Love of Spoken Word
I grew up with I guess what you would call a love of both the written and spoken word. The moment I got access to my first copying machine, was the moment I first tried to create my own comics and magazines devoted to whatever I happened to be into. When I got my first word processor I went through a renaissance of sorts in trying to publish information about the games I was playing and distribute it freely among anyone who was willing to take it off my hand. So when I started blogging significantly later in life it was of no real shock. I had been “trying” to publish my own content for years, just doing so with limited success. I would be willing to bet that other bloggers “of a certain age” can tell very similar tales of youthful exuberance. While I grew up in the MTV generation, my sentiments will more than likely always lay with the era when print media was king.
Another constant in my life however was Radio and Public Television. I spent most of my childhood watching Nova and Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and when I rode around in my fathers truck it was almost always tuned to the radio station playing Paul Harvey. When I started choosing my own radio stations to listen to I found the best use of my time to listen to NPR and use that morning lull as my way of catching up on the world. From there I discovered so many broadcast programs that were more entertainment than education, and I was absolutely hooked. In many ways podcasting is the extension of this love for the spoken word. Some bloggers catch the bug, and feel like they have to move into doing something more than just writing. This happened to me a little bit over a year ago and now I have two different podcasts to show for my obsession. Many other attempt to maintain three for four different shows devoted to different segments of their experience. If this is happening to you, I thought I would take a moment this morning to talk about some of the issues I had to deal with when approaching my first show.
One of the first decisions you are going to have to make is what exactly you want your show to be about. Just like with your blog you have to make a decision as to what you want your format to be. Single game or single topic blogs and podcasts will be significantly more popular than generalist ones, however in my experience your audience will also be considerably more fickle. If you listen to a Wildstar podcast religiously for example, and you stop playing Wildstar… then your reason for listening to that podcast also goes out the window. If you listen to a more general podcast you ultimately end up listening for the cast of people, and those sorts of listeners tend to be significantly more loyal. That said all of the biggest podcasts that I know of tend to be devoted to a very specific niche.
For me personally I knew that there was no way in hell I would be turning this into a career so I was not extremely concerned about trying to get the biggest possible audience. I am interested in a lot of different things, as are my friends… so for me it was a no brainer that we created AggroChat to reflect the conversations we already had on TeamSpeak on a regular basis. In my experience podcasts tend to fall into four broad groups as far as the actual format goes. I have listened to great podcasts that fall into each of these categories, and not so great podcasts as well. Ultimately you have to pick whatever works best for your cast, which leads us to the next point.
I chose to refer to this as topic focused, but more often than not this tends to mean a “News” show where the hosts cover a series of predetermined topics. This requires you to keep good show notes and that they get circulated before the actual recording of the show. Believe it or not we actually started AggroChat trying to follow this format, but quickly realized we were not the “planning” type people. These tend to be the most “predictable” shows as far as recording time goes, since you have a clear list of goals that you want to accomplish in each show.
This is ultimately the format that AggroChat became, because we are bad at having structure. The idea here is to record a somewhat natural conversation with a group of people. Topics flow in and out of the discussion and segway naturally. The problem here is that this only works if the folks you are recording with are very very familiar with each other. While the first format relies heavily on planning, this format is all about interpersonal chemistry. I personally love this format, but I am sure there are just as many people who are annoyed by it. This is not a format you can carry off if you are assembling a group of people that do not regularly spend time together.
This is the podcast that tells a story. There are many different versions of this but probably my two favorites are This American Life and Radio Lab. This is the format that requires extreme planning but adds a whole new dimension… that is significant amounts of post production editing. When it works you have this wonderful audio journey through the story you are trying to tell. When it doesn’t work, you end up with jarring gaps. This is one of those formats that I aspire to try some day, but just don’t have the technical ability yet to really make it work. If you are an audio editing wizard though this might be your natural format, mixing in clips and music to support the tale you are trying to weave. The folks that can do this one will have my constant and undying respect.
This format is probably the most straight forward and at the same time extremely flexible. The concept is simple, in that one or more hosts asks questions from one or more guests. The challenge is in scheduling a constant flow of new guests to sit down and record with you. You can put as much planning into this format as you need to, or you can do it completely off the cuff. When I record “Bel Folks Stuff” for example I ask a few standard questions but the rest is taken from queues in the conversation and I try and go wherever the conversation wants to lead. When Braxwolf records Beyond Bossfights he seems to have a master plan laid out in exactly what he wants to ask his guest. Both work and both are completely viable methods, so ultimately you have to figure out which version works best for you. Chances are you can even make a hybrid approach work a well. This format relies mostly on the ability of the hosts to “coax” a performance out of their guests.
There are lots of different styles of podcasts and each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. The more people you add into a podcasting cast, the more chaotic the end result. The fewer people you have, you lose some of the depth of having multiple opinions chime in on topics. The “Solo” podcast is its own beast that I personally am not a huge fan of. It always feels like I am being lectured to more than joining in on a conversation. I am going to talk about a few of the styles that I have experienced and some of the strengths and weaknesses of each.
This is the traditional “one man show” to borrow the showbiz term. You have an idea that you want to run with and you just start recording. The problem here is that like I said above these shows tend to be extremely unbalanced sounding. The solo podcast works well if you are telling a story, and going to be referring back to audio or music clips to help flesh out your narrative. These shows also work amazingly well for five to ten minute “news update” type formats. Where the format tends to grind on is when dealing with a thirty minute or longer show of just one voice talking. The positive is you can literally record whenever you want to, and are not limited by other people to make your ideas work. The negative is… you have to carry all of the weight on your own shoulders.
I feel like the majority of podcasts fall into this category, where you have a preset group of two to three voices that present topics every single week. This is the cornerstone of the podcast for a reason, because it works extremely well. In three voices especially you can get just a wide enough range of opinion to make most topics work, but not have too many competing voices to let a discussion descend into chaos. The challenge here then becomes scheduling. Unless you can find a time every single week or whatever your recording schedule happens to be… it becomes a juggling act trying to get all of the key players in the room at the same time to record a show. I know many shows that will record multiple episodes in the same weekend and stagger their release to make up for scheduling conflicts. I know personally we have done this twice with AggroChat and they made for some very long evenings. Once you get into a routine then more than likely things will stabilize and get significantly easier. Duo works well but the problem with Duo is when one person is gone… you have a solo podcast. With a Trio you can limp through with just two people relatively successfully.
The ensemble cast is the most forgiving when it comes to scheduling conflicts. It tends to draw on a large list of potential co-hosts and arranging as many of them as you can on a given night. This is ultimately what AggroChat has turned into over time having had ten different people who have appeared with semi-regular frequency during the course of our time recording it. Ultimately however in order to make it work you are going to need a large group of friends who are interested in podcasting. The strength of this format is that you can incorporate new people easily and in a pinch you can record with significantly fewer people than normal. The problem being that once you get over five people on a podcast it starts to get extremely chaotic. We do our best to mitigate that problem with our format, but ultimately AggroChat is what it is… a rambling chaotic mess sometimes. I feel the casting is extremely sustainable as recently Rae expressed interest in stopping the podcast for the time being, and we were able to work in a couple newer voices in her place.
This one is a very different beast in that essentially it is a solo podcast… with one additional guest that varies each time you record. This is the format I chose for my Bel Folks Stuff podcast, and it has its own set of interesting challenges. The key problem for me has always been scheduling people. When dealing with a few people on a regular basis you can pick a single time to record that works for everyone. When you are constantly changing who your “partner” is on a show by show basis you end up having to work with the new persons schedule. This has been pure hell for me at times considering a lot of the people I have wanted to talk to are in vastly different time zones. This has completely destroyed any semblance of a release schedule for me, and as a result I have purposefully kept from submitting the show to TGEN because I never know when I will get time to record one. I personally find the format gratifying as a host because it allows me to have interesting long form conversations with “folks” that I care about. Due to all of the problems I would highly suggest against this being your “primary” podcasting format.
As with blogging the key to building a reliable audience is through regular and predictable release schedule. There are people who start their day by reading my blog, because they know it will always be there waiting on them. Similarly there are a series of podcasts that I start listening to Monday morning as I begin work because I know they will be reliably waiting on me. As such I have found that the interval is not nearly as important as simply sticking to something. I personally jumped in the deep end and started immediately with a “weekly” show. This means every single week like clockwork you have to crank out a show, edit it, and get it posted and publicized. AggroChat requires less editing than most shows out there, and still without a doubt this dominates my Saturday night and Sunday morning getting things ready for the world. There are many nights that I go to sleep about 2 am after editing, and then still have to get up the next morning and deal with the publicizing. This is the last point I am going to talk about today so I thought I would talk about a few of the release schedules that I have seen work.
Like I said this one is at times sheer madness. You are signing yourself up for a radical shift in your lifestyle to incorporate making a podcast into each and every week. Depending on the type of podcast this can be easier or harder. For example we use an ensemble cast, and Kodra is more than willing to “host” but I have never really cross trained anyone else on the whole “creation” process. The positive here is that people LIKE listening to new content every week. Your audience will grow faster because you are creating more content for them to consume. We even have some insanely loyal listeners that have gone back through our entire back catalog of new 56 episodes. Just realize that the weekly show is a massive challenge, and you have to be fairly stubborn to make it work.
I hate the term bi-weekly because it means two things… twice a week or every other week. In this case I am referring to the every other week schedule that several podcasts use. This is still a strenuous schedule but gives people an “on” week and an “off” week to recuperate and plan things around. I have been exceptionally lucky that I have a wife that supports the madness I am involved in, but for a lot of married couples locking away a night every week is going to be a problem, especially once you factor in children. The bi-weekly schedule tends to be this happy medium making it equal parts flexible and manageable while still churning out enough content to get folks “hooked” on your format quickly.
There are a myriad of issues with the monthly format. For starters you have to be extremely careful when you schedule exactly when you want to record. Theoretically you need to record with regular interval meaning you would need to release the first week of every month or some similar schedule. The problem is life often sabotages you, and while it sounds good right now that we will record in three weeks… there might be a birthday or an anniversary or some other hurdle that gets in the way. I am horrible at keeping calendars so there is no way I could do a regular monthly show. I release “Bel Folks Stuff” on a semi-monthly schedule, but I have actually missed an entire month before. The big problem I see with a monthly show is that in theory you have to always have a great show. When you do a weekly show, you can recover from having a shit week pretty easily. When you are only releasing twelve shows a year… they all pretty much have to be golden to keep folks interested.
Recording Your Podcast
When I set down to talk about all of this I quickly realized that I would have to chunk this up over the course of multiple posts. In this first part I focused on the “design” of your podcast. In the next part I am going to focus on the nuts and bolts of recording your first episode. The final part to follow after that will talk about the nuts and bolts of hosting. My hope is that this inspires folks to go off and create their own podcast, but also inspires them to realize there is a lot of planning that goes into making it work. As I am drafting the next pieces I would love to know if there are any specific things that you would like me to take a detour through and cover.