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How to make a successful podcast

Anyone with a little ambition and elbow grease can make a terrific podcast. Though creating a regular talk show is hard work, it’s also part of the appeal, relishing in a collaborative nature and DIY spirit that’s as admirable as it is daunting to undertake. Whether you prefer to spend the late nights handpicking a selection of tunes or talking big ideas with friends — err, at least Bryan Cranston in the Godzilla remake — there’s plenty of methods for going about creating a podcast, especially considering the media form has become one of the most democratic to date. Nonetheless, how exactly do you go about creating a Podcast? There’s a melange of factors at play, from casting equipment to premium (and freemium) recording software, not to mention the rough waters that is authoring your own XML feed. Still, content often belies polished recording, with the most engaging likely to become editor’s picks in the iTunes store. Here’s our straightforward guide to making a podcast. Keep in mind it’s more intended to be a jumping off point than a one-stop resource for anything and everything podcast-related.

Also, check out our top picks for the best podcasts — from news and comedy to music and sports — along with our guide for downloading and listening to podcasts on your smartphone.

This guide was originally published December 9, 2009 and has been continually updated to reflect new technology. Louie Herr contributed to this article.

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Step 1: Choosing a theme, format, equipment, and resources

Labeling your podcast, “Me” or “Thoughts on Life,” likely won’t help it blow up on the iTunes’ top podcast list. That is, unless you’re Paris Hilton or the word’s leading expert on Bigfoot. Instead, try to devise a compelling theme and format.

Choose a distinct theme: Choose a topic that you’re passionate about, preferably one that focuses on a niche that hasn’t been covered or is relatively devoid of content. Podcasts can expound on just about anything, whether it be a sci-fi expose on alien abductions or a news piece detailing the fluctuating price of largemouth bass in Seattle, so try not to worry about your chosen topic. For example, consider the design-centric 99% Invisible and run-tastic Phedippidations, each of which is drastically different yet still highly entertaining within their respective fields.

Choose a format: In a nutshell, your podcast represents the way your show is arranged. That said, you’re more likely to create better content if you opt for the same framework with each episode. Generally, podcasts have a host who invites guests to have a conversation on a specific topic chosen in advance, but structure does vary greatly depending on the selected content and how you wish to go about it. Finding the right format for you is often a trial-and-error process, one you’ll likely hone and fine tune over the course of your first couple episodes and as you begin to familiarize yourself with other podcast offerings.

  • Episode length — How long do you want your podcast to be? Most podcasts don’t exceed 60 minutes as anything longer tends to be a bit much for the average listener. Take into account the length of any media you will air, such as songs or a pre-recorded introduction, and run a timer for each segment to ensure the utmost accuracy. Timing doesn’t need to be exact across all episodes, but it should be in the ballpark.
  • Script it — Though not an absolute necessity, we encourage you to pre-write at least an introduction to begin each segment. Assuming you manage to make it feel natural, scripting will provide a smooth lead-in and provide a good opportunity to think about the structure of the segment. What main points should you cover? What questions should you ask? The more planning the better. While rigid time constraints can be tough to work with at times, it’s far worse to find yourself with time to fill and no potential material to do it with. Leave a little wiggle room for spontaneity, just don’t rely on it to keep you afloat.
  • Scheduling — How often will your podcast air new episodes? Weekly or biweekly tends to be the norm for most, but producing even just one segment a week can be difficult to maintain when you’re just beginning. A bimonthly schedule, or even simply a monthly schedule, will likely provide you with more time for preparation if you’re topic isn’t particularly time-sensitive.
  • Lawyering — Unfortunately, you will need artist consent if you want to play songs or videos during your podcast. Though obtaining the rights can be an uphill battle, contacting the content creator for direct consent is often relatively easy for smaller artists given it mean increased exposure. You can also use media files that have been specifically licensed for use, many of which you can obtain through either Creative Commons Search or Freesound.org, the latter source of which offers licensed sound effects and field recordings.

Bonus tip: Don’t invite your dream guest to the first podcast episode you hope to record. Instead, start with friends that you will feel comfortable with. This will relieve some pressure.

Girl at computer with headphones

Enlist your friends: First, if any of your friends flaunt experience in sound engineering, now is the time to double down on a six-pack and ask that they impart some of said knowledge. Chances are, they’ll be able to get you up and running far more quickly than you’ll be able to yourself, especially if you have a complicated recording setup. All participant roles during the podcast should be planned ahead of time, so you have a proper idea who is introducing each segment and who is serving as the engineer, for example. Try to avoid conflicts if possible — it can be difficult to simultaneously host and engineer a podcast. Also, we recommend distributing and rotating responsibilities so that all participants have opportunities to learn the different roles. Again, none of this essential to creating a podcast, but facilitating roles and divvying up the workload will put less strain on you.

Podcasting Equipment: Despite what you might think, you don’t need to spend tons of money on capable recording equipment. Buying microphones and mixers will surely improve sound quality, but there’s no need for a Mackie Firewire Interface — or other high-end components — to record basic audio on your computer. There are countless podcasting kits that typically come with bundled with a microphone, headphones, microphone cable, and a compact mixer.

  • USB Microphone: In all reality, podcasters should consider purchasing an external microphone, such as Blue Microphones’ four-star Spark Digital ($205) or the classic and affordable Shure SM58 ($136). USB mics, such as Blue Microphones’ Yeti ($150), plug directly into your computer and interface with your recording software, offering superior sound and greater flexibility than your computer’s built-in option.
  • Recording Software: While you could opt for high-end recording programs such as Pro Tools, there are several reputable free options out there. The first, Audacity, is an open-source editing and recording program that’s compatible with most operating systems and works well for beginners. Though it dons a rather unflattering exterior, you’ll be able to record live audio directly onto the site, or import a variety of different of audio files including MP3 and WAV. There’s even an a standard crash recovery option. Acoustica Basic Edition is another option, providing freemium audio recording and editing within a well-designed interface. However, you’ll have to pay extra for features like multi-track editing and other advanced settings.
  • Mixer: Beginning podcasters don’t necessarily need to purchase a mixer, as any worthwhile piece of recording software allows users to directly record their voice and store it as an audio file. Of course mixers can add benefits, such as greater control and effects options, simply not offered elsewhere. A mixer is valuable, for instance, if you’d like to include music or movie clips.
  • Pop Filter: Every hear of popped plosives? Well, pop filters are represent an inexpensive way to decrease explosive breath sounds common among casual vocal delivery. There’s a bevvy of offerings out there, from Generic ($5) to Nady ($25), each of which is designed to eradicate the sudden burst in air pressure and the bassy response that ensues when saying words chock full of “p” and “b.”

Audacity Screenshot

Step 2: Record an audio file

Once you’ve obtained the proper gear, you’re ready to begin your recording. Keep in mind the basics of your podcast and try to stay on topic when recording your first episode, and while radio vets can produce quality content with slight preparation, you’re only just beginning. Most professionals have spent years condensing stories and honing their craft in the studio, likely encountering the same technical difficulties as you will along the way. Best to embrace your relative inexperience before the show begins.

Open recording software — Launch your recording software when you’re ready to record. The recording software can be intimidating at first given the novice podcaster will be unfamiliar with the many modular controls, so for now, it’s best to simply ensure your USB microphone can successfully interface with your recording software. While this task should be easy, it’s possible that you’ll encounter several technical problems. Again, that’ why you recruited a friend with sound-engineering experience. However, you can always reference the tutorials for your respective recording software if need be. Both experts and novices have written volumes written about sound engineering and recording.

Troubleshooting — Expect to run into some problems . Everything from technical components to general inexperience will present a challenge for podcasters. Obviously, technical issues can be very frustrating, especially with how mysterious audio production can be when you first start out. Try to treat each challenge you encounter as an opportunity to learn more about the software and sound recording in general.

Submit Podcast to iTunes

Step 3: Convert the audio file into podcast

Presto! You have an audio file (or files) for that pilot podcast episode. It’s not really a podcast until it’s online and available to the public, though.

Post production — Not only applicable to podcasters mixing interfaces to create multitrack recordings, post-production editing is key to nearly every podcast. Masterful editing takes time to learn, though, so don’t be concerned if you can’t pull of some of the more advanced procedures and actions in the beginning. As far as basics go, you want to ensure your vocal volumes are roughly the same across speakers and work on tightening dead space between phrases. If you have other audio components, such as miscellaneous sound effects and background music, make sure the volume levels are low enough you can still hear the speakers. You can also work to trim your file to the specified length, or adjust the bit rate and other audio facets for your desired medium. Editing deserves a tutorial on its own, but for most casual podcasters, most of it can be done without expensive software or substantial time. It’s not quite music.

Uploading to a host site — Sadly, there’s really no point in a podcast if you don’t intend to share it with others. To do so, you must host your resulting audio file somewhere online, prior to linking to the file from elsewhere. There are numerous ways to go about hosting your podcast, though same are better than others. Websites like WordPress and Blogger provide a free and simple means for hosting audio files, but they’re limited in terms of flexibility and exhibit a general lack of control. HostGator, though more complicated, offers more advanced features and your own domain at a relatively low cost. However, if you do go with WordPress, the site will automatically add the RSS2 enclosure when you add a link to your audio file to make it possible to use as a podcast. Uploading your audio file will make the necessary RSS2 enclosure tag and can generate your XML feed. Alternatively, check out our roundup of the best free Web hosting sites for other options.

Indexing — Technically, podcasts are XML files that index the MP3 files and metadata that represent each episode. Content management systems like SquareSpace and the aforementioned WordPress, with a plugin like podPress, can generate a podcast XML feed. Regardless of which way you author your podcast’s XML file, be sure to follow Apple’s podcast specifications for best results. Afterward, once your XML file is online, use an RSS validator like feedvalidator.org to make sure you didn’t make any mistakes before submitting your feed to the iTunes store.

Step 4: Get huge

Congratulations! After a little time, and maybe some troubleshooting, Apple will list your podcast in the iTunes Store. You are now a media entity, so start acting like one!

Social media — Your podcast needs listeners and social media networks provide a great way to connect with them. Post notifications to Facebook, Twitter, and other networks whenever new podcast episodes become available, expanding the content with additional links and updates if there have been any new developments since your podcast initially aired. Did you recently feature a song from a local artist? Post an update with a link to that song. Really pumped about a guest that will join your next episode? Add an update saying so. Use social media to maintain interest in your brand between episodes.

Website — Your podcast should also have a home beyond its social media presences. The premium SquareSpace, along with other platforms lining our picks for the best free blogging sites, represent just a handful of quality alternatives if you’re looking for a polished presence and one-stop access to all your episodes. No matter which site you decide to utilize, it should provide information about the podcast — what it’s about, who participates — and show notes for all episodes.

Repeat — There you have it. You are now a podcaster. Remember, podcasts are recurring media, so it’s time to get to work on episode two. Before you do, though, consider a debrief with other hosts and with your respective guests. Discuss what worked well and what could be improved. If time allows, make said debriefings a regular part of recording your podcast. Ad-hoc thinking could arise as well, so keep a running list of ideas that you can review when you need to.

[Photocredits: Phuriphat, Chaikom/Shutterstock]