When we launched our first podcast together in 2015, we were a former newspaper reporter and a video producer with a lot of enthusiasm but not much experience in making audio stories. Since then, we’ve launched an entirely new podcast and learned some things about making a show that attracts listeners and represents a point of view—and is enjoyable to produce.
We often describe our podcast as an unconventional business-advice show. In that spirit, here’s some advice for making your own podcast.
1. Know your audience—and what it wants from you
Apple Podcasts and podcast apps tend to organize shows into categories: technology, comedy, business, news, pop culture, and so on. Those broad types are a start, but they don’t always reflect the reasons listeners tune into certain shows:
- Do they want to go on an emotional journey?
- Do they want direct, actionable advice?
- Do they want to be informed about current events?
Even within a single category, such as “business,” shows can vary dramatically in tone and style and the experience they provide. There are narrative shows, such as Gimlet Media’s “StartUp”; practical and niche shows, such as Pat Flynn’s “Smart Passive Income Podcast”; and newsy ones, like NPR’s “Planet Money.”
Figure out what type of audio experience your audience wants from you, and let that guide how you structure your show. We say “from you,” because although a large segment of your audience members might enjoy, say, comedy podcasts, they might not be looking for your show to be funny.
Figure out the intersection between your strengths and what your listeners want, and then take it from there.
2. Be about something
We spent a fair bit of time writing the tagline for our Rework podcast for Basecamp and found it to be a worthwhile exercise because it helped us refine the premise of the show as we were developing the idea for it.
As you get going with your show, a strong tagline can also serve as an internal guidepost to gauge whether an episode idea or potential guest is a good fit. Externally, it helps explain to the world what your podcast is about: Standing out among the glut of podcasts is important.
Another way to explain what you’re about is to make your first few episodes a declaration of intent. Give listeners a clear idea of the episode length, recurring segments, tone, and breadth of subject matter they should expect from your show.
3. Edit, edit, edit
If you’ve ever wondered how “This American Life” consistently achieves such emotional depth with its stories, it’s because (among other factors) the show kills anywhere from one-third to one-half of its stories in progress.
Unless you have the resources of “This American Life,” we wouldn’t recommend doing the same thing for your show, but it is good to be choosy about your material.
Choose your guests carefully
In an interview-based podcast, there’s a kind of editing that takes place even before you talk to your guest, and that’s in choosing interview subjects. Use particular caution when featuring people who talk a lot for a living. “Thought leaders” (those quotes signal our undying hatred of that term) and corporate executives might be more polished and direct, but they often give miserable interviews because they’ve recycled the same talking points so many times that all traces of sincerity or genuine emotion have vanished.
The challenge, especially if you have a tight production schedule or deadlines to hit, is that such professional talkers are also the easiest to find and book. But there can be real surprise and delight when you find someone who’s never been on a podcast or who’s never been interviewed about his or her life and career. You don’t know what will come out of those conversations—and, often, that spontaneity makes for better audio.
Edit to create a narrative
Then there’s the crucial editing that comes as you’re putting each episode together. Everyone may have a story to tell, but not everyone is a gifted storyteller. It’s your job to excavate a narrative from what your guest tells you.
Very few people can talk about their own lives in a way that’s ready to air as an audio story: They ramble, repeat themselves, double back and jump forward in time, and go off on tangents. Those kinds of natural speech patterns are killers in audio.
Be ruthless about what makes the cut, and weave it all together in a way that tells a story.
Keep it moving
In his Creative Live class about podcasting, Gimlet Media’s Alex Blumberg talks about the importance of continually introducing reasons for your audience to keep listening.
“Something new has to happen. Music has to come in, there has to be a new voice. There has to be a new idea. There has to be a punchline. Something new should be happening every forty, fifty, sixty seconds,” he says.
Audio can be punishing in its linearity, and your audience might very well be doing something else while listening to your show—navigating traffic, commuting on noisy public transit, making dinner… You have to earn their attention minute by minute, and that means being a good editor.
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Of course, you can’t edit something—not just audio, but any kind of medium—if it doesn’t exist. So if you have an idea for a podcast, grab a mic—or just your smartphone—and start recording!