How Long Does it Take to Create a Heavily Produced Show like the Serial Podcast?
In the past month I've been producing a series of Podcasts for one of my regular University partners – Edinburgh Napier University. The series is aimed at university lecturers and, while the subject is heavily educational, that's no excuse for it to be boring.
So I was tasked with producing the episodes in a really polished, professional way, and making sure the content came across as engaging as possible.
As I was doing the work, I realised that the topic of heavily edited and produced audio is pretty hot right now in Podcasting, thanks to the success of Serial, and others like Startup from Gimlet Media. Both shows are made by pro audio producers and are amazing to listen to.
Of course, it's not just the production that makes them – it's the storytelling that's key – but it just wouldn't have the same effect without the polish. The storytelling is relevant here too, though, because I wanted to tell a story throughout this show, and weave in pieces of interview throughout. So, I spent time on both – production polish and narrative.
In the interests of giving a vague answer to the question, “How long does it take them to produce the Serial Podcast or Startup?”, I thought I'd relate the story of one of these episodes.
I logged the time spent on my university series pretty carefully, so I know exactly what went in to every one. Hopefully this'll give you an idea of the process, the time and the effort required, and whether it's something that might be worthwhile for you.
What's the Context?
Alright, quick outline of what I was doing. This isn't strictly necessary to the tale, but provides a bit of colour.
Edinburgh Napier run a Masters course called Blended and Online Education, which is designed to teach university lecturers how to create better online courses for their students. I used to teach on the course back in my educating days, and that's what led to me creating the podcasts in the first place, probably around half a decade ago.
To be honest, it was as bit embarrassing listening back to them for the first time in over 5 years! My presenting style sucked, the audio quality was poor, and the production value was near non-existent. Never mind, I thought, let's put everything I've learned in the past 5 years to work and make these shine.
What was the Task?
The series is 12 episodes long, and each episode covers a topic in the area of Technology Enhanced Learning. That just means anything to do with teaching online, in simple terms. For example using Wikis and Blogs to let students submit assignments, how to teach as part of a team online, using discussion forums as assessments and a whole lot more.
My task was to refresh 4 of the episodes that were pretty dated, and create new ones to replace 2 episodes which were so dated they were beyond saving. I'm going to talk about one of the brand new shows here as I think that's the most relevant – there aren't many people out there going around ‘refreshing' old Podcast episodes after all!
Disclaimer: I have no doubt that Gimlet Media and Sarah Koenig spent far more time producing the Startup Podcast and Serial respectively. Gimlet also have a full team to do much of the research, interviewing, production, etc. But, I think this gives a good approximation for those of us not running a full-on production company like Gimlet.
So, let's look at a show in detail – how did it all go down?
The Podcast Production Process
The first brand new episode was all about MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses to you and me). This is a subject I know pretty well, but it still took a bit of research to get some nice stats and make sure I was right up to date. During this time I wrote an intro script – around 1 minute's worth – introducing the topic and talking about what we'd cover. This all took just under an hour.
Total Time: 1h 00m
For this episode I wanted to interview just one person who was a leader in the field. I found her through a few references, contacted her, and made a date for recording. All this took probably about 20 minutes in total.
Total Time: 1h 20m
The interview itself was pretty straightforward. I spent a short while beforehand writing up some questions, just to be prepared. I tend just to have 5 or 6 bullet point questions on hand in advance, but don't feel like I have to stick to them too strictly. When the time arose, I Skyped through to the interviewee, clicked on my recorder (recording through my mixer into my trusty H4n) and then went through the questions I had prepared.
The interview lasted nearly 30 minutes (longer than I'd planned, but Amy was delivering some great insights). All in, including managing the resulting audio file, this took about 50 minutes.
Total Time: 2h 10m
I've discovered when trying to edit a decent length audio interview and turn it into a good narrative, a transcription is vital. There no other good way to be able to skim around with the content and highlight the parts of important, reorder them, write in your own comments and generally create a plan for editing.
I have tried doing this just by listening to the audio and taking notes, but it's so hard to keep it all in your head – I just need the text in front of me to draw connections between different parts of the content. The key thing here is that it's pretty likely that your eventual show wont have all the parts in the same order as the original recording – your interviewee will loop back to previous points, jump forward to future questions and generally mess up all your well laid plans. You'll need that transcription to be able to tie everything together and make sure you're picking the best quotes for all of the topics you want to cover.
I went through the transcription 1st time and highlighted all of the sections which I thought were good. I also tagged them with themes for the episode itself. Now I was ready for the first bit of editing.
This took about 1hr 10m for the whole thing – that's for an interview just under 30 minutes long. And that's not counting creating the transcription itself, which my assistant did for me. Technically that was another 3 hours or so, but you'll want to outsource that – no-one wants to do transcribing… This would cost about $30 with most transcription services.
Total Time: 3h 20m
I'm not going to go into detail on the editing process itself, although I might cover that in a future post if it's of interest. Fire a comment in at the bottom if you want to see details on how I edited this using the transcription. Thinking about it, I do have a few tricks I've learned on how to make sure you have all the pieces in the right format, and are able to apply the necessary FX to produce that polish we're looking for. So, if you want it, let me know.
Anyway, the first step, for me is cutting. This means getting all of the sections I want to keep into one place in Audacity, so that all I have to do now is record my own narration, and piece it all together in the right order. So, I go through the interview audio, I split the track at the relevant parts and organise it all in the way I always do. This took about 30 minutes in total.
Total Time: 3h 50m
Next step for me is narration, and this starts with scripting. I went through the transcription again and reordered the sections into themes, according to the tags I'd made earlier. This was a starting order, and I started working through it, writing short links between each section.
I try to sum up the last section and link it to the next, also tying in previous points if possible. To me, that's how you tell the story with an interview – you make sure you're building up something the whole time. Take what the interviewee has just said, add it's key point to the narrative which has been told so far, and then hint at what's coming next to build a bit of anticipation. It's tricky, but it's worth it. And it makes for a far more compelling listen than an interview alone, which is often just a jumbled mess of ideas, even if they are great ideas at that.
So, reordering and script writing took another 1h and 20m.
Total Time: 5h 10m
Ok, now it's putting it all to work. I recorded my sections right into Audacity, which didn't take too long. My own narration amounted to less than 5 minutes in total. I didn't want to be stealing the show, after all!
I put the sections in the right order and I placed my own sections in between. Again, let me know if you want details on the mechanics of all this – I'll do another post if so.
At the end of this I had one long timeline with just two voices – my own narration and Amy the interviewee's track. Technically it's enough – the content is there and it could be released. But hey, where's the polish? Time for some tunes.
Oh, and that took about 1hr 30m
Total Time: 6h 40m
Now for the icing on the cake – musak. We have a theme tune for the show, and I have a bank of beds (background music) thanks to the most excellent Mike Russell at Music Radio Creative. These, along with some creative editing produce the polish. The mechanics of that will be for another post, but the main examples were adding some nice music transitions to highlight change in themes and using background vocals to keep the pace going when I just wanted to add some quick comments.
This final process took about 1h45m.
Total Time: 8h 25m
Have a Listen to the Final Product
I know the subject wont appeal to many, but you're welcome to listen to the results of my 8+ hours of labour, just to see what comes of it. By all means, let me know what you think, but be kind 🙂
Summing up the Project
And I was done! The sound production step took me to the end of the episode and all that was left to do was upload it to the final delivery space.
Now then, 8 hours and 25 minutes for a 15 minute episode – how is that going to pay itself back, you ask? Well, the Podcast is a pretty integral part of the Edinburgh Napier course, so in this context, it's well worth it. And it'll be listened to for a few years, at least, before it needs a refresh.
But, in the context of a business Podcast, that's a fair bit of investment. All I can say is that the results are a whole lot more compelling than a standard interview, in my opinion. But it has to be used in the right context. For example, these have to be evergreen. They have to be episodes which are referred back to, again and again, or used for a particular purpose, such as a course, or a promotion. If that's the case, then it could be well worth it. Look at the success of Serial and Startup, after all. I truly believe that it's the extra production values, allied with excellent storytelling that sets them apart, and it's hard to do either in a short amount of time
Tell Me About Your Production Process
I mentioned a few times above that I'm happy to share the details of the production process if you're interested. Drop a comment below to that effect if so.
But a question for you too – does that resemble your process at all? If not, how not? And do you have an idea of how much time you're spending to produce a given amount of audio? I'd love to know.
Remember to check out my Podcast, PodCraft, if you're interested in more material on how to improve your own Podcasting. I'd love your feedback on that too, so drop me a tweet on either this post or PodCraft at @thepodcasthost. Cheers!