Sound Guidelines for Great Podcasts

The golden age of audio is upon us with the blossoming of podcasts throughout the internet. Podcast production houses (Gimlet Media, Panoply and others) have established themselves as part of the broadcast firmament in making popular quality programming. They are fashioning themselves – and succeeding – as the audio equivalent of HBO.

The growing range of podcasts presents both an opportunity and a challenge to those who want to make themselves and their productions heard.

Program makers and listeners alike only need an internet connection to broadcast and receive new shows.  But the proliferation of online audio also means that programmes must stands out amid an ever-growing crowd, if they are to attract an audience.

To do that, prospective online broadcasters and purveyors of online audio should observe a few rules when considering enteringinto the world of podcasts:

Rule 1. Make podcasts that you yourself would be willing to listen to. They must be entertaining and listenable; worthiness does not win listeners, good audio does.  Tune into your own interests and passions as the starting point for what you want your podcast to be about. Ask yourself: what you would like to know more about, rather than what should your listeners be learning. Passion for the subject matter is the best starting point for what a podcast should be about.

Rule 2. Know the story – tell the story. People communicate through narratives. Stories should drive the structure and form of podcasts. You need to be able to crystallize in your own mind the story you are telling, and why it should matter to the audience. The narrative should contain a compelling opening, along with vivid imagery, interesting characters and other elements to make it a great listen. One of the finest examples of this can be found at This American Life.

Rule 3. Talk about people. We are driven by the stories of human drama, and people at should be at the center of all aspects of our endeavors, including podcasts. Listeners do not identify with projects, policies or initiatives – they relate to the ways in which ordinary people are affected or changed by circumstance. Tell stories from the perspective of the person on the ground as well as from the viewpoint of the observer.

Rule 4. Make it multimedia (where possible). Podcasting allows for other elements alongside the audio. Consider including photographs, graphics or text alongside the podcast. Photo galleries of people and places are often a good complement to audio showing interviewees as well as the presenter in action. Think about linking to other relevant sites to provide further information, and encourage listener engagement through comments and feedback. A great example of a multimedia project using audio, graphics and photos can be found at: Life After Death by NPR.

Rule 5. Forge new formats. Podcasts aren’t limited by the confines of traditional broadcasting and are a good testing ground for fresh ideas. Play around with differing concepts, think outside the box of what might work, and how innovative formats can help tell interesting stories. The possibilities are as wide as the breadth of your imagination. Who’d have thought that a 12-part audio documentary (Serial) would become an internet sensation, or a program involving a presenter reading chapters from his father’s erotic novel (My Dad Wrote a Porno) would get 90 million downloads!

Rule 6. Keep it simple. While you should experiment with formats and styles, it is important not to overelaborate. Multiple voices and complicated sound effects may be tempting, but less is often more in creating great audio. First and foremost, look for straightforward interesting narratives and compelling interviewees – the rest will follow.  For a good example of simple yet great podcasts listen to storytelling from The Moth.

Rule 7. Ensure technical quality. Digital audio is unforgiving in revealing flaws in recording, editing and acoustics – particularly when listening on headphones or earbuds. Variable production turns people off, however good the format, interviewee or story. It is critical to have the right equipment, know how it works, and ensure that the final product sounds clear and professional. Listeners will hit the stop button if they have to strain to hear a podcast, so ensure the audio sounds good from beginning to end.

Rule 8. Listen and learn. Listen to podcasts as much as possible and adopt a critical ear. Consider what is missing from the current offerings, and what could be done better. Think about what you like, what you don’t like, why something works, or why it fails to be interesting. The more you hear, the more you will understand what you want to produce for you and your audience.  For some ideas check out the following: FreakonomicsFrom Our Own CorrespondentInvisibiliaDesert Island Discs, or The Best 30 Podcasts Right Now.

These guidelines are just a first step when considering venturing into the big wide world of podcasting. The world of on-line audio is changing, evolving and growing. There has never been a better time to pick up a microphone and give it a go.