Your Podcast Still Sucks. But You Can Still Make it Better.


Having taken to listening to various podcasts out there if only in hopes of finding some unique talent, I wrote a piece on some basic improvements you can do for your podcast.

Audio quality is one of the most crucial. If I’m listening to a podcast in my car, it can be a bit more forgiving, but with the rise of high quality headphones a lot of people are listening to podcasts during exercise or on a plane or elsewhere and all the echos and miscellaneous sounds filter in to ruin the experience.

I want to talk about two other things now to continue helping you improve.

First, let me recommend two podcasts, one is just an episode and the other is a show. Not just because he mentioned me, go listen to this conversation between Jonah Goldberg and Ben Sasse. The Remnant is growing on me now that Jonah has figured out his intro music. If you don’t want to listen to Sasse talking to Jonah about Jonah’s tattoo and Big Foot erotica, you can even go listen to Scott Lincicome, who can talk about economics without putting you to sleep.

As an aside, if you want a unique bit of intro music, there are several resources you can use. Go search Soundsnap, SongFreedom, MusicBed, PremiumBeat, and Pond5. Stop using well known songs. It just drives up the pretentiousness factor. Also, pick one and stick to it. You need to brand your show and the music plays a part in that. For example, if you’ve never heard my show intro, it’s a mix of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up with the Apollo 11 countdown. It has gotten so recognizable in Atlanta that I hear from listeners all the time who are in bars or elsewhere, hear the start of that song, and think I’m about to come on the radio. Even worse is when I hear it and think I’m late to work.

Now, back to Jonah’s podcast. He interviews interesting people about interesting topics. There are two types of interviews, passive and active. A passive interview is where you let someone talk and steer their conversation. But they’re driving the show. An active one is where you, the host, actively participate in an exchange of ideas. Jonah does a good job at both in conversations. You can tell there are times he knows as much about a topic as a guest and pushes back on certain things. There are times he does not know something and is genuinely asking for information. He does a good job of making sure it is information you would want to know and I suspect it is because it is stuff Jonah wants to know for himself. Also, I think all of Jonah’s interviews are face to face, which helps with the conversation flow.

The other one I want to recommend is my favorite podcast and the one I listen to most regularly. It is called The Talk Show. It is a tech podcast mostly focused on Apple, with occasional wild deviations into baseball, cocktails, and random stuff. Fair warning, if you’re reading this, you probably will disagree vehemently with John Gruber, those host, on political matters, though he rarely talks politics. You should still listen to at least an episode of the podcast. I recommend this most recent one with Matthew Panzarino from Tech Crunch on Panzarino’s report about about the new Mac Pro coming in 2019.

Now, I listen to The Talk Show because I’m a fan of John’s site, Daring Fireball, and I like Apple products and baseball. That’s not why I want you to listen.

Listen because John does two things more people should do. First, he cold opens. There is no introductory music to make his show sound more high minded than it is. Second, his guest is never face to face with him. It’s always remote with both sides recording the audio and mixing it together.

My one major gripe with John’s show that I just find funny at this point is his show would be much shorter but his ad reads take forever. There’s some guy who keeps a running total of the length of John’s podcasts. Someone else could keep track of the length of his ad reads. It’s actually pretty funny.

Why listen to these pretty different shows? A few reasons.

First, in listening to a bunch of podcasts, I’ve noticed that many go into them with friends and do not have a damn clue about an agenda. They’re just talking about their day, the crazy things that happened, and give no rationale for why I should tune in. When they do get to what they want to talk about, most often they are providing no new insight, are not making me think, and are regurgitating conventional wisdom they’ve found on social media.

Outline what you want to talk about. Confessionally, I do not always do that these days, but then I’ve been doing radio for seven years now. Still, on busy news days I do a rudimentary outline. I use the Notes app on my Mac and I share it with my producer. Some stories have links because I’m afraid I’ll forget details. But generally, it is just a list of things I want to talk about. Rarely does the order ever actually stay the same on the show as in the notes, but it helps me focus on busy news days.

A podcast needs an agenda. You and your guest should have some idea of what you are going to talk about and the order of things. You should not be getting together to talk about the weather unless you’re a weather podcast and I could not care less what you had for lunch unless it is relevant to the topic at hand.

Second, both Jonah and John have some basic mastery of the art of conversation. They have an agenda of things they want to cover, they know about the topics themselves and can add to the topics, they are humorous and self-deprecating so as not to take themselves too seriously, and they are entertaining. After all, I am listening to a podcast because I want to learn something, but ultimately I want to be entertained. If you can’t hold a conversation, there’s no point.

I highlight John’s podcast because he makes the audio work. It is not always perfect. But he works to balance the sound on both sides and make the quality good. He occasionally has a guest whose sound is not great, but most tech writers are also podcasters these days and all have pretty good setups so there is no room echo.

Jonah and John are both talking about topics they are genuinely interested in and have genuine curiosity about. As a result, they are engaging, informative, and flexible in steering the conversation. They are not afraid to go down rabbit holes, but they are organized enough to get back out of the hole. Because they are interested in the topics, they make me interested in the topics. They are not having a podcast for the sake of it. They are doing it because they have an infectious intellectual curiosity about the topics. You must have an infectious intellectual curiosity. You must make me want to stick around, be entertained, and learn.

If you’re asking questions for the sake of asking questions and not actually having a conversation, there’s no point to you doing it. You are wasting your time and mine.

Third, and most importantly, once you have built up a relationship with your listeners, then you can deviate. Once you’ve made me care about you, please feel free to tell me about your life so I can become more emotionally invested. We don’t need all the details. But once you’ve built up your audience, you can share. Occasionally, the things happening in your life do turn into really interesting topics. As an example, my wife became really frustrated helping our daughter with math a couple of years ago. I had been on radio long enough to know my listeners had a sense of who I was and my family situation. So I started talking about that issue and could relate it to the debate over Common Core. I got so many calls from so many people my entire show wound up being that one topic. It connected with people.

I am a bit fortunate in that I work for a radio company that studies the hell out of its shows. I know, for example, that my listeners say they’d prefer me not to talk about recipes on air. But I also know I can get away with it on occasion, for short periods of time, because though they prefer other topics they know it interests me and I have a good relationship with my audience. If you want to see what that’s like, come hang out with me in Atlanta and see me get randomly stopped by complete strangers who want to know how long it takes to brown an onion (not kidding on that, by the way).

Not everyone needs a podcast and we are about to be flooded with podcasts because media companies have decided they can make more money off podcasts than web advertising and advertisers have not really quite figured out how to monetize the effort. These podcasts are going to have great production value and audio quality. So if you want to stand out, master the art of thoughtful conversation and have an organizational flow to your show that does not waste the listener’s time.

About the author

Erick Erickson
By Erick Erickson

Erick Erickson

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