Deadline Extension: With so many schools closed because of COVID-19, the NPR Student Podcast Challenge has pushed its deadline back to May 1, 2020.
Like so many people throughout the country, we at NPR’s Student Podcast Challenge are working from home right now. And after months of teaching students how to make a homemade podcast, we put our skills to the test: The latest episode of our podcast was recorded from our bedrooms.
We used pillow forts (just like in our how-to video!), bulky headphones and special, professional-grade microphones. But don’t let the equipment discourage you — with just a couple tweaks you can use essentially the same setup: Replace the headphones with earbuds, and the mics with a mobile device like a cell phone or tablet, and you’re ready to go!
A lot of teachers have told us that their students were working hard on Student Podcast Challenge entries, but when schools closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, students lost access to their files and had to start over. Other teachers reached out to say they had only just heard about the contest, and they’d like to include it in their new distance learning curriculums. Either way, many students and teachers are starting from scratch. To help you along, here are five easy steps to making a great podcast from home.
Step 1: Prepare!
Do the research
Whether you have to start over, or you’re starting for the first time, deciding on a topic can always be daunting.
Our advice? Choose something you’re passionate about. One of our early favorites this year is about conspiracy theories; another one is about mental health. These can really be about anything!
Write an outline
Once you have your topic, start brainstorming what the podcast will sound like. Since you’re at home, this podcast might sound different than it would in a classroom. Rather than talking with your co-host or friend for a couple minutes, you might have to each record your parts separately and then put them together at the end. This can be hard to edit around if you don’t plan it out, so when working at home planning is key.
This is also the time to decide if you want to conduct interviews. (But how do you interview someone without being in the same room as them??? See Step 4.)
Secure the devices
Find a mobile device (or two if you’re interviewing someone). This can be a computer, tablet, cell phone, or even a smart watch.
Step 2: Exercise your vocal cords
The best vocal exercises, like lip trills and saying lines in funny voices, are easy to do at home! If you feel weird making crazy noises by yourself, take a tip from my high school theater teacher and do them in the mirror. When you watch yourself do the exercises you get more comfortable with the sounds and yourself. Vocal exercises may seem silly, but they really do change your voice — so don’t skip them!
Step 3: Set up your studio
This might be the only step that is easier at home. In order to get the best sound quality you want to have as few hard surfaces as possible. You can do this by building a pillow fort or throwing a blanket over your head. In your house you have a lot more options for sound-proofing than in a classroom.
Find a room with lots of plush surfaces (i.e., a bedroom, rather than a garage) and set up your recording studio. I like to sit on the ground in my living room facing the couch (weird but effective). Then I build a pillow fort around my mic.
Step 4: Get recording!
It’s time. Sit in front of your pillow fort with your mobile device and click record. You can record on any number of mobile and desktop apps or just in your voice memos. If you’re recording yourself, have your outline in front of you and try to hit all the points without sounding scripted.
A good way to avoid sounding scripted is to pretend you’re talking to an imaginary person in front of you. It could be your best friend or John Legend, totally up to you. Read the lines a few times — you’re by yourself, why rush?
If you’re interviewing someone, there are a few extra things to keep in mind. First, remember to get the guest’s permission before you hit record. Second, have two devices on hand. There are tons of options to record an interview remotely, but we’re going to talk about the simplest one:
Call the guest over the phone, or using Skype or FaceTime. Interview them while on speakerphone so you can record the conversation with a second device. Sometimes when talking on speakerphone we feel like we need to be louder since the phone is farther away — try not to do that. You don’t want your voice to overpower the guest’s.
Reporters conduct interviews all the time over Skype and FaceTime, so don’t shy away from interviews just because you’re stuck at home.
Step 5: Listen back and edit
Save your files down, plug in your headphones and start editing clips together! You can edit the audio on tons of different free desktop and mobile apps.
And just for kicks, here’s an optional Step 6: Make Music
We’ve covered how to use and make music a couple different times. For a refresher, listen to Throughline host Ramtin Arablouei explain how he scores his podcast. Remember, you don’t have to write a symphony; this can be as simple as clapping out a beat or drumming with spoons.
We know the methods outlined here won’t be accessible to every student. To those who can’t access their files anymore or don’t have the resources to continue at home — we’re so sorry. Whenever you get back to school, finish up your podcast! Even if we can’t judge them as entries, we would still love to listen.
And to those who are still able to take on the podcast challenge — get recording!