Podcasting 101, Part Two

by Larry Matthews

Podcasting is, in a real sense, a form of radio. By that, I mean that a podcast competes with all other forms of audio for the attention of potential listeners. I know that many people will dispute that with an argument that someone who is seeking out an author podcast is not the same as a guy pressing a car radio button for a sports talk station or a woman who wants to listen to All Things Considered. I disagree. Your podcast is in competition for those ears.

Podcasting is a form of “narrowcasting,” which means you are broadcasting to a small segment of the larger audience. Obviously, someone looking for a football game to listen to is not going to settle for an interview with a poet. This brings us to the “know your audience” part of this report. Broadcasters deal with this every day. They asked themselves, “Who are we going after?” You should, too.

My podcasts, to introduce another metaphor, casts a wide net in a small pond. I won’t attract the football fan, but I hope to interest readers and authors of all genres. I have poets and mystery writers, self-helpers and opinionators. Step right up and make your choice, folks.

Audio Quality

Podcasts are defined by two key elements: content and audio quality. I’ll talk about content issues in a future piece. Let’s look at the problem of audio quality problem — and I use that term advisedly, because it truly is a problem. Many surveys have shown that the average listener makes up her/his mind whether to go or stay in seconds, and if the quality of your podcast is not very good, you will lose listeners very quickly.

Now, we are not talking about studio quality interviews here. (That should be evident by my podcasts!) But it is important to get the best quality possible to make the listening experience as good as your equipment, the Internet, and the phone company will allow.

I use the audio from Skype calls in my interviews. It’s easy to do. If you are interviewing someone nearby, you can always meet in a quiet place and record the interview on your phone or other device and transfer it to your computer. But since that’s not always possible, Skype is a good alternative.

You have to worry about the audio on two sides of a podcast: the interviewee’s and the interviewer’s. Because t here’s not much you can do about the other end, let’s look at what you can do to improve the audio quality that you actually control.

Rule number one is to get a decent microphone. Do not use the mike that’s built into your laptop or desktop computer. You do not want to sound like you are doing the interview from across a public restroom, with hollow voice quality, a barking dog, someone walking around, and the air conditioner fan humming. It’s distracting and it drains attention away from what you are trying to say.

I have a small studio setup in my office. You don’t have to go that far. I have studio tiles on two walls and use an Audio-Technica cardioid condenser microphone with a USB plug into my laptop. The mike is highly directional and has a relatively small “sweet spot,” which means that its effective range is limited, which eliminates background noise. I use this mike for all sorts of audio production, not just podcasts. You can pick one up for about $100 on Amazon or elsewhere on the Web. You will probably also need a wind screen to place in front of the mike to eliminate the “popping” that can occur from pronouncing consonants like “p” and “b” when the mike is too close to your mouth.

If you don’t want to go that far, a $25 headset/microphone unit can be an acceptable substitute. I have a Logitech unit that is about half as good as the condenser mike but still much better than the built-in mike in my laptop.

These aren’t the only choices available. You can do your own snooping around the Web for other mikes. The point is to avoid the hollow, “Hello, I’m way over here” sound of cheap microphones on your podcasts — at least on your end of the conversation.

What happens on the other end is, of course, another issue. I have had authors who were more than willing to shell out a few dollars for the Logitech unit so that their podcast with me would sound better. Others have not been willing or able to spend the money, and their voices have a hollow sound from room noise and the problems inherent in a built-in mike that is two feet away from their mouths. Those types of mikes are fine when you’re talking to Grandma, but they don’t make for good podcasts! Also, make sure that your interviewee does not use a speaker phone.

A quick note about Skype: if you use Skype to call your interviewee, he or she doesn’t have to have a Skype account too. Skype lets you call regular phone numbers.

Next is the actual recording of a Skype call. I use a free program called MP3 Skype Recorder, but there are other similar programs out there that you might like better or that work better on your particular computer. MP3 Skype Recorder can be set up to automatically record your Skype calls from beginning to end. If you are in the habit of saying embarrassing things during these calls, the program lets you turn off the recording during the call. The recording stops when the call ends and produces an audio file that I send to a folder on my desktop.

The recordings will need to be edited. For that I use a terrific free program called Audacity, which is easy to learn. You can pay big bucks for such programs, but for my podcasts I don’t need all of the features that the expensive alternatives offer. Audacity is more than capable for my needs.

Open the Audacity program and pull down the “file” menu and select “import.” Find your recording and, in a click, Audacity will queue it up for editing. Once you’re done editing it, save the file, place it where you want it on your computer, and then it’s ready to be uploaded to Soundcloud, Podomatic, or any other site you choose.

If you’re new to all of this, it will be helpful to play around with your gear, recording and editing software, and podcast hosting options before you record something that matters.

Next time, I’ll talk about how to format your podcast.

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