I have recently been devouring Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. In the book, Nosrat breaks down these four elements to demystify the craft of cooking and help anyone think like a chef.
I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I also think in terms of ingredients when I’m developing and producing new podcasts. You can’t produce a strong show without quality ingredients. But what are these ingredients, and how do you ensure that they’re great?
I bring you….Concept, People, Questions, Audio.
Note: This is written with edited interview shows in mind, but these elements are relevant to any type of podcast.
When I develop new shows with clients, we go through an in-depth strategy and planning process, the essence of which is coming up with a strong answer to this question:
What makes this show unique, and why should people listen to it?
Being able to communicate a show’s value proposition in one compelling sentence is key. This provides a critical North Star to keep the show focused on its mission and what sets it apart from the close to 2 million other podcasts out there.
Here are examples from a few of my favorite shows:
- Song Exploder: “A podcast where musicians take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.”
- Home Cooking: “We want to help you figure out what to cook (and keep you company) during the quarantine!”
- This American Life: “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme.”
Pro Tip: Research competitive shows to determine what they’re missing and clarify the hole that this show can fill. The People featured on mic are an essential piece of this.
Selecting the right host and guests for a show is critical. It’s ideal for each to speak in an engaging way, and to be knowledgeable and passionate about the show’s subject matter.
A great host has a strong point of view, is open to feedback, and is genuinely curious. They’re empathetic and disarming, which encourages guests to open up and be vulnerable.
A great guest speaks openly and candidly. They share specific stories and details, which are crucial to keeping listeners engaged. (Generalizations are especially boring in the audio medium.)
Pro Tip: When putting together a list of potential guests, look for YouTube videos or podcasts they have already been on, so you can assess the above factors. Conducting a short pre-interview is another great way to evaluate a potential guest, determine what they’re most excited to talk about, and identify where their best stories lie.
Bonus: While it doesn’t impact the quality of the show, having a host and/or guests with large followings can help build the show’s audience when they share and promote episodes.
To the host and producer:
Compelling audio takes listeners on a journey, connects to emotion, and paints vivid scenes to imagine. Because podcasts are ultimately experienced in the “theater of the mind” — a place of limitless detail, nuance, and possibility — it’s often said that audio is the most visual medium.
So how do you make the most of your limited time with a guest, and elicit compelling responses?
First off, strong questions are succinct and focus on the most unique and valuable information a guest has to share. New podcasters often record long conversations that casually meander among various topics freely and include, dare I say it…indulgent tangents. While it can be fun to have these conversations, they’re usually difficult to edit down, and less likely to hold a listener’s attention. It’s important to be flexible and spontaneous, but solid preparation, and knowing the most important pieces that you need, are key.
Connect to emotion by asking, “How did you feel when x happened?” Encourage guests to paint a vivid picture with “Tell me what happened, step by step, in as much detail as you can remember.”* Elicit even more sensory detail by asking, “What did you see, smell, hear, taste, feel?”* If a guest gives a general answer, push for more detail: “Can you share a specific story or example that illustrates that?”
*These questions are often edited out of podcasts, leaving just the speaker’s description.
Here are examples of strong questions from two music shows I produced:
- “If your voice were a person, how would you describe your relationship?” (Sing LOUDER)
- “Where do you think songs come from?” (Cozy Boat)
- “Do you remember the first time you performed without him?”…“What was that like, the first time they played without you?” (Cozy Boat)
Pro Tip: Ask succinct questions to encourage focused, succinct answers. Rambling questions encourage rambling answers, and are harder for guests to remember, too. Also, set a strict time limit on the interview recording — ideally 1.5 hours or less for a highly edited episode — to encourage efficiency.
High quality audio recordings are an essential ingredient of high quality podcasts. Here are some simple ways to maximize the quality of remote recordings when a studio is not available:
A good USB mic (like the Blue Yeti) is a great option for hosts who don’t want to navigate the additional complication of an audio interface. I recommend recording directly onto a computer via a user-friendly digital audio workstation (DAW) like Hindenburg. Simultaneously, record the interview via Zencastr or Squadcast as a backup and to capture the guest’s side of the conversation. Generally speaking, a mic should be one to two fists’ distance from the speaker’s mouth at a perpendicular angle, so that it’s less likely to pick up windy plosives.
Pro Tip: If a guest doesn’t own a microphone, maximize audio quality by having them record directly into their smartphone using Talk Sync or their voice memo app. They should hold their phone to their ear, like they’re talking on the phone, with an earbud in their other ear plugged into their computer. This will allow them to hear the host (via Zencastr, Squadcast, Zoom, etc.) while capturing a clean recording of their own voice.
Choosing the best spot to record — and optimizing the acoustics of the space — is also crucial. There’s a reason many producers record in their closets: they’re isolated from outside noise and the clothes absorb sound to create a studio-like environment.
Choose a room with minimal background sounds (i.e. refrigerator hum, AC, street-facing windows), and keep an eye out for hard surfaces — they reflect back sounds, creating an echo. If closet-recording isn’t feasible, cover hard surfaces with blankets and pillows, pull curtains closed, and record while sitting on a couch or bed.
There you have it: Concept, People, Questions, Audio.
Get these ingredients right, and you’re set up to cook a delicious podcast. All you’ll need is some thoughtful editing and dash of sound design to create a feast for your listeners’ ears!
Special thanks to Ray Pang and Noah Shaw. This article also appears on LinkedIn here.
Emily Shaw is a podcast producer and consultant based in San Francisco. She’s produced audio content for Google, Uber, Pandora, WeWork, KCRW, KALW, and more. Get in touch at www.emilyshawcreates.com.