Happy Spring 2023. It feels like podcasts are being churned out willy nilly in effort to keep up with the misconceived ‘Next Big Thing’. But the New York Times’ Reggie Ugwu recently corroborated my sentiment that this communicable giddiness could prove to be financially unsound. *
When I’d initially read about the money being poured into these productions, I sighed and filed the seeming gold rush under ‘Hmm’.
I wondered how many of the downloads were curiosity driven? How many inspired new, repeat fans? I knew that radio journalists and accomplished hosts would have opinions and sage advice in this matter- eg. a successful podcast that captures our attention is all about the compelling depth of the material and of the ‘podcaster’ (with a winning personality always appreciated); this elixir is paired with a producer who understands and can execute the specific elements that additionally buoy the appreciation and richness of the listeners’ experience. Among these are the use of nat (natural) sound and soundbites.
Nat sound is too often overlooked. Bear in mind that topic-specific sound always boosts your podcast. This includes background ‘noise’ that reflects something referred to in your podcast discussion-‘ eg. sounds from a convention.. a rally.. airplane sounds.. a business meeting.. street sounds.. nature/weather.. the crunching of dry vegetation underfoot to elucidate a repercussion of a dry spell.. Perhaps your nat sound is silence – eg. ‘listen to this: it’s the absence of sound on this long line at the free food pantry’.. or ‘it’s the stunned reaction within the room as…’. Nat sound can also become a handy segue between topics- ie as an introduction to your next one. We hear something .. you refer to it.. give us a lead line about the new subject.. and: we’re in!
Soundbites from interviews or ‘casual’ chats with someone who is related to a topic or theme are also refreshing and important additions to your podcast. Think of the possibilities of interviewing: anyone! Anywhere! Just remember that legally you must advise them that you are recording your conversation. (Yes, a strong interview should sound like one). In your role as podcaster, remember to ‘set up’ your soundbites with a statement, and of equal importance- refer to their last thought or statement as you take back your time. Ie. ‘bounce off’ something they said as you return to your direct communication with us. In journalism we refer to this as ‘writing in.. and writing out’ of sound- which in this case is a person speaking.
Pre-recorded or live interviews work great if you are knowledgeable re. the more crucial do’s and don’ts. I’ll address them in another blog. But here’s one sentence that is utterly cringe-worthy. “So, tell us about yourself!”.
Ok- on to your hosting role. Here are 2 misconceptions that abound:
I get quite a few inquiries re. helping first-timers with podcasts.
The initial question is often “can you let us know if this person has the right voice for podcasting?” Please know that a person’s voice might be ‘distracting’.. but we can get used to it or put up with it if the content and production are worthwhile. At first blush I may think- wow, this person sounds a bit flat.. or hmm, that’s a particularly high voice.. or I’m following this person because I really like their show.. but I wish they wouldn’t speak so quickly. Obviously, there are solutions for idiosyncratic proclivities if they are deemed disruptive.
With this in mind, I can’t resist introducing many of you to Peter Lorre, an incredible actor who enjoyed a long career spanning from 1929-1964 (IMBD). Peter Lorre had a unique, ‘face resonating’ voice that engendered attention and fascination- both good and bad.
Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon
After the initial shock of hearing his voice, we settle into appreciating him as a unique and memorable person. I once commented to a new client that I ‘loved Peter Lorre’s voice’- and noted his hand was twitching behind him, as he felt for the doorknob.
Another common question: can you teach our folks how to modulate their voices and speak with the cadences and delivery style that broadcasters use? I honestly suggest that they run away from this goal. In fact, a great degree of my audio and video journalism work deals with convincing folks to eradicate any attempts to speak in a stylized manner. This awful misconception still lives on to this day. Instead, I often turn them onto the concepts of semantics. Ie. as we speak, the changes in pitch, loudness, pacing, different lengths of pauses, and different styles of emphasis are spontaneously orchestrated by the context and innuendo of ‘the message’. Communicating by speaking is not a paint by number process.
We should not plan to speak ‘in a certain way’. We merely have to be sensitive to the context, nuance, and implications of our content. Bear in mind that this may quickly change depending on what you’ve learned or thought about preceding your recording or live streaming. Trusting your personal semantic interpretation to ‘steer the ship’ as you speak is your best path to riveting your listeners; this is a huge criteria of success.
Perhaps a good example of not ‘sounding like a news broadcaster’ is NPR’s The Moth Radio Hour. It is a partnership with producer Jay Allison of Atlantic Public Media and Public Radio Exchange (PRX), which distributes the program. You’re listening to everyday people speaking naturally as they share their ‘stories’.. and they are riveting.
Back to podcasts: Here’s a quick revelation about their history. Yes, they are one of the many inceptions of the ‘storytelling’ concept- which everyone is utterly enthralled with. But storytelling has long, deep roots in the history of mankind. It’s not new.
Jumping to the 20th century, sharing information via speaking became the bedrock of audio and video journalism. When radio reporting first came on the scene it offered information within encapsulated segments that were referred to as stories. They comprised the first true radio news that was broadcast in 1920. https://www.wired.com/2010/08/0831first-radio-news-broadcast/
Their charm and clout were seemingly dethroned by television news in 1947 https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/history-of-broadcast-journalism/
But let’s reflect for a moment how deeply we may feel or react when the invisible sounds and voices of radio and podcasts pierce into our minds.
While some of you may struggle as others glide into our nascent embracing of podcasting, I’ll summon Humphrey Bogart to close this out. Mr. Bogart played Peter Lorre’s antagonist in the above referenced 1941 film noir movie The Maltese Falcon (book by Dashiell Hammett).
“Talking's something you can't do judiciously unless you keep in practice.”
In the case of podcasting- here’s your practice:
Configure your content
Let go of any shaky or disputable preconceptions you may have about ‘delivery’
Let your passion for your subject matter carry you along.
And as I often say: Push off/breaststroke in.
Wishing all podcasters the very best of success,
* NYT, Feb. 16, 2023, Reggie Ugwu: Podcast Companies, Once Walking on Air, Feel the Strain of Gravity