Once Over Isn’t Enough

Once, long ago, I was subscribed to a podcast. This podcast was a rather prominent member of The Sci-Fi Podcast Network. So at the start of each file, it began with a TSFPN audio tag: “This is TSFPN.com. You’ve found the best podcasts in the universe.

Which is all wonderful. Except that where the podcast itself sounded smooth and high-quality, the audio tag sounded like Alvin the Android Chipmunk. It was too fast and too high-pitched.

Half of you are nodding now: you’ve seen this happen before. There are a lot of ways to make this mistake, but one of the most common is to combine two sound files of different sample rates in the same Audacity track. It’s easily done, and easily fixed. Just put them in different tracks and then mix down.

But here’s the kicker. I listened to this podcast, and heard the exact same chipmunked tag, every week for four months. It was the very first thing you heard. It sounded terrible, and it was never caught. I eventually lost interest in the subject material and unsubscribed, but for all I know it’s still going on.

That was definitive proof to me that the guy never listened to his own podcast. If he did, he’d have noticed and fixed this easy bug. He didn’t, and he started off on the wrong foot every week, and never knew it. And that’s today’s lesson:

First, you should always listen to your MP3 file before you upload it. If it’s a long podcast, at least skip through it to make sure all the pieces are there and sound like they should. Never skip this, or you’ll be sure to embarrass yourself with some technical gaffe sooner or later. Even if it’s 6 AM by the time I upload, I always take at least a minute or two to jump through my podcast beginning, section transitions, and ending. Those are where mistakes are likeliest to happen.

If you can, it’s also helpful to have someone that you know to listen to your podcast before you upload it. This is an extremely valuable habit that will provide you with an outside prospective. I usually have my brother Paul check out my podcast before going public with it. Whenever he isn’t busy cutting and trimming trees, he’s always willing to give my podcast a critical review.  That brotherly love can be tough sometimes but is very helpful. [Shameless Plug: If you’re in the Seattle area and need a professional tree service give my brother Paul Z. a call or better yet, check out his website here]

Second, you should subscribe to your own podcast feed and listen to it with all your other podcasts. This means you’ll catch any RSS screw-ups without having to have your audience tell you about them; but more than that, it gives you the opportunity to evaluate yourself as a listener and decide if there’s anything from week to week that needs improvement. Are your levels uneven when you listen on your car stereo? Great, now you know. Did you drone on too long about something unexciting? It’s easier to notice that a couple days later, and you’ll be more conscious about it next time. Continuous improvement means continually evaluating your work, and the best way to do that is to listen to yourself the same way everybody else does.

This will seem like common sense to a lot of you. Some of you will find it inconceivable not to listen to your own stuff — after all, if you didn’t like to hear your own voice, why podcast? But in practice it’s very, very common to skip these steps.

You do so at your peril. If not the peril of losing audience and reputation, at least the peril that someday some smartass like me will make a blog post about you. And who wants that?

  1. Which, if you click on the link, you will see has lately dissolved into a cheerful puddle of brightly colored goo. But that’s another story.
  2. Should I have dropped him a friendly e-mail? Probably, and in most cases I would have. But there were some personality factors, too, and… Well, I didn’t. So.

A Little Of This…

I have a bad habit of overcommitting myself. No…wait…that’s not quite right. I have a bad habit of committing myself and then mismanaging my time. It’s a character flaw, and one that I’m working to correct. However…one of the inevitable consequences of my time mismanagement is that, sooner or later, I begin to feel as though I am being pecked to death by ducks. Everything piles up, and all I want to do it run and hide until it goes away.

I know what I should do: bear down, shoulder to the grindstone, nose to the wheel…or something like that. Still, when it all feels like the Myth of Sisyphus, I want to slink off to the local Barnes & Noble, buy a coffee, and read graphic novels.

I was starting to feel this way in February of this year. There was work to do on Podiobooks, I had my own solo podcast that was dreadfully late. I was helping Mick Bradley with his two podcasts, and was starting yet another with a friend. All of the activity had shifted from a series of welcome challenges to a collection of large, stinking seabirds hanging around my neck.

I was venting about all of this to a friend, and his question was, “Why don’t you just quit the podcasts?”

I thought about that. I could, of course. Let’s face it, few of us are getting paid to do this. It’s a colossal time-suck at times. It’s endless fiddling with settings, levels, microphones, mixing boards, all to get rid of that low-level hiss that never seems to go away. It’s the late nights, knowing you should be in bed, but you’re just not able to rest until you get the thrice-damned thing edited and posted. Damnable though it may be at 3:30 am, it’s also the coolest thing you’ve recorded to date, and you just can’t wait for people to hear it.

That’s the core of it, isn’t it? The listeners. I remember when I got the first bit of feedback about my podcast. First off, I was stunned that anyone was listening. Secondly, I was thrilled that this individual, a podcaster whom I respected, mentioned me in his show. The clincher was these words, “I’ve been listening to Chris Miller’s Unquiet Desperation. I like it. He’s got some worthwhile things to say.”

Do you recall how you felt when you were told by a fellow podcaster or a listener that they really liked your show, that it meant something to them? Inside your head, weren’t you doing your own personal Sally Field imitation? (You like me! You really like me!)

It’s like a drug, this appreciation thing, and a little goes a long way. As we continue to put out episodes, we all try to hone our craft, shape our message. We try to be a bit more profession, or we try to spice it up, keep it fresh, but still keep our audience. In some arenas, we compete with other podcasts. But at the end of the day, know that people out there like your work it enough to keep a lot of us going.

It is for me, at least. None of the podcasts that I’m on have more than two hundred listeners. I’m fine with that. I’m not the most recognizable name attached to Podiobooks.com, and I’m fine with that, too. What keeps me going is that, at this time in history, any one of us can pick up a microphone, grab a copy of Audacity, and find those like-minded folk that we would never had a chance to reach otherwise. We get meet other podcasters who have the same struggles that we do, the same self-doubting natures, the same need to speak and be heard. It’s massive, it’s global, and it’s just about the coolest thing I have ever witnessed

So, now I sit and work through my endless piles with GTD. I have my lists and my inbox, my folders and my files. I run like a not-quite finely tuned machine because this has become more than a hobby…it’s a connection to something larger than myself. To give up friends that I’ve made doing this is unthinkable. It’s worth the long hours, the days of prep, the answering of listener questions and subscriber feedback. It’s even worth the occassional argument on the email list. We’re doing something revolutionary here…never doubt it. One day, we’ll look back on all of this: we’ll see how media was changed by a bunch of “amateurs” with laptops and and a couple of microphones. We can say that we were there.

If that’s not worth it, I don’t know what is.

Outskirts Observations

I made it a priority to go this year because, frankly, all of the talk about it last year made me jealous. It sounded like I’d missed the podcasting event of the year — and back in the day, I probably did. There was no PodcasterCon, no PodCamp, and very little at Dragon*Con. This year? It wasn’t the only game in town, but I think it was very much worth the expense to go from a business perspective, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

I went partly to get some business done, and mostly to meet people. I’d call the business part about a 60% success — I’m not going to talk about everything I’ve been involved with, but I had a few important conversations and missed a few others because everyone was busy. No big deal; that’s what e-mail and Skype are about. The biggest accomplishment was the energy behind the Podcast Guild; we got some new gears turning, and it looks like it’s finally on its way to becoming what it needs to be. More later on that.

The people, though — that was hugely successful. I met most of the people I was hoping to meet, and many more. And it bears out an observation I’ve made from other events: despite our personas online or behind the mic, in person we’re a big circle of friends. I didn’t shake a single hand that wasn’t warm and welcoming. In some cases this surprised me: as much of a smartass as I am much of the time, I expected at least a few cold shoulders or even harsh words, but there were none the entire weekend. Everyone was cool. It was a great vibe.

Was it a deep learning experience? Not to me, though I confess I’m an unfair judge. I don’t know everything, but I know quite a bit already of what was being presented. However, the few program events I sat in on were more slick, corporate-vanilla, and “on the surface” than deep examinations of the issues. I’d even include Evo’s and my own presentation in that. I actually felt better about the panels at PodcasterCon last year, where there was less speechifying and more intimacy between the moderators and the audience. That’s not to say this was a dud; there were some good messages here. I’m just not sure from my own perspective that a session pass would’ve been worth the money, if I hadn’t had a free pass already as a speaker.

The exhibit hall was much the same: a fun place, but little depth and few surprises. Podcast Ready put on a great face as the primary sponsor, and the Podango mini-conference seems to have been a hit. Most of the rest of it was what you’d expect: here’s Shure and M-Audio, there’s LibSyn, over there’s PopCurrent, yonder are a few podcast producers, etc. There were only two gadgets that threw me for a loop:

  • Box Populi’s “Podcast in a Box,” a Linux-based recorder that delivers true, no-kidding, automatic podcasting with zero interface. Aimed right now at the university market under the Meedu brand, you don’t even have to push a button: your tech guy either schedules a start and stop time for your lecture and it begins and ends recording (and publishes to their Web host) with no intervention, or you pop in a USB flash key which triggers the recording, and it publishes when you take it out. I have never seen a podcast process with no grunt work before. I think it’s brilliant.
  • The iMorphosis “PodcastLink,” a sort of hardware-based podcatcher that will plug directly into your MP3 player (including iPods) and populate it without a computer.  This reminds me of those old $100 e-mail and Web appliances — the ones they marketed to your grandparents. Like those, it will fail, because it’s a clever solution lacking a problem. Anyone who has the knowledge and desire to listen to a podcast is going to have a computer sitting around. Under what circumstances is it worth real money to avoid plugging your MP3 player into your computer?

What mattered far more than new gizmos was just listening in for the general tone of the Expo. Leo’s keynote, about getting down to business and protecting what we do as a brand and an industry, pretty much set that tone, and I felt it throughout most of the presentations and a lot of the conversations. You had plenty about podcasting for fun, sure, but underneath it, everyone was really focused on success. There was a drive throughout the whole thing. A hunger. I cannot tell you how many times and in how many ways I heard the word “metrics” used, during the day and late into the drunken night. I can’t really criticize — I was saying the same lines as everyone else.

Is attending the Expo important? That’s a complex question. It’s fun to attend regardless of its importance. I’d say it’s moderately important to attend if you’re treating your podcast as a business; and it’s critical to attend if you intend to stake a claim in podcasting beyond your own podcast. Events like this are, in a very real way, the conversation that podcasting has with itself. The sharpest observation I had was that the conversation was entirely about the people and companies who were there. People talked about Podcast Ready. People talked about SwitchPod. People talked about Blubrry and Podcast Pickle, both of whom had successful and fun party suites.

Apple was discussed very little except in regard to the recent fracas with Podcast Ready. And I barely heard Podshow mentioned at all. Even the Podshow podcasters who attended weren’t talking about Podshow. The ridiculous Hummer limo, running guests to their anti-conference or whatever it was, only got rolled eyes. I’m pretty sure they have no idea how much it’s hurting them to detach themselves from podcasting’s conversation. They weren’t there, so they weren’t on the radar. And a company that survives on the creativity of individuals can’t afford that.

Besides, they’re missing the fun.

I didn’t miss the fun. I had lots of it. All businesses, priorities, and importances aside, I’ll be going again next year.