A Year of Podcasting: The Big Idea

Last Sunday’s episode of The Informed Life podcast marks the show’s first anniversary. I’ve consistently released a new episode every other Sunday over the previous twelve months. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about producing a podcast. I’ve also had many people say kind things about the show; I’m very thankful to the guests and to everyone who’s tuned in. It’s a privilege to be allowed in your ears a couple of times a month. Recently, several friends have asked me for details about my setup, etc., so I thought it worthwhile to write down what I’ve learned. I have a lot to share, do so over a series of posts.

First, a disclaimer: I’m still learning. When I first started podcasting, I committed to consistently try out new things. I expected to be inefficient and to produce sub-par work at first, but to also actively work at improving. (Hopefully, recent episodes sound tighter than earlier ones.) Which is to say, I’m still not satisfied with parts of my setup. What you read in these posts is likely to change.

With that out of the way, let’s begin by addressing the most basic question: Why podcast at all? There are several reasons. As an information architect, writer, and teacher, I’m always looking to learn from other people — especially people who are smarter and more experienced than me. A podcast would offer a good excuse for me to have such conversations, explicitly framed as learning opportunities. (I also thought there may be an opportunity to write about what I was learning, which I’ve been doing in this blog.)

From a more pragmatic perspective, as a professional, I must look for ways to remain relevant with colleagues, partners, and future collaborators. For me, this involves sharing what I’m learning. I’ve mostly done this by speaking at conferences, teaching workshops, writing books, and blogging.

Podcasts can scale better than many of these. They take longer to produce than blog posts, but not as long as books or conference presentations. I suspect they have greater reach than any of them. (More on why I say “suspect” in future posts.) Podcasts are also more accessible. Conferences require setting aside a few days to focus on the event. Blogs require reading texts that are longer than the average social media posts — and that’s assuming folks can find your posts among the noise of social media. (My sense is few people use dedicated blog reading clients anymore; I miss the days of Google Reader.)

Conversely, there are many podcasting clients to choose from these days. (There’s even one bundled with every iPhone.) So the barriers to entry are lower. Podcasts are also easier to integrate into your life; you can listen in without needing to focus on the show exclusively. (I tune in while cooking, exercising, commuting, etc.) You can’t say the same about reading a book or a blog or watching a video of a conference talk.

So those are some of the reasons why I thought it’d be a good idea to have a podcast.

With that out of the way, I’ll share some of the ideas and expectations I had before I began. I started with an idea for the show’s topic. I observed a gap in the market for a podcast about information architecture. Given how many of our key interactions happen in information environments these days, IA is very important — and underrepresented in discussions about design or production. And ironically, we’re all having to deal with massive amounts of information every day. I thought it’d be interesting for listeners (and for myself) to hear about how other people organize it. The show’s topic emerged from my desire to fill this gap.

With a topic in place, I needed to think about format. I’d been listening to podcasts long enough to have sampled several different types of shows. My informal “research” influenced my design criteria:

  • The show would be interview-based; each episode would feature a new guest.
  • The focus of each episode would be the guest and his/her work. I wouldn’t speak much; my role would be to prompt the guest to share their knowledge with us. I’m the listener’s surrogate.
  • The show should have relatively high production values. (I find it hard to focus on content if audio quality isn’t good.)
  • That said, I didn’t want to invest a lot of time or money on the show; I’d rather start scrappy and invest in improving things over time.
  • Episodes would follow a narrative arc, and this structure would be consistent in each episode — without being overly rigid.
  • Episodes would be around thirty minutes long.

This last point was important. Longer shows can be challenging to listen to in one stretch. (I assume many people listen during their commutes, as I do.) Also, although I hadn’t done much audio production before, I knew that recording and (especially) editing could be very time-consuming. Capping the show at around thirty minutes would (hopefully) keep me from committing to what could be a very time-consuming activity.

So these are expectations I had going into podcasting. Some of them have panned out, and others haven’t. I’ll say more about how — if any — my thinking has evolved in my final entry in this series. But in the next post, I’ll tell you about the current state of my podcast recording setup.