I’ve had an idea for a book in my head for a few years now. Since there
is was a challenge afoot, I started, November 2, 2010, to write that book. This blog will contain the very rough draft and I hope I’ll get a chunk of it out this month. No guarantee I’ll write everyday, but I hope this won’t be the last entry.
Live from my spare room it’s my podcast
There are two ways to do a podcast, live to tape (which I typically prefer for my shows) and edited (which provides more flexibility, but takes more time). From my experience in radio and television, there are some pieces that will make live to tape and streaming shows better.
Failing to plan is…
Preparation really matters in a live show. You really can’t say, “Wait a second, let me look that up as easily.” If you have a person whose job it is to help out, you can have them do it, but talking without getting distracted while looking up information is at least difficult and I personally find it nearly impossible.
Talk radio hosts always have stories that they plan on talking about before they take calls. They shape the conversation by giving people topics that they can form opinions about. Saying, “Let’s talk about something” will often result in no talking whatsoever because people won’t know what in the universe of possible topics to talk about. You don’t walk into class the first day and immediately have a professor ask, “Are there any questions?” No, the topic must be set up first. If a professor did do that, the discussion would be shaped by the first person to come up with a question, not led by prior material.
I’ve never started a show without both general topics and what I was planning to say about them. It just doesn’t work if you hope inspiration strikes in the middle of a show.
Preview the pieces
Having audio or video pieces cued up and ready to go is another part of preparation. At church on a Sunday, I try to never have an element that hasn’t been previewed show up on the screen. There are just too many things that can go wrong. It could be too long or too short or contain something I didn’t expect like a cuss word or have a technical issue. It’s the same way with a podcast. I would never expect an element to play flawlessly unless I’d previewed it using the exact medium that needed to play it live. If it’s a cd, play the cd. If it’s an mp3 player, listen off the mp3 player through your system. If it’s a video clip, watch it playback on the computer or from the tape.
When cueing media, have it ready to play instantaneously. There shouldn’t be 10-15 of time for it to get ready. Have it start at the point where it needs to start. In television, we’d always put a slate (a screen that said what the media was, including duration and any other needed information), bars (to calibrate the video equipment) and tone (to calibrate the audio equipment) and a countdown ending in a second or two of black space. When we used tapes, the leader (these beginning pieces) were initially used for their purpose and then fast forwarded to a frame or two before first video. When you hit play, you got the segment, not any of the other stuff the audience wouldn’t have wanted.
Another piece that’s always helpful especially if the editor isn’t the same person as the one hosting the podcast is “time and out”. If the host knows the segment is 30 seconds and ends with “We can do this!”, they can start immediately instead of waiting and wondering if it’s done.
Related to this is what’s called a “double out”. Sometimes people say the same exact thing twice in a row. In a news show, someone might say, “It’s really a sad thing, really a sad thing.” If you said the “out” was “really a sad thing”, the host might think they should start talking after the first one. Telling them it’s a double out lets them know to listen for the second time it’s said.
Test for trouble
Test all equipment you might use. A loose cord can really mess up a live show, but can easily be prevented just by checking everything ahead of time. I always check my mic by practicing my opening lines. Checking the media, checks their player. Practicing the transitions, checks the smoothness of mute buttons and shows if there is any dust in any of my sliders.
When I did drama in seminary, my director always had us do something called “speed blocking”. We would run through all the play just doing lines that were part of entrances and exits. This might be a helpful practice for a podcast. Start and end each piece to practice the transition so that you know that equipment and media plays fine and plays fine in order.
Video includes two types of segments. They’re different only one way. One is a VO and one’s a SOT. Each is an abbreviation that describes something important about the segment. A VO (pronounced either Vee Oh or Voh when it’s with a SOT) is short for Voice Over. This means that there’s no sound on the segment and that the live person will describe it or it will be used to punctuate what they say. You might have figured out that a SOT has sound. SOT (pronounced Sawt) is short for Sound on Tape. This applies even if the media is a hard drive or some sort of media player. It tells the sound person to play the audio from the video player when that video is being played.
SOTs and VOs can be combined to form VO-SOTs, SOT-VOs or even more elaborate combinations like VO-SOT-VOs or SOT-VO-SOTs. These simple seemingly non-sensical syllables can tell camera people, audio people and talent what to expect very quickly.
There’s a third type of segment that I never ran into in TV, but that’s useful in live music. This is the “click” or “click-track”. This is something of a hybrid. To the audience it’s like a VO where the audio is live while the video is prerecorded, but to a band, there is a SOT feel as the video is synced to a metronome click. This enables just the right words or images to appear at just the perfect time in a song. Used right this is VERY effective in communicating a range of emotions or other information.
Tick tock goes the clock
While podcasts need not be as strict with time as regular broadcast programs, you might want to keep your episodes to around a certain length. If you typically are 15 minutes, a 5 minute show might leave the audience wondering if there was more that they didn’t get in the download and a 90 minute show might make them wonder when it would end.
I try to always over plan because it’s easier to leave a topic out if you’re going longer than anticipated than to add in more that wasn’t planned during a live taping.
In television we’d sometimes say that an element was “dead” if we ran out of time for it. So for example, “Water skiing dog is dead” meant that the story about the water skiing dog had been cut. I realized the problem of this language when I was directing one weekend at church and we cut the song “God” to save time because the pastor was going long. I told my camera guys (without thinking about what I was saying), “God is dead.” We all laughed about that slip up because we knew He was very much alive having just talked to Him about help during a difficult element.
If you have a few people working on your production team, hand signals, white boards, and other silent communication tactics are a must. We sometimes use text message to send details across the room during a service without disturbing people around us. Good communication systems are helpful too as they provide instant feedback and opportunity for clarification. In television, we would use small in-ear monitors so that the producers could talk to on-air talent discretely while they were on camera.
You never need notes!
You might know that television people often have cards or scripts in front of them. You might have also noticed that they rarely look at these cards. The reason is that the cards are a back up for other systems.
With computers so cheaply and readily available, the de facto standard for providing the script visible to on-air talent is the teleprompter. You might have noticed that when the president gives a speech he has two pieces of glass on stands at eye level to each side of the podium where he’s speaking. This is one type of teleprompter. Montors on the floor display backward text that scrolls as he reads. The angled glass reflects the words so he can see what to say, but cameras can’t see what is reflected.
In a studio, the glass is placed in front of the camera lens. The talent looks right at the camera and just reads the words. These systems rely on monitors that display what’s fed to them backwards or software that reverses the video.
A full-screen display of a Microsoft Word document reflected off of a mirror and then a piece of glass in front of a camera can do the same thing for a budget-minded podcaster, but doesn’t have the ability to be edited in another room and refreshed creating a new script as easily as professional systems.
An even cheaper option is “cue cards”. Words are written on poster board and held to the side of the camera lens. They must be changed frequently and fluidly by someone who is paying strict attention to where the talent is in relation to the cards.
Any time you’re starting a show or coming back from a segment, a countdown from at least 5 seconds or more is necessary. When you start with a countdown, the editor knows, this is where the show starts. When you come back from a segment, on-air talent knows, “I need to talk…now”.
As simple as it is, it adds a layer of polish to a production to start exactly at the right time without any gaps or without cutting off the beginning of what someone is saying.
Done well a live podcast can be done completely in minutes and be just as good as an edited one. Many shows you see on tv that look like they’re live are actually shot this way because they can be turned out quickly and minor mistakes can be fixed without the problems that an actual live event presents.