How to make a podcast: 5 lessons to learn

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Producing a successful podcast involves so much more than hitting record and speaking into a microphone. Managing editor Sophie Knox shares the biggest lessons she learnt while working on season two of HCF's Navigating Parenthood podcast.

Sophie Knox

At Hardie Grant Media (HGM), the year 2020 is all about embracing a multichannel strategy. Today’s consumer is no longer locked into a single channel or platform to digest their information. Let’s take a ride on a multichannel content journey:   

  1. A clever Instagram post alerts a consumer to an alarming health stat. 
  2. They click through to read more about the new research on the brand’s digital hub. 
  3. They extend the experience by watching the visual infographic via video. 
  4. And then they sign up to receive the brand’s eDM to stay across similar content. 
Content marketers’ initial thinking process may begin with a singular idea, crafting the key message and defining the audience, but the activation of that one purpose is now distilled across print, digital, video, PR, social media, and the growth channel everyone’s talking about – podcasts.  

One of HGM’s key clients, not-for-profit health insurer HCF, came to us a few years ago with the request to speak to a specific audience – new parents. Among other content activations, including a three-yearly health magazine, we created and produced the first podcast season of Navigating Parenthood – The Early Years, in which new parents shared their insights about the joys, the heartbreaks, the advice and the stresses of life before and after a newborn. 

For season two, HCF boldly declared its desire to engage with the bewildered parents of teens, those who are scratching their heads about the highs and lows of guiding teenagers through those scarily tumultuous years.  

So throughout 2019, HGM helped HCF create a podcast season that addressed the stresses of study, sex and consent, mental illness, body image and bullying, and grief and resilience.

After 20+ years of working in content creation, I’ve danced around the edges of crafting audio content, but I’ve never produced a podcast series from scratch. What did I learn? SO many things (what I love about working in content right now is that even veterans of the industry are constantly learning). 

I was grateful for the opportunity to help shape this season of Navigating Parenthood. Here are my top five takeaways from a very rich experience of podcast production.

1. How to create responsible mental health content

This learning is not exclusive to podcast production, but it’s certainly relevant in this context because many of our topics were driven by the mental health experience of teenagers in the modern world. 

Once we found our incredibly brave teens who were willing to share their stories, we honoured HCF’s intention to ensure these teens felt comfortable to share their stories in an environment that put their safety first.  

After speaking with expert foundations and organisations, we discovered it was important to ensure they were on the right side of recovery. Our partners, such as experts at The Butterfly Foundation, explained that a person with a “lived experience” of an eating disorder, for example, could be triggered by talking about their situation and potentially fall back into experiencing symptoms again, years after last experiencing those same symptoms. 

We followed best practice in this case, which involves linking your talent with reputable expert organisations, who can ensure they’re ready to speak freely and publicly about their experience without fear of relapsing. 

A woman hugging her daughter from behind

The secondary aspect to creating responsible mental health content is to be guided by the Reporting suicide and mental illness guidelines, which is a resource developed by Mindframe, part of the Australian Government's Departments of Health and Ageing’s national strategy for promoting responsible reporting of suicide and mental illness in the media. 

There’s a media industry hub that’s incredibly useful for all sectors of our business. These guidelines cover how to minimise method and location of suicide, for example, as well as how to communicate and report on eating disorders, mental illness and safe and inclusive language when talking to lived experience people. Our scripting of questions for the podcast talent was deeply informed by these guidelines. 

On top of these two aspects, we also ensured the teens were able to bring support people into the studio for the recording, and they all took us up on this offer, inviting parents, carers and counsellors as well as expert representatives from organisations such as ReachOut into the recording suite. 

In creating this podcast, as with any content creation, it was important to ask what are we trying to achieve? For the Talking to Teens podcast, it was all about giving the teens a voice to share their stories and their very frank admissions about the relationship they have with their parents. There wasn’t a lot of room, or intent, to provide practical tips and guidance for parents – and so HGM helped HCF create supporting digital content, which included online resources for parents.

2. Balancing the client’s needs with the talent

HGM is proud to work with a brand such as HCF – its values are centred around “putting people before profit” and encouraging acts of “Uncommon Care”. The alignment of these values with the purpose of the podcast was a natural fit. 

But still, as content marketers, it was our job to ensure the language of the teens and the content of their stories did not veer outside the walls of HCF’s content pillars. Recording the Sex and Consent episode was an interesting exercise – it was important to balance the honest and often shocking admissions of the teens with HCF’s corporate reputation and responsibility when it comes to talking about teen alcohol consumption and teen sex. 

We carried out careful editing around the mentioning of certain social platforms. We were careful not to jeopardise the predicament of the teen when it came to age and sex and alcohol consumption. We all know that some teens drink alcohol before they reach 18, but HCF could not be seen to support this act so the teens were aware of how they could talk about this issue without themselves admitting to drinking.


3. Finding the right host for your podcast

From the outset, both HCF and HGM knew we needed a special podcast host to steer the teen conversation down the right path – a path that was at times hairy, sad, funny, boring (yes, teens can bang on about boring stuff, too) and truly heartbreaking.  

We needed a person who could talk the teen language, connect with them, without being overly friendly or patronising. Or shame them for making shocking admissions.  

We were looking for someone with the right journalistic acumen to take a line of questioning down a compelling rabbit hole, but also be able to jump out of that hole when the need required. We were looking for someone who had a following but whose reputation would not drown out the purpose of the podcast and the voices of the teen. 

Oh, and that person had to be available for the pre-booked recording session, happy to work with a brand and be driven by its overarching goals, and promote the podcast once released. 

In some ways, we were looking for a unicorn. But that unicorn came in the shape of Rebecca Sparrow. We hunted all over the country for the right host and Rebecca came to us through the work she does in high schools, guiding teens through key moments in their journeys. 

It may seem obvious, but finding the right host comes down to finding a person who shares the same drive and purpose as the podcast itself. Bec’s life mission is to demystify life’s path for teenagers and help parents lead the way. 

Check out one of Bec’s amazing videos about how not to be a bully – after watching this we knew she was the right person for the job.

4. How to nail the script to extract the golden soundbites from your talent

HGM has loads of experience when it comes to crafting the written word, from interviewing talent for editorial features, video scripts and writing press releases, to social posts, magazines and digital content.  

But writing scripts for podcasts comes with an extra layer of complication. In some ways the key steps are the same as the creation of an editorial feature – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end, with a compelling story arc, strong character development and interesting facts and stats scattered throughout. 

BUT an important learning for podcast script writing is that people are unpredictable! And teens even more so – they don’t necessarily talk in story arcs or full sentences… 

So how do you get the golden soundbites? Think about what kind of comments you’re looking while crafting the questions. Predict how you might get those soundbites and be prepared to ask the same question over and over until those golden nuggets reveal themselves.  

Also, lock in 15 minutes of post-interview re-recording to go back and record the full sentences or golden nuggets.

5. How to keep your audience as the number one priority every step of the way

A hard lesson to learn was that sometimes you have to lose good talent or golden soundbites because they don’t fit with your audience messaging. It’s a fact we kept coming back to time and again – who are we talking to and what do they need to know? 

We did away with lots of great parts of the recording because they just weren’t relevant for the audience. In this case the audience was parents of teens – so we kept asking, “Is this revelation insightful for parents?” Any content that didn’t fit that bill either landed on the cutting room floor, OR we thought about how we could reshape it for HCF’s digital content. 

It’s clear that producing a podcast comes with similar considerations to other content creation models but it certainly comes with its own idiosyncrasies. 

Here are a few takeaway questions to ask throughout the process to make your podcast stand out from the crowd:  DOWNLOAD YOUR CUSTOM PODCAST PRODUCTION CHECKLIST

Sophie Knox, managing editor

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