Designing the Perfect Podcast

Years ago, if you wanted to get on the air, all you needed was a little technical know-how to create your own radio station, and you can still do it. But podcasts are today’s radio. There are plenty of technical recommendations for recording your own podcast, but if you have an idea for a podcast and want to learn how some of the best of the best design podcasts got started—and how their hosts work—then you came to the right place. (And, of course, you can always listen to the HOW Design Live Podcast too!)

Podcast Pioneer

When you hear the word podcast, you might think iPod, and rightly so. Ben Hammersley is often credited with originating the term podcast, a blending of iPod and broadcast. The early iPod allowed you to store downloaded audio files, and by 2005 iTunes fully supported the medium—available for free through the iTunes Store. Today, podcasts are not just limited to the iPod or iTunes. You can get them through Google Play, Spotify, Overcast, and other platforms. One of the earliest design podcasts was Debbie Millman’s Design Matters, but even before podcasting, Millman hosted it as a Voice America internet radio show, recorded live, and available to listen to later.

But everything changed when Millman’s friend Bryony Gomez-Palacio suggested Millman get on iTunes. But why podcasts, especially when the radio thing seemed to be working for Millman? Gomez-Palacio said, “It was a moment when Apple was transitioning from a nerd brand to a coveted consumer brand and the only one creating a platform that could reach more people—a key factor in my suggestion because I truly believed Debbie needed to be heard by a broader audience.” And she has reached a broader audience, now known as the Barbara Walters of the design world. While she is flattered by the comparison, if there’s anybody she has learned from and looked up to, it’s Terry Gross. Millman says Gross has “a lot of range” and is able to speak with anybody about anything—something that Millman also strives for.

From left, Matthew Carter and Design Matters host Debbie Millman, courtesy of Design Matters.

Research plays a big role in making that happen, and Millman calls it “one of the differentiating factors” that separates Design Matters from other podcasts. Listening to Design Matters herself, Gomez-Palacio always finds it amusing when Millman surprises guests because she knows something that they either forgot or haven’t spoken about in a while. She believes that Millman’s research and approach makes Design Matters stand out. “She does not go for the cookie-cutter question, or the expected question, she really focuses on finding something new that each particular guest can reveal that has not been covered before.”

Finding Your Voice

While Debbie Millman and Design Matters took off, another early design podcast was finding its footing: Be A Design Cast, launched in November 2005, concluding in February 2008. It grew out of the Be A Design Group blog and was sometimes shortened from Be A Design Cast to BADCast. Tom Nemitz and Nate Voss co-hosted BADCast, and Donovan Beery came on board—the three were also authors on the blog. Beery & Voss moved on to create 36 Point, a blog where The Reflex Blue Show podcast has lived since 2008. According to podcast veteran Beery, between BADCast and The Reflex Blue Show he has hosted “somewhere over 280 different guests.” Among those guests, regulars will come on, including Steve Gordon, Justin Ahrens, and Von Glitchka.

Donovan Beery recording episode #179 (Season 11, Episode 2) of The Reflex Blue Show, a Mountain Dew taste testing, photo by Ben Lueders.

Having done podcasting for so long, if there’s one thing that Beery is thankful for, it’s the learning opportunities. “Hosting a podcast has been the most educational thing I have done for my career—the opportunity to speak with guests and ask questions really is a learning experience.” Having been a guest on The Reflex Blue Show myself, I’ll admit, the experience is a lot of fun, especially because the recordings are done in person, sitting down and hanging out. Doing the recordings over Skype or Google Hangout—while it could open up his guest list—didn’t go the way Beery wanted. “I was doing about one Skype show a year, then I said that’s it, I want to do all of them in-person.” With a microphone in front of you and audio software capturing the moment, it can feel a bit intimidating, but the informal chat is the most rewarding part of the experience—especially in this all-digital, heads down & screens up world we live in.

Beery records his podcasts face-to-face but without an audience, whereas Millman is face-to-face with her guests in front of a studio audience. Millman says that having the audience there can provide input and energy, and it’s something that the host and/or guest can feed off of. But for Beery, who lacks the live audience, having the intimacy of just the host and guest—or guests—makes for what he calls “a water cooler show.” The recording sessions, casual conversation, all of it, it’s become Beery’s style. “When we started, we didn’t know of any other podcasts, so we just did what we thought would be fun. When I did finally listen to Design Matters, I realized what a full hour—a very smart show—sounded like. But that wasn’t really us, or me. I knew copying another format would always sound like a cheap knockoff. I’ve had a number of people ask for advice on starting a podcast over the years, and I always say you have to entertain yourself first, or you won’t get past a few episodes.” Millman shared a similar opinion, especially when it comes to longevity, “You need to be in it for the long haul to develop an audience.” For those starting out, she suggests doing 10 episodes to develop momentum. How much farther you take it is entirely up to you?

Strength in Numbers

Because they’ve been around for so long, Millman and Beery have proven that they’re in it for the long haul, and a new crop of podcasts are hoping they’ll have staying power too. Experts in the design and tech fields, Lea Alcantara & Emily Lewis fell into podcasting, in a way. As an ExpressionEngine expert, Alcantara was asked to be on the EE Podcast—part of 5by5, a “fledgling podcast network” according to Alcantara. When one of the EE Podcast hosts left, Alcantara came on board and because she was familiar with Lewis’ work and expertise, she asked Lewis to join her. Their CTRL+CLICK CAST grew out of that early experience, and has evolved over time, according to Alcantara. “We wanted to talk about the greater web and not have it so focused on one product, so we rebranded to CTRL+CLICK CAST over time. When you CTRL or Control+Click on your browser, you get a dropdown modal with features to allow you to inspect how the site is built. Hence our slogan, We inspect the web for you.” (Full disclosure: I was a CTRL+CLICK CAST guest myself.) But their show isn’t always about just design. CTRL+CLICK CAST seeks out guests “who represent the full spectrum” of the design and technology industries, and according to Lewis, “We are also trying to tackle topics that go beyond tech, into how tech and culture intersect—diversity and access challenges, pay inequality, ethics.”

CTRL+CLICK CAST co-hosts, from left, Emily Lewis and Lea Alcantara.

What advice would they give to somebody starting out, doing a podcast for the first time? Lewis says you need to care about it “because 99% of the time, it won’t make you money or make you famous. So if you want a sustainable podcast, your passion is likely what is going to sustain it.” Lewis also insists that you need to know the logistics and tech—hardware and software—to save yourself time and money. (Check out their PODCASTING 101 episode for tips.) Alcantara sums it up, “Pay someone to edit your show and offer transcripts (for SEO and accessibility!)”

Like CTRL+CLICK CAST, the Clever podcast is hosted by a dynamic duo, Jaime Derringer and Amy Devers. “We started the podcast with a passionate drive to celebrate designers, and offer a window into the humanity behind the design, celebrating humanity and while expanding cultural awareness,” said Devers, but they won’t host any guest. “In some ways, they have to be creative, and have a good story.” And after one look at their guest list, it’s clear that all of their guests are creative and awesomeincluding Terry Crews, who knows a lot about art and design.

Clever podcast co-hosts, from left Amy Devers and Jaime Derringer, courtesy of Clever.

Unlike Millman and Beery, who both record face-to-face with their guests present, both CTRL+CLICK CAST and Clever are recorded remotely. “Skype gives us the chance to reach big names,” said Devers, “and Skype opens up the world, in terms of who we can talk to.” But those calls can pose technical problems. “If a guest doesn’t wear headphones during the interview and listens to the conference call via speakers, then the guest’s mic picks up our voices and relays it back to us and we get feedback on the recording. We have gotten super good at preparing our guests in advance so that they absolutely have to have headphones or earbuds on for the call. Also, there is this weird cousin called Skype for Business which doesn’t seem to work with regular Skype. This has caused confusion particularly with international corporate guests. We’ve learned to steer around that one now too.” Derringer, who has more experience with editing in Audio Hijack, listens to the audio, offers feedback, and with Devers, will approve the final cut. “Sometimes I catch things that Amy doesn’t and vice versa, so it’s nice to have a second set of ears listening.” Once they complete what they call their own “light editing” they outsource it to an engineer who creates the final audio master.

Making It Sustainable

Having a podcast co-host goes a long way, especially when you need feedback on tricky matters like audio quality and interview pacing, or deciding on a guest or a number of guests. Jason Alejandro, who co-hosts the Dissection podcast with Christopher Holewski, finds working with Holewski to be rewarding, especially since they push each other. “We collaborate closely on it, and that kind of collaboration requires a lot of listening, getting excited about nerdy design things, and bouncing ideas off of each other. So whether I am sending him links, replying to emails, recording an interview, or editing an episode, we try to share responsibility of the overall direction and production of the show. I think I have also helped recommend some designers/artists that he might not have normally considered just because we’re both influenced by very different things.”

From left, Christopher Holewski and Jason Alejandro, Dissection co-hosts, courtesy of Dissection.

Hearing the two talk about their show, guests, and format, it might sound like Siskel & Ebert, a.k.a. Siskel & Ebert & the Movies. The two film critics Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert discussed movies, and would disagree. If there’s one thing Alejandro and Holewski agree on, it’s that they disagree—frequently. Which is why Alejandro probably compares their show, and their relationship as podcasters, to the two grumpy men in the Muppets, a.k.a. Statler & Waldorf.

Employed by JK Design, their podcast is actually done on the side, but since it’s part of JK Design, it’s more of an extracurricular according to Alejandro. “We get to do it on company time, as part of our responsibilities. Our day-to-day is doing work for clients.” Although some podcasts like Dissection function under the roof of an existing business, plenty of others stand alone, and thanks to crowdfunding, you can now raise money to get your own podcast off the ground, or if you’ve already proven you have an audience, crowdfunding can help sustain it. Debbie Millman has partnered with Drip, and listeners and fans can support Design Matters through contributions. Out of the Fridge, a podcast about comic books and pop culture, has also found crowdfunding helpful. Out of the Fridge’s Alison Poppy, who manages a comic book store in Washington state and co-hosts the podcast, values all of their Patreon supporters. “They have been paying for our private studio and insurance. It’s been awesome that they have given us the opportunity for that!” But there’s another bonus, and it goes beyond having consistent revenue. Poppy said those contributions also give them direct interaction with their listeners. And that is extremely important since each and every one of us now experience so many varied touchpoints from so many varied brands.

That One Thing

Sometimes sustainability has a lot to do with always being curious and exploring, no matter what the subjects are. Poppy, as well as her Out of the Fridge co-hosts Kelly Okler and Andrew Chard, have a range of interests, and in turn, have created other avenues to share their thoughts about pop culture. “With Pages for All Ages, we wanted to create a resource for parents, teachers, and librarians to find new books for kids, but also a show that kids can listen to as well. With Twice Bitten, Kelly and I are huge fans of horror and we wanted to create a place where we can openly talk about everything in the horror genre.” No matter what show they’re working on, when it comes to what they do and why they do it, there’s one constant, says Polly, “We want them to be different and special, and just take our time to make something we enjoy.” Good advice for any podcaster—veteran or newbie, or someplace in between.

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