A common dilemma: you have a podcast, but nobody is listening.

Before I get into what to do about that, here’s something to make you feel better:

As of April 30th, 2007, Feedburner is tracking the feeds of 106,270 podcasts. A few months ago, the company said that they were tracking about 6,200,000 people subscribed to those podcasts. If you put those two numbers together, you’ll see that the average podcast has about 60 subscribers. Since this is the average, and there are podcasts with tens or hundreds of thousands of subscribers pulling that number way up, your little podcast may be doing better than you thought!

Of course, most people are aiming for more than 60 subscribers with their podcast, so I’ve compiled a list of ways to accomplish that:

  1. Make Your Show Better

    Before you attempt to increase your listenership, your show has to be good. A rule you should always follow is “Every episode must be one you would want to listen to.” You can drive people to your site, but if the show they find isn’t compelling, they will listen once and never return. These tips will only work if your work is good enough to hold an audience.

  2. Build a Blog for Your Show

    You do have a website for your podcast, right? If not, get one NOW. If you do have a site and it isn’t running on a blogging system like Blogger, WordPress, or TypePad, I would seriously recommend switching to a blogging platform for the site. This is because the search engines know what to do with blogs, and therefore index the content pretty reliably. Some also index anything that looks like a blog more often than other sites, giving you a leg up if you publish often. In addition, some of the later tips work better if you are using a blogging system for your site.

  3. Run an Easy-to-Use Site

    Don’t let the first thing your visitors see be clutter. The top of the site should have a prominent title that gives people a good idea of what they are going to find there. At least one episode of your podcast (or post from your blog) should be immediately obvious when arriving at the page. You should also have large “subscribe” buttons for iTunes and your RSS feed — and they should be right near the top of the page so people don’t have to search for them. If your target audience is not that tech savvy (e.g. yours may be the first podcast they encounter), set up an email subscription system and feature it prominently on the site.

  4. List Your Podcast in Podcasting and Blogging Directories

    Everyone should be listed with iTunes, Yahoo! Podcasts, Digg Podcasts, Technorati, and Podzinger. There are many other directories (you can find a good list here), but these are the ones I consider “Must Haves.” Why? Well, iTunes and Yahoo are the two most popular directories, Digg is a newcomer with the potential to bring in a huge number of listeners, and Technorati and Podzinger are two of the best ways for people to find your individual episodes through searching.

  5. Tag Everything

    Another advantage of using a blogging platform is tagging. Tags are metadata — words and phrases that relate to the podcast or blog post they are associated with. Tags are especially important for podcasting, as the text associated with an episode may not include search terms that are relevant to the audio. I just had an example of this yesterday with the latest episode of Boston Behind the Scenes: the subject of the show has a strong connection to both the Boston Public Library and the MFA, but I didn’t specifically mention that in the blog post for the episode. By tagging the post “Boston Public Library,” I allow people to find the post with a search without cluttering up the page with extra text.

  6. Contribute to Other Sites

    Let’s say you do a podcast about cars. There are tons of blogs, news sites, and discussion boards about cars. In fact, if you are enough of a car person to do a podcast about cars, you probably frequent many of those sites already. So, next time you go to one of your favorite car blogs, post a comment.

    Don’t just spam for you podcast, but write something useful. The magic is in the “URL” box on the comment form. Put your podcast site in that box, and you suddenly have a link from a major car site to your show. This will bring you a few more hits and will look good to Google/Technorati/etc. That second part is very important — it dictates where you show up in search results.

    Of course, you shouldn’t just stop at comments. Submit an article (with your link) to a prominent site. It can be about anything at all, but will be more successful if it is at least somewhat related to your podcast. If they accept it, you will get a bunch of traffic from that page, and you will look even better to Google. I did this with my Boston Behind the Scenes episode on the Boston Marathon: this story on Slashdot about an astronaut running the marathon brought in hundreds of visitors — some of whom are now subscribers.

  7. Include Pictures in Your Posts

    This may sound more like a way to keep people at your site than to bring them there, but it can do double duty. The reason is that you need a source for your pictures. Of course, the world’s source for pictures over the last few years has been Flickr, and that’s where you should go as well. Always ask permission before using a picture (or at least notify the photographer via email if you found it in a Creative Commons search), and post a comment on the photo. Include a link back to your site in the comment, and you’ve made another connection!

    If you take your own pictures, post them on Flickr and link their descriptions back to your site. If the pictures you take (or select from other photographers) are interesting enough to generate a lot of views, you’ll have another source of hits to go with your boosted search engine ranking.

  8. Make Connections When Referencing Other Sites

    If you mention anything from another site, be sure to include a link in your show notes. If the site you are citing supports trackbacks, use that to get another link to your site in the wild. If there is no way to comment or add a trackback, send an email to the site’s owner letting them know how you used their content. They will appreciate the notice, and may mention your site as a result.

  9. Use Social Media Sites

    I wrote “social media” because I wanted to emphasize that I’m not just talking about MySpace here. If your audience is on MySpace, you should set up an account and post your episodes using their blogging tool. If your audience is more of a Gather crowd, post your episodes there (with links back to your site!). Set up a del.icio.us account and post your episodes there (with generous tagging). Post all of your episodes on PopCurrent and Digg (not just in the podcast category), then put buttons on your site to encourage your visitors to vote for your entries. Of course, if there are other such sites that your listeners frequent (craigslist? YouTube?), you should be there — with links.

The overall messages of this list should be clear: Be visible, be searchable, and get linked everywhere you can. And most of all, create something that is worth finding and linking to!

(Thanks to Performancing for the nugget of a couple of the ideas, and to femme fatal for asking the question that lead to this list.)

 

Microphone Types

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There are many online resources available that can tell you all about the nuances of microphones, and I’m not going to try to reproduce them here. Instead, I want to give you a quick primer on a few different types of microphones and what they can be used for.

Omnidirectional Microphones

These do pretty much what they say they do: record sound from all directions. They will pick up more from the front than the back, but they give you a good dose of all of the sound in the area.

Omnidirectional mics are great for getting the feel for a place. They will record ambient sounds without emphasizing any of them too much (besides the fact that physics dictates that nearby sounds will be way louder than far away sounds). In an interview, an omni mic will give a sense that you are in a location, but can pick up background sounds in a distracting way if you aren’t careful. Put one close enough to the subject and you’ll get a good mix of foreground and background sound — provided that the setting isn’t too loud.

Cardioid Microphones

These are more directional than omni mics and are sometimes called unidirectional microphones. They come in different “amounts of directionality,” from slightly directional to very directional. They also pick up very well from the back of the mic — where the handle of a handheld mic usually is. This means that some cardioid mics are very susceptible to handling noise and vibration.

Using a cardioid mic gives you that “radio sound” you are used to from DJs and talk radio hosts. This is because of something called the Proximity Effect that enhances the bass in a voice when the microphone is very close to the speaker’s mouth (close as in a few inches away). The main reason for using a cardioid mic in a podcast is to reduce the background environmental noise. A directional mic will not eliminate background noise, but it will make it less distracting.

Hypercardiod Microphones

These can also be called shotgun microphones, depending upon their characteristics and shape. Hypercardiod microphones pick up sound from a very specific area in front of the mic, and can share handling-noise issues with their less-directional cardiod siblings.

These mics are not magical, so don’t expect to use one to record a speaker 20 feet away and get amazing sound. For interviews and other spoken-word recordings, you should treat these microphones just like the others. They will allow you to record in situations that would be hard with other mics, and they can give you a studio-like sound in the field, but they don’t work miracles.

Stereo vs. Mono

The difference here should be pretty obvious: In stereo, the left and right speakers produce different sounds, and in mono they produce the same sound. When it comes to microphones, you need two to record stereo and one to record mono. Of course, there are many microphones that include two recording elements in one casing, so stereo doesn’t always mean two wires running to two devices.

Unless you are podcasting music, stereo isn’t a necessity for most shows. In fact, getting really close to a stereo mic can cause some very weird issues with your sound. However, an exception to the “stereo is unnecessary” rule can be seen in my Hat Mics post, where I use a pair of stereo mics to record two separate tracks into one file.

Specialty Mics

There are many types of microphones designed for very specific tasks. I won’t go into the details of all of them but here are a couple of types that could be of interest to podcasters:

XY Stereo Microphones: For recording a more directional, authentic-sounding stereo sound. These are some of the only stereo mics that can easily be used for voice recording like a mono mic without sounding strange. (See the built-in mics of the Zoom H4 for an example of an XY setup.)

In- Ear Binaural Microphones: Because they sit in your ears, mics like these from Sound Professionals give a 3D feel by recording exactly what you hear. The catch is that they only give that 3D feel through headphones, otherwise they are just stereo mics. You can hear a recording I made with this type of microphone below.

 
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Interview Basics

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Always talk to your subject before you start the interview

If you only have a few minutes before you start the interview, talk for those few minutes. If not, talk while you are setting up the recording gear. This will give you a feel for the interaction to come, and will make someone who is nervous about being interviewed feel more comfortable before the microphone comes out. If you have more than a minute or two, talk to your subject about what they expect from the interview, and tell them what you expect. Tell them who the audience is. Don’t talk too much about the interview topic itself or you might end up with a lot of confusing answers that start with “Like I told you before…”

If you are interviewing someone for their story or opinion, ask them what they would like to have covered before you start. Remember, you don’t have to use everything you record, and they may present you with an angle you hadn’t thought of before.

Be prepared

This isn’t always completely doable, but you should always be prepared to the best of your ability. Know your interviewee and how they fit into what you are trying to do. Know the kinds of things you are going to discuss. Always make sure your recorder and headphones are working properly before you start. The “talk to your subject time” can help you test your equipment and feel some of these things out.

When you are doing your first interviews, approach it as kind of like being a lawyer: don’t ask questions you don’t really know the answers to. Of course this is a rule to throw out as you get better, but it is a good way to start out with confidence.

If you prepare questions beforehand, don’t read them verbatim from the page!

I rarely have prepared questions, as I prefer to just have a conversation that follows the theme I keep in my head. Doing it this way makes transitions from one topic to the next more natural, and keeps you from sounding like a robot when reading the questions.

If you must write out your questions (this is actually a good idea when you are starting out), don’t read them from the page. It is better to write out notes or sentence fragments instead of full-blown questions — it forces you to make up the actual wording of the questions on the fly and makes the conversation more natural-sounding.

Make it a conversation

This goes along with the previous tip, but is worth expanding upon a bit. If you were talking to a friend, you would react, interrupt with questions, and stray from the topic a bit. Do the same things in an interview. If something amazing or funny is said, go ahead and react to it. The listeners will follow your lead and be drawn further into the interview.

Of course, there can always be too much of a good thing, so make sure that your interviewee is doing the vast majority of the talking. All I’m saying here is that you don’t have to be an interviewing machine; you should be yourself, but in a background-kind-of-way. Your personality should be evident in the interview, but it should not be dominant. You are interviewing your subject, not yourself.

Avoid yes-or-no questions

One-word answers don’t make for very interesting listening. Instead, ask open-ended questions: “Why did you … ?” is better than “Did you do that because … ?”

If you do slip up and ask a yes or no question, don’t accept a one-word answer. A good trick for this is to just remain silent after the answer is given rather than jumping right back into the interview. A little uncomfortable silence can go a long way — your subject may just keep talking to make the situation less awkward and you’ll have what you need. Of course if this doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to ask your question again or ask your subject to explain further.

Get what you need. Interrupt if you have to.

On the other hand, if your subject is droning on about something you think is unnecessary, jump in with another question. If they say something you think the audience will be confused by, act confused yourself and ask for clarification. If you are really unhappy with the way an answer is going, try to find a way to come back to the topic. If that doesn’t work, come up with a reason that you have to start that part over (say you heard something strange in your headphones, or that the recorder’s battery is dying if you have to). As a last resort, explain to the person — as diplomatically as possible — that you aren’t getting what you need and would like to do the section again, offering suggestions to make this second take the better one.

Don’t be too smart

Unless the interview is billed as a discussion between peers (e.g. you are a security expert talking to another security expert and the audience is just listening in), the interview is about the interviewee, not the interviewer. Keep your questions short without making them abrupt. Don’t answer your own question while asking it. Don’t use complicated technical language to show you know the topic unless your audience will also understand that language. If you think your audience might need clarification of a statement, ask for that clarification even if you understood it perfectly.

Basically, put yourself in the listeners’ shoes while you interview. If your mom (or your children, or your astrophysicist uncle, depending upon who your target audience is) would understand what is being said, keep going. If not, clarify or do it over.

The end of the interview isn’t the end of the interview

When you are done, thank the person for their time and ask them how they thought it went. They may want to redo a part you also thought was weak, or tell a story you didn’t ask about. That second part is very important — always ask if there is anything else they’d like to cover. I’ve discovered important points (and even whole wonderful stories) that I knew nothing about just by asking if it felt like we’d left anything out.

Oh, and leave the recorder on while you talk afterwards! Even if you don’t get a good recording of something valuable, you’ll have a way to accurately re-tell the story yourself if you need to. (If you listen to the end of my Bob the Evangelist episode of Boston Behind the Scenes in the player below, you’ll hear me do just that.)

If all else fails

If you find yourself thrown into an interview situation without some time to prepare, don’t panic! If it fits the situation (and in many cases it does) you can always ask:

“What did you think this was going to be like before you started, and then what was it really like?” (I got this from NPR’s Noah Adams)

You’re guaranteed to get a story of some kind.

Lastly, PRACTICE and LISTEN

You get better at anything through practice and the observation of those who do it well. Therefore, you need to interview people to learn how to interview people. So pick up you recorder and go out there. Interview friends and family and strangers. Always record your interviews, even if they “don’t count” — you might just get a great recording of Grandma you can share with the kids someday.

And when you are on your way to those interviews, listen to interviewers you like. Don’t copy their style, but certainly learn from it. If you listen to the best, you have something to aspire to — and you’ll be inspired when it is time to take out the recorder.

Interview Sample: Bob The Evangelist
 
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© 2010 Adam Weiss: Podcast Consultant