The Problem With Podcasting: "Too Expensive", "Overkill", and "Good Enough"
You’ve heard the phrase “content is king” tossed around the podcasting industry, and of course this is true. But oftentimes people use this as an excuse to lower their standards on production and sound quality.
Bad sounding recordings may have been acceptable in 2006 when there were only a few hundred podcasts to choose from. But the reality is that with over 750,000 podcasts available in 2019, any bad recording will have a hundred other shows on the same topic that sound much better. If you skimp on sound quality, you’ll lose your listeners fast!
What Is “Good Enough?”
As an audio engineer in the podcasting world, I obviously see the industry through a different lens—one that some consider “overkill,” “pretentious,” or “not necessary.” But hear me out: in its simplest state, a podcast is nothing more than an audio recording. So if the sound isn’t good, what is it? A bad audio recording.
While browsing Reddit’s r/podcasting “What’s your biggest pet peeve with podcasts” subreddit a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find that the vast majority of the answers included the phrase “bad sounding audio,” or something closely related. What really struck me was that this feedback was vastly different from the claim I’d been hearing repeatedly at Podfest in Orlando, FL the week before: “Your audience will forgive bad sounding audio as long as the content is good.”
Especially because it’s so easy to capture quality audio these days, a bad audio recording says more to your listeners than what they’re already struggling to hear; it shows that they’re not worth the effort of improving your sound, and that they owe you their attention regardless of how influential or groundbreaking your topic is.
Plainly put—podcasters that skimp on audio quality show a lack of respect for their listeners. Ultimately what they’re doing is asking their audience to put up with bad sound in order to gleam those life-changing golden nuggets of information that may or may not be peppered throughout an episode.
The Sound Engineer: Overkill or Underutilized?
Now before you @ me on Twitter with death threats, I understand that opinions from a podcasting subreddit full of other podcasters makes room for a whole lot of selection bias, because these are the people who probably have a better ear for audio quality.
But no matter where you get your information, there is still a non-zero number of potential listeners you are leaving in the dust when you don’t use the knowledge and tools required to improve your show’s sound quality. You are actively betting against the success of your show by not making it accessible to everyone, and, let’s face it, no one will stop listening because your show sounds “too good.”
What really perplexes me is when I hear the term “overkill” used for various aspects of sound production in the podcasting world. From an audio engineering standpoint, podcasting is the easiest and absolute cheapest form of audio content you could ever hope to produce. In a traditional recording studio, you’re looking at equipment ranging anywhere from $500,000-$5,000,000. A single microphone alone can cost you $18,000—a far cry from a podcaster’s "holy grail" mic at $450.
So why, you may ask, can’t I just slap this bitch into Audacity and call it a day? Regardless of its flaws, Audacity is a powerful tool praised for being a free, open-source software that allows podcasters to look at their recordings.
But, much like everything else in today’s technology-heavy society, you get what you pay for. Audacity gets the job done if all you’re trying to do is cut out that awkward part in your recording where your mom came in and asked why you’ve been hanging out in her basement so much. When it comes to mastering sound, Audacity barely skims the surface.
Expensive Equipment and The Race to the Bottom
I once heard someone recommend a $17 Walmart microphone for podcasting and nearly keeled over. Sure, buy what you can to get started, but please, PLEASE, make it a priority to improve your equipment as you go. So often I read people recommending that all podcasters just use the cheapest thing available. This is what I’ve been calling the “race to the bottom,” because it’s fed by the unholy lack of audio quality standards in the industry.
Because there is currently little to no respect or concern for the quality of sound in a podcast, podcasters have developed an odd “hackathon” to discover the least amount of effort required to create a show. If you’re asking your listeners for 45-60 minutes of their undivided attention 2-4 times per month, that’s a BIG ask if your show sounds like garbage.
Rather than bullying new podcasters because they can’t yet afford top-tier equipment, my goal is to flip the conversation and try a different approach when making recommendations. Instead of choosing the one-and-done most expensive mic on the menu, or worse, choosing the mic that your cousin’s friend told you to buy because it’s only $17, let’s ask some questions. What’s your budget? What’s your room like? Are you going to be in a studio, a living room, or in your mom’s basement? What are your goals?
That’s where a professional sound engineer comes in handy. There are so many factors that go into the loaded question, “What mic do I buy?” By consulting with a sound engineer, or better yet, partnering with them to produce high-quality podcasts, you’re giving your listeners what they deserve. The industry’s audio quality standards have come a long way since the days of old radio and the first podcasts, but there’s still so much room for improvement. Give your listeners a great sounding production by reaching out to a professional sound engineer today.