Update 5/30/18: I’ve added information about Feedburner and submitting to additional podcast platforms, which I’ve learned from trying to grow my own podcast over the last few weeks.
If you love podcasts, you probably have an idea for your own. What you might not have is any fancy equipment, money for hosting services, or any clue of where to start. Don’t worry! I’ve written a guide that will take you through every step of launching a podcast for exactly $0.
The only equipment that you absolutely need is some kind of recording device and access to an internet-connected computer. If you are reading this guide, then you almost certainly meet those requirements already.
A built-in microphone on a laptop works fine for recording. You’re not going to have NPR-level sound quality but your listeners also won’t have any trouble understanding what you say, especially after you do some of the post-production that I’ll go over later. Below you can listen to the first podcast episode I ever recorded, which used my laptop’s built-in mic.
Again, it’s not the best audio quality but it’s totally serviceable for just starting out. If you don’t have a laptop or other computer with a microphone, just about any smartphone or tablet will let you record audio. The quality will be similar but this adds the extra steps of transferring your audio to a computer and importing it into your editing software later so it’s recommended that you record from a computer if possible.
If you do already have access to any type of external microphone, whether it is a webcam, recording mic, or gaming headset, it is highly recommended that you use it. Even the oldest and cheapest external microphone is likely to result in a large boost in sound quality. Contrast the previous audio with an episode of my new podcast below, recorded using a simple $40 USB microphone.
Download and install the program Audacity for whatever operating system you use. Audacity is free and lightweight audio editing software that is used by amateur and professional podcasters alike. It’s simple and easy to use but also has powerful tools for editing and cleaning up your audio.
You will also need to download and install LAME, an encoder that allows Audacity to save your audio as MP3 files.
And that’s it! You should now have all the hardware and software you need to get started. Next let’s talk about...
First, find a good space to record in. Obviously, you’ll want this to be a quiet space first and foremost. Try to keep away from windows, which will let in outside sounds like traffic. Record in the smallest space possible in order to avoid an echo. Also try to stick to an area that has as much surrounding soft material around as possible, such as carpet and curtains.
For these reasons, I’ve heard several professional podcasters talk about how they’ve resorted to recording in a closet under a blanket or towel when a more refined set up isn’t possible. This probably isn’t necessary for your purposes, but it also can’t hurt.
When you are ready to hit record, start with a sound test. Record 10 seconds or so of normal volume speech and then play it back. This will allow you to ensure that you and any co-hosts you have are being picked up by the mic properly, adjust the recording volume appropriately, and determine if there are any weird background sounds being recorded. Sometimes microphones pick up on things we don’t hear or tune out like water pipes or electronics and you definitely want to know about this before you record a whole episode. This is also a good time to make sure that the recording channel is set to the proper microphone in Audacity. I once recorded an entire episode without realizing that Audacity was using my built-in microphone instead of the USB mic I had plugged in. It’s an easy, and incredibly frustrating, mistake to make.
Lots of professional podcasts are recorded with co-hosts separated by thousands of miles and you can easily do the same. What maintains the excellent sound quality of these podcasts is that each co-host records their own audio separately using Audacity on their respective computers and then combine the recordings after the fact, rather than a single co-host recording a Skype call.
If you absolutely must record a Skype call, Audacity has you covered here as well. The audio will be very compressed and poor quality but, if you are interviewing guests remotely, this is sometimes the only option.
Basic editing in Audacity is very straightforward. You can highlight regions of audio and cut, copy, and paste them or move them around. You can drag and drop audio into new tracks and set their levels independently.
There are a few more complex features I like to use to improve sound quality. One is the envelope tool, which lets you set up points along your audio track to manipulate, allowing you to set up smooth transitions, fades, and other mixing.
If you find that there is a lot of background noise in part or even all of your recording, you can try to use the noise reduction tool to minimize or get rid of it. Just select an area of the recording that is only the background noise so Audacity can get a noise profile and then select the area of the recording where you’d like to eliminate that noise. You may need to play with the settings a bit to get this right. Too much noise reduction can lead to some strange effects on voices.
To finalize my editing, I usually select the entire voice track and use the equalization effect with the 100 Hz rumble curve and default settings. I don’t have the know-how to explain technically what this does but it seems to improve the overall sound quality and results in less popping when someone starts to speak.
Add any music you want (more on that below) and save your file as an MP3. You now have a complete podcast episode!
Every podcast needs decent intro/outro and transition music but, because podcasts are subject to the same copyright laws as other forms of media, it’s generally a pretty bad idea to put any kind of copyrighted sound in your podcast without the express written permission of the copyright holder. Thankfully, there are plenty of great Creative Commons tracks you can use.
I’ve found that the Free Music Archive is the best source for finding CC music since it has a massive database that is easy to search and you can stream songs before you download them.
Always be sure to give credit to the artists when you use their music!
Setting Up Your Podcast Feed
Podcasts work by generating an RSS feed that can be submitted to different podcast apps, including iTunes, where users can browse for podcasts and download episodes. The typical way this is handled is by paying a monthly subscription to a service that hosts your audio files and generates a feed for you. Instead, I’m going to walk you through one free alternative that doesn’t require you to know HTML or anything other than how to use an internet browser.
To start, you simply need to create a free account and upload your exported MP3s of your episodes to Archive.org. Just like that, you’ve set up free file hosting for your podcast. You can even embed your episodes on other websites.
Setting up your actual feed is a bit more complex. First, you need to create a free WordPress account and website for your podcast. This is very straightforward and you can just follow the instructions on WordPress itself. You can make this site an actual home for everything about your podcast, as I have done, or just leave it bare bones and use it purely to generate your feed.
Next, add a blog post to your website for each episode of your podcast. Make the title of the post what you want the episode title to be, set the category of the post to “podcast”, set the post format to audio, and include the following text in the post to embed your episode:
[audio https://archive.org/download/your-episode.mp3 ]
your-episode with the actual location and title of the episode on Archive.org. If you do this correctly, you will see an embedded audio player when you preview the post.
If you want to add an episode description that will appear in podcast apps, click on the “more options” button in the post editor and write your text in the “excerpt” box. Hit publish to complete the post.
Now that you have one or more episodes successfully posted to your website, you can finalize your feed. To do this, add
/wp-admin/ to the end of your website’s URL and hit enter. This will take you to your admin settings. Go to Settings->Media and scroll down to the podcasting section.
Under “Category to set as feed”, choose “podcast”. Now is a good time to double check that you set the category of all your episode posts to “podcast”. Otherwise, your episodes will not appear in the feed.
Fill in the information about your podcast, including its title, description, keywords, and genres.
Finally, you need to set a thumbnail image for your podcast. This image needs to be at least 1400 x 1400 and not more than 3000 x 3000 in resolution, 72 DPI, and in JPG or PNG format in order for your podcast to be accepted by iTunes. Typically I aim for something that is less than 10 MB at a 1400 x 1400 resolution and is still readable when as small as 50 x 50. Some apps will also cut off the corners of your thumbnail, so it’s helpful to keep the title in the dead center of the image.
Once you link to your thumbnail image, just hit save on the bottom of the page. At the top of the podcasting section you should now see the URL of your podcast feed!
Converting You Feed to Google Feedburner
While you can stick with your Wordpress feed if you like, I’ve found it very beneficial to use Google’s free Feedburner service. This service allows you to customize your feed and get day-by-day analytics on your subscriber count, something that you will remain totally in the dark about if you just use your Wordpress feed. Fortunately, this step is as easy to set up as pasting your Wordpress feed URL into the box on the Feedburner home page and then logging in with or creating a Google account. That’s it! You can now return to Feedburner any time to find out how many people are listening to your podcast. From here on out, whenever asked for your feed URL, you should always use your Feedburner URL rather than your Wordpress URL so that you can get an accurate subscriber count.
Submitting Your Podcast to Apps
You now have a fully functional podcast. Unfortunately, no one is going to care if they can’t find and download it. That’s why you need to submit your feed to podcast apps.
iTunes is, without a doubt, the major contender here. It is the #1 podcast search engine and the app most podcast listeners use in the US. Thankfully, it is surprisingly easy to get your podcast submitted to iTunes. Just go to iTunes Podcast Connect, create an account, and enter your feed’s URL. Be sure to use your URL from Feedburner and not Wordpress. iTunes will first validate it to make sure there aren’t any technical issues.
The most common issue here is in regards to thumbnail images. If you run into a problem and followed the guidelines for thumbnail images, try compressing the file size of your image further and trying again.
Once your podcast feed is validated, you will have to wait for iTunes to approve your podcast, which can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days. I don’t know what they actually do during this time but I’ve never encountered any issues at this stage besides my own impatience.
Another relatively new but widely-used podcast platform is Google Play Music, which is installed by default on most new Android devices. Submitting your feed is quite easy. Just go to this link and provide the requested information. If you used Feedburner, this should be a breeze since your feed is already in a format that makes Google happy.
Spotify, the excellent music streaming service, has also thrown its hat into the podcast ring and appears to be gaining traction. However, Spotify appears to be the most restrictive in what it allows on its platform. While paying customers of popular podcast hosting services can simply submit their podcasts from the services’ websites, self-hosted podcasts have no easy way to make it onto Spotify. The only way for a self-hosted podcast to get onto Spotify is to fill-out this interest form and hope for the best. Your odds aren’t great but it doesn’t hurt to try!
Other common podcast platforms, such as Stitcher, Spreaker, and Blubrry, are even easier to submit to. Just make an account, submit your feed, and you should be up and running within a matter of minutes. These apps won’t reach as wide of an audience as the above services but each additional place that your podcast can be found is another chance to find new listeners.
And that’s it! If you followed the instructions you should now have a fully functional podcast that is widely available and easy for anyone in the world to download and listen to. All without spending a dime!
If you liked this guide, please consider listening to, and reviewing, my new podcast, Spiral Bound Adventure. It’s a hilarious journey into the tabletop games I created as a child. New episodes are available every two weeks on our website and wherever you listen to podcasts.