The last 12 months of Covid-driven "lockdown" have been somewhat of a creative boom time for many gamers, as without all of that inconvenient nonsense involved in actually meeting people, rolling dice and playing games many wargamers have been free to focus on the things that are actually important to this hobby of ours hobby - buying and painting figures, sharing pictures of figures on Wargaming Twitter, and listening to - and on occasions actually recording our own - podcasts about painting and collecting figures.
In particular, Podcasts about wargaming have really blossomed the last 12 months. A more cynical wargamer than I might speculate that this whole "everyone being locked in their own home" thing possibly has something to do with it, although having managed to record and release almost 40 episodes of the Madaxeman.com Podcast.com in that time I prefer to think of it as being down to a huge increase in high quality output hitting the podcast shelves.
So, when @Dice_Dad contacted me via Twitter to see if I could contribute something to his channel, I eventually settled on the idea of drawing on the learnings that recording and publishing the Madaxeman.com Podcast has provided, and pulling them together in an "absolute beginners guide" for creating your own wargames podcast.
Why create a podcast?
In much the same way as there are more Napoleonic rulesets than Napoleonic wargamers, there are countless reasons to create a podcast - and provided you approach it in the right spirit there is no right or wrong here, every reason is equally valid.
For myself and my fellow Central London Wargames Club members who together record the Madaxeman.com Podcast, it simply started out as half a dozen of us getting together on a Zoom call each week to chat about all of that wargaming stuff we would have chatted about at the club, if the pub we play in had still been open. One week we decided to record that chat and (after a fairly limited and painless spot of editing - more of which later) throw it out onto the internet and call it "a Podcast".
As time has passed that regular Zoom call has become a key part of all of our weekly schedules, helping us maintain our sanity and our sense of connection with the outside world during the various bouts of lockdown over the last 12 months. By creating a regular check-in each week we've also found that we have all helped each other maintain our painting mojo's, as every Monday night each of us has now feel we have to have something new to talk about.
The process of publishing this chat as a podcast, and releasing it on a regular weekly schedule has given us all impetus to maintain - no-one now wants to miss a week of our chat, and everyone wants to contribute with something that might be useful, interesting or funny - and that self-imposed discipline has really helped us all get through this last 12 months Frankly, even if no-one at all actually downloaded and listened to a single episode it would still be something I'm sure we'd carry on doing - but fact a few hundred other people now tune each week to listen to our ramblings as well is a complete bonus.
What should we talk about? How will we fill the time?
Can I let you into a secret? All wargamers really, really love talking about wargaming - in fact, I am told that non-wargamers have even been known to say we talk about it too much on occasion.
To be fair, listening to one wargamer talk for an hour at a time is likely to be hard work, no matter how engaging their patter is, but if you can get a few wargamers on a video call together, possibly each with a beer (other beverages are also available), give them a basic themes or idea, and let all of them know they need to at least try to impart at least a few nuggets of information that other people might be interested in hearing you will soon find that you have no problem at all in conjuring up 30, 60 or 90+ minutes of audio recording to use as the basis for your podcast.
Trust me, filling time with wargaming chat is not going to be a problem - the challenge is ensuring that you have at least some sort of structure or theme, no matter how basic or obscure that is.
Everything and anything that might you read about online, or talk about down the pub is fair game for a podcast, so if you would post it on a forum, or share it to Twitter or Facebook you can talk about it - and just like Facebook, Twitter or online forums, somewhere in the world there will (I guarantee) be some wargamers who are interested in hearing your, and your gaming buddies, opinions.
Our starting point for a theme on the Madaxeman.com Podcast was very basic indeed - we reckoned that wargamers are always interested in hearing about how other gamers paint their figures, what figures, paints and hobby tools other gamers are buying, and what other gamers think about the latest game or latest ruleset, so we just set out to share what we'd done in the previous week across those broad themes.
Over time that has led us to a very simple format and structure, where we always cover the three topics of "What have you painted or bought?", "What games did you play?" and "What have you got planned for next week?". Over time we've added in a regular quiz, and some other radio-show-like regular features, all of which have evolved organically - someone suggests an idea, we give it a go and if it works we repeat it next week. We have also recorded some one-off episodes all about how to design lists for different armies under in the ADLG ancients ruleset, and even a couple of 'specials' about hobby tools and supplies - they are all still available online, and people have, and continue to download and listen to them all! If we can record an hour of chat about our favourite brands of glue, clearly anything goes - the most important thing is that you all enjoy talking about it, as then it will just work.
How do I record my podcast ?
As hinted at earlier one of the defining aspects of the last 12 months has been how video conferencing apps have now become second nature to us all, with "Zoom" even becoming an adverb. Fortunately for all potential podcasters Zoom includes feature that makes life really easy - it can record the complete audio from any Zoom video call (even using just the "free" plan), and save it as an MP3 file on your own computer - allowing you to record your podcast with no special software at all.
Recording on Zoom is simple and straightforward, and although a free Zoom account limits individual calls with more than 2 participants to 40 minutes, you can always drop off the call and restart again straight away if you overrun the "free" time - or instead just use someone's "work" account.
The one key lesson we've learnt is to make sure that several of the people on the call are all recording, giving you multiple copies of the final audio file. This isn't strictly necessary if you have 100% confidence in technology, a faultless internet connection, and have never failed to save, or accidentally overwritten an important file in your entire life. But for the rest of us mere mortals I can attest from painful experience that having someone else making a copy can sometimes really help in avoiding an awful lot of swearing later on in the while process.
So... you have a 2-hour MP3 file of you and your gaming mates chatting. What next?
You could just throw that out into the ether as-is, but that isn't going to be all that slick (or easy to listen to) and, more importantly, you'll have missed out on a whole new hobby world of "crafting" something you've created into a much better finished article - and assuming that you're someone who enjoys building, painting and generally faffing around with figures, vehicles and terrain and then showing them off to other people, learning how to do the same sort of thing with an audio file is probably going to be right up your street!
There are plenty of paid-for and free audio editing packages available, however one of the best and (potentially) easiest to use is Audacity - an open-source freeware package that does far more than you will ever need or want. Being freeware does mean Audacity is a little light on "how-to" guides and manuals, but I've managed to muddle through using only a handful of its features over and above the basics of "play", "pause", "cut" and "paste". Whatever package you use don't be intimidated, just give it a go until you get something that sounds OK to you.
When you are editing if the audio is a bit patchy in places (maybe one of your guests has a dodgy microphone) don't worry! Covid has meant that the BBC, Sky, ITV and the rest of the professional news broadcast industry are now all running hours and hours of dubious quality recorded-on-a-phone video and audio as a normal everyday part of their schedules, so the whole world is now used to audio dropping out and scratchy sound.
Good sound quality is of course ideal though, and editing software can clean up your audio a little (I use Audacity's "normalise" and "leveller" filters to smooth out the sound across the whole podcast, and sometimes the "truncate silence" filter to trim out any lengthy silences as well). Really though, the main things you are doing during editing is to cut up the conversation into more manageable chunks, and to then work out how best to punctuate it with regular bursts of music, sound effects - or even your own theme tune!
Breaking up the podcast like this is vital - no matter how scintillating and informative you may believe that your conversation has been, unless your gaming group features the vocal talents of Patrick Stewart, Dame Helen Mirren and a beyond-the-grave guest appearance from Richard Burton I'm sorry to tell you that no-one is going to be able to sit through two hours solid of your uninterrupted spoken word audio about wargaming - even other wargamers.
Breaking up the podcast every now and then with a short burst of music or a sound effect every 15-20 minutes will make it a whole lot easier to listen to, and as you listen back when editing you will find natural transition points between the topics you're covering, or between speakers where a 10-15 second burst of music can help punctuate the discussion neatly. It also gives your audience a chance to press pause and go and make a cup of tea without missing anything vital too.
The internet is stuffed with music you could download and use, but most of it (and all the famous bits) belong to someone else. Podcasts don't sit outside copyright law, and so if you borrow or recycle any music (even a really short clip) there's always a risk the rights owner will one day come across it and ask your podcast hosting company to take your podcast off air, taking all of your hard work with it in the process.
The answer is to only use genuinely rights-free music, much of which will have been published under a Creative Commons license - sites like freemusicarchive.org, freesound.org and the YouTube Audio Library have vast amounts of music and sound effects, all of which you can use without risking breach of someone else's' copyright. Somewhere out there in the world of free music you'll find something that is just right for your podcast - and unlike borrowing someone else's theme tune, in time your listeners will come to think of it as "yours" as well.
To publish your podcast you will almost certainly need to choose a Podcast hosting company and sign up for an account. Most providers offer "free" trial accounts that allow you to upload a few hours of podcast content storage, so you can give podcasting a go before deciding if this is part of your hobby you want to actually start to spend some actual money on pursuing.
It is also (in theory) possible to host podcast audio files on your own website (but this will eat up your storage and bandwidth) or you can also add the audio file to some pictures and host the podcast on YouTube, but with both of these options you'll miss out on the most important service that all Podcast hosting companies offer - Syndication.
Syndication is how your podcast get to be listed in places like iTunes, Spotify and a host of other music and podcast platforms - allowing people to find it and play it wherever they normally listen to podcasts. My personal take is that this syndication functionality is actually where the value is that a podcast hosting company provides - it does take a little time to setting up as your podcast hosting company will walk you through the steps needed to set up accounts on all of these other services, but once it'd done each new episode will automatically be distributed across the internet for wargamers to find.
You can also then share links to the podcast with friends and clubmates, and promote it on your blog, on Twitter, Facebook and whatever other social media accounts you use for wargaming purposes - anything to get your new creation out into the world.
Everyone who creates something and puts it out there really wants some feedback and that sense that someone out there approves of your handiwork. As well as syndication and hosting, using a podcast host gives you access to a whole load of stats about your podcast, including where your listeners are, how long they listen for, what time of day ... so you now not only have a podcast, you also have access to more feedback than you can possibly ever handle.
However, as long as you've all enjoyed the process of recording and editing it, and you all are keen to get on a Zoom call and do it all again next week, how many people listen really isn't all that important.
Just like posting photos on Twiter or Facebook, or writing a blog, or recording a video for YouTube, Podcasting is simply the latest way to share your wargaming passion and connect with your friends - and no matter how hyper-niche, or wafflingly broad that passion is someone out there will appreciate your efforts, and learn something from them, and as long as you enjoy creating it, chances are that all the people who listen will do so too.