Ideating and task management
Google Docs Editors
Suite of cloud-based software that includes programs for word processing and spreadsheet creation. Free.
Both Charlie and Jackson use Google Docs regularly as they’re coming up with potential show ideas, aggregating research and keeping track of booking information. This collection of programs is free, easy to use, and, most importantly, everyone can access it, which is especially important for a freelancer like Jackson, who may be working with people across different organizations.
He describes himself as “a creature of Google Sheets,” and uses the spreadsheet function in particular both to track information and assign tasks. “I can have a list of, here's 174 potential guests that I wanna have on this show, and we're only to get 12, but just so we know, these are the priorities,” he explains. “I'm sharing that with somebody who works at Pineapple Street Studios or Western Sound or whatever the organization is. And we can all kind of look at it together and see what the progress is. Or if we have different notes, we can say, Hey, I know this person, I can actually reach out to them myself. It’s an active document and season overview.”
“I also love just the basic thrill of changing something to yellow to green,” he admits. “This confirmed, something happened.”
A web-based Kanban-style list-making application. Free, with paid tiers starting at $5 per month.
Meanwhile, Charlie’s team for Switched on Pop aggregates ideas from their weekly meeting into a Google Doc, but assigns tasks via a Trello board, which he calls “our single point of truth for everything that our show is up to.” Trello boards are organized Kanban-style, which means they’re optimized for a repeatable workflow– boards are typically organized by task statuses such as To Do, In Progress, and Done.
Charlie cautions that Trello doesn’t necessarily scale well for larger teams, but he finds its visual display useful so that everyone can see what’s happening in one place. Their boards are organized in order of importance: “So what has just been released?” he says. “What is in editing? What is in production? What is scheduled? What are we booking? What are open pitches?” There are other spaces where the team also tracks “long-term tasks and to-dos, bigger projects, and guest ideas” among other resources.
Task management software. Free version, with paid tiers starting at $10.99 per month.
If you’re working with a bigger team — or just want more traditional task-management software — Asana is a popular option. Since it’s not tied to the Kanban format, it allows for more customization than Trello — plus the ability to assign individual tasks within a project. That way, team members can see which to-do’s in a particular project belong to them; they can also manage a personal to-do list that’s aggregated across projects.
Project management and note-taking software. Free, with paid tiers starting at $4 per month.
Notion is a Google Docs Editors alternative; instead of siloing word processing and spreadsheet creation in different programs, it allows you to combine both into custom apps designed specifically to fit your workflow. Notion provides you with blank pages that you can fill with different blocks depending on what types of information you need; data in tables can be shared across different docs in the same workspace.
Cloud-based document editor. Free, with paid tiers starting at $10 per month per user.
However, if you really want to do database management, Coda could be your best bet. Coda is similar to Notion, but where Notion has its roots in note-taking software, Coda is more interested in helping you create and use tables (the database kind, not the kind you eat dinner on, alone, night after night). It’s also generally customizable and powerful — but it does have a steeper learning curve, so you have to decide whether you want to invest time and energy in making a system that works perfectly for you.
At Descript, we use Notion for our project management, and Google Docs for our copyflow (largely because it’s the only cloud-based word processor with track-changes). We’ve used all of the above tools before, and they all have their benefits and drawbacks, which are pretty subjective, so try a few until you find what works for you.
Both Charlie and Jackson use Slack to communicate with their coworkers, which is especially critical since they’re almost always working remotely. “Whenever things are changing, we're very good about @ing people,” Charlie says. “‘Hey, I'm going away. Can you cover something?’”
Jackson concurs, but he also advocates for knowing when to — bear with us here — pick up the phone. “I crave a little bit of that contact, just with the voice on the other end of the lines,” he says. “It's great to have all your tools, and sometimes the best tool is talking to people.”
You can also talk by huddle in Slack, or start a Zoom call in a couple clicks.
Even the simplest podcasts require a lot of files. Something as bare-bones as a two-person chat show will ideally have two separate audio tracks of the conversation, one for each speaker, plus whatever intro, outro and segment break music you use to bookend the show. For every element you add– more speakers, archival or interview audio, sound effects — the number of files goes up. And then you start making drafts, and you have to keep track of them, too.
Charlie and the Switched on Pop team use Google Drive to stash everything that goes into their episodes. All the files for an episode go in a folder with the episode number and name on Google Drive, i.e. 279 Beyoncé Renaissance, he explains. Docs related to the episode use the same convention, such as 279 Beyoncé Research, 279 Beyoncé Outline, 279 Beyoncé Notes. Any interviews include the episode number and the name of the person speaking.
Whatever you do, make sure your file-naming and storing system is consistent. Dates are tempting, but don’t always work well if you’re creating multiple drafts in a day (use an additional marker like DATEv1 etc.). And of course, beware of the final_FINAL_FORREAL_NO THIS ONE trap — it’s easier to label drafts in the numerical order they were created, or demarcate the highest level of editing they’ve gotten, rather than guess-timating where you’re at in the creative process.
At last, it’s time to write the thing. Or, well, at least outline, so everyone knows what’s supposed to happen when. Switched on Pop keeps all of its research in one big, messy Google Doc; then each week’s host creates a new doc to write a bullet-pointed list that serves as the outline for each episode. It might also include some specific language if the show is incorporating audio from interviews with outside experts, and needs specific intros or outros.
If you are going full scripted, Jackson recommends using Final Draft. For fictional shows, “it tracks characters in a way that's helpful,” he says. “So if you wanna look through one character's dialogue and just make sure her voice is consistent, start to finish, that's kind of cool.”
It’s also a lingua franca for a certain subset of audio professionals. “If people on the other end of the line at [audiobook and podcast publisher] Audible saw that format, they would know how to use it,” Jackson says, though he adds that he’s also used Google Docs for simpler tasks like short promo scripts.
His biggest recommendation is for shows that have to stick to a strict time schedule, or at least want a sense of how long they’re going to run. It’s called Rundown Creator, and it’s mainly used for broadcast, where runtimes are scheduled down to the microsecond. But it can also be helpful for keeping things on track even if you have the flexibility of a podcast format.
Rundown Creator allows you to essentially build a template, Jacons says, where you build in the intro, the advertisement, and other standing segments — with the script baked in. The program also allows you to input a hosts’ read rate for words per minute, and will tell you how long it will take a particular host, on average, to get through a piece of script.
One Final Note
There are a bajillion more options we didn’t get into here for project management, research storage, and outlines or scripts. So especially when you’re first starting out, don’t get too hung up on brand names. Use whatever works best for you.
Charlie advocates aiming for “the minimum systems necessary in order to collaborate with your team, and never more.” The way he sees it, “too many systems create friction in people's lives. People don't like to change habits. They only wanna work with the tools that actually made their life better.”
Jackson concurs: “Whatever you already know how to use is right,” he says.