We first met Tyler Greene at Podcast Movement 16 in Chicago, where he was giving a presentation on how to take podcasts from the studio to the stage. This sounded like a great topic for our blog so we invited him – and recording engineer Adam Yoffe – to visit Shure headquarters to discuss their live podcasting tips.
Both have full-time gigs at local NPR affiliate Chicago Public Media, where Greene is a live events producer and Yoffe is a broadcast operations director. We spoke to them just as they were preparing to tackle an ambitious live holiday podcast featuring tap dancers, guest interviews, a backing band – and even an ugly sweater contest.
We wanted to know – step by step – what podcasters should consider before leaving the secure confines of a home studio to perform in front of a live audience.
Why go live?
Tyler Greene: What’s often missed is that people don’t answer the question of why they’re doing it in the first place. Do you want to connect with your audience? Expand your fan base? Create something theatrical and unique that you can’t do in a studio setting? Or are you simply tired of recording in your studio space? Answers to all these questions inform your live event.
There’s a sense that: ‘We’re just going to do our show the way we do it in our basement in front of people. We’re going to turn the mic on, and we’re going to turn the mic off.’ But there’s a lot more that you have to consider.
Build a Team
TG: At Chicago Public Media (nationally distributed NPR station WBEZ and Vocalo in Chicago), we have the luxury of a professional team, but the tasks are identical even on a smaller scale. In some cases, the podcaster may fill all the roles, but you’ll want to have these covered: producer, recording engineer and someone to handle administrative and marketing tasks. When you have a dedicated team to take some of these responsibilities off your shoulders, you can focus on the content of the show.
Adam Yoffe: When you’re just staring out, you don’t usually have the luxury of a professional recording engineer, but if you have a friend who knows what they’re doing, invite them to coffee and have a conversation about it.
When you’re building a team, remember that venues have people who know how to run the sound system. They might even be included in the venue rental so use those folks if they’re available. Live sound, PAs and a lot of wattage and electricity represent a totally different beast than a complex tabletop podcast with three or four different mics. Once you start getting live mics and amplification systems together, all kinds of stuff – bad stuff – can happen to derail the show. Know your team’s limitations. Make sure that the recording engineer focuses on the recording and let the house engineer make sure that it sounds good in the house because those are two separate, but related, skills sets.
TG: The worst outcome you can have is that you do all the hard work and you end up with a recording that you don’t want to release. Building a team is important.
Set Your Budget
TG: If you’re going into a venue that has equipment and a sound crew, the venue cost is going to be the largest expense. That can range anywhere from $300-$1,000 and obviously more as the size of the venue increases. There are also different rates for non-profits than for-profit businesses.
If gear is not included in the rental, the equipment can be the biggest expense. If you get into a small venue – like a small theater that’s dark in the afternoon – you’re going to spend money to rent a mic and mixer to plug into the house PA. A recording engineer can cost you between $50 and $100 an hour if you don’t do it yourself and you’ll also want a contingency budget for unexpected expenses. Are you going to charge admission? That can help to offset costs.
The point is this: Don’t expect to do it all for free. How much money are you comfortable spending? This gets back to the original question of why you want to do a live podcast. If it’s just to have a good time, then do it with a few fans in your church or rec room. But if it’s to widen your audience, there’s a per-audience-member cost you need to calculate.
Find a Venue
AY: What I’ve seen is that any place that can host a rock band can also be a place to do a live podcast. You’ve got a stage, you’ve got an amplification system and you’ve probably got a bar. That’s where you can bring fans of your show or a genre or a theme together in one place.
TG: The first step is research. That begins with site visits. Costs vary based on a number of factors and are often negotiable, but other aspects are not. Is the geographic location easily accessible to your fans? What about parking and public transportation? What’s precisely included in the rental?
Most importantly, what are the physical characteristics of the space? The space isn’t going to change, so how are you going to adapt? If you know the limitations ahead of time, you can plan around them. A shoebox-shaped movie theater with a screen and a tight stage is going to present different challenges than a hip concert venue with a deep stage, sound and light rigs and a FOH crew. A small pub may not have much of a stage at all and is only set up for a few open mics.
AY: With the Chicago Podcast Festival, we were at 200-seat spaces and theaters, down to really, really small places like an 80-seater. Taking venue characteristics into consideration is really important. The staff is there to help. They can help you determine FOH audience logistics, what’s possible in the space and what can they help you with in terms of engineering support. If that’s the case, you may be able to walk in as a one-person band and get the support you really need to make it sound great in the space and in the final product.
Get People to Come
TG: Sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are going to be people there, as silly as that sounds. You get excited in the planning states, but then you remember: People! The first three rows – as far as the host and guests can see from the stage – should look full.
An easy place to start is by shamelessly recruiting family and friends. Talking about your live event and including mentions on your own show are obvious ways to reach fans and encourage them to bring friends. You may even be able to exchange promotion spots on your friends’ podcasts or related podcasts.
You can also create a press release to send to local media outlets. If you’ve never written a press release, there are hundreds of free online templates that follow the who-what-where-how formula. Venues may include your event in their promotions and of course, a series of posts on Facebook and Twitter is never a bad idea. If you have an email list of your fans, use it. Send a series of emails and offer free or discounted admission. Don’t forget to ask them to bring their friends, too.
Involve the Audience
TG: I start every show with some education on live recording that I learned from Peter Sagel on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Before taping, he lets the audience know that capturing their excitement allows the millions of listeners who hear the show the following weekend to ‘know that we were funny.’
I’ll get different levels of applause so that the audience knows they’re a part of the production right from the beginning. Sometimes, I’ll even have them say, ‘From Chicago, this is the name of the show…’ all together as a group, which is impossible to orchestrate, so it kind of ends up landing as a joke. We’ll cover other pieces of business, for instance, letting them know that they can get up from their seats to use the restroom if they need to as well.
You can also involve them by building interaction into your show. Invite audience members onstage for games and contests. Solicit live tweets. Or include a Q&A session that allows fans to have a two-way conversation, which is different than the experience they have listening to a podcast at home. A word of warning there: I encourage hosts to pre-screen audience questions before taping. You want to avoid audience members taking over a show. I’ve seen an audience totally deflate when ‘that guy’ takes over the mic. You can hear the air escape from the room. The cardinal rule of any live podcast is that you do not want to release the microphone into the crowd. Someone on your team has to be in control of the talking stick at all times.
Walk the Talk
AY: Here’s an example from a podcast that we’re planning. I don’t want to put undue pressure on the house audio person so we’ll be at the venue four and a half hours ahead of the show, setting up mics and wiring into the four wireless mic channels in the theater’s system.
TG: We do a lot of problem solving in the moment because things will happen. The purpose is to make sure that we walk through the show moment-to-moment – cue-to-cue – so that people know when they’re coming in and out and we know what mics are going to be used.
This is where the technical strength of the show has to be ready for whatever the show has to offer. That’s the only thing that can rain on your audience’s parade. If they can’t hear the host or there’s a lot of feedback or if the guest seems uncomfortable being tethered to a mic stand, those things become a major distraction and can derail the experience.
Make sure that the venue and your team has the capacity for whatever you have planned. If you’re in a DIY space, you may be stretching the limits of what can happen and happen well. One more thing: Make sure the audience knows how to get to the venue, where to park and what time the venue will open. This can usually be accomplished in a pre-show email to ticketholders.
Get Good Gear
AY: Default to practicality. Whatever you can get your hands on, make sure it’s in good condition and bulletproof. Now’s not the time to bring out something esoteric just because it looks cool. Do some unidirectional mics at the table – any club that you’re going to go to – small, medium and large – is going to have SM58®s because that’s what’s in the box all the time, every time. A couple of windscreens – that’s going to help the recording quality at all levels. If you have musical acts, defer to the venue on how they like to mic up music and get their help with it.
For the Chicago Podcast Festival, I used a pair of VP89s for audience miking. I always devote two channels that go straight to my audio recorder. They never touch the house mixer so it’s impossible for us to have a feedback problem and it makes the show come alive when you’re putting together the final mix of the podcast. In a pinch, you can just turn an SM58 around and use it as an audience mic. The point is to capture ambience in something other than the background of the main microphones – that produces a ghosted-out sound. As the venue size gets bigger, a stereo ambient mic gives that spatial effect that you can dial right in.
The biggest challenge is a raw space where you’re bringing everything in yourself. The bare minimum might be a lectern and a speaker that you plug into. Or you might be able to transport your tabletop setup to a venue and just hand them a line out from your small mixer, laptop or audio interface. That could be good enough. The point is to test everything at any level. You can do a decent job with small unidirectional handheld microphones if that’s what’s available.
Live and Learn
AY: There were a couple times when I got a little cocky – you know, ‘No problem, I’ve got this.’ I did a taping for Sound Opinions, and we were at one of the Goose Island brewery spaces in Chicago. We built everything from the ground up – the PA, the recorder, but I tried to layer a couple too many things and had to do some digital editing to get the feedback out of the PA.
Talking and live PA is infuriating for how simple it is. I’d rather have a live rock band that you’re just doing sound reinforcement for. If you’ve got to add all this gain to a talking mic to get the talent’s voice to project, you’re almost guaranteed to be running into feedback problems. It was incredibly embarrassing in the moment. You never want the host to give you that look that says, ‘Are we OK over there?’ Everyone in the room – the hosts, the guest, the audience – was hearing the feedback. What I learned was: Take more time to test. What’s the venue? What are the limitations?
TG: The one thing we haven’t talked about is video projection. In some cases, that can be something as simple as a PowerPoint or Keynote slide show. When you’re going to a venue, sometimes they have a VGA and sometimes they have a HDMI – sometimes they have both and sometimes they have neither. You need to know that. You also need to know the resulting configuration.
I was doing Filmspotting a few years ago. The show that we were doing was kind of complex, so I requested and received Q-Lab, a theatrical cueing software for plays and concerts that automates lights, videos and graphics. I assumed I could just drop videos in and add fades and make it clean – but I had to actually write each cue in and it was very complicated. We got into the space and not only was the resolution wrong but there were about 70 cues. I had to learn the program in a few days. There was only one small mistake. But lesson learned.