Our Advice for New Podcasters

Tracy Wilson

A microphone, reflection filter and popper stopper, which can help you get a cleaner recording. liamgrantfoto/iStock/ThinkStock

Holly and I have been getting lots of email lately from folks who want to start a podcast and would like our advice. "What advice do you have for podcasters?" is also one of the questions we hear most often when people interview us. So here we go: our advice for podcasters.

First and foremost: Make the show you want to make. If you look at the most popular history podcasts on iTunes, you'll usually see us, Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, The Memory Palace, and a couple of other shows rounding out the top five. (Today, July 21 2015, the other two in the top five are Lore, which launched about three months ago, and Radio Diaries, which has existed on the radio for a long time but is only on its 37th episode as a podcast.)

These are all history shows, but otherwise they could not be more different. Stuff You Missed in History Class is mostly scripted but pretty bare-bones in terms of music and sound effects, and our episodes are roughly 30 minutes long. Hardcore History and The Memory Palace both do a lot with sound and music, but Hardcore History takes a long look at a subject over multiple, multi-hour episodes, while The Memory Palace crafts a story in a handful of minutes. Podcasting is basically a wide-open field to play in, so make the show you want, the way you want to make it.

If you want to make a show that's similar to This American Life, pick up their comic, "How to Make Radio," which tells the whole story. (That link also includes a roundup of lots of other useful resources.) Transom is a fantastic resource for all things audio, including paid workshops and free online articles. Also check out NPR's extensive online training collection.

Speaking of This American Life: Listen to the episode, "If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say, Say it in ALL CAPS," particularly act two, "Freedom Fries." Watch "Talking While Female" from NPR. Read this auto-reply from 99 Percent Invisible and this piece from Emma Gray and Claire Fallon.

Decide what "success" means to you in terms of your podcast. Before we joined Stuff You Missed in History Class, we had another show called PopStuff. PopStuff's audience was small but highly devoted and extremely passionate, gracious and kind, and we talked about whatever we felt like in a candid, entirely unscripted way. The Stuff You Missed in History Class audience was about 20 times as large as PopStuff's when we joined the show ... now it's 40 times as large. Our shows now are much more involved and require far more research, planning and scripting. These are two very, very different types of success, and which one is better (if either) is really a matter of opinion.

Find somebody with recording and sound editing experience to help you with that part. Our producer, Noel, gets the credit for all of that on our show, save for the very rare occasion when he's away from work, at which point somebody else on the team steps in. (Edit to add: As of 2018, Casey is our producer.) So, our only tips on the production end: Use an external microphone (not the one built into your computer) and if you're recording with others over Skype, have everyone record their own audio and then combine those files.

(This also goes for how to turn your show from a file on your computer to a podcast other people can hear ... that's also not something Holly and I handle from day to day.)

In the words of Jesse Thorn: Make your thing. That's pretty much it.