How to make a podcast
Here’s our handy how-to guide on podcasting, for use in our ‘Are you responsible?’ lesson idea or for an independent research project
Although the student activity ‘podcasts’ in our lesson idea we put together by an experienced radio journalist, the technical skills and equipment you need are easy to pick up.
Most podcasts are put together by people who’ve never done it before and the results can be variable. We thought it might be useful to tell you how we made these programmes and give you some inside tips from the broadcast industry to help you make your podcast more interesting and easy to listen to.
What you need to make a podcast
A recording device
We recorded all our interviews and links between interviews on a portable MP3 recorder. Although we used a professional recorder (costing around £300), there are much cheaper recorders (£50–£100) that will work. Some iPods and mobile phones can also do the job.
MP3 files are ‘compressed’ audio, so the sound has been squeezed to make the file smaller. The more compressed the file, the more sound that is lost. MP3 files come in different forms, depending on the sample rate. This corresponds to the amount of material saved on the file. A lower sampling rate (such as 48kbps) will take up less memory but wil be of lower audio quality. We recorded our interviews at 320kbps – which means 320,000 ‘bits’ per second. Each ‘bit’ is a single piece of digital information. For most recording, somewhere around 128kbps will probably be fine.
You could record straight onto a laptop or PC but this reduces your options for where you can record.
Most recorders set the recording level automatically; more advanced ones allow you to set the recording level manually. In most instances, the automatic level is fine; it’s only when there’s very loud background noise that you’ll experience any problems, but these can be overcome by using the microphone (see recording tips below).
This can make or break a podcast – if your microphone is of poor quality, the sound quality will also be poor. It is worth investing £50 in a handheld microphone. Get a microphone that can cope with speech and music and that you can hold a reasonable distance from your mouth.
You need headphones to listen to what you’re recording. Reasonably cheap ones should suffice. When you edit, you might find it easier to listen back through loudspeakers.
Computer with editing equipment and software
Most professionals edit their audio on PCs. With MP3 recorders you can transfer your audio to computer via a USB lead.
There is plenty of audio-editing software available. Schools might want to consider purchasing professional software that can be used for all sorts of other applications (recording and editing drama, music, discussions, etc.). We used Adobe Audition.
Many podcasters use freely available ‘open source’ editing software, such as Audacity.
Most editing software is intuitive and works in the same way as cutting and pasting text, so is straightforward to learn. Editing can also be great fun.
What we did
- We decided how we were going to cover the topic and drew up a list of possible interviewees and locations. Because this was a fictional scenario, we also scripted certain sections. While it is always important to know your story in advance, normally it’s better to write a script once you’ve done the interviews. We recorded all our interviews on location. For example, the interview with Chris Frith was recorded in the control room of the MRI scanner. This gave each interview a sense of place and the reporter something on which to comment. We also recorded lots of additional sounds, including the background noise and the interaction between a researcher and patient.
- We listened back to the interviews and made notes on which bits we wanted to use (the sections that were crucial to our story). This avoids wasting time later. With a half-hour interview you might normally expect to keep around four to five minutes, sometimes even less.
- Only then did we start to edit the sections of interview. The first stage is to break it down into rough chunks or ‘clips’. Then, after a rough edit, go through each one to remove any repetition or long ‘errs’/’umms’. The script was written as we went along, making sure that the links between sections of interview made sense. Then we finished off the script and recorded the remaining links.
- Finally we put it all together. Better editing software allows you to mix audio together, so a sound effect ‘dips’ down while a interview clip starts. You can hear this throughout the podcasts. If you’re using music, this is also the stage where you can add any background music tracks.
- Once we’d got our final mix, we saved it as an MP3 file and published it on the website (we could have also burned it onto CD at this point). There is plenty of information on posting podcasts available on the web.
Note – if you’re using commercial music and intend to publish your finished product you will need a licence. Our podcasts are covered by a licence held by the Wellcome Trust. Some tracks are freely available to use but it’s worth checking first. Be warned: the licensing process is complex and best avoided if possible.
All these come with practice but as we found, almost every stage of the process is fun.
- Decide whom you are planning to broadcast to, and the style you’re going to use. Also, choose a length and try to stick to it; podcasts can be as short as three minutes – the same length as a music track.
- Don’t be too ambitious – start with a simple podcast that won’t take up more time than you have.
- Think of interesting topics and work out how to do them in an interesting way.
- Consider recording on location. Unless you’ve got a soundproofed room, locations will also make your programmes sound more professional.
- Use a decent microphone and hold it firmly so you don’t get bumps and clanks. Experiment so you learn how far away you need to hold the microphone from the subject for different situations.
- In a very noisy environment, hold the microphone very close to the mouth – this should cut out the background noise.
- Record each interview as a separate file (or track) – it’ll make sorting it out later much easier.
- If you’re interviewing people, make sure that you are familiar with the recording equipment first so it is easier for you to give the impression you know what you’re doing.
- Check you’ve recorded what you think you have. It’s always wise to play bits of the interview back before you leave.
Interviewing and presenting tips
- Ask obvious questions – What are you doing? How are you doing it? Why are you doing it?
- Listen to what your interviewee is saying and react accordingly. Although it’s sometimes useful to have a list of questions, try not to stick to them too rigidly.
- Try to be yourself and remember to speak clearly.
- Be careful of libelling people – a podcast is covered by the same laws as everything else. Making unfounded comments about a company or individual can land you in a lot of trouble.
- Before you do anything, make sure you back up your interview files. Also make sure you keep saving your files as you go along.
- Edit the interviews and clips you want to use first before you attempt to edit the whole programme.
- Don’t over-edit – cutting out too many pauses will make it sound unnatural.
There is plenty of help available on the web for making podcasts. Computer staff in your school should be able to help you with the final stage of posting your podcast.
BBC Academy has some interesting information about podcasting.
A good general background on podcasting is available on Wikipedia.
A commercial site with news and links on podcasting.