Editor’s note: Here at AIR HQ, we spend a lot of time talking to, listening to, and thinking about podcasts. In our 2015 survey of independent producers, 26 percent of the AIR network told us that they already produce or host podcasts (up from just 8 percent in 2014), and 40 percent of AIRsters listed podcasting as the most desirable audio production skill to acquire.
The thing is, independent podcasting isn’t as easy as it looks. A lot of podcasts falter after a few episodes. Many more exist in a frustrated gray space, somewhere between dreams of becoming “Serial” and the reality of brutal hours of unpaid work.
So what’s the difference? Audio production skills are important — as are a good grip on podcasting pay rates — but there’s also an indefinable something that sets happy podcasters apart from their peers.
We’ve been interested in “Pitch,” created by Alex Kapelman and Whitney Jones, since “HowSound” host Rob Rosenthal introduced us to the show in its first season. In 2014, they hit on an innovative strategy for launching a second season. These days, Kapelman is on AIR’s board of directors, has launched a podcast consulting firm, and helped pilot Gimlet Media’s “Surprisingly Awesome.”
We asked him for a few pieces of advice about how to create a sustainable, independent podcast. He fired back with nine things that indie producers can do to stay sane, happy, and productive while making their thing:
1. Ask yourself: Why am I starting a podcast?
This step might seem obvious, but it’s probably the most important thing to do when you start working on a project. Once you have a clear idea of your goals, you’ll be better able to navigate your decisions as you move forward. Block out time to sit down and really think out what you want from a project. Allow yourself to be honest, and to be selfish: Do you want to make your passion project? Acquire, learn, and practice a skill set? Experiment or try something new? Demonstrate key skills that you already have? Make money or increase your profile? You might find it helpful to write down a mission statement (or something of the sort) that you can keep coming back to. (Though don’t be afraid to change it.)
For example, when I started “Pitch” with Whitney Jones, my mission statement could have read something like: I’m making a podcast because I want to improve my skills, gain experience, and eventually get a job at a show like “This American Life.” As of this publishing, it’s probably something more like: I’m making a podcast because I love reporting the types of stories we do on “Pitch,” and I want to find a way to have an income from being a radio producer.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what you want, here’s one prompt that could help: You just received the Alex Kapelman Scholarship for the Creation of a Dope Project. You get unlimited funds and a salary of a million dollars a year. The only catch is that you have to make something. What do you make?
2. Assess your resources.
It’s unlikely that you’ll have Alex Blumberg-level resources when you get started. But there are all kinds of things that you might have (or lack): Time, money, gear, access, collaborators, skills, connections, institutional support, ambition, love of radio, and anything else you might be able to think of. Maybe you’re only making enough money to barely pay your rent, but you have a lot of time to work on your project. Or maybe you’re working like crazy and have no money, but your best friend is in film school and can give you feedback. Maybe you’re in a situation when the only resource you have is your pure desire to start a podcast. Tap into whatever you have and leverage that.
Then, think about how you can be creative to increase other resources. For example, Megan Tan from “Millennial” works a full-time gig and has several other non-radio commitments, so her time is a scarce resource. She frequently stays up until the wee hours of the night, or wakes up at an ungodly hour to get her episodes out. So what are you willing to sacrifice sleep for? Can you work an extra hour at your job four days a week and take a half day on Friday? What if you just go slow and steady, and spend 20 minutes a day working on something? Can you work as a part time bike delivery person, and make your podcast on the side until it gets picked up? (Shout out to Jeff Emtman from “Here Be Monsters.”)
When I started “Pitch,” I ticked off my resources. I was living in a stupid cheap, rent-stabilized apartment, which allowed me to work part time as a freelancer. I also didn’t have to worry like a lot of freelancers do, because I was lucky enough to be able to lean on my parents if my money situation got bad. All I wanted to do was make radio, but I was having a very hard time doing it by myself. I happened to meet Whitney at Radio Club and saw him at a few radio events. Eventually, we grabbed drinks and decided to start “Pitch.”
Some people have it a lot easier than others (see: my privilege), so figure out what works for you in a way that’s sustainable (more on this in a minute) and doesn’t run you ragged.
3. Plan your budget.
Time and energy is great and all, but let’s be real — you’re gonna need actual stuff to start a podcast, and that stuff costs money. Professional sound quality is key. It’s not as big of an investment as it would be to get into film, but you’ll still have to lay some cash out.
Here’s a roundup of what I’ve spent to make “Pitch”:
-Field kit. I use a Tascam DR-60d ($200; all prices are approximate), a Rode NTG2 mic ($270), a mid-range 3” cable XLR cable ($15), a 32GB memory card ($10-$22), Etymotic earbuds ($130 for the hf5s; Jeff Towne uses the $300 ER-4Ss), a bicycle handle, rechargeable batteries. It’s not the nicest kit in the world, but it’s professional quality, and I know how to use it. I’ve used this kit to do interviews in the field, and also to track my narration in the studio (a/k/a my closet). Approximate cost: $650. I also have a backup kit: An Olympus LS-10 ($150), an RE-50 ($180), and another mid-range XLR cable ($15). Approximate cost for the backup kit: $345. Transom has a killer field kit guide for more information.
–Logging tape. I log everything myself in real time, using ExpressScribe. Sometimes, if we’re short on time, we’ll use Pop Up Archive ($20-$375/month), but it’s a little expensive and won’t have the accuracy of human transcription.
–Tape syncs. Sound quality is key when you record a podcast. So we try to interview people in person whenever possible, but tons of our interviewees live outside of NYC. So we hire people for tape syncs pretty often. (If you don’t know what that is, check out Katie Mingle’s guide to tape syncs.) We try to pay the standard rate of $125 + travel — and more if it’s going to be a longer interview. We’ve also used Skype and have experimented with having people record themselves on a smartphone.
-Software. I edit on Hindenburg ($95-$375) primarily. I like it because it’s super intuitive, and it’s what I learned on. I’ve recently made the switch to Pro Tools (about $700) because it’s more flexible for sound design, and it allows me to collaborate with Whitney better, but it’s SUPER expensive. For an alternative to Pro Tools, try Reaper ($60-$225), the preferred editing software of sound design legends Brendan Baker (“Love + Radio”) and Kaitlin Prest (“The Heart”). I don’t have any plug-ins aside from RX4 ($350), but I use that ALL THE TIME to clean up audio.
–Podcast hosting. Whitney uses some crazy process that he’s explained to me about seven times (he’s even made a 30-minute video for me about it), so I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Instead, I’d check out this Transom guide to hosting.
We do all our production work, scoring, mixing, and promotion ourselves, and we haven’t spent money on Facebook ads or anything like that.
Every podcast has different needs, so try going step-by-step through your own process to see how much you might need to shell out.
4. Define success.
Once you understand the show you want to make, figure out what success means to you. It can be a measurable thing, like downloads (probably the most obvious metric), Twitter followers, financial sustainability, or attracting advertisers. It can also be a specific milestone, like being interviewed by The Timbre or getting a piece on “Radiolab.” Maybe it’s something that can’t be quantified, like just being able to say that you make a podcast.
After you’ve defined your metric, you can more easily find a path to hitting those goals. For example, Whitney and I focused on growing our audience to 20,000-50,000 downloads/episode. (When we started the podcast, that was the number you needed to hit to get funding.) We decided that the way we wanted to get there was to: (1) focus primarily on making great content for people to consume, (2) share our show with our networks (friends, family, colleagues, etc.), (3) tap into existing audiences by getting our pieces on other podcasts, and (4) get as much press as possible.
Then we broke down each of the categories into actionable steps. For example, in order to get our show on other podcasts, we looked at all of our content and surveyed the shows we liked with audiences we wanted to tap into. We were gigantic fans of “99% Invisible,” and we thought that one of our episodes about CD longboxes would fit their format. So Whitney pitched the piece to 99pi, we got on the show, and our audience grew about 1,000 listeners, tripling our audience.
Regardless of what metric you’ve chosen, constantly check in with yourself and revisit it to see if it’s still pertinent to your goals.
5. Consider finding a partner.
For a lot of people (including myself), being the only person on a project can be totally paralyzing. That’s why it can be really helpful to find a partner to motivate you, give you editorial feedback, help you make decisions, and hold you accountable. I had the idea for “Pitch” for over a year before I started working on it. And even then, it was only because I just kept randomly running into Whitney around town. And then he asked to grab a beer. And then he happened to have the exact same idea as me. It’s hard to get that lucky, so think about reaching out to someone who can help you. It can be a radio producer you like, a friend who’s interested in the project, or even a supportive spouse/partner (like Megan Tan and her boyfriend). If you don’t have anyone, reach out to the AIR listserv, or check out AIR’s list of regional listening groups.
Before approaching a potential partner, think about how you might want to work with them. Would you split all decisions (or ownership) 50/50? Will they just be your editor? How heavy-handed should they be? Do they only do business stuff or communications?
There’s probably no one-size-fits-all piece of advice here. My partnership with Whitney is different from Kathy Tu and Tobin Low’s partnership, which is different from Kaitlin Prest and Mitra Kaboli’s partnership. You’ll have to decide for yourself what feels right and fair to you — trust your gut on that one, and don’t be afraid to walk away. If it doesn’t feel right now, it probably won’t feel right when you’re actually working on the project. Despite everyone’s best intentions, sometimes people don’t really work well together. That’s fine, and doesn’t necessarily reflect on anything but fit.
6. Study up.
Despite what the New York Times says, podcasting is more than just getting into a room with a microphone and pressing record. To make something good, you have to be good at what you do. You should constantly be learning, listening, and improving.
There are a ton of amazing resources, including (but very much not limited to: Transom (free), HowSound (free), “This American Life”’s Make Radio Page (free), Third Coast Festival’s conference audio (free), Rob Rosenthal’s talk Bring Extra Batteries (free), AIR’s resources section (free), “This American Life”’s comic book guide ($2), Out on the Wire ($12), Sound Reporting ($13), and Reality Radio ($23). You can also look into radio training programs like the Transom Story Workshop (which offers scholarships), The Center for Documentary Studies workshops, and journalism schools with radio tracks like NYU, Columbia, UC Berkeley, University of Missouri School of Journalism, and Medill. For technical advice, check out Jeff Towne’s articles on Transom or Rob Byers’ column in AIR.
7. Test the waters.
One of the hardest parts of starting a podcast is that it seems like you have to make something regularly, for an infinite amount of time. That might be the status quo right now, but it’s not at all a requirement for success, much less actually making something. Shows like “Mystery Show” and “Women of the Hour” had tons of success.
It’s probably a good idea to go for a pilot season of a few episodes. That way, if you hate making your thing, you can just stop — no sweat off your back. You’ll have learned something, and you finished what you set out to do. But if you love it, and/or it gets good feedback, you can keep making it.
8. Work hard to make a great show.
Shows like “This American Life,” “Serial,” “Radiolab,” and “99% Invisible” are popular — in no small part because of their money, staff, and institutional support. But the other thing they do is work incredibly hard to put out a superior product. 99pi’s production process is intensive. It takes time, energy, and talent to pull off. But the rewards are huge — they make great stuff, and have a gigantic fan base. To give you a sense of timing, Whitney and I have a similar process to 99pi’s. “Pitch” episodes have been between 7-20 minutes of content, and each show takes somewhere between 40-120 hours to produce.
Of course, not all podcasts are documentary shows. But to make quality, you still need to spend time producing. Even though they might seem off the cuff, popular panel shows like “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” “Another Round” and “Call Your Girlfriend” all have producers on staff and are highly prepped and edited. Yes, the shows have top-tier talent, but what really makes them work is the quality of their production.
9. Embrace the deadline.
For me, putting work into my podcast was easy — I’m a perfectionist. The hard part was knowing when to stop. That’s why we self-imposed a deadline on our episodes. We wrote down dates, told our friends, and posted on social media for all the world to know. That way, we were externally forced to release shows, even if the pieces weren’t ready. And that’s totally OK; “This American Life” does it every week. Done is better than perfect.
Making a good podcast is incredibly difficult. So when you embark on your project, be gentle with yourself. The goals you set might not be easy to achieve. Results might take a while. It’s probably gonna be difficult.
And that’s OK.
• Alex Kapelman is the host of “Pitch,” founder and president of the podcasting consulting firm Vocal, an adjunct professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU, and a member of AIR’s board of directors. He lives in New York and tweets everywhere.