How Solid Organization Can Make The Difference In Your Podcast Production
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Any creator who’s started a podcast knows that they have many moving parts to them. Making a podcast means brainstorming topics, conducting research, contacting guests and interviewees, setting up recording equipment, and then editing and mixing the audio until it’s perfect. It can be a lot to keep track of, and the reality is that the way you organize your podcast’s production cycle can have an impact on your finished product. As part of our “Thoughts from Third Coast” series of guides, today we’re reporting on a few takeaways from a Third Coast 2018 session about organization led by former Gimlet Media producer Eric Mennel. We’ll talk about the four ways you can better organize your podcast production and improve your show.
1. Make checklists about the stories you want from your interviewees
In his hour-long session, Mennel discussed his process for making narrative podcast stories. However, his tips for organizing a podcast’s production cycle can apply to podcast creators working on all types of shows.
First, he suggests that podcast creators write actual checklists of the tape they want to get for their show. In a reporting context, this means deciding what kinds of field sound you want, what kinds of quotes you’d like to hear from interviewees, ambient sounds, etc. Think about the sound of the ideal episode before you start recording. This will make you more proactive in seeking out the sounds you need later on.
If your podcast’s format focuses more on guest interviews or round table discussions, this kind of checklist should cover the answers or views you want to get from your guests. This means making sure you have your questions prepared, that you’ve outlined the topics you want to touch on in your conversation, and marking your “must get” tape. If for instance you have questions or topics you haven’t covered by the end of your guest interview, that’s the point where you should circle back and ask those questions.
It might sound odd to pre-plan the audio you will get in the future, but Mennel said this mindset has helped focus him while reporting and has made his episodes better in the long run. In particular, Mennel said that creators should identify their “narwhal tape.” This refers to audio clips or story lines that might not exist but that you hope exists, and if you were to come across them in the real world, they would vastly improve your story. Think about these story lines ahead of time and be open to finding them as you produce your story.
But where should you make these checklists? If you produce audio in the field, Mennel suggests a smartphone app like Apple’s native Notes app or third-party apps like Evernote.
If you produce audio primarily through in-studio interviews with guests, the same principle can apply: sit down and think not just about questions you want to ask, but about the kinds of answers you’d love to get from your guests. Put these in your show preparation document and have them on hand during your interview. Highlight your narwhal tape - the anecdote that would make the interview - and hope that you get something along those lines. Also highlight in the document those must-answer interview questions, so that you can make sure at the end of the conversation that you’ve asked them and gotten a response.
Mennel made the point that having these checklists acts as your “scaffolding” during podcast production. As creators, we never want to feel like we’re grasping for the next question during an interview.
2. Takes notes immediately after an interview - tell yourself or an editor what you found interesting
We all want to rely on our memory as we work. But Mennel made a great point about the downsides of relying on memory when it comes to processing and going back to interviews. While you may record an interview and feel you got a lot out of it, if you don’t have time to touch that interview tape for days or even weeks, you won’t have the same sense of the interview when you finally listen to it. You may also lack the context around the interview that would inform how you use the tape.
As a way to avoid this problem and keep an interview fresh, sit down immediately after an interview - this works for either production in the field or in-studio - and note your biggest moments or takeaways from it. What did the interviewee say that really stuck with you? Did they say anything surprising? Was there strong emotion in any of their answers?
Second (and this applies more for creators doing field producing), write down when the interview happened, and the environment you did the interview in. Was there anything happening around you that was distracting or got into the sound of the tape? What events happened before and after the interview?
Mennel also talked about writing two types of post-interview notes at the end of the day: “overview notes” and “dispatches”. Overview notes are high-level notes that list the events that happened during a day of producing. These are usually bullet points and are especially helpful when producing for a full day with multiple interviews. Write about what happened, in order, like who you met, what people did, what took place, and what locations you went to.
Dispatches, on the other hand, are Mennel’s way of summarizing and self-editing his story as he reports it. He usually writes a long email to his editor detailing every part of the day. Essentially this is a way to tell the high-level story (your overview notes) and the interesting details from your interviews. Mennel said that he gets very detailed in these emails, and whenever he finds he’s bored in writing parts of it, he knows that part isn’t going to go in the story, because if he’s finding it boring, so too will listeners. Dispatches are part of the first draft of a complex story, and can work well for podcast creators who are creating stories that involve multiple voices and locations.
3. Upload all of your tape ASAP, properly label and organize it, and back it up
For both narrative podcasts and interview shows that involve multiple guests, podcasts generate a lot of tape. Mennel said that it’s important that creators keep up with their tape organization, or down the road the production process will be a nightmare.
Uploading isn’t as simple as it sounds - at the start of your project, make a conscious decision about how you’ll organize your tape into folders. Is the story chronological? Perhaps you should name folders by day or by event. Is it character-based and non-chronological? Then it might help to divide tape by character and into separate subfolders for interviews conducted on different dates and about different topics. It’s important to name the folders in a specific way, and to rename audio files (which can often have manufacturer-labelled conventions combined with numbers) that detail what the audio consists of.
Overall, Mennel suggests thinking about how you will look through your tape later for pull quotes or parts of interviews. Try to help your “future self” by organizing your tape from the start to make that process as straightforward as possible.
One last thing he stressed heavily was to back up your tape to your computer, and also to another location like an external hard drive or the cloud. Technology can fail, and if you’re working on a project for months with dozens of taped interviews and other sounds, the last thing you want to happen is to lose everything to a failed hard drive or corrupted SD card. Never leave tape on a recording device for more than a day, and either distribute your files in more than one place or use a backup program (PCMag has a comparison of paid backup services here).
4. When planning your podcast production, ditch Google Docs, go with Sheets
Mennel is a fan of spreadsheets. Like, a big fan. So much so that he developed a Google Sheets template for planning his narrative podcast episodes. He shared this template on Twitter back in October for Third Coast attendees:
You can find and make a copy of Mennel’s spreadsheet here: https://t.co/kVjW4RgMOp
The template is customizeable, but two tabs stick out as particularly helpful, no matter what type of show you’re running. These are the contacts tab and the research tab.
The Contacts page is for everything about people related to your story: possible interviewees, other characters in the story as well as their affiliations. An important column is whether or not you’ve contacted them already.
The Research page is obviously for research, but it can also include ideas you have while producing that you don’t want to lose - threads that may be helpful to follow up on later.
Mennel mentioned other helpful tabs to add. First, you should do a timeline of events in the story. He recounted a story he did about a music streaming company’s rise and subsequent lawsuits. During his background research, he built a timeline of the company and its CEO to reference during interview prep, complete with links to previous news stories. This could also go in the research tab.
Second, you should create a tab with an overview of the plot points to the story you’re doing. This can be a rough draft, but as you add tape to the Tape Tracker tab and contact more interviewees, developing a high-level view of your episode’s scenes can be helpful.
When it comes to tape tracking (which has a tab in the template above), Mennel offered a few different ways to log and track your tape. If your show is interview- or roundtable-based, then a simple list like the template has should be sufficient. It lists your tape’s file name, description, whether it was transcribed, file location, and any other relevant notes. For narrative shows with more involved tape needs, grouping by episode or other categorization in a way similar to #3 above would be best to keep everything in line.
Finally, Mennel said it’s up to creators if they want to do one organization spreadsheet for a podcast season, or for individual stories. It will be dependent on how your podcast is setup and whether episodes are linked to one another or entirely different in terms of content. The big takeaway with spreadsheets, though, is that they centralize your podcast production’s information in a way that other word processors like Docs or project management tools like Trello do not.
Organization leads to success
A great organization doesn’t lead to a great podcast automatically. Conversely, shoddy organization can make creating a great podcast much harder, especially the larger your team gets and the more involved your show is. Thinking ahead, being purposeful in how you manage your resources, and methodically tracking your story as you develop it can be incredibly helpful, especially for independent creators who are producing their shows on their own time and with fewer resources.
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