Podcast production tips – how much is too much?
What even is a podcast?
Podcast has been a buzzword in the last few years. The amount of people listening to and watching them has drastically increased. Yet, most of us could still argue about what we mean when we say podcast. Many people from my surroundings associate the term with any show in which people talk to each other. Does that mean interviews are podcasts? Late-night shows too? Political debate shows? Let’s get professional and narrow it down.
The term was coined by combining iPod and broadcast by BBC journalist Ben Hammersley in 2004. but you’ve probably heard the story already. Podcast, in the simplest way possible, is a radio (audio) show available for postponed listening. Doesn’t sound too complicated. Only one problem. It’s an outdated definition. Many questions (including those in the first paragraph) arise if we stick to that definition. Like: why the heck do we have video podcasts?
Let me try to rephrase it. It is a show that has to work as an audio medium primarily (though it can contain video). A spontaneous form free of strict rules, including a narrative, both fictional and real, spoken through words. Certain types of podcasts follow a pattern and have some additional principles regarding their structure and tone. But still, compared to the source they originated from (for example, interviews and news), the podcast versions of these formats have less rigid guidelines. They are more like their laid-back cousins.
The key to understanding the podcast format is its freedom. The very absence of rules we encounter in each other medium out there. The only rule is the audio rule: if you can’t listen to it without watching, it’s not a podcast!
It can be broadcast daily or once in a blue Moon. An episode can last from a few minutes to several hours. You may just have the host telling a story or eleven guests (yes, you can invite the whole football team). It can be a guided, prepared conversation (interview-like) or just a bunch of friends blabbering for hours (or playing DND in front of the microphones). It may be hard to define, but it provides endless possibilities. That’s why, I guess, people massively started producing and listening to them.
Now, if that’s out of the way, let’s see how that freedom can ultimately lead to overkill in some cases. If you’re not careful while producing your podcast, sometimes, it can go overboard. While analyzing its production phases and the freedom this format provides, ill try to explain in what aspects you should be careful to stay in the safe zone. So, how much is too much?
Duration of the podcast
First things first, how long should an episode of a podcast be? I mentioned earlier that you have the absolute freedom to decide. But, misusing this liberty may lead to an uninteresting or even annoying episode. That’s not to say only duration can make your episode dull. A poorly executed ten-minute podcast can be a drag compared to an engaging and exciting episode lasting for hours.
There are in-depth guides online, but a general rule of thumb is: it depends. There are several types of podcasts, and that is one of the essential factors involved in establishing the duration of your episode. That and the number of people participating. Let’s quickly go over some of those categories.
With some help from the good people of the internet who did my homework, I came to the conclusion these are the most often types of podcasts:
- Conversational podcasts – one or more hosts talk to each other or to one or more guests (interviews, co-host shows, debates, actually most typical podcast you can find);
- Monologue (solo) podcasts – similar to conversational the only difference is one person is speaking on a subject, usually directly addressing the audience;
- Storytelling/narrative/investigative podcasts – as the name suggests, one or several people, often in the role of a narrator, tell a story, which can be either fiction or fact;
- Drama podcast – same as a radio play, which is a play written for audio performance, usually by actors;
- News/informative podcasts – I think this one needs no further explanation;
- Educational/popular science podcasts – they come close to storytelling podcasts in concept but with a different purpose;
- Entertainment podcasts – similar to conversational or monologue podcasts. But the accent is not on the subject yet on an activity that is there to entertain the audience. Impersonations, playing a board or a roleplaying game, ASMR, and similar.
By now, you should’ve somehow realized what you gotta do. Yes, Wonderwall came on my playlist while I was writing this… Anyway, you should decide what kind of podcast you want to make, and from there, explore other podcasts of that type and compare running times.
Drama and storytelling podcasts mostly have a fixed length dictated by the source material. Most of them last from 45 to 120 minutes per episode, similar to classic theatre plays, for example, or feature films. I guess the sweet spot is around 90 minutes. News and informative podcasts are among the shortest – often less than 20 minutes. That’s because they are usually published daily, so there is no need for long runs and piling of information in one sitting.
Educational and popular science podcasts rarely run more than 45 minutes, which is a length of a school class in most countries in the World. That seems to be the perfect attention span for learning something new and significant. It seems logical, right?
When it comes to conversational, monologue, and entertainment podcasts, it depends – on the number of people involved and, of course, the subject (or the activity) they are on. Podcastle went in-depth on how different themes can impose the ideal length of your episode, so check their text for more details!
I would not blindly adhere to these figures. They are more of a reminder of the middle ground, depending on the type of podcast. Instead, maybe focus on filling that time with quality content, no matter how long it lasts. And be careful that too much can also mean – you’re stuffing too much in a single episode! That’s great about podcasts – you can split the content into smaller chunks.
There’s a lot to be said about recording podcasts. But in this text, the focus is on overdoing stuff. The situation with audio podcasts can be somewhat simple. Especially if you’re renting a professional studio and have pros in charge of recording, editing, mixing, and mastering your podcast. But in this format, that it’s not the case as often as in other more traditional mediums (radio, television…).
That’s why it gets tricky if you’re doing it yourself. More so if you’re producing a video podcast. Even if you have reasonably good audio equipment, space that fulfills the video and audio requirements can be hard to find. It’s not just about looking nice. It needs to sound nice. One thing you could certainly have too much of is reverb, or the exact opposite: muffled sound.
Reverberation comes from your sound not being absorbed enough, so it bounces off empty space and gives it a short echo feeling. Too much of the reflected sound ends up in your microphone.
A simple do-it-yourself trick to avoid it is to fill your recording room with objects made of cloth or similar sound-absorbing material. Cardboard (especially egg cartons) can also be a good solution. But, if you’re recording a video podcast, unless it’s about how to grow chickens that lay the best eggs possible, you wouldn’t use it to decorate your scene. If growing chickens isn’t your niche, you can always fill your recording room with shelves full of books, furniture, and lazy bags. It serves the purpose of looking neat and lowering the reverb as much as possible.
But, if you bring sound-absorbing materials too close to the microphone, you get the opposite effect. There are a significant number of people recording their monologue audio podcasts with a blanket over their heads and their microphones. That setup stops the sound from spreading altogether, which gives it that muffled effect, sounding unnatural.
One more thing you shouldn’t bring too close to the mic is your mouth. With most microphones, if you get too close, it will pick up mostly the bass, which will kill the rest of the color of your beautiful voice. To maintain a pleasant, rich, and resonating quality, you should keep a certain distance, depending on the microphone. That’s why both the hosts and guests of a podcast most often wear headphones. Since podcasts are usually produced by a small crew (or without one), people who talk also monitor the audio.
You don’t see this on TV because they use different methods and equipment for recording sound. And because there are technicians to adjust the settings if something’s wrong with the audio. So participants in TV shows can concentrate solely on talking about a subject or performing. Also, television aesthetics would greatly suffer if a person wearing giant headphones appeared. If they have to use audio monitors, they use smaller, more subtle ones.
And finally, keep in mind the number of people participating in the podcast. You can’t have too many people if they all have something to say, but the more people you invite, the bigger the chances they’ll interrupt each other and all talk at once. In that case, you’ll need a capable host, or several, to maintain order.
This is the stage where you can go overboard without even realizing it. Video cuts are mostly noticed. A talented editor can go to great lengths to hide them, but that usually takes time and money. So in an average video, you see online, cuts are generally visible to an everyday viewer. Hiding cuts in audio content is like stealing candy from a baby. Not only is it wrong to steal from babies, but it can also hurt your podcast. Being that simple, many editors tend to overdo it.
It’s a great habit if you edit radio commercials, narrations, and other narrative voiceovers (or even storytelling podcasts). But most types of podcasts, especially conversational ones, should sound mundane. Their name suggests: it should sound like a conversation. That’s why it’s perfectly okay not to edit out every breath, um, or filler words. People make that sounds in everyday life, and leaving some of them helps to maintain the illusion that a conversational podcast is an ordinary spontaneous chat.
However, leaving everything untouched while editing can quickly transform your podcast into a proper nuisance for listening. That’s where keen editorial judgment steps in. Clearly, you can cut stretched-out pauses. No one wants to sit in the quiet for too long. If you notice a filler word with a repeating pattern, feel free to edit out one of them every once in a while. Also, ums and ams can sometimes develop an unpleasant chain that can agitate the listener. It’s acceptable to try and get rid of them occasionally.
Regarding the audio processing, you also have to find the middle ground. Podcasts are a format that people listen to while doing other stuff. Even video versions. No one actively watches a screen with several people talking for hours. I hope so. There are even online lists of suggestions regarding what to do while listening to a podcast. That’s why audio engineers create an immersive sound experience during the processing stage of the production.
You do that by applying some of the effects in audio editing software, but the key is not to exaggerate. By skipping this step, you’ll end up with a flavorless sound that will fall short in an attempt to engage your listeners. But if you go over the top, your show might sound like a commercial or a voiceover. You may even get a distorted voice, and no one wants that. I’m not gonna go into detail on what effects to use and how, but you can read all about it in this thorough guide.
Finally, you’ve recorded your podcast, edited and processed the sound, and maybe mixed and mastered it, so what’s the next step? The show has to find a way to people’s ears, and that’s called distribution. There are countless platforms online for hosting and publishing your podcasts. Some are free, but most include an upgraded version of their services, which you pay for. Unlike previous production segments, this is the one you can’t go overboard with. If you got the budget, go wild, it can only bring more listeners. Then why am I talking about it?
Let’s double back to the beginning, where I mentioned that a podcast is a spontaneous form free of strict rules. That it can be broadcast daily or once in a blue Moon. That is true if you are motivated to make podcasts out of passion. If you do it as a hobby, so you don’t worry too much about the numbers. You’re satisfied with your audience being friends, family, colleagues, a local fan group, or something similar. But what happens if you plan to monetize your podcast and want to reach and keep broader audiences?
Then the too much rule can apply to pauses between your episodes. They can be long, don’t get me wrong. But they should be constant. You don’t need daily publishes to have a successful podcast. Don’t cosher quantity over quality. If your podcast needs two weeks per episode to produce, don’t try to squeeze it into a one-week schedule attempting to get a better reach. Instead, try to publish regularly – if you could commit to doing it at a similar hour, even better. The audience will know precisely when to expect the new episode. That’s one of the essential ingredients for podcast growth.
Conclusion – the balance
As you have seen, almost everything related to podcast production is about finding the proper measurement and not disturbing the balance. There was probably a fitting spot for a Star Wars pun here somewhere, but moving on. The too much expression in the title is not to be taken literally. It could mean not doing enough of something as well. Podcasts are still an immense playground for many creators who want to experiment and discover new ways of producing content. That’s why all of these texts, including mine, should be taken with a grain of salt.
The biggest strength of this format resides in its freedom. The one element that separates it from any other mediums out there is the undefined runtime. No matter how well prepared, a guest will inevitably feel under pressure if you determine a time they have at their disposal. They will try to fit everything they want to say in that given duration. Podcasts serve as a stress-free environment in which they have enough time to express themselves.
Also, it is human nature to try and represent ourselves in the best light possible, eminently when appearing in public media. That’s why everyone has their mask on, sometimes not even consciously. Podcasts being spontaneous and (usually) long conversations in a pleasing setting are the only format in which we can meet public figures without their masks. That brings enormous value to podcasts, so we should continue listening to and producing them. Let’s hope I made it a bit easier for you to start.