Learning to podcast the easy way or the hard way

An email came to me awhile back that was succinct and to the point. I filed it away in the pile where I keep things that I need to “think about it for a while before blogging about them.” It got me thinking about how I had moved from complete ignorance to a level of accomplishment in one area of modern communication in a short period of time. The teacher in me kicked in and I started wondering if I could really take someone else down the path that I took from beginner to practitioner. I am not 100% sure I can, but this is my best effort.

The query was simply:

“I would really like to learn how to make podcasts such as yours… can you help???”

My first reaction was “I have learned largely by trial and error.” Then I thought “If you were to watch all of the podcasts on this site from the beginning to the present, you would literally watch me get better. (I am not sure I would recommend that by the way.)“ I think I made most of the standard mistakes that any person pod-casting makes, including bad sound, boring type pieces and over use of fades and dissolves in editing. I am tempted to say, don’t make those mistakes and leave it at that, but that wouldn’t be much help….. So, how did I learn to make my particular kind of podcasts?

Like in photography, there were two main things I needed to learn. I wanted to understand what makes a good podcast formally and then learn the technical/presentation aspects of making/presenting such podcasts, including capturing video, animation, and audio as well as how to edit all those elements together. But I also had to learn which content merited a podcast and how to organize and eventually convey that same content in a meaningful way in the podcasts.

I would suggest, as I did, looking at lots of what are called enhanced podcasts to figure out how they are done and what makes them work successfully. Enhanced podcasts refer to ones that use audio, video, animations and still images all together to enhance the viewer’s experience. This is compared to the typical podcasts, which are usually audio only or a straight video recording.

One very important question is why podcast? If you have lessons to impart, stories to tell or experiences to convey, it may be worth the effort to learn how to do it well. On the other hand, if you do not have an audience in mind, I might wonder about the benefit of putting yourself through learning more technologies.

For me, learning to podcast served double duty. I was able to create content to put on this educational web site. That material serves me well because I can send students to these podcats before and after a given workshop so they can immerse themselves in the lessons.

Also, as a publication photographer who needed to learn how to make multi-media pieces for paying clients, I had to learn the skills somehow. As I have blogged about before, I learn best simply by doing, so learning the various software/technologies by trial and error was initially frustrating but now that I am competent with them, I am glad I went through the trouble. Also I lacked the time, the patience and the resources to attend workshops to pick up the same skills that I eventually learned on my own.

In terms of the actual learning process, just like in photography, the formal/technical aspects seemed more daunting at first to me, but over a couple years I refined those skills pretty quickly. Understanding which content merited my time and attention took longer to understand (and is in fact, still something of a work in progress.)

I learned to listen to the questions that I would hear over and over from students. If a question recurred often, I considered whether to turn the questions and my answers into podcasts (or in some cases like this, into a blog entry.) Since photographers are visual learners, podcasts seemed the most logical way to convey the lessons that had come up repeatedly in my classes.

In some of my classes I would eventually try out the lessons/slide shows/diagrams that I was thinking might become parts of future podcasts. Each time I gave certain presentation, I would tweak the imagery, revise the order of the show and redo the way I talked about the material based on how well (or badly) the audience reacted to my work. In general, I try not to take offense at the feedback I get, no matter how negative it may be. Most of the feedback comes from students trying to make me a better teacher, so it is in both of our interests to give and get specific, actionable feedback.

Not everyone has a workshop audience to help them “road test” their “podcasts in the making,” but any photographer can find SOME kind of audience to give them actionable feedback. This is really important because just like in photography you have to know your audience. And just like in photography, the podcaster is not there with the viewer as the viewer watches the podcast, so if that viewer does not “get it,” the podcaster has failed.

In terms of the formal/technical aspects of podcasting, the things I learned (and I would encourage others to learn:)

I would take a class or two in a video editing software like Final Cut X. When I started, the route most people took was to learn the software Sound Slides, then i-Movie and finally graduate to Final Cut Pro. The problem was that the first two programs were easy to learn and they are natural building blocks from one to the other. But I quickly ran into their limitations. Since the new Final Cut X is positioned somewhere between i-Movie and Final Cut Pro, I would cut to the chase, as they say and go right to learning how to use the new Final Cut X.

If you get good at the new Final Cut X you will probably skip the next step I took as well, which was to learn how to use an audio editing software like Audacity. I love Audacity because it is free, easy to learn and if you only want to do simple editing of sound files, it is great. Final Cut, in whatever version you use, has great sound editing tools also, but I have only learned a few of them.

One reason that I have not learned too much about sound editing is that sound is a “whole ‘nother world” that would take years to learn. Like so much of podcasting, I have learned just enough about sound to be reasonably good at it. Almost as importantly, I have learned the importance of getting good sound to begin with so when I edit sound into my final pieces, I have the best material possible. Sound is just like video or still images, as in “garbage in, garbage out.”

One other thing I learned the hard way is that most classes/workshops/on-line tutorials that are focused on video, video editing, sound or sound editing are meant for using those technologies in the video/motion picture industry. You certainly can learn a lot in workshops for that market, but the skills I have in Final Cut Pro and Audacity are more tailored to the peculiarities of pocasting rather then video/motion picture production. If I were now looking for workshops to learn podcasting I would ask, pretty explicitly, if a workshop focused on audio and video for podcasting was an option.

Podcasting is a whole new beast, with a grammar and aesthetic that is still in the process of developing. In some ways that is very exciting because it means that podcasters have opportunities to shape this new “media in the making.” It is also un-nerving since the same lack of rules/strictures can leave a podcaster floundering.

I hope this blog entry helps those learning to podcast. As much as I would like to say I always learn the easy way, the reality in this case was that I learned the hard way. Having both floundered and flourished as podcaster, I prefer the latter but I am better off having gone through the former.

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