What Does a Podcast Producer Even Do?

From five years ago serving as on-air producer for Vital for Colorado radio.

I used to get impostor syndrome because I was worried I didn’t actually know what I was doing. I lacked confidence in my abilities, my knowledge or my experience. That’s the classic definition of the term.

Now I get impostor syndrome because my job title sounds like it’s total bullshit. Tell someone you’re a professional podcast producer and they’ll immediately tilt their head to the side 45 degrees and go, Really? It’s like you told them you’re a unicorn dentist or a leprechaun’s accountant. That’s an actual job that pays real money? is the whole energy when you tell people what you do. It’s possible I’m projecting here out of insecurity, but the line of questions that usually follow belie an incredulity that you do something professionally for actual legal tender that 99% of everyone who podcasts does as a hobby.

I know exactly why no one can believe “professional podcast producer” is a real job. That’s not a mystery. It’s because there are roughly 9 zillion podcasts out there, the dumbest person you knew in high school probably has one, and the vast, vast, vast majority of them are fucking terrible. I can listen to a show for roughly 15 seconds and tell you a) if it’s any good at all; and more importantly b) if it’s been assembled by someone with any chops whatsoever.

I’ve never read an article that captures what a podcast producer actually does that’s anywhere close to my own personal reality until my best friend Jason sent me this article from Fast Company. Titled “How podcast producers became rising stars in the creator economy,” the article focuses on some of the country’s most popular podcasts like Doughboys, All Fantasy Everything and Chapo Trap House, their attendant producers, and the ins and outs of how they do what they do.

Just hook this article straight to my veins. Author Joe Berkowitz flawlessly nails not only the whats (or I suppose the tasks) of a producer, but more importantly the hows of the producer and the whys that make a show worth listening to. I’m being vague. Let’s dig into the article and talk a little bit about what Berkowitz gets so right about the role of a good producer.

Well-produced talk-show podcasts don’t necessarily sound well–produced. They might not even sound produced at all, if you’re unfamiliar with sound design. …the average talk show podcast is meant to exude a naturalism that goes down smooth—the sound of a few articulate friends hanging out, which somebody happened to record.

That sound, though, is an illusion the show’s producer manufactures. In reality, podcasts are weekly audio puzzles made of moving parts that tend to smash into each other and require reassembly.

This is the first, and biggest, dead giveaway that something is amateur hour. I can tell immediately if a producer did an aesthetic edit on a show. Unremoved “ummms,” internet connection or HVAC noise from a conference room that isn’t filtered out, clunky pacing, jarring volume shifts, and hastily rephrased questions from hosts that were left intact in the final mix all demonstrate a sloppy, amateurish edit. Or an edit that never even happened in the first place.

One of the producers in the piece likened us to plumbers – “Most of the time no one should notice if we’re doing our jobs right, but if the job doesn’t get done, there’s shit everywhere” – is how he put it, and he’s right. I produced an episode of one of my shows where the guest was so nervous, he could barely string four words together. Stumbling, stuttering, stops and starts. This guest really had it all, and I became a bit dejected as I considered what a long road ahead this was going to be in the edit bay. As I recorded it, I recognized there was enough there to stitch together to make him sound good, but it was ROUGH. So I went to work, and when he heard the finished product, he couldn’t believe it was him, and none of the audience could tell.

And here’s the thing, doing that takes FOREVER. From the article:

“Producers are in charge of all the boring stuff in the background that has to happen before the hosts even arrive. They are tedium-sponges, absorbing their body weight in logistical difficulties. In addition to setting up equipment and other technical tasks, they plot out recording schedules, which become more complicated the more hosts a show has, and the more each has going on; they book guests, a process that sometimes involves publicists promising to ‘circle back’ and then not doing that…”

The term “tedium sponge” is so beautifully on-the-nose, I want to print it out and hang it in the Louvre. Wanna be a podcast producer, kid? Get ready to spend hours by yourself re-listening to conversations you’ve already heard, cleaning them up and re-assembling them in a rote, thankless way. The article refers to it as giving the episode “a comprehensive cosmetic overhaul,” another great turn of phrase. I use my mouse so much selecting audio sections and clicking, I have developed what I think is carpal tunnel in my right index finger. That finger just hurts literally all the time now, worse if I dare to bend it.

When you’re not in front of a wavform, you’re emailing with dozens of people, learning their schedules and trying to coordinate them with the rest of your team – a process akin to trying a crack a safe because you’re ALWAYS dealing with incomplete information and there can be so. many. tumblers. to unlock – and basically trying to be the rudder of a ship whose participants neither know, nor particularly care, that they’re on it because they necessarily have more important things to occupy their time.

I tell aspiring podcast producers that more than anything else, the booking of a show is your new daily nightmare. I also tell them that creating a show that promises to air at a regular interval means “You’re building a monster that eats, but never gets full.”

This all speaks to the what and how of what we do, but that’s not the real reason anyone hires you or pays you well. I’ve said before and I’ll say until the heat death of the earth that any chimp with a room temperature IQ can do an aesthetic edit on a conversation and execute some basic sonic layering, but a good producer is the guardian of vibe, and the shepherd of enterprise goals. Back to the article:

As the person on the show most closely aligned with how the listener takes it in, producers serve as audience surrogates. They can nudge the conversation toward wherever listeners might want it to go, if the hosts seem too caught up in the moment to realize it. Talk-show podcasts thrive on spontaneity as much as planning, so while the hosts are encouraged to get caught up in one moment after another, the producer never loses sight of the bigger picture. 

Before launching a show, the most important question I ask clients is, “After having listened to this show, what do you want someone to think, do or feel?” I use this question when I do presentation training, and if you can answer it effectively, the choices you make in your presentation or your show will reveal themselves to you and inform how a show should be ideally structured and executed. The answer to this question guides everything we do as producers. And we’re there to ensure our hosts don’t lose sight of those goals.

I have one show that I don’t do anything technical for. Nothing. I don’t record audio, I don’t book guests, I don’t edit the show. I do the writeup that appears in the show notes and I distribute it to the corporate team I ultimately report to, but that’s it. So why the hell are they paying me?

On this particular show, I get a roughcut of the show a few days before it’s scheduled to air, and I listen to it in a very specific way. My host says I represent the last 10% of an episode and my job is to make it go from good to great. So I listen to the episode, average runtime is probably 45 minutes per episode, and I send him thousands of words of feedback with specific time stamps referencing my notes. Sometimes it’s simple stuff like, “This section’s volume is weird, go back and equalize” or “Drop in some V/O here because the term you used is esoteric and jargon-y and I think your audience could use help in understanding what it means.”

More often though, I’m giving him notes about storytelling techniques, the structure of an episode, or moments and sections that either detract or enhance the overall desired vibe, and then discussing the best path forward with him. It’s one episode a month, but I know when it hits my inbox, I have to dedicate a huge block of time over like two days to it because our final product demands excellence, and therefore comes with a great deal of scrutiny. This show is a joy to work on.

I realized somewhat recently that no one hires me for my technical expertise. True enough, you’ve got to know the technical side cold, but like I said, if all you needed was a technician, you could go on Fiverr and find someone in Bangladesh to do that for pennies on the dollar.

No, a good podcast producer becomes the show and the host’s most trusted advisor. As noted in the article, we are audience surrogates. I listen to each of my shows twice – once while recording it, and again while in post-production – and I guarantee NO ONE knows my shows like I do. My job is to preserve vibe. Does the experience of listening to the show match the reason we created this thing in the first place? What course corrections do we need to make? How do we optimize the experience for our hosts, our guests, and most importantly, our audience?

I serve as coach and cheerleader for my hosts. I untangle logistical knots. I do technical magic tricks. I become a temporary ad hoc expert on whatever topic my shows cover on a given day. I disappear into the engine room and row like crazy when everyone thinks the engines have shut down. And I do nearly all of it almost completely anonymously.

Being a podcast producer is the most rewarding work of my career. There is not a close second place. When you hire a good, trustworthy producer who understands, nourishes, and works his or her ass off to make the thing you want to make the best version of itself, you’re making a valuable investment.

Just as you want to feel like your doctor, your mechanic, your hair stylist, or your interior designer are doing their professional best, you may not realize it, but you ultimately want them to help you live your life in its fullest expression free of as many hassles as possible while helping you reach heights unavailable to you on your own. Your podcast producer is there to do the same.

And if your podcast producer doesn’t? Well, then yeah, your podcast producer is indeed total bullshit.

Read the full Fast Company article “How podcast producers became rising stars in the creator economy”

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