This is a new series of quick, simple lessons in podcasting. I’m calling it Podcasting 101 and if I don’t do any more of these, don’t hold it against me. But I’ll try to. And if you enjoy this one, do follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter to say thanks.
A lot of ink is spilled on the question of starting a podcast. Should you do it, firstly, and, if yes, how? Should you have a co-host? Should you record remotely or in your basement? Interview show? Panel show? Documentary? These are all questions that you should be asking yourself before you start any podcast project.
But it’s not the first question. The first question is: why should this be a podcast?
This is a question that is too infrequently asked in the world of podcasts. But, actually, it receives too little attention in many forms of media. There are TV shows that should be films and films that should be TV shows; books that ought to have been magazine features, and features that could’ve been book-length. People undoubtedly gravitate towards the form of media that they have the easiest access to: if you are known for being a filmmaker, it’s easier to make another film than pitch a television show to an unfamiliar set of executives. And the same path of least resistance approach exists in the world of journalism.
Fundamentally, I see podcasting as an act of journalism, and therefore in competition with feature writing or documentaries or non-fiction video programming. Often these lines are quite slippery: podcasts spawn TV documentaries (or vice versa) and newspaper features are frequently the genesis of great podcasts. This is because people are treating podcasting as a serious act of journalism. And that’s a good thing!
But when you’re thinking about starting your podcast, before you’ve made any financial or emotional commitment to the project, you need to understand why this story, this idea, is best served by being a podcast. All too often, I’ve encountered programming which makes a reverse ferret mid-run and blames its failures on the format. “We should’ve incorporated video from the off,” is the most common lament. But, of course, those people, who blame their lack of lift-off on the absence of a visual component, might not have made that mistake if they’d scrutinised the why podcasts question a bit harder.
So here are the checklist of things to ask when you’re approaching this question:
- How will this story be consumed? And how will podcasting facilitate that? Is this a project than can be passively consumed — while commuting or cooking or walking the dog — or does it require fixed attention?
- What will the story (or idea) lose if you strip it back from its visual component? Are there images or archival material that would enhance the telling which will be lost in the decision to go audio-only? Are your guests really, really attractive? Or, dare I say it, the host?
- How much time will it take to tell this story? Is this going to be stretched gossamer-thin if it plays out over, say, six 30-minute episodes? Or is it, in point of fact, a book length exposé which involves granular detail, footnotes and indexing?
- How authorial is the project? Does the consumer of this story or idea need a protagonist to orient themselves? Or would the telling be better served by the dispassion of a third-person perspective?
- How will I find an audience for this show? And how will utilising an audio-only approach inform that marketing of the project?
And then, after you’ve answered these questions (honestly, I might add) you can ask this, secondary, question: how many things will I have to compromise on, in terms of the optimal presentation of this project, in order to get it out in the world?
Because, let’s face it, we all want a Netflix show or an Oscar winning feature documentary. We all want a book deal and glowing reviews in the New Yorker. But for most of us that’s unobtainable, especially early in our careers. And so yes, there is an argument that podcasting is an expeditious route to independent storytelling. Because even if you think that the optimal way of presenting your idea is a lavish HBO talkshow in which Dwayne Johnson and Rihanna do Pet Shop Boys covers as the house band, chances are you aren’t going to get that. So how many compromises can you make before you arrive at something that no longer resembles your vision?
Asking yourself why podcasting allows you to interrogate the nature of storytelling. Because, as has been evidenced many, many times, not all great journalists make great podcasters. And, of course, the reverse is true. Podcasting requires a particular set of skills, and the format favours stories and ideas that embrace its limitations as well as its strengths. Think about Serial: would that project have gained anything if it had been a Netflix true crime documentary? My instinct is, no. It wasn’t a visual story, and I think putting it on screens would’ve made it more generic, more of a run-of-the-mill Baltimore crime story.
Conversely, look at WTF with Marc Maron. Do you think that show, if it had been conceived as a John Oliver-style talk show, would’ve had the intimacy, the earthiness, that has characterised it and begat its success? Because podcasting has strengths as well as weaknesses. It is personal — you speak so directly to your audience — and practical. It can be consumed anywhere. You are build something that could be drunk down as easily while driving a car as when you’re fell walking on Ambleside. It is versatile, compatible, and irresistibly intimate.
So, signing off from Podcasting 101, the first question to ask yourself when planning your podcast is simple: why should this be a podcast?