pghCAST

September 18, 2006
Projects



The beginning

I’ve always had a good relationship with Pittsburgh. It’s where I was born, and even though my family had to move away, we always keep our roots in Pittsburgh. It’s also the place where I went to college – the University of Pittsburgh. After every move I have made away from Pittsburgh, I somehow ended up back in Pittsburgh. My friends call it the “rubber band theory”. My most recent move away from Pittsburgh was to Seattle, where I stayed almost 3 years before the rubber band brought me back. The best way I’ve heard to explain my relationship with Pittsburgh is this: Pittsburgh is my mother and Seattle is my wife. I choose Seattle, but no matter what happens or changes in my life, Pittsburgh will always be there in my heart.

I would say the first seed for the show was laid when I moved back to Pittsburgh from Seattle. I’ve grown into a big fan of public radio, and Seattle has an excellent NPR station, KUOW (kuow.org). The station has 2-3 daily talk shows that discuss current events, usually with an expert guest and people calling in with their questions. It is a great format, and listening to their morning show made me a big fan of Steve Scher. He’s really good at handling callers’ different opinions, and always seems to find an elegant way of being fair to all. I’ve never heard another radio station (though I’m sure they exist) that has the mayor on every month to answer callers’ questions, or feature all the candidates for an upcoming election.

Pittsburgh’s NPR station has no such thing. Their main station, DUQ, has a lot of jazz, which I like to listen to while I’m cooking dinner, but no talk shows where I can listen to keep up with current events. I really wanted to feature something like this, and podcasting was the cheapest way I could think of to try. After discussing this with some friends in a pub, everyone thought it was a good idea. My friend Kristin even volunteered to be on the show.

You might be wondering why we started this when it seems that everyone and their brother has a podcast. Well, I did consider that angle. It seemed to me that every new podcast seemed to be targeting a national or global audience. I thought it might work to aim for a local audience - a niche that if caught on, could be a hit in an area like Pittsburgh.

The setup

The cost was extremely cheap considering my funds. The entire cost of microphones and mixers was around $300 dollars when it was all said and done. We could have done it a lot cheaper, but I wanted to try to do things right straight out of the box. My wife’s opinion was that it would be worth the cost if it kept me busy for a month or two. Besides, I could always sell the equipment afterwards if things didn’t work out.

While the cost of hardware was around $300 dollars (not including the computer I already had), we did had some other expenses. Mostly it was the $10 dollars per month for hosting and bandwidth from libsyn.com. They had a deal where the cost included all the bandwidth charges, which I really couldn’t beat at the time.
I knew nothing about sound recording. In fact, I’d say I still know little about sound recording. I asked a friend for his input on this project; he used to be in a band and loved the production aspect of things. We went to Guitar Center and purchased 3 oval microphones with desk stands, and a 5-port mixer. I read that condenser microphones were better, but we heard that we could make these microphones sound good and the price was cheaper. Looking back, I would have spent more time up front with microphones. Some things are just easier if you spend a little more money, therefore you don’t have to do as much work. The microphones were (and still are) a thorn in my side - they never sounded right to me and we couldn’t figure out how to make them sound better.

For software, we used an old version of Cakewalk, which sucked. It was easy enough to pick up, but for some reason it would just stop recording in the middle of a recording session, probably because it was an old version of the software. We wouldn’t find out until 15-20 minutes into recording, and let me tell you nothing takes the enthusiasm out of the room like telling someone we had to talk about the same topics again because all was lost. After a while I picked up a refurbished iRiver mp3 player/recorder (iRiver iFP-899) that had a line-in connection. It limited our editing abilities, but it didn’t matter too much.

Podcasting involves putting up rather sizable mp3 files on your server and letting a potential large audience eat up your bandwidth, causing big charges from your web host. We didn’t think we were going to become the number one podcast overnight, but we didn’t want to be stuck with a 12 thousand dollar bandwidth bill if a particular show hit it big. For hosting the files, we chose libsyn. They were so cheap and made the entire process so easy that we could forgive some of their growing pains and hiccups. For $10 dollars a month we got hosting and unlimited bandwidth. Originally I wanted to host only the files on their site and run a separate server for the content; we were hoping to draw people to our website and have some areas where they could interact. But that plan was a little too far out, so we started with the default blog software that was supplied by libsyn. I would have loved to do more on the web side, but we just didn’t have the time and resources.

It’s hard to tell if a customized website would have mattered. Almost all our downloads were from iTunes, which meant that most people had the content delivered to them through a subscription. However, our website was comprised of mostly show notes, something that the user could see via iTunes anyway. We had a few links to an online store and photo-gallery, but the links were not laid out very nicely and were underused. Some of this had to do with the blog-style template system used by libsyn, but probably had the most to do with our lack of using them.

I bought pghcast.net and pghcast.com because of a Yahoo sale. That particular day I went to buy the domain names, I searched around for the best deal and ran into this sale at Yahoo for $1.99 domains. So I figured I could buy 5 years for about the same price as 1 year at other sites. Now that the show is over, I have no idea what to do with the domain names. If you’re interested, let me know.

The Show

Originally, I thought I wanted to have 2 people host the show. I bought the 3rd microphone for guests, but when my friend (who helped with the microphones) expressed interested in joining me and Kristin, I figured the more the merrier. Internally this caused some problems, because everyone had a different view of what the show should do: some of our friends wanted more arguing-style debate, others didn’t want that at all. If I had to do it again, I would be very cautious of how my friends participated.

At first we tried recording on Sundays, but after a while we recorded mid-week. It was much easier for us to get people over after the order of work than the disorder of a weekend. I guess we could have used Skpe, but we decided to all meet around the table and eat/drink afterwards. I definitely wanted to be on a schedule; the group and the audience would benefit from a schedule. There are a lot of choices out there on the web, and it’s hard to keep someone interested for more than a few minutes at best. By setting a schedule we at least made it easy for fans of the show to know when to expect to see a new episode.

The show started on September 4th, 2005. The first couple shows basically relied on the news of the week, and to be honest, they were kind of weak. I would keep a list of topics I saw in the news during the week, and then form some sort of show from those notes. This clearly wasn’t our best format - we were basically mimicking the local news. After a while we tried to make the show more personal, with a lot of commentary about local topics and events, and at the end we would interview some random person. At first we used some friends, but then we started lining up friends of friends, and eventually we started getting requests from other people. We started noticing that the format could really work, and I think if the show would have continued we would have strengthened with this format. It’s amazing the stories that any random person will tell when you give them the floor.

I submitted the site to a couple of websites, and to my surprise our first pilot show had around 30 downloads. I wasn’t complaining - we went from 0 downloads to 30 in the first week. The next couple weeks we were slowly rising in the ratings. It was kind of hard to get our numbers with libsyn. They showed their stats by who requested them: iTunes, odeo, direct download, etc. They also tried to filter out unique visitors by IP address, which didn’t always work too well. I noticed after a while that there were “podcatching” networks that would stream our show off their site, and if multiple people listened to the show through that site, it would only register 1 listener, because of the same IP address being used over and over.

After a while we were slowly growing to almost 60 downloads per show, then 100. An amazing thing about podcasting is that most shows, whether you plan to or not, are timeless. People would discover our show around the 10th episode and then go and download all the past episodes. It got so bad that we were discussing removing the pilot episode from the list, because we felt it was so much worse than the others! The best show had to be the show immediately before the Super Bowl. Our downloads were in the 400-500 range, and even a couple months after the Super Bowl it was still getting some downloads. If we would have had some merchandise attached to the show, we probably would have made some money those few weeks.

The beginning of the end

Eventually it had to come to an end. The absolute nail in the coffin was when I found out I was moving back to Seattle. Truth be told, I was well aware of the possibility of moving before I even started the show, but I wanted to try it anyway. I had some pie-in-the-sky dreams that maybe someone would be interested in taking it over, but no one really seemed interested. This wasn’t our only problem. We always had problems with enthusiasm, maybe someone was tired from working that day, or just being lazy. It was worse yet if the person came to the show but was growing bored of it. Voice recording has no pictures, but it was amazing how the recording exposed all these enthusiasm issues.

Finally, the thing that probably did us in more than the others was lack of time. One of the things I overlooked was that we were talking about things going on in the Pittsburgh area, and we really like to do those things. It didn’t leave much time to organize and get together a group and talk about it. A lot of us would go for weeks at a time doing something in the city every night. The plays, concerts, the sport games all took their toll. If we missed recording the show one week, it seemed all the more likely that we would miss the next week.

Eventually I had to be done with it. I recorded our last episode, alone, about a month after the previous show. I made no promises, but I said basically the show was over.

Lessons learned

Some of the biggest things I learned from this experience:

* If you are serious about it, it’s a lot of work.

I thought it would be a simple thing to gather a few things to talk about, get some friends together, and record the show. It was simple, but I had no idea how long it would take to do all those things. I often found myself not as prepared as I thought I was before a show. Then there’s the actual recording of the show: sound levels, microphone placement, EDITING, compressing, uploading, creating show notes, etc. After all this, I barely had any time to think about designing the website.

* It’s hard to do by yourself, but if you work with others you need to know where you and they stand.

I was very happy to have my friends involved. In some cases I was willing to let someone slack in one area because they were so good in another. However, I think we all underestimated the amount of work. I didn’t set their expectations correctly because I didn’t know what to expect. After a couple of weeks, I was asking them to help find stories on their own and do more than they thought they were signing up for. If I had to do it again, I would definitely try to set that expectation right away. Then again, I don’t think you can ever get expectations correct - there’s always something in any project that doesn’t go as planned, and you need a team that is flexible and truly understands how to react.

* Spend some time (but not too much).

I would have definitely spent more time on show development up front. That’s not to say that we didn’t do any - we actually had a few meetings where we brainstormed some ideas for topics for slow weeks, etc. However, I think we probably could have used a little more time on the technical side. I don’t blame us, we were eager to get started and I didn’t want it to get old before even starting. I will also contradict myself in the same vein and say that you should also not plan too long - it’s a amateur podcast for God’s sake, it’s not going to be perfect.

* Watch your shortcuts.

Be careful where you make shortcuts. Sometimes spending a little more time or money can provide a huge benefit down the line.

* I’m glad I did it!

Even though I had a good idea that I would be moving, I went ahead and started the show anyway. I wasn’t sure what to think of it, but we got consistently 50-60 downloads a week, and around the Super Bowl we were in the 400-500 range. All these downloads just to hear our silly show.

The emails really made me feel like someone was listening and getting a benefit. We got a few emails from people who didn’t even live in Pittsburgh anymore, and just wanted to write to say that listening to our show reminded them of their old home. Others would write to respond to particular topics in the show, or how much they laughed out loud (in public) at some story we told while they were listening on their headphones. Those stories always made me feel like we were contributing.


Conclusion

Would I do it again? If the conditions were right, I definitely would. I’ve learned by this point in my life that I’m not the type to sit around idling by and not get involved with something. As soon as some free time shows up, I have a way of eventually finding something to fill it up. Whether it’s recreational, volunteering for public causes, or helping friends with their projects. There’s a million things I’d love to have the time to learn, but I have to keep a cap on things or I’d never get anything done.

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