The first step in creating a podcast is deciding on a focus for your show. (One central topic? Whatever you feel like talking about?) Then you have to choose a format. (Solo? Two or more regulars chatting? Interviews with guests?) And you have to decide how much you want to prepare for each episode. (Script the whole thing? Or just go with the flow?) Here’s how four podcasters—Christopher Breen (the Macworld Podcast); Editorial Director Jason Snell (The Incomparable); Erika Ensign (Verity!); and Chip Sudderth (The Two-Minute Time Lord)—answered those questions for themselves.
At one time, the Macworld podcast followed a traditional host/interview format—“like you’d hear on NPR,” Chris says. Lately, however, he’s been playing with another format: “a couple of people yapping about the events.” It’s an increasingly common podcast format, particularly for those focused on tech.
That format doesn’t preclude having guests, but the guests are no longer the only attraction. Having the choice gives you more flexibility. As for length, “if we exceed an hour there has to be a very good reason.”
The focus of the show is defined by the Macworld brand: “We naturally spend most of our time talking about things happening in the Apple universe.” However, they do occasionally stray into more general areas of technology and media—things like technology in the classroom, game design, social networking, and photography.
The level of scripting depends on the host. When Chris hosts, he usually scripts the opening and closing of the show, as well as any ads he has to read. (“I’m not the best off-the-cuff speaker in the world.”) If he’s conducting an interview per se, he’ll come up with questions beforehand. If it’s one of the “people yapping” podcasts, he and his co-host will come up with topics before recording, but he doesn’t do much preparation beyond pondering and a little bit of research.
There are literally dozens of Doctor Who podcasts out there, so Erika wanted to find a format that’d differentiate hers from the rest. It wasn’t hard: The idea for Verity! arose from meeting other female fans at Doctor Who conventions who all bemoaned the lack of non-male voices in Who-related podcasting. So they decided to redress that imbalance. “What made us stand out from the herd was the fact that all six of our contributors are women.”
They don’t have all six participants on every episode. (“Six people all getting their thoughts in within an hour? Unlikely.”) Erika and moderator Deborah Stanish appear on every episode, with two other panelists on a rotating basis. (They use a Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of who’s appearing when; that’s also where they keep tabs on topic ideas, budget, prospective interview subjects, merchandise, and so on.)
Erika originally planned to release a podcast every other week. But she and Stanish quickly realized they wanted something more frequent, so came up with the idea of an extra episode: Every other week they have a “proper” episode that runs just over an hour; in off-weeks they post a shorter (20 to 40 minute) mini-episode that can cover “any kind of wacky topic we can think of.”
The show isn’t scripted: Stanish writes out a few lines to introduce and close out the show; she may also write out a list of questions and topic ideas to direct the flow of conversation. Otherwise, it’s “just us talking.” They don’t edit for content: “We want the free-flowing conversation to come through.”
Ensign herself prepares some speaking notes, depending on the topic. If, say, they’re discussing a specific episode the show, she’ll rewatch it and take notes. Other contributors go noteless; they’ve seen every episode of the show enough that they don’t need to refresh their memories. Otherwise, it’s all off-the-cuff.
Prior to starting The Incomparable, Jason was having a conversation on Twitter with some of his friends about books and movies, and “it occurred to me that this conversation might work well as a podcast.” He knew he wanted it to replicate the feel of those Twitter conversations—“I wanted the group dynamic to be the thing.” So his podcast became a panel show, with different people rotating in and out depending on their interests.
He didn’t want the podcast to be something you had to listen to every episode: There were no weekly news updates or references to other episodes (beyond a few inside jokes). “Generally, you could listen to any episode in any order from anywhere from 2010 to the present and be able to enjoy it.”
He knew that the topics would be scattershot—“I don’t think there is a subject that I care about so much that I would want to devote an hour a week to discussing it.” So The Incomparable covers an eclectic mix of topics. “What I like about the concept is that it ends up being a bit of an anthology series about different kinds of geek pop culture.”
Snell maintains a Google spreadsheet with episode ideas that he and his panelists (and sometimes his listeners) come up with. That sheet has a tab listing upcoming episodes, and he tries to plan a mix of subjects from episode to episode.
As for preparation, “it will come as no surprise to my podcast listeners that I do very little.” He doesn’t come up with detailed notes (unless he has to watch a specific movie or something like that). In most cases, “it’s very off-the-cuff, very much the kind of conversation you’d have at a restaurant after you went to see a movie.” As a result, guests “have to think on their feet.”
When Sudderth was first thinking about doing Two-Minute Time Lord, “the dominant format of Doctor Who podcasts was a three-member panel and a running time of one to two hours.” So he consciously opted to go for something more “resembling the essays and guest commentaries on morning radio”—hence the “two-minute” part of the title. Sudderth thinks a shorter running time forces the show to be more coherent and concentrated; it also provides a lower barrier for new listeners.
He says the show occasionally departs from that format for specially branded “Time Dilation” episodes, which feature interviews and roundtables. He says, “I have avoided most of the pitfalls of monologue podcasts by forcing a short running time, [but] I can’t avoid podcasting’s strength as a conversational medium.”
As for topics, the show focuses on reviews of and commentary on new episodes when those episodes are airing. Otherwise, the show reacts to the latest news and conversations among fans or reviews older material. He does reduce the show’s frequency when there’s less to talk about.
Because of the show’s shorter duration, it is typically scripted or at least extemporized from detailed notes. “The shorter a podcast’s duration, the more apparent audio edits are—and getting it right early saves a lot of time in editing.”
He gets around the potential stiffness of scripting by launching into recording as soon as the show is written; that way, he says, “I’m able to speak conversationally without sounding over-rehearsed.” He prepares more diligently before interviews and roundtables, outlining the major points he wants to hit. Digressions from the outline can make a podcast livelier, “but only if you know how to get back from them.”