Virulent Word of Mouse

November 6, 2010

Making podcasts and creation costs

Filed under: Amusing diversions,Internet economics — Shane Greenstein @ 4:17 pm

I made some podcasts and learned a few things while making them.

To be sure, it was not too hard. But, then again, I had help from someone, Tim DeChant. Though it was the first time either of us had made a podcast, Tim had more of a clue about what to do than I did. Still, we did not cruise through it either,  and the reasons illustrate some lessons about creating content in the digital era.

Anyway, before I get any further, here is a little plug, namely, a link to the pod casts. You also can go to i-tunes and put in my name. A couple (free) pod casts will come up (and more as a new one is released each month). Enough plugging… back to the topic.

What did we learn about the costs of making pod casts? At one level, not much. The cliche’s are really true. The costs of creating information have declined in the digital age. After all, creating content is so easy today that my 13-year old son creates videos for You-Tube. It is not so surprising, therefore, that a couple of PhDs can create a podcast.

I did learn, however, that it pays to invest in high quality equipment. And it sure helps to have somebody around who knows what they are doing like Tim DeChant. There is a learning curve, and his help got us down that curve much faster than if I had done this by myself.

Why make podcasts?

First, a little background about the motivation. I have been writing a column for the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) since 1995. The column appears in Micro, the member magazine devoted to covering topics in microelectronics. It has appeared online more recently, as IEEE developed its web presence. The column focuses on the economics of microelectronics, and it is called “micro-economics.” (Get it? The title is a pun about microelectronics and microeconomics. Alright, alright, the title is not that cute. It seemed like a good idea at the time).

I am an educator at heart, and the columns reach a professional audience that I would otherwise not reach. IEEE limits the columns to 1600 words, but does not restrict the topics much. I can touch a variety of topics the IEEE membership finds interesting. The readers, primarily engineers, are technically sophisticated and pretty smart (judging from the email I receive), so it is possible to move beyond the basics and get deep into a subject. That makes them fun. So I like doing them.

IEEE had never made podcasts of its columnist, and wanted to know if I would try an experiment. IEEE is a voluntary organization, so there was no pressure. I was inclined to try. It sounded a new way to reach an audience.

Truth be told, I had two other motives. I also was curious to see how easy or hard it would be to record a podcast. Also, the podcasts would appear on i-tunes, which — I forecast correctly — would impress my kids. To be sure, when the podcasts eventually got posted, my kid’s adoration only lasted for about three minutes, but I basked in it while I could (like any parent, I take the victories where I can get them).

Anyway, how does one go about making a podcast?

Let me say this. Aspiring is one thing. Actually doing it is another.  I asked my Associate Dean for help, and she sent me to Tim DeChant, who is a Science Writer and Editor for Kellogg Insight. He also has his own blog, Expertly Wrapped.

Prior to contacting Tim, the school had made a few podcasts in a studio in downtown Chicago, but my Associate Dean did not think that was a very effective solution for making podcasts on a regular schedule. So she asked us to try to find a way to do it at the school.

At our first meeting, Tim pulled out his MacBook, and started playing with the software, GarageBand. We agreed to try recording a few podcasts as experiments.

I got part way into reading the first essay and immediately we learned something important: A standard microphone did not work very well. Tim played back the recording. My voice sounded too scratchy. We decided to stop, and find a better microphone. A little later I sent an email to a former student who works at Shure, a Chicago-area company that makes high quality sound equipment. I asked for advise about microphones.

Soon we found ourselves with a high quality microphone from Shure.

I will never settle for schlock equipment again. Wow, a professional mic made an enormous difference. Yes, that should have been obvious, but hearing is believing. Voices recorded with exceptional clarity.

As we should have seen, solving this problem caused another, something rather unexpected. A great microphone picks up any minor noise — the whoosh of air from air conditioning, the faint thump of a door shutting down the hall, and even the shuffling of my body in the chair. This stuff does not matter in a professional studio, but Tim and I had been recording in Tim’s office. That was quiet, but not quiet enough. Innocent footsteps down the hall would cause Tim to look up from his computer, lift off his ear phones and say that he heard it.

The human ear is capable of tuning out these types of low distractions on a normal day, but sensitive microphones have no such capability.  Distracting noise is everywhere! Whistling in a nearby office would come through. A conversation next door was a disaster. A slammed door twenty feet away might cause a problem. And do not get me started about leaf blowers.

In short, we needed a new room, a real quiet room in an isolated location.

Word, words words.

Here is another thing I learned about podcasts. Reading out loud is harder than it sounds.

Look, half of my job  is teaching, so I am comfortable speaking out loud. But pod casts are not recordings of casual conversations with colleagues or extemporaneous lectures to students.They are recordings, and those should not contain pauses, multiple attempts to pronounce foreign words,  tripping over long sentences, and the other oratorical errors common in casual speech. The written words have to read correctly, not slurred.

More to the point, I learned that it is not easy to read my own writing out loud. Reading and speaking require different type of writing. Multisyllabic words slow down speaking, but these are common in my writing. Long sentences that lack rhythm sound odd to my ear. I use too many big words in my columns, and these interrupt the rhythm of reading.

Note to self: in the future, try reading out loud before sending the columns off to the editor.

In other words, I found myself tripping over my own words. Tim and I would start to record, I would get through a few paragraphs, and then screw something up.

That first day we learned a lot about stopping, pausing, and starting again. Tim eventually learned a lot about splicing recordings together. I also learned that I had to *gasp* practice in advance. I began to develop an admiration for Tim’s talents for mastering the recording software.

Actually, I also developed a new admiration for people who do this for a living, such as newscasters, radio personality hosts, and entertainer who live by their voice, such as Garrison Keillor. Like everyone else from his hometown, Kiellor is definitely above average.

Music, symbols and all that

You would think recording would be enough. But, no, there was more. Podcasts require introductory and concluding music (usually from the same theme), and a symbol for the front matter.

The music led to a hilarious set of misadventures. The IEEE wanted me to use royalty-free music (which is understandable), so I was sent to a few web pages where aspiring artists put tracks up for sampling.

Surfing these sites is not everyone’s definition of fun. A lot of the music sounded like new age songs sung by blind Albanian nuns. That is ok if you are in the mood for it, and, though I rarely was in such a mood, I do have a high tolerance for ethnic music from the forgotten parts of central Europe, a taste developed from years doing folk dance before my wife and I met. I spent more time on this search than was probably optimal.

I found something I liked, a old folk dance tune called Dospatsko Horo (the first word sort of rhymes with gazpatcho), recorded by a new age group called Panacea, who seems to be trying to break in to the music scene by putting stuff on line in royalty free form. Best of luck to them.

Anyway, a podcast only needs a few snippets of music and so I found a couple refrains that worked for an intro and outro. I played it for my wife. She gave me one of those looks that only a spouse is permitted to give — somewhere between disbelief and resignation. My contact at IEEE did not seem to have much enthusiasm either.

Eventually Tim found a little ditty that seemed to work just fine. A harmless piano tune. It actually works reasonably well.

That left one thing. We had to find a symbol. That was easy. Mouse on a computer mouse is the theme for this blog. We went back to the original image for this blog (in the upper right), but they wanted too much money for IEEE’s taste, especially since IEEE was not going to make any money. So IEEE sent me to a cheaper site, and I found an image that was close. IEEE made a licensing deal, and that was that.

BTW, I liked the image so much I contacted the sitte again, made a deal for myself, and started using the image in this blog. See it on the left?

What lessons?

It took a while to get started. Now Tim and I know how to make podcasts. Now it is easy.

The cliche’s are true. Creation costs have come down in the modern era, but the costs are not zero. Moreover, for amateurs reaching those low creation costs involves a learning curve. The learning curve involves considerable cumbersome effort. I shared some of the lessons I learned in this post in the hope that it might save someone else the trouble.

Oh, yes, most of all, do not skimp on good microphone.

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