Becoming a Full-Time Podcast Producer: Career Advice from Carissa Weiser

by Jon Simmons, iZotope

September 28, 2017

Becoming a better podcast producer

Myths and Legends is a podcast that retells folklore and fables from a modern-day perspective. Still as faithful to the original stories as possible, they’re narrated with dry wit and an often deservingly incredulous tone.

“The original Beauty and the Beast story has, of course, monkey butlers with parrots strapped to their heads...so they can talk to you. I'm not joking at all. It's amazing,” reads one episode’s description.

Its first episode released in April 2015, Myths and Legends is downloaded over 2.5 million times every month, and all together, Bardic podcasts (Myths’ parent media company) have been downloaded over 35 million times worldwide. Behind the success of the podcast is Bardic co-founder Carissa Weiser, as well as her husband and co-founder Jason Weiser. Since starting Myths, they’ve expanded to produce two other regularly occurring podcasts: Who We Are and Fictional.

Not bad for a two-person operation.

Carissa, a former audiology professor at the University of Cincinnati, was kind enough to share her path from professor to full-time podcast producer, what her typical day looks like creating and promoting the show, and some of the biggest challenges she faces along the way.

“Clinical audiology felt like work, but producing podcasts feels like I get to be the Bob Ross of audio every day.” —Carissa Weiser

Tell me about your journey from audiologist and professor to full-time podcast producer.

At first glance, audiology and podcast production look like separate worlds. Call it pivoting, a career do-over, or a complete break. But to me, going from audiologist and professor to full-time podcast producer is all forward motion. I am in my current role today because of my overall background—all of it.

Our first podcast, Myths and Legends, began in 2015 as my husband’s hobby while I was working as a clinical audiologist. It was a concept we honed after realizing it didn’t currently exist. A full year passed between idea and actually publishing the intro, and we didn’t start with the intention of going full-time. Jason asked where the best sound space in our house was to record Episode 1, and I suggested the car. After all, it’s like a sound booth covered mostly with carpet that’s designed to block out noise.

I’ve always loved to write, and eventually I found myself editing episode scripts and helping storyboard future topics. One day, I asked Jason if he was open to me taking a look at his sound settings and maybe tweaking a few things. My involvement with the podcast grew and grew, and somehow I was working 50+ hours a week as a professor by day and staying up til 2:00am every night to produce the weekly show.

Finally, we realized that was just not sustainable. By then, we had founded Bardic, our little media company, and we had so many ideas for additional podcasts and content. So something had to give, and we had a decision to make: stay in audiology and not be able to expand...or take a risk and plunge full-time into the world of podcasting where the sky is the limit but the risk is just as great.

I remember telling family, friends, colleagues, and students that I was leaving audiology for a podcast producer gig. Reactions were varied, but I felt then what I still feel to this day: going full-time in podcasting was the right decision and a job seemingly made for me.

What did you do as an audiologist?

Broadly speaking, I diagnosed and treated patients with hearing loss of all kinds, tinnitus (such as ringing or buzzing in your ears when there’s no external sound), and dizziness related to the ear and human auditory system. The bulk of my clinical experience is from the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center and at the university level, though I’ve rotated through nearly every clinical environment imaginable throughout my eight year road to a doctorate.

The job itself was one part anatomy and physiology, one part science of sound, and one part ever-changing technology (digital hearing aids, cochlear implants, electrophysiology), all packaged in 100 percent human interaction and empathy.

In other words, for a very long time, my world was psychoacoustics, sound waves, polar plots, speech perception, filters, speech in noise ratios, etc. I’ve brought all of that to the audio narratives I design.

I spent years customizing digital sound for individuals, and so I understand how shaping audio can either bring a world to life or close a person out of an experience completely. To me, I’m still using my core audiology training—I’m just applying it with different tools now.

Describe your day-to-day as a podcast producer.

My day is never boring. We usually start with a status update on all the episodes to make sure we’re meeting deadlines. At any given time, we’re monitoring this week’s episode, mixing the next, editing scripts for the following, and storyboarding a couple weeks after that. I spend just as much time on the steps leading up to sound mixing as I do putting the final narrative together. I can’t stress enough how important having the right content matters in combination with high audio quality for building an engaging audio narrative.

With an indie podcast like ours, we’re also doing social media, writing back to listeners, shipping merch, and writing episode posts.

Essentially, my day is editing and revising scripts, directing re-records, going through raw audio files, mixing multiple audio tracks into the perfect story, and business logistics.

What are some of the biggest challenges of your job?

One challenge is that there are no breaks in what I do, no “sick” days. While I have no set hours, we work around some very real deadlines.

Another big challenge is crafting a compelling audio narrative week after week. It’s a balancing act between understanding the tone of the script, the mood we want to set, and the audio tricks we can use (including the use of silence) to build the right ambiance.

But that also presents my biggest audio challenge in podcasting: maintaining audibility across uncontrolled listening situations. Everyone listens on different sound systems, in different environments, and with different degrees of hearing sensitivity. This means that background music may be too loud for one person but inaudible for another, or the same speech sample too tinny, just right, and unclear for three separate listeners. This is different than simply loudness-matching tracks because it also depends on the listener’s environment and ability to hear—things beyond my control. So what can I do?

There’s no way to control if someone listens over headphones, earphones, or soundfield speakers, in their car on the highway, in a living room at home, or a small office. Are they focused on the show or listening while doing something else? Hearing sensitivity (and type/ degree of hearing loss), level of sound attenuation in the room, type of speaker/sound system, and properties of existing background noise all play a huge part in sound perception, especially when there are no visual cues involved. So in addition to song choices, scripts, prosody, setting the mood, and the overall sound of each episode, I try to make choices that enhance overall audibility, too.

With storytelling via podcast, the challenge is both artistic and technical, and that’s why I enjoy it. In the end, the highest compliment I receive is when listeners write in to tell me they had goosebumps, they shed a tear, or they laughed out loud during an episode. That emotional response tells me that what they heard was powerful and immersive enough to move them, and that’s everything.

The most enjoyable moments?

In all seriousness, my work doesn’t feel like work. I did the 10-hour shifts, 2-hour commutes, triple-booked patient schedule for hours on end in the past. Clinical audiology felt like work, but producing podcasts feels like I get to be the Bob Ross of audio every day.

It’s fun to be a part of such a growing medium in general. In some ways, there are no limitations to what you can create, and that’s exciting.

The best moments, though, are hearing from listeners about how our projects have made a specific difference in their lives. When I read those emails, I know that we’re creating something more than just entertainment.

For part-time podcasters who aspire to produce them full-time, what advice would you give?

Remember that in the ways that count, you already are doing a piece of what you aspire to do. If we look at “going full-time” as a different island altogether—a distant place we’d like to be someday—rather than an enhancement of where we are now, it denies the power of what you can produce at this very moment. Now is the time to start pushing yourself to make the best audio experience you can every time.

When we first started, we didn’t have the best equipment, the ideal space, the flexibility of time, or the experience that we do now. We did, however, make each and every episode better than the last by treating each one like a million dollar gig. Sure, I cringe at some of those early episodes now, but I think that’s normal.

What tools—hardware or software—are essential to you as a podcast producer?

At a minimum, I need a microphone and a computer. The key, though, is having a good workflow for post-processing. Software that can analyze my audio files and smooth out sibilants, plosives, mouth clicks, and breaths is an absolute necessity, especially when time is so precious.

What have you learned about podcasting from other podcast producers? Who influences you and why?

To be honest, I’m influenced most by audiology and conversations with cartoonists, illustrators, and graphic novelists I’ve met through our third podcast, Who We Are. These are artists with unique perspectives on storytelling and creativity on demand. Tom Manning is a Yale-trained graphic novelist who shared a lot about using illustration and text in unique ways to create a complete narrative. The drawings alone or the words alone don’t give you what the complete frame communicates, and I try to do the same thing with scripts and audio design.

Do you think podcasting can be for everyone, or is it a niche industry?

There are some impressive stats out there that indicate huge growth, but it's a very specific medium. With the right concept, the sky is the limit in podcasting. The idea of low barrier to entry is partly because it’s not hard to find a mic, hit record, and start a podcast these days. However, as the novelty of anyone being able to create and publish an episode starts to wear off and major companies continue to enter the scene with branded and paywalled content, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for new, independent podcasts to be discovered among the crowd.

That said, in the great banquet hall of podcasting, there are countless seats still available at the table. The technical side is something nearly anyone can learn. From my experience, it’s really the content, the idea, and the passion to produce something consistently that makes the bigger difference. If you have something unique to say and the dedication to put in the required work, there’s an audience waiting for you.

Jad Abumrad said of podcasts, "My only prediction is that some way, the quality will always rise to the top.” What makes a quality podcast?

A quality podcast has a way of making us forget that we’re listening to a podcast at all. For me, this comes down to both content and audio quality. Content depends on podcast genre; a scripted storytelling show with a single narrator has to be tightly written with enough twists to maintain interest, a conversational show has to truly feel intimate, and so on.

The unifying factor for quality podcasts, though, is great sounding audio that isn’t overly tasking to process. If it’s too much work to focus on the speech signal, whether due to the speech-in-noise ratio, a poor audio recording, or a host of other reasons, the end audio quality can become distracting. So, it might mean greater effort on our part to manage background noise, control multitrack loudness, and account for auditory fatigue. It’s also attention to processing (but not over-processing) sibilants, plosives, and overall speech to improve audibility and create an acoustic scene that matches your content.

When all of these elements hang tightly together on a consistent basis, you end up with a quality podcast that maintains faithful listeners and consistently attracts new subscribers—not because of self-promotion or the best social media rollout plan—but because it’s a quality product. Period.

Want to improve the quality of your podcasts? Check out iZotope’s podcasting learning section.