Rusty: You’d need at least a dozen guys doing a combination of cons.
Danny: Like what, do you think?
Rusty: Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boevski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.
In all creative endeavors, one of the most important considerations a project lead has to make is the size of the team. Whether you’re writing a book, stealing 150 million dollars from three Las Vegas Casinos on a single night, or making a podcast, the size of the team affects every facet of the process–budget, work load, happiness, culture, and even the final product.
However, unlike casino heists, podcasts don’t really have a magic number. (Though there is probably a really solid argument for a team of eleven people.) In the Apple Podcast charts right now are podcasts made by teams of hundreds of people and podcasts made by teams of one or two. (And many of those podcasts made by hundreds of people want you to think they're being made by one or two people.) But the size of a podcast team does not directly correlate to success. Shows with massive teams can fail, and shows with just a handful of people can thrive.
All of this is to say that the question of how big to make your podcast team is not straight-forward. You can cut costs on a smaller team, but you might sacrifice perspective, expertise, quality, and the limited capacity of your team's time and energy. On the flip side, like any creative project, bringing on too many people could lead to competing voices, unclear direction, and a podcast that ultimately speaks to no one. Like all things, building your podcast team is a balancing act, and it starts by knowing the kinds of players involved.
There are lots of resources out there one all of the various roles you can have on a podcast team (and a couple dozen articles on what we mean when we talk about “producers” in podcasting)–but to simplify things a little bit, I think we can break down the production of podcasts into four distinct groups. That is, for a successful podcast, you’ll need people accomplishing tasks in each of the following categories.
Writing and Development
The first great myth that you have to overcome when setting out to make a podcast is that you can just turn on the microphone and capture brilliant, extemporaneous conversations. This could not be further from the truth. Whether your podcast is thoroughly scripted narrative, field recordings framed and guided by a host's voice, interviews with guests, or even a weekly conversation between two hosts–someone is doing some kind of writing and development before the episode airs.
I think where this is most shocking is in the last case, the weekly conversation- but it helps if you think of a podcast less as an extemporaneous conversation, and more as a guided discussion. Conversational podcasts often will take time to develop and outline what topics and ideas they want to cover in an episode, and help give the conversation some initial structure–and if there is planning and outlining, it’s part of writing and development. This is where writing and development can really pave the way for the voice, direction, and sonic aesthetics of a show, before anything has even been recorded.
So how big should this team within the team be? It could be as small as one person for a conversational podcast where the development is topic research and conversation outline and structure. As soon as there is written narration involved, such as a host read frame to interview tape, it is probably worth bringing on an editor. Beyond that, the situations for growing your writers room are all case specific. Narrative podcasts will want to hire a story editor, someone who can edit the show from a serial structure perspective. Shows that touch upon personal identities or sensitive topics might want to hire a sensitivity reader. And if there is a lot of material to be collected, you’ll want to work with journalists who can record interviews and field tape, researchers who can pull academic or historical sources, and archivists to sort, organize, and frame all of that information.
Which of course, leads to audio. This is probably the most important category in podcast production, but also the most complex. This is the category where you will absolutely want to hire multiple experts, especially if it’s within your budget. Audio can involve recording and session engineering, audio editing or cutting, sound design, scoring and composing, and mixing and mastering, but each of these can be done to varying degrees. For example, if your podcast involves two people in different places using their own microphones, they will be their own recorders and engineers–or you might use a service like Riverside to record the session and hire a remote engineer to make sure that everyone sounds good before the recording begins.
Just like with writing and development, the size of your audio team will depend heavily on the needs of your show, and the auditory experience you want to provide for your listeners. Again, a two person conversation may rely on a single person to do the sound editing, perhaps attaching some sourced music elements and making sure the mix and levels are good before exporting. In a lot of cases, that is a one person job and anyone with a base set of audio skills can probably accomplish that. You might also want to contract a sound designer or composer to make those musical assets, as they can add a layer of cohesion and unique aesthetic identity to your show that you can’t get any other way. Or, if you have a show with a dynamic audio landscape, you might want to bring on a sound designer and composer as full time members of the audio team.
Finally, I think it’s important to note here that most audio people will have lots of skills. Almost all will have a background in editing in cutting audio. The next most likely skill is some baseline understanding of mixing and leveling. A sound designer will usually have all of the skills to do editing, mixing, and sound design, but a composer will generally only work with music. Again, these are broad sweeping generalizations, and there are certainly people who can do it all. But what’s important to remember for our purposes is that there are diminishing returns to having one person in charge of the entire audio experience, especially when your show is constrained by time and budget.
All of the audio roles have their own scales of complexity, skill, talent, and effort, and it’s important to know what you want your audio team to accomplish, and the kind of auditory experience you want to deliver to your listeners. And if audio is not something you’re familiar with, this is also a good place to have some references to other shows who deliver the experience you want your audience to have, and consult with a sound designer or audio producer about what kind of team it will take to pull that together.
In the same way “editor” is colloquially used as an umbrella term for audio work, “producer” takes an a similarly wise umbrella of meanings in the world of podcasting. But rather than try and hone in on one specific definition, I’d like to focus on everything that needs to be accomplished by the production team. From that perspective, there are lots of different kinds of producers you might bring onto your team. A show needs creative direction, production planning, funding and budgeting, graphic design, marketing and press relations, a social media presence, a website, and transcripts. That is the baseline- the must haves for any podcast. Your show might have one person doing all of that, a team splitting responsibilities, or a person (or more) in each position.
But that’s not the limit of what a production team can do. As your show starts to see some success, you might want to work with community management and engagement to learn about your audience and further your show's relationship with its listeners and online presence. You might also arrive at the point where you can sell ads on your podcast, which comes with it’s own world of writing, audio, and production. In each of these cases, the expansion of the production team can be more work taken on by the current production team, or could involve bringing on new talents and backgrounds.
As I said before, production is a much talked about part of podcasting, but importantly for our conversation, this is the part of your team where there is almost certainly room for more people. Making a podcast is *a lot* of work, and many hands with many expertises make that work not just easier, but better.
Voice and Talent
If the audio team is the most important part of podcast production, the voice and talent are the most under-appreciated. Not least of all because, just like public speaking, there are different skills involved in every kind of voice work that exists in podcasting. Journalists and field reporters, hosts, interviewers, voice over, voice actors-–each one of these is a world of skills and talents in and of itself. Not to mention that the voices are going to be the thing that listeners most closely associated with your podcast. This is the voice that the writers will be writing for, that the audio team will be editing and shaping the show's listening experience around, that the production team will be sharing with the world. In a lot of ways, the talent is the linchpin of the entire podcast.
But of course, a show can have more than one central voice. A host can help a show speak with authority, a singular voice guiding the messaging and the takeaways for the audience. But co-hosts can take a more conversational approach, allowing the listeners to feel like they are a part of the conversation being had. Beyond hosts and co-hosts, you might also see structures like a rotating panel of regular guests, a central voice that frames stories told by journalists or producers, or even rotating hosts. Each style has its strengths and its narrative implications, and it is important to ask yourself how the central voice of your podcast will impact the listeners experience, takeaways, and expectations.
So where does that leave us? Well, in every category, there is room for overlap. Podcast production can span from one person doing all of these roles to two people in each role and beyond. Maybe most obviously is the talent, who oftentimes will also be a part of the writing and production of the show. But when you set out to make a podcast, you’ll want to make sure that you have a team with skills and proficiencies in each of the categories. And when you think about it that way, the argument for one person wearing all of the hats becomes increasingly tenuous. (I say this as a person whose main podcast is an almost entirely one person show with no budget. It is not an ideal way to make a podcast, and the show only improves when I work with collaborators and other creators.) And the very least, you’ll probably want a dedicated sound person, a dedicated producer, and a dedicated creative, for writing and development, hosting, or both.
For a moment though, let us suppose that I was an executive producer for a podcast with a limitless budget. And for simplicity's sake, let's say it's a podcast that features a weekly conversation between myself and a guest. How many people would I hire, would they be part time, contract, or freelance, and for what roles?
-A writer and a script editor, both part time, to research the guest, write questions, structure the conversation and narrative, and write an introduction for the host to record as VO for the frame and the credits.
-A recording engineer, a sound editor, and a mixer, all part time. Seeing as this is a podcast whose musical assets are going to be pretty fixed, I would probably either work with a company like Blue Dot Sessions to license music, or work with a composer on contract to make a theme song and interstitial music. I would also want to bring in a freelance sound designer at the beginning of the project to help guide the audio aesthetic and create any additional elements or sound cues we needed.
-A content producer, part-time, who coordinates the creative team and manages the distribution of the final product. A digital producer, part-time, to manage the distribution of the show, transcripts, social media and the website. A marketing producer, part-time, to run not just marketing, but press and community engagement,and outreach with other shows for cross-promotion. And a graphic designer, contracted if it was just to produce the show art and logo, or freelance if I wanted them to work with the marketing and digital producers to create any social graphics, promotional art, or press kit elements.
And me as the executive producer and host makes... eleven! I told you it could be done.
T.H. Ponders is the creator of Accession, a narrative nonfiction art history podcast, and The Wanderer, an audio folktale. They've worked on dozens of other podcasts as a sound designer, writer, producer, and story consultant. They live at the table in the back corner of a local coffee shop in Boston, Massachusetts.