Retro microphone in front of brightly coloured audio waveform graphic
Podcasting Tips

3 Surefire Ways To Improve Your Podcast

On my personal Facebook page, I’ve got a photo album called “Looking Awkward Standing Next To Rock Stars” (I’ll link to it later if you fancy a nose). Not because I’m a stalker, but because before making animations for a living, I made a much easier living, working in radio. For 20 years, in fact, starting off as a Broadcast Assistant (coffee monitor) at BBC Radio Sheffield and ending up in London as the mid-morning presenter on the national rock station Planet Rock – hence the pics of me (looking awkward) next to Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Dave Grohl etc.

That headache you’ve just noticed? Caused by heavy namedropping.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people and learned a lot about how to get the most out of guests as well as tackling the technical side of things. Over the past couple of years, podcasts have become big (again) and as they often involve interviews, I thought it would be helpful to share some of this knowledge. Without further faff, here are my 3 surefire ways to improve your podcast.

1. Shut Up

If you’re interviewing someone on your podcast, when they speak, try not to make a sound. Not a “mmmn”, “yeah”, “ha” – nothing. This is way harder than you may think but it will transform the quality of your podcasts.

Real-life conversations are full of these short, often involuntary, utterances which show you’re listening and engaged. But you don’t want them all over your podcast for two important reasons:

  • They can be really distracting. I had to stop listening to one of Fearne Cotton’s otherwise enjoyable podcasts because of the continuous “yeahs” etc. when she was interviewing Dawn French. And once you’ve heard one, your brain zones in on them and that’s all you’ll hear.
  • (This is the important one) Those gaps between your guest’s words are where you’ll make your edits. And if they’re full of your vocal farts, it’ll be a pain to chop up.

It’s surprisingly tricky to do because you’re desperately trying to build a rapport in a short space of time. Not being able to chuck in those quick noises makes you feel rude. The solution is to become a very enthusiastic mime artist; open your mouth wide to show shock; raise your eyebrows for surprise; nod like mad for agreement. LOOK as if you’re hanging on their every word. Just don’t sound like it.

2. Shisho

Shisho is the ancient Japanese practice of…

Actually, I made it up. It stands for:

Shit In: Shit Out

Basically, what gets recorded is pretty much what your audience will hear. There’s an old gag in filmmaking: when something doesn’t look right during a shoot, you can always just “fix it in post” i.e. don’t worry about it now, whoever’s doing post-production (DBM Motion Graphics, for-unsubtle-instance) can sort it out later. And while there are improvements that can be made to audio recordings in the edit, you can only do so much after it’s in the can. So:

  • Get some decent microphones. RØDE make good quality, affordable mics. I’ve been using a pair of their M3 mics since 2012 and, despite plenty of abuse, they’re still great.
  • Use pop shields to stop plosives (words beginning with B and P) sounding unnaturally loud. Skint? Stretch a pair of tights over a coathanger – one perfectly usable homemade pop shield.
  • Wear headphones so you can hear what’s being recorded.
  • A quiet recording is easier to rectify than one that’s been recorded too loudly. Once it’s distorted, you ain’t gonna fix it.
  • Check a few sections of the recording before any guests leave in case they’ve not been recorded.

You don’t need expensive kit to get decent recordings, but a little research into mic technique and recording levels will go a long way. For editing, try Audacity. It’s free and can do everything you’ll need it to.

3. In-Person Always Wins

You will always get a better interview if you’re in the same room as the person you’re talking to. Yes, SKYPE and other such tools can get you chatting with people on the other side of the world but if you want to get the very best out of someone: meet them in person. That physical closeness really does make a massive difference to how naturally you’ll interact. Not being in the same room also means your voices will sound different due to the variations in acoustics, equipment etc. and that actually heightens the feeling of separation and can sound distracting.

Remember too, the interview starts before you begin recording. From the second you say hello, you should be “working” them: making them feel relaxed if they appear nervous; listening out for snippets of information which could be explored in the interview. Just because you haven’t hit record, doesn’t mean this isn’t a really important part of the process.

The only time I found being in the same room as the interviewee was no great help was when I interviewed the actor Jack Black who, from start to finish of a 30 minutes recording, didn’t open his eyes once. Prick.

KLAAANG! And that’s the final namedrop.

Rob Birnie and Jack Black
Jack Black with his eyes open, now I’m not talking to him. Strange.

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2 Comment

  1. Great post, Rob. Love your sense of humour! Good tips for the podcasters out there, how hard it must be not to make those ‘I’m listening’ sounds. Pretty cool name dropping and I look forward to hearing more of your stories.

    1. Hi Imogen 👋 Thanks very much for reading and taking the time to comment. Yes, it’s really hard being completely quiet when someone else is talking – makes you feel like you’re being rude – but you’ll thank yourself when it comes to editing the podcast!

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