When Suchandrika Chakrabarti went freelance she decided to create her own podcast. The only problem? She had no money for fancy equipment or expensive studio time. Here she explains how she created her award-nominated podcast on a budget, and how you can do the same.
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Making my first podcast opened up new worlds for me. I started Black Mirror Cracked, a podcast analysing Charlie Brooker’s dystopian sci-fi series in December 2017, while working for the Daily Mirror. It did well, with 150,000 downloads in the six months I worked on it.
It opened new doors, giving me the chance to speak at conferences where people who had listened to it came up and spoke to me like I was their friend who’d been chatting to them about their favourite TV show for months.
When I left the Mirror and entered the much quieter world of freelancing, I missed the direct connection of podcasting – the way it conveyed my personality as well as my words. So I decided to make my own. The only problem? I had no money for fancy equipment or expensive studio time.
Starting out on my own, I had to make do with what I had (laptop, mobile phone, wardrobe – yes, really), and spend as little as possible on top of that. I was worried that I didn’t have the technical knowledge to record and edit a podcast – but it was all surprisingly easy to pick up.
I launched my current show Freelance Pod in November 2018. It explores how the internet has changed creative jobs. Over the years I’ve interviewed a range of guests from Twitter’s senior director of communication to a graffiti artist gone pro.
I’m now 50 episodes in and teetering on the edge of 20,000 downloads. I’ve chosen not to monetise the podcast, but it has brought me immeasurable writing, speaking, teaching and networking opportunities, which have all benefited my career. Plus, I’ve extended my professional network through all the fun and informative conversations I’ve had with guests.
Here’s everything I’ve learnt about how to make your own podcast, even if you don’t have lots of money or equipment.
Know what you want to achieve by making a podcast
Making the podcast isn’t the difficult bit – it’s knowing what your metric for success is. Is this a hobby or a part of your career? What do you want to gain from making the podcast? Do you just want to gain some new skills, grow your own audience, or make money? Do you want to use it as a showreel to get speaking gigs or to start your career as a presenter? You need to be able to answer these questions before putting your precious time and energy into making the podcast.
A podcast has the potential to help you gain a lot of these advantages, but it could also start to take over your life, and ultimately leave you feeling drained. So deciding how much the podcast can achieve for you will help you decide how much of yourself to put in.
Think of your podcast like writing a book. It’s an exercise in self-branding, a reason to court some PR and an opportunity to find a new audience. Think about who you want to target, and why?
Learn by diving into the world of audio
It’s always a good idea to get to know a format before trying to work within it, and knowing how other people are making audio helps keep your sound current.
Whether you’re interested in making documentary-style audio, or beautiful sound design (check out Short Cuts on Radio 4) or want to figure out how interviews work in audio, there will be a programme or pod that has done it before. Listen widely, and try to deconstruct what you’ve just heard. Ask yourself: how did this piece of audio achieve its goal? What can you take from it and apply to your own work?
Oh, and don’t worry about there being two million podcasts out in the world right now (at least on Apple Podcasts) – none of them has your unique voice or take on life. There are many, many more books, films and songs in the world, and there’s space for them all. The point is finding the audience who’ll appreciate your work and champion it to others. That will happen in time.
Decide if you are making a series or an ongoing podcast
Manage your own time and energy, while managing the audience’s expectations. Many people go into podcasting thinking they’ll make a weekly episode forever. It’s tough to maintain that level of output, particularly if the podcast isn’t making you money and you have another job. You can end up losing your passion for the podcast and just… stop. This is known as podfade, and it’s definitely happened to me.
There’s no shame in ending a podcast; but better yet, why not release your audio in series? Then your breaks from the podcast are built-in. Announce your three, six or 10-part series, distribute the episodes weekly or all in one go, then keep an eye on your statistics and your social media. What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn that you can take into a second series?
The audience will understand what’s happening when the episodes run out, and you can build anticipation around the launch of the next series. It’s a good excuse to reach out to the press. If I was starting Freelance Pod today, I would plan more and release the episodes in seasons of four to six episodes.
Consider having guests and be ambitious in your choices
It was the interview with Charlie Brooker and his Black Mirror producer Annabel Jones that made the podcast Black Mirror Cracked a success. Having an exclusive conversation with the show’s creators gave it the edge over the other podcasts covering the show, and it was very likely a deciding factor for the Black Mirror actors who later agreed to guest on the pod. Brooker’s presence set the podcast at a certain level.
You don’t have to make an interview podcast, but inviting the odd guest on keeps the show interesting, and they will bring an audience of their own to discover their episode.
Podcast interviews are more like conversations and celebrities enjoy them much more than hurried 20-minute press junket interviews. Podcast interviews are about telling stories, and this is where a creative celebrity can shine.
Shoot for the moon and ask your dream celeb to be a guest. The worst that can happen is you get a “no” or no reply. The best is that you get to speak to your hero and their fans will listen too.
Microphone technique matters more than having expensive equipment
Most newbie podcasters think that the more they spend on a microphone, the less that can go wrong. Alas, audio doesn’t work like that. There is a learning curve that’s similar to taking driving lessons. You will have to learn from mistakes and develop a feel for good audio, both in terms of content and sound quality.
It’s how you use the microphone, rather than how fancy it is that will improve your sound – that takes trial and error. I bought this microphone for under £20. Or, you can use the microphone on your mobile phone, as I often do. That’s how we record episodes of the multiple-award-winning podcast The Week Unwrapped – into our mobile phones while on a Zoom call, so we can see each other.
Don’t worry about making your mistakes in public; podcast growth is usually slow, so, fortunately, only a few people will hear your rickety early episodes (everyone’s first few episodes are… not the best). Also? People love watching the creative journeys of content creators they admire. So show that you’re listening to your audience (do your podcast reviews complain about the sound? Then do something about that) and document your growth on social media. Share your knowledge and your techniques. Think about the visuals that will enhance your sound and share some studio photos online.
Learn what makes a good room for sound
One day, you’ll be able to walk into a room and say immediately whether it’ll be good for sound or not. A clue: office meeting rooms are never good for sound, and yet 99% of guests will offer one up for recording. Don’t forget that remote recording is always an option, and is usually better sound quality than a terrible room.
A bad room for recording will be chilly, tiled, unfurnished, uncarpeted, with high ceilings – so fancy bathrooms are out unless that’s a feature of your podcast…
A good room for sound recording will be small, warm, carpeted, furnished, with low ceilings. Remember the wardrobe I mentioned earlier? I record my voiceovers in there because my flat has high ceilings, which can make me sound tinny. Don’t record under your duvet – it gets hot, your throat will go dry and it will sound too muffled.
Keep yourself and your guests hydrated. Don’t let anyone tap on a table or wear jangling jewellery. Before you start, record 30 to 60 seconds of room tone to uncover hidden air conditioning or buzzing sounds that can be taken out in the edit.
Images: Getty, Suchandrika Chakrabarti
Suchandrika Chakrabarti, writer, broadcaster and podcaster
Suchandrika is a writer and broadcaster based in London. She has developed and hosted two podcasts, Black Mirror Cracked and the Lovie-award-nominated Freelance Pod. She is a regular panellist on the award-winning current affairs podcast, The Week Unwrapped. Suchandrika also runs podcast training sessions. See suchandrika.com for more information.