Starting A Company Podcast
The first time we do most things is usually the hardest. Once we get through one or two repetitions, most tasks get easier. About 400 podcast episodes in I’ve had a lot of failures that maybe just maybe anyone reading this article can avoid. So first, let’s look at why organizations make podcasts:
A podcast can help humanize an organization. Despite our efforts to build solid cultures, our work to define our values, and the interpersonal relationships we form within an organization can’t scale with external perceptions as an organization grows. By putting humans from the organization in front of an audience, we are able to allow the audience to connect with those humans.
A podcast can help educate. Every type of organization is different. But one commonality is that all benefit from a more educated industry. A company podcast should be used to educate customers from every vendor in a given industry. If that education leads to taking customers from competitors, great. If not, that’s fine as well.
A podcast can keep people informed about developments at an organization, new features of products, and lots of other great or important news. This is different from educating people about an industry in that here we are distributing specific information about our organization - so consider a news segment after covering a given topic.
A podcast can do all of the above when done right. We love to try and quantify attribution for new customers and think of a podcast as a marketing asset. But podcasts should be as much about creating an authentic connection with customers, the development of our teams, teaching people about valuable insights, and keeping them informed.
Now that we’ve talked about why companies start podcasts, let’s jump into the mechanics. To start a podcast we’ll bucket what’s needed into a few categories: preparing, recording, editing, posting, and marketing.
We can certainly get into analysis paralysis. Don’t. Podcasts routinely change direction. After reading through the article, just set a date for the first episode to release and then let’s get to planning. With that date in mind, define a mission. That mission might be to introduce the people in a given organization to the people the organization serves. The mission might be to provide short updates on what and how the organization is doing. As with the Red Hat Command Line Heores, the mission might even just be to teach people about random topics that may or may not be connected to what the organization is doing. This mission should reflect an unwritten (or maybe even written) contract with the people that produce the podcast on why the podcast exists.
Preparation also means going into an episode understanding just what will be involved in production. As an example, for one podcast I work on I can sum it up as follows:
Takes about half an hour to write each script and an average of 15 minutes to schedule time in people’s calendars. We pay an editor $X/episode to do the sound leveling and then we then spend one to two hours cutting out the “ums” and making sure the content complies with our values. Then there’s maybe half an hour to post (write notes, message people links, convert files, add metadata, and upload to the hosting platform). An episode could be turned around in a few days if need be when there’s timely content but usually takes up to two weeks. The actual time to record is usually an hour with two hosts and one to two guests. All in, this means approximately 6 hours per episode across everyone involved in addition to the editor who does the finishing work.
Some podcasts take more and some take less time to produce within a company but this makes for a decent baseline.
Next, let’s get everyone on board with the content. Brainstorm 25 episode titles and allow a marketing team to help identify any areas where we want to add or remove episode ideas and provide guidance around timing (e.g. when an episode matches up with content in a marketing calendar). The podcast shouldn’t entirely be a marketing asset; nor should we operate outside of a marketing organization if there is one. Marketing teams can also best inform a release cadence (although people consume podcasts by subscription and listen at their own leisure so don’t overthink when to release episodes). One thing marketing teams will be needed for in larger organizations is to approve the use of the name of the organization in a podcast; not an issue in smaller startups.
Now that we have a calendar of sorts, episode ideas, and a general idea of what we want to accomplish, let’s get consensus that it’s a good idea. To do this talk to as many people in the organization as we can and get feedback. Maybe this is a post in Slack for organizations with more than 20 people. Maybe it’s at a weekly company meeting for smaller organizations. Feedback is good; analysis paralysis is bad.
While listening to people in the organization, also listen to their voices. We’re looking for a voice that annunciates well, for someone that doesn’t say “um” a lot, and for someone that others emotionally connect with while they’re talking. Yes, we’re looking for a host. We need to put the ego to the side. This is perhaps the hardest part. Maybe our host is someone just starting out in their career. Maybe the host is a mid-career professional. Maybe we choose to rotate hosts. If we choose one person, they should be considered a temporary host. We’ll do a few episodes and see how it goes. We can pick two hosts, but more might be a challenge.
Incorporate the feedback and now let’s actually book the first episode. Open up the episode ideas, pick one, open the calendar, and invite everyone that needs to be there to record. We’ll get into the specifics of recording in the next section. Pick a platform like Zoom or Google Hangouts to meet and include the link as well as a link to a script, which might just be a title and the brief description for now.
Guests are a great way to run a podcast. We want to make sure guests feel comfortable with the technology and logistics. Develop a guide that guests can read to get particulars about the recording process (http://podcast.macadmins.org/recording/). As we go through the technical pieces involved in recording, the choices made will impact what’s involved in that document.
Now we want to gather the right recording equipment.
Microphones are an investment. I recommend planning to have everyone record a local track, preferably with a cardiod microphone, such as those from Røde (http://en.rode.com/microphones/studio) or the Shure SM7B (https://www.shure.com/en-US/products/microphones/sm7b). A cheap cardiod mic is still likely better than an omnidirectional mic. The goal is to cut out as much background as possible to make edits not sound choppy. When looking at microphones keep in mind that XLR microphones will require a box to get the sound into a computer (such as the Scarlet from Focusrite https://focusrite.com/en/usb-audio-interface/scarlett/scarlett-2i2-studio perhaps even paired with a device to add gain such as a Cloudlifter https://www.cloudmicrophones.com/cloudlifter-cl-1). Everyone is different so it might take a few iterations to get the exact mix right.
We can record with built-in tools like QuickTime Player, free tools like Audacity, or upgrades like Garage Band or Logic. Once the equipment is hooked up, do a sample recording. Maybe read a passage from a book. Listen for heavy breathing and try to cut out a sentence in Garage Band or Logic and see if there’s a hiss in the background that drops off when doing so. We want to cut that possibility out as much as possible. One option is to reduce the gain.
Another option is a quiet place to record. Pop filters are a cheap device to attach to eliminate popping sounds. But consider an isolation shield or booth as well. Keep in mind that hot water heaters, HVAC systems, children watching TV in another room, and airplanes passing overhead can introduce more background noise. Watch sound levels and listen for that when recording and back up and restate something when noises crop up. That’s way easier to do than trying to edit around noise later.
If recording at home or an office then we have to settle on good audio at some point. If we can’t get to a place we’re comfortable, it’s time to find a recording studio, which is usually overkill for a podcast, but not always. Also, keep in mind that we want guests in other rooms. Makes editing easier. And guests are probably going to have equipment not as awesome as the hosts. For example, maybe half the people I interview are wearing Apple wired headphones or AirPods.
Every person with a voice on the podcast should create a local recording. Again, this might be a studio-quality tool or just their local instance of QuickTime Player. Also keep a backup recording (e.g. record a Zoom call).
Now that we can record, write a script. This should just be a set of questions to ask a guest. Don’t let the guest read answers. That’s boring. Do let the guest collaborate on the questions. If there are two hosts maybe it’s just a back and forth between the hosts. The important thing here is to follow an outline. If the conversation just roams then the listener is likely to get lost. Instead, write a story arch. Don’t bury the lede. Start with a Tweet-sized description of the episode. Put it right up front. Then finish by restating the manifesto. Then have a structured conversation breaking down the idea and rebuilding it. Don’t write too much and leave plenty of room for the conversation to have a natural progression; just keep the conversation in bounds so it doesn’t meander too much. Beyond that, don’t take things too seriously, have fun, and try to laugh a lot.
Find an editor or learn to use editing software like Logic, Adobe Premiere, or even Garage Band (which is really just a gateway drug to Logic). There are books on editing so we’ll keep this section short. But plan for how the podcast gets cut. If doing a few episodes to decide if the podcast is a good idea or not, look for someone internally in the organization to do the editing. If the episode needs to sound professional then plan for $200 to $1,000 per episode to have it professionally cut. The final edited episode should come back in the form of a wave (.wav), M-PEG4 (.m4a), or MP3 (.m4a) file. Most podcasting platforms will provide us with the ability to add metadata and tag on upload or that can be done using an encoding tool like https://apps.apple.com/us/app/to-mp3-converter-free/id983472324?mt=12 or within Premiere, Garage Band and Logic when exporting.
This section will be short as instructions for posting can be found at the sites that host podcasts. Libsyn, Podbean, Busssprout, Simplecast, and Soundcloud are sites that host the files for a podcast. These are structured in an RSS feed that parses the metadata from a file and that is then crawled by the apps people use to consume podcasts like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Podcasts, Google Play, iHeart Radio, Overcast, Downcast, and even Soundcloud.
Those apps then point to the audio file that’s referenced in the feed. Each site has a different process for posting, so pick a platform and then upload the file. Take screenshots and write a how-to so the upload is consistent. Keep in mind, the site hasn’t been shared with anyone yet, so tinker around - delete, re-add, and find the best experience. Eventually this part will take 5-10 minutes but plan to tinker around for an hour just to get all the kinks worked out. Never, ever, ever, bother to try and build and host this stuff - the feed requirements and categories change over time and it’s best to just give someone else $0 to $20 per month to host the stuff.
At this point, we have a podcast file sitting on a site somewhere. We have a collection of other episodes to run through, and we should be able to figure up about how much time it takes to record moving forward. The next step is to decide if the juice is worth the squeeze. This is to say once we record two or three episodes, we can always post them as audio blog posts. We don’t have to commit. But chances are there are enough people at an organization with enough to say that we probably should.
The first few will take much longer to produce than once the podcast has been going for a year or three. Evaluate the lack of focus on other projects against the morale boost often seen by letting our teams have a little fun with a podcast. Provided the podcast is a good idea, now it’s time to put a little push behind the podcast. This comes in the form of posting links to social media accounts, embedding episodes in blog posts (provided the security and compliance is up to snuff), and giving credit to those who put the work into making the podcast into a reality.
Also conduct a survey to give listeners the chance to identify what want to hear about. This might be a short SurveyMonkey form or just poling people at conferences or online.
And of course consider using the assets created to compliment other efforts. Maybe an episode finds its way into a newsletter. Or at the bottom of a blog post (e.g. a CTA of “listen to our team talk about this on the podcast.” We can even bring webcasts in as episodes. As stated, at most organizations a podcast should be run with a little help, refinement, guidance, and amplification from marketing but not be a pure-play sales pitch.
Be transparent. Be nerdy. Have fun.
Every organization struggles with the right mix in initiatives between time, money, morale, and focus. Podcasts can increase morale but they take time and of course a little focus away from day jobs. They are also a great way to socialize initiatives within an organization.
Look for a diverse cast of guests who can talk about their jobs and how they contribute to the purpose of the organization. We want to showcase people of all types and from all areas of the organization. We want to do so while educating the public on a given topic, how industries are being shaped, and of course sometimes news within the organization. Episodes should be as much for our teams as they are for our customers.
We do not want to exclude anyone. We want our teams to bring their whole selves to work. But there are areas we should avoid with professional podcasts (I’m looking at you, 2020 politics).
I end up using this word in a lot of articles I write: authenticity. The most important part about a company-run podcast is that we give potential customers a glimpse into the inner workings of our organization. This isn’t to say that we give away trade secrets or violate non-disclosures. But we do want to connect. And in a time of learning to work in a fragmented world where new ways of connecting are evolving, a podcast is a great way for the individuals in a company to connect with those we serve. Because companies don’t make those kind of relationships, people do.
Finally, if the organization chooses not to run with the podcast, make sure the individuals who want to are empowered to do it on their own. Might just turn out great, even if we ultimately end up with less control if that happens!