Tuesday, February 28, 2017

So You Want to Produce A Podcast? Part Two: Topic and Control

For each of the areas in my introductory "5000-foot view" post, I will take some time and dig deeper into them and provide a little closer look at each region. Warning, this may get messy as we continue.

All successful podcasts tend to hang on a central theme. That theme can vary wildly and cover a  lot of different areas, but there should be some anchor point that you as a show producer can draw on. Some of my favorite "wide net" podcasts are "Stuff You Missed in History Class" and "Stuff You Should Know" both from HowStuffWorks.com. Their format allows them to cover a huge array of topics, and with that, there's the high probability that such a broad range will not hook every listener. By contrast, a focus on a very specific niche area, like Joe Colantonio's "Test Talks" Test Automation Podcast) or Ruby Rogues, means that you are likely to be hitting areas that you are familiar with and comfortable with, but also run the risk of hearing things you have heard before. In my opinion, the more niche the show, the less likely one or two people will be able to do it justice. Unless you are a genuine super-nerd on the area in question, and you can go into great depth on the topics you are covering, it's much harder to produce solid shows with only one or two people talking. Guest contributors make this kind of a podcast essential. By contrast, covering something broad or that changes week to week means that you can riff on it and provide your own thoughts and opinions and keep things fresh.

Regardless of the topic areas that you choose to cover, you will have to do your homework for any given show. If you invite a guest on the podcast, it's always a good idea to do some research on what they've done in the past, what their level of expertise is, how they acquired it, and get them to open up and share their journey to where they are today. Even if you are not appearing "on mic", if you have thoughts or ideas, or questions you would like to get covered, make sure the participants know about them. If you have the time to do so, compile a list of questions you'd like to ask your guest and send them to them in advance. You don't have to go by a set script, but by giving them heads up on the areas that you are interested in, they can answer back and either give you more areas to consider and broaden your questions or let you know ahead of time where there might be better resources for those questions. Either way, it helps you tailor what you ask your guests or, barring that, what you choose to ask yourself as you discuss those areas.

As a show producer, if you are appearing on air, one of your jobs is to be the show runner. With "The Testing Show", I usually defer to Matt Heusser when he's on to be the moderator of the discussions, but I take the lead to manage the topics and "watch the clock". This is an important part of topic and voice, and that's to make sure that all participants keep focused. That's not to say that a good conversation should be abruptly stopped, but as show runner, I need to make sure that I'm not going to have to be heavy handed about editing, so I tend to remind people of our timing.

Many podcasts are free-form, and they go as long as they feel like going. Some people do this better than others. One of my long time favorite podcasts is "Back to Work" with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin. Suffice it to say, every episode is long, an hour plus, sometimes as much as two hours. There is a lot of banter in their shows like two old pals just talking about whatever comes to mind. They use a lot of inside jokes, and it takes awhile to get to the topics, but they do so, and they make it engaging. Other shows I have heard don't do this quite as well. It's important to decide on your tempo, and how you want to achieve it. The Testing Show has settled on a general format, and we reached this format after discussions with our sponsor, QualiTest. We decided that the average show length would be 30 minutes. Sometimes they are shorter, sometimes a little longer, but generally, we aim for that sweet spot of 30 minutes. We also tend to have a "news segment" at the start of each show, which allows us the opportunity to be open and casual discussing a current-ish topic. We post new episodes every two weeks. That makes what we think is topical sometimes seem like old news by the time it appears. With that in mind, we aim to cover news items that have broader messages and takeaways. That leaves us with twenty minutes to talk about the main topic. The advantage of a set times show is that we can keep the message tight and focused. The disadvantage, at times, is that it can sound shallow or not go into the depth that some listeners would want. We take these on a case by case basis, and if a topic is really deserving, or covers enough unique ground to warrant it, we will do a two-part episode. Generally, though, I prefer to keep the shows as standalone entities, so I try my best to help make sure that heavy editing is not required. Sometimes I succeed. Often, I don't, but that's its own post ;).

GEEK TRICK: I encourage anyone producing a show to keep a production schedule on hand. This is key as you go through recording episodes. Based on the queue of recordings, and your posting schedule, when will this current recording appear? We have had experiences where we have been very lean with guests. A recording we make might get turned around and uploaded to the feed within a week (definitely stressful, but the content is fresh and current). At other times, we have a backlog of recordings to work through. We have had shows recorded that didn't get posted as episodes until two months later. As a show producer looking at this schedule and being aware of the post dates for any potential recording can help you decide if it makes sense to record a show on a given date or wait until later. Sometimes, a guest has a really tight schedule and you will only get them for that time period. If that's the case, you may need to shuffle your backlog a little, so that that special guest can appear in your episode stream sooner rather than later. Additionally, when guests or panelists are talking about upcoming events, it really helps to have a clear window as to when the show will air. It makes no sense to talk about an appearance or an event that will have already happened. One exception to this is if the materials for presentations are going to be made public by the time the podcast appears. You can then make a note of their location in the show's transcription and show notes.

Another thing a producer should consider is if they will be willing to "correct" items "in post" (meaning as they are editing, they notice something that's either incorrect/outdated, or could use clarification). Personally, my preferred method is to use the show transcript and notes for this purpose, but occasionally, something will stick out. To avoid confusion, or add clarity, it will make sense to drop a comment into the show mid-stream. I recently did this with regards to a discussion that we were having about Socialtext current CI system. Though I wasn't on that show, there had been enough changes that I felt it warranted to drop a small voice recording in and clarify what we are doing currently.

It may take awhile for your show to "find its voice". It's tempting to think that you will go live immediately with your first recording as your first episode. I strongly encourage you to record a "Pilot" podcast first, to see if you like the format, and to see what you will have to do to produce the show you want to produce. We did this with "The Testing Show" and decided that the first recording was just too rough to go live with. We still have it, and at some point, we may post it as an example of "first steps" to show what we started with, and how we made changes over the subsequent episodes. I have heard several people make the recommendation to record five episodes, and then record episode six and label that one as the first episode, discarding the previous five. If you are a one or two-person podcast with the same people each time, that makes sense. If you are asking for guests to appear on your show, it's not cool to take up their time and then not post their contributions. Since we decided from the outset to be a guest driven show, we went live with episode two.

Are there any other questions or things you wonder about when it comes to developing the voice of your podcast, and how to "run the show" once it's recording time? If so, please leave questions below, and I will be happy to answer them, expand on them in this post, or write new posts to talk about them.

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