To say podcasting is having a moment is an understatement. The team behind Serial’s latest blockbuster, S-Town, recently broke records with 16 million downloads in the first week. Traditional news outlets like The New York Times and NPR are currently battling it out for the top spot on the daily news podcast beat. And Buzzfeed announced that Ben Smith, its editor in chief, is getting in on the action with the launch of an interview show called NewsFeed.
“Radio is the theater of the mind,” says Marty Goldensohn, an Emmy award-winning radio and television producer who teaches podcasting to students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Goldensohn fell in love with the medium as a child while listening to radio greats like the humorists Bob & Ray and acclaimed storyteller Jean Shepherd on a radio the size of half a refrigerator, and went on to become News Director of WNYC and New York Bureau Chief of Marketplace. In contrast to traditional radio, one of best things about podcasting, he says, is you can do-it-yourself.
CJR caught up with Goldensohn to get his tips from more than 30 years in the business on how to capture evocative sound, write for the ear, voice honestly, and edit ethically to create a powerful podcast that will resonate with your audience.
What kind of podcast is it?
Once you have a good idea for a great podcast, you need to think about the format:
- Conversational: The most lo-fi choice of format is a conversation on a particular topic between experts. It might be a straight interview or a roundtable. Either way, the whole thing can be recorded in a studio, and there is minimal scripting and editing required. The key to success is choosing the right mix of guests.
- Documentary: A documentary podcast is composed almost entirely of sound recorded in the field. This approach requires some skill with recording equipment to ensure you get the right levels. You’ll also need good editing and mixing skills for the back end.
- Monologue: Sometimes the best way to tell a story is to tell it yourself. The story might be complicated, or about a personal experience, or the material you recorded in the field wasn’t up to scratch due to poor sound or inarticulate interviewees. To pull off this format, you need to be a great talker and excellent writer.
- Hybrid: One of most common types of podcast is a weaving of sound recorded in the field (actuality) and scripted narrative (continuity). That’s the format you hear on shows like This American Life.
Field recording 101
If your podcast contains actuality, there are a few things to keep in mind while you’re recording out in the field:
- Location: Think about what sort of sounds could add color and context to the topic. For example, if it’s a story about a person who has a job as a piano builder, find a place where you can capture music, and hammering, and building sounds to weave throughout the story. If you’re out on the street interviewing a used book seller on Broadway, the sound of traffic and buses going by will evoke a sense of place.
- Levels: Background noise is great for context, but be careful that it doesn’t overwhelm the person you’re interviewing. Lower your input level and hold your mic close to the person speaking, but not so much that the background noise disappears entirely.
- Ambience: Wherever you go, record 30 seconds of ambient sound—the street noise, the room tone, the playground. Don’t make it 10 seconds because if you have to loop it you might get a car horn coming up in the background every 10 seconds. If the sound in the location changes over time, capture sound before, during, and after. For example, if you’re doing a theater piece, you want the ambience of the people coming in, but you also want the sound when the theater is full. You can use this sound later to liven up your voice track.
- Close-ups: Just like in photography, you want close-ups. If you’re talking to a hot dog vendor, get your mic up close to the griddle to capture the sizzle. If your story is about squash players, get a close-up sound of the ball hitting the wall.
- Take control of the environment: When you’re recording in the field, you’ll come up against background sound that you want to cut out entirely because it doesn’t add anything to your story. This often happens when you’re interviewing someone in their home. Don’t be shy about switching off appliances such as the refrigerator and the air conditioner. Ask your subject if you can leave a note on the front door to notify anyone who might enter the house unexpectedly.
Getting good sound during interviews is essential. People often freeze up at beginning of an interview so you have to find a way to make them comfortable:
- Hold the mic under the chin: Placing the mic under the chin rather than in front of the face will not only prevent popping and sibilance, it will help people feel like they’re talking to you rather than to the microphone.
- Ask open questions: Keep your questions short, don’t interrupt people, and ask open questions. The closed question is “Were you there?” The open version is “What happened there?” Avoid giving your subject the answer in the question. Instead ask, “How did that feel?” “What was that like?” “Could you describe it?”
- Record your impressions: Before and after the interview, as you’re walking along, record what you see so you can write it visually later.
- Sit close to your subject: If you’re interviewing someone in an office, don’t try to reach your recorder across the desk. Ask your subject to sit next to you so you can move the mic back and forth between you. You might have to sit inappropriately close for American culture—get cozy!
- Ask your questions on mic: If your questions are recorded at the same quality as the interviewee, you’ll be able to use it to lead in when you ask a simple question like, “Why is that?” If you stumble, don’t assume you’ll be able to re-record it later, because the background noise might change. Just apologize and ask again. Using your questions in the edit gives listeners the sense that you were there.
Once you’ve captured your actuality, you need to make a decision about pacing. Are you moving in and out of actuality rapidly? Or are people talking for three-minute chunks and you’re just dropping in to describe who they are? The answer might depend on the quality of your interviews and the complexity of the subject. If the story is complicated, more narration will be required. If you find out that you’ve only got three decent quotes in the whole thing, you might need to tell the whole story yourself. When it comes to writing narration, the key is to stick to conversational language.
- Use short, punchy, informal speech: Don’t use complex sentences—especially not sentences with lots of subordinate clauses. When you’re recording, you need to breathe.
- Cut: Think about how to reduce your points to the fewest number of words possible, without distorting the meaning. Goldensohn’s mantra is: For every word you remove from your script, you gain a listener.
- Use descriptive language: Where appropriate, make your narration visual. Describe what your listener is unable to see.
During what has been dubbed the “Golden Age of Radio,” from the 1920s to the 1950s, announcers were mostly male and they generally spoke in authoritative tones that lacked ambiguity. These days, the most engaging podcast hosts are those who are authentic and confide in the listener as they would a friend. Even so, there are some tips and tricks you can follow to help you sound like your best self.
- Turn up the energy: Visual cues like facial expressions and hand signals can add energy to communication. Adjust for their absence by projecting your voice slightly more than you usually would, but don’t go so far that you begin to sound fake.
- Use a director: A director could be a friend or your roommate, but don’t record alone. You may not realize when your energy is falling or that you’re skipping words, but someone else will. They can notify you when, 15 minutes in, you find yourself reading at half the pace you started at.
- Watch your emphasis: In a bid to sound authoritative, newbies often emphasize the wrong word in the sentence. They’ll say, “He went to the store” instead of “He went to the store.” Again, the rule is to speak the way you would everyday.
Editing and mixing are art forms all their own. This is where you bring together your interviews, narration, the ambient sounds and close-ups you’ve captured, and add any music you want to use. Goldensohn’s rule is to edit on headphones and mix on speakers. On headphones, you’ll pick up the detail. On speakers, you can ensure your levels are correct, and your background sound isn’t drowning out the speech.
- Cleaning things up: Spoken language is often slow, and halting. People say “um” or “like” a lot. Tightening, condensing, and cleaning up stumbles helps lift the energy of a story, but be mindful of overdoing it because you could lose the thoughtfulness and rhythm of the speech.
- Keep it ethical: Like other mediums, the ability to manipulate the truth is easy in an editing booth. It’s especially true in audio because you don’t hear the jump cut. Make sure your honesty detector is on high alert during the edit to ensure you don’t distort anything. For example, taking out the key phrase of a sentence where someone says, “Of course, that’s not always true.” The extreme version is interviewing someone who has got Alzheimer’s, and you make them sound like they don’t.
- That goes for the ambient sound, too: Don’t capture sound in one place and then make it seem like it came from somewhere else.
- Get a second opinion: If you’ve done an interview yourself and then you’re editing the story together, it can be difficult to judge whether a quote makes sense out of context. Ask a friend to listen and feedback. Don’t fall into the trap of hiding your work from friends and editors until it’s done.
- Music: If you want to use music in your podcast, you must obtain permission. Licensing commercial music is expensive, but you can find music libraries that allow you to use tracks under creative-commons licenses. Better yet, see if musically-inclined friends can give you a fair deal for original music. And remember, the moment in a podcast that is most dramatic can be when the music ends: It’s in the silence that follows that words have the most impact.
Update: This story previously referred to Marketplace as a production of National Public Radio. Marketplace is produced by American Public Media.