Throw away the seatbelts. What I had to un-learn after a long career in network radio.

For more than three decades I spent my working life in network radio news, reading scripts and speaking to the clock.

As a journalist covering politics, wars and the financial markets, I had to master the art of the precis — telling compact, compelling stories using a minimum number of carefully chosen words. As a radio news-talk host, the “re-set” was a requirement. We had to remind listeners every few minutes what we were talking about and who we were interviewing. As a newscaster, I had to make sure that my four minutes at the top of the hour didn’t go as much as one second over.

However informal we tried to sound, there was a certain rigidity imposed by the strict discipline of the radio format. Podcasting is surprisingly different. There are so many radio lessons I had to unlearn.

First. Unfasten my seatbelt: replace the scripts with spontaneity. Many of the best podcasts are off-the-cuff and soulful, with moments of passion and humor. The best podcasters lift the curtain on their personal story and take full advantage of the medium’s extraordinary intimacy.

Second. The “clock” is gone and the need to “reset” also goes away. Instead of tuning in at random times, podcast listeners start at the beginning and usually stay with us for the entire show. Episodes can be as long or short as we want them to be. There is no ideal length.

Third. With other media, distractions are common, but podcasts are heard without the interruptions of timechecks, weather reports, pledge drives, and commercials. Most of our listeners are on their own and away from mobile screens with their instant messages and email reminders.

On our weekly solutions journalism podcast, How Do We Fix It?, my good friend and co-host Jim Meigs and I have found that the connection with our audience runs deep. And unlike TV and YouTube videos, audio listeners aren’t distracted by my crooked teeth, Jim’s beard, or our poor choice of clothing.

Another unlearning curve is that, as independent podcasters, we are the boss — our own program directors and content creators. There are no formats to worry about. Podcasters can develop deeper thoughts than broadcasters, and tell longer, richer stories. This leads to greater intimacy and allows for more innovation and creativity.

Who would have thought that four-hour podcast episodes told by a single-voice narrator could be a hit? With Hardcore History, former commercial radio talk show host Dan Carlin proved that a storyteller of great skill and knowledge can do things that are never allowed on radio.

Podcasts can also target niche audiences who are passionate about the topics being discussed. I am an art lover and one of my personal favorites, The Lonely Palette, lives up to its unusual promise of being “the podcast that returns art history to the masses, one painting at a time.”

While the entry barriers to podcasting are very low, and the equipment is cheap, all that freedom comes at a cost. It’s a bit like the Wild West. At last count there were more than 550,000 shows to choose from. Unless you are linked to a major brand, the challenges of attracting a sizable audience and finding sponsors are steep indeed.

Anyone with a new show has to learn how to be a marketer, come up with a 10-second elevator pitch, and in the words of social media marketing strategist Mark Schaefer, answer the “only we” of your brand — as in “only our podcast tells you this.”

The difference between radio and podcasting may appear subtle. However, professional broadcasters who move into this medium not only have to unlearn old habits, but learn brand new tricks.

This requires a mix of humility, curiosity, and no shortage of energy.

Richard Davies is a media coach, podcast consultant, and co-host of the weekly podcast, How Do We Fix It? at daviescontent.com.

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Simple storytelling and the Radiolabification of podcasting.

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I hate to dump on “The Daily”.

Apart from editing and producing our own shows, this brilliant New York Times podcast takes up more of my listening time than any other.  For news junkies, “The Daily” is part of our weekday morning routine. The show’s genial and ever curious host, Michael Barbaro, is like a friend at breakfast time.

So I take it personally when something is not quite right.

Recently, on several “The Daily” documentary episodes, a bit too much production has been getting in the way of the narrative. The informal, often intimate approach that is unique to podcasting,  is occasionally replaced by a more careful and rehearsed construction.

One example came this week in an otherwise gripping episode about the chaotic Trump Administration zero-tolerance policy that led to 2,000 migrant children being separated from their parents.

At one point, the sound of  the computer keyboard can be heard as New York Times national immigration reporter Caitlin Dickerson discusses her emails seeking information on the children from the Department of Homeland Security. To my ears, this was distracting, adding neither information nor enhanced atmosphere. Several other soundbites and mood music tracks also got in the way of the compelling narration.

On “The Daily”, the Times reporters are the stars. Let them unpack their deep understanding of the beats they cover without too many interruptions.

Perhaps you disagree with me or think that this is a trivial quibble. But it’s part of a broader trend in podcasts made by companies, where teams of producers and editors often spend many hours crafting a single episode.

Perhaps they take their cues from “Radiolab“, the critically acclaimed, two-time Peabody Award-winning science and philosophy podcast and public radio show that began life on WNYC in 2002. Over the years, Radiolab’s inventive, playful use of sound has been a delight to listen to.

But maybe the show’s influence on fellow podcasters has become too great.

When podcast creators lack the deep skills of Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, rich, textured sound can be turned into a formula. Some well-written podcasts are burdened by the overuse of ambient sound and music.

This school of complex, layered production can sound precious, and be a barrier to understanding. A podcasting friend of mine from South Asia, who learned English as a second language, calls it confusing. Perhaps that’s because she didn’t grow up listening to the distinct sound of American public radio programs and documentaries.

Usually, spare is best. What makes podcasting and audiobooks so penetrating and memorable is the presence of a single human voice in your ears, telling you a story.

Often that’s enough. Intimacy requires nothing more.

Richard Davies is a podcaster, consultant and media coach. He runs DaviesContent.

 

The beauty of asking dumb questions.

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How to ask questions (2). The third in a series on podcasting.

As soon as I published some thoughts on how podcasters can do even better interviews than they record already (my previous blog), I started getting friendly feedback.

Some of it comes from close to home.

Miranda Shafer, the senior producer of “How Do We Fix It?” — our weekly news solutions show — has several smart ideas that I include here.

While editing and improving the audio quality of our podcast, Miranda excises the “ums” and “ahs” from each interview. So, perhaps this one is aimed at me! “Don’t make small affirmative noises like “uh huh” or “right.” Nod instead,” she says.

Agreed. The people you interview know that you’re interested in what they are saying. There is no need for affirmation from the host in the middle of an answer. More than one or two “uh huhs” during an interview can be irritating for listeners.

If you think a response from you is a good idea, follow up with another question. Or simply say, “tell me more.”

There’s this from our friend and podcast consultant, Donna Papacosta: “Have you ever experienced premature interview termination?”, she asked in a recent post. “At the end of an interview… you thank the subject, snap your notebook shut and switch off your recorder. In the chatter that follows, your interviewee utters the most quotable quote of the last half hour.”

Ouch. That’s happened to me more times than I can count. Donna suggests: keep the recorder running, unless you need to go off-the-record.

When planning an interview, podcasters should try to think of how each question can build a story arc. You might want to begin a podcast conversation with an anecdote or an amusing aside that warms up the guest, lifting the curtain on the subject for your listeners.

Or you could start out with a few basic questions on why your guests are interested or passionate about what they do and what they have learned along the way.

Ask dumb questions, especially if the guest uses acronyms, slang or fancy words. Ask him to explain or define any term that the audience might not be familiar with. During an interview the host should always be on the side of the listener. What would she want to hear? What subject interests him the most?

Brief questions are often best.

Don’t spend a lot of time with your opinions, because the guest may respond with a simple yes or no answer. Then you have to come up with another question right away!

Don’t be afraid to appear dim. Before the recording begins, you can say: “I’ve read your book and understand the topic, but I’m going to ask you some basic questions for the audience.”

One more tip from editor/producer Miranda: Record on two channels. That makes your interview easier to edit and often results in better audio quality.

Richard Davies is a Podcast host, consultant and media trainer. Learn more at DaviesContent.com

“How do you feel”, “tell me more” and other smart interview questions.

How to answer questions. The second in a series on podcasting.

“It was 1992. The closing days of the Presidential campaign and I was beginning to get a name for myself.

Not in a good way.

During crowded press conferences with the candidates all that year, I was the network radio reporter who would ask: “How do you feel?”

Sometimes not-very-polite snickers were heard nearby from fellow members of the traveling press. “What a dumb question” they probably murmured under their breaths. They were far from impressed.

But more often than not a question about emotions or feelings — as opposed to something erudite about policy — resulted in one of the best soundbites of the day.

The point is simple. It’s not about you. Interviewers on podcasts, reporters at news conferences, or panel members at webinars shouldn’t try to make themselves look smart or impress colleagues. Instead, look for ways to engage others.

This is especially true on a podcast, when almost all listeners start at the beginning. They don’t tune-in half-way through, as so often happens during a radio show. A podcast audience is much more likely to stay with you for the entire episode when they’re hearing a lively conversation.

Hosts who are curious and honestly interested in what their guests have to say are more engaging and fully present than those who are merely clever.

Be direct. Keep questions brief, if possible. Humor works. So do challenging questions. But unless being obnoxious is part of your act, don’t try to show up the guest or be snarky. On the other extreme, avoid being a toady, who repeatedly flatters guests. “That’s so interesting” or “it’s such a good point you’re making” works once or twice during a twenty minute conversation, but no more than that.

Preparation is essential. Know your stuff. An interview should have moments of surprise, laughter and spontaneity. When the answer provokes a follow-up, don’t stick to a written list of questions. “Tell me more” is a gentle prompt that enables you to go a little deeper.

Two more ways to get the best from a guest is to make her/him feel comfortable before the microphone is switched on. If you edit your podcast before it’s published (you should do this), explain beforehand that a guest can “re-do” an answer. Second, put some energy into how you ask your questions. If you do, the answers are likely to be more animated.

Another way to improve interview technique is to listen to the pros.

We all have our favorite hosts. Mine is Terry Gross. For more than 40 years, she has been voice of the NPR’s “Fresh Air.” Next month in Philadelphia, she will be the closing keynote speaker at Podcast Movement’s annual get together. I’ll be on the edge of my seat, taking notes on what she’ll tell the audience.

Podcaster Marc Maron called Terry “‘the most effective and beautiful interviewer of people on the planet.’’ I love her infectious laugh and warm, deeply intelligent manner.

“Gross is an interviewer defined by a longing for intimacy,” wrote Susan Burton in a lovely profile for The New York Times Magazine. “In a culture in which we are all talking about ourselves more than ever, Gross is not only listening intently; she’s asking just the right questions.”

Many podcast hosts who are relatively new to the game are understandably nervous. But some of the best interviews I’ve heard were by amateurs, speaking with friends or those they love.

Have you listened to “Storycorps”? This brilliant non-profit organization founded by radio producer Dave Isay has been recording and collecting conversations for years. “Our mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world,” Storycorps says on its website.

“Storycorps” has countless examples of loving, empathetic and surprising questions and answers. “Listen. Honor. Share” is their motto. Not a bad thing for us podcasters to include our own mission statements.

If Moms and Dads, sons and daughters and cousins can ask great questions, so can you.

Richard Davies is a Podcast host, consultant and media trainer. Learn more at DaviesContent.com

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Professors on Podcasts: A Rant.

It’s baseball season, thank goodness. So before I get into my windup and start hurling metaphors, let me say that I love interviewing professors on our podcasts .

These learned souls are almost always thoughtful, highly intelligent, and often funny. Their bases are loaded with interesting ideas. Professors understand nuance and are good at reminding the rest of the world (including Donald Trump) that most issues are far more complex, and indeed more interesting, than they first appear.

This is the nature of the human condition, and why it’s so difficult for data experts to design algorithms that take account of all the delightful complexity of human behavior.

The recent rush to judgement over self-driving cars, universal health care and privacy on Facebook are just three current examples of how so many current debates are poorly framed.

Professors have the luxury of escaping from the daily pressures of the business world, taking a long-term view of the subjects they study.

But they are usually different… especially tenured professors.

What is it about one-YEAR sabbaticals? Say what? For the rest of us workers, small business owners, gig economy freelancers, and salaried professionals, a one-MONTH break would be a total luxury.

And try interrupting professors. Good luck with that! The preferred platform for many university lecturers is neither a chat, seminar nor a brainstorming session. They speak from behind a lectern.

Before each episode with a professor on our weekly solutions news show, “How Do We Fix It?” my co-host, Jim Meigs and I do some podcast batting practice.

Jim starts the interview with a very polite warm-up, telling guests what’s about to happen.

“We’re a fast-paced show,” Jim explains in a somewhat professorial, yet almost apologetic tone. “We try to keep the answers to questions to under a minute. We may jump in.”

Sometimes, this approach actually works. We are able to ask lots of questions and enjoy bantering with our guests.

But in many cases, professors, who give “talks”, and “presentations” aren’t entirely comfortable with the back-and-forth of conversations. They’d rather give five examples than three.

But don’t get me wrong.

Before I get too deep in the count, let me say with as much force as I can muster: Academics are among our favorite podcast guests.

If you’re looking for someone to add intellectual heft, who could be better?

And in our age of distraction, we need to listen more carefully and at far greater length to deep thinkers.

Professors know their subjects inside and out. And many are happy to venture forth with contrarian opinions that challenge the dominant zeitgeist.

However, Jim and I agree: among our absolute favorite podcast guests professors who have also spent some time in careers outside academia— in business or journalism. Not only do they know their stuff, these women and men understand bullet points and deadlines. They tend to be both clear and disciplined in their thinking, and have learned the art of sound-bites and relatively short declarative sentences.

If you are a podcaster or broadcast host, before inviting a professor on your show, get ready to step up to the plate and take a few swings at interrupting your guest.

And also make sure you’ve taken some batting practice first. Read their book before you open the mike.

Richard Davies is a podcasting consultant, producer, interviewer and host. DaviesContent makes podcasts for companies and non-profit groups.