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Oct 23, 2018
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Parsing the Particulars of Producing a Podcast

I love crime. Let me try that again. I love true crime. I’m addicted to true crime podcasts, like ”Criminal,” “Sword and Scale,” “Serial” (the first season), “S-Town,” and “My Favorite Murder.” I listen to them in the shower, when I’m driving, at the gym. Basically, I am always plugged in. I’ve thought about starting a podcast of my own, one that focuses on international white-collar crime. How cool would that be? Banking fraud, identity theft, money laundering; I want it to have everything. What are your tips on getting a podcast started? What about research or marketing; or suggestions of types of crimes to look into. Give it to me!

You asked us how cool would it be? We think it would be very cool. Good on you to see and capitalize on a niche in a world that you love. There are many, many podcasts out there, so having a niche is already a good start. However, you have some pretty formidable podcasts to compete with. How do you overcome the challenges of getting your podcast heard, while taking advantage of the fact that there is a huge audience out there for your material?

First, set reasonable goals for yourself. Even though every podcaster wants to become a cultural phenomenon like “S-Town,” even for hits in a modern form like podcasting the old adage holds true: every overnight success is ten years in the making. Take “S-Town,” for example. Brian Reed, the host of S-Town, worked on the story of Woodstock, Alabama for years before producing the podcast, and worked at This American Life for years before that. Rather than starting out your podcast with the ambition of it “having everything,” research a few compelling stories until you know them inside and out.

Next, create a structure for your podcast. How many stories will you tell per episode? Will you have recurring sections? Like a film, good podcasts have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When your audience puts their earbuds in, they will want some kind of structure. This article by Coverkit discusses six types of podcast structures. The more your format and standardize the structure of your episodes, the easier your stories will be to produce.

The same rule of setting reasonable goals applies to marketing your podcast. Digital Coast Marketing, an SEO company in South Carolina, writes that as a new business you want to focus your energy on organic (i.e. free) search results, so when people search for “true crime podcasts” yours is one that comes up. You will want to spend additional time reaching out to other people in the true-crime community, including fans of similar podcasts, groups devoted to them, even other podcasters. If you are producing a quality product, people will be more inclined to pay attention to your work, but you have to put that product in front of their nodes. Audience-building is hard work, but it could be worth it. You will need to build an audience if you want to one day monetize your podcast (i.e. read ads). Ads make money, but you have to have a committed listener base to get advertisers to listen to you. It can take years to gain that traction. Set your sites towards what is achievable: 10 listeners, 100 listeners, 200.

You asked what type of crimes we would recommend looking into. More important than the crime is the reason why audiences find that crime compelling. Take something that puts people to sleep: CPAP machines and CPAP cleaner. They’re devices used to treat sleep apnea. But as Constantine Cannon’s article on sleep-disorder fraud makes clear, unscrupulous doctors cost taxpayers millions of dollars a year. Or take good, old-fashioned auto insurance fraud. The Insurance Company of British Columbia, or ICBC, provides basic insurance to all vehicles registered in British Columbia (this is according to Preszler Law BC, a law firm that handles claims for ICBC Vancouver). ICBC estimates that 10%-20% of insurance cases contain an element of fraud or exaggeration. This costs over $600 million. It’s a perfect example of something dramatic in aggregate, though most of the public is unaware of it. Stories like this, in which you demonstrate how crimes affect the listener in surprising and unexpected ways, are like catnip to podcast audiences.

Finally, we should mention that producing your podcast, which is about crime, has a moral dimension to it. Take a look at this website put together by the team behind a formal legal complaint against UAE filed by Howard Fensterman. The legalese is daunting, but the premise is that the Kingdom of Abu Dhabi’s Union National Bank defrauded American investors out of several millions of dollars. It is a story with everything you could ask for: bank fraud, kidnappings, and assassination threats, involving the brother of the Crown Prince and a conspiracy by the Abu Dhabi police to squelch the crimes. However, the story is the legal complaint of one law firm, and it brings up a moral dilemma for you starting your podcast: do you go for the juicy stories, or do you go for objectivity? The Society of Professional Journalists has an extensive ethics code, and as a podcaster, you can choose to abide by those standards or not.

If you were to write about the legal case against the UAE, you, we’re sure, would be savvy enough to know that it has not yet been decided in a court of law, but will your listeners? Since you are their guide into the world of international crime, they will only know what you know. Your words can still have a powerful effect even though you are an amateur. Furthermore, you are delving into what may be the worst part of another person’s life, whether it is the time they were defrauded out of millions of dollars, or the time that they were hauled off to prison. You will need to hold yourself, and especially your sources, to high standards. As Sherlock Holmes said, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

“Content is everything the light touches.”–Ann Handley

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