So what are the elements of the new wave of ‘symphonic’ podcasts? Here’s an incomplete list of things you need to do, podcasters:
- Do bold, generous promotion. Podcasters give whole episodes to friendly podcasts and encourage them to tear them down and re-edit them for their own purposes – This American Life uses a cut-down ep from Gimlet’s ‘Heavyweight’. Radiolab carves up a whole ep from NPR’s ‘Rough Translation’. Edits can be really radical, an episode can be totally remade and feel very different but this is great promotion and very flattering to the source.
- Tease cleverly. Podcasters are publishing a ‘season preview’ or an ‘episode 0’ ahead of the main series. Heavyweight just did this and it really builds excitement. This would also work for returning on-air podcasts from broadcasters – i.e. episode 0 would be online-only, so could have a different tone and maybe a looser format and throw forward to ep 1.
- Publish a ‘making of’ episode (and a blooper reel and a cast interview and a story follow-up etc. etc.). Major productions like Gimlet’s ‘Mogul‘ and ‘Bronzeville‘ have done this – wringing the maximum possible value from their expensively-created content.
- Commission music. Whatever your podcast is, whatever the theme, no matter how unnecessary music may seem to your theme or format. It will amp up your podcast, make it feel more grown-up, more symphonic. I love the clever, lightweight music they use on The Daily, for instance.
- Mine the archive – and other people’s archives. You’ll need permission but, if it’s there, this is essentially free content. 99% Invisible resurfaces old Public Radio episodes that happen to fit a current theme. Radiolab routinely fills gaps with older eps, minimally reworked or updated.
- Invent formats – and give them funky names. Like Mogul’s ‘Cameos‘ – mini-episodes between the main ones that don’t carry the story.
- Oh, and do mini episodes in between the big ones. Minimal effort, possibly built from unused tape from the main eps. Be cheeky about this, don’t feel you always need to create original content, don’t be uptight about your publishing schedule. People will be excited when they see an unexpected ep land.
- Put on live events – it turns out this will work with literally any podcast. Seriously. It will add energy, provide material, excite contributors and suggest new approaches.
- Find a way to include the voices of listeners – even if you just get them to read the credits. The NPR Politics podcast gets people to read out the bit about the podcast probably being out of date by the time you hear it (they call the ‘timestamps‘).
- Do ’emergency episodes’ – and not just for news podcasts. Any time there’s a real world event to respond to, get into a studio and lay down 20 minutes of chat. It connects you with the news, makes you seem up-to-date. Here’s one from the excellent FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast.
- Provide credits – name everyone! It gives your podcast weight, makes you look like a player.
Radio 3’s Ian McMillan was on a special edition of the Radio Today podcast all about the station the other day. Turns out he’s a connoisseur of the podcast form. He gave Trevor Dann a list of his favourites:
- the various Monocle podcasts, especially Tyler Brûlé’s books and magazines podcast The Stack, The Urbanist and The Menu.
- The University of Rochester’s 3% – books in Translation.
- The Bad at Sports contemporary art podcast.
- The All Things Radio podcast, an American radio industry bulletin.
- The Radio Today podcast, natch.
- The Radio Stuff podcast.
- The Guardian’s venerable industry podcast MediaTalk.
- The Freelance Web podcast, which is for people who make their living as… well… freelancers on the web.
BTW, listen to the end of the Radio Today podcast and you’ll hear Radio 3’s head of speech Matthew Dodd and Falling Tree‘s Alan Hall talking about doing speech on a classical station and Between the Ears‘ twentieth anniversary.
I’m not a geek. I missed the boat. When I left school they’d just acquired a computer. It was a mysterious, chattering presence in a room in the maths department – a teletype connected to a mainframe somewhere – and I never met it.
But when I first encountered a computer – in a roomful of brand new Macs at the Polytechnic of Central London in 1985 – and set about learning about them, I beetled off to one of those Soho newsagents that still set my heart racing, with their rows and rows of exotic imported glossies, and looked in the computer section. The magazine I settled on and made my bible was called Byte.
Byte was recklessly terminated in 1998. I still miss it. It was a quite awesome monthly crash course in IT – a kind of undergraduate degree in magazine form. Long, gripping articles about chip design, network architecture, software and AI. I honestly owe more to Byte than to any other source of knowledge about computers.
Byte, which for most of its life was published by McGraw Hill, was no web pioneer. In fact, for a while, during all the really early frenzy (during which I helped publish a magazine that was all about the web), Byte was almost a holiday from the Internet – a place you could go to read about VLSI chips and ethernet while the rest of the world was going web crazy. When they decided to have a go, they did it in a very Byte way, though.
They put a man called Jon Udell on the case – he was a staff writer and he was given the job of building the magazine’s web presence and documenting the process month-by-month for readers. He brought the whole thing to life with a really forensic attitude to the emerging tools – and invented a bunch of new ones along the way. These days he works at Microsoft and he’s an influential geek with an interest in all sorts of developing areas – and his ‘interviews with innovators’ are published as part of the IT Conversations podcast.
But this one’s a bit different – a rather modest, one-hour conference speech about ‘the architecture of context’, in which he lays out his own, partial history of the net and remembers some of the lessons he learnt in the Byte days. Fascinating and inspiring.
The MP3 is from the IT Conversations podcast. Definitely worth signing up.