I 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.
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 Blue Microphones Yeti USB Microphone, 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 Zoom H5 Four-Track Portable Recorder and three Audio-Technica AT2005USB Cardioid Dynamic USB/XLR Microphones (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:
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 ProducerThe 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 Slate.com. 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.