What makes a good podcast?

by Gil Hova

Ever since the year began, I’ve been listening to podcasts a lot. I’m finding them a great way to stay connected to the board game community and its various goings-on.

I’ve sampled a few podcasts – not as many as I’d like, but they do take some time to listen to – and I’ve come up with some thoughts on what makes one podcast better than another.

Ultimately, this is a blog about board gaming, so I will proceed assuming that we’re talking about board gaming podcasts. But this advice will work for any kind of podcast, especially podcasts focused on a particular hobby.

And if you’re any kind of podcaster, I have an offer for you partway through this post. More shameless self-promotion, really. You’ll know it when you see it.

1. Get to the point.

My first indicator of whether or not I will like a podcast is whether the podcast immediately gets to the point. Most podcasts spend their first minute or so thanking sponsors, talking about their Patreon, and doing other sorts of housekeeping. That’s no problem; it’s what you need to do to keep the lights on.

But I’m here to listen about board games. I don’t want to hear the hosts taking valuable minutes talking about TV shows they like, beer they drank, movies they saw, and so on. I don’t even want to hear about video games, unless the video games somehow tie into the board games they are talking about.

So: if you have a podcast, start strong. Spend the first minute or so paying your bills as you need to, and then get right into the show. Don’t include the bits about what you did this weekend. Don’t include the bits about your family, unless it’s something we need to know in order for the rest of the show. If you have a guest, start right off with your guest. If you have a featured review, start right off with that.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start your podcast recording talking about this stuff. Indeed, talking about unrelated stuff helps a lot of podcasters warm up. So start your recording talking about it… and then edit it all out later. I’ll talk more about editing in a moment, but this is an immediate benefit of editing; you won’t alienate a new listener in the first five minutes of your show by talking about everything but games.

2. Sound presentable

This doesn’t mean sound “good”, because it takes lots of time, effort, and money to put together a recording setup that sounds good. Most podcast listeners are quite forgiving. But there’s still plenty you can do to sound presentable.

First: reduce background noise and minimize extraneous noises. If there’s an air conditioner in the background, turn it off. You might sweat, but sweating is silent. If your chair squeaks, oil it. We can hear it. Don’t fiddle with your microphone or anything on your desk while you’re recording. We can hear it. If you have to drink anything fizzy while you record, keep your glass far away from the microphone. We can hear that too.

Second: record on separate tracks. If you’re recording remotely, this is easiest; have everyone record into the recording program of their choice (like Audacity, which is free), and then share all the files in a Dropbox or Google Drive folder for one person to edit together. A nice trick that I learned from Jason Hancock of The Docking Bay 94 Podcast is to say “1, 2, 3, GO” and have everyone clap their hands on the word “GO”. It will give the editor an easy way to sync all the tracks.

The great thing about this is you can mute tracks for people who aren’t speaking. This is great for loud breathers or people who fiddle with stuff when they’re not talking. It’s also good if you know how to apply noise reduction (and if you don’t know how to apply noise reduction, for crying out loud, don’t, at least, not on anything you care about), as you can easily capture noise prints of all the various background tracks.

(A side note about noise reduction to people who are new to recording: any sound engineer will tell you that the easiest way to remove noise from a recording is to never record it in the first place. Focus more on your recording setup, and less on looking for a magic plugin that will let you keep the air conditioner on while you record!)

If you are recording remotely on separate tracks, be sure to record your session in Skype or a similar program as a backup, just in case someone forgot to arm a track or hit record.

Third: Mix. All your voices should be at a consistent volume level. Your listeners should never have to ride their volume knobs so they can make one host quieter and another host louder. Volumes should never change between voices, nor should an individual voice get significantly louder and quieter during a show. Assume your listeners are trying to listen to the show in a loud, crowded subway car, or in an automobile with a lousy stereo system.

Dynamic compression helps here, a lot, especially when combined with noise reduction. But again: if you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t do it.

Fourth: if something’s going to sound bad, it’s better if it is consistently bad. One editor I worked with loved to say, “People notice change, not consistency.”

For example, you’ll note that I haven’t suggested getting a good microphone. Good microphones are nice, but they’re also expensive. Instead, use the best microphone you can afford. Even a $50 USB microphone might do the trick; it won’t sound incredible, but it’ll sound better than a headset microphone or the built-in microphone in your computer. The mediocre sound of the microphone isn’t amazing, but it’s consistent, and your listeners will get used to it. That’s better than an expensive microphone picking up your squeaky chair, your thumpy desk, and your fizzy drink.

Fifth: never record into a lossy format like MP3. To you visual people, that’s like editing a JPEG. Every time you save the file, you’re surrendering quality. You can use a lossless format like FLAC or ALAC, but those are tough to edit in; the extra computation takes a lot of CPU overhead.

Instead, record in an uncompressed PCM format. WAV is the easiest and most supported, but AIFF works too and is widely supported. That will let you edit and save to your heart’s content, and you won’t have to lose a single bit. Only when you’re done with the whole thing do you save to MP3.

One thing to watch out for here is that WAVs take up a lot of space. Buy an external drive, and back up your stuff. I use Amazon’s Glacier service to back up my WAVs. Restoring what I backed up takes a while, but the service is much cheaper than S3. Glacier is tricky because it’s meant for developers, but you might be able to find an archival solution like Jungle Disk that works for you.

3. Be mindful of who the audience should be focusing on

I was a guest on an episode of Ludology (which is one of my favorite podcasts – more on that below). I thought things were going really well during the recording, but then I heard the final result. I kept saying “mm-hm” as other people were talking. It’s not so bad in a conversation, but it’s awful to listen to in a podcast! Geoff and Ryan would talk for a minute or two, and they’d be saying their typically-clever stuff, and here I am walking all over it with my mm-hms! It was really distracting, and as a listener, I would’ve wanted to strangle the guest.

Learn from my mistake. When someone is talking, that person has the floor. Don’t say a word – not a peep – as they are talking. Only when they’re clearly done should you chime in. Occasionally stepping on their last few words is okay if you don’t make a habit of it (which I admit I do – another thing I have to work on).

If your podcast is two people talking, each person should have the floor, and not have to deal with interruptions from the other host. If you must, do the cheesy corporate thing and put a totem between you. Only the person with the totem can speak; they can hand the totem to the other person when they’re done talking. That’s a good way to silently indicate when your host can take over. If you’re working remotely, use a Skype chat window when you’re not talking to indicate that you have something you’d like to add; the person currently talking can incorporate you in the discussion. it takes some practice, but it’s worth it.

If you have two hosts and a guest, be very careful about whose turn it is to ask a question. I’ve heard podcasts where Host #1 is in the middle of a question when Host #2 butts in with his own unrelated question. That sounds extremely distracting. Instead, alternate questions. Host #1 gets to ask the first question, Host #2 has the second question, back to Host #1 for the third, and so on. Skype and totems work well here too.

4. Listen to your podcast critically

This part is really difficult, but it’s absolutely necessary to having a good-sounding podcast. Listen to your show after you’ve posted it. Lots of people like a “cold light of day” test, where they listen to what they did the morning after they recorded and edited it. Approaching a podcast with fresh ears will let you hear it as someone new to the show will.

If you hear something annoying you’re doing (like, oh, saying “mm-hm” all the time), don’t let it get to you. Instead, remember what you did, and try to find a way around it in your next episode. Everyone makes mistakes, but the more successful people learn from them.

5. Edit. Edit. Edit.

I can’t say this enough: editing your podcast will make it sound a million times better.

First: edit out dead air. I hear this most often when a guest finishes an answer, there’s a couple of seconds of silence, and the host mutters something like “okay” or “nice” because that line of conversation has been extinguished. It winds up sounding unprofessional, like you’re fishing for things to say.

Cut that stuff out! Go straight from the end of the guest’s answer to the start of your next question. You might think that it would break the natural rhythm of the show, but it actually improves the show’s rhythm. The listener doesn’t need a break just because the speakers do. If you get rid of that downtime, you’ll be amazed at how much better your show will flow.

Second: edit out mistakes. Excessive stuttering, umms, errs, ahhhs. I am a big-time umm-er, and I think I’m beyond help there. But anytime I record myself, say for a Kickstarter video, the moment I cut away, it’s Norman Bates time. Those umms get mercilessly removed! Your listeners won’t miss them. And I don’t know about you, but I relish any opportunity to make myself sound smarter than I really am!

This also applies if a host or guest loses their train of thought for a few seconds. I’ve heard delays of as long as ten seconds while the speaker tries to recover what they were saying. Why subject your listener to that? Edit it out, and spare your audience your temporary brain-fog.

Third: edit out conversational digressions. Remember that bit where I suggested that board game podcasts should start right away with board games? Here’s where you cut out those five minutes at the top where you and your friends talked about what you drank over the weekend.

This applies to the middle of the episode too. If you feel the conversation is going off-track, editing is where you can fix it. Editing is storytelling; you are controlling the direction and the pace of the narrative. This isn’t dishonest, because you’re not inverting the meaning of what anyone is saying. You’re focusing it.

Fourth: Keep each episode a realistic length. 30 minutes is ideal. 60 minutes is acceptable. 90 minutes is pushing it. Anything longer is starting to ask a lot of your listeners.

Because chances are, if an episode is over 2 hours, it’s likely it’s full of digressions, sidetracks, stutters, mistakes, trains of thought deraling, unfunny jokes and forced camaraderie, and all the other stuff that should have been edited out. Of course, there are exceptions. But if your podcast episodes regularly clock in at over 2 hours, you may want to have a cold-light-of-day listen to be sure you’re presenting something listenable.

If you think your 90+ minutes is listenable, I’d suggest breaking up your episodes. One 90-minute interview can become two 45-minute segments on a couple of 1-hour shows, and leaves time for extra chatting around the interview. I wish more podcasts did this; I think a podcast that is longer than the average commute is asking too much of its listeners, and its content has to be amazing for people to justify clearing out their schedules to listen to it.

What if you don’t know how to edit? Or you don’t have time for it? Then hire an editor! They’re cheaper than you think.

[And this is where my shameless self-promotion comes in.

Hello! You know me as a game designer, but I’m actually a sound editor by trade. And I can edit your podcast, for reasonable rates and very fast turnaround times. I’ll also master it, so it sounds clear and is easy to listen to at any volume. Go ahead and contact me if you want to learn more!]

So what are my favorite board gaming podcasts? I’ll give you five:

Ludology. This podcast began with Geoff Englestein’s “GameTek” segments on The Dice Tower, and Geoff eventually spun off into a separate show. Ryan Sturm was co-host for the first 100 episodes, but when he had to leave to focus on grad school, ace designer Mike Fitzgerald took his place.

Ludology adopts the conceit that games are worthy of discussion and study. Each episode is a deep-dive into a characteristic of games, a particular game, or some element of game design. Geoff has played games his whole life, and is now a successful designer himself, along with his college-aged kids (who are pretty amazing gamers and designers themselves).

I like the show because it’s a great example of wasting no time with chit-chat; Geoff and his co-host dive immediately into the matters at hand. The episodes tend to be long, a little over 90 minutes, but they never flag or digress. Geoff and Ryan/Mike are always busy unpacking some element of gaming that I never had considered previously.

Geoff still broadcasts the shorter GameTek segments, and they are incredible. I’m going through all the old ones now, and it’s amazing to hear subjects as diverse as quantum entanglement, game theory, and multitouch interface technology, all filtered through the lens of game design.

The show has had some struggles with the technical side, but has sounded great ever since episode 105. Why did it suddenly start sounding good? Simple: Geoff hired an editor.

Board Games Insider. This is a relatively new podcast, hosted by game publishers Ignacy Trzewiczek (Portal Games) and Stephen Buonocore (Stronghold Games), hence their tagline “where too many consonants meets too many vowels.”

Humor aside, this is a must-listen for anyone getting into game publishing. Ignacy and Stephen are sharp, witty, and dispense troves of information about life as a publisher. You probably recall my previous post, where I took Ignacy’s convention advice to heart when I demoed Battle Merchants at Origins. I try to stay religiously current with this podcast.

This podcast also spares no time in getting to the meat of the subject. Ignacy and Stephen also wisely keep their episodes to about 35 minutes each. This keeps the pace fast and the show engaging. There are never lulls or dull moments.

On Board Games: Crowdfunding Edition. I enjoy hearing Donald Dennis and Erik Dewey talk on the flagship On Board Games podcast, but the Crowdfunding episodes, hosted by Isaac Shalev and Stephanie Straw, are nothing short of amazing.

Isaac is probably my favorite podcast host; by turns witty, charmingly self-deprecating, insanely knowledgeable, and with the essential reporter’s mix of insight and honesty. If something looks weird or off to him in the world of games, he will bring it up, and give a good reason why he thinks so.

Stephanie is a podcasting veteran, having come from the Dice Hate Me podcast world. She has experience in the world of online marketing, which is an essential perspective for a show that focuses on Kickstarter and crowdfunding. She is no less intelligent and well-spoken than Isaac. The two are a great complement to each other.

Together, Isaac and Stephanie take apart current trends in the game industry, especially those around crowdfunding (as the show’s name implies). They usually have a guest on who has a campaign currently running. There are usually questions about the future of Kickstarter and its viability as a medium. These are fascinating and essential questions to me, as I’m a small, new publisher who depends on Kickstarter for my games to work.

The Dice Tower. It’s impossible to talk board gaming podcasts without talking about the biggest board gaming podcast of all. The Dice Tower is Tom Vasel’s baby, and he and Eric Summerer break down all the latest goings-on in the board game world at large.

This is about as informative and influential a podcast as there is right now. I don’t always agree with Tom or Eric’s perspectives, but I love their passion, and it’s fantastic to see them still at it after all this time. It’s not easy to maintain that sort of passion with such a large fanbase, but I’m glad they’re able to keep it up.

CARDBOARD! The timing of this post is a little sad, as host Rich Sommer has just put the show on hiatus, having discovered how much freaking work a podcast is. I certainly hope Rich will return soon. Anyone who has heard this show can confirm that he’s about as enthusiastic and wonderful an ambassador to board games as anyone who’s never flown the Enterprise.

And that’s what CARDBOARD! is about; it is a podcast aimed towards people new to the hobby. Rich is always engaging as a host, even when dealing with a subject that can turn esoteric faster than you can say “Poisson D’Avril“. He has one segment called “Cardboard and Cocktails”, where he matches up an obscure cocktail drink with a popular gateway game.

Even though the show is targeted to people new to the hobby, I still get a lot out of listening to it. This is partly because Rich is just so much damn fun to listen to. He’s incredibly funny, always articulate, and quite knowledgeable. At the same time, he’s very good about making sure that anyone listening to his show knows exactly what he’s talking about. He’ll periodically stop his train of thought to catch the listener up on exactly how to play the game he just brought up. He can do this ridiculously quickly, without ever breaking conversational stride.

Rich, as you may have heard, is also a working actor, and he uses his connections to get interesting guests. These are often actors from other shows, but in one episode, he had an interview with the offensive lineman of the Green Bay Packers who was responsible for bringing Catan into the team’s locker room. The interview is remarkable, and is a good illustration of competitive balance for an extreme alpha gamer.

Finally, the show is a joy to listen to because it easily has the best production values of any podcast I’ve heard. Of course, Rich has resources that other podcasters don’t have access to. But it’s good to hear a ceiling established for a board gaming podcast. The show is paced lightning-quick, with good editing, and is mastered beautifully.

I’m writing about CARDBOARD! in the present tense, not the past tense, out of sheer optimism. Come back to us, Rich!

The internet has made podcasting a tremendously rewarding resource, both for creators and listeners. This means podcasters have a lot of competition. Hopefully these tips I’ve given you will help you rise above the pack and help your podcast sound crisper, clearer, and more focused!