On Editing Podcasts

Good podcasts—like good blog posts—require planning, care, and editing.

August 24, 2015 (updated August 28, 2015)Filed under tech#podcastingMarkdown source

Last week, Alan Jacobs posted a few thoughts on the overall quality of podcasts. While he’s since acknowledged that part of his challenge with podcasts is that his bar is extremely high, I think his original piece bears quoting and responding to briefly, including a few thoughts about how Stephen and I handle Winning Slowly.

From his piece:

Podcasts, overall, are

  1. People struggling to articulate for you stuff you could find out by looking it up on Wikipedia (e.g. In Our Time);

  2. People using old-timey radio tricks to fool you into thinking that a boring and inconsequential story is fascinating (e.g. Serial);

  3. People leveraging their celebrity in a given field as permission to ramble incoherently about whatever happens to come to their minds (e.g. The Talk Show); or

  4. People using pointless audio-production tricks to make a pedestrian story seem cutting-edge (e.g. Radiolab).

I actually happen to basically agree with those critiques. However, one category he left out is: people podcasting the way people blog. And this is where many of the most interesting podcasts I listen to come in. It’s also basically where Winning Slowly fits: you can think of our show like an audio version of a blog post. It’s not as carefully considered or edited as a long-form magazine piece (or, in its respective medium, a professionally produced radio show). But like blog posts, the fact that it’s a bit more off the cuff and that it’s not the incredibly tight work that you find in a magazine can actually be attractive at times. Many of my favorite podcasts are very conversational and not heavily produced.

But—and here I think Jacobs is absolutely correct—all of the shows I really enjoy make a point to edit their shows. They clean up the audio from artifacts, they cut segments that were off topic, they make sure the levels are good between the different members of the podcast, and so on. And while you don’t have to do those things to have a podcast, any more than you need to edit the things you write to have a blog, you do need to do them if you want to have a good show. Sadly, this is where a number of shows I otherwise might enjoy show themselves to the door.

There is a reason Stephen and I spent a whole “beta” season of Winning Slowly1 working not only on what we wanted the show to be about, but finding its voice and tone, the structure of the episodes, and the quality of our audio. We wrestled with the audio output from mediocre microphones and adopted seemingly silly practices like putting blankets over our heads and microphones and laptops while recording so that we can get better sound spaces. We have taken the time to learn about compression and limiting and other audio editing techniques, and work hard to get the mix between our intro and outro music and our own voices correct. And we cut things mercilessly.

For example, here is the blooper reel from 3.05, which consists of only the funny parts of what I cut from the show (there was probably as much again that I just removed and didn’t include):

That doesn’t begin to touch all the “umms” and long pauses and overly heavy breathing and do-overs we cut out (though, because this was a particularly rough episode, it does give you an idea). The result, as I think most of our listeners would agree, is a show that’s pretty tight as far as the audio goes.

In terms of content, different shows will have a different feel, of course. Some will require more planning. New Rustacean, a new show on learning Rust I’m hoping to launch later this week or early next week, requires a lot of planning. Sap.py, the fun little show my wife and I are about to launch, about her adventures in learning Python, requires basically no planning. Winning Slowly doesn’t require a lot of formal planning, but it does require Stephen and me to keep a good eye on ongoing stories in our fields of technology, religion, ethics, and art, and to discuss big-picture ideas regularly and actively. Some episodes, we outline carefully (like the one we recorded today, which will come out next Tuesday). For others, we can basically just wing it (like the one we recorded a week ago and which comes out tomorrow). But if our podcast is good, and I really do think it is, it is because we take the time to work at making it good. Just like you have to do on a blog, or really anything else in life.2

  1. 13 published episodes, and one we dropped entirely!

  2. One big difference between a podcast and a blog is that it actually takes a lot more work to make a good podcast than a good blog post. Audio editing is much more involved than editing writing, and speaking intelligently for any length of time—whether off the cuff, with a detailed outline, or as an interviewer—is much harder to get right than writing, where you can polish to your heart’s content.