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Tips for Starting a Podcast

September 15, 2019


Jennifer Gonzalez

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I have had my own podcast for six years now. I love doing it, partly because it doesn’t require me to dress up, put makeup on, or leave the house. I also love it because I have been a podcast listener for ages, so I know how it feels to hear a person’s voice in my ears week after week while I get dressed, clean the house, or run errands. I feel like I intimately know those people even though we’ve never met, and I have learned at least the equivalent of a master’s degree from listening to them. So providing that experience for other people is something I really enjoy.

Every now and then I’ll be approached by someone who wants to start their own podcast. I really believe that anyone could create a podcast about anything, so I’m always excited to have this conversation. But whenever the person starts asking for advice, when they start asking for tips and tools and so on, there’s so much to say that I don’t know where to start. I’ve been meaning to put it all in one place—one blog post and podcast episode—so I can just direct people to that when they ask. 

That’s what this is. I’m going to share the tools and processes I use to produce this podcast, some do’s and don’ts I’ve picked up through trial and error, and just general advice for anyone who wants to start their own show. Because most of the people in my audience are teachers, I feel I should mention that this particular post is meant for anyone who is interested in podcasting, and that includes your students, their parents, other community members, and so on. So feel free to share this one widely.

This is not going to be a totally thorough, step-by-step tutorial, though. You can find some excellent ones online that will walk you through all the details from start to finish. The one I would recommend is from someone named Pat Flynn, and you can find it here. So rather than provide a full, step-by-step tutorial, what I’m going to do here is just share my own process and tips. 

Let’s get started.

What Exactly Is a Podcast?

A podcast is a set of recordings. These can be audio or video files, but most of the time when people refer to a “podcast,” they’re talking about audio only. The recordings work a lot like a TV or radio series, except that people listen to them on-demand through an app like iTunes or Stitcher or just by listening on a regular computer. Most podcasts put out new episodes on a regular basis, but listeners can still access all the old episodes whenever they want. Finally, most podcasts are completely free to listen to.

New podcasts come out every day, and there are podcasts on pretty much any topic you can think of: fantasy football, gardening, aviation, bible studies, and fitness. There are podcasts to help you sleep, learn a language, or fix your marriage. There are whole podcasts devoted to collecting vinyl records and others on collecting coins. One explanation for this incredibly wide variety, I think, is because podcasts really don’t cost much to produce, it’s not too hard to learn how to make one, you don’t need a lot of special equipment, and once you have created a podcast, you can distribute it on lots of channels for very little money. I repeat: Pretty much anyone can have a podcast about anything.

Part 1: Content

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of how you actually make a podcast, let’s consider what you’re going to talk about on your show. 

My best advice to anyone wanting to start their own show is to listen to a lot of other podcasts. The incredible variety of topics, formats, lengths, and styles out there will expose you to what’s possible, and the more you listen to, the closer you’ll get to finding just the right setup for your own show. Specifically, you’ll need to make decisions about the following things:

Narrowing Your Focus

The first thing you need to do is figure out what your overall topic is going to be. Ideally, it should not be too broad: A podcast about “life in general” won’t grab enough listeners unless you happen to already be famous, in which case people will tune in just to listen to whatever you have to say. Then again, if you pull your focus in way too close, you might only appeal to a very tiny audience, or you could run out of material pretty quickly. 

Here’s an example: Say you’re really into sewing and you want to do a show about that. A podcast about sewing needles is way too narrow, whereas one about sewing in general would give you room to explore lots of topics within that larger umbrella. Still, you might want to narrow it down a bit from there by making it just about quilting, or specifically for teenagers who sew, or only about sewing projects that can be done in a weekend. 

My podcast topic is very broad: I cover any topic that relates to teaching, and this gives me the freedom to explore all kinds of things, but because my audience has a wide variety of specialties, I have to be careful not to spend too much time on any one thing: If I spent three episodes talking about math teaching, I could start to lose the attention of all of my other listeners who don’t teach math. Other education podcasters have focused in tighter on topics like educational technology, classroom management, homeschooling, or teaching a specific subject area, like languages. While they don’t have quite as much choice in terms of topics, they can really dig into their specific target area without fear of alienating a segment of their audience. 

If you know your general topic but are having a hard time narrowing it down, try making a list of possible episode titles. If it’s easy to generate 20 ideas and all of them have some connection to each other, you probably have a topic that will work. If your ideas are kind of scattered and random-feeling, it might be too broad, and if you can’t think of very many, it might be too narrow.

Naming Your Podcast

At some point, you’ll also need to think of a name for your show. This is another decision that will be much easier if you just browse through the names of hundreds of other podcasts. Some will jump out at you, while others will fall flat. Write down the names that really appeal to you and see if you notice any kind of pattern. Then, with your own topic in mind, brainstorm a big, long list of possible names that follow the same pattern and eventually something will start to feel right.

At this point, it would be a very good idea to run your short list by some other people: Even though your favorite name might make perfect sense to you, if a few of your friends don’t quite get it, you might want to look for something else.

Format

Most podcasts have a predictable format that listeners come to expect in every episode. For example, on a “teenagers who sew” podcast, each episode might start with a brief intro, then a 3-minute segment where the host offers a “sewing tip of the week,” followed by a 10-minute interview with a teenager who sews. Other podcasts are much more free-form, where the hosts just jump on and chat about a chosen topic.

Another format consideration is whether you’re doing a solo podcast, which is just you, an interview podcast, which will feature a different guest or guests every episode, or some kind of a panel podcast, featuring a group of hosts discussing a different topic each episode. You might also jump around between these, like I do, because some topics just lend themselves better to certain formats.

Developing and sticking to some kind of regular format can give your podcast a nice professional tone, which can boost your credibility and make your audience feel like they’re in good hands. If that’s not what you’re going for, though, then really the sky’s the limit. Plenty of people out there will appreciate something that’s a lot more random, so if that’s your thing, have at it.

Length

I have seen podcasts that pass the 2-hour mark every episode, and others that are only 3 minutes long, so you really can choose whatever length you want for your episodes. 

As a general rule, shorter podcasts are more likely to be listened to in their entirety. This is just common sense, really, but it doesn’t mean that people won’t listen to longer podcasts. If I’m really into a topic, I’ll just keep pausing an episode every time I get interrupted and will just pick up where I left off the next time I can listen, just like I would with an audiobook. So don’t be overly concerned about making your episodes too long, as long as what’s there is good quality.

What’s probably more important is consistency: If you want to grow a loyal audience of listeners, it’s a good idea to put out episodes that are roughly the same length. I haven’t always followed this advice—some of my episodes are an hour and a half long, while a few are only around ten minutes, but most of my episodes are about 25 to 40 minutes long. I’ve never really asked my audience whether this is something that matters to them, but I know that as a podcast listener myself, I kind of like knowing what I can expect from the podcasts I listen to, and it’s pretty jarring when things diverge dramatically from the norm.

Something else that I don’t think is important at all is having episodes be exactly the same length each time. Unlike network TV shows, which used to have to fit precisely into a time slot, podcasts have no such time restrictions, and you can drive yourself crazy with editing trying to make an episode fit a precise time limit. Really it seems like more of an exercise in perfectionism. If that’s your thing and you get some kind of pleasure from it, then go ahead and enjoy the process. In general, though, your listeners probably won’t care.

With all of this said, it’s important to be aware of time when you’re editing. If you or your guests tend to ramble, take long pauses between thoughts, or just engage in a lot of time-wasting conversational practices that really aren’t going to be interesting to your listeners, then cut that crap out. A long episode that’s filled up with a lot of inside jokes and random side trips will just annoy your listeners.

Frequency

Along with length, you’ll need to decide how often you want to publish new episodes. Some podcasts put out new content every day, while others release new episodes once a week, once every two weeks (like mine), or even once a month. It really doesn’t matter what you choose, as long as it’s a schedule you can maintain consistently. If your audience comes to expect new material at certain intervals, and then you deliver on that promise, you’ll develop a loyal following. On the other hand, if you’re not concerned with growing an audience, then produce episodes whenever you feel like. 

Duration: Fixed or Ongoing?

Most podcasts are set up in an ongoing format: Episodes can be added and added for as long as the host wants to keep it up. An ongoing podcast can go on for years and have hundreds of episodes. 

In other cases, like with the massively popular Serial, the podcast is designed to have a fixed number of episodes, because the host is telling a story. In other words, it has an end. Another example of this is Seth Godin’s Startup School, which is basically just the audio of a workshop Godin did with a group of entrepreneurs. It has only 15 episodes, and that’s all it will ever have. These short-term podcasts are more like projects, and I think this would be a great way to dip your toes into podcasting without feeling like you’re making a lifetime commitment. 

You might also divide your schedule into seasons, where you decide ahead of time that your show will run for 10 episodes per season, for example. Break as long as you want to, then if you want to do more seasons, you can, or you can just stop after one.

Finally, one popular way to handle the duration question is to just produce a podcast that’s meant to be ongoing, then lose steam after a while and stop making episodes. Not the most elegant option, but it happens all the time. Don’t let the fear of this outcome stop you from trying a podcast. It’s still worth a try.

Other Content Considerations

Part 2: Technical Stuff

So how do you actually produce a podcast? Depending on the type of computer you have and how in-depth you want to get with equipment and stuff, you have a couple of options, some of which are covered in Pat Flynn’s tutorial here

Here I’ll cover the basics and share what I use:

Recording and Editing the Audio

Most podcasts are produced in their final form as MP3 files, which are just digital audio files. To make these, you’ll need some software and some hardware. 

Software

Hardware 

Intro and Outro Music

Most podcasts start and end with some kind of music. The most important thing for you to know about this is that you are not allowed to use copyrighted music. In other words, you can’t just pull fifteen seconds of a Lady Gaga song and add it to your podcast. That can get your podcast pulled off the internet and could possibly get you into trouble, because technically you’re supposed to be paying Lady Gaga royalties every time that chunk of her song is played on your podcast, and those royalties, I promise you, are way out of your budget.

What most podcasters use is royalty-free music, which has been created for situations like this and does not require you to pay royalties to the artist. Typically, you pay a one-time license fee for a track, then you can use it in your podcast forever (sites like Melody Loops and The Music Case currently charge $29 per license). The hard part is choosing your track: If you’re like me you’ll lose hours of your life just sampling all the different tracks available. What’s nice about these sites is that you can download free samples to play around with until you figure out exactly what you want. 

Cover Art

If you’re planning to publish your podcast to any kind of an audience outside of your immediate circle of family and friends, you’ll need cover art, which should be in the form of a PNG file or JPG file. Podcasts currently all use square cover art with a minimum size of 1400 x 1400 pixels and a maximum size of 3000 x 3000 pixels. 

So how do you create this file? I would recommend you try a design site like Canva, where you can create and download a custom piece of art for free or close to free. Follow these guidelines for using custom dimensions, set the size at 3000 x 3000 px, then play around until you find something that represents you and your show.

Hosting

In order to share the audio files with the world, you can’t do it straight from your home computer or phone. You need a podcast “host.” This is basically a website dedicated to storing your audio files so they can be shared through various podcast directories, where people will actually find and listen to your show, like iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play Music. 

The hosting site is also where you will store your cover art, the title and description of your show, and the titles and descriptions of every single episode. Once you plug all that information into the hosting site, it gets sent out to all the directories without you having to do anything else with it.

Some popular podcast hosts are Buzzsprout, Podbean, and Libsyn, which is the one I have always used, and I’ve been very happy with it.  

Hiring Help

If you don’t feel up to the task of handling some of these technical jobs yourself, you can hire podcast editors and producers through freelance sites like Upwork or Fiverr. The people you hire can do the work from anywhere in the world; all they need is access to something like a Dropbox folder where you’d send the files that need editing. I have always done all my own editing and production, so I’m not totally familiar with how the process works, but just know that it is possible to put out a podcast without really touching the tech end of things.

Part 3: Interviewing 

If your podcast is going to include interviews, here’s some more advice:

Part 4: Other Bits and Pieces

 

I’d like to leave you with this: There is something really wonderful about the human voice, something that allows us to connect to each other in ways that words on a screen just can’t achieve. In some ways, technology has put more distance between us, with all the screens and whatnot. But in other ways, like with podcasts, it has given us access to each other like never before. And right now, that access is basically free. If you’ve listened all the way to the end here, my guess is that you have something you want to share. I’m here to tell you there are people out there right now who would love to hear it. So get to work.


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7 Comments

  1. Inez Tiger says:

    Beautifully written Jennifer and an excellent resource! Thank you so much.

  2. You always give us so much valuable information and this post is a perfect example. You’ve presented the “big picture” and added so many details, along with such encouragement, that I feel impelled to begin podcasting!

    Jennifer, you are such a professional, and I hope you know how much we educators appreciate everything you do.
    BrP

  3. Where the links?

    • Eric Wenninger says:

      Hello! If you give us some more details about the specific links you’re looking for, we can help you out. There are a number of links that are embedded in the text throughout the post. Clicking the underlined text will take you to the websites Jenn is referencing. Hope this helps!

  4. Thanks for the information. Excited to start a podcast!

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