What makes a podcast good?

A little over a year ago I went to an audio listening party with some friends in Durham, NC. I shared one of my very favorite episodes, a This American Life segment that culminated in me sitting in the driveway for another 30 minutes listening because the story is so compelling. (It was TAL’s Right to Remain Silent, Chapter 2).

I was excited to share that driveway moment with everyone else so they could be moved too. But it flopped. Everyone was bored and the 40 minutes lasted an eternity. How could something I found so moving not even begin to resonate with 7 other NPR-groupie, podcast-loving people!?

It made me totally re-evaluate…

“What makes a podcast good?”
The answer: it’s different for each of us.

Historically, listening to radio and podcasts has been a non-social experience; something you do alone in the car. As listeners, our lack of discussion about what constitutes “good” or “bad” with others has likely led to a false conception that an audio segment is objectively “good” or “bad”, when in fact, they are more like… snowflakes; each with their own unique appeal that resonates in a personalized manner with our fickle expectations, prior knowledge, personal experiences, and current mood.

The truth is that you don’t have to be Ira Glass or have a staff of public radio rock stars to make compelling audio that millions of people want to listen to.

At the end of the day, for a podcast episode to be “good”, it just needs be appealing, informative, and/or entertaining to a specific audience.

Listeners think a podcast is “good” if they are:

  1. Enjoying the host or guest,
  2. Learning something new,
  3. Laughing, and/or
  4. Becoming engrossed in a compelling story

How each of us gets hooked into any one of these elements is the tricky part. As listeners we are impatient and we will stop listening on a whim. Which means left to our own devices, discovering “good” podcasts can be VERY hit or miss.

There are other mitigating circumstances that can cause us to disengage and sometimes never listen to a show again:

  1. Mood mismatch (eg light vs heavy listening)
  2. Audio pet peeves (eg vocal fry: “The voice of Hannah Joffe Walt is just too much to bear, and I turn off any episode she’s on.” — a random TAL listener)
  3. Emotional conflict (eg ‘I don’t agree with what the hosts are saying or they are pissing me off and now I don’t want to listen’)
  4. Interest mismatch (eg I only listen to 5% of Fresh Air episodes because I’m not interested in jazz, theater, etc. — but I LOVE those 5%; if I didn’t know better and based my entire impression off of Fresh Air from any random episode I happened to listen to, I would snap judge it, never come back, and not know what I was missing)
Clip of vocal fry segments from InVisibilia; to illustrate what vocal fry is

That means for someone to think a podcast is “good”, that podcast has to evade a field of landmines and appease our complex expectations, emotional state, and fickleness… and usually within 5 minutes. Or boom, we’re gone.

Amateurs: that dude in a garage with a microphone

The image that seems to be synonymous with a “bad” podcast is some amateur talking into a microphone in his garage or basement. But what’s also great about the diversity of podcasts, and the subjectivity around how “good” they are, is that Marc Maron essentially was that guy and now he’s anything but an amateur.

If you’ve never heard of WTF podcast, then you probably don’t know who Marc is, because he was a comedian with famous comedian friends who never quite reached his own escape velocity. But in the podcast world, he’s nearly legendary. As far as I can tell, he pioneered the comedian podcast genre and is probably the reason many comedians now have their own podcasts, which is great for all us =). He still records out of his garage, and his structure seems simple: have interesting conversations with fascinating and hilarious guests: other comedians, actors, etc.

To put this into perspective, Marc has been able to parlay his podcast into a TV show, he recently had the rare pleasure of interviewing the elusive Terry Gross (it was amazing — and she’s a fan of Marc’s), and he recently just interviewed President Obama… yes, in his garage. =)

Podcast problems: one size fits all

Another nuanced problem for identifying “good” podcast episodes is that, like a book, they only have one shot at appealing to everyone. There’s no tailored version for the die-hard well-informed fan versus the new or casual listener. That means the creators are in a constant struggle to be both deep and broad; to have authentic conversations with amazing guests, navigating inside jokes, stories, and years of history while still keeping both the hardcore and casual listener interested. To tempo history, science, business, politics, and philosophy at just the right balance to pique interest but not bore you. The best podcasts do this and make it look easy.

Radiolab does an amazing job of deep diving into very scientific terms and zooming back out to re-couch it in laymen’s terms, and tie it all back to a human interest story. Perhaps one of the shows that has a harder time walking this line is Neil deGrasse Tyson’s StarTalk Radio.

I’m a nerd, a fan of science, and I love NDT. I think his mission with the podcast is to popularize science and make it interesting and cool, which is great. However, in doing so, the level of his show stays just broad enough that it’s often not appealing to someone who is already scientifically knowledgeable. Personally, I want more details, more information, stronger intellectual discussion. And I’m not everyone. However, NDT does other things which I think are very much on the right track objectively. He always has a comedian co-host to keep things light and casual. Typically Eugene Mirman (Gene on Bob’s Burgers) or Chuck Nice.

But podcasts are all over the place. One of my very favorite episodes of all time (actually a 3 part series) is from StarTalk Radio live at BAM. It’s the funniest, most science-dense 2 hours you’ll find. I counted over 10 separate Radiolab episode topics in it and I couldn’t stop laughing:

StarTalk Radio live:https://soundcloud.com/startalk/startalk-live-big-brains-at-bam-part-1

I think the easiest way to strike this balance (assuming you don’t have a staff and reporters) relies on having a smart, funny, and charismatic host who can spot and land amazing guests, talk about nuanced and unique topics, and always always always be an amazing moderator of conversation; asking interesting questions and leading guests to reveal the most interesting stories, insights, and jokes.

The future: making it easier to find “good” podcasts

Most people I talk to want a podcast app that smartly recommends great episodes to them — like a Pandora for podcasts. I think something like this will eventually come about, but it’s incredibly hard given that there is no music genome project equivalent for podcasts (this is what powers Pandora’s recommendations) and that podcast metadata is notoriously bad.

Even people who love Spotify, a hugely successful company with lots of funding and talent, complain their recommendation service (Spotify Radio) rarely hits the mark and Spotify’s founder Daniel Ek stated years ago he would delay moving into this area because he knew how challenging it would be to get right. Not to mention that, as I agrued above, there are a lot of specific and fickle constraints we all unconsciously place on juding what is “good” or “bad”. For an algorithm to consistently do a good job despite how little information they would initially have on any of us is very hard.

I would also argue that generally for podcasts, we ourselves and our closest friends and family are in the best position to know if we would enjoy listening to something. We just need better data on what exists and on what other people like to better inform our decisions.

I think the immediate future of making it easier for all of us to more quickly and directly discover “good” and “great” podcasts rests upon:

  1. Better curation (manual and algorithmic)
  2. Better social discovery (sharing, notifications, etc.)
  3. Better metadata from podcast creators (chapter/segment time stamps, twitter handles of guests, hashtags of discussed topics, etc.)

This is already running long so I’ll explain my reasoning on these 3 key points in part 2!

Cool podcast items to check out:

Alex is a podcast enthusiast co-founding Knomad a social platform for podcast discovery and sharing, currently available on the iPhone. More blog posts to come, feel free to reach out, share your thoughts, and join in on the conversation on Twitter: @AlexCartaz, @getKnomad

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