How to make a podcast that doesn't suck

I never expected to acknowledge podcasting on my site because I figured it would be a temporary fad, like blogs.

Apparently I'm not always right.

Since podcasts have proven to be surprisingly useful in certain circumstances, such as while exercising, sitting on mass-transit, and driving on long car rides, it's time for its talent and production to develop a higher quality standard.

It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that most of these guidelines are taken from radio production. As much as we like to rage against the machine, radio wasn't always this bad, and the industry has learned many lessons that podcasters can borrow for effective and interesting production.

Get a friend

Ever wonder why successful radio shows always have multiple people, and why you always fall asleep when one person is giving a long PowerPoint presentation alone?

It takes a very, very good speaker to be interesting for very long without conversation and variety from others. There aren't many great orators, and you can't argue with the odds: you probably aren't one of them.

Don't do your podcast alone. It'll even bore you. Get a friend or two and engage in conversations, discussing and refuting each other's comments.

But don't go overboard. Each person should have a very distinctive voice so your listeners can keep track of who's speaking. If you have a bunch of guys who sound the same, it's too confusing and chaotic, detracting from the listening experience.

Use audio level compression

Ever notice how the songs on the radio never have the quiet-to-loud dynamics that you hear in the CD version of the same song? Radio broadcasts compress the dynamic range to a very small window near the top of the volume scale. This makes everything sound "loud", but more importantly, it makes everything the same volume.

Many podcast listeners are sitting in a noisy car, bus, or train. And most headphones aren't sealed very well, especially the iPod earbuds. As a result, people need to turn up the volume fairly high to comfortably hear and understand continuous speech.

Without level compression, some speakers will be so loud that the listener turns the volume down, but other speakers will be too quiet to hear at that volume. Or a speaker may suddenly jump in volume, blasting the listener's ears, because he unknowingly moved his mouth a centimeter closer to the microphone.

Get a decent speech microphone

If you're serious about your podcast, you have to sound professional.

At the very least, you should get a very good computer microphone. It should have some sort of wind deflector on it. These are the big clown-nose-like sponge balls on the end, sometimes embedded within the "stick" part instead of sitting around the top, that prevent listeners from hearing a loud pop every time you pronounce a P or B.

But for a clean, clear, professional sound, even the best "computer" microphone or headset won't cut it. You have to get a real microphone.

Take a few minutes to learn about microphone types and pickup directions. For $200 or less, you can get a pair of reasonable Shure or Sennheiser speech microphones on Amazon and a low-end external mixer to plug the microphones' XLR cables into, so you can feed the output into a regular sound card's "line in".

Use Skype sparingly

Use Skype only if you can do it well, and you have no other reasonable choice.

Don't bother unless the connection on both ends can maintain a high-quality call without dropping any of the sound. Your audience doesn't want to hear Skype compression artifacts, clipping, or dropping. Your guests shouldn't sound like Hurdy Gurdy Man. (Ask your parents, or listen to the parody: )

Skip bumpers and large introductions

TV and radio programs often have long introductions with theme music, cast biographies, show descriptions and overviews, and other accessory information. Many also have "bumpers": mini-introductions before or after breaks for commercials or music.

Podcasts don't need any of that.

  • They're not live, so the cast doesn't need extra time to prepare.
  • They're played "on demand": people know what they're playing, and don't need a large introduction or a "break" from what they were hearing before.
  • Listeners already know what the show is called, who it features, and what it's about. They chose to subscribe to it based on a website or iTunes description.
  • Most listeners are repeat listeners. They've already heard your introduction and are tired of it.

Don't commit to a duration

Your podcast doesn't have to be timed in 30-minute intervals. Nobody cares if your show was 17 minutes two weeks ago and 83 minutes last week. If you try to reach the same duration for every show, you'll end up cutting good content or stretching the show with worthless padding (such as bumpers and introductions).

Focus on content, and end the show when you run out.

Omit music in talk shows

Unless it's the focus of the program, don't take breaks to play music. Your show isn't live - you don't need breaks.

One of my favorite podcasts, The Word Nerds, stretches their show to 30-40 minutes by playing loosely-related (and often bad) songs between 5- to 10-minute content blocks.

I'm not listening to it for the music - I want to hear the excellent talk content. And in many podcast-listening situations, such as exercising or driving on a long trip, it's inconvenient or unsafe to fast-forward.

People would rather hear only the 12 minutes of content than little slices of content spread across a 20-minute collection of obscure music that they probably won't like. Go through all of your content in a continuous block, then end the show.


Do you really need video for your podcast's content? If not, don't use it.

People primarily listen to podcasts on iPods in the previously mentioned situations. They often can't watch a screen, or don't want to devote their visual attention to it. Remember, video isn't the next big thing.

Only the two most recent (and most expensive) iPod models can play video at all. Most existing iPod owners don't have this ability. Videos also consume far more space than audio tracks and require much more battery power to play.

Video is understandable for visual content. The Mac Pro Podcast, for example, provides short video tutorials on media production using Apple's professional software. It often includes instructional videos and example content. This works much better with video than audio.

But most video podcasts are just fixed-frame recordings of the people recording the audio podcasts with some useless effects and transitions. This doesn't add any value, and it just makes production more difficult and expensive. Don't bother.


Now go out there and produce good podcasts! I have to listen to something interesting on the way to work and on long trips.