What makes a good podcast?

The vast majority of Americans will tell you they’ve listened to the radio in the last week. The dominant media inside people’s cars, radio has a reach second only to TV. And while radio has been on the decline for some time, the kinds of declines people talk about are mainly in terrestrial radio, or radio that gets broadcast from a radio station somewhere in your city.

While most Americans listen to the radio, what kind of radio they’re listening to is the rub. People have swapped their commercial-laden and annoying radio station DJs for Internet radio services like Pandora, Rdio, and to a lesser extent Satellite and HD radio services. It’s no surprise, really. Anyone who has ever listened to a terrestrial radio station for more than 10 minutes knows that most of your commute is spent listening to awful radio ads and not music. So if your cell phone can pick up nothing but music with advertising-free or very minimal advertising on a station, why wouldn’t you use that? And because radio has for so long been “free”, the idea of paying has made most consumers totally resistant to ever paying for a service.

What’s missing from the mix, however, is podcasting. About 45% of Americans claim to know what a podcast is, but that number has been stagnant since about 2007. Only 9% of Americans claim they “love” a podcast. A quarter of Americans say they’ve ever really listened to one. I imagine about 10% of Americans really listen to a podcast regularly.

The numbers are small and it seems mostly concentrated around a very niche audience of tech-savvy and well educated people. That’s not necessarily a bad audience, but it’s hardly the sort of thing people of all sorts are flocking to.

A quick glance at the top podcasts in iTunes shows the same podcasts that have been there for nearly half a decade or more (in no particular order):

  1. NPR’s Car Talk
  2. NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me
  3. The Adam Carolla Show
  4. HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher
  5. How Stuff Works
  6. And various news outlets like MSNBC, NBC, ABC, ESPN, etc. vying for eyes to their nightly newscasts

About half of the podcasts in the top podcasts section of iTunes come from “major media outlets”, namely outlets with some money and professionals to put the shows together, and they’re generally shows that do well with the radio format, like talk shows and reporting that was never designed to be visual.

There are currently nine podcasts in my library right now:

  1. Unprofessional
  2. Accidental Tech Podcast
  3. Crit Confirm Entertainment (disclosure: these guys are a client)
  4. The Talk Show with John Gruber
  5. James Bonding (Nerdist)
  6. Real Time with Bill Maher
  7. This American Life
  8. NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me
  9. NPR’s Car Talk

While I have subscribed to nine, I never listen to all nine. I’m new to Unprofessional, but the last episode was so dull I only got a few minutes in and I’ll probably unsubscribe. I *always* listen to Bill Maher, The Talk Show, and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, in that order. Car Talk comes next and I always listen to James Bonding, but it’s a limited-run production and only pops in once a month or so. The rest, well, I sometimes get to them, but I usually can’t keep up.

I don’t have a commute, but I spend a great deal of time listening to shows on my bike and I still can’t ever to all of them. And unlike music, I can’t work and focus on what’s being said at the same time, so I never listen to them around the house. Which leads me to some problems with podcasts.

Podcasts suffer from some serious problems, and I think it’s why you see the podcasts you see in the top charts.

Long, rambling, and unfocused shows

Podcasts are often long, rambling, unfocused, and disjointed. This is common of shows I listen to, like ATP and The Talk Show. These shows consistently hover around 2 hours in length every week. Even if you had a 30 minute commute to work, it’d take you four days just to get through both of these shows. If these hosts had to sit down and write a blog post they’d never make it a two hour read. Think about traditional TV shows you love, like Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Those shows were “long” because of their commercial-less nature and they clocked in at under an hour each. A show like The Colbert Report clocks in at about 21 minutes of content after commercials. Feature length movies don’t even always go to two hours.

Most podcasts start out with a goal for the creators and not the listeners. “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if we recorded the two of us talking about things and let people listen in?” Said no one ever. That might sound good on the surface if you’re the creator, but listeners rarely want to hear two or more people talk about *things*. They’re often off-point, disjointed, bantering inside jokes, and it makes the listener feel like they’re eavesdropping and not a part of the conversation.

And because people aren’t part of the conversation, you have to make the show highly entertaining, and most are not. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me and Real Time are highly entertaining (even if you don’t like them, you can at least agree they hit the right points for what constitutes “entertaining”). They’re funny, insightful, news-oriented and topical. They recognize there are people there listening, but not contributing. Some shows, and even some traditional radio shows like Bob and Tom and other “morning zoo” shows get around this by taking calls or emails, but most people can’t reasonably do that because you don’t have an audience to start with to actually call you. The show should be a pleasure for the listener, not the host.

Shows like This American Life, which is touted as “the best” show still has some problems. I for one look at the show synopses each week and if it’s something boring to me, I don’t listen. The result is I listen to a show once every few months. Anything dealing with families, babies or kids, obscure topics like what it’s like to be a carnival ride operator, etc. are of no interest to me (and I recognize that’s a personal taste).

But the show’s great research, editing, and pacing is top-notch. It’s designed for listeners. For every hour of programming two, three, four or more hours goes into putting it together. And for a lot of show hosts that’s a non-starter. They’re just not that interested in contributing that much time and energy.

And that’s where things fall apart. Because the medium that was designed to give a voice to the person in their bedroom office is just like blogging. Some people are pretty good and get a respectable audience, but it’s small potatoes against the larger organizations that know what they’re doing, and most everyone else is completely awful.

So what’s a reasonable guy like you or me, with little to no audience and not a lot of time or money supposed to do — assuming you really want to start a show? I think I have some ideas.

Simple podcast ideas and tips for the everyday host

Simple people and programs with simple ideas are just as lovable, just like simple ingredients make for simple dishes that are simply delicious. First, decide whether you need to do audio or video, and stick to that medium. Take what you know or what you already do. If you know how to make really awesome cookies, that works well for video, but can also work well for audio-only if done properly.

If you’re doing video, stick to a duration of 4-12 minutes, depending on what you’re talking about. I’d say you could do an hour of video, but the editing for most people is too time consuming. 4-12 minutes is a good amount of time that’s manageable, you can do something interesting with, and it’s easy for people to consume at lunch, in line, on the bus, etc. If you’re doing audio-only, you can move up to 40-50 minutes of content, but I’d argue 20-30 minutes is the best slot. Because again, it’ll let you spend more time doing better editing and research and you’ll be more focused.

Let your personality shine through, and if your personality sucks, fake it. You have to be at least mildly interesting, funny, unique, or skilled. And I don’t mean “unique” in the “unique like a darling little snowflake” way. I mean unique in, “This is some seriously good stuff” kind of way. I need to know before I hit “Play” that I’m going to laugh, learn something, or feel better. It’s why I turn on The Colbert Report or listen to Bill Maher.

Have an eye toward revenue, probably advertising, because it’s the only thing that really works and has for decades, but assume you won’t have any revenue for the first 50 shows or more.

Publish it on every medium you can, specifically ones geared for your podcast type. If it’s video it has to go on YouTube, but audio can work there, too. If it’s audio-only, it’d better be on Soundcloud and it’d all better be on iTunes. Consider sharing it around on subreddits and anyplace else where people already are.

Be consistent and realistic on a schedule. If you can’t commit to once a week, try for once every two weeks. If you miss two week intervals, it’d better be a really good show when it does come out. Like a fine dessert.

If you’re going to start a show, invest in some decent equipment, especially microphones and HD camcorders. NPR doesn’t record using an iPhone and neither should you. If you can’t edit it, find someone who can.

Plan out your show like you would a research paper. Make hard decisions on what does and doesn’t need to be included.

If you’re not funny or highly educational, consider showing how to do something. That can be practical, like how to make a leather belt, or impractical and ridiculous, like how to cook a chicken using only the tools you’d find in a garage.

And lastly, having multiple voices does help, but if it’s just you, consider using editing techniques to include more sounds, cues, and effects to make it feel like more is going on. If you’re baking, I want to hear the sound of the mixer for a second. Use good music in good ways, too.

It’s probably not enough for most people to just sit down and “record a show real quick”. And if you’re new, consider putting the shows together but don’t publish them for about 6 weeks. See how many you get and if you can keep up the routine, then publish and drip out your pre-recorded shows a little bit at a time to give yourself a cushion (unless they’re time sensitive). That’ll give you enough time to develop a routine and see if you can stick to it.

About the author

Justin Harter