The Host Matters Most

Terrance Layhew
Jun 18 · 7 min read

The secret of a great Podcast is not much of a secret, much of it begins and ends with the host.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, talk shows demonstrate this all the time. It’s why you may watch Jimmy Kimmel instead of Jimmy Fallon, and why millions of people watch Rhett and Link do stupid things on the internet.

Those are examples of visual mediums, where we see the host and guest interacting, but for a Podcast the host is even more important, their personality becomes more and more the keystone of why the show works.

The Host In Your Ear

A Podcast is a very personal medium, echoing the radio from the old days in many ways, but scaled down to a more intimate interaction. We literally have these hosts in our ears, they are speaking to us, sharing with us and your response to their personality defines the experience.

There are a handful of shows I listen to which are in the self-development area, they tend to circulate similar guests on the book tour circuit. I can listen to almost any podcast to hear that that guest, but only The Jordan Harbinger Show, to listen to Jordan over and over. The same with Brett McKay and The Art of Manliness Podcast.

The other half of the Podcasts I listen to are about films, both analysis and reviews. There are hundreds of Podcasts out there with these topics, but only three or four I listen to because of the hosts. Just about anywhere you look you can find someone talking about John Wick 3 — Parabellum, but there are only a handful who’s thoughts I want to hear.

The Values We Admire

Be it in Podcasters, writers, filmmakers, or even YouTubers, we are attracted to the values in content creators we admire and respect. Much like Robert Cialdini’s work on Influence, we listen and pay attention to those we know, like, and respect.

On a Podcast, we listen to the voices we enjoy, the sound itself and the voice need to be capable of keeping our attention. Beyond this, they also need to have a personal style and interest which we are attracted to.

When I want a deeper analysis of film, I listen to Show Me The Meaning the Wisecrack movie Podcast. Through their YouTube channel I’ve enjoyed their consideration of popular culture through philosophy and their conversations about films on the Podcast often appear as open discussions of the same elements which make their videos so interesting.

Questions or Conversation?

It’s pretty apparent when listening to a Podcast when the host is running over a list of pre-formed questions or actually having a real conversation. This is one of the best aspects of The James Altucher Show, each interview really feels like a genuine conversation, complete with Mr. Altucher interrupting his guest to ask a question about something just said.

Being prepared is important to a quality interview and a good Podcast, but when it’s mechanical it’s felt. Like watching a movie with very obvious plot mechanics, it’s painfully obvious to anyone paying attention (which is the point).

Rattling off questions from a Google Doc isn’t sufficient, it takes paying attention to what the guest is saying and having real moments of conversation. It’s why building rapport is so important as a host, not only with the guest you’re interviewing but with the audience themselves.

There’s an ease and familiarity the voice assumes in a comfortable conversation which can be acted, but is less easily than you’d expect. Warmth in the voice comes with real back and forth with those you’re talking with. Depending on the kind of show, depends on what feel you want people to hear, but genuine conversation is what most interview based Podcasts are looking for.

The Host, A Deeper Meaning

The amount of information and options are almost unlimited with the internet. In Podcasting all you really need is a smartphone these days to make your voice known. To be a good host doesn’t just mean booking a guest and letting them talk.

Literally, as a host, your job is not simply to welcome a guest with a book or idea to promote, it’s to welcome the audience listening.

They (the audience) are the guest.

Your conversation and style will attract people who find it interesting, and if you haven’t found an audience the best place to start is with your work as the host.

This doesn’t mean you should swing the pendulum to being rude or ill-tempered, attracting the extreme which respond to the extreme. Be the real person you are, don’t be yourself but be the best host you can be.

Imagine yourself as welcoming each person who listens personally, inviting them in to enjoy the conversation you are about to have. Ensure they are receiving value, having their needs and interests met.

The best example I can find of this isn’t even an interview show. It’s Mike Rowe, in the brilliant short-form Podcast, The Way I heard It. Without a interview guest, the show works by sharing a story Mike has heard or researched told as a small mystery. By the end you learn a factoid or anecdote of a historical figure you may not have known about.

Through this format, Mike Rowe manages to bring you into the room with him. He pours you a cup of hot tea or coffee and invites you to join him in the narrative he shares.

It’s a remarkable ability, unquestionably the result of the attitude, approach and style he brings to the Podcasting medium.

Charisma Is Key

Charisma is a mystical word for the common man, a concept we associate with actors and celebrities who dazzle audiences with their smile, or with that cousin who somehow always dates the prettiest women, but leads the most unremarkable life possible.

There are a few people who are born with the ability to dazzle and entertain whoever they meet. They have been kissed by the sun and nourished with the ambrosia of Olympus, or so they appear. We, the common need to take the time to learn these skills ourselves, for they are skills. Like with any ability, some just have a greater or lesser disposition to the discipline.

As with Mike Rowe, James Altucher, Jordan Harbinger, Brett McKay, or any other top Podcaster you can think of, they have a magnetic personality which makes the conversations interesting to you. They have a warmth or sense of style which appeals to you as a listener.

In many ways, what we see as charisma, is really just ease and comfort with their craft and conversation. They have practiced what they do, they are comfortable with who they are as identities and with what they are discussing. This comes from the preparation they have taken, the research, but also from the practice they have had producing quality shows.

Becoming Better Hosts

Not everyone starts a Podcast as a great host, not every host we’ve mentioned was perfect right out of the gate. Each had to practice and refine their style to reach both the success and poise they have achieved. A key to each is that they practiced, they have long running Podcasts where they have practiced what they do, or have developed other content which has helped craft their on-air personas.

In a great article on why you shouldn’t start a Podcast, Jordan Harbinger wrote:

“To be even an average podcast host, you have to have the ability to guide a conversation, to pull out insights, to drill down when you need to. It’s not at all like a conversation between friends, and even those get off-track. You’ll often be interviewing complete strangers with whom you’ll need to build rapport shortly before going on air. And to be candid, you probably don’t possess those skills right now.”

Being a host isn’t easy, it takes hard work and a lot of practice. With the attrition rate of Podcasting increasing daily, you may not last long enough to even gain the skills needed to become a competent host or interviewer.

If you are going to keep Podcasting, despite whatever your odds of success are or the number of downloads your show may get, focus on improving your skills as the host. Use the opportunities of real life situations to manage a conversation. Take the time to refine the identity and persona you bring to the microphone.

Here’s a quick list of some of my favorite Podcasts with their hosts (in no particular order):

  • The Jordan Harbinger Show (Jordan Harbinger)
  • The James Altucher Show (James Altucher)
  • The Art of Manliness Podcast (Brett McKay)
  • The Way I Heard It (Mike Rowe)
  • Show Me the Meaning (Jared Bauer)
  • James Bond Radio (Tom Sears & Chris Wright)
  • I Dig This Movie (Keir Seiwert & Austin Smidt)
  • Building a Storybrand (Donald Miller)

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Terrance Layhew

Written by

Organic Inspector, writer, Podcaster, and Etc-er

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +479K people. Follow to join our community.