Podcasting has been a legitimate media format for over a decade, but it had never experienced mainstream popularity—until just last month. The recent wild success of a show called Serial not only surprises me, it proves that you don’t need fancy gear to produce content for the masses. Arm yourself with a low-budget audio recorder and computer, prioritize storytelling and put great care into your work, and you can get inside the heads of millions.
If you’re unfamiliar with podcasting, just think of it as a blanket term for a video or audio show that someone puts together and shares on the internet. That’s it. It’s simple. Sure, the true definition of a podcast gets more complicated when you examine things like RSS feeds, XML files, and hosting services, but there still isn’t much to it, especially considering the profound possibilities it opens up.
Thanks to Serial, which averaged around five million downloads per episode (a larger audience than Saturday Night Live), podcasting is on everyone’s lips these days. Serial was a 12-part series put together by members of This American Life—true masters of modern radio journalism. But it’s important to note that this spinoff podcast was not broadcast over-the-air. To listen, one needed to stream or download each episode from the internet. Make no mistake; Serial was a humble audio podcast through and through.
What made Serial a hit was a combination of careful reporting, an intriguing true story (which you don’t get if you’re lacking the first ingredient), funding for over a year’s worth of in-depth research, keen editorial thinking, masterful audio scoring and editing, and mystery. The most striking aspect, for me anyhow, is that achieved its record-breaking success as an audio podcast. There isn’t a frame of video involved with Serial. It’s a dozen MP3 files, and nothing more.
One of the big questions is whether Serial’s popularity will rub off on any of the zillions of podcasts floating around out there. It was a show that certainly trained a lot average people how to download, listen and maybe even subscribe to podcasts. This can only have a positive impact. But whether or not we see another show as popular as Serial is beside the point. The key takeaway here is that if you produce something special, the possibilities are limitless.
Most people don’t have the resources that Sarah Keonig, Ira Glass and the rest of the Serial team had. But, the thing that should make you jump up on your desk and celebrate is that with incredibly meager resources, a single person with a $99 audio recorder (such as a Zoom H1) and a low-powered economy laptop can produce a show that could potentially steal Serial’s crown as the most popular podcast of all time.
“The only way to be a failed journalist in 2015 is by failing yourself.”
While Serial was rich with intrigue, there wasn’t really all that much to it. Using a reporter’s instinct, if you sniff out the right stories, you’ll be on your way. The only way to be a failed journalist in 2015 is by failing yourself.
I have a bit of a soft spot for audio podcasting. I was involved with a show myself way back in 2006. This was shortly after the birth of the platform itself, and it was an exciting time. The show was called Live from the WB (the WB stood for Williamsburg). My role was to record some episodes as a tech, but I was also involved with making the show’s music, which is a pretty central part of a podcast. Basically, it was a few friends hanging out making each other laugh. It was great.
I also acted as a “foreign correspondent” for the show, reporting from the wilds of New Jersey for the uber-cool Brooklynite hosts (it was a talk show about popular culture and what was going on in Williamsburg). I produced two pre-recorded segments for the show, and in many ways, I’ve never been able to recapture the spark I showed in my first installment, which is called “Digga Digga Dah.”
My first foray into audio podcasting was incredibly fun, but at the same time, it’s sort of haunted me in a “Royal Tenenbaums” kind of way. I’ve always wanted to get back into podcasting, but I have yet to pursue anything seriously, partially because none of my ideas are as inspired as my Digga Digga installment. I peaked early, and now suffer. Excuses, excuses…
Right now I’m gearing up to dive into the world of 4K video production. I recently purchased two GoPro HERO4 Black action cameras, and more accessories than you can shake a selfie stick at. I’m also making a major computer upgrade, so I’ll be able edit and modify my ultra-high resolution footage. While I’m excited to start producing rich-looking videos, I’m equally compelled by the kind of content that can be made with minimal gear and heaps of inventive thinking.
Audio podcasting—and media production in general—are in an amazing place, here at the beginning of 2015. The only thing that can keep you from producing amazing work are your own self-imposed boundaries and obstacles. Don’t be me. Don’t let yourself get in the way. Don’t keep yourself from making awesome projects. Hurry up. Blink and it’s 2016.