How to make a longform narrative podcast without breaking the bank

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If you’re from a small town, you might know the feeling.

You open up Facebook and practically all of your friends from home are freaking out. Either last night’s winning Powerball ticket was sold at the local Wawa or something is horribly wrong. On November 1, 2017 in my hometown it was the latter.

That day the news broke that our former police chief had become the first American police officer in over a decade to be charged with a hate crime, according to CNN. Needless to say, residents were shocked. As the media coverage mounted, that shock turned to anger. How did this happen here?

About three months later, the community gathered to discuss this question and many more with local leaders. I showed up too, with a small handheld microphone I bought a couple of years ago, in an effort to pretend to be a real journalist.

I pressed record, listened and realized something. Residents were already well informed. They knew two of the chief’s own officers were secretly recording his alleged racist rants for at least two years. They also knew of – and in some cases experienced – the chief’s use of police dogs to intimidate people of color. These were all details highlighted in local news coverage.

But what they didn’t know – what was left uninvestigated – was how the chief could possibly have remained in his position for 10 years without local leaders catching on. Local officials would not comment on the details. Like my neighbors, I wanted to know those details. But I had no idea where to start.

After all, and maybe like others thinking about producing their first longform podcast, I was only a pretend journalist at this point. One with even less of a budget than local media outlets already lacking the resources to investigate the story themselves.

But, somehow, nearly a year and a half later, “Stay the Fuck Out of Bordentown,” my five-part podcast, was complete.

Below is my production process; what I learned from it and how you, fellow pretend journalist, can do it too.

First things first – Equipment

You can find a preowned Zoom H1N Handy Recorder, the same one I used to record the community meeting, listed on eBay for $68.00. Not exactly cheap, though a good investment for a medium contingent on immersive sound.

You’ll also need a pair of headphones. Here’s one for $10.

But keep in mind the best microphone is the one you have (that goes for headphones too). I was lucky enough to borrow more advanced equipment (a Zoom H4N recorder, AudioTechnica AT1080 condenser microphone, Sony MDR-7506 headphones, XLR cable and batteries) from my university for a couple of interviews.

These useful luxuries will definitely make a difference in your sound quality, but I can’t stress this enough: You can still make it work with just a phone and a good story.

Second – About that story… where do I find it?

It depends. Much of mine was on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, a website lawyers and journalists use to locate court cases and documents. It’s a little janky and the UI is terrible (I’m convinced this is on purpose) but it might just provide you with everything you’ve ever wanted, as it did for me.

I found a treasure trove: hundreds of court documents and FBI interviews with local officers. It was gold.

The only way to organize all that information I downloaded from PACER was to print it all out and color code the relevant bits with highlighters and Post-it notes.

But was it free? Not entirely. Registration is free but downloading and printing the documents you access will cost you $.10 a page; however, if your usage fee is under $15 a month, the fee is waived.

Unfortunately, my treasure trove was uploaded to the system in an unsearchable PDF format. So the only way to organize all that information was to print it all out and color code the relevant bits with highlighters and Post-it notes. I spent $20.10 in total.

Your podcast may not revolve around a court case. That’s cool! You may have access to other helpful databases and search tools like LexisNexis Library Express through your local public library for free. Ask your librarian!

Third – Real people

Sometimes audio journalism demands much more from a story than a traditional medium might.

In this case, many newspaper articles about the chief relied mostly on those FBI documents and officer interviews (which can be fraught to begin with). But because I was making a podcast I didn’t just need new reporting – I needed new *voices*. That meant interviewing subjects in the flesh – or at the very least, on the phone.

Through some social media sleuthing and a basic WhitePages.com account ($4.99/month), I found all new and original sources. All of whom completely reframed the narrative from a previously reported crime story to a fresh, broader political one.

Of course, all these in-person interviews required transportation. I’ll estimate about $25 in gas for getting to and from my house and those locations. Like I said – it’s a small town. If yours isn’t, plan accordingly.

At one point, the community gathered to discuss the case with local leaders. I showed up too, with a small handheld microphone.

Fourth – Buying storage is not the same as buying organization

This was by far the loftiest project I’ve ever worked on.

I bought two books on policing ($20), scanned hundreds of pages of court documents and town meeting minutes, searched hundreds of old articles, read countless social media posts by town officials, recorded and transcribed tens of hours of community meetings and interviews, wrote draft after draft of each episode, created and produced original music to score each episode, tracked hours of voice over and edited it all together.

It was a nightmare to organize.

Even more nightmarish? Losing all that organization to a clumsy coffee spill.

Invest in storage, preferably online. Google Drive lets you store 10 GB for free, which you’ll go over pretty quickly given the hours of .wav audio files you’ll upload. I payed $1.99/month for 100GB of storage – less than that dreadful cup of coffee.

Sadly that price does not include a personal assistant. You’ll still have to do all the hard work, so learn from my mistakes.

I transcribed all of my interviews in Google Docs myself. There are services that will do this for you but they can get expensive quickly. Plus, doing it myself gave me an intimate knowledge of the story that I wouldn’t have otherwise had and I truly believe it was worth the time.

Color code every piece of information and keep those colors consistent across all your physical documents, Google Docs and spreadsheets. A certain kind of anecdote or statistic may be blue, another green. Whatever works for you.

Once you start the drafting process you can zoom out on your episode in Google Docs and observe the color trend. Is there not enough yellow in this section? Way too much purple in episode three? Balance how you like.

Always keep those facts marked with their original source, be it an interview or a page number on a document. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to take shortcuts when working with such a large amount of information. Choose a labeling system that works for you. This will make all final fact-checking more reliable and much faster.

Fifth – Finally the fun stuff!

I spent about eight focused months on my podcast. The last two spent putting it all together were the most stressful and the most rewarding.

Both feelings were the result of all that colorful mess. Because I had to find a way to contextualize those court document anecdotes, I needed to form a cohesive narrative to record with my microphone.

Each interview became a moment and each moment a pillar to build upon. I recorded a parade with zero idea what I’d use it for. I just loved the sound. Then, months later, I realized it was a perfect vehicle for telling a subject’s story. Dumb luck. So record everything. You won’t realize how important a moment was until it’s over. Build around those moments in your episodes.

I recorded a parade with zero idea what I’d use it for. I just loved the sound. Then, months later, I realized it was a perfect vehicle for telling a subject’s story. Dumb luck.

You may not be there to capture a police chief’s alleged racist remarks, but you’ll be able to explain what it means for a resident a year later to see children in costumes rush up to a cop car in the hopes candy might come flying their way.

One warning on this, though: Don’t force it. Listeners can’t backtrack like readers can. Keep your story simple, linear and interesting.

Once you’ve written your episodes, you’re gonna need just a couple more things until you’ve got a finished podcast. The first is called a Digital Audio Workstation. It’s the software used to put all the pieces together. There are many expensive ones. I used Apple’s Logic Pro X. It’s like GarageBand’s stronger older brother who also happens to cost $200 for students. If you have a Mac and don’t feel like making the investment, just use GarageBand. It will work just fine. Check here for Windows options.

I used Apple’s Logic Pro X. It’s like GarageBand’s stronger older brother who also happens to cost $200 for students.

If you don’t know how to edit audio, go back to that library and learn with Lynda for free! Or just YouTube it.

The next thing you’ll need is music. I made all the music for “Stay the Fuck Out of Bordentown.” It was a lot of work. I needed music that was serious, intriguing, pleasant but not distracting. You can do all the reporting and writing you want but if the listening experience sucks nothing will matter.

Music should not be an afterthought. It’s been linked with memory and storytelling since Homer. You’re not better than Homer. Think about your podcast’s vibe from the beginning. Take it seriously.

Don’t worry about making your own though. You can sign up for a free trial here and gain access to 30,000 songs of all different moods.

Last – Distribution

Once you’ve birthed your genius new podcast, you need to find a place for it to live. There are several hosting and distribution services you can use – for a price. Directly uploading to Soundcloud for free made the most sense for me. But explore what options are right for you.

Once it’s published it’s ready for an audience. If you figure out how to market your podcast effectively and cheaply, give me a call.

What I learned…

I think the central tension for journalists (even pretend ones) thinking about starting a longform podcast is the cost/benefit analysis. We’ve all heard of the infamous “pivot-to-video” strategy (and its dubious origins).

Similarly, there’s been a lot of excitement (and deflation) surrounding podcasting. Is it worth the time/talent/money, especially for struggling local journalists and media organizations?

I don’t know.

But I do know how an allegedly racist police chief of my hometown stayed in power for 10 years only to become the first American police officer to be charged with a hate crime in the same amount of time. My Facebook friends and neighbors now do too.

So what do you want to know?

Grant Hill
Grant Hill is a recent graduate of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism and the founder of Local Trance Media, a podcasting organization. His interests include the criminal justice system, politics and trying to survive our shifting media landscape. When he’s not lamenting the advent of social media to a stranger, he’s probably got his headphones in. Feel free to interrupt him here.

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