Podcasting for Publishers: Should You DIY?
Everybody loves a podcast. Not everybody should make one.
Audio has a reputation as one of the most DIY-able content formats. But is it? It’s true that capturing good audio is possible without expensive equipment or extensive expertise, but making something valuable out of that audio — be it a long form narrative, a 2-minute report, an article narration (as some publishers do with the help of an audio production partner) or an interview show — is only possible with the right balance of time, money and know-how.
Before worrying about how to create great audio content however, you need to spend time determining why you want to do it.
“The biggest hangup I see,” says Alex Cox, Senior AV Producer at Cards Against Humanity, “is people asking, ‘What sort of technical stuff should I invest in?’ That’s putting the cart before the horse,” she says.
“If you’re a print publication, there probably is a market for your audience to listen [to your audio content], but if you’ve never done anything like that before, it’s really hard to figure out what that should look like.”
Cox stresses the importance of listening to a huge volume of audio content weekly, spanning different genres and styles. “If you’re not doing that, you don’t know how to use the medium to its best advantage,” she says.
Colin McNulty, Senior Podcast Producer at WBEZ, a Chicago-based affiliate of NPR and PRI, agrees.
“It’s like writing,” McNulty says. “Everybody can write, but not everybody can write well. It’s the same with audio,” he says. It’s a medium, and there are a few people who know how to excel within it, and a lot more who don’t.
To understand how to use audio content, take a close look at the landscape.
McNulty points to a Q&A between Hunter Walk and Adam Davidson as one of the most accurate assessments of audio production he’s seen.
Walk is a partner at seed stage venture fund Homebrew, and Adam Davidson is a journalist for The New Yorker and co-founder of Planet Money. The entire Q&A is well worth a read, but Davidson’s description of the gap in understanding between those with audio content expertise and those without it, is particularly vital to anyone thinking of dipping a toe in audio:
“A very common mistake that has happened again and again is that somebody — a news outlet, a media company, a celebrity — decides they want a podcast but doesn’t recognize there are different segments of podcasting. They try to do something like “This American Life” and learn, too late, that there are not that many people in the world who know how to produce audio at that level of quality. It’s not like TV or movies, where there is a long-standing, massive ecosystem of DPs and editors and producers. There’s, like, 20 people who are true pros in long-form podcasting/audio production and pretty much every one of them has a job they like and isn’t going to do work for hire.”
Davidson compares the way people talk about audio to how they talk about print and video. In particular, he says, the idea that there’s such a thing as the “podcast industry”, is flawed.
“We don’t talk about the ‘video industry’ to refer to everything from your cousin’s bar mitzvah video to some random unboxer on YouTube to “Better Call Saul” to the latest Marvel blockbuster,” he says.
“Similarly, we don’t talk about the ‘print industry’ to refer to holiday cards, kids books, The New Yorker, and a Dan Brown thriller. We recognize that video media and print media are divided into many, many categories and industries that barely overlap. They have different business models, different companies, different creators, etc.”
That same level of nuance and variation exists within audio, but without taking the time to recognize it, listen to it, and consider how it strategically applies to your content strategy, you’re missing out on what audio can be and what it can do for you.
Let’s say you’ve done your research, you know what kind of audio content you want to create and you know how it can support your brand. Now it’s time to think about production.
If you want original content and your goal is to make the next “Serial”, you’re looking at a big investment and a lot of outside hires.
“Highly-produced shows cost a fortune: tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode. They are like quality TV, requiring highly skilled production staff and a business model that can reward that level of effort,” says Davidson.
For a multi-part series exploring the rise and fall of former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, McNulty says his team spent months on pre-production before they were ready to record.
To make “The Daily”, The New York Times hired a team of audio experts to function almost as a small business within the walls of The Times.
So what about less complex shows? Aren’t they easier?
Easier, sure. Easy, no. Interview shows in the vein of Marc Maron’s “WTF” are among the simplest to produce in terms of technical setup, but there’s still a sizable investment of time in booking guests and editing episodes.
If you’re a brand interested in leveraging an influencer host, you’ll also likely need to dedicate staff to producing the show (treating your host like the talent), or paying your host for their production work as well as their audience, which gives them considerable leverage over the final product.
A show like “WTF” is particularly ideal production-wise because guests are interviewed in person. When you look to remote sources however, things get more complicated fast.
Jennifer Marmor, producer for “Judge John Hodgman” on the Maximum Fun network, knows about this. Her role covers soup-to-nuts production for a weekly comedy podcast in which the co-hosts are usually in different cities talking to a new set of callers (“litigants”, in the show’s parlance) every episode, who could also be located anywhere.
“When I first started producing, the litigants weren’t going into local studios,” she says. “It can be expensive when you’re recording four shows a month.”
Instead, Marmor briefed litigants on recording best practices and then had them call in via Skype. As the show grew in popularity and revenue from listener support however, Marmor began sourcing local recording studios for litigants to achieve better quality sound.
Now, a given show involves coordinating three different studios (some of which don’t initially understand what’s needed in terms of patching together multiple phone lines) and then making significant edits in post to pare back the riffing between guests and hosts to its best bits.
“I’m the only person at the moment who’s on the production side of the show,” Marmor says. “And ‘time is money’ is real, and a real thing to consider.”
The allure of audio content is apparent. But to make it work for your business, you need to Goldilocks your strategy and be realistic about your investment.
Looking for meaty, long form narratives? You’re looking at a team with a considerable timeline.
Hoping to keep it in house? You’re looking at a modest investment in equipment, but a big investment in time and learning.
After quick-to-market audio that showcases your written work? Partnering with an outside vendor can save you time and guarantee higher quality than you might achieve alone.
Audio is the most intimate medium; take the time to get it right, and your message will resonate above the noise.