Podcasting 101, Part One

by Larry Matthews

This is the first in a series of columns about podcasting, a form of “radio” that allows anyone with an Internet connection to make an audio production. I use the world “radio” without caution because that’s what it is. Let me explain.

I was in radio for over three decades going back to the days of AM rockers. My first radio job was as a disc jockey. I hated it. I wanted to be in news where at least the stories changed from day to day, unlike the tight playlists of the rock stations, where the top ten tunes were played over and over without mercy.

Over the course of my career I was a street reporter (my first love), a news anchor, a news director, a producer, and so on. I spent nine years in management, meaning I was responsible for “product,” or the sound that came out of the box. That forced me to learn the ins and outs of successful programming.

An old friend, a man with whom I began my career, went on to a distinguished career of his own and was one of the creators of All Things Considered on NPR. Today he’s an in-demand consultant for public radio stations because he understands how to make magic with sound. He believes that the word “radio” is outdated. He prefers the word “audio.”

Now we’ve looped back to the podcasts. Podcasts are nothing more than audio on demand, something like a thinner, pictured-free version of Netflix. The rules that apply to radio programming also apply to podcasts in that they either work for the listener or they don’t.

What does “work” mean? The old joke in radio is that something doesn’t work when you can hear the sound of people hitting their car radios to change the station. I suppose the same thing applies to podcasts.

Richard Salant, one of the old lions of the CBS News, believed that each broadcast needed what he called “a moment,” something that would hang in the mind when the broadcast was over, something to be remembered. Much research has been conducted into how listeners and viewers process audio and video. The most important thing, in my mind, is that most people aren’t paying attention, they’re thinking about something else. The challenge is two-fold: how to get their attention and how to get them to remember even a small portion of the audio or video. That’s why TV commercials yell at you and why all those live-shots on the local news use words like “shocking” and “horrific.” They’re called “power words.”

What does this have to do with podcasts? If you’re going to produce podcasts you must accept the realities of the medium. Here are some very basic rules:

  1. Keep it short. Most people will drop out after about ten minutes. Radio ratings are based on two things: AQH and CUME. AQR is average quarter hour listening. That’s how many people listen for at least fifteen minutes. CUME is total audience, even those who stick around for much less than a quarter-hour. CUME numbers are always much higher than AQH.
  2. Keep it simple. Stay away from detail. You are creating an IMPRESSION not an education. Research over many years shows that listeners do not remember details like numbers, prices, percentages, and so on.
  3. Interviews are to showcase the interviewee, not the interviewer. Many interviewers worry that their questions will show ignorance, so they ask long, detailed questions designed to show how much THEY know. Ask short, general questions that allow the interviewee to display how much she/he knows.
  4. Stay away from musical intros and theme songs. I’ve heard some podcasts that open with a full minute of music. Listeners make snap judgments about what to stick with and they’re not there to listen to music. If you’re now thinking,”What about all that music on All Things Considered? ” I’ll say this: You’re (or my) podcast ain’t ATC and the music on that show is there as a production device that also happens to be pleasant to listen to.
  5. Get a decent microphone. Don’t use the one that’s built-in to your laptop. My next column will explain how to set up an acceptable home recording system.
  6. Keep your expectations low. Podcasting is also narrowcasting, meaning you’re not going after a general audience. In my case, I talk to other writers or folks in the book business, a limited potential audience.
  7. Have fun with it.

You can go to my podcast page at larrymatthews.net/The_Podcasts.html and hear that I’m still working out the sound-quality issues, but I’m making progress.

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6 Comments to “Podcasting 101, Part One”

  1. Excellent tips! Thank you for the wisdom, Larry.

  2. I listened all the way through. I’m so ready for you advice on decent microphones and an acceptable home recording system.

  3. Podcasting is like radio, but I must object to making it exactly like radio. The format for many successful podcasts is in fact different. I would suggest that the length be determined based on what the engaged audience wants and is best for the genre. Short length is not always best. Most of the largest and most popular podcasts are 30 minutes or longer. Nothing is wrong with using some music in your intro as long as it is very short. The use of music can add personality to your show, if integrated in a way that does not delay listener access to hooks and teases that can hold an audience.

  4. Rob, you’re right in that it’s not “exactly” like radio but it is the same medium. I would argue that a thirty-minute podcast is a radio program and it it’s popular that means it has found its audience. You mention teases and hooks. That’s radio. For me, I favor segments rather than program-length podcasts. I would be interested in the audience research into the longer podcasts to see how people stick around. Thanks for the comment

    • Larry, I am not sure that I agree that it is the same medium In podcasting the “segment” is rarely related to a commercial break in the program format. Most ads and sponsor messages are best delivered as part of the flow of regular content. No exit music or the concept of “we are leaving” and coming back after this message. Well produced podcasts do have a structure to the format that is lead by the type of content or titled parts of the show that are very loosely timed in the program as you are not needing to hit a certain time clock on the production. The thing about program-length is that it does not need to fit some standard model like radio does and thus presents the opportunity to give the appropriate length that is wanted by the audience and the producer wants to produce. The length issue is a more important factor in different genres of podcasts programs – no one size fits all. The “see how people stick around” issue is missing the real deal here, podcasts are about engagement and are more personal then “radio”. Podcasts just don’t have the channel flipping issue that radio has, as it is more difficult to change to another podcast episode then to change a station on your radio dial. Podcasts are on-demand and can be continued later, as opposed to radio which mostly airs live or on replay. If you missed it “Sorry” and the content is never able to be heard on the listeners time frame.

  5. Well, Rob, you and I disagree about this. You’re looking at the fine print and I’m looking at the medium itself. We have a fundamental difference. I wish you all the best.

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