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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Why I use “Cheap Gear”

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I’m a professional podcaster with over a hundred episodes of multiple podcasts under my belt. I am a podcast consultant who has helped tweak or launch high-profile podcasts. In both of these capacities, I’ve gotten rave reviews of my shows’ sound quality from untrained listeners and professional radio producers alike. To do all of that, I must have some pretty snazzy gear, right?

Nope!

For Boston Behind the Scenes (my personal podcast), I use a $90 iRiver iFP-799 and a $15 Giant Squid Audio Lab Mini Gold-Plated Omni Mic shown in the picture. I record my intro and outro with a USB microphone and edit my show with the GarageBand software that came free with my computer.

For the award-winning Current Science & Technology Podcast (my professional show), I use two microphones scrounged out of the Museum of Science’s closets and plugged into an inexpensive mixer/interface from Alesis. When I go into the field, I use another iRiver that I bought on eBay for $45.

Why don’t I have a fancy digital recorder like the M-Audio Microtrack 24/96 or the Marantz PMD671? Because what I have is the best setup for what I do. I’ve tried the Microtrack — I was very unhappy with the interface, the loooong startup time, and the non-replaceable battery. The Marantz (and the far less expensive Zoom H4) has XLR inputs with phantom power, but lacks a 1/8″ mic jack for use with my trusty “hat mics.” In any case, these recorders are beyond what the average podcaster needs.

So, what does the average podcaster need? A simple, reliable, and decent-sounding setup that doesn’t break the bank. My iRiver and one-inch mic provide exactly that. Because the two together weigh only a few ounces, I can carry them everywhere and always be ready to record. And because the recorder will run all day on one AA battery, I never have to wonder if I’ll have the power I need for a session — a 40-hour backup system is available at the convenience store across the street for $2.49. Oh, and contrary to the argument I’ve heard that “You’ll be seen as a fool showing up to an interview with a tiny iRiver,” everyone I’ve ever interviewed has seen it as more advanced and impressive because of its size.

Inexpensive gear may not have all the bells and whistles of its more pricey cousins, but it can produce high-quality work. I don’t need XLR inputs for most of my recordings, and level meters are secondary to monitoring with headphones. These things would be conveniences, but I would lose the instant startup time, one-button recording, and long battery life I’m used to — all while spending $300-$1000. Anyway, the sound quality of an interview depends far more on proper microphone placement and background noise than on fancy compressors or 96 kHz sampling — especially when the output is a 64 kbps MP3!

One last important point: low price can have another advantage — peace of mind. I recently advised an explorer interested in recording audio at the North Pole (on a $500 budget) to pick up a few iRivers from eBay rather than buying an expensive recorder. This was due to the harsh conditions he’d be using them in. If he dropped a Microtrack in a snowdrift or froze its non-replaceable battery, he wouldn’t have any way to make recordings. In some cases, four or five $75 devices are a much better idea than one $400 one.

I believe that when starting out, you should get equipment that is good enough to do the job, but not so expensive or complex that it gets in the way. If you start to feel limited by the equipment — and are sure you can’t leapfrog those feelings with improved technique — maybe then it is time to get some new gear. When you do, you can still use the old gear as a backup.

For podcasting, what do you think the best gear/technique mix is?

iRiver

 
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© 2010 Adam Weiss: Podcast Consultant