It’s safe to say that podcasts are having a “moment.” Maybe even too much of a moment. It seems like there’s a pod for anything you can think of — and that just about everyone you know has their own show. But, as easy as it might seem to plug in a mic and start talking, there’s a lot more that goes into having an entertaining and purposeful show than simply wanting to gab.
Someone who knows this very well is Jordan Bell, Special Projects Producer at podcasting company Stitcher. In her role, Jordan is part of a team that finds (good) ideas and develops them into new shows, some of which she ends up producing. We asked Jordan about how she got into the audio storytelling biz, what makes for a strong podcast idea, and what you need to know if you’re ready to host your own show. —MML
How did you get into this line of work?
After college, I was working as a sandwich maker while interning in the newsroom of a local public radio station in California. They eventually hired me. Smaller public radio stations tend to lack resources, so I got a lot of experience as a reporter and producer. I even engineered and hosted live radio shows. Sometimes I’d think to myself, “Don’t they know I’m like 24? This is crazy!” Meanwhile, there were all these things happening bringing so much attention to podcasting, like season one of Serial and the creation of Gimlet Media. I used to fantasize about moving to New York to get in the podcast game, but felt it was unrealistic.
I left my public radio job in the spring of 2016 and started applying to podcast jobs in other cities. During this lull, I paid a quick visit NYC with my family and connected with my cousin, Tommy. He was like, “You quit your job? My roommate is moving out this summer. You should come live with me!” So, without having secured a job, I did. I moved to New York on a Thursday and woke up Friday morning to an email saying I got the internship I’d been interviewing for. I took a screenshot of the message and I cried.
What does it mean to be a podcast producer?
Producer is somewhat of a catch-all term that’s refined by what kind of show you’re working on. For example, if you produce an interview show, you’d likely do a lot of booking guests, you’d research into the interviewees’ background, you’d help create questions to drive the interview. For a more narrative show, there’s a lot more long-term planning and research involved, a lot of going out and interviewing folks (field taping), script writing, and redrafting. Also, most producers do at least the initial stages of editing episodes with ProTools or another type of audio software.
What technical skills are required?
You’ve got to know the at least basics as a producer, like how to record studio interviews or in the field, and you’ve got to be able to put together an episode. Podcasting companies tend to have engineers that do a variety of things, from mixing podcast episodes (making it sound real pretty) to troubleshooting when there are technical issues, and much, much more. I like to think you’re in a good place if you know the things not in your skill set but know how to communicate those things to the proper people.
The podcast space seems saturated nowadays. That said: How do you know which pods are good to pursue? How do you know when a pod is not a strong idea?
It totally is! Figuring out what to pursue is a big part of my role right now. A big part of this is knowing what’s out there and what’s popular and thinking about why it’s working. As a production house or individual producer, you then have to decide why you want to make something. For my team, there’s both mission-based reasons and very practical reasons for making something. We like to ask ourselves: Is there an audience for this? Is this financially viable? Can this support our existing shows? Why do we care about this show?
On the other side of that, something is not a good idea (or might just not be a good fit for my team) usually if it feels like its moment has passed, or if someone just isn’t really invested in making something. I think people need to be like borderline obsessed with an idea to really make it magical.
What do you wish you saw (or heard) more of?
I would love to see someone successfully make a reality podcast, which is a podcast that takes the concept of reality TV and brings it into podcast form — like a reality dating show where you tape all the dates and have contestants record audio diaries. And I’d like to see more fiction podcasts that aren’t rooted in sci-fi themes.
Can anyone pitch a podcast idea? How does pitching work? (Is there an example of a pitch document or something, or do people present actual episodes?)
Yes! Although there is definitely a barrier to entry to pitch at some places, podcasts can be made relatively inexpensively, which opens the door for a lot more people. If you’ve got a great idea that can be successful and make money (or make money down the road as a TV show), then I think you can get your idea in front of people.
In my experience, people usually send in their pitches in a document outlining the show premise and sometimes episodes. They’ll often attach a short bit of audio as well. Sometimes people come in and pitch in person (usually for fiction ideas). For us, the pitch process usually involves a lot of questions on both ends. Because this industry is so new, there’s lots to figure out.
What are the stages of podcast development — how does an idea go from pitch to actual show?
The pitch process to signing a contract feels like it takes much longer than actual show production. It takes the parties involved agreeing on what they’re actually making, how it’ll be funded, and where the money goes when it starts coming in.
When a project is greenlit (and of course, it’s different for each show), I’ll do lots of scheduling for tapings and for when things need to be delivered. (I like to work backwards from the launch date to set deadlines for myself). Beyond generally scheduling though, the process of actually making the show is the most fun time for me. There’s lots of story shaping, determining what’s working, how to make things better, etc. When you’re in edit meetings, or table reads bouncing ideas off each other and really making something “work,” it really makes you feel like, Yeah, this is what I signed up for!
Do you recommend anyone who wants to start a pod to just do it?
Yes, because it’s awesome! But, it’s really important to know what your motivations and goals are. Podcasts have such a low barrier to entry, which is great for makers, but this low barrier has created such a saturated market that it’s not easy to monetize a podcast without the marketing dollars and support of a larger company.
How would you advise someone who wants to DIY “launch a podcast” just on their own? What kinds of software, mics, etc. should they look into?
There are digital mics out there that people like because you can plug them right into your laptop and start recording. They’re a good price too! Some are as cheap as $20. I personally wouldn’t recommend them because I don’t like the way they capture sound. It sounds like a digital mic to me. But, if you’re into the simplicity of that, I’d say go for it.
I have a personal setup that I bought as a reporter to use in the field. It’s a Zoom H4n (around $250) recorder and a Sennheiser “reporter mic” (around $200). I like the Zoom because it’s simple and reliable and you can plug a couple of mics into that.
In terms of software, I think that Hindenburg is really easy to use, and they provide free online tutorials. They also give a free 30-day trial and student pricing and you can “rent it” cheaply as well. If you’re really serious and want to be a podcast producer, (it’s not 100% necessary, but) I highly recommend that you learn ProTools. It’s less than $30/month and you need an iLok (about $40 on Amazon).
How does a podcast make money? Can someone’s full-time job be a podcast host?
Ads, baby! Also, live shows, merch — but mostly ads. (Advertisers love podcasts because podcaster listeners really are the loyal, engaged audiences that appeal to brands.) Right now, you’re seeing some podcasts being picked up and turned into TV series and lots of new makers are hoping for that sort of luck to make money down the road.
In terms of being a podcast host full-time, it certainly can work, but it’s very rare (that whole saturated market thing). I think Gen-Zers interested in podcasting should really go for it, and start staking out their space in the podcast market. With enough time I think a Gen-Zer could end up as a successful podcast host. The space is full of millennials, who will eventually stop podcasting, so we need younger people to make new, cool shows.
Can you tell us about the projects you’re currently working on at Stitcher?
Right now, I’m making a show called Science Rules! with Bill Nye. It’s a call-in show centered around a big question — like, how do we prevent an antibiotic apocalypse? — where people call in and ask Bill their science questions! It’s really fun — I think of the structure like Car Talk meets science. I’m also working on a show called Mob Queens, which will release later this summer. It’s about the women and queer culture within the undercurrents of the New York Italian mob in the 1950s-’70s.
What are your favorite podcasts?
Hmm, the ultimate question! The first ones that come to mind that I love and some that I’ve enjoyed this year: Julie, Heavyweight, Believed, Everything Is Alive, Beautiful Anonymous, In the Dark, S-Town, and Slow Burn.