What Every “Getting Started Podcasting” Guide Gets Wrong

And how to actually start a podcast

Podcasting can be a fun, productive, creative, and social hobby. However, there is a barrier of entry to it. It involves learning skills than many soon-to-be podcasters do not have, such as audio recording, production, and editing, as well as community management & promotion.

Before I started my podcast, I took several courses on “how to podcast” and also read many guides. Over my three years of hosting Spectology, I also saw much advice given to other new podcasters. I think a majority of this advice is well intentioned but ultimately ill-fitting to most hobbyist podcasters.

So let me define my audience up front. This is a guide on how to start podcasting for someone who is doing it as a hobby that they wish to grow. It will be opinionated & based on my own experience, and in that way won’t suit everyone. In addition, if your goal is to make a million dollars on patreon, or start a podcast with corporate money for an already-established business, this isn’t the guide for you. I do paid consulting, particularly for the latter, so reach out.

What Most Guides Get Wrong

Let’s start with the problem. Most guides attempt to be a one-size-fits-all intro to podcasting, assuming the audience of “people who want to start a podcast” is homogenous and frankly more sophisticated about the skills involved than my experience shows that audience to be. As such, they throw around jargon without defining it, recommend absurdly priced pieces of hardware, and are more confusing than they are helpful.

I believe this comes from a good place. The authors think of the mistakes they made along the way, understand where they currently are with a set-up that works for them, and assume that recommending that set-up will prevent the audience from making those same mistakes. However, those mistakes were a learning process for them, and they came through it with far more skill than they had when they started. What a guide should be is a process for how to learn those skills less painfully, not a document that assumes you already have those skills.

So Where to Begin?

Let’s start with money. Pocasting can be, but is not usually a free hobby. If you have a computer or a phone, you can use something like Anchor to get started recording, editing, and posting for free. That sounds great, right? The problem is that most free tools come with hidden costs. In the case of Anchor, it’s a proprietary platform that makes it harder to grow your set-up as your skills improve.

On the other hand, many guides will suggest microphones & recorders that cost hundreds of dollars each, and imply that anything less will result in a sub-par product. This is not true! While poor quality equipment can hamper your sound quality, once you hit a certain bar of quality the marginal returns for spending more money are much smaller than the returns on learning better technique.

Finally, many guides even focused at professionals neglect hosting & editing software costs. This is a whole piece of the pie that I think is really important, and will get into as we budget for a beginner. Let’s begin that.

Audio quality can make or break a podcast, especially early on. This does not mean that your audio needs to sound like a professionally edited NPR radio show. Rather, it means that it must hit a certain bar to be listenable.

For a hobbyist recording at home, this means that a less sensitive microphone is actually prefered. In addition, getting something that grows with you over time will ensure that as your get better, you can continue to improve your sound & your set-up without having to throw away your beginner equipment.

A beginner should buy a dynamic, USB microphone that also has an XLR port & a headphone jack. I have used both the Samson Q2U & the Audio Technica AT2005. Both sound great, and my recommendation is to get whichever is cheaper at the time. But let’s go through what all of the bolded terms mean—this is meant to be a learning exercise.

There are two main types of microphones. Condenser mics draw power from their recorder, and are very sensitive. They can pick up the whole range of sounds produced by a human voice, and are also often used to record string instruments and other instruments with a high dynamic range between the loudest & softest sounds in studio settings. However, outside of a studio setting they require a lot of skill to use correctly.

Dynamic mics on the other hand are less sensitive, relying on passive magnets. Professionally, they’re often used in live shows for all instruments & voices, as well as for drums and other instruments that essentially produce one loud sound. They ALSO work really well for hobbyist podcasting, because the lack of sensitivity means that if your voice is the loudest thing close to them, they won’t pick up other sounds like the refrigerator in the other room, or traffic outside your apartment.

Now, what about USB & XLR? XLR is an audio-specific connector, which you might have seen before connecting guitars to amps, or microphones to dedicated sound boards or recorders. For a beginner it’s probably overkill, but over time it might be something you want to upgrade to using. Which is why I recommend a combination mic. You can start off recording by just plugging your mic into your computer with the provided USB cable. Then, if you want to upgrade your sound later, you can get a recorder with out also having to also buy new microphones.

Dedicated recorders like the Zoom H line actually produce better sounding recordings than your computer can. They connect over the XLR cables, and also have dedicated recording chips that make for better sounding digital files. But they are totally unnecessary to begin with, and will create more confusion than anything else. Just record on your computer.

Mic: USB Mic, $70 (or less used)

To get good sound out of any mic, good “mic technique” is crucial. You want to be sitting upright while being relaxed and comfortable. Your mouth should be close to your microphone, and you should not move too much while talking. However, having space to move your mouth away from the mic while not talking is really useful.

Again, this comes down to dynamic mics not being very sensitive. You should be close so that your voice is very loud to the microphone without you having to raise it or talk unnaturally. That way, other quieter noises just won’t get picked up.

One thing that guides often neglect is equipment that makes mic technique easier. $15 spent on a mic stand will produce a MUCH bigger improvement in sound than spending $200 on a mic instead of $50, when you’re starting out. In addition, this is equipment that can mostly stick around as your other equipment improves.

I personally like desk boom arms, because I’m often recording at a desk, table, or in a chair with a side table. The one I use cost $14, and I’ve never needed to upgrade it. There are plenty in this price range on Amazon. If you’re a taller person or have a bigger desk that you need this to attach to the back of, you might want to get the “large” version for a few dollars more.

Also, I highly recommend a pop filter. This does two things. It helps soften air coming out of your mouth when you say “p”s or “t”s or “s”s, making a nicer sounding recording. It ALSO acts as a reminder for how far away you should be from the mic. The pop filter should be adjusted to be about 2 inches away from the mic, and you should put your mouth about 2 inches away from it.

Again, this is a place where it makes no sense to spend a lot of money. Here is one for $10. While better pop filters do exist, outside of a high-end studio setting it won’t make any difference.

Finally, you will want headphones to monitor your own voice in. Earlier, I mentioned that the USB mic should have a headphone jack. This way, you can plug into it and hear your own voice with no latency at all. It won’t feel like an echo on a bad video call, but instead will just feel like you can hear yourself normally. But it will help you know if you’re being too quiet, too loud, or if any unwanted sounds are getting picked up on the mic.

It’s totally find to just use whatever wired ear buds you have lying around. If you’re recording for longer periods of time, you might want “studio” headphones that completely over your ears, they’re more comfortable. This is one place you might want to spend more money, the Sony MDR7506’s are used in recording studios around the world, and also sound great plugged into your computer or iPhone for listening to music. They’re my daily driver headphones. But if you ONLY need these for podcasting, spending $30 for something highly rated on Amazon will work just fine.

Recording equipment: $25-55 total ($15 boom arm, $10 pop filter, optional $30 headphones)

In my opinion, this is vital information that is usually glossed over in most guides. Editing the podcast is where the podcast comes into existence as much, if not more so, as during the recording. In addition, for myself and most hobbyist podcasters I’ve spoken to, we actually spend more time editing that recording.

As such, spending money on software that will make editing easier & faster is directly spending money on your own quality of life.

In addition, it’s hard to “upgrade” software in the same way that you can hardware. Hard-won skills spent learning how to use Garage Band will only partially translate into using better, non-free software.

As such, I usually suggest that folks find one piece of software that works for them, and stick with it.

If you really can’t spend money on editing software, then there are a few options, none of them good. Garage Band is perfectly serviceable music editing software that comes free for any Mac or iPad owner. However, it really is focused on editing music, and to edit podcasts you will have to contort it to your needs, creating a very real barrier of entry to new people.

Audacity is free, open source software available for Mac/Windows/Linux. Audacity works through “destructive editing”, where every change you make in the software gets made directly to the file you’re editing. Most good audio software uses non-destructive editing, where changes made to the underlying audio get applied as filters on top of the main audio, kind of like layers in Photoshop, which makes it MUCH easier to change things as you go. I would highly recommend against using Audacity for podcasting, as you’ll learn how to do a specific type of editing that won’t actually translate to any other software, and it will generally take more of your time to produce inferior episodes.

There are other audio editors available for free, including ones that work on Chrome for chromebook users. If you really need it, I’d do some research and make sure they are non-destructive editors.

However, there are two audio editors on the market that are not very expensive, and are specifically designed for voice, radio, & podcast editing.

The first, and the one I use, is Hindenburg Journalist. This is a decent option because there are multiple upgrade options available. First, it has a 30 day free trial, which is the full software with literally no restrictions on use. Secondly, there are two versions: the regular version, and the “pro” version. The regular version costs $57 to buy outright, and that can be applied to upgrade to the pro version later so you don’t have to pay full price twice to upgrade. Finally, there is the option that I would actually recommend, which is that you can “rent” the Pro version of the software. In this case, you spend $24 for 3 months, or $72 for a full year’s license.

What I recommend is to start with the free trial when you’re just getting started, then do the 3 month license, and then start doing yearly licenses. This is because podcasting is hard, and not everyone actually sticks with it. This is OK! Equipment can be re-sold. But software can’t. So renting software up front is a way to learn whether you actually want to do this long-term without investing for the long term unnecessarily.

Also, if you go this route, then after 3 years & 3 months, you’ll just finally have paid what you would for a full price license up front, so it’s actually very reasonable.

In addition, Hindenburg has a number of really great tutorials and lessons on their website about how to specifically use their software.

The other smart buy is Reaper, at $60. This is much-beloved software that is designed to be easily changed to fit the user’s needs. However, it is best used by people who know exactly what they want to do with it, or who are willing to spend some time up front configuring it to work for podcasts. The good news is that there are plenty of tutorials on how to do this.

My recommendation is that most people should start off renting Hindenburg Pro. This is the most user-friendly podcast editing software, and it will seriously speed up both the time it takes you to learn, and also the time it takes to edit every podcast. Then, if you really get into it and want to spend some time learning new software in order to stop paying monthly, “upgrade” to Reaper.

Software: Hindenburg Pro, $96 for the first 16 months (1 free, 3 at $24, 12 at $72)

The final cost of the podcast is another ongoing one. For the most part, places like iTunes don’t actually host your podcast’s audio. They simply aggregate it from the place you host it. There are plenty of podcast-specific hosting services. A lot of these have a number of plans with slightly different pricing models, but have the same general outline.

This is another place where it’s tempting to go for a free plan like with Anchor, but I do not recommend it. Any free hosting comes with major caveats, an in particular they have licenses where you do not necessarily own the audio you upload to their platform, and can’t easily migrate it elsewhere.

However, I would also recommend against some of the biggest, most established names like libsyn or blubrry for newer hobbyists. While these hosts cater very well to larger podcasts & organizations that have multiple shows, as a hobbyist you should be focused on cheap but flexible hosting.

The host I used and the one I recommend the most is Podbean. For the hobbyist level, Podbean costs about $14/month, which is on the cheap end for any podcast plan. While many hosts have limits on how much audio you can upload, or how many people can download your podcast, even at the sub-$50/month plans, Podbean allows unlimited uploads and downloads, allowing you a lot of flexibility. It has a free plan (which is mostly useful to sign up for before you begin promoting your podcast, to set things up without paying for doing so), and if you pay for a year up front it’s only $9/month.

I’d recommend a similar thing to Hindenburg. Sign up for the free plan at first. Once you’ve gotten your sea legs, have a few episodes ready, and are ready to begin publishing & promoting, sign up for the $14/month plan. Once you’re sure this is a thing you want to keep doing, you can sign up for the $108/year plan and save money that way.

Hosting: Podbean, $150 for the first 16 months (1 free, 3 at $14, 12 at $9)

For everything I’ve mentioned so far, the total budget for the first 16 months of your podcast is
$70 Mic + $25 for other equipment + $96 for editing software + $150 hosting = $340

While this is a large amount of money for many people, it is mostly spread out. It’s about $100 up front cost for equipment, and then monthly $15 payments for the hosting & $24 every 3 months for the editing software. If, after a few episodes you decide you don’t want to continue, you’re only in for the $100 of equipment, which you can probably sell off for $50 to some other poor soul who wants to start a podcast.

And, if you really like it and want to improve your podcasting over time? Everything here is upgradeable. I’d recommend a zoom recorder, as while they’re expensive they really do both improve the quality of your audio files, but also make it easier to take equipment with you & record with multiple people in the same room, or out on the go. I got myself the Zoom H5 after a year of podcasting as a present to myself & for recording a really exciting guest in person, and am glad I did! But I’m also glad I didn’t start with it, because it would have been a lot of pressure to do well, with a specialized piece of equipment whose benefits are not obvious to a beginner.

What I Haven’t Covered (yet)

Starting a podcast is a big subject. So far I’ve only covered equipment and budgeting, because I think those are the things that have the most incorrect or bad advice about them.

Other things to know are who your audience is, what your podcast’s schtick is, and what your over-all goals are for the podcast. It’s also important to understand what podcasts are good for and what they’re not. A podcast is like a blog; it doesn’t promote itself, and you’ll need to find an audience for it & be constantly working to keep & grow that audience.

Also, you’re almost definitely not going to become rich podcasting. Spectology never even broke even, it was always a money-losing proposition for me month over month. But to me, that was fine! I met a lot of great people from it, made friends with both listeners and guests, and has a cool creative hobby that will live on forever on the internet to provide joy & entertainment to other people.

I have advice on all of these things, but that will have to come in a follow up if I ever do one.

I write about language, philosophy, literature, technology, and space.

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