This entry is part 7 of 10 in the series The Social Contractor

By ANDY

Hi, my name is Andy. I produce a podcast you have probably heard if you are here called CommanderCast. I have no metric to measure it’s success or how well established it is other than my own expectations, but going by that it’s doing pretty fucking awesome. I started this as a weekend project because I was bored. Today it’s got a growing crew of people who enable not only a weekly podcast, but multiple updates with quality content every week, all on a strictly volunteer basis. CommanderCast is no longer just a podcast, but rather a resource for Commander players in a more general sense. But I think the core of the whole affair is still the podcast. This might be because that’s my biggest job and I’m a raging egomaniac.

In this article, I’ll be giving you a behind the scenes look at the production of CommanderCast. This article will avoid being technical, but might not interest everyone since it’s largely about how to design, record, edit, and post a podcast. At the end of this article, you’ll be more prepared to produce your own podcast that I ever was when I started working on CommanderCast.

Before you even think about spitting fire into the mic, we need to make sure a mic is in your possession and attached to a recording mechanism. To get an idea of the required hardware, here’s where it goes down:

From the awkward-and-slightly-embarrassing-now premiere episode to the last season finale I just recorded, this is where every episode of CommanderCast has been convinced, birthed, raised and sent into the world. This shot is here so that you know that podcasting is a super low-budget hobby, which is a plus. All of the software is free, which I’ll get to in a minute. But while you’re peeping the hardware, let’s talk that stuff first.

You’ll see my monitor and a headset (PS3 PX21 Turtle Beaches, in case you’re wondering). Let’s talk headsets briefly. I’ll say that an inexpensive headset will work wonders for your show. I recommend a headset for your mic as they avoid a lot of background noise, keep your volume consistent while speaking, can be worn while editing to hide your embarrassing stutters from your housemates, and have other applications beyond podcasting like gaming or talking to camwhores on live feeds. Other microphones are ok, but have problems. Laptop internals tend to pick up a lot of ambient noise, including from the laptop’s fan; stand-alone microphones are barely even sold anymore unless they are professional quality, which I assume most have no interest in spending the money on. This makes a headset the clear choice in my mind. If you have any real interest in doing a podcast, invest $30-$50 for a basic set and you’re golden.

I started recording CommanderCast on a cheap headset that I later mailed to Byron when I got my PS3 headset. You can notice an obvious, substantial change in the quality of recordings with Byron around the end of Season 1 when he starts using the headset, while upgrading the cost of my headset by $100 produces no discernible difference. The most dramatic change is Adam, who used a laptop internal mic until Season 2. The change in his sound was so jarring, I didn’t recognize his voice initially, which led me to assume he’d been murdered and replaced (this is still possible, but the shapeshifter/alien/android is still a good podcaster). I really encourage people to go in on this investment because sound quality is crucial for obvious reasons. Imagine tuning into a podcast and hearing some garbled-ass voices assaulting you. How long will you keep listening? How many potential listeners are you willing to lose because your first episode sounds like shit? You will have enough problems, don’t pile audio quality on top of that.

Back to the photo: you can’t see my piece of shit computer, which trying to keep running is kind of like the art on Kill Switch. But trust me, it’s in bad shape. The headset is the fanciest element here, and it’s the most expensive as well. Unless you are reading this on a public computer, then you likely already have the most expensive element of producing a podcast; if you have a microphone, the second most costly thing is nixed.

So, if you’ve met these lofty requirements, you’re ready to go from the hardware standpoint. But this is definitely the easy part. The next thing we’ll talk about is software, which is relatively straightforward.

CommanderCast is recorded using Skype, which is kind of like a free webternet phone. You might have heard of it before. It’s a very good program for the price. Skype has issues (it’s sometimes a tad unpredictable, random quality drops, etc.) but I’m hardly about to fork out monies for something I can get for free legally. Skype installs itself and updates itself. It’s pretty turn-key. Then, you just need the Skype ID of the people you want to speak with. Beyond the basics, I recommend turning off all Skype sounds to keep your podcast clean. You’d also do well to deactivate the auto-adjust feature, where Skype will change the sensitivity of your microphone on the fly. Leaving that option on results in wild fluctuations in volume. It’s super annoying.

If Skype is working and you can speak with others, you now need a way to record the discussion. I use something with the uncreative title of MP3 Skype Recorder. This program is free but has quirks. Let me save you some heartache now and tell you not to let people connect to a call part of the way through recording, because sometimes it drops everything recorded prior to them joining the Skype conference. One other thing I recommend is closing and opening it anew each time you record a separate MP3 (if you are segmenting your show). Otherwise, I like it very much. It’s simple and elegant.

So, you can speak, and now you can record it. For some podcasters, this is good enough. If you like the idea of plastering an unedited conversation onto the internet, then you can pretty much call it a day here and ship that bitch off to Chris Otwell (click here to see how to submit a show to MTGCast). If you want to take the extra step and put in work to edit your podcast, then you need a program for that.

I use a tool called Audacity. It has lots of features, and is quite powerful once you’re accustomed to it. I will say installing and audacity is by far the most technical thing in this procedure, but if even a luddite like me can do it, then you can for sure. I don’t want to give the rundown on how to get Audacity going, it’s a bit of a process that this link can explain better. It also explains how to USE Audacity in some extremely helpful videos.

With Audacity, you get post-production. Editing a podcast is something that means different things to different people. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and edit heavily. I never detract from what somebody is saying or fuck with their message, but I edit by literally listening to the show. Every time something happens that to me is unnecessary (three-minute long in-jokes unrelated to subject), boring (dead air), or just unwanted (“um”, somebody eating chips), I axe it. This can obviously take some time to do but I think the final polished product is worth it. It’s surprisingly easy since all you’re doing is editing the show in a way that makes it easy for you to personally listen to.

There you have it. You’re ready to go, hardware and software wise, so now we have to get into the abstract things. This is more complicated, as there’s no real checklist to follow.

While I suppose you could technically record a podcast of yourself just talking about whatever was on your mind, it’s been done, and I don’t think there’s much of an audience left out there for it anymore. Some people have the miraculous ability to craft a cult of celebrity around them for no discernible reason, but these are not the type of people I encourage to podcast. While the internet certainly has the capacity to support another long-winded yet content-free podcast, I would hope you aren’t interested in putting one out yourself. So we move from hardware into what is probably the most challenging element of podcasting; the conceptual stuff.

What are you talking about? Why should anybody care? These are two questions I ask myself all the time prior to and during the recording of a show. They’re central to producing a quality product in my mind.

The first question is usually pretty easy to answer in a general sense (“We’re discussing EDH”), but that general sense also serves as a Metamucil-soft foundation for an extended discussion. A broad canvas creates lots of room for discussion, but you have to fill that room eventually and it better not be boring. Know what you’re going to talk about and why, in some detail, before you start. If you don’t you’ll flame out, fill your show with dead air and “uhhhh”, and generally sound sloppy. Show notes prepared before getting on the mic are the best tool for this (here’s some sample show notes). Research sure helps as well, even just a few minute’s worth. You can tell who did and didn’t prepare for a show during the discussion.

Once you know what you’re going to talk about, you have to consider that you need to compel people to listen. Why should anybody bother listening to you? There needs to be a hook. You could be qualified somehow; you could have an engaging personality or sense of humour; you can be breaking brand-new news. I’ll be honest, CommanderCast’s hook is that “there’s no other EDH podcast, so you’re stuck with this one.” While it apparently turned out to be a pretty wicked-sick hook, in most fields this doesn’t cut it. You need to quality yourself with experience, prove you have something insightful to say, or something similar. If you are looking at a crowded field of competition in particular, then you need a way to convince people your show is worth listening to. This also ties well into my next point:

Respect your audience. Most people spend many days in the real surrounded by vapid assholes and power-tripping dickheads with nothing interesting to say but lots to talk about. When they listen to your podcast, they are literally donating their spare time to you in exchange for entertainment, information, or maybe arousal if you’re making that kind of show (you know… the SEXY kind). Time is money and you are effectively begging. Don’t be one of those loser hobos who sits around and expects a payoff for having really impressive stink lines: be the guy who asked me for money to get his goldfish circumcised, or something. Have a solid angle, put some work in and people will see that and respect it. Don’t waste a listener’s time with boring filler; stay focused on what your podcast does. CommanderCast only talks about Commander as a format, because you don’t listen to Commander to get tips on Legacy (you have Crazy Talk for that). We don’t talk about our bullshit personal lives because, at least on my part, I accept you don’t care; you know at least a dozen people more interesting than me who directly impact your life. CommanderCast is focused and that is part of it’s appeal. I think that kind of focus is a strong model that not only gives a podcast an identity, but provides the show some integrity and serves as a constant reminder to respect the audience by giving them what they came for.

So, all the mean and serious sounding stuff is out of the way. If you know what your podcast is about and what your hook is to get people to listen to it, what now? Well… unless you’re doing a solo podcast (some of which are fantastic), you need to get on some Professor X shit and start searching out ideal candidates for your team.

Maybe you already have your team in mind, in which case, skip this part. CommanderCast’s team was built over months, and continues to change and grow. But initially forming it was a total crapshoot. How did I do it? I trawled a forum, looked for people whose posts I found insightful but didn’t agree with, and contacted them. Byron, aka SurgingChaos, fit the bill well; he was saying some insightful stuff, making reasonable and level-headed arguments, and even posted some videos expressing his views. So I asked if he wanted to do a podcast. He said yes. That’s the long and short of it. In retrospect, I think this really isn’t a bad methodology for finding compatriots for podcasting, but you need to be prepared to encounter some people you might not want to podcast with; a caustic personality, annoying voice, or total ineptitude on the mic mean you might have to pass somebody over that seemed like a good choice.

Note I picked Byron not just because he seemed like he knew what he was talking about, but because we were different. He’s a competitive player, and I’m casual to the core. He likes optimization and strong decks, I’ll shamelessly play Giant Shark. I think 1v1 Commander is a waste of time and he plays it all the time. I play exclusively in the real and he plays online. We are, in many ways, totally polarized. This creates an important dynamic on the show. Podcasts where two hosts agree with each other for ninety minutes are fucking boring. Find people who you can disagree with in a civil manner and your show is better for it not only because more perspectives provide variety, but sparring with words is interesting for you during the show as well. You won’t be bored during disagreement and listeners will catch your enthusiasm.

How I ended up growing the staff beyond me and Byron is mostly a kind of foggy memory. Mostly, they are just highlights from the community that stood out to me, or were listeners who e-mailed me a lot. This isn’t to demean them, but I think once you have a solid second, you will naturally grow your team, judge who you want as guests, and so on. In general, CommanderCast went from two guys stuttering into microphones to twelve people working together for no profit in under a year. It would be difficult to tell you how to do that, because I didn’t make it happen; all these awesome people did.

So, those are really the basics of starting a podcast; hardware, software, and wetware. There’s more beyond that (promotion, keeping the thing running, etc.), but I don’t think it’s really in the scope of this article, and stuff you can no doubt figure out if you’ve made it this far. I do feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to point out some kickass shows, though. I’m not really part of the online MtG community and have never listened to many Magic podcasts, so the shows that inspired me and I emulate aren’t MtG related. But, for reference, I direct you to some hows I would HIGHLY encourage you listen to and try to be like.

Magic-Related:
Monday Night Magic: Calling this Magic-related is a stretch some weeks. I don’t put this here because it’s a technical marvel but because Tom is a a fantastic host that he makes me pop envy boners. If you want to see how to guide a show around, keep listeners engaged, and be a fantastic host without sounding like an overbearing attention seeker or annoying self-centered loser, Tom is your guy. Skillful at guiding topics, funny, and great at making his guests involved. He is the star of the show who never eclipses his guests. This is a difficult trait to emulate. Trust me, I try.
The Eh Team: I don’t understand what they are talking about most of the time as somebody who doesn’t play any sanctioned formats but I still like the show. This is another program to listen to for host-related purposes. There is clear chemistry between them. Also, I enjoy listening to Smitty’s deckbuilding discussions because often, his thoughts are not limited in application to the subject he is discussing. I can only imagine how awesome this show is if you like Standard. This is also a good example of a podcast with a lot of swearing in it that doesn’t seem totally forced, which is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off. This is my favourite episode of the Eh Team, give it a listen. The only problem with this show, and Monday Night Magic, is they’re highly topical, so old episodes are unfortunately very dated-feeling sometimes.
The Third Power: This is the only Magic podcast I listen to that I feel like I can enjoy fully because I am an avid Cube player. The hosts are eloquent and knowledgeable. It’s usually very informative. This is a good example of running a show and remaining on topic, as well. The show maintains a laserbeam focus, which I appreciate a great deal. The shows are also pretty much evergreen, in contrast to The Eh Team. An episode of Third Power will be perfectly listenable in a year and still hold tremendous relevance.
World At War: I’m not going to lie, this podcast has taken some bizarre turns. They recently completely restructured the show, and hugely for the better. World At War is the best example of taking a concept and running with it, for better or for worse. Their initial concept was kind of sketchy and didn’t lend itself well to an audio format; their new concept is phenomenal. This is definitely a show that I look forward to watching develop and mature.

Non-Magic:
Sons of Kryos: Now tragically defunct, this was a podcast about role-playing games. It was carefully structured and the hosts were very well-spoken. The way the show was organized was so deeply burned into my mind that I don’t doubt listening to CommanderCast, you would find a great number of parallels between the two shows’ setups.
Radiolab: This is the best-produced podcast I have ever heard. It is also by far the most interesting. Listen to it not just to take in the way the show is made, the way the segments are divided, and how the interviews are woven into the other content, but also because whatever they are talking about tends to be very cool. I also like the show’s overall relaxed, almost mesmeric vibe.
My Brother, My Brother and Me: This show is just shit-your-pants funny. Trying to be funny without an audience in front of you to riff off is difficult. While not a technical marvel, MBMBAM is by far the funniest podcast I listen to.
Brilliant Gameologists: A great podcast for it’s humour value, actual information, and production values. Brilliant Gameologists is a good example of how to divide a show up into segments and actually use your post-production tools to improve the show.

So, there you go. you have the tools, the information, and even some examples to emulate if you have any interest in making a podcast. My last piece of advice is that you never know until you try. When I started CommanderCast, I figured I would have maybe a hundred listeners on a regular basis, and five of those would be my mom downloading it a few times to make me feel important. The audience is currently a bit larger than that from what I can gather. If you have an idea, grab that bitch and run with it until you’ve got no juice left, you flame out, and quit. Or maybe try and make a graceful exit? I’m not much good at those though, as you can see from how this article ends.

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