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Chapter 4. Formats > Build an MP3zine

Hack 31. Build an MP3zine

Create a magazine-style podcast that your listeners can thumb through with their iPods.

MP3zines have all the benefits of print magazines, and all the conveniences associated with MP3 audio, RSS, and the World Wide Web. They have a table of contents, articles, advertisements, letters (or voice mail) to the editor, and editorials. But, they are distributed as podcasts. I am the editor, and one of the contributors, for the Dailysonic MP3zine (http://dailysonic.com). In this hack, I'll share the philosophies that guide us, and some of the lessons that we've learned in building Dailysonic.

Dailysonic's primary goal is to create unique and engaging content for our listeners. Five key elements work together to create the quality content in our show:

  • Having multiple contributors who are willing to challenge themselves and try new things

  • Constructing a show with interesting and engaging content, in a way that is easy to understand and navigate

  • Using content that balances the elements of familiarity and surprise to keep current listeners and attract new ones

  • Harnessing the potential of music/sound's abilities to transport listeners, connect with the human element, and elicit emotion

  • Using the Web and the audio together, to create a complete interactive experience

Once the newness of podcasting's technology wears off, content will be the only thing that matters. We spend the majority of our time brainstorming, researching, and writing. It is important to have variety among our segments so that we have something of interest for everyone. We have segments for world news, underground and indie music, the human element, fringe and urban culture, travel, and technology.

Having multiple contributors makes the job of producing top-notch content a lot easier. Each contributor brings his unique perspective to the program. I recommend that you find people who want to contribute content and who can deliver it on time. Get your friends and colleagues involved, or collaborate with other podcasters.

The Internet makes it easy to collaborate with people who are far away. Our contributors record, edit, and produce their segments remotely, convert them to MP3, and email or FTP them to me. We also use Skype extensively for interviews [Hack #35].

4.13.1. Structure

Starting with a rundown makes it easy for listeners to navigate the show. Similar to a table of contents, a rundown briefly describes each segment in the episode, and lists the minute marker for each segment so that listeners can skip around easily and can take advantage of the medium's on-demand nature. The rundown also goes on the web page. This makes it even easier for listeners to navigate the episode, and allows potential listeners to decide if the episode is of interest before they download or subscribe.

Our segments are timed so that they start at whole-minute markers. It's much easier for a listener to remember "the 12-minute marker" than it is for him to remember "the 11-minute, 46-second marker." We use music, public service announcements, and advertisements to fill in time and round out minute markers.

When choosing segments for an episode, I think about familiarity and surprise. Familiar elements (such as a theme song, a steady host, or recurring segments) are important in making listeners feel at home and giving them something to expect. But too much familiarity can lead to a show that's boring or too exclusive (i.e., rehashing the same inside jokes, over and over). On the same note, too much surprise can turn listeners off or make them feel uneasy.

Recurring segments [Hack #20] give listeners something to look forward to and a reason to come back for more. Having regularly recurring segments gives you and your contributors a specific framework to work in, which is helpful when you're having trouble coming up with new ideas. It's much easier to write a segment on a specific topic (e.g., travel) than it is to write about anything under the sun.

Segments can recur daily, weekly, and even monthly. For example, every day at the two-minute marker, we discuss important world news. We have a daily one-minute radio drama that serves as Dailysonic's "cartoon." Every Tuesday, we have a three-minute segment called "Isaac Dolom's Science Hour." Also, each week, we have a music series about a different artist, genre, or theme.

4.13.2. Challenging Yourself

To create surprising content for your listeners, you have to surprise and challenge yourself. One feature that comes to mind is the one I did on the Idiotarod—a shopping-cart race through New York City, which is based on the Iditarod, the Alaskan sled dog race.

At the time, I had no experience doing sound work in the field and I didn't feel comfortable approaching people on the street for interviews. When I arrived at the start of the race, I was overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. When I saw "real" television cameras I even questioned my legitimacy as a reporter. But when the race started, I stepped up and captured the sound of hundreds of shopping carts rolling along the asphalt, and the crowds cheering wildly.

I made some mistakes. I accidentally recorded over the beginning of the race. But as the day rolled on (no pun intended), I became more comfortable approaching people with a microphone. I even ran alongside some of the racers to conduct interviews on the go. I learned some valuable lessons about working in the field, interviewing people, and properly using my portable mini-disc recorder [Hack #69]. At the end of the day, I felt much more confident in my abilities and I was glad that I challenged myself. The Idiotarod feature (http://Dailysonic.com/excerpts/Idiotarod.mp3) came out great, and it was a welcome surprise for Dailysonic's listeners, who until then mostly had been hearing pieces done in the studio.

The ambient sounds of the shopping-cart race transported listeners to that very time and place. The quiet of early morning, the tacky music and fluorescent hum in the supermarket, the sounds of a backroom poker game or of children at play; all of these sounds can transport listeners to another time and place. One of the best ways to get these sounds is to record them yourself with a mini-disc recorder and a stereo microphone.

Sound connects listeners with the human element. Another of Dailysonic's contributors, Anni, prefers to conduct interviews in cafés or other public spaces, as opposed to the quiet and sterile studio environment. The background chatter [Hack #64] of a café is enough to remind listeners that Anni and her interviewee are real people, just like they are. All too often, mainstream media flattens people's personalities, and it turns nonactors into actors. Our magazine is about people, and we want them to sound genuine.

4.13.3. Music

Music plays an important role in Dailysonic's production. It does all the same things that field-recorded sound can do: it transports the listener, connects with the human element, and elicits emotion. All the members of Dailysonic have extremely strong musical tastes. It's an unspoken duty of ours to expose listeners to the great music that mainstream radio all too often ignores. Aaron, another one of Dailysonic's contributors, has been known to spend hours sifting through crates of vinyl in antique stores, looking for that ultimate musical gem.

We weave music [Hack #63] into every aspect of our magazine. The music we play under the news tries to match the mood of the day's headlines (usually somber indie rock). Sometimes we choose songs for their message. For a story on the suicide rate among farmers in India we chose songs by Radio-head, a band that repeatedly has spoken out against globalization and supports fair wages for workers. On St. Patrick's Day, we use music by bands from Ireland. During our travel segments, we match the music to the region we visit.

4.13.4. Using the Web Site

A web site is the second face of your magazine podcast. We encourage our listeners to visit our web site, where we offer links to follow up on the topics we discuss and the music we play. We use the web site to post photographs from field pieces, outtakes, and extended versions of interviews. And we interact with our listeners through a message board where they discuss the shows and interact with each other.

In encouraging listeners to visit the web site both before listening to the show (to download the show and/or view the rundown) and after (to follow up on a segment or music), the listener both sees and hears ads. This allows advertisers to reinforce their brand through multiple media, and to gauge the ads' success by tracking click-throughs.

4.13.5. Be Unique

Don't try to imitate radio or print magazines. Use the unique qualities of the podcast medium to create something new. At Dailysonic, we are constantly learning, growing, and trying to refine our format and content, with both our listeners and the nature of this new medium in mind. There is no formula for a good podcast. Nevertheless, I hope that in sharing the importance of quality content, the power of sound and music, and the added value of a web presence, I got your gears turning. We are all learning as we go. The more that this learning is made into a collective process, the greater our collective output will be.

4.13.6. See Also

Adam Varga

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