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Maybe you’ve been thinking about starting a podcast but you’re intimidated by popular and well produced shows shows like Serial, This American Life, Radiolab, or 99% Invisible. You think, “I can’t make a show that good. Why even bother trying?”

I want to silence that little voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough to podcast. I want to talk about why Serial was such a smash hit, and what lessons you can take away from the way Serial is made and how to apply them to your podcast.

Highlights, Takeaways & Quick Wins:

  • It takes years of experience to create a podcast that is engaging and memorable. The best time to start is today.
  • Creating a show like Serial takes an enormous amount of time and preperation, but that hard work pays off.
  • Professional podcasters spend a lot of money on recording equipment because they want to sound better than your average podcaster.
  • If you want to sound great like NPR podcasts or shows like Serial, invest some serious money into professional gear.
  • If everyone invested more time in doing research, we’d all have better podcasts. So do your research. Call people, read articles online, spend as much time learning as you can.
  • If you’re just starting out, personal connections with your audience are vital for the growth and success of your show.
  • If you can only afford a $50 mic, buy it and start podcasting. But don’t settle; save money to invest in better gear down the road.
  • If you can afford it, outsource editing, show note writing, or general admin work. Free your time up to focus on your content instead of the post-production.

Show Notes

  • 1:51 I’ve never heard of the Serial podcast before. What is it?
  • 1:58 Serial is a hugely successful podcast. The first season is a murder mystery, an investigation into a high school student convicted of murdering his girlfriend on some pretty flimsy evidence. It’s produced by Sarah Koenig, in collaboration with WBEZ Chicago.

Why is Serial So Popular?

  • 2:44 The topic of the first season is a big factor (people love murder mysteries). It was also very well produced. Great sound quality, amazing editing, a captivating story-line, cliffhangers at the end of episodes, etc.
  • 3:22 As I was doing research for this episode, I came across an article from New Yorker magazine that made a great point about why the first season of Serial resonated with so many people (the show has over 90 million downloads at the time of this recording).
  • 3:38 “It’s a deep exploration of the concept of reasonable doubt, and therefore an exposé, if unwittingly so, of the terrible flaws in our justice system.” – New Yorker
  • 3:50 The whole concept of the show is that this guy in high school was convicted of murder on flimsy evidence. The show taps into the fear that many people have that something similar could happen to them. It could happen to anyone. It’s commonplace. They can picture themselves in the lead character’s shoes, they sympathize with him.

Here’s Why You Can’t Make a Podcast Like Serial

  • 4:31 You can’t make a podcast like Serial, but you should still make a podcast! I’ll talk about lessons you can take away from Serial later, but for now, here’s why you can’t make a podcast like Serial.
1. You Don’t Have the Experience.
  • 4:47 Sarah Koenig worked for more than ten years as a producer of This American Life before she started Serial. She’s guest-hosted TAL several times, most memorably for the “No Coincidence, No Story” show. She’s produced and reported some of This American Life’s most popular shows, including “Switched at Birth,” “Dr. Gilmer and Mr. Hyde,” “Petty Tyrant,” and “Habeas Schmabeas,” a Peabody Award-winning show about Guantanamo Bay. Before joining This American Life in 2004, Sarah covered criminal justice and was a State House reporter at The Baltimore Sun and the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.
  • 5:26 Sarah has a ton of experience in both podcasting and journalism. That’s a powerhouse combo, and one that you probably don’t have.

It takes years of experience to create a podcast that is engaging and memorable. The best time to start is today.

2. You Don’t Have the Time
  • 5:39 Sarah spent a year sifting through court documents and interviewing people before starting the first season of Serial. What did you do last year? I’m guessing it wasn’t research for twelve episodes of your podcast. Koenig investigated and did research for a entire year.

Creating a show like Serial takes an enormous amount of time and preperation, but that hard work pays off.

3. You Don’t Have the Team
  • 6:25 Four other people helped Sarah Koenig make the first season. Now (in season two) she has 12 people assisting her, including two other producers, two editors, a mix engineer, and an editoral advisor that you may have heard of (Ira Glass, producer of This American Life).
  • 6:52 Sarah has a team helping her, she’s not doing all the work by herself. I bet she could, but she has people help her which makes the show better.
4. You Don’t Have the Gear

Professional podcasters spend a lot of money on recording equipment because they want to sound better than your average podcaster.

  • 8:11 For comparison, the mic that I use (Shure SM7B) sells new for $350. The mic Sarah uses (Shure KSM32) sells for $550. You just won’t get the same rich, warm sound quality from mics that cost $50 or $100.

If you want to sound great like NPR podcasts or shows like Serial, invest some serious money in gear.

5. You Have Different Goals
  • 8:44 What were Sarah’s goals for Serial? My guess would be mostly just to tell a good story. She probably also wanted to find answers about the case, see if the guy convincted of murder was actually guilty.
  • 9:06 What are your goals for your podcast? Maybe you want to establish yourself as an authority in your field of work, or maybe you want to connect with like-minded people in your niche. If you haven’t figured out your “why” yet, check out episode 27: Why Are You Podcasting?
6. You Don’t Have a Pre-Existing Audience
  • 9:26 Serial was not Sarah’s first podcast. She’s worked on other podcasts and with some very well known people. She has some very popular friends. She even said that she wasn’t expecting the show to get as much press as it did.
  • 9:50 I know that her friends and connections sharing the show helped with it’s success. You might not have that kind of reach. You probably don’t have friends with hundreds of thousands of followers that will help promote your show.

Here’s What You Should Do Instead of Trying to Make a Podcast like Serial

  • 10:26 1. Do your research. I love the fact that Sarah spent a year doing research for the first season of Serial.

If everyone invested more time in doing research, we’d all have better podcasts. So do your research. Call people, read articles online, spend as much time learning as you can.

  • 10:58 2. Focus on making a personal connection with your audience members. This is an advantage that you have over Serial. Sarah Keonig cannot spend time making personal connections with all her audience members because there are so many of them. Listen to episode 12 to learn more about connecting with your audience.

If you’re just starting out, personal connections with your audience are vital for the growth and success of your show.

  • 11:37 3. Tell stories. Tell your personal stories or interview people on your show and let them tell their stories. Study writing and journalism and the craft of storytelling.
  • 12:09 Craft a narrative. Think about creating a story arc for your podcast. Can you come up with a 10 episode series?
  • 12:48 4. Focus on sound quality. People always talk about sound quality when mentioning This American Life, Serial and other podcats produced by NPR. Part of that is gear. Having great microphones helps, but there’s nothing wrong with starting with what you have right now. If you want to grow your audience, great sound quality will help. Great content is essential but great sound quality will elevate your content to another level.

If you can only afford a $50 mic, buy it and start podcasting. But don’t settle; save money to invest in better gear down the road.

  • 14:21 If you’re interested in upgrading your gear or getting better sound quality, check out my gear guide and episode 19: Dealing with Room Echo and Background Noise: Sound Proofing and Absorption for Podcasters.
  • 14:52 5. Build relationships with other influencers and your peers. I’d bet that the relationships that Sarah Keonig has built over the years have been a big factor in the success of her show. Having people with huge audiences share your show with their fanbase will help your numbers grow, but chances are you don’t have relationships with many of those kinds of people.
  • 15:27 You should focus instead on developing relationships with people who are on the same level as you. The people just getting started who are going to do good work and grow their own audiences in the future. Don’t dismiss someone because they don’t have a huge following. Help them out if you can. Share their work.
  • 16:45 6. Hire a podcast editor (or other help) when you can afford it. Podcast editors are great. They’ll save you a bunch of time and they’ll probably do a better job of editing too.

If you can afford it, outsource editing, show note writing, or general admin work. Free your time up to focus on your content instead of the post-production.

You Just Have to Start

  • 17:19 You’re going to have to go through the learning process. You’ll have to make mistakes and learn from them before you can get better.
  • 17:37 If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that you can’t make a podcast like Serial right now and that’s ok. You can still make something valuable for your audience. There’s something valuable that you can share with someone right now. With time and practice and dedication, you’ll refine and grow your knowledge and your teaching ability. You won’t just get smarter, you’ll get better at teaching what you know.
  • 18:10 The fact that Serial has been so successful is actually great news for you. It’s introduced listening to podcasts to many new people. Once people are done listening to Serial, they’re going to want to find a new podcast to listen to (something that interests them). If you produce a great show that catches their interest, you have the opportunity to grow an audience and connect with even more people.
  • 18:37 It’s ok if you’re just starting out on your journey to learn how to podcast. In time, you’ll improve and you’ll get better.

Q&A

  • 23:52 Alison said: I’ve thought about podcasting but my talking voice sucks. Any advice?
  • 24:04 Alison, I totally understand. I felt the same way when I started my podcast. I believe that speaking is a skill. It’s not something that you’re born naturally good it, it takes practice. I did an episode about this, episode 9: What if I Don’t Like My Voice?. Take a listen to that if you feel like you suck at talking, but don’t let that stop you from starting your podcast.
  • 26:35 John asked: What are your thoughts on using a recording studio to record a show? Like buying a package of hours which saves you on editing, soundproofing and gear?
  • 26:52 I think renting a space and time in a recording studio with an engineer is a great idea if you can afford it, and if you aren’t interested in learning how to record and edit your own shows.