Lessons from WDSTL: podcasting, travel blogging, exploring

Sean Blanda (left) and I on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps on May 28, 2008. Together we travel blogged and podcasted for a month while backpacking Europe.
Sean Blanda (left) and I on the Philadelphia Art Museum steps on May 28, 2008. Together we travel blogged and podcasted at WeDontSpeaktheLanguage.com for a month while backpacking Europe.

After returning from backpacking Europe earlier this month, I shared some of the professional experience I got while blogging at WeDontSpeaktheLanguage.com.

My good buddy, travel partner and fellow aspiring new media journalist Sean Blanda beat me to a post on lessons learned, but I have some thoughts myself: on podcasting, travel blogging and exploring generally.

Exploring

  • Backpack with a friend – This is something I shared in our final episode, but it’s worth noting again. I strongly advocate traveling on your own at least once. Really. Prove to yourself that you can follow a map, find housing, use a foreign language and, mostly, have fun, on your own. But, I’d say, try that on a shorter trip. Sometime you have a chance at a week or two of travel on your own, give it a go. Otherwise, travel with a friend or two. Don’t let them keep you from interacting with new people, but instead use them to make light of the challenges and frustrations that will certainly befall you. Sing songs when you’re lost. Switch off on directing the other. But, first, figure out how you’re splitting the costs.
  • Know what you want to see – if you’re going through various cities or countries or regions, wherever in the world they may be, you ought to have at least one experience or sight you want to have in each place. That gives you something to look forward to and feel good about your leaving almost certainly too soon. If it rains in Austria while you’re there, at least you can leave knowing you got to see the Vienna Opera House in action.
  • Record what you expect, compare with what you find – Something I am happiest Sean and I did was alternate writing preconceived notions for each city we visited. That lets me go back and see how I saw each place before I got there.
  • Go somewhere less obvious – Our stops in Lyon, France and Miskolc, Hungary were even briefer than originally planned, but it gave us a chance to see culture outside the international cities that were other destinations. I spoke French in the country’s second largest city, and we rumbled along the buses and trams in little-touristed metropolis in Eastern Europe.
  • Couchsurf – If you have even vague notions of someday backpacking anywhere in this world – even domestically – then you better have a profile on Couchsurfing.com. See our tips here and explanation in Episode Six, but, I assure you, get a profile, offer up your couch, meet new people and then travel and see new places with the help of actual locals. …Do this.
  • Turn off (or turn down) your home responsibilities – Put a vacation responder on your cell phone and e-mail. Other than promoting or updating your travel blog – which should actually help you remember and better enjoy your trip – stay offline. Web crawl when you get home. When you’re abroad, see the sights and locals and if you have an itch for the c-word, pub crawl. Figure out a way to put your web presence on auto-pilot.

Travel blogging

  • Travel blog – Allow yourself a timeline of your travels, so you don’t forget where you’ve been. It helps you put a long, eventful trip together. For those with family and friends whom you will actually miss, it definitely helps connect you with those you can’t see or speak to regularly. Even if you’re doing little more than just posting a personal journal that might not attract a wider audience, this is valuable.
  • Pack light, bring a lap top and use wireless Internet – Most places we stayed charged for computer use, but many offered free wireless Internet if you had your own laptop. This also lets you store video and photos before you upload them.
  • Upload all the video and photos you can – Rather than depend solely on your laptop or camera, backup these files using free hosting sites like Youtube and Flickr. That makes it a lot more likely you’ll have them all when you return. It also makes it easier to share with friends and family. Even if you don’t post them on your blog, get all the material you possibly can. You’ll appreciate this when you get home.
  • Post writing of all flavors: travel, creative, even conversations you’ve had – if you’re not travel blogging professionally, don’t question it. If you are moved to write something, write it. It will be a treat when you return, even if – perhaps especially if – you change your view. So, describe events that happen to you but also write about broader subjects that come to you while traveling.
  • Carry a journal – write down thoughts or notes when tapping away on a keyboard isn’t possible. These can also include more personal thoughts you won’t post. I wish I did a better job of this, but – even if you just write a sentence to job your memory later – record what you do each day. Travel are the events we’ll want to remember for a long time, make it easier.
  • Connect with those you meet – Share your site with everyone you meet. Hope they follow and join in the conversation. If others share with you their own blogging, check it out, you might learn something or better connect. Use social networking devices, like Facebook and MySpace, to develop relationships you can use later.

Podcasting

  • Promote more than we did – This first thought was Sean’s, too. We used social networking devices and each sent a mass e-mail to everyone we knew, but I think we could have done better. We got a few hundred hits the first couple days, but that never really grew, rather it flat lined. In that way, Sean and I proved better as parts than a whole. As silly and surprising as it sounds, both of out little sites have developed small, but respectable readerships. Readerships more loyal and faster growing than a product I thought was probably more valuable and more regularly interesting: a video podcast and blog. As Sean wrote in his review post, we didn’t do as much promotion as we could have. We didn’t reach out enough to other travel blogs and podcasts. We each sent an e-mail out to our childhood newspapers, but didn’t follow up or tried elsewhere. If we wanted to monetize the product or better grow it, we would have had to do a lot more work on promotion’s end. Learn from us.
  • Bring extra space – My laptop had enough disk space that we could have taken on the 30 gigabytes we produced, but it probably would have run slower and I wouldn’t want to risk it. We also could have backed everything up by uploading to free hosting sites, but that would have lost some of our ability to manipulate the product. Instead, Sean kindly brought a hefty harddrive. Stuffed in our “Tech” bag, I don’t think all of our equipment slowed us much, but it allowed us to keep all of our videos and photos available to reedit.
  • Simple, simple – Don’t be afraid of lackluster quality. Keep high quality on your computer or hard drive, but overly compress your product to get it online without fighting with connection speeds. I am less concerned with modes of distribution than Sean because I didn’t want to deal with it while traveling. I wouldn’t have put the effort into figuring out the podcast distribution to ITunes, but it would make it easier for viewers to plop it on their multimedia viewer of choice. Decide what is worth your time. If you’re on the road, though, I think it’s fine to make the product as easy as you can – if that’s just Youtube, then so be it.
  • Share anectdotes – Get your cutaways and tell stories. Looking back, I spoke too directly, without leaving room for sharing the color that always comes your way while traveling and better come your way during whatever subject on which you want to podcast.
  • Be yourself – Don’t try to be entertaining. Before we left, I had lunch with a large newspaper’s multimedia editor and he cautioned me about podcasting at all. He told me very few personalities are worth watching. If I am not one of those personalities, he said, either I would have to play it up – which is embarrassing and bad for a young person looking for a job – or be boring. If you’re trying your hand at podcasting, be yourself: speak clearly and don’t be afraid to smile and joke, but don’t play yourself up.
  • Don’t do it unless you really want to do it – If you think photos and text can tell your story, don’t force it. I am not convinced all of our episodes were interesting enough to attract viewers who didn’t have a direct connection to us or our trip. But, we wanted to try it out. Creating a real, viewable product is difficult under any circumstances, while traveling and with limited time and equipment makes it even harder. It can certainly get in the way of traveling or whatever it is about which you’re podcasting.

Any others?