This is one in a series of blog posts from the MJ Bear Fellows, three journalists under 30 selected each year who are expanding the boundaries of digital news. Applications for the 2017 MJ Bear Fellowship are now open – you can learn more here.
Every major news organization seems to be dipping a toe into the digital audio waters following the viral success of Serial back in 2014. Often, making this move entails hiring a single producer on a contract basis, with the expectation that a sole staff member can complete every part of the job.
A successful podcast can certainly be executed cheaply and with a single person. But in most cases, it’s expensive to do anything well, which is why organizations tend to test their investments with small experiments first. The result is an ecosystem of subpar podcasts created by under-supported producers who don’t have the resources to create their best work. In turn, this may create a self-fulfilling prophecy that “podcasts don’t work” or have too small of an audience to justify the investment.
When you make decisions about how to handle podcasting in your newsroom, you contribute to a norm for the industry. Other organizations, large and small, will follow your lead.
This blog post is intended to help improve the industry norm and elevate industry-wide expectations for the medium, and to serve as a guide for smaller newsrooms that might be interested in getting into podcasting. After talking with several colleagues who work in audio at different organizations, I’ve come up with a quick list of considerations for newsrooms starting a podcast. It is intended for decision-makers in major media outlets who are considering investing in podcasting.
If you follow this advice, your podcast efforts *will* be stronger and more successful, I promise.
Know what kind of podcast you want to start — and why you want to start it.
Will it be a two-way interview show? A narrative podcast? Will there be sound design? Will it be limited-run, have seasons or will it last forever? There is a vast ecosystem of podcasts that already exist, so if you want to start your own podcast, it should be distinct in some way. Your organization’s brand recognition isn’t good enough. “Serial for X” isn’t good enough. And Pod Save America already exists.
I would suggest listening to this episode of the Third Coast Pocket Conference to help you narrow your focus.
Reporting, producing, engineering, hosting and editing are all different jobs.
It’s important to know that the quality of your product will be directly proportional to the resources you put into it. Most news organizations start off by hiring a single producer, usually on contract, to do all parts of podcast production. Sometimes this works out. But know that you likely won’t be competing on the same level as organizations like PRX, Gimlet and NPR, which all employ teams of experienced people to report, produce, engineer and edit pieces. In short: One-man bands sound like one-man bands; symphonies sound like symphonies.
Hosts aren’t born, they’re made.
Making a podcast isn’t as easy as shoving someone into a booth and making them talk about their stories for an hour. It takes significant coaching and preparation to make a person sound engaging but still natural on tape. Reporters who are interested in having their own podcasts should expect to spend significant amounts of time practicing their podcast voice and writing (and rewriting) scripts to sound more human.
It takes a long time to make a good podcast.
One producer told me it takes her about 10 hours of work to produce a 30 minute two-way interview podcast with music and sound design. Even a casual panel takes a ton of research and preparation to engineer a lively conversation that still feels natural. This takes a lot of cooperation from reporters and editors, and they should expect that going into it.
Pony up the resources.
Invest in high-quality equipment, audio editing software and recording space (also, if you are trying to record a remote interview, hire a freelancer to do a tape sync). Each of these factors will make a huge difference in the quality of your sound, and in your producer’s ability to make something good. Multiple producers told me that the quality of equipment that a newsroom provides reveals how serious the organization actually is about podcasting.
Don’t forget about aesthetics.
Music and art for the podcast are usually among the last key decisions made, but they’re critically important for setting a first impression for prospective listeners. Think hard about the podcast’s logo design, and be willing to pay a little extra for original music, rather than cheesy stock music.
Podcasts don’t market themselves.
Uploading your feed to Apple Podcasts and crossing your fingers is not a marketing plan. Do you have a list of relevant publications to pitch for coverage? Do you have a social media plan? Are your hosts and guests shouting about it at every chance they get? Are you cross-promoting on podcasts with similar audiences? Do you know who your audience is? It’s worth investing time to answer these questions and map out a game plan to have a more successful launch.