Make your pod almighty

Ashley Frieze on the etiquette of podcasting

I finally gave in, a year ago, and bought an iPod. Handing control of my music collection over to iTunes was not an enjoyable experience, but it was nicely compensated for by my introduction to the world of podcasts. Previously, I’d not bothered listening to podcasts because they were never available to me when I wanted them. When I was at the computer, I was too busy to spare brain time on podcast content, and on the rare occasions that I went online looking for entertainment, I couldn’t remember which podcasts I might be interested in, or whether they may have a new episode since last time.

With iTunes (other terrible music management software also exists), I could subscribe to podcasts as I heard about them, and have them automatically downloaded and sent to my iPod so I could listen when I was in the mood for podcast content, especially while driving. The fact that iTunes “knew” when new episodes were available meant I could be sure of never missing an episode. As I’m a gigging comedian, with many hours of driving to do every week, the podcast has become my constant companion on our nation’s road network.

Podcasts are an excellent example of the democratic new media. Anyone can publish anything and find their audience on their own terms. It’s brilliant. It’s an immediate artform; it can be recorded and put online in minutes. For Richard Herring, for example, it’s been a way to create hours of content and commercial interest in a way that would not have been possible through traditional routes. That which is provided free over the internet is not really a giveaway – it’s a way to build a fanbase who may well support live paid work in the future, buy merchandise, and spread the word.

The fact that anyone can make a podcast comes with a disadvantage. Any old idiot can put their ill-conceived ramblings online and call it a podcast. This is a waste of everyone’s time. Worse than that, I think some of these poorer podcasts can count against their publishers - even if later episodes are much better, the old ones can sit there and fester, a bit like having a YouTube clip of your first ever gig at the top of a Google search.

As a consumer, I don’t want to have to wade through any old shit that someone has just whacked online. As a result, some podcasts don’t get more than a few minutes of my time before I hit the delete button, and I’m sure other listeners do the same.

So I thought it would be useful to offer some suggestions for how to make the most of your podcast. I’m not a podcaster myself, so I think I’m offering an objective opinion. This is a comparison of the best and worst features of other people’s podcasts. I hope this is useful to existing and prospective podcasters out there.

Rule 1 – Edit, edit, and edit again

Unless the entire raison d’être of your podcast is that it’s unedited, then there’s no excuse for putting out the entirety of what you recorded. Tidy up the mistakes if you can. Take out the jokes which don’t make you laugh when you listen back. Many edited podcasts only put out 25% of what was recorded. If you’ve carefully scripted and edited the podcast before recording, maybe you’ll be able to put the whole thing out from one take. If you’re doing it live and unrehearsed, which can be brilliant, you have to accept that not everything is worth committing all your listeners to downloading and then working through.

Rule 2 – If it’s shit, don’t publish it

Maybe you wanted to put out your episode this week, but it didn’t really work. You’re better off just binning it. I know of a few podcasts that have done this, and it’s a shame but it’s not the end of the world. It is much better to keep your audience happy with consistent quality than to bore them or piss them off.

Rule 3 – Record it well

Your podcast should sound nice. This means you need to use a microphone of a sufficient quality. It means you need to make sure that the recording levels are right, sound effects are mixed in correctly, and it can be comfortably listened to at one volume setting. You should learn how to do this. If you get it wrong, you will pump noise directly into people’s ears.

Bear in mind that many people listen on their iPods (or other disappointing overpriced gadgets) with earphones. You have a direct route into someone’s head and you should treat it with respect. In short, sticking an iPhone on ‘record’ in the centre of your bedroom and then shouting at it is simply not good enough. Also, try to get the bitrate right; if you overcompress the sound, you will sound like you’re broadcasting from underwater, and your listeners may well have preferred that you’d drowned, rather than completed the awful racket you’ve released.

Rule 4 – Don’t shout

Seriously, don’t shout directly into the recording equipment, unless it’s set up to record the sound in a way which doesn’t overload. Barked noises on a podcast, are unprofessional and obnoxious to the ear. Because podcasts are listened to on personal stereo equipment, it’s a very intimate setting: be sensitive.

Rule 5 – Publish it properly

A podcast episode should have the correct mp3 tags, so it can be correctly classified on the listener’s mp3 player. Maybe you’ll even add ‘album artwork’” to each track and listener notes – all of which enrich the experience of the downloader. Your podcast should be published in a way which allows iTunes users (or equivalent) to subscribe. Perhaps you can upload directly to iTunes (though that limits you to Apple slaves only), or at the very least publish it on a service which has RSS (a syndication mechanism which most systems can use to find new episodes).

If you get this right, then your consumers need only find your podcast, subscribe to it, and sit around waiting for the next episode to arrive. It may also be a good idea to have a way of playing the podcast from your own website or podcasting service, so computer users can play it directly. Maybe even have a highlight/clips show for new listeners to bring them up to speed. One simple fact: if it’s hard to get hold of your show, you won’t get listened to. Sites like Podbean are very good at doing most of this for you.

Rule 6 – Think of a format that works for you

The best podcasts seem to have a structure which both keeps the show together and guides the listener through. Sometimes it’s the format of the show which makes for repeat business. Amorphous rambling shows don’t, on the whole, have a huge amount to offer.

In conclusion, I’m always looking for new and exciting things to listen to. I listen to both comedy and non-comedy podcasts, and the above guidelines seem to make the difference between professional and awful across every podcast genre I’ve experienced. To all the people currently making podcasts, thank you for your company on my long car journeys… please just be kind to my ears.

Published: 28 Sep 2010

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