Podcasts are like blogs are like websites — anybody can have one, so these days it seems like everybody does. While that's definitely not a bad thing, it does make it a little (OK, quite a lot) harder to stand out from the crowd. But not everybody wants to be at the pointy end of download lists. Sure, some aspiring podcasters want to garner as much attention as possible, parlaying skyrocketing listener and subscriber numbers into big-time popularity and advertising dollars. But others see getting behind the podcast microphone as more of a hobby, a chance to express a bit of creativity and have a chinwag with mates or other interesting guests.
Regardless of which camp you fall in, starting your own podcast might not be as difficult as you think. From hardware to software, studios to subscribers, here is your ultimate guide to breaking into the world of podcasting.
Podcasting Is A Growing Medium
According to a study published in July 2019 by Australian market research company Roy Morgan, in an average four-week span about 1.6 million Australians downloaded podcasts. That's an increase of nearly 700,000, or 70%, since 2015.
One of the major reasons for the massive increase in podcast downloading in recent years is the further market saturation of smartphones. Being able to subscribe to shows through native apps such as Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts or other options like Stitcher and Overcast removes many of the barriers to entry into the podcast listening game. Just a few clicks is all it takes for each new episode to drop into your pod catcher ready for consumption.
Australia is a particularly welcoming environment for the medium, with 83% of the country's citizens familiar with podcasting. That's 13% more than Americans.
But local numbers aren't really all that important when it comes to podcasts, as it's a truly global medium. Want to listen to a couple mates wax on US politics from their disheveled North Dakota dorm room? Hit download and pipe it into your ears. Interested in the latest English football podcasts straight from the high (or low) streets of London, Manchester and Liverpool? Subscribe and enjoy. The latest food updates from southeast Asia and the smallest corners of South America? There's that, too.
The podcasting medium is still ascending at a steady pace, and with so many budding hosts taking the leap to start their own, there's no reason to think the number being produced, or listened to, is going to take a step back anytime soon.
How to Choose A Topic
There is plenty to think about in those formative early days of building a podcast. Perhaps the most important thing to consider is what you're trying to achieve with your show. As trite as it sounds, unless you have something that differentiates your podcast from the thousands of other floating around out there, you're probably not going to make many waves. Yes, you and your mates are funny and have a good time together, and of course all your friends and family who tell you you totally should start a podcast are spot on. But the fact of the matter is there's a great chance your camaraderie, humour or analysis isn't going to translate well to a groundbreaking podcast. BUT, (and it's a big one), that absolutely 100% definitely does NOT mean you shouldn't try your hand at the medium.
When devising a concept, important to try to find an idea that ticks, or at last considers, the following boxes:
- What do you want the podcast to be about? You'll want something that you can repeat over a number of episodes (unless you're doing a limited series).
- What do you want the format to be? Are you going to interview people? Are you going to monologue the whole time? Will you record soundbites from various people and edit them to construct a narrative? Feel free to go crazy here, as a new format could be something that sets your podcast apart from others.
- How do you want to release it? This includes everything from scheduling (will it be weekly, monthly or ad hoc?) to how much editing you want to do (leave every piece in and just hit publish, or carefully edit to trim down to a consistent length?).
"You want to think about the message you want to put out," Lucas Brown, host of The Math of You Podcast, says. "The trouble with a lot of new pods is they don't know what they want to be, what they are.
"A lot are just 'Hey, let's get some microphones and me and my friends can be funny or entertaining.' There's a space for that, but there's a lot of that. You have to think about what you bring to the table that somebody else can't."
And once you are struck by the bolt of inspiration, hold onto it. Grow it. Nurture it. Don't make concessions just because things like scheduling get tough.
"You try not to make too many adaptations to your idea or your method because you think it'll get more listeners," Jo Thornely, host of Zealot, says. "I think there's a lot of homogenised podcasts because people go 'Oh they're doing that and people like that pod so I'll do something a lot like that.' If you think you have a good idea you stick to it, do it and enjoy it."
If your podcast concept includes a rotating guest sitting across from you or on the other end of Skype, it's important to consider how much time and energy goes into contacting guests and coordinating appearances.
"If you have guests every week, that becomes a major part of the planning process and the quality of each episode," Thornely says. "Choosing, approaching and organising the logistics of getting a guest at the right time is a massive part of it, and you don't expect to spend as much time doing that."
She says finding the right people in the first place is a vital part of building a voice for your podcast and connecting with an audience who can come to expect a similar vibe each time a new episode drops.
"Being sure what you want and being prepared to say no to people who want to be on but aren't the right fit is important or else you're both going to waste everybody's time.
"I love looking for guests, but it's quite time consuming. Some surprising people have said yes, and others say yes and trail off before you can lock it down."
Brown agrees, saying it can be tough to pin people down and that sometimes you need to pull the plug and go a different route, as, of course, the show must go on.
"Some of the biggest issues I'm bumping into now are about scheduling, and I've always been somebody who is organised and uses calendars and spreadsheets.
"You start a conversation with somebody you'd love to have as guest, but then they've got to come back to you and then they have their own stuff on. It's tough finding a date that works for both of you, emailing across multiple time zones and continents, and needing to know before a certain day so you can find somebody else if you have to.
"I don't want to be an asshole who's pushing them. It needs to be fun, but there's no shame in running it like a business a little bit. Put deadlines on them and say, 'Sorry I might have to bump you.' If you don't respond to my emails for 10 days, I'm going to assume you've lost interest."
Getting the right podcasting equipment
Once you've nailed the idea, it's time to get the gear. There are several tools you need to communicate your show it to the masses. As with most tech, there are pros and cons to both low-cost and more expensive options, and, as with most of aspects of podcasting or other creative endeavours, there's not a one-size-fits-all solution. But here are some things to think about when trying to decide what works best for you.
One of the best things about podcasting is you don't actually need that much to get started. If you're the only one in the room when recording, all you really need is a microphone, a headset and a laptop computer. If you're interviewing or otherwise collaborating in person, you'll need two microphones and a laptop. While not necessarily vital, pop filters are another suggested ingredient for a successful initial volley.
"If I'd set myself up properly from the very beginning, I would have absolutely added pop filters to the mix," Thornely says.
As with most electronics, you can shell out hundreds or even thousands for mics, cords, stands and other paraphernalia to help transmit your thoughts and opinions out into the digital world. While finding your feet behind the mic, don't be afraid to take a more affordable route — but don't sell yourself too short.
"I started cheaply and then got better as I thought I'd be spending more time on it and wanted the quality to be higher," Thornely says. "That being said, it's worth not getting the cheapest mic you can find; aim for maybe the cheapest good quality one."
Brown says it isn't too expensive to get a mic that is more than serviceable for recording.
"Nobody buys a Stratocaster when they're learning to play guitar," he says. "I initially got a Samsung mic from JB Hi-Fi because it came with a free set of headphones. That's how entry level I was.
"But the mics you're getting now, these basic ones you can get for $80-100, are leaps and bounds better than what you were getting in stores five years ago. You don't want to screw around with a laptop mic, you don't want to screw around with a $12 headset mic.
"Invest a bit of money, but don't go crazy, especially in the early going when you're blowing out a lot of levels. If you blow $300 on a fancy mic, you might do yourself a disservice [because you're not ready for how much it picks up]. Get something that's a little bit nicer with a view to upgrade later if you need."
What microphone you choose can be partially influenced by your show's format. Each episode of The Math of You sees Brown having a chat with a guest over Skype. On his end, Brown uses a Rode NT USB mic that set him back about $150. It's a side address microphone that stands on a small tripod and plugs into his laptop. Brown also wears headphones so he can monitor how everything sounds during recording.
Meanwhile, Thornely's Zealot interviews are done in person each week (complete with complementary charcuterie and cocktails). She prefers to use handheld mics, with both her and her guest wielding MXL Tempo USB mics topped with foam pop filters. Neither wears headphones, though Thornely keeps her eye on her laptop throughout the recording to monitor sound levels.
Thornely says she reviews mic technique with guests because many have never worked with such equipment.
"Mic technique is really important," she says. "I tell my guests where to hold it, and I'll do a couple tests. I'll happily interrupt the recording to tell them to hold it a bit closer to their mouth.
"Not moving the mic around, not changing it from hand to hand, just being aware of that. Whether you've got a tripod or whether or not you wear headphones, it's important to pay attention throughout the recording to see what they're doing, if they're moving their head closer or further away, if they're knocking it, if they're putting their drink down heavily on the table. It's fine to have a bit of that, but mic technique is massive because everybody is going to have diff rooms and equipment. If you've got a consistent problem with your sound throughout the whole recording you can fix it, but you can't if your sound goes in and out and changes."
Much like podcast hardware, you don't have to worry about getting your hands on heaps of podcast software to get started. There are plenty of free recording and editing options that are plenty useful for your early days.
Many hosts start out using free tools such as Garage Band, a native app on Apple products, and Audacity. These programs can help you get the basics of podcasting under your belt, and are so good that many podcasters continue using them dozens of episodes into their runs. Both let you edit out the boring bits, add sound drops and help normalise volume.
"I do my editing in Garage Band, and I record in Audacity," Brown says. "They're free. When you get practice with them, they can be as useful as expensive sound editing suites."
However, some prefer to take a step up in the software department, paying for programs that help enhance the experience for listeners.
"There's only a certain level of quality you can get with free software like Audacity," Thornely says.
"Once I went from Audacity to Hindenburg, I just had much more control and wasn't spending all this time trying to make tiny differences to the sound. It was just done for me."
Of course, finding the right editing software might not be as much of an issue if you're looking to unleash unedited, free-flowing thoughts upon the world — some hosts and panels are better suited to such a format. That being said, a bit of editing can help focus your podcasts and deliver goods that might otherwise get lost in longer monologues and chats. As with writing, there's no podcast that can't be improved with a bit of editing.
But editing takes time, which is something you need to be prepared for, especially if you're trying to stick to some sort of schedule. Thornely says her general rule of thumb is that it takes a bit over twice as long to edit as it does to record. So if you record for 1.5 hours, expect maybe 3.5 hours of editing on top of that. That being said, she likes to keep her episodes to about an hour, so the longer the record is, the more she has to chop out. As you get into the groove of making your show, you'll be able to tailor recording times and save editing effort without eliminating the important bits.
Brown agrees that he likes sharper, edited podcasts, but stresses that post-recording work shouldn't scare those unfamiliar with the tech.
"Some people record and put out the entire thing, and none of those are my favourite pods," he says. "My favourites are edited, structured. They're about something. I know this is a barrier to entry for some people to say you have to become an editor, but I wouldn't be afraid by the tech of it. I would say that you need to think about the effort you want to put it, and it will be effort if you're doing something on a weekly or fortnightly schedule."
Finding the best podcast recording space
So, you know how the right study space can make all the difference in how productive you are when working through online courses? The same can be said about your podcasting environment. Having the right surroundings for yourself and guests can make a big difference in the quality of your work.
Having a room in which you can deaden sound so it's not too echoey might seem obvious, but that doesn't make it any less important. You certainly don't need a-grade recording studio quality environments with carpets hanging along the walls and foam egg crates smothering every surface, but softening the features of your recording space can make a huge difference.
"I first started recording at a table in the middle of a dining room," Brown says. "What I quickly found out was how many reflective surfaces you get in a big room. Walls, ceiling, floors — everything will make an echo, make a sound."
The best way to avoid these issues is to, well, avoid them. If possible, test out other places in your home or wherever you're podcasting that suit better. Rooms that are carpeted our house a big rug can be a big help. As are upholstered chairs and furniture that absorb sound instead of reflect it. Some podcast hosts have even been known to use walk-in closets as recording booths, with hanging clothes playing the role of sound deadener.
If none of that works for you, invest in some cheap foam egg crates or other noise-deadening sheets that you can hang around your space. Even just covering the table on which you put your microphone can create a more welcoming audio environment. There are even some DIY methods to turn to if you really want to get into the upstart podcast mood.
"I got these cloth boxes from IKEA, they're fabric with some cardboard inside that you use for packing up jumpers or whatever," Brown says. "I stood the box on its side, put the mic on the edge of it, ran the cable through it out the back where it opens and closes. Then I filled the box with towels and blankets. That created a catcher's mitt behind the mic to absorb that reflection and deaden everything behind it, so all the mic would get was my voice. That little thing I did made everything sound that much better."
Of course you'll also want the actual environment around you to be as quiet as possible, as even shoddy mics pick up on a lot of background noise that can steal centre stage from you and your guests. Kids, partners or roommates running around, noisy trains and planes near your place, music — the stuff you get used to when living or working in a place for years can come back and bite you on listen back.
But sound isn't the only thing you need to think about when it comes to your environment. Comfort is also a factor, especially if you are going to be having guests to your studio. While statuesque calmness isn't required, you don't want your guests (or yourself) shifting around throughout recording because of uncomfortable seating. This can cause issues not only for sound but, more importantly, for the quality of the conversation you'll be having.
How to promote your podcast
You might not care about how many listeners or subscriptions you chalk up, and that's definitely cool. But if you live and die with every click and tick of the stats, there are some things you can do to help boost your listenership numbers.
One of the benefits of such a crowded podcast landscape is that it creates not only one giant pool in which to operate, but also a bunch of smaller ecosystems into which you can slot. This pool can be your most valuable ally when it comes to getting people to tune into your podcast.
"I don't know if it's because podcasting is relatively young, but it's such a community," Thornely says. "People are really willing to go on each other's. If I've been a guest on somebody's podcast, then they've always agreed to be a guest on mine. It's just really nice.
"A lot of the guests that will drop everything and research are people that also have podcasts because they get it. They know we all need people to keep things fresh. Those people also understand the riffing you like, what's required. They're really good guests."
In addition to knowing how to handle themselves in front of a mic, guests who have their own shows can bring a new audience who otherwise might not have been interested in your work.
"When it comes to growing a listenership, find guests that will bring new people to your show," Brown says. "In the early going of The Math of You, I was talking to people who had their own pods or projects, and I knew people who were listening to those may not be listening to mine. But my listeners will go find them and vice versa.
"It's weird, I could be a guest on somebody's else's pod, have a great time, and then see a 2% bump on mine. Or somebody will mention something on Twitter about 'Oh I remember when I spoke to Lucas about this and that' and I could see a massive spike from that.
"Growing listenership just sorta happens. You can put yourself out there, plug your stuff, guest on somebody's else's pod, they guest on yours, but you never know what is going to be the big spike that draws listeners."
Thornely's Zealot took off after she was featured on a live episode of global podcast smash hit My Favourite Murder. While that gave her a firm foothold in terms of a listener base, she says she gets nice bumps from well-known Australians in the podcasting community.
"I would suggest talking to others who have pods in the same realm or if you're a podcasts with guests, ask people on who have an audience. People will listen because it's somebody they've heard of. If they like it, then they'll stick around to listen to you.
"I've seen my Australian audience grow by having Dan Ilic and Bec Shaw and Myf Warhurst on. They've each got their own set of people they'll bring along."
As with everything else in life these days, social media can be a powerful tool with which to grow listener numbers. Don't be afraid to reach out and get involved, as many in the grassroots podcasting community welcome newcomers with open arms. Chances are anybody with whom you interact will be just like you or at least was at some point — just trying to get their show off the ground.
"I would strongly say one of the best things about podcasts is there's an audience for every single one," Thornely says. "You can find those audiences elsewhere. Facebook pages, other podcasts' Facebook pages. Just by chatting about it you find your audience. Then you can keep people by engaging with them."
Brown also says a little bit of self promotion never hurt anybody, and that newbies to the podcasting game shouldn't be afraid to advertise their show.
"Consistent and balanced self-promotion. It's one of those things that makes people cringe," Brown says. "But if not you then who? The odds of somebody stumbling across it then magnanimously promoting your thing so you can say oh stop, it doesn't work that way.
"You think it's going to annoy your followers, but they don't care, they follow you anyway. Don't be afraid of self promo."
Recommended Online Courses
Such a DIY playground doesn't require you to take specific courses to be successful. Both Thornely and Brown did a lot of self-teaching by reading articles, watching YouTube, participating in other shows and talking to other hosts before voyaging out on their own.
But there are a few online courses you can take that could translate well to podcasting. Those who take online Design & Multimedia courses might be able to call upon those skills when designing a logo (important when getting your show onto iTunes and other services) or even when it comes times to edit. The same goes for learning about Website Development online, as you'll want your podcast to have a centralised location to which fans can go for earlier episodes or supplemental resources that can enrich their enjoyment of the show.
But the best way to start your own podcast? Just do the darn thing. Trying, failing, figuring out where you went wrong and fixing it is the best way to make something truly your own. Popped Ps? Low listenership? Lengthy delays between episodes? Don't sweat it. Embrace and enjoy the learning curve that comes with starting your own show. Just remember that thousands of others, from small timers to the biggest players in the industry, have done the same.