What Your One-Person Podcast can Learn from 99 Percent Invisible in 37 Easy Steps

This is Matt Croydon and you are listening to The Tinycast.

I’m always looking for ways to make this show better. I read about how other people make podcasts. I learn about how people make Radio, and how people improve whatever it is that they do.

Recently there was a gathering of podcasters. Quite possibly the highest concentration of podcasters this earth has ever seen. Im talking about Podcast Movement 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas. I wasn’t able to go, but thanks to social media and Periscope, I learned a lot anyway.

One of my favorite sessions, not surprisingly, was by Roman Mars. You might recognize him from 99 Percent Invisible, Radiotopia, or that TED talk about flags. You should go watch that TED talk about flags.

He opened with a miniature episode of 99 Percent Invisible. He then boiled down all the questions he gets in to just one: “How do I get to do what you do.”

In the process of answering this question, he hit on what is probably the best explanation of how great radio is made. In one slide, he walked through the 37 steps between having an idea and hitting the publish button.

Don’t worry, it’s not that scary. At least two of these steps involve eating at a Pakistani buffet. But this slide captures more than anything else the sheer amount of work that goes in to making great radio.

To paraphrase the great Helen Zaltzman: podcasting is a crap hobby but a great job. It turns out that I’m pretty bad at picking hobbies.

It takes a bunch of people to make a 99 Percent Invisible episode. There are a lot of parallels between their process and what I’ve read about how other great radio is made, whether it’s This American Life or a story for NPR.

As someone who tries to make great radio all on my own, I think a lot of this can be scaled down to a one person show.

Okay here we go.

  • If you can, if your format allows for it, write a script in your own voice. When I’m writing a script for this show, I can hear myself saying it as I write. I think that’s a good thing.
  • Once you’ve written your script you can now do the most important thing you can possibly do. You edit. And you edit again. Then you can go to the Pakistani buffet. When you get back it’s time to edit some more. Read the script out loud to yourself. I’ll bet you’ll find something that doesn’t work or doesn’t flow. Edit.
  • If your show is more conversational, make sure you have a solid outline or a good idea of what you want to get out of it before you start. Don’t be afraid to edit when you’re done, either. Does it really need to be two hours? An hour? Forty-five minutes? Are there any side conversations that are really a distraction from the main idea?
  • If you can, have a friend or loved one listen to you read your script before recording. Look for when their eyes glaze over. Ask them when you lost them or if anything wasn’t clear. If you’re trying to get a point across, ask them to explain it back to you. If they can’t, you still have work to do.
  • Another thing you can do during the editing process is have someone read your script and offer suggestions. I use Google Docs for this, but it could be a piece of paper or an email. Whatever works.
  • I’m always brainstorming ideas for the show. Any time I have an idea, I add a line or two to a note on my phone. You can’t have a show without an idea.
  • Another thing that works for me is to have multiple episodes in various stages of production. I might be researching one episode while writing a script for another. Or I might be auditioning music beds for one while doing a rough edit of the vocal track for another.
  • The final mix is crucial too. Before you hit publish make sure you “walk the mix” to as many places you can think of that people might listen to your show. For me that’s usually speakers, my Sony 7506 headphones, Apple earbuds, and in the car.

If all of this sounds fascinating and all the work sounds worth it, give it a go for yourself. Put your voice to tape. Get it out there. Don’t worry about all this other stuff. My guess is that you’ll get hooked and want to do it better next time. And better the time after that. It’s a wonderful rabbit hole called radio. Or podcasting.

To give you an idea of how bad you can be when you start, here’s a clip from the first Tinycast episode just about a year ago:

What is the Tinycast? I’m not sure yet but I’m hoping that I’m going to be able to figure it out as I go along. My current hypothesis is that it’s a short podcast, maybe 30-60 seconds to a couple of minutes or so produced with mobile gear but striving for a professional podcast.

This was recorded in the front seat of my car. I had no idea what I was getting myself in to. And of course, I still have a long way to go.

If you want to learn more, a great place to start is Transom.org. You can pretty much read that site cover to cover. Another place to start is This American Life’s Make Radio page. I’ll add links and other resources to the show notes at tinycast.in. I also wrote up my current production process over at postneo.com. It might be really interesting or really boring, depending on what you’re in to.

Today’s show is brought to you by audible.com where you can get a free audiobook and a 30 day free trial by visiting audible.tinycast.in. Remember The Wright Brothers by David McCullough? Yeah, they have that, and a whole lot more. Get your free trial at audible.tinycast.in.

Music for today’s show is by Podington Bear. You can hear more of his stuff at podingtonbear.com and soundofpicture.com. (Songs include SonstigesBoopThe Scuplture, and Filaments.) You can find us on Twitter @thetinycast, or I’m @mc. We should also be wherever it is that you get your podcast fix. If we’re not, let us know.

Episodes are also available at the Public Radio Exchange, PRX.org.