What makes a great podcast?
In order to have a popular podcast, you must first start with having a great podcast. This almost always comes from practice, a lot of practice. All musicians practiced for a long time before getting their big break. Nobody just picked up a guitar and a week later was writing hit songs. It might seem like they were overnight successes, but they never are. Like music, podcasting takes practice to make a great show.
Nail the Basics
First you need to be consistent on some basics.
You want to have great audio quality for you, your co-hosts, and your guests. This means don't record your podcast in a bar, or have one co-host's mic really loud while yours is really quiet.
This doesn't mean you have to buy pro-grade gear to get great audio. In fact that's a trap many people fall into, buying better equipment often doesn't make your show any better. You just need to make sure the voices are clear, have a good mix of volume, and there's no background noises. Edit out any coughs, sneezes, restarts, redos, etc.
Learn to address the mic. Practice to know how far to be away from the mic, how to minimize mouth sounds, what volume to record at, the angle of the mic, etc. Minimize how much you talk over other people. Get out of the habit of saying "mmhmm" to everything your guest says. Be organized and prepared.
Even with cheap microphones you can still get great audio quality. It just takes time to figure out how to get it.
Less Talk, More Content
Think of every episode as someone's first time listening to your show. You want to start each every show with a strong hook and amazing opening. Avoid babbling on for 10 minutes on nothing the show is even about. Avoid long elaborate intros and introductions. Get right to the content of the show. According to NPR: "A mediocre episode with a good intro will almost always perform better than a great episode with a poor intro." So nail your intro.
During the show you want to make sure you're not getting off topic or on tangents. Usually people aren't here just to hear you ramble on about nothing, they want you to stay on topic and get to the point. So keep content as a center focus.
Watch the Length
Making a 1 hour long weekly show that's great throughout is really hard. Only make your show as long as you can keep it great. It's much better to make a 15 minute long great show compared to a 1 hour long boring show. Maintain high quality for every minute of the show.
Decades ago, radio stations would week people who had that deep radio announcer voice. Today it's opposite, unique voices are better. Be you, or a character of you and it's fine. But what is not fine is if you trip up on your words, redo, slur your speech, talk quietly, talk too fast, mumble or talk incoherently. Avoid those things and whatever voice you have should work fine.
Learn to Tell a Great Story
We are all storytellers! No matter what podcast format you choose (interview, banter, documentary, fiction, non-fiction, educational), we need to be great storytellers to keep our audience engaged and listening. We need to understand the arc of the show, and recognize when it's deviating or dragging.
Storytelling is powerful. It can move us, unite us, inspire us, educate us, and entertain us. It has this incredible ability to trigger chemicals and emotions in the listener's brain, and change their mood. Watch this video to understand how storytelling affects us.
You're telling stories whether you realize it or not. So the better you can tell a story, the more impact it will be to your audience.
Know What Makes Your Format Great
There are many different types of podcasts with different formats. It's important to study the format you are making and really dig into it to understand why it's great.
Listen to a lot of podcasts in your format and find someone to talk about those shows with you. Find a friend who also listened to the show and have a long chat about everything you two liked or hated about it. Maybe join a Facebook group to discuss podcasts. Or start up a conversation on Reddit to dissect a show. Or find out if the show has it's own community and have discussions with people there about why the show is great. For instance Hello Internet has a subreddit with over 30k members. Or Disgraceland has a Facebook group with hundreds of members. By going to places like this and asking members what makes that podcast so good, you'll learn a lot about what goes into a great podcast.
Here are some quick types on what makes different formats great.
Radio Drama / Non-Fiction Storytelling
Shows like Welcome to Night Vale, Truth, Sandra, Tanis, or Mission to Zyxx, shine as great shows. They are great for two main reasons: voices and story.
Many shows like this hire voice actors to do their parts. Sandra starred Kristen Wiig who is known for being on Saturday Night Live. Night Vale casted a full crew of really talented voice actors. It's important that the voices and narration and storyteller themselves has a voice that fits the character they are playing. If you're that character you can practice and learn from online voice acting lessons.
Story is the other key ingredient to a good non-fiction story, obviously. The story has to draw you in, interest you, amaze you, and evoke emotions in you. To learn to be a great non-fiction storyteller you simply have to practice. Write as much as you can, and make a lot of stories. The more you write the better you'll get.
Interview style podcasts, such as Joe Rogan Experience, Tim Ferriss Show, or Fresh Air, are great because of two main reasons: guests and questions.
Book guests that are great storytellers themselves and good talkers. Find guests that have amazing experiences or are really great at what they do. Sometimes the guest doesn't turn out to be interesting or a good talker. Great podcasts don't post terrible interviews. So scrap the crap.
Ask great questions. Do this by researching your guest a lot before the show. Most great interview shows will do a huge amount of research on each guest so they can get to the really interesting stories this person has to offer. The guest will appreciate a well researched question as well.
Check out this podcast where Tim Ferriss explains how to make a great interview style podcast. There is really great wisdom here.
Banter / Conversational
Podcasts like Hello Internet and My Brother, My Brother, and Me are just a few guys talking about their day and any interesting things they found. But they are immensely popular shows. But what makes them so good? Chemistry and gift of gab.
Most great banter shows have co-hosts that get along really well. They compliment each other in perfect ways. They have great chemistry together. This usually forms over time, and they probably had a long past of being friends. Because you talk to someone different when you first meet them. You don't call them out or challenge them and aren't sure if they'll get your jokes or not. So you are more reserved and quiet. Just think of how different you act at a party with your friends or at a party where you don't know anyone. Just like it's hard to find a good friend, it's hard to find a good co-host. You go through a lot of friends in your life to figure out which ones you appreciate the most and which will be there for a long time. You might have to go through a few co-hosts to find someone that really connects with you.
Gift of gab is the other part of the equation. As a co-host of a banter show, you need to be able to jump in and riff on just about any topic. By throwing in a joke in a split second, or telling an interesting story, or explaining a complex topic. Some of it comes naturally and some of it takes practice, learning how to talk on a mic and getting to know your co-host. So the more you practice being on the mic with others, the better your show will be.
Shows like The Audacity to Podcast and Smart Passive Income aim to teach you something. Great educational podcasts have mastered three things: explain things simply, don't hold back information, and genuinely care that the audience learns.
Explaining complex topics simply is hard. It takes practice. You can get better at this by writing a blog about it or teaching others. When teaching someone something you should break it down to the most basic elements and then build from there. For instance chess is really hard to get into, because there are so many pieces and options. Perhaps the game would be better taught with just 2 pieces until you have mastered those, then introduce more complexities.
We appreciate when someone is teaching us something, they teach it all to us. The worst would be to hide certain information or charge extra for the rest. So be fearless about letting all your best knowledge go for free. Your audience will appreciate you for it.
As a podcaster you want to provide as much value to your audience as possible. By making an educational podcast this opportunity is even more prevalent. People can change their career or life based on the knowledge they get from you. The more you understand your listener's needs and desires, the better you'll be at satisfying them. The more you know whether your training is working the better you can make your training. So genuinely be committed for your listener to learn from you and this can have extraordinary payoffs.
Throw Away Good Episodes
This American Life is one of the most listened to audio shows ever. You might ask yourself how they can consistently create great shows every episode. It's because they throw out 40% of the shows they work on.
The quickest way to kill a podcast is to make shows that are boring, mediocre, or even plain good. Nobody will recommend a show that's good. People recommend shows that are great. They recommend shows they love. Recognize the huge difference between good and great and strive to only be great.
Sometimes you get a great guest on, like an author or celebrity, but they end up being incoherent, off topic, and mumbling to the point you can't understand them. Either try the interview again another day or scrap it entirely.
It's ok to make boring or good episodes when you're practicing. It takes a lot of practice to get good much less great. It can take 6 months to 10 years to become a great podcaster, depending how fast you learn, who your mentors are, and what kind of feedback you're getting. But when you finally dedicate yourself to only make great shows, you'll want to make sure at all costs, not a moment of the show is boring or plain good. Commit to crushing it.
Know Who Your Audience Is
As a podcaster you want to deliver as much value to your listener as you can. To do this you need to know who they are. What are their needs, desires, interests, trigger words, and dreams? The more you know who's listening, the more you can custom tailor your show to them. Remember, you aren't podcasting just to podcast, you podcast for your listeners. Always keep their best interests in mind.
Some people will pick a single person to imagine is listening to the show. They create an entire backstory for this person and even print a picture of them and hang it on the wall. This is known as defining your avatar. John Lee Dumas has an article about defining your avatar.
Think about all the times you told someone "whoa you have to listen to this podcast I just listened to, it's amazing!" If you've ever said that about a podcast, chances are it was because of how remarkable it was. Something about it stuck with you, and you had to tell someone about what you just heard. Shows that are remarkable spread a lot faster and easier than ones that are just mediocre. It's because people have to talk about it.
Some remarkable podcasting stories:
- Marc Maron from WTF podcast had President Obama come to his house once and be on his podcast.
- The guys from Reply All one day decided to rebel and not do a show and instead grabbed the mic and a horse drawn carriage and went the opposite direction from the studios and just recorded their day.
- This American Life won a Peabody award.
- The show mürmur invites strangers into a guys apartment to have a talk with a stranger. But the remarkable part is he was threatened to be evicted because he had so many strangers coming in and out.
These are all things that get people to talk about the show that don't even listen to the show! Some of these are obviously impossible to achieve, but it helps you think about things that make a show remarkable.
Make a ruckus, get people to talk about you.