Podcast Inspiration

As you'd expect I listen to a lot of podcasts. Much of the time I listen for personal enjoyment, but there are many that I subscribe to for inspiration in my own work. Whether it's down to great story structure, compelling characters, interview techniques, angles on stories, use of music or sound design. I take a lot of notes on these so that I can try to use the same techniques when the opportunity arises.

I'm learning as I go and experimenting here and there. At the moment my key aim to be able to edit a great story to give it impact. My focus is on the structure that will achieve that; the elements of sound design I might use are secondary to structuring the story.

The first podcast episode I listened to was "The Problem We All Live With" from This American Life. As a teacher this story absolutely grabbed me. I was so angry. The story moved me in a way a written piece couldn't. It was more intimate than a video. I hadn't realised this world existed before. I listened to documentary work on Radio 4, but I'd never heard something as powerful as this. I realised that this was the sort of material I wanted to produce as a journalist. I'd always had an interest in longform, but it had never occurred to me that the emotional connection I wanted to produce in written work could be so much more powerful in audio, given the right story. From This American Life I started listening to Serial, Love and Radio, Reveal and Radiolab. I discovered that actually there were some things a bit like this coming out in the UK too, my favourite being Seriously.

I knew that I'd hit on something that I wanted to be a part of, but I wasn't sure where to start. I'd lost sight of my goals in journalism over the previous years, in favour of paying my rent, but I knew in the long term I was looking for a way to balance a steady income with the chance to write and tell stories.

I started by buying a cheap USB microphone from Maplin. I used it to record some chapters from Caitlin Moran's How to be a Woman for my Grandmother. It taught me a lot of the basics very quickly. I learned how to edit in Audacity and overlay some music. I learned about mic technique, levels, sound proofing and intonation for narration. I started to reproduce some of my written work as audio for her as well. This was eye opening. It helped me to understand how different writing for the ear is when pieces that I was proud of as written work sounded forced and uninteresting as audio. I burned these files to CD to post to her for feedback.

I started to think about podcasting more seriously after I bought Jessica Abel's book Out On the Wire. It's an easy read and gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to create the kind of storytelling I wanted. She spent time with several successful narrative producers in the US and examined their techniques, presenting their advice in easy to follow graphic stories. I felt that with the knowledge I'd already picked up, knowing that I could create good written content, that my journalistic training had taught me how to find and frame a story, I had the makings of something that could fill the creative gap that had opened in my life.

I started to record interviews with other people. Starting with people I knew, then branching out to other stories I knew about. I had no idea what I was going to do with this content initially, but as time went by some of the ideas were forming a more complete picture. I'm a rock climber, I know a lot of other rock climbers and mountaineers and I already had 3 great interviews. I guess I had to make a rock climbing podcast. I pitched the idea to UKClimbing, it felt speculative, but I had other ideas for where it could go. I didn't really want to invest more time in it without knowing it had legs. UKClimbing were interested so I created a pilot episode - what went on to become Becoming the Master. I was a little terrified at this point, and I hit the wall a few times with structuring and telling the story, worried that I couldn't actually produce the idea I had in mind. My real concern was that I'd take good interviews and spend loads of time editing them only to add no value. When I sat in my living room and hit play on the pilot episode I had a rush of relief. It came out exactly as I'd wanted it. Looking back it's probably not the same as I'd produce now, but I was proud to have managed to put it together. I got such great feedback when it went out, it gave me a lot of confidence going forward that I was onto something.

The big message here really is: Go for it. You can go out and record great stuff, spend ages thinking about what it will become, realise that there are a million ways of presenting the same ideas and get lost in the whole process if you aren't careful. Once you take the plunge and actually create something at least you'll have a piece to work with. It might not be perfect, but it's easy to procrastinate for fear of being unable to produce the piece you really wanted.

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