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Podcasting Design

Podcasting has become an over-used term for “Video and Audio Production for Online Sources” (VAPOS) but…until the masses adopt VAPOS as a replacement (something I very much doubt), we’ll be calling this new fangled market Podcasting. Whatever it’s called, I will venture to say…this is the future of television, radio and much of what we think of as “entertainment.” Maybe not today, or in it’s current form, but video and audio online is where cars were in 1904, radio was in 1922, television was in 1952, print publishing was in 1988 and the world wide web was in 1994. If you are in the business of video production, you simply have to pay attention to this market or you will not survive long term and you will give up valuable opportunities.

In this article, I’m going to talk about designing and structuring a podcast along with some of the technical issues that should be considered when producing a podcast. The Pixel Corps produces about 80 episodes of web content a month in 6-8 different structural formats. Much of what I will share is a culmination of many painful lessons we’ve learned over the last 8 years of producing online video.

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Why Do a Podcast?

This of course, is really the first and most important question you need to ask yourself. “Why am I thinking about Podcasts, web video, or production at all?” If you are having a hard time coming up with an answer, let me give you a little help. Here’s where most podcasts come from…

1) Experimentation – This is actually a large focus of the Pixel Corps podcasts. We’re playing with ideas, playing with styles and formats, playing with the production pipe. The best way to figure something out… is to noodle with it. This can be a great reason to do a podcast in itself.

2) Self-Expression – I think about 80,000 of the 90,000 podcasts out there are for this purpose…for better or for worse. This is also 99% of YouTube. The masses have been unleashed and they are wrecking havoc on everything we hold dear in video production. Before you bemoan this, remember, people were going crazy with Photoshop in 1992…many (me) ended up taking it somewhere useful. Even if you are a little stodgier than the average Flip user, Self-Expression is important because if you don’t love what you do, it will be hard to get through the lean times…and if you start doing video on the web now…there will be lean years. Of course, if you wait until the market is moving, the train will have already left the station. We only do podcasts (for ourselves) about subject matter that we enjoy. We don’t wait for advertisers or funding. We create content because we want that kind of content to exist.

Self-Promotion – There are soo many avenues for self-promotion with online video. If you want to get known for something…do a great podcast about it. There is a lot of competition in many areas but the cream still rises to the top. And, if you are patient and diligent, you may end up with hundreds, thousands or even tens of thousands of followers. Just as importantly, you may find clients that are paying a great deal of attention to this. Self-Promotion comes in many forms (this may be the most important part of this article)…here are few ideas…

Getting the word out – This is the most crude and recognizable form of self promotion. You tell people about your product. While sometimes effective, you know how everyone feels about someone who just talks about themselves at parties? Yea, this type promotion often works just as badly. You can do it but the less people feel like you are selling something and the more they feel you are serving them, the more they will be interested in what you’re serving up.

Education – This is generally the most effective form of self-promotion using online video. Make sure people know how to use your product, make sure their questions are answered, make sure they understand the context for why your product exists. These kinds of videos deepen the company’s relationship with their consumers and makes sure those consumers have a good experience and spread the word. Here are a few good examples…

elfa
Elfa, like Ikea, Target, Staples, and a host of others, makes stuff that looks easy to build but turns out to be a weekend of swearing at the instructions and drinking hard liquor when you’re done to sooth the mental, and sometimes physical pain. Elfa recently posted videos on their site to show that it is, indeed, easy! …Once you know what you’re doing. After 20 minutes of watching the videos, the customer can breeze through the operation rather than guess what the writers mean in the “intelligence test” written instructions that most of us fail. The customer gets their closet up fast, buys again, and tells their friends…success.

Whirlpool
Whirlpool takes frequently asked questions and hires people to make videos of the answers. This creates happy customers and reduces support call time (which saves lots of money). It’s also often more effective to watch the video than try to talk it through with a customer service rep in India.

Boxwrench.net
Holley ships a DVD of how to install and tune their carburetors with each unit. Why would they do this if it’s just mechanics looking at the videos? Because it reduces installation errors and thus reduces returns…saving, you guessed it, lots of money for Holley.

These are examples of the revolution coming…where it’s not “BMW films” but how-to’s and support videos that make sure that consumers know what their buying and know how to use it. Before you turn your nose up at this market, remember, it’s likely 20-30 times larger than film, TV and games combined.

And the last reason people make podcasts is for, you guessed it, Profit. Money makes the world go round and, while it’s not turning very fast yet, it can and does make money. Here’s the primary ways…

Services for people who want to promote themselves. See points above, consider doing them for someone else…enough said.

Advertising – While advertising is still getting started, there is plenty of money flowing into online video. Some of this is going to places like Hulu.com but it is also going to individual podcasters with niche markets that are coveted by advertisers. Much of this is non-fictional content about subjects people are passionate about. What are people passionate about? Go to the book store, walk through the magazine section. Welcome to 1000 passionate niches. You don’t have to do all footwork to get advertisers on your own, by the way. Websites like YouTube, Blip, Wizzard, Vimeo, and Howcast would be happy to sell advertising for you. We actually have an ad sales partner, Podtrac.com, who handles most of our advertising.

3) Clickthrough – While it’s a small market now, this is bound to grow – a lot. The idea is – that you are watching a cooking show and you want Alton Brown’s knife or pan or eggs. You click on them, order them and then go back to the show. Most people think that this won’t work because they are imagining this happening during a viewing of “Ocean’s 11.” Narrative is not the venue for this. How-to content is the perfect venue because starting and stopping is not that disruptive and because you have an audience interested in something specific. As devices like the iPhone mature, expect to see much more of this kind of content. Revenue can be either on the click-through or the purchase (Amazon Affiliate kind of stuff).


Now, you are probably starting to suspect that I have a leaning towards non-fictional content for podcasting…I do. Narrative is much harder and generally much more expensive to do effectively. Much of this boils down to information density. To a point, you want as much information density as possible. “ER” is very dense…and it costs about $200,000 a minute to be so. Many YouTube videos are not very dense, and they cost less than $5 to be so. As content becomes more dense, it is often more engaging…until it becomes too dense and overwhelming. Creating this density generally requires at least one of three things – Money, Brevity, or Passion. The two things you can get easily is Brevity and Passion. Find something that you or your audience is passionate about and make a short video about it.

So, those are some of the reasons we create Podcasts, how do we structure them? Most podcasts are audio. This is largely because, well, it’s cheaper and you generally don’t need to be as pretty. Also, the Information Density doesn’t need to be as high because we are often doing something else while we are listening to it. Video is more challenging because, generally, you need to fill up the user’s entire attention which requires – more density.

How Do We Make Video Podcasts Work?

Here’s a few tips…

Keep it short – Contrary to popular belief, much of TV, especially non-fictional TV, comes to us in very small increments…usually 6-8 minute increments broken up by commercial breaks. Each one of these little segments often have a beginning, middle and and end…even if that end is a cliffhanger. Think of this process as a guide. 6-8 minutes is a great length. Shorter can be even better. There are plenty of things you can cover in 2-3 minutes. Usually you will measure success by the number of viewers not the number of minutes watched…so don’t use more than you need.

Don’t overfill – One common mistake is to try to pack too much information into a single show. If you are talking faster to get all the content in, you are going the wrong way…reduce the amount of content to a manageable level. Usually, you are trying to post something every week. If you fill up 8 minutes by covering 6 subjects lightly, you just gave up the chance to create 6 episodes – each covering 1 subject well. People like consistency and bite-sized chunks of information.

Keep it moving – You don’t need to be MTV to keep the camera moving…just don’t settle for a screencast or a lock-off with a person talking (or worse – a lock-off of two people talking). These options are great remedies for insomnia. By moving the camera around, you keep the content fresh. Show different angles and give the viewer what they need next. You can do this through multicam shooting or well designed single camera shooting.

Think in Mass – At the Pixel Corps, we will shoot up to 20 episodes in a day. This “Ford Motor Company” approach makes a big difference in consistency and cost. DON’T do this on day one. Here’s how we approach a new model – Record one and noodle with it, take notes, refine the process. Then record 4 more, learn from the mistakes. Then record 10-20 a day. If you come out of the gate shooting 10-20 a day, mistakes will stay with you for a long time.

Audio, Audio, Audio – As video folks, we often overlook audio. In TV and film, it’s at least 50% of the product. For online video, where the video is often mashed up, it’s 70-90% of the experience. We spend a lot on audio gear…and it’s worth it.


Gear Up

So, now we know what we want to create and some rough ideas about the structure. Let’s talk tech…what do you need to produce Web video? As with all things, the person behind the gear is more important than the gear itself but there are some tools that make a difference…

Good Mics – We use Sennheiser 416 Shotguns for 80% of our recordings when we need to boom. SM-58s are the go-to mics for hand helds, Heil PR-40s for studio work, Audio Technica AT-803s for Lavs and Countryman mics for concealed audio capture. Each mic has their purpose and we consider all of them necessary. We typically over-mic everything, with 2-4 mics used in even simple environments. We also will often have a camera pull left channel from an external Mic and right channel from camera’s internal mic. This serves as a back-up and a sync check (as you run audio through equipment, you can loose anywhere from 0-7 frames of sync…)

Good Audio capture – At minimum, we capture with a Zoom H4, which is surprisingly high quality for the price. We also capture to the camera but rarely depend on it as the only audio recording. Pre-amps in cameras of nearly all prices are…nasty. In most cases, we push the audio through a Sound Devices 702T (which records too). 702Ts are a large investment ($2500) but worth every penny. “Unclippable” limiters are a wonderful thing in uncertain times.

Cameras – For our money, we use Canons for “Small Captures” and Sonys for everything else. We’re always open to new solutions, but we’re pretty happy with what we have. Canon HV30s and HG21s are killer small cameras with relatively good low-light response and most of the manual controls that we’re looking for (the Canon Vixia HF S10 looks very promising but we haven’t tested it). For most of our field work, we use a Sony EX-1 and Sony EX-3. The image quality is superb and the controls are great. We’ve put $80,000 “Football” lenses on the EX-3 with little extra work. For Studio work, we use the Sony F-950 and the Red One. This is a little bit of overkill but high quality (4:4:4 uncompressed) reduces labor…and saves money. Happy clients make more money too. For all the trouble we used to have dealing with keys, we really like having no-compromise options.

Lighting – Most people will get a Lowell or Arri kit to start out. We’ve tended to move on to Kinos and LitePanels (we have 15 1’x1’s that really provide the bulk of our lighting). Both Fluorescents and LEDs provide great light for a fraction of the power and heat…which makes a huge difference. Remember, lighting is cheap to rent. If you plan out 4-10 episodes to record in a day, the cost of renting a few hundred dollars of lighting is low per episode.

Good graphics – Adding a little pizzaz to your podcasts will make a difference. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be hard. For 2D animations, we use a mixture of After Effects and Motion. Motion for 80% of the quick “floaty” graphics and After Effects for the occasional heavy lifting. For 3D, we generally rely on Zaxwerks Pro Animator for Logos and Cinema 4D for digital sets and more complex sweepers. When you are working on your graphics, keep them quick. Even TV is shortening the opens and sweepers. Think 5-10 seconds max for an open.

Editing – We use Final Cut Pro. We’re considering adding Premiere to the puzzle (great new features). One of the biggest reasons we use Final Cut Pro is because the OpenGL performance for our plug-ins is easier to implement and the XML base is easier to manipulate in code than Binary file formats.


Publishing

Once you have your episodes done, you need to compress them for the world to see. To compress our footage, we use a mixture of Apple’s Compressor (because we can export easily from Final Cut Pro Studio), Adobe’s Media Encoder (Easy Flash export), and Telestream’s Episode Pro (Total control).

Audio podcasts are compressed to MP3s for clients. We only use AAC for our own podcasts because we don’t like using formats that aren’t extensible. We loose some listeners because of this but we have one solid format instead of many bad ones.

Video compression has become easier over time. H.264 is quickly becoming the standard for both Quicktime and Flash. This makes the compression process much easier. While the transition is not complete (we still compress individually for Quicktime and Flash), we’re not very far from a unified video standard (or as close as we are bound to get). We get many inquiries as to how we get small file sizes. There are many answers but the most prevalent is Keyframe spacing. This is typically set to 24. We usually set this to 100-200 for lock-off studio work and 50 for field work. This will cut the size of the videos in half. It will still drop natural keyframes for edits but you will pay much less in filesize from cut to cut.

Video size also a prickly subject. There are more than enough formats for TV and Film alone – and there even more for the Web. Pretty much every resolution is “legal” which makes it the wild wild west. For the sake of sanity, we’ve begun to standardize on two sizes – 640×360 and 960×540. 640×360 is basically the largest size you can play on an iPhone and 960×540 is the maximum size most people will be able to resolve on their computer. By the way, 960×540 is essentially Square Pixel Standard Definition (720×540) but at 16×9. It’s very hard to see the difference between this size and 1280×720 on screens less than 37″ from our tests. The one caveat is that if you want something to show up as “HD” on YouTube, you need to submit at a minimum of 1280×720 (even though YouTube HD plays back at, you guessed it, 960×540). Our internal pipe operates at 1080p 24 fps so this is just a choice of output. Progressive, by the way, is important because computers display interlace footage badly.

Now that you have your show. You need to find somewhere to put it. There are two very large outlets and then a myriad of other options. iTunes and YouTube are the largest options. They command probably 70% of the market. Here are some of the pros and cons of the process…

iTunes:

Pros:

  • You can use any Quicktime format at any size Quicktime supports.
  • You control the compression
  • Subscription to peoples computer and iPods/iPhones is effortless
  • Audience is conditioned to episodic products

Cons:

  • You are responsible for Bandwidth (if you become popular, it can be a sizable amount).
  • Smaller market than YouTube
  • Competing with paid content
  • Works best if you have an iPod

YouTube:

Pros:

  • Massive Audience. If you hit it big…it can be millions of viewers
  • You are covered on the bandwidth. If 1 million people download your video, it’s on YouTube’s dime.
  • Experimental Audience

Cons:

  • You have to let YouTube compress and define the format
  • Downloading from YouTube is still in testing (hard to get to iPod)
  • Audience not conditioned to come back for more episodes.
  • Audience can be hostile. They are used to a certain kind of content and can react badly to more refined productions.

If you choose to upload to iTunes, you will need to serve your videos somewhere. The easiest place to do this (while still controlling your compression) is Libsyn/Wizzard Media. For a flat, reasonable rate, you can put your videos online and into iTunes. Libsyn manages the RSS feed, bandwidth, etc. If you are just getting started, this is a great option. Once you get moving and want higher performance, you can move up to Libsyn Pro or Cachefly.

Beyond YouTube and iTunes there are other great services like Blip.tv and Vimeo.com who will manage bandwidth for you (and help promote your work). If you are doing How-to stuff, you can also look at sites like Howcast.com which is working to monetize this kind of content.

No matter what way you go, it’s worth going there. This is an exciting new field in it’s infancy. It may take some time to make money here but if it was easy, everyone would be doing it (and they will be soon enough).


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