Behind the Scenes Blog

The Art of (Personal) Storytelling

booksI have been podcasting for four years and broadcasting for 20, but later this year we will release a new Taste Trekkers podcast that will be on a whole new level for me.
In my last blogpost, I talked about how I decided on the format for the forthcoming Taste Trekkers: Food Travels podcast. Essentially, the format will use a storytelling-with-interviews format similar to that of This American Life and Serial. This is a departure from the one-on-one interview style (a la Terry Gross or Charlie Rose) that I have been doing up to this point. In particular, both editing and writing are about to become a much more important part of the podcasting process.


I have competent audio editing skills, as well as a great new producer in James Clausen. But up until now, my podcast editing has focused primarily on removing “ums” and “ahhhs” and other mistakes. With this new podcast, I will be editing for storytelling effect for the first time. In some ways, this is new terrain for me. I am not a journalist or storyteller by trade. I have interviewed dozens of celebrities over the years, but that’s not the same skillset. And the my on-air radio broadcasting has taught me to fire off a snappy one-liner over the five-second intro to a Katy Perry song, not edit together a lengthy story.
Here’s a sample of me on the radio:

However, there are a few things in my background that will help me here. First, I have dabbled in screenwriting as a hobby over the years. I never took it seriously enough to pursue as a career, but I invested a good amount of time in reading books on the craft and trying my hand at a few scripts of my own. In fact, I am a huge fan of great screenwriting when I watch television (I am more of a TV afficionado than movies). Some people are fans of particular actors or directors. I am a fan of screenwriters. Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, and Steven Moffat are among my favorites. So I have been paying a lot of attention to writing for a long time, and I think that will help me with this new podcast.
Almost ten years ago, I also came up with the original concept for a documentary film about gerrymandering. Although I ultimately parted ways with the director before the film was made, I learned a lot in the process. Early on, I headed out to Texas to conduct a series of audio interviews with legislators and other experts. We cut these interviews together to create a trailer for the prospective film. In the course of doing that, I learned a lot about the rhythm of putting together audio.

Finally, I am doing a lot of research on Ira Glass’ production process for This American Life. A fellow podcaster in the Podcasters Google+ community turned me on to this article. I am following many of the steps here, including taking notes after each interview and having the interview transcribed. We will also be storyboarding each episode.


Which raises the question of what each story will be about. I am very conscious of the fact that the reason Serial is such a binge-worthy listening experience is because there is a continuous narrative that runs throughout all twelve of the episodes. You learn about the characters involved in the story, include the host, Sarah Koening.
Unfortunately, my new podcast will not have a continuous arc because I interview new people from a different place in each episode. I am the only person who will be in every episode. Which means if we are going to have somebody that the audience can identify with, I must carry that burden.
This is new for me. I have been in front of a microphone for twenty years, but relatively little of my personal story has come out in that time. Although I have always used my real name when broadcasting on terrestrial radio stations, I don’t actually talk about myself much. And you could listen to my first 100 podcast episodes without learning very much about me.
But I’ve decided that one of the keys to the success of this new venture will be to allow some of my own personal story come through. Frankly, that’s something I am not entirely comfortable with. While I do think I have an interesting personal story — fraught with unique obstacles and unusual adventures — I am very concerned about finding the appropriate balance between not enough Seth and too much Seth. I don’t want to be too shy or too self-centered.
I know that the key to finding the right balance will be soliciting feedback. I plan to use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to test early versions of podcast episodes to see if it’s resonating with audiences or turning them off.
I think the overall story will revolve around my journey as a new Taste Trekker. I am traveling the world to learn about food and I’m still new to it. Frankly, I’m not always that good at it. I’m making a lot of mistakes in my journeys, and I think my audience might be interested in hearing about those mistakes. So I think these will often form the backbone of the stories in different episodes.
Storyboarding parts of my own life will be new for me. It will require me to think of myself as a character. Just writing that, I feel a twinge go through me. The concept runs the risk of being inauthentic. But I think what it’s really about is sharing a part of me with the audience. Of couse, I can’t share all of me in these episodes, so we’ll have to pick and choose which parts of me to share. I’m curious to see which ones I decide on.


How We Decided on the Format for the New Taste Trekkers Podcast

MicrophoneI started this blog to discuss the making of the new Taste Trekkers podcast, tentatively titled Food Travels. I thought that there may be some people who are interested in the behind-the-scenes making of the podcast, either because they are fellow podcasters, foodies, or travelers.
A little about my background: I have 20 years of terrestrial radio experience, both on the mic and behind-the-scenes. I’ve worked at radio stations in New York City, Boston, Seattle, Silicon Valley, St. Louis, and Providence. I also produce a blog where I write about internet strategies for terrestrial radio stations.
I’ve also been podcasting for four years. My first foray into podcasting revolved around the Occupy Wall Street movement. I had been toying with the idea of launching a podcast for some time, and I was also interested in finding out what drew people to the movement. So I picked up a microphone and headed down to the Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco camps to interview people. I produced about a dozen episodes of the Occupy the Airwaves podcast which were downloaded over 80,000 times in more than 35 different countries.

Then, like the Occupy movement itself, my podcast petered out. (“Podfaded” is the official term.)
But I learned a lot in the course of making that podcast. Mostly, I learned that it took a lot of work! Going to the camps, conducting the interviews, editing the interviews, producing the podcast, etc. Each episode took several hours to produce, making it very difficult to turn out episodes at regular intervals.

Launching the Taste Trekkers Podcast

So when I set out to produce my second podcast, Taste Trekkers’ Find Dining, one of my goals was to develop a production process that wasn’t as labor-intensive. The obvious way to do this was to forego in-person interviews in favor of one-on-one interviews over the phone. I thought of it as abandoning the style of Ira Glass’ This American Life in favor of the style of Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. Adopting this style was also necessary because of the nature of Find Dining‘s subject matter; each episode focused on the cuisine of a different geographic region, and it simply wasn’t possible for me to travel to a new place each week.

Ann Reddick

Ann Reddick

The format did, indeed, make the production process more manageable. I began producing the podcast on a bi-weekly basis, but after a few months discovered that I could ramp it up to publish an episode every week. For the first 50 episodes or so, I interviewed food bloggers about their local food scenes. In early 2014, producer Ann Reddick came on board. She took over much of the booking, and we soon found ourselves with a wider variety of interesting guests, including a number of award-winning chefs.

Room to Grow

Still, this format had its limitations. First, the sound quality was well short of what I wanted it to be. While I eventually got my vocals to a quality that I considered acceptable (though still well short of my terrestrial radio standards) with a [easyazon_link asin=”B002VA464S” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”tasttrek-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone[/easyazon_link], the audio quality of my guests was considerably more limited. I interviewed most of the guests on a landline phone (I never allowed them to call on a cellular phone). Occasionally, a guest would call in using Skype and an external microphone (I never allowed them to use their computer’s built-in microphone). Skype was frequently a mixed blessing. When it worked well, it was terrific, but you never knew exactly what you would get. While landline phones are generally a lower quality of audio, at least I knew what I was going to get.
Phone and Skype interviews had another disadvantage: they did not allow me to banter with my guests as freely as I would have liked. I like to think that I have honed my penchant for snappy one-liners over the years, but without visual clues, it’s hard to know when to jump into a conversation with these. I found that every time I asked a new question, I was essentially cutting off my guests, and I had to edit around this in post-production to make it sound more conversational. Still, my interviews were never reaching the conversational level that I wanted (think Marc Maron’s WTF podcast), which I attributed largely to the over-the-phone nature of the podcast.

Taking it to the Next Level

So I knew that the way to take the podcast to the next level, both in terms of sound quality and conversational content, was to start conducting in-person interviews. But I did not see how I could possibly afford — both in terms of time and travel costs — to regularly produce these types of episodes.
Nonetheless, I vowed to myself that in 2015 I would take my podcast on the road, and I started building a mobile podcasting rig. The setup included a [easyazon_link asin=”B00KCXMBES” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”tasttrek-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder[/easyazon_link] and three [easyazon_link asin=”B007JX8O0Y” locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”tasttrek-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Audio-Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic USB/XLR Microphones[/easyazon_link] (I’ll post a more detailed description of the setup soon).
Most importantly, I booked a flight to Great Britain, where I would spend five weeks with a friend and record some interviews.
At first, I assumed that the podcast episodes I would produce with the new gear would have the same format as the ones I was recording over the phone: An in-depth conversation with a single guest, a la Marc Maron or Terry Gross. But a couple of factors caused my thinking to evolve:


Helen McDaid

Helen McDaid

The country of Ireland is well organized when it comes to food tourism. So when I emailed one of my previous podcast guests, Helen HcDaid of Failte Ireland (the country’s tourism department), she was able to quickly line me up with interviews with seven of their Food Champions. This was an embarrassment of riches! But I didn’t want to publish seven podcast episodes on Ireland, so I wasn’t sure what to do.

The Technical Producer

James Clausen

James Clausen

The second factor that changed my thinking on the format of the podcast was James Clausen. I met James though the Podcasters community on Google+. James is an audiophile and sound editor who was searching for a podcast to work on. He wasn’t quite ready to commit to creating to his own podcast, but he did want to be involved in podcasting. Sound quality has never been my strongsuit, and editing my interviews in post-production was my least favorite part of the podcasting process. It was a task I had been hoping to delegate for a while. So when James came along, it was like an answer to my prayers. Suddenly, I knew that I could return to a podcast format that featured multiple episodes without having to bear the burden of the full production process myself.


The final factor was the success of the podcast Serial. I am a big fan of the This American Life spinoff, and I view its success as a watershed moment for podcasts. It brought podcasting into the mainstream consciousness in a way that hadn’t happened before. It gave me the confidence that a podcast could now be seen as a serious project, and not just a hobby. Oh sure, there have been plenty of successful podcasters before, from Marc Maron to John Lee Dumas to the folks at But when I say Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live parody Serial, I knew podcasting had now penetrated the cultural zeitgeist on a whole new level.

The format of Serial wasn’t anything new — it’s the same style of storytelling that Ira Glass has been doing on This American Life for years — but Serial also made me realize that it was acceptable to release a podcast in seasons, like a television show. Previously, the conventional wisdom was that if you did not publish a new podcast episode on a regular basis — ideally every week — you would have trouble attracting a mass audience. But I knew from looking at my Find Dining stats that people were not tuning into to my food and travel podcast the moment each new episode was released. Due to the nature of the topic, my podcast had a long shelf-life. So maybe it wasn’t important for me to release a new episode each week.

Less is More

All of this led me to my ultimate conclusions for the format of the new episodes: we would produce fewer episodes that would take more effort and be of a higher quality, and we would release them as a season, similar to television.
Ultimately, I’ve decided that this change in format is enough to launch an entirely new podcast, separate from Find Dining. I am tentatively calling this Taste Trekkers: Food Travels. I have already conducted a number of interviews for it, and I hope to release the first episode in the summer of 2015. In the meantime, you can read about the podcasting production process in this blog.