Technology: To please in a pod(cast)

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the September 2015 issue of The Rotarian

When I was a college student in Wisconsin in the 1970s, those of us who worked at the 10-watt radio station hoped our signal would reach not only the 1,500 students on the Beloit College campus and the 35,000 residents of the town of Beloit but also the people in the cars and trucks passing by on the interstate 3 miles to the east – and possibly, late at night, the 150,000 who lived in the bustling metropolis of Rockford, Ill., 20 miles to the south.

Some of us hoped to get jobs in radio after we graduated, and there was even talk about starting our own station. But that would have required securing approval from the Federal Communications Commission to purchase a license, assuming one was even available, and raising an enormous amount of capital.

In other words, it was all a pipe dream.

Fast-forward four decades. That dream is now possible, at a far lower cost – namely, the amount of time and effort you are willing to put into it.

It’s called podcasting. The word, a combination of “iPod” and “broadcasting,” was coined in 2004 by British journalist Ben Hammersley in the Guardian. (He also suggested “audioblogging” and “downloadable radio,” but “podcasting” is the name that caught on.) Podcasting is more like having your own radio show than owning your own station. But you do get to say what you want, and your program can travel all the way around the world via the Internet. No worries about reaching Rockford.

The technical skills required to launch a podcast are less exacting than many home-improvement projects. However, technical skills are only the beginning.

Phoebe Judge and two of her colleagues at North Carolina public radio station WUNC began podcasting in January 2014. Judge, 32, grew up with radio in her DNA: Her father worked in public radio in the Midwest, and she spent time around such master storytellers as Studs Terkel and Garrison Keillor. She sees podcasting as a way to preserve that experience.

“These days, we’re bombarded with information,” she says. “It’s nice to have this quiet refuge to escape to.” The irony of getting to that quiet place by using the same machinery that does the bombarding is not lost on her: “We are using this technology to give us what we would have had 100 years ago. I still am enraptured that you can turn on your radio and it can take you somewhere far away.”

The podcast that Judge and her partners launched is called “Criminal.” After noting the scant crime coverage on public radio, they thought that telling unusual tales related to the criminal justice system would be an interesting departure.

They were on to something: “Criminal” has consistently ranked in the top 20, and as high as No. 3, on the iTunes rating charts for podcasts. Last September, eight months after “Criminal” began, a podcast called “Serial” launched from Chicago public radio station WBEZ. “Serial” revisited the 1999 murder of a high school student in Baltimore County, Md., whose former boyfriend was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. By the 12th and final episode last December, the podcast had reached 40 million downloads, according to a CNN report.

There are now thousands of podcasts to choose from. According to a survey by Edison Research in early 2015, about 46 million Americans had listened to a podcast in the previous month. Not surprisingly, public radio, with its non-commercial format that permits long, uninterrupted talk segments, occupies a prominent space among podcast producers. Most of the 10 top-rated podcasts on the iTunes charts are affiliated with public radio stations.

Judge acknowledges that, with their experience working in radio, she and her partner Lauren Spohrer have a built-in advantage when creating a podcast. But she says that “Criminal,” which has no formal affiliation with WUNC, is not produced in a studio.

The technical skills required to launch a podcast are less exacting than many home-improvement projects. An Internet search turns up dozens of websites with advice on getting started, and there is no shortage of software available. However, technical skills are only the beginning. There’s a big difference between producing a podcast and a plodcast.

"The most important thing is having a passion for whatever you're talking about. When you're excited about what you're doing, that energy comes across to listeners."

According to Judge, a successful podcast requires five things: “a good idea, a good microphone, a good editor, a commitment to broadcast regularly, and knowledge of how to use social media, so listeners can find you.”

And you don’t need fancy equipment, says Deblina Chakraborty, a web editor and producer at Turner Broadcasting. “What makes a podcast great is the story you have to tell, or the information you have to offer,” she says. “Sure, there are probably some personalities out there who are compelling enough that people will tune in to hear them talk about what they had for lunch, but the rest of us have to bring a little more to the table.”

Chakraborty, a former co-host of a podcast called “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” adds, “You have to strike the right balance between formality and informality, which is hard. Keep it conversational, but not so scattered that you confuse people or lose your point. The most important thing is having a passion for whatever you’re talking about. When you’re excited about what you’re doing, that energy comes across to listeners.”

I stopped thinking about starting my own radio station, or even having a radio show, long before podcasting began. (I’ve also been advised by professionals that although I have a good enough face for radio, my tendency to mumble would not be an asset.) So I’m content to listen. And from where I sit, podcasting has brought radio into the 21st century while allowing the Internet to take us back to the 20th century. If, like me, you attended college before the millennium, that lesson can be filed away with “Stuff You Missed in History Class.”

Paul Engleman is a Chicago-based freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Rotarian.

It’s a podcast, not a plodcast

Tell a story. Whether you’re using interviews or simple narration, a good podcast boils down to a good story. If your podcast is about Rotary, don’t make it sound like a commercial. Think of it as a conversation with friends at a dinner party.

Make it relatable. You might not care about economics, but the stories in “Freakonomics” will still draw you in because the creators use common experiences, such as driving around to find a parking spot, as a jumping-off point.

Don’t be too formal. Your task is to entertain and inform.

But don’t wing it either. Write a script and practice beforehand.

Know when to stop. Don’t try to cram everything you want to say into one episode. Leave listeners looking forward to your next podcast.

Plan ahead. Prepare at least three podcasts before posting anything online. By their nature, podcasts are serial productions. Always know what you’re going to do next.

Don’t reinvent the genre. Listen to lots of other podcasts and figure out what you like and don’t like about them. Then apply that knowledge to your work.

Know your limitations. Maybe you have lots of great ideas but someone else would make a better host. The hosts of “Stuff You Should Know,” for instance – which gives listeners the low-down on subjects from elevators to Ebola to ESP – are funny and manage to make even the driest subjects entertaining.

Also know your guests’ limitations. If your format includes interviews, be prepared to edit your guests’ remarks as aggressively as you would your own. The only thing more boring than a long-winded host is a long-winded guest.

Use social media. Find out what your listeners want to hear by letting them submit questions and feedback on Twitter and Facebook.

Don’t stress too much. Like newspapers and magazines, podcasts are meant to be consumed and then cleared away to make room for new editions, so keep it casual and don’t obsess about perfection.

The Rotarian