate setups, I have easily spent the best part of a day creating an effects heavy sketch.

This is done on top of a full time job and attempting to run a website and maintain some kind of life and see the important people.

We attempt to create something of broadcast quality every time we make a show. Do we succeed? Probably not. I doubt we’d pass any BBC quality control tests. Sometimes I don’t get the background music levels right, sometimes there are probably harsh edits. But I try damn hard.

Lesson 5: Do not be over ambitious

At one point, we tried making a topical comedy podcast with the plan to release them slightly regularly. Alex wrote a single episode of We’re Always Watching featuring a number of sketches and James and I performed the show, hopefully in style of a Radio Four sketch show. It was a huge undertaking and we produced a really good episode, but the time in the edit and writing and recording isn’t really viable without a support network. We will come back to it one day, because we like writing comedy and probably no one will pay us to do it, but right now life and other things are slightly getting in the way.

Lesson 6: You will never make money doing this

We don’t make money from our podcasts, and I have ploughed hundreds if not a whole lot more into this site. It’s a labour of love and those can be tiring. There is no end in sight, no pot of gold and the end of the rainbow, no sponsorship deal. You will not get a Knighthood for services to podcasting. It is what it is and we do it because we want to. I don’t even care if anyone listens, although that would be really nice.

Lesson 7: Don’t try to compete. It isn’t a competition

And so let’s return to the catalyst for all of this. Are our UK podcasts badly produced as a rule? Of course not. There are plenty done on terrible laptop mics with a humming fridge in the background and some of them are fantastic. But there are also loads of first rate broadcast quality shows out there. Adam Buxton was mentioned my Ms Sawyer but there’s also Richard Herring’s excellent RHLSTP; Answer Me This!; Cinematic Universe; The Football Ramble; Geeks Say Things and hundreds I’ve never even heard about. That’s not to mention those produced in house by publications like The Empire Film Podcast. There’s loads of great content out there and probably most of it doesn’t have the audience it deserves. Also the BBC our repository of great formatted shows and broadcasters. Often, the best people will end up there and if they didn’t have the privilege you can bet your bottom dollar that they’d all be podcasting on their own in a shed somewhere with a mic plugged into a laptop.

Miranda Sawyer did go back and listen to some other podcasts for a follow up and one critique of From the Sublime (a show I have been lucky enough to guest on) seemed off the mark.

But oh, this is a frustrating listen…[the host] needs to get a script editor, speak more slowly and sort out the volume. It’s a shame, because the ideas are there

A good script editor? There’s a slight ignorant arrogance there. We’d all love a script editor but our podcasts do not have the resources. It’s wonderful that they have democratised broadcasting, giving little sites like us the chance to put out content beside the biggest content producers in the world but we’re not like them and comparing like for like isn’t quite right. We’re all aspiring to be great but sometimes we screw up. Sometimes we need to be criticised but often we just need the time to learn.

Lesson 6(again): Seriously, you’re not going to make money doing this

Podcasting is a relatively new art form and as independent podcasters, we’re attempting to create something with zero resources, that will then sit alongside content produced by the pros who have the benefit of a lovely studio and a team of producers. Through advancing technology, we’ll be able to create even better quality podcasts but there’s no sustainable business model. The commercial radio stations use them as a funnel to bring in more listeners, but what about the rest of us?

Adam Buxton as a great example of an indie producer. Having had a successful XFM and then 6Music shows with Joe Cornish which were edited and added to as excellent podcasts, Buxton released his first self-produced podcast in late 2015. He does it without sponsorship or support and has asked on his show for some financial help so he can afford a producer. If one of the most downloaded podcasts in the country is asking for financial help, the rest of us don’t stand much of a chance.

Similarly, The Bugle, co-hosted by one of the most famous comedians on the planet, relies on donations in order to afford a producer having lost their original affiliation with The Times. It’s in no way a level playing field out there. Affiliates and sponsorship are a pipe dream and even if you are lucky to get those, they’ll do no more than cover costs.

The other thing is, most of the casts out there would never be radio shows; they are the very definition of narrowcasting. Many, mine included are so niche that the potential audience is absolutely tiny, never mind the actual audience. But isn’t that brilliant that there’s something out there for everyone? And if there isn’t, then you can make it yourself.

Lesson 8: Do it anyway

“Would it seem hubristic to spend hours on something that won’t be broadcast by the BBC?” asked Miranda. Nope but there’s never just one way to do something. As podcasters, we’re not the BBC, we may not even have good equipment and there’s certainly no magical end game where we win at podcasting.

None of that even matters to me though, because I want to talk and I want to write and I want to record and this gives me a creative outlet in a way the rest of my life does not. And every time I edit a show, I get better and I learn. It is worth it? Financially? No chance. In terms of my time spent? Maybe. In terms of listeners? Not really. Footballers often used to say it was a privilege to be paid for doing what they loved. I feel the same about podcasting, it’s just that I don’t get paid. I bloody love it.  There’s nothing I’m more proud of than First Contact – seriously.

If you’re thinking about starting a podcast, then just do it. Don’t think that you’re not good enough or that you don’t have the resources. There are free hosting packages to get you started and loads of forums and groups on Facebook and even Google Plus to offer advice and support. But don’t do it for them. Do it because you have something to say and no one else is saying it! And you know what? Someone might even listen.

  • This could easily apply to podcasts coming out of the USA…like mine. At any rate, nicely said! I’ve definitely tried and ditched a few ‘casts because they droned on too long about their personal lives, or just too long, period, even on topic. I also find people who laugh at everything they say, in a kind of forced, nervous way, a bit off-putting, and have ditched ‘casts for that reason. It’s tough to find the balance between humor and “just getting to the point”, and when podcasters find that sweet spot I’ll forgive some not-perfect sound or equivalent tech issues. I guess there are still enough people in the world who don’t listen to podcasts or who do but have no idea how they are produced that we can expect “helpful” criticism like “get a better script editor”. Most ‘casts are one(or two)-man bands, and it’s like juggling plates to get a weekly show out with any kind of quality at all. It’s a bit like the self-publishing situation for writers these days: always changing, and a challenge to get a professional-looking product out to readers.

    • Juggling plates is the right metaphor. It’s always a challenge to produce a single episode. As is finding a format that works. It isn’t all going to happen at once but you learn from doing it and from listening to others. I think anyone who is serious about it will get there but then you need to find the audience.