I've listened to more than 1,000 hours of podcasts over the last five years. I usually listen to one or two a day during the week. I'm especially fond of listening to them while I do something that's dull or repetitive: walking on the treadmill, doing household chores, cleaning paintbrushes.
A few months ago, a friend asked me whether she should make a podcast. I know I didn't give her a great answer ("Maybe? Do you want to do one?"), but her question did make me think about what makes a great podcast, the difference between one that goes to the top of my "listen next" list and one that I switch off after five or ten minutes.
Questions to Consider Before Starting Your Podcast
Topic or subject?
This point gets lots of attention as the make-or-break decision for a new podcast, but after listening to so many podcasts I can honestly say that a talented host can make any subject seem interesting.
For example, I'm not a cook, but I enjoy the food tidbits I've picked up from The Splendid Table. (Who knew that jackfruit was being touted as a meat substitute?) I don't know a thing about architecture, but I still find some episodes of 99% Invisible quite fascinating. (Did you know that the NBC chimes sound is trademarked?) In contrast, I'm fascinated by writing, but the writing podcasts I've tried so far have been deadly dull.
That said, having a narrow topic or subject will make it easier for new listeners to find you through search or on "best of" lists which tend to be subject-focused.
I once took an art workshop almost solely because the instructor was Australian. Anything she said had a delightful cadence to it and I could have listened to her talk all day about anything. So as you might guess, I think the sound of your voice is crucial.
But you don't have to have a super smooth radio voice to have a successful podcast. (In fact, there's one podcaster I love listening to because her distinct accent makes her sound just like some of my cousins.) If you speak clearly and don't have any obviously negative voice traits (a raspy, grating, or whining voice; a tendency to mumble or trail off at the end of sentences), you should be fine.
- One or more hosts?
Some hosts can pull off a solo podcast, but for most it seems to work better to have at least one partner, someone with a different point of view and a distinct speaking voice. (It's confusing to the listener when both speakers sound identical.) Single host podcasts often do well as straight news or information and in my experience tend to be shorter than podcasts with multiple speakers. Explore Your Enthusiasm is an example of a craft business advice podcast hosted by a single person. Some podcasts with a single host produce interviews, which gives that second perspective.
I liken this trait to some novels where a character will just ruminate on her thoughts for pages and pages versus one who discusses her thoughts with a friend. I've always preferred the latter technique.
- Chatter or focus?
There's a wide range of chattiness in the podcasts. Whether you like this or not is a personal preference. I don't mind some chatter within limits. I remember listening to the beginning of one crafting podcast where the host described her cat, her sweater, her car problems ... I have no idea whether she actually ended up addressing the topic of the podcast because after ten agonizing minutes I turned it off.
Stuff You Should Know is an example of a podcast that something can contain a fair amount of divergence from the stated topic.
CraftSanity is an example of a podcast where the host sometimes does an after show where she discusses more personal topics. This makes it easy for listeners to decide whether to stick around or not.
Podcasts can range from about 2 minutes to an hour or longer. Since I usually listen to podcasts while doing an activity, I prefer podcasts in the 20-45 minute range. You should aim to make your podcasts roughly the same length; it makes it easier for the listener to tune in on a consistent basis.
- Repeated segments?
I've noticed that some podcasts I enjoy use repeated segments to structure their podcasts. For example, Pop Culture Happy Hour always ends with "What's Making Us Happy" in which each panelist shares a movie, song, book, or other pop culture item that they're enjoying and listeners might enjoy, too. I also enjoy the etiquette segment of The Dinner Party Download, where celebrities such as Kenny G or Bobby Flay respond to questions from listeners.
This is similar to standard publishing norms such as weekly or monthly magazine or newsletter columns by the same writers. It's nice as a listener to know that there will be at least one part of the podcast that you can count on enjoying.
Other Podcast Features to Consider
Here are a couple of other common podcast traits that I don't think are make-or-break features, but that you still might want to think about:
Adding music as an intro or between segments is a nice touch, but not essential. If you do choose some music, solicit some feedback to make sure it conveys the vibe you want. Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft has the catchiest music of any podcast I listen to. I don't know what it is about that song, but I'll find myself humming it long after listening. In contrast, there's a business podcast that I occasionally listen to that has this throbbing, pulsating music at the start that makes me feel a little ill. I'm sure the host thinks that it's peppy and upbeat, but I have to fast forward through it if I want to listen to an episode.
Some podcasters create videos and then just release the audio portion as a podcast. I know that Still Untitled by Adam Savage does this. They do a good job of verbally describing anything that comes up; I never feel as if I'm missing out.
I don't mind a few short ads in my podcasts. I like the idea that the podcasters are getting paid for their efforts and if that means listening to a few ads, I can do that. Ideally, the ads are focused on the topic of the podcast and something I might be interested in anyway. A good example are the ads for Audible (audio books) in some History Chicks podcasts. They always recommend books that are related to the topic of that particular podcast. This makes the ad feel more like bonus content (book recommendations) than an ad.
But Which Podcasts Should I Listen To?
Whether you decide to make your own podcast or not, you should definitely try listening to some. You'll find podcasts on almost any topic you can think of: TV shows, politics, business, cats, knitting. In addition to the podcasts I've already mentioned in this post, here are a few recommendations if your interests are similar to mine. (Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments!)
- During the month of March, podcasters have been encouraging listeners to share recommendations using #trypod on Twitter. It's fun to see who is listening to what.
- The podcast The Big Listen is a podcast about podcasts. (See? I told you there's a podcast about everything!) The idea is to introduce you to new podcasts and give you some behind-the-scenes information on podcasts you may already enjoy.
- Many (if not most) podcasts are not designed as a series, so you can listen to them in any order or just on the topics you're interested in. For example, I just listened to the episode of Nerdette where Tom Hanks (yes, the actor!) gave the hosts a tutorial on how to use a typewriter. I also listen to selected interviews on Fresh Air and How I Built This.
- If you want a short series of podcasts, I also really enjoyed the "Magic Lessons" series on creativity by writer Elizabeth Gilbert. Not only is the content great, but she's a good example of someone with a fabulous voice for podcasting—she sounds just like a good friend who called you up to chat.
- You can also check out my earlier post My Favorite Podcasts: 12 Shows to Enjoy in 2013. I still listen to most of those same podcasts in 2017. In the world of here-today, gone-tomorrow social media, that's some serious staying power!