By Tim Chan
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So you want to start a podcast.
Like blogs and social media, podcasts are democratizing the way people share their thoughts with the world, with the episodic audio series continuing to gain traction with listeners seeking both entertainment value and educational dialogue. The latest Nielsen stats show that half of all U.S. households consider themselves to be fans of at least one podcast, with 22% of these people identifying as “avid fans.”
The rise of podcasts can be traced to the diversity of content offerings, but it can also be attributed to the relative ease of starting one: you don’t need a fancy recording studio or any degree or certification to get started, and there are few distribution hurdles to overcome. But with thousands of podcasts available on sites like iTunes and Amazon (not to mention the thousands of others you can find on YouTube and Soundcloud), it may be easy to start a podcast – but harder to maintain its success.
“There is a lot of competition for people’s attention,” says Jake Brennan, the host of “Disgraceland,” a true crime podcast that explores the criminal underbelly of the music industry. “I wanted to start a music podcast that was unlike any other music podcast. Thankfully, I love crime novels so getting to ‘a rock ‘n’ roll true crime podcast’ wasn’t that difficult.”
We asked three popular podcast hosts to tell us how they started their podcasts, the equipment they recommend and their tips for keeping your audience inspired and entertained. Here’s what they say you’ll need:
Experts say it’s important to seek out an original idea or perspective that’s inherently tied to your personal story or your passions. And you should be hard on yourself. “Too many people these days seem to think their thoughts, ideas and conversations are interesting enough to merit having a podcast, but I think the market is oversaturated with mediocre content (much like blogs in their heyday),” says Jack Inslee, founder of Full Service Radio, a live broadcast podcast network and internet radio station. “You have to ask yourself why your podcast matters and is different, aside from the fact that it’s yours. Will guests learn something they can’t learn anywhere else? Are you sharing captivating perspectives, voices and stories that can’t be found elsewhere? Have you looked for another version of your podcast and found nothing that comes close?”
“Once you’ve thought about all of that,” Inslee continues, “listen to the other radio hosts and podcasters you look up to and pay close attention to their interview and mic techniques. Listen back to your recordings, be critical and self-aware, and always find ways to engage with your audience.”
Lawrence Schlossman and James Harris are the hosts of the popular men’s podcast, “Failing Upwards” (or “FU”), which explores everything from fashion to sex to self-improvement for the millennial male. According to their intern, “Intern Chuck” (who provided the answers for this piece) the two started with “one microphone, 12 Pacificos and Garageband” – and a strong emphasis on keeping the narrative going.
“When recording pods, storytelling is essential,” says Intern Chuck. “We’ve cut absolute slaps with some cloutless homies, and have hit slumps with some of our most famous guests. Ultimately, anyone in our network who can take a joke and keep a conversation is fair game. Synergy is important, and a diehard listener will be able to tell if something is off even if they’re overstimulated in a packed train on their commute to work.”
Brennan is even more to the point: “You need GREAT content,” he says, “not good content but GREAT content. Or at least you need to be striving for it.”
“You can record a podcast anywhere,” says Inslee, whose current set-up for Full Service Radio has his team recording out of The LINE Hotel in Washington, DC (Also worth noting: Inslee’s previous gig at Heritage Radio, which broadcast a food radio station from the back of renowned Brooklyn pizza joint, Roberta’s).
“I’ve had mobile setups in train cars, backyards, music festivals – anywhere you can think of,” he says. “I never liked the idea of recording in somebody’s basement or in some corporate sterile studio or office. There’s a certain alchemy that happens when the public can see what’s happening behind the glass and it makes the process even more exciting for hosts and guests.”
Others say it’s best to have a secluded space.
“I literally started in my basement, but I was living in a condo so it was one of those segmented basement spaces, not much bigger than a small bathroom,” says Brennan. “There was room enough for one person if they were sitting. This is the beauty of the medium. You just need somewhere quiet where you can fit a microphone and a laptop.”
To ensure a quiet space, consider investing in some soundproofing material, like these foam panels that cover an area of 10 square feet and can be easily affixed to a wall ($19.99 on Amazon.com). Harris says the first few episodes of “Failing Upwards” were recorded in the lobby of the Grailed office. “You could clearly hear employees cheering while playing Counter-Strike in the background,” he says.
Eventually, FU signed with Barstool Sports and was able to procure both higher-quality audio equipment and a soundproof studio. “You don’t need Hans Zimmer-level equipment to cut slaps,” Harris says, “but if you want listeners to stay engaged for long periods of time, an investment in a soundproof location is essential.”
Brennan’s hack: “Get some folding soundproof barriers ($69.99 on Amazon.com) and lean them upright in the corner of your bedroom. They’ll do the trick, provided you don’t live off of a highway or in the middle of Times Square.”
You’ll need something to record your podcasts onto, and somewhere to house all your raw interviews and tracks. A number of podcasters we spoke to use the Apple MacBook Pro ($1449.99 on Amazon.com), which gets you up to 10 hours of battery life and features an eighth-generation quad-core Intel Core i5 processor for hyper fast and reliable recording. The 13″ model is super thin and lightweight (just over three pounds), making it easy to tote around on location.
If you’re just starting out and looking for something more affordable, Acer makes a decent 15″ laptop with the reliable AMD Ryzen 3 dual-core processor, a ton of built-in ports to easily connect your equipment, and up to 7.5-hours of battery life. It’s all packed into a slim and slick package for under $350.
The main piece of equipment you’ll want to get is a microphone. Brennan recommends the Heil PR 40 ($399.99 on Amazon.com). Amazon sells a set that includes the microphone, a durable steel housing, and a broadcast arm that keeps the mic off the table, and can be adjusted for optimal placement near the speaker’s mouth.
Heil’s audio technology also helps suppress low-frequency rumble by absorbing vibrations. Reviewers say the PR 40 is super easy to set up and channels a rich, warm tone, while eliminating any background noise.
The “Failing Upwards” guys like the Audio-Technica ATR2100-USB, which is a handheld microphone with a USB output that connects to your computer for easy digital recording. The mic’s unique construction reduces pickup of unwanted noises from the sides and rear, resulting in more focused, directional sound.
Inslee favors the Zoom H4n PRO, which is a four-track audio recorder housed in a portable palm-sized package. Reviewers say the device is easy to use, and that the mics do a great job of cutting out noise, even in loud environments. What we like: you get up to 12 hours of continuous recording using only a pair of standard batteries.
You’ll want a way to put your podcast together, and Intern Chuck says “a mixer is definitely worth splurging on.” Whether you’re laying tracks, adding background music, or experimenting with effects, the “FU” guys recommend the Focusrite Scarlett 18i8 Audio Interface. With eight analogue inputs, including four mic preamps, the Scarlett 18i8 is great for podcasts that need to record multiple sources at the same time. Two independent headphone outputs let two people monitor the recording and mixing at once, while the sound quality remains uncompromised thanks to digital conversion at up to 24-bit/192kHz. It’s all housed in a sturdy metal case that can handle a couple of bumps and bruises without worry.
The “FU” guys recommend downloading Garageband or Audacity, which turn your laptop or tablet into a full-fledged recording studio. Both companies offer free versions of their software, which lets you record live audio, edit files, change the speed/pitch of your recordings, cut and splice, and output your podcast to a digital sound file (download Garageband here | download Audacity here).
“I use Pro Tools,” Brennan says, “but I recently met one of the most successful podcasters in the world and he records on Garageband.”
Adobe Audition, meantime, is a digital audio workstation that Inslee works with. Think of it like photoshop for your podcast, with the ability to speed up or stretch out files to fit a time limit, correct pitch problems, and align tracks recorded in multiple environments to sound like they were recorded at the same place, at the same time. A subscription to Adobe Audition also includes 20GB of cloud storage to keep your files organized across multiple computers and to easily share your work with colleagues and clients.
Check off your equipment list with a set of noise-cancelling headphones, that allow you to — literally — plug into your recording. Inslee recommends the Sennheiser HD280PRO, which have a tighter seal around the ears for more accurate, detailed listening without that distracting hum. Reviewers say the lightweight, ergonomic design wraps around your head and sits on your ears comfortably, even with prolonged wear.
For a true noise-cancelling pair though, upgrade to the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless Headphones, which give you studio-quality audio with more accurate sound transmission. Choose from three different Active Noise Cancellation modes, depending on your recording environment. The Sennheiser Smart Control app lets you control your settings and equalizer from your phone — great for on-the-go recording.
While it helps to have a solid set of tools on-hand, ultimately, the guys say a successful podcast is less about the pricey equipment, and more about the experience you provide to your listeners.
“I always tell people it’s the content – not the equipment – that makes a great podcast,” says Inslee. “I’ve heard captivating stuff recorded and edited on an iPhone. Podcasting (much like radio before it) is an extremely intimate content format,” he continues. “When it’s at its best, you feel like you’re in the room with the host and guests.”
“The good news [about a podcast] is that it doesn’t cost a lot to produce,” Brennan adds. “At the end of the day, you can get by on a tremendous amount of sweat and smarts.”
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