Production Values for Audio Podcasts, Part 2

In Part 1, I looked at some common production methods that professional podcasters use to keep their projects interesting and engaging. Specifically, I discussed setting the scene first, hooking the audience, varying character voices, and talking like real people. In this article, I will continue with more production tricks that can substantially increase the quality of your narrative podcasts.

Use music to reset scenes

It’s not revolutionary to suggest that learners tend to have short attention spans, and the case is no different when it comes to narrative podcasts. Every so often you need to reset your learners’ brains in order to keep their attention level high.

One excellent way to accomplish this is through the use of musical breaks. Music breaks can function as a type of auditory palate cleanser, allowing the brain a few moments to stop focusing on information that is being presented and prepare the learner to be ready for the next section of content. This can be especially helpful in instances where you need to change scenes in your story. Rather create a reason for your story to move to a new scene, you can end a scene with a music interlude and pick your story back up in a new location. The music break signals your listener that they have a moment to relax before you return back to another important part of your story.

So how long should a music break last, and how often should you use them? There is really no concrete answer to these questions, and it definitely depends on your particular story, but as a general rule, music breaks should last longer than you think they should. I try to make mine go anywhere from 30 to 45 seconds. This seems like a long time, but there is a method behind the madness. You want to give your listeners ample time to process what they have heard, reset their attention spans, and ready themselves for a scene or story change that may be coming. As for how often to include music breaks, it really depends on making sure they fit naturally with the flow of your narrative. I try to aim for a music break every seven to eight minutes, but you shouldn’t force breaks just to do it. Make sure your breaks are coming at points where your story is about to shift directions or after periods of lengthy content delivery.

Host/producer structure

The host/producer story structure is extremely common in professional podcasting and one of my personal favorite tools. Essentially, this structure utilizes host and producer characters that set scenes and move the narrative forward. The host acts as a narrator, setting up scenes and introducing concepts. Usually the host only interacts with the audience and the producer, rarely the story characters, and tends to have their audio entirely recorded in a sterile studio environment. The producer is the character who is reporting the story from out in the field. They are the one interviewing characters and interacting in scenes. The purpose of the producer is to move the story forward, to drive the narrative where you need it to go. Often the producer is recorded “on scene” with the appropriate background ambience. After all, they are a part of the story, so you want it to sound like they’re where the action takes place.

Get out of the studio

Much in the way that you want to vary character voices so that your audio doesn’t get stagnant, you want to do the same with your background sounds. You don’t want your podcast to sound too clean, or it won’t feel authentic. If a scene takes place outside of the studio, record the scene outside of the studio. Use ambient noises and sounds to build layers around what is going on. If a conversation is supposed to be happening outside, the scene will have more realism and weight if it actually sounds like the conversation is happening outside. If you have access to a field recorder, this is the time to use it! If you don’t, remember that just about everyone has a field recorder sitting in their pockets in the form of a smartphone. The nice thing is that you want the audio to sound like the location you are in, so it’s OK if the sound quality is a little lower than the microphones in your studio. This auditory difference helps to underscore the idea that your scene is taking place on location.

(Editor’s note: See Matt Sparks’s article, “Metafocus: How to Make a Mobile 360 Video Studio” for some good tips on field work, including audio tools.)

Another good trick with regard to recording on location is to record phone conversations through actual phones. Have one actor call another on speaker and then mic their phones. If the scene is one where someone is talking to another character on the phone, then it’s helpful if the conversation actually has the sound of one that takes place over a phone line.

Don’t fear insignificant details

Not all your information has to be content. In fact, that would actually turn out to be pretty boring. Use seemingly insignificant details to build up your scenes, give context to your story, break up monotony, develop characters or change scenes. If a listener remembers a little detail or a short interaction that doesn’t tie directly to your content, they are more likely to also remember the context of what happened around those details. Recalling something that seems insignificant may actually trigger the listener to remember the important stuff, too.

Using some or all of these production values can really help you make your podcast stand out, as well as make it memorable and engaging for your listeners. Ultimately, these techniques can lead to a greater level of content retention, which is always the end goal.

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