About once a week, I receive a request in the Major Spoilers Mailbox asking to spill the secrets of the Major Spoilers Podcast and Critical Hit: A Major Spoilers Dungeons and Dragons Podcast. The great thing about podcasts is the cost of entry is really low, but you might want to run through this Top Ten list before deciding to jump on the podcasting wagon.
A little background: I’ve been a podcaster since 2005, when good friend and colleague Charlie White and I started a technology podcast called The Coolness Roundup. For five years prior to that, I had a series of audio commentaries posted on the Digital Webcast web site that I produced and a daily streaming video show on DMN TV. After the release of The Coolness Roundup, Charlie and I spun out The Coolness Roundup Daily, and The Coolness Lounge, before a contract loop hole opened up the possibility to do podcasts that I totally owned and controlled without an evil overseer. This allowed Major Spoilers and later, Critical Hit to created. I’ve taught classes on podcasting, and have spent years talking about digital audio and video streaming.
Keep in mind these are best practices, a guide to serve those who want to get into podcasting, and not the end-all-be-all commandments when it comes to creating your show. You should also realize that in order to get you coming back for more, this list is a general overview of the topic. I’ll explore specific topics in the future if you demand it.
The biggest reasons a podcast fails is because the hosts can’t find anything interesting to say each and every time they produce a show. This can easily be solved by first figuring out exactly what your show is going to focus on. Are you going to focus on a specific topic or are you going to yammer on about anything and everything that comes to mind?
There are some really good podcasts that are able to cater to pop culture in general, but a podcast that focuses on comic books, camera technology, and trends in science is so all over the place that it will be difficult to find an audience, or once found, keeping them around.
2. DO THE RESEARCH
One way to help figure out a focus is to conduct research on the podcasts that are already out there. Six years after podcasting became a mainstream medium, all the broad topics have been filled. There are hundreds of General Comic Book Discussion podcasts out there already, so jumping in with yet another General Comic Book Discussion podcast is going to make it really difficult for you to find listeners.
If you are currently only listening to one or two podcasts then you might want to spend some time expanding your horizons and explore a variety of different podcasts, but inside the area you want to talk about and outside to see what others are doing. Something can be learned from every podcast you listen to. When a podcast spent an entire show chewing and smacking on M&M’s and then the next episode did it again, telling everyone he didn’t care if it bothered them, it demonstrated the host didn’t care about his listeners.
3. MAKE IT UNIQUE
Podcasting by nature is niche narrow-casting; meaning the best shows focus on one topic in a broad field. Instead of creating a General Comic Book Discussion podcast, focus on a particular character or team. Shows like Tom vs. The Flash, and Super Future Friends have a very narrow focus and by default will have a smaller audience. But they are an audience who thirst for information about the topic and will be with you for a long time.
4. MAKE IT BETTER
If you insist on creating a podcast that already has a large competition base, you better make sure you can do it better than anyone else. A good way to do this is to create a mission statement and goal statement about what your show is going to accomplish, and how it is going to do it. Are you going to make your show sound better and more professional than the competition? Do you have a perspective on the subject that blows everyone else out of the water?
5. AUDIO OR VIDEO?
Back in the day, when I was the producer/host of DMN TV, most of the nation lived in the shadow of broadband, with less than 20-percent of the nation having access to 1.5MB DSL. The biggest hurdle to mass acceptance of the show was the fact we were creating a 20MB 5-10 minute high quality video file that took 45 minutes for viewers to download on the fastest dial-up. Today, 10MB up and down broadband is common, making video podcasting a viable option for many.
There are some really excellent But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The talking head podcasts are often the most boring, and unless you have a unique style or perspective on the topic that lends itself to the visual medium, it is probably best to keep your content in the audio only realm. Also, keep in mind that many people consume podcasts while traveling, which makes it difficult for someone to watch your video podcast while driving down the PCH at 75 m.p.h.
There is also the file size issue that you should consider as well. A video podcast can be 10 to 100 times bigger than an audio file, and depending on your hosting provider, you may find yourself paying out the nose to serve a video file on a regular basis. You could use streaming video services like Ustream, but those are live feeds, and not on demand downloads. YouTube is a viable alternative if you don’t mind turning over all content to a big corporation who could decide to cancel your account at any time, for any reason.
Once you have your show topic nailed down, decided what you do want to do, and do not want to do, and have picked a format, you need to nail down a schedule. How often will you release your show? How long will it be? When will you record? These are vital questions that need answers before you press the record button. I spent a good portion of a year listening to two guys drone on and on and on for three to four hours at a time as they literally read their notes they had written about the five or six topics they were talking about that week. BORING! Not only boring, but a waste of time, as it prevented me from listening and discovering other awesome shows out there.
Here’s a really valuable tip: Keep it tight, keep it current, and keep it short. I’d much rather listen to an hour and a half of really tight and fun entertainment, than three hours of dreck.
It used to be 100 episodes was a huge achievement, but now 1000 and higher get people to sit up and take notice when it comes to podcasts. It’s kind of ironic that comic book podcasters pride themselves in high episode count, yet comic book publishers continue to release number one issues. In the beginning it is probably a good idea to keep your show on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule.
7. WRITE A SCRIPT, OR AT THE VERY LEAST A DETAILED OUTLINE
The worst thing in the world is to listen to a podcast that has no plan from the very beginning.
Host 1: Welcome to our super great show! Host 2: YEAH!
Host 1: What do you want to talk about this week?
Host 2: I don’t know, what do you want to talk about?
A highly detailed script is important as it gives you an idea of exactly what you want to cover and what you want to say, and allows you to edit your thoughts down to their essence. The problem is, too many scripted shows sound like people are reading their words (and not doing a very good job of it). If script reading is not your forte, then go for a highly detailed outline that touches on segment length, links, quotes, and anything else you need to pull up during your conversation.
While Saturday Night Live may not get as many laughs as it once did, there is a reason why the show technically well done – everyone practices. You’ve heard the phrase “practice makes perfect” and the more you practice at something, the better your show will be. Granted, once you’ve been doing the show for several months the need for a rehearsal may be reduced, but in the early days of your podcasting endeavor, practice is what you need.
9. THE TEN SHOW RULE
A lot of podcasters want their first show to be the one that draws in 10,000 people. If you have something really interesting to share, and you have the budget to advertise the hell out of it, it just might be. But most first episodes are rough around the edges (heck, even The Major Spoilers Podcast lobs out a dud or two even today). One valuable bit of advice for any first time podcaster is to record 10 shows before submitting it to the iTunes directory, or making big announcements about it on your website (you do have a website to support the show, right?). Doing 10 regular shows gives you a chance to work out all of the above mentioned thoughts and suggestions. By episode 10 you’ll know if you and your team are working out, if you can keep to a regular schedule, if you have something interesting to say, and so on.
Technology is actually the easiest part of the entire podcasting. You can go two ways with your gear; expensive of cheap. You can do so much with a simple microphone, free recording software and a computer, but over time you’ll want to expand your capabilities and streamline your process to make your podcast sound even better than before. Cost for entry? Anywhere from $100 to $10,000 depending on what you want to do. We’ll get into technology specifics down the road, but really, technology is the least of your worries.
There you go. Ten things you need to consider before jumping into the podcasting world. Of course there are many more things to discuss and talk about, like how are you going to build your RSS feed, where are you going to host, and exactly what kind of equipment you need to record your own coast to coast dungeons and dragons experience? But that is best left for another time.