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Podcasting tips and tricks: 11 insights from the host of Serial and other titans of podcasting

The world has gone podcast crazy. Fans devour hit shows like Serial as if it were a Sunday roast. Although there’s still some people that have never dipped their toes into the podcast world, it’s undeniable that the medium is through the roof. But just what is driving the podcast explosion?

Fortunately a podcasting forum was recently conducted by The New School, a progressive university in New York’s Greenwich Village, to launch their Journalism + Design course.

Moderator David Carr, who very sadly recently passed away after this last gift, picked at the brains of the podcasting elite, and because nobody apart from uber-podcast nerds like me would be able to sit still and listen to the whole 90 minutes, here’s some of the main insights.

Obsessed Serial fans are stalking Sarah Koenig, and she is not cool with it

Sarah Koenig (Staff Producer of This American Life and host of Serial): “I’ve gotten so, so many emails – even letters, like through the mail system. They still do that!”

The charm of her unexpected celebrity soon wore off.

SK: “(I’ve received) Phone calls to my house phone, my cell phone, and maybe that’s just the age we live in but there is this thing where they assume we’re friends.”

Podcasts are the latest in a long line of disruptions to incumbent media

Alex Blumberg (CEO of Gimlet Media and host of StartUp): “The stuff that’s happening in audio happened to other media a decade ago. It happened to newspapers and it happened with TV. A big audience on TV used to be 30 million, now it’s 5 million which is what these guys [motions to Sarah Koenig] get for their podcast.”

$1.5 million wasn’t enough to convince Alex Bloomberg to leave the country

Bloomberg raised an impressive $1.5m in seed capital for his new company Gimlet Media, but it wasn’t enough to tempt him to disappear with the dough.

AB: “It’s not enough to leave town. I mean if it was 10 million… maybe.”

Presumably he also fears becoming the subject of a future episode of Planet Money.

Radiotopia’s uber-loyal audience fell over themselves to donate

Benjamin Walker (Co-founder of Radiotopia and host of Theory of Everything): “We just did a Kickstarter for the group and wanted to raise $240,000. We ended up raising $620,000.”

Reaching the goal and securing another year of production wasn’t what the fans wanted, more than anything they wanted to be a part of the audio revolution. He is also bullish on the potential of creators funding their podcast through crowd-funding models.

BW: “There have been over 240 successful podcast funding projects. I wouldn’t have guessed there would be that many.”

Don’t sniff at podcasts that raise revenue through ads

AB: “There’s lots and lots of excellent journalistic media that is advertising supported, the New York Times, included. I feel like that’s a perfectly respectable business model […] To me the danger is in tricking people that the ads are somehow the content and you’re not keeping it separate.”

Investors were, understandably, skeptical of Bloomberg’s notion of bringing the public radio model of listener pledges to a new media venture.

AB: “Public radio has convinced 10% of its audience to donate money. In the venture capital world you’re lucky if you can get 0.5% of people to do anything”

Before Serial, Sarah Koenig didn’t know what a podcast was (and still doesn’t listen to them)

SK: “I literally had not listened to any podcasts, I didn’t even know what it should be. I was just Who cares, try it. It’s a podcast, nobody listens to podcasts.

Koenig admitted that in preparation for the forum she went out of her way to peruse some of the more noteworthy shows because she is still unfamiliar with the broader podcasting scene. She is however mindful that the medium has a low barrier to entry, and hopes that despite the podcast explosion its democratic base remains.

SK: “I just think it’s super cool that some kid can be like, I’m 20 and I’m gunna make a podcast and let’s see what happens. I worry that part might go away.”

You need around 50,000 listeners for a podcast to be financially sustainable

AB: “The economics can be sustainable once you get above 50,000 or 75,000 listeners. When I first started I was looking at what Roman [Mars, co-founder of Radiotopia] was doing as a sustainable business. You don’t need public radio sized audiences to make a go of it.”

50,000 listeners? Sure, sounds easy.

Is Ira Glass really the dark overlord of everything?

All in unison: “Ira is really the dark overlord of everything.”

This American Life represented a platform from which most of these panelists propelled themselves. Clearly the radio veteran has left a lasting impression.

David Carr (Moderator): “You all met at (This American Life) and left with a certain aesthetic.”

AB: “You get assigned a certain way of speaking.”

SK: “Yeah. I don’t actually need glasses.”

This American Life alumni spill Ira’s secret sauce for compelling story-telling

SK: “There has to be something at stake, some sort of tension. An element of surprise, it doesn’t have to be a life changing or earth shattering thing. […] Who is the character? Is this person a good talker? Sometimes we kill wonderful, fantastic stories that you’d maybe read in a newspaper because we don’t have (audio that) would make them work on the radio”

AB: “There’s two basic building blocks. One is the anecdote, someone telling a little story within your story. We are hard-wired to want to know what happens next. The other is moments of authentic emotion, that’s the other thing an audio story needs above all is to have something that feels honest.”

Podcasts are popular because our daily lives are bombarded with text

Alix Spiegel (Creator of NPR’s Invisibilia): “(Podcasts are) another way of getting information that’s filled with emotion, and you’re not married to a piece of text. It has emotion animating it which is hard to get in print unless you can apply your craft incredibly well.”

We’ll take that as a compliment, but her point is that podcasts can engage people in a way that text can’t after a long day of staring at screens.

AS: “You can throw a little banjo music under there and you’re golden.”

Banjo music… what the hell?

DC: “I was an editor and we use banjo music in print too.”

AB: “What does banjo music mean in print?”

DC: “It means be folksy.”

AB: “Oh, because in audio you literally put banjo music underneath what you’re talking about. It’s not a metaphor. That’s a line from Ira, by the way.”

About the author

Rodney has an eye for intriguing tech stories, appreciates good design and has a super-dry sense of humour.

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