What better time than the present to start a podcast? Learn how to get started and create the best podcast possible with tips from BookNet Canada’s Marketing Manager and Tech Forum speaker, Zalina Alvi in this podcast sharing her Tech Forum presentation, Podcasting for beginners.
(Scroll down for a transcript of the conversation.)
Ainsley Sparkes: Welcome to this month’s episode of The BookNet Canada Podcast. I’m your host, Ainsley Sparkes, the Marketing and Communications manager at BookNet.
For this month’s episode, we’d planned to bring you a presentation from our annual conference, Tech Forum. Though, as you may have heard, Tech Forum didn’t proceed as expected as an in-person event. But we are getting as many speakers as possible to record their presentations for us to share with you online.
Luckily BookNet’s very own Zalina Alvi put together a presentation called Podcasting for beginners and has already recorded the entire thing complete with her presentation slides and a quick video tutorial that you can see on YouTube (see the link in the show notes).
We thought this was a great choice to excerpt for you here. What better time than now to launch that podcast you’ve been mulling over? Or maybe you hadn’t thought about podcasting, but now you’re willing to try anything to stave off the social distancing boredom. Whichever end of that spectrum you find yourself on, this presentation has the tips, tricks, and tools you’ll need to be successful.
And you might be surprised to learn that you don’t need much. For example, I’m not recording from the BookNet office as usual, but from a closet in my house. Professional? Maybe not. Necessary right now? Yes.
But it’s also surprisingly easy. I just need my laptop and my headphones with the built-in mic and the BookNet Canada podcast can continue as normal, with no disruptions for our loyal listeners.
So let’s get to the Podcasting for beginners presentation to find out how you, too, can do something as glamorous as talk to yourself in the closet.
Welcome to this beginner’s introduction to podcasting.
This presentation is for anyone who has been thinking about starting a podcast, particularly in the context of marketing books, and could use a little practical guidance on how to make it happen. But first, who am I and what do I know about podcasting? I’m Zalina Alvi and I’m part of the marketing and communications team at BookNet Canada.
I started our podcast a few years ago with three things at my disposal: lots of ideas and content about the Canadian book industry that we were eager to repurpose in this exciting new medium, a little bit of personal experience from creating other podcasts, and what I determined to be just enough internal resources like time and money to get this thing off the ground. Since I’ll be referring to the BookNet Canada podcast as a case study throughout this presentation here’s a little more information to give you some context: It focuses on the latest trends and digital advancements affecting the book industry. The episodes are generally 25 to 45 minutes long and they are released monthly. It’s produced and posted by our very small marketing team and we started our fifth season this past January.
Okay, before I get into the details of how to create a podcast, let’s take a step back for a moment and consider why you might want to start one, which can be especially helpful if you’re trying to get buy-in from other people at your organization.
I will now shower you with statistics mostly from a study called The Canadian Podcast Listener 2019. From 2017 to 2019 there has been an upward trend in overall listening and familiarity with podcasts across Canada. And in 2019, nearly 11 million Canadian adults said they listened to podcasts in the past year. In terms of regions across Canada, podcast listening is most popular in urban areas with British Columbia having the highest concentration of monthly podcast listeners, followed by Ontario and Alberta.
So they are listening but if you’re considering launching a podcast as a marketing tool you might be wondering if they make good customers. Well, that same study found that nearly one in four podcast listeners have contributed monetary support to the podcast they listened to through crowdfunding, attending live events, or buying merchandise. In fact, podcasts are a great way to reach consumers of on-demand media like streaming video services, paid music streaming, and audio books, which are otherwise inaccessible to advertisers. These hard-to-reach customers are big podcast listeners. Now, the next bit of data comes from BookNet Canada’s 2020 leisure and reading survey which asks adult, English-speaking Canadians about their reading and other leisure habits. According to that study, Canadians who read are more likely to listen to podcasts than those who don’ read. More than 80% of non-readers said they never listened to podcasts compared to just over 40% of readers. And, when we look at reading by format, audiobook listeners are perhaps unsurprisingly big podcast listeners. People who listen to audiobooks listen to podcasts with the most frequency and are the least likely to never listen to podcasts.
Alright, enough stats. Let’s move on to some basic questions you need to ask before you create your first episode. Number one: What are you hoping to achieve? Do you want to convert podcast listeners into book buyers? Are you looking to promote your authors as personalities? Do you want to repurpose some of your existing content to reach new audiences? Do you want to sell ad space down the line? These questions will help you figure out how much effort you’re willing to invest, what kind of podcast to make, and how to measure your success. Two: What is the essential promise of your podcast? And by that I mean, what are you offering listeners? Do you have a unique concept? A host with a compelling voice? Access to certain resources that no one else has or is taking advantage of? There is still lots of room for new podcasts, especially with more and more people discovering podcasts every year. But you still have to fight to stand out from the crowd. Not just once, but over and over again with every episode. Three: Do you have access to the necessary resources to make your podcast? Hint: you probably do. Most of the podcasts on Apple podcasts have fewer than three episodes. Don’t be that podcast that launches with a teaser and two amazing episodes two weeks in a row and then disappears because you weren’t prepared to keep it up every week. You don’t have to do it forever or even all that frequently. In fact, 40% of listening at any given time is not for the newest episode of a podcast. So, having a solid backlist of episodes with a good shelf life is very valuable. You don’t need to be a weekly podcast with a dedicated audience that listens on the same day every week, but if you promise a full season you should deliver on that. So, make a launch plan for your first season before doing anything else so you have an idea of the resources you’re going to need, in terms of equipment, time, and people power, before you commit to anything.
Now, these decisions are a little more practical. First of all, structure. If you listen to podcasts regularly, and I hope you do if you’re thinking about starting one, you’ll know that they come in all shapes and sizes. Generally though, episodes can be anywhere from 15 minutes long to an hour. And yes, I know there are five minute and multi-hour podcasts, but they are outliers. Some are just one interviewer with a different guest every episode, some have recurring segments like news updates or the hosts answering reader questions. The Binge Mode podcast on Game of Thrones recapped every episode of the show and for each one they would do a segment that was a detailed look at a particular element of the world’s history. Some fictionalized podcasts feature three or four audio stories per episode. So there are lots and lots of options. I will note that a short podcast isn’t necessarily easier to put together than a long one. A short episode with a lot of sound mixing and multiple speakers, or maybe even sound effects and music if it’s fictionalized, can take more time to put together than a single hour-long interview between two people.
Secondly, frequency. The frequency of your podcast should rely heavily on how often you think you can reliably deliver a new episode. Monthly is pretty safe for anyone starting out, especially if you’re adding it to an already full workload. But you can also record an entire season of episodes to drop all at once or close together. For podcasts that aren’t daily, weekly, or monthly, seasons are usually around 6 to 10 episodes. But it can be whatever you like and that’s a nice, safe option as long as the content doesn’t rely too heavily on being timely.
And third, assigning roles. A single person can make an entire podcast from start to finish but it’s going to be tiring. If you’ve got a team at your disposal, it’s helpful to break things up a bit. I’ve noted a few basic areas on this slide, including someone to produce and make sure the whole thing runs smoothly, at least one host, someone to do the audio editing, and someone to handle the distribution and promotion of the podcast. At BookNet, the usual structure of our episode is one long interview or a few short ones with different guests on a related topic, hosted by someone from the BookNet team who always does a quick intro and outro for every episode. We alternate editing duties, and we outsource our transcription work to a third party service. So, it’s manageable for us with a core team of two or three people with a very limited budget on top of a full-time workload.
Once you determine these things you’re ready to start creating a workflow. But first, if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration, I’ve identified a few different approaches taken by existing book-related podcasts that I know I enjoy. These aren’t necessarily examples of different structures, as you’ll see a mix of those in my examples, they’re just different ways to think about the opportunities of podcasting when you’re marketing and promoting books and authors.
First up is a fairly standard approach structured around book reviews or interviews with authors. If you’re already working with authors, and hosting interviews or readings, capturing that audio can make for great podcast content. And if you’ve already got a team of book reviewers at your company, sit them around a mic, get them talking, and get that audio. For the first season of the BookNet Canada podcast, we tested the waters of podcasting by releasing the audio from talks at our annual Tech Forum conference as podcast episodes and it was a great way to get the ball rolling. The examples I’ve got here are the CBC’s Writers & Company podcast which features great interviews with authors; the Semi-prose podcast from Penguin Random House Canada which does a mix of book reviews and interviews; and Writers Off the Page which is a collaboration between the Toronto Public Library and the Toronto International Festival of Authors that leverages existing content from that event series.
I call the second approach the sampler. These are podcasts that focus entirely on sharing short stories read aloud by either a regular host, as in the case of Levar Burton Reads, the authors themselves, like on the New Yorker’s The Writer’s Voice podcast, or a rotating cast of actors like with Public Radio International’s Selected Shorts. These podcasts make for great listening in and of themselves of course but the added benefit is that it’s a great discovery tool for listeners to discover new writers and maybe seek out their other work.
Approach number three works best for non-fiction authors. It’s where authors bring their expertise and specialties into the podcast space and that can take a variety of forms. Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast is a great example and it works because he’s such a great researcher and his writing has translated well into the spoken word. But there’s also But That’s Another Story which is the Macmillan podcast where author Will Schwalbe invites notable guests to tell stories of the books and the moments that changed them. In those two cases, the podcasts are extensions of those authors’ brands and you can be sure that their listeners are going to be paying attention when they release new books. My third example is The Fuck It Diet podcast which is hosted by Caroline Dooner and is directly related to her book of the same name. Content from a great nonfiction book can easily be turned into a short podcast series to give potential readers a sampling of the content and insight into the author’s expertise.
My fourth and final approach, though I want to be clear that this is by no means a finite list of approaches you can take, is podcasts that talk about the book industry itself or the craft of writing. This is a great approach if you want to reach the biggest book nerds out there and if you want to leverage all the great expertise and experience of the authors you know and want to promote. Some notable examples of writing podcasts are the Kobo Writing Life podcast, and My Imaginary Friends with author L. Penelope. The Abe Books podcast, Behind this Bookshelves, offers fascinating episodes on things like the early days of Penguin, Mark Twain’s travels, book binding, and many other subjects. If you have an insider’s view into books or the book industry you can be sure there are book nerds out there who want to hear about it.
Okay let’s get into the nitty gritty details. The basic podcast workflow is pretty straightforward. We’ll go into each stage in detail starting from planning and then on to scripting, recording, editing, and finally distribution. The planning stage is pretty self-explanatory. It’s managed just like any other project: you should be figuring out, at least a few episodes ahead at a time, or a full season ideally, what each episode is going to include, who’s going to be working on it, what needs to be recorded, and when you plan to release it. Our own planning includes determining each month’s topic, the guest we’ll have, who’s hosting it, and hosting sometimes just means recording an intro and an outro, and who’s going to edit it, the status, and what the deadlines are.
Stage two is scripting. There are two ways to script and the first is a literal script, which is what you would probably use to record your intros and outros. It’s also how podcasts like Revisionist History are done, where Malcolm Gladwell writes and reads from a line-by-line script.
Mia Lobel, the producer for Revisionist History, has shared the five stages of scripting that their podcast goes through. It starts with a table read, where they try to identify where the natural breaks are, how the pacing is, if there are any bad sounds, stuff like that. They create a revised script from that and then there’s a script that’s fact checked, line edited, and reviewed through a legal lens. Fourth is the tracking script which is the one they’ll use to record the episode. And finally they maintain an archival script after the episode is edited which could be used as the official transcript of the episode. Fun fact: average speaking speed is 130 words per minute which can give you an idea of how many minutes of audio you’ll get from your script.
The second type of scripting is really just talking or speaking points that you would use for interviews or loose discussions or if you just want a really natural feel for your podcast. In the case of an interview you could share a list of questions or prompts with a guest ahead of time to help them prepare and to guide the conversation. Some people do pre-interviews as a way to break the ice before you have to start recording and to maybe get a few basic questions out of the way just for your own knowledge. Other people swear against doing that because then you don’t get a natural or fresh conversation when you’re actually recording. Of course, you can always get around that by recording your pre-interview but really it’s up to you and how you want the conversation to sound and how you work best. Andrew Norton, the producer for the podcast Personal Best, has shared his tips for gathering good tape. One of which is to work backwards to develop your questions based on the kind of answers you want to get. He also suggests using questions as a guide, not a script, with a flexibility to change direction and follow interesting tangents. And finally, don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions for the sake of your listeners. By the way, if you go with a loose list of talking points for an interview you can always script out your intro, outro, and any segways. It doesn’t have to be entirely one way or the other.
Now for recording which is where things start to get a little more technical. So, to start with, just recording into whatever mic you have around is fine; on your smartphone, the little mic that comes on a pair of headphones, or right into a laptop. If you’re recording on your smartphone you can try the Shure MOTIVE app which was developed specifically for podcast recording on your phone. There are settings that allow you to control the input right when you’re recording rather than, say, making adjustments afterwards in your editing software, which is handy. It’s supposed to be for use with their specific line of mics but I believe you can use any mic with it by plugging it into your phone or when just speaking into your phone’s built-in mic. To upgrade your game a bit you can get a pop filter, which prevents a lot of those harsh popping sounds from being picked up, some sound insulation, or you can buy a proper mic. If you’re going to be doing a lot of in-person recording with multiple people, you can get a multi- directional mic. Your choice of hardware should suit the format of your podcast and how you’ll be expecting to record on a normal basis. For something with professional quality, you would want to mic each person separately and have them recorded on separate tracks so you can edit and adjust each person’s recording according to their own individual needs. At BookNet we use a variety of mic setups depending on who is doing the recording and their preferences. Really what matters more is the environment where you record. If you are in a quiet well-insulated room (maybe with a thick blanket over your head) you’ll get good audio even if you’re just talking into your phone. There’s only so much you can do once you get to the editing stage if you end up with a bunch of background noises or you realize you’re rustling your pages really loudly next to the mic, so getting good tape to begin with is crucial and I’ll get to those tips in a minute. You can also create your own DIY recording studio, a lot of which involves either soundproof foam or again thick blankets. I will also mention here that you might be able to find a place in your community where you can record. The Toronto Public Library has a recording studio in their digital innovation hub that can be borrowed for up to two hours at a time. And I heard recently that some Staples locations in Boston were starting to have recording studios you can rent out for podcasting and they even have a company that does audio editing if you really want to source things out. Of course, if your guest isn’t in the same room as you, you’ll need to figure out a remote solution. Skype works well for this. We use Join.me which is our usual conference line that allows for audio recording. Really, your ultimate goal is to capture the audio in a file format that you can use typically an .mp3, .wav, or .m4a file.
Before we move on, here are those few recording tips and tricks. Always record a few seconds and listen to it as a test before you move on to make sure it sounds okay. Be wary of speaking too close to the mic, little sounds like paper rustling, things like that, can really mess up your audio. Another good tip when you’re recording something scripted and you mess up, just stop, leave a good second or two pause, and then continue. The cleaner the pauses in between, the easier it is to cut later. And when you are recording a conversation with someone, resist the urge to go “mmhmm” while they’re talking. It goes against all of our best instincts, and I know you want to give that person verbal cues that you’re listening and interested, but it just makes for bad audio so don’t do it. I think Eleanor Wachtel the host of Writers & Company does this perfectly. And finally, don’t be afraid to pause and collect yourself.
So, once you’ve got all your audio recorded you will need to put it all together and create your podcast. So, let’s talk about editing software. For the free options, GarageBand is, of course, an easy option. Lots of people have an Apple device and so they have GarageBand. It’s perfectly fine, you can edit and make a podcast in there but there aren’t a whole lot of controls. I know that a lot of professionals actually use Audacity which is an open source audio editing program. If you later on find that you’re being limited in some way with the free options, then I would suggest looking into some other paid software. Hindenburg is up there, which is developed specifically for spoken word productions, as well as Reaper which a lot of people use. One of the things I believe you can do with a paid version of Hindenburg, for example, is multi-track recording which allows two people on two mics to be recorded onto two separate tracks right on the same computer which gives you more control when editing. And then there are the super fancy audio that’s Pro Tools and Adobe Audition. When it comes to the actual editing, most programs are fairly intuitive and really just takes some practice learning how your software works. For the most part, all you’re doing is dragging audio files into your workspace and organizing the files into tracks. For a typical episode, I’ll have one track for all the things I record on my own, which are usually the intro, outro, and all the segues between segments. A second track will be for all the interviews with guests. And then maybe a third track just for a segment recorded by someone else in our office, like when we include insights from one of our research studies. And the final track at the bottom will be for the music, which I will fade in and out as needed, sometimes quietly playing behind the talking. Keeping them on separate tracks means you can adjust each track separately by adjusting the volume, or playing around with the compressor, or stuff like that. And really all you’re doing is just arranging all your audio in the order you want it and cutting out any bits you don’t want. All the way from entire chunks you don’t want to use, down to zooming in or removing every single “um” you said. You should also be making the volume as consistent as possible throughout the episode. That’s really all it takes to create a super basic podcast file.
Now, here are a few best practices for editing a podcast which I’ve taken from Apple’s authoring best practices. Keep your overall volume around -16 decibels with peaks at no more than -1. For exporting, export as AAC format which will give you the file extension .m4a. Mono is simpler and uses less bandwidth but stereo is also fine to use. A good bit rate is 120 kilobytes per second. A good sample rate is 44 100 kilohertz. You are probably going to need a little bit of music to make your podcast feel complete. If you don’t happen to know a composer who doesn’t cost a fortune, you can purchase the music from a stock music site. There are lots of them out there, some of which offer free tracks. And, if you’re willing to put down a bit of money, your options will really expand and it’s only a one-time purchase. Plus, you’ll be supporting the artist who created the track. We use shutterstock to buy the music that we use in all of our podcasts.
So, distribution. Basic distribution involves uploading an audio file to the podcast host of your choice and then through the power of RSS feeds it can be fed out to all the major platforms that people use to listen to podcasts. We use zoundcloud which generates an RSS feed but doesn’t magically send it out to every player, like iTunes. When we first set it up, we had to manually submit the RSS feed from Soundcloud to iTunes and a couple of other places like Stitcher and TuneIn.
Whatever host you go with will have instructions on how to get your feed out there, especially to get it listed with iTunes. Here are just some of the places you can host your podcast: Blubrry, Buzzsprout, PodBean, Libsyn, Spreaker. Some are free, others are reasonably priced. We do pay for our Soundcloud account in order to upload enough hours of podcasts but it’s not very expensive. I’ve heard very good things about Libsyn in particular, if you’d like a recommendation. Once you sign up for one, it should have dedicated instructions for editing your own podcast that you can follow. It’s worth noting that not every hosting solution will make your podcast appear on Spotify, which is worth noting because podcast listening on Spotify has been growing recently. In fact, Spotify does not play well with Soundcloud last time I checked. There is a manual process for getting your podcast listed there in that case. I’ve also heard some talk lately about putting podcasts on YouTube. In that case you’d have to turn your episode into a video file and upload them to your channel. A free, but more labor-intensive option is to upload every episode to a blog and submit that RSS feed to each of those podcast platforms, like iTunes. Once you’ve set up those feeds though, you don’t have to do it every time, it becomes automatic. The essential thing is that you’re generating that RSS feed.
And, of course, your podcast is going to need cover art. Apple has some basic specifications that you should follow. It should be square, meaning a one-to-one ratio, a minimum 1400 by 1400 pixels, max 3000 by 3000 (and I would go with the max because it is necessary if you ever want it to be featured), 72 dpi in .jpeg or .png format, and in the RGB colour space. And to optimize images for mobile devices, Apple recommends compressing image files. Generally, you just want something eye-catching and fairly simple so it’s legible even when viewed as a little thumbnail on someone’s phone. You will need to upload your artwork wherever you end up hosting your podcast and you should also add it to the metadata of each episode when you’re exporting it from your audio editing program.
Speaking of metadata… Adding metadata to each episode’s audio file can streamline your upload process and make it easy to bulk upload your library of episodes if you ever change platforms. The things you should include are the episode name, podcast name, keywords, cover art image, author, summary, if it’s explicit or not, and the copyright. That way the metadata is neatly packaged directly into the audio file. We add this information to each episode in Hindenburg before we export them.
Now, technically your podcast is complete and could be released as is but, if you want to go the extra mile, here are a few things you can do to make sure your podcast can be easily found and enjoyed by everyone. A transcript of every episode is useful for making the content of your podcast accessible and to help search engines index your content. Obviously, the free way to generate a transcript is to literally write out everything that’s said. And, if you’ve got a full script already written out that you recorded from, you’re done. But there are lots of transcription services that can generate one for you if necessary. We post our transcripts on our blog and link to them in the episode description that goes on Soundcloud. For transcription we use Speechpad which can generate a transcript in four days at a cost of one dollar per minute. Though you can get one in 48 hours for more money. Both an upside and a downside to transcription is that people who don’t want to listen to the podcast itself can just read or browse the transcript, so you expand your audience while also deterring potential listeners.
Alright, your podcast is out there, now what? Find out if anyone is listening. Your podcast host should provide some basic stats for you. For example, the number of listens per episode. Since we use Soundcloud we check their analytics to find out how the episodes are doing, where people are listening, and more. iTunes does offer an analytics dashboard but is still in beta last time I checked, so you can check that out if you’d like.
Last, but not least, make sure to stay up to date with developments in the podcast space, which is still rapidly evolving. This is especially important if you want to make sure your podcast is readily available wherever people are listening to podcasts these days and if you want to consider monetizing your podcast at some point in the future. Two excellent news sources are Hotpod News and Pacific content. For in-person learning, you can check out the Hot Docs Podcast Festival Creators Forum, Podcast Movement, Camp Tech. And of course, there are podcasts about podcasting. Some suggestions are Gimlet Academy which is Spotify-only, New Media Show, and the Podcasters Roundtable. And if you’re still wondering if you can start a podcast: yes, you can.
Ainsley: Thank you to Zalina Alvi for sharing her expertise and putting together this comprehensive presentation to help everyone launch the podcast of their dreams.
I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge that BookNet Canada staff, board, partners, and our makeshift podcast studio, operate upon the traditional territories of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation, the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Huron indigenous peoples, the original nations of this land. We endorse the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and support an ongoing shift from gatekeeping to space-making in the book industry. And we hope that our work, including this podcast, helps to create an environment that supports that shift. We’d also like to acknowledge the Government of Canada for their financial support through the Canada Book Fund. And of course, thanks to you for listening.