In a post-Serial world, podcasts are proving to be the new rock n roll. But what does it take to make your podcast a hit? Here are seven tips for podcasting success.
1. Use a direct, intimate, human voice
As a young broadcaster, you are always told radio is one-on-one communication. And yet many linear radio shows still sound like one person speaking to many people. The most successful podcasts speak much more directly and intimately to one person. Radio is often background listening, something to keep you company. Yet podcast listening is generally done via your earbuds or in the confined space of the car. There’s nothing more intimate than having another human being speak directly to you. I love nothing more than jumping into bed with my headphones on so Roman Mars of design podcast 99% Invisible can whisper into my ears. Too many radio broadcasters fall into the trap of speaking like a news-bot, wanting to sound informed and authoritative, but forgetting to speak like a real person. On the podcast Mystery Show, host Starlee Kine speaks like any other young person would if you met them at the bar, in a restaurant, or at a book club meeting. This American Life’s Ira Glass is famous for playing back his old radio tapes to highlight the complicated language and long sentences he once used. Nowadays, he speaks like a real human being, complete with those nasal “you know, like” phrases that would never make it into a traditional radio script. As Glass says “everything is more compelling when you talk like a human being”.
2. Start with a story
The best podcasts often start with an action point in the story and move forward from there, before heading backwards to fill in context or background detail. Many linear radio stories begin with background detail, or worse, they begin with clumsy radio artificialities such as “it’s time for this segment so joining me in the studio is..”. A podcast is unshackled from program formats, so lead with an anecdote which propels your story forward from the outset. And always remember the best audio creates a visual picture.
One of my favourites from ABC Radio’s Conversations starts with the anecdote of a woman who woke on an ordinary day in London, hopped on the Tube to go to work, and found herself sitting next to man with a bomb strapped to his chest. It’s so compelling you can’t switch off. Listen to the way host Richard Fidler sets the scene with a visual picture, a story.
Similarly This American Life and 99% Invisible usually begin with the visual picture or a story rather than background or context. This American Life reporter Nancy Updike begins with an anecdote about buying make-up. Similarly, 99% Invisible’s story about a young Sigmund Freud starts with the story of one of his first patients, a woman who wouldn’t shut up.
3. Use smart cross-promotion
In the social world, we’re all more likely to listen to a new podcast if it’s been recommended by someone we trust. And we tend to trust our most loved podcasts presenters.
I love the genuine cross promotion between WNYC’s Note To Self and On The Media podcasts. Listen to the way Note To Self host Manoush Zomorodi encourages you to listen to Brooke Gladstone, her WYNC colleague and host of On The Media. Then listen to Gladstone chatting to Note To Self’s host about their “Bored and Brilliant” series. Plus, the episode appears as a “bonus” in the On The Media podcast feed.
Listen as RadioLab hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich introduce Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel who have started a new podcast called Invisibilia. All four of them have a chat before introducing the Invisibilia episode, which appears in the RadioLab podcast feed as bonus episode.
Similarly Gimlet and Radiotopia, both production houses that make several podcasts, include cross promotion between their programs. It was via Roman Mars and 99% Invisible that I discovered the music podcast Song Exploder. And because of his background with This American Life and economics podcast Planet Money, you tend to trust Alex Blumberg from StartUp when he assures you Reply All is well worth a listen.
4. Make it easy to share
Finding an audience for your podcast is about offering content that people want to share and recommend. It should be easy to share a good podcast via a whole range of podcasting apps.
A brilliant way to do that is to write matching shareable text for each individual episode. Take the time to write clever promotional text for every individual episode so your audience can use that to recommend your podcast on social media. RadioLab provides the individual episode name for each suggested share.
5. Your logo must be simple and bright
Your podcasts needs to stand out on any smartphone or tablet, and on any podcasting app. Eye-catching logos are simple, colourful and easy to spot on any device.
Small fonts and cluttered slogans just don’t work when your listener is browsing in iTunes or Stitcher. Serial’s very simple card stack with the ‘S’ emblazoned on it is a great example, as is the colourful Song Exploder logo.
Head shots of the presenter are out, and clean graphic design is in. I actually don’t want to know what Roman Mars looks like, lest it ruin my own visual image of him!
StartUp’s logo is also very effective thanks to a bright blue background and simple font.
6. Use humour
While radio has given us funny breakfast hosts and provided employment for many stand-up comedians, news and information programming has generally been serious in tone and style. But what many podcasts have shown is you can deliver credible and important information in a way that is less stuffy and more entertaining. Science Versus from ABC Radio is a great example of this. Each episode tries to unpack scientific facts; whether vaping is bad for you, whether sugar is bad for your health, or if there is evidence to support medical marijuana. But the podcast is free from self-righteous scientific boffin-speak and it uses sound effects and music to add moments of lightness.
7. Include added extras
Bonus episodes from other podcasts, short videos, feature interviews, tip sheets, events. These are all ways to entice your listener back to your feed. Note to Self’s episode about technology in the classroom came with a bonus checklist of questions you should ask your teacher about tech in your child’s classroom. Gimlet Media has recently announced a paid membership which not only helps them stay afloat, but makes dedicated and devoted listeners feel like they’re part of a club. Paid members get access to behind-the-scenes material, live chats with show hosts, and access to pilot episodes before they’re released. Think about how you can add value to your podcast.
Kellie Riordan works in the Radio Content and Digital Strategy team for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and was the founding producer of the ABC’s most successful podcast, Conversations. She was a 2014 fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, where she published a paper on editorial standards for the digital age.