At some point during the research stage of Turn Up the Volume, I began creating a list of best practices for podcasters, sort of a “10 Commandments” all podcasters should follow if they wanted to succeed. Each new tenet was based on themes that had emerged from my conversations with the 60 or so podcasters I interviewed for the book.
As I began jotting down ideas, I quickly shot through the first “10 Commandments” and began adding more and more. Eventually, the list grew to over 30. I went back over it and winnowed it down to these 21, combining concepts that seemed to be related.
Originally, I hoped to use the tenets as a structure for the entire book, but I abandoned that idea. Instead, many of the elements were worked into different parts of the book, with Chapter 1 retaining the name “The Tenets of Good Podcasting.”
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- Have a passion for the topic. Are you going to be as excited about this topic in episode 200 as your were in episode 1? Far and away the one thing every podcaster I interviewed agreed on is that a podcaster needs to be passionate about her subject and for producing a podcast around it. If you don’t care or want to know everything about a particular subject, how can you expect your audience to care?
- A podcast is a promise. Post on time. – With the exception of one-off or seasonal podcasts like Serial, which have a set number of episodes and then go away for awhile, most podcasts appear on a regular schedule, whether it’s daily, weekly, biweekly or monthly. Part of building a relationship with your audience is establishing regularity in when you post a new episode. They want to know that when they turn on their smartphone Friday morning, the latest episode will be there. If it’s not, they’ll feel disappointed and anxious. You’ve broken a promise. Regularity of posting also benefits you in that it creates a structure for your production cycle. It gives you deadlines that have to be met in order to keep your promise.
- Does the audience you’re aiming for actually listen to podcasts? Although there has been huge growth in podcast listening over the last five years, many people still don’t listen to podcasts. If you’ve chosen a topic that you’re passionate about, make sure there’s an audience for it before you begin podcasting. That means going out on social media or to places where people who share that interest meet and see if they’d be interested in a podcast about that subject. When you talk to them, find out what they like about the subject and what topics they’d like to hear discussed in upcoming episodes. Maybe they’d be good guests or could point you to some. Very early in the planning process, figure out who your audience is and design the podcast for them. Don’t forget about them either. You’re going to want to promote to them later on and encourage them to share your content.
- Do the work. Good podcasting is hard work. It takes time to master the technical skills necessary to record a podcast and post it online. If you’re going to interview guests, you need to juggle schedules to make that happen. Once an episode is online, you have to promote it and communicate with your audience. Success comes from setting up a schedule and committing to constantly improving the end product. You need to ask yourself, “What can I do today to make my podcast better?” Then do it.
- Solve your technical problems early. Thanks to relatively inexpensive digital technology available to consumers today, the technical barrier for entry in podcasting is quite low. Likewise, the baseline audio quality you need to achieve is easy to obtain. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sweat the details when it comes to improving your audio quality. Make each episode sound better than the previous one. Create audio people want to listen to.
- A podcast is not reality. Podcast listeners appreciate authenticity in both the content they hear and the people who deliver it to them. Someone who sounds fake or put on is a big turn off. However, most people don’t want to listen to a rambling three-hour diatribe. They want something that has a beginning, middle and end. You need to give your podcast a structure.
- Structure does not equal shackles. Having a structure helps to organize your podcast and creates expectations for your audience. Building a podcast around regular segments and an episode theme allows you and your guests to organize your thoughts and work toward a conclusion. The structure can still be loose. There can be flights of inspiration taking you down side corridors, but the structure will always bring you back and assures that you’ll stick the landing in the end.
- Develop a podcasting identity – Just as you’ve given structure to your podcast, you need to structure your performance as a host. Somebody has to explain what the podcast is about, steer the conversation, ask the questions and wrap things up. That means being actively present during the recording and not passive. Bring your energy levels up. Be the driver.
- Imagine the person you’re talking to and talk to them. Know your audience. You surveyed them to figure out what they were interested in before you launched the podcast; now’s the time to adjust your performance so that you’re talking to them. What do they want to hear? What do they look like? Make it an enriching, personal experience for them by being their friend.
- Learn when to shut up. Your guest is much more interesting than you are. If your podcast has guests, especially ones who are experts on a subject, let them speak. Don’t interrupt. Let them finish talking and then take your turn. Your listeners will appreciate it.
- Listen and react, but don’t restate. Be a facilitator of the conversation. Ask a question, listen to all of the answer and then follow up with a related question. Don’t repeat what the guest said. You want to keep the conversation flowing.
- Pre-production is just as important as post-production. Do the research. Send your guest questions or topics to review before the interview. Have a conversation over the phone ahead of time. The more work you do before the interview, the better the interview will be and the easier it will make the post-production work.
- Put your guest at ease. One the advantages of sending questions or topics for review ahead of time is to put your guest at ease. They may never have been on a podcast or been interviewed before. Before you turn on the recorder, spend a few minutes talking to them about the conversation you’re going to have. Ask them if they have any questions or topics they’d like to address before you get started. Get them some water to drink if they’re in the same space with you. Once they’re comfortable, check your audio levels and start the interview.
- Seek diversity in topics and guests. While you may have chosen a topic to podcast about that you’re an expert on, chances are other people will know just as much or even more about that topic than you. Those are the people you want to have as guests. However, make sure the choice of guests you’re making isn’t too narrow. You don’t want someone who is going to just echo what you say; you want people who have different opinions and life experiences than you to bring new perspectives to your podcast. This includes reaching out to people with different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Not only does this expand the scope of your discussion, it will help you to reach new audiences.
- Learn to take criticism. Once your podcast is up and running and you’ve posted a few episodes, it’s time to reach out to your listeners and solicit feedback. As with any form of creative expression, one of the keys to success is to develop a thick skin about the content you produce. Some people, especially those giving you feedback on social media, may come across harshly or even out-and-out mean-spirited because they feel protected by anonymity. Learn to ignore the haters, but weigh legitimate feedback from your audience and friends with the aim of improving your content.
- Figure out how to pay for this thing. At some point, early in the development process, you need to create a business plan. Are you going to sell ads or seek support through crowdfunding? You could seek sponsorships or set up an online store to sell podcast-related merchandise. Explore the different monetization models at there and find one fits your podcast.
- Use natural sound. You can create a successful interview-style podcast and never have to leave your studio. But, when the opportunity arises, try to incorporate other audio elements into your podcast to enrich the listening experience for you audience. Music is usually the easiest audio element to add, but try incorporating natural sound into your podcast. Get out in the world. You’ll have to adjust your recording process and learn some new skills, but it will be worth it. If you’re creating an in-the-field report with multiple interview subjects, interview your guests where they work, especially if the sounds in that location help you tell the story. If someone works in an office, it probably makes more sense to bring them into the studio, but if they work in a garage or kitchen, grab some natural sound to lay under their interview. Details like that bring your audience to a location and help in the storytelling.
- Respect ownership. Don’t use someone else’s work — music, text, photos etc. — without their permission. Respect copyright. Just because you found a piece of audio online doesn’t mean it’s free to use. All creators, including you, have the right to distribute and make money from content they’ve created. Give their work the same respect you would want them to give yours.
- Build a home online. Your audio is going to live on an online audio server, but you need to create a location where people can find you and where you can share your content. That can be a website you build using WordPress or Squarespace or a social media platform, like Facebook or Tumblr. You can then link your episodes to that location or add an embeddable audio player to it. Wherever your online home is going to be, that’s where you’re going to promote your content, sell merchandise, solicit subscribers or set up a comment board for your audience.
- Promote like your life depended on it. Even before you post your first episode, you need to be promoting your podcast. This goes hand-in-hand with identifying your audience, because those are the people you’ve determined are going to appreciate this content the most. Communicate with them on social media and invite them to sign up for an email newsletter that has the latest news about your podcast. Create special content just for them. As you build that rapport, they will become your associate marketers, sharing your content with their friends who like the same things.
- Have fun. Podcasting is supposed to be fun. If you’re not having fun, then maybe you should be doing something else. If you still want to podcast, figure out what you’re not enjoying and fix it. It’s taking too long to produce an episode? Get some people to help you. Your audience is too small? Maybe you need to change the focus of the podcast or alter your marketing plan. Make the change and move on — or quit. Ultimately, this goes back to the very first tenet on this list. If you’ve chosen something that you’re passionate about, chances are you’re going to be enjoying yourself. That doesn’t mean it’s not going to be difficult or you won’t have bad days, but it’s easier to put the effort in on something you love. Imagine putting all that time and work into something you hated or didn’t care about. Make the right choice at the beginning and the rest will be a lot more fun.