Creating a podcast calls upon many of the skills, tasks, and creative engagement involved in writing a final research paper: it requires choosing a topic, conducting research, defining a point of view, considering relevant theoretical frameworks and providing supporting evidence for the argument.
Podcasts also challenge you to develop new media skills and carefully consider how to use voice and narrative style to reach a particular audience. You will manipulate auditory elements (e.g. voice, sound effects and/or music) into a cohesive message, with intentional tone, style, and pacing. And crucially, making podcasts can help you integrate first-person perspectives and personal experiences with the questions/data/issues that are important for engagement with your discipline/subject matter, a move that you must contend with as you move between your academic and non-academic lives.
There are many elements to consider when planning your podcast:
What structure will it have?
What elements will you need to collect or record?
How will you use the format to tell your story?
Explore the following pages to answer these questions and more!
a. Podcast Anatomy
Documentary-style podcasts are made of four main ingredients:
Narration: One or two presenters often provide a “through line” for the story. This narrator will introduce the episode’s main ideas, and provide context for the appearance of other speakers or audio.
Source Audio: This includes interviews, excerpts from media, and recorded sounds of events being described. It’s the equivalent of a citation in a written essay, or a late night talk show guest saying, “I brought a clip!”
Additional Audio: Podcasts will often use background noise or distinctive sounds to set the scene, such as traffic noise, crowd noise, a telephone ringing, church bells, or a door opening.
Music: Background music can provide continuity and energy within an audio piece, achieve a certain mood, or mark a transition between sections.
b. Podcast Types
There are many types of podcasts!
Here are a few to consider.
This genre prioritizes storytelling (a particular sequence of events that includes characters, time and place) to make a larger point. These podcasts tend to shape stories using narratives by a host and/or reporter, interviews, sound effects, ambient noise, and music.
Notice: What elements make up these stories? How would you describe the quality of voice and narrative style? Can you identify sound edits? What captivates your attention and when does the story lose your interest?
These podcasts are also “documentary-style” podcasts, except that rather than including one or multiple stories per episode, they travel through a longer story over the course of several episodes.
Notice: How does the narrative build over the course of multiple episodes, and what keeps you listening past the first episode? How do the journalists position themselves within the narrative?
A host interviews a guest, whether it be a reporter, researcher, artist or individual of any kind. Interviews are often edited for length, and can include audio clips and music. While interviews are the basis for many podcasts, some podcasts are entirely composed of a one-on-one interview.
Notice: How does the host set the scene, and what information does the listener get up front? What does the host do to establish a relationship with the guest? What type of work do you imagine went into preparing these interviews?
One or many hosts discuss with a rotating selection of guests themes relating to current events, culture or other topics, often using periodic sound or music clips. Live roundtable programs sometimes include calls from listeners as well.
*On Point with Meghna Chakrabarti
*Pop Culture Happy Hour with Linda Holmes
*All Songs Considered
Notice: What kinds of questions propel the episode? Can you identify a beginning, middle and end? How do the guests distinguish themselves from one another and what does each bring to the conversation?
Notice: How do different stories and episodes make use of different formats?
C. Storytelling Moves
FINDING A STORY OR SUBJECT
The tools you need to find a story depend a lot on what you're after. But in most cases, finding a good story involves a lot of persistence, and some creative ways of searching. Latif Nasser, who works on Radiolab, wrote about how he finds stories on transom.org.
CONDUCTING AN INTERVIEW
Congratulations, you have an interview set up! Here are some tips for getting great material for your podcast:
Before the interview, find out as much information as you can about the person you’ll be interviewing, and what you’re hoping to get from the interview.
Start with some ice-breaking questions (“What did you have for breakfast?” “Do you have any pets?”). This allows you to check the audio levels without missing crucial points, and it helps your subject to loosen up --you can hear it when someone is stiff.
You want to elicit both a story and honest emotion/reflection. To get the interviewee describing a sequence of events, use phrases like “Tell me about…” “Describe the moment when…” “What were the steps that got you…”. To elicit emotion and reflection, ask the interviewee “How did that make you feel…?” It’s not cheesy--it’s effective!
To get your interviewee to articulate their experiences in story-form, look for the following:
CONTEXT – Who are they, where are they, and what do they do?
CHALLENGE – What obstacles and hurdles did they face before they got to where they are now. What could have prevented them from succeeding?
ACTION – What did they do to overcome those barriers? What actions did they take, and what changes did they make or encounter in their lives?
EPIPHANY – What were those great moments of clarity, inciting incidents, and breakthroughs that led to that person making a final push to where they are now?
CLIMAX – How did things all come together? And what is it like to be where they are and do what they do now?
Ask the interviewee to restate the question when possible, to give you the most flexibility to use their audio to tell the story.
SHAPING A NARRATIVE
According to Ira Glass, host of This American Life, two core elements, the anecdote and the moment of reflection, form the core of nearly any narrative podcast.
Anecdotes are simply events in sequence: this happened, then this happened, then this happened.
Moments of reflection are the payoff of each anecdote. These could come from the subject, who stops to take stock of where they are after the events they’ve described, or they could come from the presenter, who interprets the story we’ve just heard and tells us what we can learn from it.
In an academic podcast, the anecdote serves as a form of data, and the moments of reflection are an opportunity for interpretive analysis.
WRITING AND SPEAKING FOR RADIO
Listening to a podcast is an intimate experience – It’s your voice, directly plugged into someone’s head. If it sounds scripted, it sounds insincere, and distant.
Podcasts need to be easily audibly digestible – We write in compound or run-on sentences, with big words, and beautiful visual imagery. But we speak in short, straightforward sentences (most of us). When you read you have time to digest the information, linger over a word or phrase, or return to a previous sentence. When you’re listening to someone speak, you follow every sentence and word sequentially.
INCORPORATING SOUND AND MUSIC
You’ll probably want to spruce up your bare audio tracks with additional audio. There are several different types of audio you might want to use:
Music - Serves to underlie transitions between sections, or to smooth out edits or breaks in a conversation, or as background mood or energy.
Sound effects - Provide a sense of place, and imagery. It’s often useful, in a journalistic audio piece, to set the scene with some generic background noise (the low murmur of a coffee shop, or more energetic noise of a crowd at a market, a rally, or other public place) or with more specific sounds (cash registers, transportation noises, or other specific noises that you might be talking about).
Room tone - Helps make your edits less obvious. Nearly any recording setup, even if it’s mostly silent, will feature some perceptible background noise: the hum of the HVAC, muted traffic noises, etc. If you cut a clip and then leave a gap (to cover over a cough, an awkward silence, or to connect to separate lines of speech into a coherent thought), the sudden complete silence will be conspicuous. For these situations, it’s good to isolate and use short samples of room tone.
Whether you’re recording on your phone or using an audio recorder, test your microphone before you begin, and make sure you have sufficient battery for the interview.
Capture everything…you can always edit later! Before you go out on interviews or field recording sessions, think a little about what you want your final product to sound like. Audio storytelling is most compelling when we hear “primary sources” – the people involved, underscored by the sounds we would hear in the world. Record everything you think might be useful, including your subjects introducing themselves, any outtakes, etc. It’s easier to leave things on the cutting room floor than to go out recording again!
Audio comes in a variety of formats, which range from “lossless” to highly compressed. As with video and still images, it’s always possible to compress or downsize files, but it’s not possible to raise the quality of a compressed file. So, as a rule, you want to record in high quality (such as WAV or Apple’s m4a format), store your working files in high quality formats, and only export them to mp3 at the end of the process.
RECORDING WITH YOUR SMARTPHONE
Choose your audio recording application: Most smartphone platforms come with an application that can be used for recording voice memos. These applications will allow you to record and trim simple audio recordings, but are limited in options for manual settings while recording. Some free alternatives to these apps are:
Voice Record Pro (iOS only)
Titanium Recorder (Android only)
2. Microphone placement: In order to guarantee the highest quality of audio in your recording, it is important to pay attention to the proximity between your microphone and your subject. When recording a group discussion it is important to arrange the participants so that they are equidistant from the recording device, and if possible, try to avoid areas with a lot of background noise (fan, laptop, open window or other groups of people). Choosing a location with a quiet atmosphere can also help to make sure you have a clear capture of everyone’s voice. However, some background noise is okay - you also want to keep the conversation feeling natural and not too staged - as long as you can hear all of the participants in the conversation. Other tips for increasing the quality of an audio recording are to remove your phone from its case, and limiting movement of your phone or other objects around it (for example, papers on a table).
3. Test your recording: You won’t be able to monitor your audio while recording, so it is important to test your recording prior to capturing anything that you plan to use later. Wear headphones while listening to playback to ensure the best quality while you are monitoring your test recording. Listen for things like background noise (HVAC, traffic, other people’s conversations) and to make sure that your microphone is picking up your subject at an appropriate level.
4. Start early, stop late: Make sure to begin your recording prior to the start of a discussion, and allow it to run even when the discussion seems to be slowing down or has stopped. It is hard to know exactly which segment of a discussion will stand out as “the best” part, but you can ensure you don’t miss it by capturing everything.
5. Name your recording: Even if you don’t have a lot of audio files stored on your phone, make sure to name your recordings after you have finished. This will help keep files organized throughout the uploading and transcription process, and can help you to make sure nothing gets deleted by accident.
RECORDING WITH AN AUDIO RECORDER
The Learning Lab has a few other pieces of equipment that might be helpful to capture the best quality of audio possible. Zoom H1 audio recorders that are available for checkout at the Learning Lab are very easy to use audio recorders that can be used as an alternative to a cell phone, which can help address concerns around available hard drive space, or other challenges with using a personal device. Contact Casey Cann for equipment availability and see any of the Learning Lab staff when picking up the equipment for a quick introduction to the recorder.
Keep conversational rhythm in mind: It’s great to be able to edit out hesitations, “umms” and coughs, but don’t take this too far. When you edit your audio, be sure to let your speech, or your conversation, breathe. Leave in the natural gaps between sentences, and leave slightly longer gaps between distinct ideas, or at the end of a section of your audio piece.
Think about transitions: Whether a sound or a music track fades in/out gradually, or appears suddenly, is a rhetorical decision that will have implications for how you tell your story. Use effects like fades and consistent reverb to keep your audio production smooth and consistent. Or use abrupt audio cues to emphasize that the scene has changed, or that we’ve moved on to a new argument.
We recommend GarageBand and Audacity as high quality, free options for sound editing. Mac users have free access to Apple’s Garageband (which should be pre-installed on your machine), and Audacity is a free and open source option available for both Mac and PC users. Higher end (read: expensive) software packages used by professionals include Logic and ProTools (the industry standard). You can find video tutorials for Garageband and Audacity on YouTube.
Editing in GarageBand
Open up a new “Empty Project.” GarageBand will force you to choose an initial track, so choose “Voice.”
At the top of the window, you’ll see a display that looks like this. Click on the note/metronome icon at left, and select “Time” instead of the default “Beats & Project.” This will give you precise control over the placement of your individual blocks of audio—regions, in GarageBand’s parlance—rather than forcing them to snap to a grid of musical beats. (Note: You’ll have to do this every time you open GarageBand!)
If you want, in the future, you can record voice tracks directly into GarageBand, using your computer’s built in microphone, or one that you connect via the audio jack or a USB port. That’s what the default “Audio 1” track is for. GarageBand abhors a vacuum, however, and if you delete this track, it will make you add a new one. So for now we’ll leave the track where it is.
To add audio files, simply drag them from Finder into GarageBand. You can add audio clips to an existing track, or drag them below your current tracks to add a new track. You can keep each audio file in a separate track, or you can name your tracks based on the type of content they’ll contain. I recommend the latter. You can create tracks that consist of: Voice Over, Interviews, Cutaways, and Music. This keeps the workspace clean and organized, but you can also easily imagine situations in which you’ll want to keep individual interviews completely separate, or layer them on top of each other, etc.
Changing the volume of individual tracks is the trickiest part of editing in GarageBand—you have to use the “automation” function, which simulates the real time movement of mixing board sliders. First, turn it on by clicking the button I’ve highlighted here, at the top of the track listing. Clicking this icon will highlight the same icon on each of your tracks. It also creates a dropdown menu, which we’ll leave on “Volume” for now (you can use automation to control other aspects of your sound and music, such as reverb effects). Find the yellow line that appears on each track: this line controls the volume. You can add “control points” by holding command and clicking anywhere on that line. By manipulating these control points, you can raise and lower the level of each track as your podcast unfolds. Here’s a track that goes up and down in volume.
While you should always save your work frequently, be aware that GarageBand project files aren’t actually audio – they’re just representations of which clips go where, and you can’t listen to them outside of the program. So, when you’re finished editing, you’ll go to the Share menu and choose Export Song to Disc. Name your podcast and choose an audio format: AAC or AIFF for full quality, and MP3 for slightly lower quality but more manageable file size. You can share your audio on sites like SoundCloud, services like iTunes, or create an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed of your own, so listeners can find and subscribe to your podcast.
Installing and Configuring Audacity
If you want to use Audacity, you’ll need to download and install a few plug-ins first, in order to work with MP3 audio.
First, install Audacity: go to www.audacityteam.org, and select the appropriate download for your platform. Make sure to install the software before going on to step 2!
Next, go to lame.buanzo.org, and download the plugin LAME for your chosen platform.
a. During installation, change the install location to your Audacity folder. For Mac users, this will be a folder called “Audacity” inside your Applications folder. For PC, you’ll find the “Audacity” folder inside “Program Files.”
b. When you attempt to edit/save your first mp3, Audacity will prompt you to point it towards the LAME library. Point it towards your “Audacity” folder.
Finally, download and install the FFMPEG plug-in, also from lame.buanzo.org. This one should be able to detect your Audacity installation automatically.
Harvard Tech Loan Program @ Lamont
You can borrow basic gear like headphones and laptop chargers at many Harvard libraries. A few libraries also have media production gear available for loan — everything from tripods and SD cards to 360 cameras and VR equipment. Please note, library gear cannot be reserved in advance. It is loaned on a first come first serve basis the day that you wish to use the gear. All of the materials available from the Cabot, Lamont, and Wolbach Libraries can be found on the library website. Their most popular items include PC and Mac laptop loaners (available for either 3 hour or 24 hour loan periods), phone chargers, and cameras. In addition, they have purchased a number of devices to encourage patrons to explore new technology; these include an Alienware 15 R3 VR-ready laptop available to borrow together with an Oculus Rift Developer Kit DK2 or Leap MotionController.
Cameras (DSLRs, HD camcorders),
Photo and video tripods, tripod phone mount,
Large LED lights with stands,
Green screen, black and white backdrops with stands
Snowball and yeti mics for USB recording
The Learning Lab @ the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
The Learning Lab has a small collection of media production tools that are available to borrow, including cameras, microphones, recorders, and lights. Contact your professor to see if your class is being supported by the Learning Lab. We're open Monday-Friday 9am-5pm.