A Year of Podcasting: What’s Next

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, since January of 2019. To celebrate the show’s anniversary, I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, how I edit episodes, and how I publish the show so you can listen to it. In this final post of the series, I’ll reflect on what has worked well, what hasn’t, and what I expect next for the show.

Let’s start by discussing what has worked well. A few early decisions have paid off. The first is show length. Keeping episodes to around 30 minutes has made for a more focused show; I’ve received positive feedback from listeners on the high ratio of content to chit chat they hear. This focus is in part due to an editorial decision to keep episodes relatively short.

Another decision that’s paid off is having a loose arc for interviews. Episodes have a beginning, middle, and end. This arc isn’t accidental; I discuss it with guests before we record. We aren’t strict about it, but know our aim.

One final good decision I’ll call out is the every-other-week publishing schedule. Producing a podcast takes a lot of work. The two-week span is enough for me to put in the require time without disrupting the other responsibilities in my life. A longer gap between episodes (a month, say) would risk having listeners lose interest. Every other week seems to be the sweet spot.

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A Year of Podcasting: Publishing

I’ve been publishing my podcast, The Informed Life, for over a year. During that time, I’ve had lots of folks ask me about how I do it. To celebrate the milestone (and to avoid repeating myself,) I’ve been writing about my set up: how I started, my recording gear, and how I edit episodes. This post is about how I publish the podcast.

Publishing is a key component of podcasting. You can record and edit an excellent show, but only a few people will listen if it’s not available for folks to find and download. These two things – finding and downloading — are related but not the same. They’re both crucial.

Let’s start with downloading. Mostly, podcasts are like blogs: content that’s published periodically on a web server where people can access it over the internet. The main difference, of course, is that blogs are primarily text-based, whereas podcasts are primarily audio-based. But still, the underlying technologies are very similar.

So-called podcatchers — the apps that we use to listen to podcasts — are RSS readers under the hood, much like blog readers such as NetNewsWire or the much-missed Google Reader. Besides rendering text, podcatchers provide specialized interfaces to listen to audio files. These audio files are referenced in the podcast’s (text-based) feeds, which are almost identical to the text feeds that power blogs.

I’m giving you this preamble to demystify the publishing process. A podcast is just a blog with audio.

That said, there are publishing platforms that provide specialized features for podcasts. For example, some aim to unify (and therefore simplify) the whole process by bundling recording, editing, and publishing features into one package. I didn’t consider such tools because I didn’t want to be locked into any one vertical platform.

My early research turned up one publishing tool that seemed to be preferred by many established podcasters: LibSyn. It’s been around for a long time, as evidenced by its rich feature set. This gave me confidence in the tool. (I’m always wary of relying on untested companies.) Alas, its longevity was also evident in its user interface, which I found clunky and complicated. My understanding of podcasting as “blogging with audio” was put to the test when I opened an account on LibSyn. Setting up the show and publishing a single episode required learning a new set of terms and filling in lots of information. It was more work than I expected or needed.

Hunting for a new publishing platform, I discovered that the one I use to host this site — WordPress.com — could also be used to host podcasts. I opened a new account on WordPress specifically for the show and was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. (Especially for someone like myself, who was already familiar with blogging in general and WordPress in particular.) Publishing a new podcast episode boils down to writing a blog post and including a single audio file in it. Simple.

Of course, there are tradeoffs. A more powerful tool like LibSyn gives you more features and the ability to control things more granularly. More importantly, WordPress also lags in one key area: statistics. The system provides a dashboard that shows how many people have visited, how many pages they’ve viewed, etc. It’s the same dashboard you get if you’re hosting a blog (note I said “pages viewed”), and it’s wholly inadequate for a podcast. I don’t yet have a good way of knowing what episodes are more popular than others.

Still, it’s convenient to use the same platform for my blog and my podcast. Which is to say, WordPress integrates well with my workflows. It’s simple, inexpensive, and reliable. I’m also confident that WordPress (the company) will be around for a while. It’s unlikely I’ll tinker with this aspect of my setup for a while.

So that’s the “web hosting” part of my publishing setup. But as I mentioned above, putting the show on the internet isn’t all that’s needed: folks also need to find the show so they can subscribe. That’s where podcasting directories come in.

There are several of these, but the most popular is Apple’s podcast directory. Apple embraced podcasting early, including it as a feature in iTunes in 2005. They’ve since maintained a structured index of shows that’s used by other podcasting systems as well.

It’s worth noting that this directory doesn’t host podcasting files; that’s why you need a publishing platform such as WordPress. Instead, the directory allows people to find your show, and to rate and review it. (If you enjoy The Informed Life, it helps if you rate and/or review it in Apple’s podcast directory.)

Google provides a similar service through Google Play, but as far as I know, it isn’t as influential as Apple’s. That said, I added the show to Google’s directory late last year to make it easier to find for Android phone users.

There are several other platforms with directories. I often get requests from folks to include the show on platforms like Spotify and Stitcher. I’ve been wary of these and other such systems. I sense that many are trying to build walled gardens around their podcast initiatives. Some break the decentralized model by re-publishing shows in their hosting infrastructure and inserting advertising into shows. The obvious tradeoff? Not being on these distribution platforms is costing me some listeners. That makes me sad. But some of these practices — especially injecting ads into shows — make me even sadder. As a result, you’re unlikely to find my show in these systems anytime soon.

So there you have it, my podcast publishing setup. Of all the components and systems that make The Informed Life possible, these are the ones I’m most satisfied with. The one exception, as I mentioned above, is statistics. I’d love to have better information about how individual episodes are doing. (Apple provides a tool that’s supposed to give me such information. I didn’t mention it above because it’s not very useful.)

So, better statistics is one aspect I’d like to change about my podcasting setup. In the final post in this series, I’ll tell you about some other things I’m considering for the future of The Informed Life. Hope you can join me then!

A Year of Podcasting: Editing

To celebrate the first anniversary of my podcast, The Informed Life, I’ve been writing about my podcasting setup. The first post was about the thinking that led up to the show. The second was about my recording setup. This post is about an important (and time-consuming) part of the process: editing each episode.

As I mentioned in the first post, I had limited experience with audio production before I started podcasting. But I had enough experience with other media (video, writing) to know that I wouldn’t be able to release episodes precisely as recorded. They’d need to be edited before I posted them. When people talk, we ramble. We cough. We pause to think about what we want to say. As I mentioned previously, I was aiming for thirty-minute episodes. This time constraint would require that I cut material from the source audio files.

So I knew editing would be a part of producing each episode. I evaluated audio editing software before starting the show. There are several audio editing tools available, ranging from open source (and free) like Audacity, to professional (and expensive) like Logic Pro X. One of my guiding principles was not to spend too much money on the show, so I was wary of investing in high-end tools. My experience with cross-platform open source software made me think Audacity may be a powerful tool, but perhaps wouldn’t feel like a native macOS application. (Something I find very distracting.)

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A Year of Podcasting: Recording Gear

My podcast, The Informed Life, recently turned one. I had no experience running a podcast before I started, and have had to learn a lot over the last year. To mark this anniversary, I’m sharing what I’ve learned over a series of posts. The first one dealt with the big idea behind the show. In this one, I’ll tell you about how I go about recording episodes.

I didn’t know much about audio production before starting my own show. My primary experience with podcasts had been as a listener. I’d also been a guest in several shows following the release of my book, Living in Information. Both perspectives informed how I approached my recording setup.

I’ve been listening to podcasts for over a decade. One thing I noticed was that some shows sounded better than others. From an audio quality perspective, the obvious point of comparison for podcasts is talk radio, which is professionally produced. Podcasts, on the other hand, are primarily artisanal: most are produced by people working either on their own or with small teams. Many are produced in home studios. Results vary: some shows sound great, others sound awful.

I wanted my show to sound good. What constitutes “good”? For me, as a listener, it means I can focus on the content of a show as opposed to how it sounds. No matter how brilliant the people speaking, I find it distracting if their voices sound tinny, or have lots of reverb, or speak over each other.

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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.)

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What Did I Learn?

Like many other people, I have a morning routine. Journaling is an important part of this routine. Every morning, at the start of my day, I set aside a few minutes to reflect on the previous day and what today holds.

I’ve written before about the structure of this journal. Recently, I’ve added a new section: What did I learn? Specifically, what did I learn the day before? (And by implication: How do I need to change my behavior?) I sit with it for a little while, replaying the previous day. These are some other questions that help with this exploration:

  • What did I try that didn’t play out as I expected?
  • What expectations did I have that weren’t met?
  • What expectations were exceeded?
  • What information would help reduce the gap between these expectations and actual outcomes in the future?
  • How can I procure this information?
  • What patterns have I noticed?
  • What happened unexpectedly/serendipitously?
  • What resonances/synchronicities did I notice?

This last question may seem weird; it requires unpacking. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about something and the next day (or sometimes, the same day), I’ll come across the same idea in a podcast, book, article, etc. An echo of sorts. Sometimes these resonances are very peculiar ideas, to the point where I’m startled by the coincidence.

I don’t think there’s anything supernatural at work. The fact that the concept stood out merely suggests that I’m paying attention to it on some deep level. It’s like when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car and suddenly you see the same model everywhere. Those cars were always out there, but now your mind is primed to pay attention. These could be important signals.

Note these are questions about things that are under my control: my attitudes, expectations, plans, etc. I don’t bother to document things I learned due to events happening in the outside world, out of my control. (E.g., stuff in the news.) Rather, I’m trying to establish a feedback loop that allows me to become more effective over time. Growth calls for introspection; What did I learn? is a useful trigger.

Blogging as Gardening

A lovely blog post by Marc Weidenbaum:

The year 2019 is, according to Merriam-Webster, among other sources that track such things, the 20th anniversary of the origin of the word “blog.” Anniversaries are welcome opportunities to renew vows, to rejuvenate traditions, and to build on foundations.

2019 is also the 20th anniversary of jarango.com. My site started as my online business card but soon turned into a (not very active) blog. With the (coincident) disappearance of Google Reader and the rise of social media, my writing here whittled down to a couple of posts a year.

That changed a couple of years ago. I was in the final stretch writing Living in Information, and wanted to keep writing. (I know, weird.) I was also contemplating the next stage of my career as a solo consultant and was thinking about ways of getting my ideas out in the world. Also, like many others, I’d started to question the value of what I was doing in social media. It seemed to me at the time that I was creating an awful lot of content to feed somebody else’s bottom line. If I was going to be writing anyway, why not do so in my own information environment? A return to regular blogging was an obvious step under these circumstances.

Blogging is (unfortunately) an unusual enough activity these days that people often ask me why I do it. I tell them how much pleasure I get from writing (as I said, weird) and how it draws some attention to my services. But I also tell them the most important benefit I get from this blog is something Mr. Weidenbaum highlights in his post:

As Iago says in “Othello,” in a different context, “our wills are gardeners.” Blogs are gardens of ideas. (I mention gardens a lot when I talk about blogs. It’s because gardening is a key metaphor in generative music and my blog activism is a stealth campaign for generative music. Just kidding. Kinda. It’s mostly because it’s a useful metaphor for blogs, and I have a garden.)

(If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ve seen the metaphor of gardening in generative music and how we can use it to build resilience online.)

When it comes to ideas, the blog can serve as a public sketchbook — that is, one that 1) exposes ideas early and often, 2) to people with a wider variety of perspectives, so 3) the ideas can be strengthened (or discarded) through feedback. Writing here allows me to share things I’ve learned and things I’m thinking about very quickly — that is, in an unpolished state. This often results in pointers that invariably make the ideas stronger. Writing — even “quick and dirty” writing — helps me structure my thinking. I’ve often discovered what I really think about a subject by having to think about how to tell you about it.

So thank you for indulging me by reading this far. Please do get in touch if you have any thoughts on the stuff you read here.

Bring Out Your Blogs

Simplifying My Newsletter

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but every two weeks I send out a newsletter. It started shortly before Living in Information was published, in response to folks who’d asked to be notified about the book’s progress.

Over the past year, the newsletter has grown — both in reach and size. Having coffee with a close friend this week, he confided that he doesn’t read the newsletter any more because messages have gotten too long. (See for yourself.) I’ve also gotten feedback through other channels that, while useful, my messages have become unwieldy.

It’s time to do something about it. I’ve redesigned the newsletter’s format to focus on the essential: helping folks design information environments more responsibly, with a couple of cool things thrown in to spice things up. I’ll also occasionally add notices about upcoming workshops and such. But the main drive will be sharing useful information in an easy-to-digest format.

The first issue featuring the new design goes out early tomorrow morning. Sign up here to get it. And if you’re already receiving the newsletter, I’d love feedback — please let me know what you think of the new design.

Desert Island Apps

I’m always looking for ways of optimizing my personal information ecosystem. By this, I mean focusing on the work rather than futzing with the environment where the work happens. Ideally, I’d log into my computer, do a bunch of work, and then log out without having to think too much about the tools I’m using or how I’m using them.

The challenge is that digital tools are constantly evolving. There may be a new app out there that eases a part of my workflow, or perhaps one of the tools I’m already using has a hidden feature I’m not using. Sometimes such innovations can lead to tremendous efficiency gains, so it’s important to step back and review the ecosystem every once in a while. It’s a tradeoff between spending time working on the work versus on the way we work. A subtle, but important distinction.

Earlier in my career, I devoted a higher percentage of my time to working on my ecosystem than I do now. My toolset has been relatively stable for a long time. In part, this is because I eventually realized that many “new and improved” digital tools are specialized adaptations of more general, deeper tools.

For example, when my family and I were preparing to move to the U.S., I bought an app that allowed me to catalog my book library. I spent quite a bit of time messing around with that app. Eventually, I realized it was actually a specialized spreadsheet — something that’s also true of many lightweight data management apps. Rather than spending time learning a new app that perhaps adds a couple of timesaving features (in the case of the library app, it was reading ISDN codes), I could devote the time instead to figuring out how to do what I needed with the tool I already had: Excel.

Excel is an example of what I call a “desert island” app. Like the concept of desert island books (i.e., the short list of books you’d like in your bag if you were to be stranded in a desert island), these are digital tools that I could use to get my work done even if I had access to nothing else. They tend to be deep and broad, have large and devoted communities of users, and have been around for a long time. Other tools that fall into that category for me are the Emacs text editor, the Unix shell (along with its suite of “small pieces loosely joined” mini-tools), OmniGraffle for diagramming, and Tinderbox for making sense of messes.

Editing my newsletter in Emacs.
Editing my newsletter in Emacs.

These are all tools I’ve used for over a decade. (In the case of Excel, Emacs, and the Unix shell, over two decades.) But even after all this time, I’m nowhere near mastering them. My relationship with these desert island apps is a lifelong journey in which I will continually become more proficient — which will, in turn, make me more efficient. I test drive new apps now and then, but I always return to these old standbys. The effort of learning to use them in new ways is often less than that required by integrating new tools into my workflow.

What about you? Do you have “desert island apps”? Please do let me know — I’m interested in learning about what makes digital systems stand the test of time.