Here's how to turn a mountain of interview tape into a coherent podcast episode

Reel-to-reel recorder with loose tape attached to a laptop

The research phase can be a really fun period in the creative process. You have an idea you’re excited by, and you’re learning more about its nuances every day: reading books and articles, watching documentaries, and conducting interviews with experts. During that time, you’re filling up your well with knowledge and inspiration, and hopefully your hard drive with recordings — also known as “tape.”

But it can feel incredibly overwhelming when you actually sit down to take everything you’ve learned and recorded and try to pull it into a single, coherent podcast episode. (Or season, depending on the scope of your project.) Maybe you know too much at this point, and you want to share all of it… even though you know each episode can’t be six hours long. Or maybe you just can’t figure out where to start, when everything seems so important and interconnected.

There’s no one right way to attack the problem, and everyone develops their own particular process that feels right for them. But there are, as always, some best practices that most industry professionals turn to when they’re trying to formulate a first draft. We sat down with Hayley Hershman, who’s currently a senior producer at Marketplace, for her tips for beating information overwhelm and turning raw tape into a polished story.

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Figure out what matters

One of the hardest things about creative projects is how subjective they are. There’s no single greatest version of whatever it is you’re making, no objective criteria that will tell you whether you’re doing it right or not. So it’s important to be as specific as possible about what you’re aiming for from the beginning — especially when there are multiple people involved in making it. 

“It always helps to get all of your stakeholders together to agree on a common goal,” Hayley says. “What the mission of the show is, and key takeaways that you want people to leave with. That can be either actual content, or feelings that you want them to have throughout.” This is where you go from “We’re making a show about the history of widgets” to “We’re making a show about the history of widgets that’s just as funny as it is educational. We want to make sure to cover widget-making from an intersectional perspective. We hope that when a consumer buys their next widget, they understand its history, and, most importantly, why our company’s history as widget-makers makes us their best bet.” 

Establishing goals for the show’s tone and content early means you’ll have rock-solid criteria to help you make decisions throughout the editorial process. “If you’re stuck on something, you can always ask, well, does that fit in with the mission that we all agreed on?” Hayley says. “It also helps to mitigate any conflict, because you're all working towards the same goal.”

And even if you’re 100% solo, we still recommend making sure you know where you’re heading. Creative work is a little like a road trip that way — there are lots of paths you can take to your destination, but if you don’t know where that is, you’re definitely going to end up lost. 

Write an outline

At this point, you’ll want to sit down and make an outline or flowchart to help you see all the major beats of your story, and how they’re going to connect with and lead into one another. You probably won’t get it right the first time, Hayley cautions — part of the editing process usually involves some amount of rearranging, as well as rewriting. But before you get into the nitty gritty, you want to get the big-picture view as clear as possible. 

A word of advice here: don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Yes, ordering a story chronologically or step-by-step is super common, but that’s for a reason: because it works! (You might notice that I’m writing something step-by-step right now.) It provides clarity, which is valuable — especially in a podcast, which people often listen to while distracted by a task like driving or being the president. Maybe down the road you’ll find subject matter that calls for a fancy structure, but when you’re just getting started, putting things in order is never a bad idea. 

Pull selects

Once you have your outline written, it’s time to start matching the ideas you want to discuss with the tape you actually have. For Hayley, this usually involves generating a transcript and reading through for quotes that stand out as particularly succinct and clear — or juicy or funny. 

(This is the point where we tell you that not only does Descript generate a transcript for you automatically, but it also has this extremely handy feature where you can paste all of the good quotes you’ve highlighted into a new composition with exactly three clicks of your mouse. Ok, back to Hayley.)

“I have my outline in a doc, and then any tape that I've liked, I pull [that quote] under the bullet points of my outline,” she explains. This helps her see what’s being nicely fleshed out, and what’s feeling a little thin — or whether there are elements of the story that came up in interviews that aren’t being addressed by the current outline. 

When that comes up, it can be a challenge to figure out whether you should go out and get more tape, or shift your outline to accommodate what you already have. Always refer back to those goals you started with. Are you getting distracted by something that’s interesting, but ultimately beside the point? This is where the phrase “kill your darlings,” comes in handy. Just because it’s beautiful or fascinating on its own doesn’t mean it belongs in your story. 

Write a script

Please notice that we’re on step four of this process, and it’s the first time you’re actually writing something meant to be recorded. Yes, it’s a little bit laborious — but it also means you’re not faced with the wilderness of the blank page anymore. Instead, you have a clear goal for each section, and those fun, funny pieces of tape to write around. To return to our road trip metaphor, think of these themes and quotes as pit stops you want to make along the way. All you have to do is connect the dots!

Make a scratch mix 

There’s only so much you can do when you’re editing your draft on the page. At a certain point, you need to stand it up and see if it’s working as a piece of audio. Maybe you have the time and resources for a full table read, but if not, Hayley recommends the scratch mix as a fairly fast and cheap option. 

“I turn on my voice memos, usually on my phone,” she explains. “I read the script myself, and just play the clips off of my computer. It’s this really low-quality way of hearing the episode as a whole.” It also allows her to listen to the show the way she normally does, instead of in a professional setting where she’s expected to be paying close attention to every nuance. “The scratch mix lets people take a walk and listen as they’re doing other things,” she notes. “And then we can see where their attention might wander.”

Don’t be afraid of change

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fantastic first draft of anything,” Hayley says. “And that's fine.” So she recommends that you approach your project knowing that “you have the freedom to have it be terrible, and then you can just slowly improve it. You can make all the tweaks you want as you go through different iterations.” 

Those tweaks might even turn into big changes — anything goes, as long as it’s in the service of the mission, she says. “I'm always open to burning it all down and starting over if the tape warrants it,” Hayley confesses. “As long as it's in service of getting me to the goals that I’ve laid out with my team.” 

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