If you’re someone who’s decided to start a podcast but aren’t really sure what it entails, you’ve come to the right post.
When Prashanthini and I decided to start a podcast, we didn’t know what it entailed either. Neither of us are in the sound editing business nor are we born orators. In fact, we’re both people who are more comfortable with the written word than any other medium. But, for better or worse, we’re both podcasters now.
This article is what we’ve learnt from recording, editing and producing season 1 of Mimblewimble - the Harry Potter podcast. Everything we’ve learnt, we’ve learnt by doing - we didn’t take any classes or even listen to a podcast about podcasting before taking the deep plunge (it’s nothing we are proud of).
We just did it and boy, has it been a ride.
For reading ease, we’re dividing this article up into sections based on how we approach an episode. If you take away something from this guide, we sincerely hope it’s the urge to go out and create something you love.
Let’s get started.
1) Picking a topic
Our advice: Pick a topic you already spent time talking about.
No, really. Else it’s going to be a drag.
Prashanthini and I picked Harry Potter because when we made a list of things we love, Harry Potter was on top of both of our lists. This shouldn’t be much of a surprise since we both fit into the profile of ideal readers; when the series started to really catch on, we were both in the impressionable age range of 11-14.
A important note I’d like to add here is that we also picked something that we actually discussed in great detail. We’re also Hamilton fans but our Hamilton discussions tend to peter out pretty quickly - there are only so many ways in which you can say “OMG, LIN MANUEL MIRANDA IS A GENIUS” (All me. Prashanthini usually does it in lower case).
Whereas the subject of Harry Potter can keep us going for a while because we’re often on different sides of debates. For example, I dislike Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore but Prashanthini isn’t as bothered.
The difference in opinion is what makes our conversations interesting - else Mimblewimble would just be 30 minutes of us going “I completely agree” or “That is awesome”.
So, unless you have a limited series in mind, pick something you can talk about and pick something you’ll enjoy talking about also. Something that, if you have a partner, enjoy arguing about. (You can, of course, argue with yourself but trust me, that gets old pretty quickly).
Also, internalize the idea that you might not love the topic any more by the end of the series and you’re golden.
1.5) Picking a format for your podcast
Our go-to podcast inspiration is The West Wing Weekly. Prashanthini is a big fan of The West Wing and the podcast brings her an additional dimension of enjoyment through behind the scenes trivia, plot discussions and lots of guest stars including actors, writers, politicians and the creator of the show. So, when we need inspiration, there’s only one obvious choice.
The West Wing Weekly, has a very simple format: the hosts examine a single episode of The West Wing in a podcast episode. When Prashanthini and I set out to do a Harry Potter podcast, we did something very similar - a chapter for an episode.
We recorded six episodes before we were ready to admit that it was a drag. A chapter per episode meant we were getting lost in the details and discussing things that we doubted even hardcore fans would care about. Plus, the point was to have meaningful discussions and not nitpick the crap out of the series we love. So, we revisited our format and decided to pick major events in the book as our stops.
Our advice: Do a test run and figure out if the format works for you. It’s okay to admit anytime down the run that it’s not working and start over.
2) Naming your podcast
This is...actually pretty difficult. A podcast’s name has to immediately convey what the podcast is about and what kind of tone you’re going for. Heavy stuff.
Take Harry Potter and the Sacred Text for example. You immediately get that it’s about Harry Potter and that it’s probably a podcast with serious, soul-searching discussions (you’re not wrong).
We wanted our Harry Potter podcast to be laid back and low key so we decided to go with the name of a spell to showcase er goofiness. We needed it to indicate that if you’re looking for a manual for life, our podcast is not for you.
So, we opened up a Harry Potter wiki article and did a scan of all the spells. I tried to be self deprecating and go for something like “Muffliato” - a substitute podcast for the random coffee shop/rain sounds/whale song that you use as background noise. Thankfully, Prashanthini is a more sane, level headed human being so she kept scrolling down the list until we hit Mimblewimble. Mimblewimble is a tongue tying spell - something that felt perfect because we felt very tongue tied ourselves, every time we began to record an episode.
We just appended a descriptor - Mimblewimble, the Harry Potter podcast - and we were ready to roll.
Our advice: Pick a name that’s easy to spell because that’s your website URL too. If you want to go with a long name ala Pop Culture Happy Hour, you can also just create an acronym (PCHH) that you can use to identify your podcast.
Preparing for a podcast episode
Different podcasts require different types of preparation.
I imagine that a single episode of Hardcore History takes Dan Carlin months of prep work. Every episode is jam packed with information that he has to research, collect and shape into a narrative.
Mimblewimble, thankfully, takes us a few hours every week for prep. We read the chapters that we’re going to be discussing in the episode, take notes about points we want to bring out, and then look up anything that we think might lead somewhere interesting. I, for instance, love etymology so I tend to look up all of the names as soon as characters are introduced because I know JKR sometimes deliberately chooses names (Yes, I am aware that I’m a dork).
The notes are a plenty but they’re nothing more than talking points because Mimblewimble is meant to sound conversational. If we were focussing on delivering a message, we’d write a script and practice but since that isn’t the point, we just do our best to have interesting discussions.
We also make it a point to not discuss anything from our reading sessions with each other before we actually record. Neither of us are voice actors and are generally terrible at faking surprise/amusement. So, we try to keep our reactions to each other’s material as unrehearsed as possible. This will get harder to do as we get to more...exciting events in the series but we’ll attempt to preserve the tone as much as possible.
Our advice: Prepare for discussions but don’t script them, entirely.
Recording a podcast episode: the equipment
The first episode of Mimblewimble was recorded on an iPhone. Now, iPhones are jacks of all trades and masters of none, so the audio turned out to be average but not amazing. After some of the feedback for the first episode turned out to be, “Have you guys tried editing your podcast?”, we decided to not use an iPhone anymore. From the second episode, we decided to freeload and use the Blue Yeti we had in our workplace. It’s amazing (obviously, given the price).
As podcasting dummies, we were pretty surprised to discover how much of a difference this made. The lesson we learnt is that, no matter how good your content is, bad audio quality can put off even the most earnest of listeners.
The mic picked up literally everything, yes, but it also helped us edit the audio more easily (more on this later) and make it pleasing to the ears.
We’d definitely recommend you use a mic. If you are looking for other mic options, here is a list that can help: 25 of the best podcast microphones
Recording a podcast episode: you
Now, you might think that a fun and casual podcast like Mimblewimble requires us to just switch on the mic and roll.
This is so not true. When two people have a conversation face to face, conversations aren’t just verbal. There’s a lot of physical motion too. You’re nodding, you’re waving your hands, you’re rolling your eyes, you’re shuffling, you’re wearing a dress that has little bells on it and- okay, that might be just me.
Here’s everything we’ve learnt so far:
You HAVE to relax. Prashanthini and I tend to get really nervous when we start recording so our voices sound stiff and robotic, like we just learnt how to talk. To sound more like people who actually want to be in a podcast, we take 5 minutes to just chat about inconsequential things and catch up before we actually start rolling. We’ve tried a bunch of stuff here - yoga, drinking tea but nothing helps more than a couple of deep breaths and a chat about whether rewatching How I Met Your Mother is a waste of time or not.
A good mic picks up on everything. Typing, the sound of you drinking water, you flipping the page or sitting up in your chair. If another person is talking, we’d recommend you make it a habit to freeze and not move a muscle until they stop.
Be Goldilocks about where the mic is wrt you. Don’t be too close to the mic because then, it’ll pick up every breath. Don’t sit too far away either because then you’ll sound like you’re in a tunnel. Pick a distance based on your natural volume.
Don’t move your chair too much. Avoid swivelly chairs, if you can, because you’ll unconsciously swivel and then get yelled at a couple of days later when your partner is editing the podcast because the squeaky sounds got on it too.
This is another duh-doy statement but if someone else is talking, don’t interrupt. Even if you have something to add to their argument or against it, wait for them to finish talking. If you’re the kind that does it unconsciously (this is not a real kind unless you’re on CNN as part of a panel), make sure to rerecord the parts because interruptions sound terrible in a recording.
If you don’t know something well, don’t talk about it. Like, seriously. I know nothing about sports yet I attempted to make a sports analogy. This is why a clip of me talking about how people play baseball at the Super bowl exists on the Internet.
Editing a podcast episode
Editing is pure magic (geddit?). It helps cover up most of the mistakes we do while recording and makes us sound very coherent and intelligent.
We use Audacity to edit our podcast. It’s a great software because it’s easy to use and it’s free. So, go nuts.
We like to edit Mimblewimble in phases.
Phase 1 involves listening to the full one and a half hour raw recording and doing clean up. Clean up is removing awkward pauses, umms, ahh, errs, ambient noises, repetitive points, irrelevant banter and pure incoherence. You might be tempted to cut out all of the stupid and goofy stuff but mistakes tend to humanize you. Leave some goofy things in, just no inside jokes. Unexplained inside jokes are the fastest way to alienate new listeners so ditch that funny reference to your colleague, no matter how much it makes you laugh even on re-listens.
Phase 2 is when we actually work on shaping the narrative. We put storylines together, move around conversations, and figure out how to transition from one discussion to the next.
You don’t always get a neat segue from topic A to topic B. Sometimes, we finish talking about topic A, pause awkwardly as we wait for the other person to add more on topic A and then suddenly start topic B when we realize none of us has more to say about topic A. When the audience listen to these bad transitions, it will be jarring and destroy the tone you’re working for.
We use music to smoothen transitions and segue to the next point. It sounds something like this:
There are many sites where you can buy the background music and jingles that suit your podcast. We use Pond5 because when we searched for “Magical music” - Pond5 had the best results. Don’t use free music (they are not great) or music you are supposed to pay for free (seriously, don’t).
Mimblewimble also has a great theme that Prashanthini picked out. We could have gone with a cold open and a few bars of a jingle but we decided on this particular theme because it set the tone of our podcast really really well. Better than any description we could have ever written to explain it, actually.
Speaking of music, sound effects are great if used well. Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale is a great example of a podcast which uses sound effects really well. A good rule of thumb is, use it to add value. Not just because you’re talking about something that has a sound effect. Zapsplat.com has great effects, if you’re on the lookout.
Phase 3 is where the real magic happens because it’s all about enhancement. Of the two of us, Prashanthini is the editing genius so I’m going to let her take over this part.
“Early on, I stumbled upon a post called “How to make your voice sound sexy using Audacity” (Great SEO, dude). The author says that the 4 things you need to do are: Noise reduction, Compression, Equalization, Normalization. Noise reduction and equalization do a lot for our "sexy" voices but compression and normalization, not so much. See, compression and normalization are for making sure that the volume is consistent. This works well when your mic:person ratio is essentially 1:1. However, the two of us use one mic - the Blue Yeti - to record and we do not talk at the same volume. Aishwarya’s voice is high pitched (she’s not wrong in saying that she sounds like a chipmunk) and mine is a low drone. So, normalization and compression, instead of making our voices more level, makes us both sound awful. Instead, we use the amplify function and manually increase or decrease the volume whenever necessary.”
Hosting, marketing and listener stuff
Hosting your podcast
When we decided to start a podcast, we knew we wanted two things:
1) A beautiful website like The West Wing Weekly.
2) A beautiful website like The West Wing Weekly.
So, when we divvied up responsibilities, I got to scout for a solution that would allow us to host a podcast and set up a good looking website for it. But I’m getting ahead of myself because before a handsome website, you need a good domain.
A lot of podcasts have a something.fm domain which is awesome and we totally wanted it too but mimblewimble.fm would have cost us something along the tune of Rs. 6000. For comparison, mimblewimble.in, our current domain that we bought from Namecheap, cost us something along the lines of Rs. 600. Since we’re not getting any money out of this, Prashanthini and I decided to invest the money somewhere else and elected to go with mimblewimble.in.
I’m proud that we chose to do something practical because we invested the money we’d have otherwise spent on the domain in the software we picked to host our website and podcast: Squarespace.
Some people choose to not host their website and podcast with the same tool i.e they have a hosting solution and a website solution.
This is the first approach we took as well - we looked at podcast hosting solutions like Blubrry, Libsyn and Soundcloud and we looked at website solutions like Wordpress and Ghost. We also looked at one stop shops - podcast hosting and website solutions - like Squarespace.
In the end, it boiled down to price plus features. Separate podcast hosting and website platforms would have given us more statistics to work with (Squarespace’s podcasting reports are non-existent) and allowed us to customize our website to greater detail but some of them us locked us into their platforms (Soundcloud). To add to the con side, separate solutions demanded that we put in a lot of work as well (I’d have to resurrect my rusty coding skills) to make the tools fit our needs which wasn’t supposed to be the point of the project.
We wanted to do a podcast, not spend time setting up and maintaining a website. Squarespace, on the other hand, is ridiculously easy to use, easy to set up and it has some great free templates. Price wise also, Squarespace was also the better alternative because we had to pay for one tool as opposed to two.
We also eventually got around to solving the stats problem. Squarespace was able to give us only an RSS feed report that they themselves admitted wasn’t very accurate. Instead, they helpfully directed us to a podcast hosting provider we’d considered, Blubrry, that has a statistics solution and is pretty easy to set up (and free!). A few hours of work and we were able to figure out how many people downloaded which episode, from where and using what clients.
Distributing your podcast
Once you get the hosting part figured out, then it’s distribution, distribution, distribution. Basically, you submit your podcast’s RSS feed to a bunch of platforms and pray you get accepted.
We submitted our podcast to iTunes, Stitcher and Player.fm. Submitting on iTunes is mostly sufficient, because most podcast apps get their episodes from iTunes.
These made sure we got onto a wide variety of podcast clients but unfortunately, we weren’t able to crack Google Play podcasts or Spotify because neither of the platforms are available in our country of residence.
For the first few episodes, we even made full-length YouTube videos so that we could attempt to tap YouTube as a channel. But the process of creating YouTube podcast video is tedious and we weren’t seeing a lot of traction so we abandoned it. Instead, we started directing people to our website so that people, without a favorite podcast client, could just listen to the podcast directly from our website using the built-in web player.
Marketing the podcast
This is, obviously, an ongoing process that we’re still figuring but here are some preliminary thoughts:
Don’t assume, always test. You never know where your audience is so make sure you spray and pray. We set up profiles on all the usual social media suspects so we could figure out what works for us and what doesn’t. A couple of months down the line, we decided to stop trying too much on the channels that didn’t seem to work for us (Facebook and Tumblr) and focus only on the channels that did seem to work (Instagram and Twitter).
Don’t just promote your podcast. Create related content so that you can hook people with their area of interest. Instead of just promoting our podcast, we wrote essays on specific plot elements to trigger discussions on platforms like Reddit. This way, we made some friends, found some interesting perspectives and also, brought people to the site!
Real time marketing is difficult to get right but try anyway. For example, we did Harry Potter pick up lines for Valentine’s Day. Try to create content around popular events so you can draw attention to yourself even in indirect situations, in a non-awkward manner.
Use your audience to promote your podcast. Our marketing tends to be content heavy because Prashanthini and I are, you know, content people. But there are other ways to bring listeners to your podcast: advertising, guest stars, being a guest on someone else’s podcast, etc. That’s why we decided to do a Harry Potter stories segment - to get listeners to share their stories with us and their audience.
Captain Obvious in the house: when you put out a podcast, people tend to listen to it. Especially people close to you. They will have opinions. Some of them will be positive (yay!). Some of them will not [:(]. Some people will say those negative things to you. Some won’t.
There will be moments where you wonder whether this is worth so much effort when everyone around you is seemingly uninterested or worse, are actively discouraging you.
The really important note to keep in mind is, the reason you began this whole shindig. Is that reason still valid? Does it bring you joy?
If the answer is a resounding yes to either of them, then you should keep ploughing ahead. Take the feedback and make lemonade with it. After our first episode came out, a lot of people told Prashanthini and I that we should consider voice modulation lessons because we both sound flat and er boring. It was pretty difficult to digest at the time but we decided to take it positively and figure out how to better express our emotions through just our voices. These are the moments where I’m really grateful that we’re in this together because we give each other strength to keep going on.
Our advice: Just keep swimming. You’ll get better.
The other unimportant stuff
This is really really difficult but you have to remember to Not. Be. Lazy. It’s especially difficult when you’ve had a long week and you just want to relax and watch some Queer Eye but instead, you have to brainstorm for your podcast or do some reading or edit audio.
When we started our podcast, I’ll admit to getting lazy and not thoroughly exploring the stats front. This wasn’t work so no one was making me set quarterly or half yearly listener goals. As a consequence, I didn’t focus on measuring it. We aren’t doing it for fame or money anyway. We’re doing it because it makes us happy and teaches us new skills.
So, until we got our first fan email from a person neither of us knew personally, Prashanthini and I were convinced that the only people tuning into Mimblewimble, episode after episode, were friends and family. The Venn intersection that encompassed people who loved us and people who loved Harry Potter. Not even in our wildest dreams had we expected a total stranger to be listening to us making stupid sports analogies.
That’s what got us off our asses and moving to research and set up podcast analytics for all of our episodes after we were seven episodes in. As a consequence, we’d missed out on measuring the number of downloads for the most episodes, including the crucial first episode.
Now, we set up analytics for every episode. When we see a new download for one of our older episodes, we sometimes feel bad for not researching the topics thoroughly or editing it in a rush. Yes, there are ways to go back, re-record and release episodes, but as we said before, we like to keep our conversations fresh.
So point to note, don’t be lazy.
Do the best work you can do, every step of the way. Just because it’s a side project doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put your best foot forward.
Season 1 of Mimblewimble is done and dusted but we have a long way ahead of us. What kind of tips do you have for amateur podcasters? Let us know and we’ll give you a shout out.