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Podcasting Hacks by Jack D. Herrington

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Build a Great Personal Show

Create a show that opens a personal window on your life, without exposing yourself to privacy risk.

Blogging opens up a whole new view on people’s lives with details that many thought would be too personal to share. Bloggers talk about their fears, their triumphs, their jobs, and their relationships at an intimate level of detail. Some have even been fired for doing so.

Podcasting, or audio blogging, raises the level of personal intimacy to a new high. Now instead of writing your fears, you are saying them to us as if we were sitting next to you. We can hear the emotion in your voice. But instead of whispering it to one person next to you, you are saying it loudly through the headphones of people across the world.

There is no one formula for how to create a great show about your personal life. However, there are some tips and techniques that can alleviate the potential risks and help build an audience through content that is compelling.

The Listener Is Right Next to You

When you are talking into your microphone, imagine that the microphone has disappeared and you are talking to someone right next to you. This is, in fact, what you are doing. You aren’t addressing a group of people, you are addressing an individual with headphones on.

As you are talking, that individual is creating an image of what you are saying in her mind. When you talk about your dog, she pictures a dog she knew. This is what broadcasters call the theatre of the mind and it’s what makes audio such an engaging medium. Unlike TV, audio requires listeners to construct images from what you are saying.

Understanding the theatre of the mind leads me to the first principle of effective storytelling: detail. Detail is critical in telling a story that engages listeners. Describe the colors of the leaves, the scent of the room, and the feel of your dog’s fur. Detail helps build a better picture of the scene in your listeners’ mind.

The second principle is to tell a story [Hack #22] . Stories have beginning, a middle, and an end. Listeners understand the structure of stories and enjoy having them told. Stories are a series of events that starts with the introduction of a scene and some characters: “I went to the supermarket this afternoon to do some shopping.” Following that are some events that affect the characters: “On the way out I clumsily crashed into an old man and our groceries flew everywhere.” More events are layered on: “We sorted through the groceries and then we got to talking.” Now you’ve got the listeners hooked because even this inane story can grab attention. The listeners want to know what happens next.

Personal stories can end with either a traditional conclusion (e.g., “And they all lived happily ever after”), or better yet, a personal revelation. Either way, you should always tell listeners how this made you feel. They are tuning into your podcast because they want to know more about you. And how you feel and respond to events is much more revealing than the events themselves.

This simple story I used as an example is constructed with what’s called a linear narrative. The story starts at the beginning and goes through to the end. This is the simplest type of narrative arc. But there are others as well. You can start in the middle with a scene that draws listeners in, and then jump back to the beginning to give a sense of context. Movies such as Memento and Pulp Fiction are examples of more complex narrative arcs that break the mold of simple linear storytelling.

Format Still Works

Even though your show is an informal chat about your life, you still have a discernable format [Hack #20] . Even the simplest show has an introduction at the beginning of the show and credits at the end as its format elements. Here are some other format elements that you can use in your show to keep people coming back:

Specific observations

A segment dedicated to a particular type of occurrence. An example is the “Stupid Driving Move of the Week” in which you talk about the craziest thing you saw on the road this week.

Movie, book, podcast, or music reviews

A short review segment [Hack #27] where you discuss what you liked about a recent movie, book, podcast, or music CD. Tell listeners how it made you feel and what gets you excited about it. For example, when I sat down to write a review for Wired magazine I was given this advice: write the review, and then write a cover letter telling us what really gets you going about it, and then throw away the review and send us the cover letter.

Best spam of the week

Read the silliest spam message you got this week, and then riff on it.


Games that you play with your listeners, or games that they send you that you play yourself, are very engaging and will keep people coming back. As an example, Adam Curry started a game on his Daily Source Code (http://www.curry.com/), whereby listeners would send him a song mash-up that he would try to identify. It was an entertaining way of connecting with his audience.

My unique perspective

Jobs often afford us a unique perspective on life. Tell us a story from your job that gives us a new view on the human condition. For example, a blogger who worked as an adult video store clerk got some attention when she shared her observations about the store’s customers and their habits.

This is just a list to get you started. Get creative with your format elements. People will keep coming back for these daily or weekly segments, even if they don’t like the rest of your show.

Don’t Get Fired

Telling personal stories that engage listeners is great, particularly if those stories are honest ones about your life. But is there such a thing as too much information? When it comes to your job, the answer is definitely yes. Here are some basic rules to keep you out of hot water at work:

Let them know you are podcasting

Tell your boss that you are podcasting. Let her know what it is, where she can find it, and what you intend to cover in your podcasts. Get her feedback about what is in bounds and what is out of bounds. Make sure you know what you can say about the work you perform, the clients, and your co-workers.

Don’t use real names

Don’t mention your co-workers, bosses, or subordinates by their real name.

Don’t divulge confidential information

Don’t talk about the job that you perform, particularly if there are intellectual property concerns. If this is a corporate podcast you might be obliged to do so, but that’s not a personal podcast.

Don’t state company policy

Company policy is for the company’s web site, intranet, and internal documentation. It’s probably not interesting either. So, why bother?

The best advice is to steer clear of work altogether. Even talking about how much work has affected you or your relationships can cause problems. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the story of Heather Armstrong, the woman behind Dooce (http://www.dooce.com/), who was fired for talking about her work on her weblog. In fact, the term dooce is now used to describe someone who has been fired for weblogging (http://urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dooce).

Don’t Expose Too Much

The question of how much to expose on a personal podcast or blog is something you’ll have to weigh. It’s a matter of personal taste, but in a world where identity theft is increasingly prevalent, you should follow some basic security precautions:

No full names

Ideally you shouldn’t use your full name. And you certainly shouldn’t use the full name of your friends or relatives.

No addresses

People don’t need to know exactly where you live. The region or the state should be sufficient for listeners to draw a mental picture about you and your surroundings.

No home or work phone numbers

Don’t give listeners your home, cell, or work numbers. If you want to establish a comments line, which is a good idea, use a voice-mail-to-email solution [Hack #62] .

No schedules

There is no legitimate reason why listeners need to know your exact personal schedule. Let them know you will be at a conference in a particular city if you expressly want to meet up. But knowing when you fly in and out and where you are staying can only help someone who wants to hurt you.

You should also cleanse your site of address information. Keep your resume on your computer and send it out as email to those who need it. Better yet, remove the physical address and phone numbers from the web version.

Great Personal Shows

As part of my research for this hack, I contacted a few personal podcasters. Here are some hints and tips they had to pass along.


Joel Benge podcasts his NGR BugCast (http://nogagreflex.com/) from his car on the way to and from work. He uses his Treo 650 cell phone [Hack #69] to do the recording. Then he edits in some prerecorded tops, bottoms, bumpers [Hack #63] , and any audio feedback [Hack #62] he has gotten from his listeners.

For content, he picks some issues of the day—usually what he hears over the water cooler or while talking to friends. Then he jots them down to take them with him on his ride. He then riffs on the topic for between 7 and 15 minutes.

He is careful to make sure he never talks about his clients or his workplace. And he takes a little care to protect his identity, but since he has been blogging for five years he has already been out there a while.

For feedback, he uses one of the free phone-message-to-email services and directs that to a Gmail account. He integrates that feedback in digital form in subsequent podcasts.

Obi Show.

Louis Hill (a.k.a. Obi) does a stream-of-consciousness podcast called the Obi Show (http://obiwanadobe.com/). He talks about politics, tech stuff, games, and anything else that sparks his interest. But he keeps away from personal stuff—anything about his family is strictly off limits for privacy reasons.

It’s a pretty loose format. There is an introduction, then usually 20 minutes of free-form riffing on the topics that come to mind, then the credits and the outtro. Sometimes he will bring in some Creative Commons music [Hack #68] to spice it up.

He never does any editing on the show. He believes the “less polished style” is part of the show’s appeal. It takes him about two hours to go from concept to preparation, and then recording, encoding, and uploading, on a 20-minute show.

He’s been doing this since November 2004. This makes him one of the older dogs on the podcasting block. He’s gotten some listener feedback and has used it to drive the show now and again, but most of the time he sets his own course for each show based on what “catches his eye.”

This and That with Jeff and Pat.

Jeff and Pat use their 30-minute conversational to talk about the news of the day, what’s going on in the world of technology, and any other topics that interest them. They prepare by writing a list of topics prior to recording. They keep the spontaneity by refusing to look at each other’s lists.

There is some structure to the This and That show (http://thisandthatpodcast.com/). Jeff, the technician of the two, prerecords some segments [Hack #20] . And they have two format elements that are in every show. “Getting to Know You” is a segment in which they tell listeners new and interesting factoids about themselves. And the locally oriented “Dallas Minute” segment covers regional issues with a narrowcasting focus.

So far their private lives have been largely out of the show. But they understand that over time their audience will want them to get more personal. They have made some efforts to keep their last names a secret, but it’s not a huge deal to them.

Jeff records the show, usually in one shot, on a hard-disk recorder that doubles as a music studio setup [Hack #61] . It takes two to three hours of post-production time to put the show together. And they edit out any flubs, dead air, and other problem spots. He uses some compression, a little reverb, and a few sound effects. Most of this comes from his music hobby, which explains the quality of the equipment and the resultant recordings.

They have a growing audience base, and a local magazine called D featured a story about them. Most of the traffic comes in from the U.S. and Canada. They are constantly working on the show’s format and are integrating the feedback they get from their listeners.

Inside the Magic.

Richard Brigante is not a casual Disney fan. He lives a mere 20 minutes from Walt Disney World, visits the parks frequently, and keeps up-to-date with all the Disney news and rumors. A couple of years back he and a friend ran the Real Disney web site (http://realdisney.com/) until maintaining it became too much to handle. Now, with podcasting, he has a new medium for bringing Disney news to the faithful with his Inside the Magic show (http://distantcreations.com/insidethemagic/).

Each week he summarizes the news and rumors from a number of sources, including Utilidors (http://utilidors.com/), WDW Magic (http://wdwmagic.com/), and Intercot (http://intercot.com/), among others. He summarizes all of these as show notes. Then he records on his Mac using GarageBand [Hack #50] and uses iTunes for the encoding. His experience with TV and movie production has helped a lot.

Part of his mission is to bring the Disney magic to people who aren’t at the parks. Another is to provide a unique perspective to his listeners by sharing news and rumors that aren’t always along the Disney party line. For example, he supports Roy Disney in his battles against Michael Eisner, and doesn’t hesitate in voicing his opinion of The Walt Disney Company in his show and on the web site. The response he has received from the podcast has been roundly positive and it shows the opportunities presented for this type of narrowcasting.

Viking Youth Power Hour.

The Viking Youth Power Hour (http://www.thefeedlot.org/vikingyouth/), according to Matt, is about getting together with his friends and doing what they do best: “cracking wise about the universe.” At the start of each show, they have an invocation whereby they bring some person or thing into the show that sets the theme. Then Brian, Jason, Alex, and Matt (the show’s hosts) riff on that theme.

The show is what the four hosts call a “communal experience,” whereby they talk over, under, and around current events or whatever else. They are quick-witted enough that the result is hardly “cracking wise,” and in fact has become one of the highest ranked news podcasts.

They have a fairly simple setup. They all have Marshall MXL-990 microphones [Hack #13] , which are fed into a Behringer UB1202 mixer [Hack #14] , which then goes into an M-Audio MobilePre USB interface [Hack #12] and into either a Mac or a Windows box running Audacity [Hack #50] . They all spend about three hours per week on show prep, and the resulting audio is edited and mixed in three to eight hours after recording.

They want their show to compel people to act. As Matt says, “Podcasting isn’t about being a passive spectator; it’s about designing the world—and the world of information—in the manner that is agreeable and desirable to you.”

See Also

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