20 Ideas for an Excellent Podcast

February 10, 2009 in A podcast, Expert Advice

20 ideas for a great podcastI originally wrote and posted this list three years ago. I was new to podcasts then and there were far fewer of them. Since then the number of podcasts has gone up dramatically, unfortunately the quality has not (well, for the ones which aren’t produced for radio or TV, that is).

I’ve revised the list a bit based on three years of experience enjoying podcasts, and I present the updated version now. As I contemplate wading into the podcasting world myself I’m probably going to deeply regret bringing this up again, but here goes.

  1. Podcasts should be short. 30min is the maximum. Seriously. Unless it's just jam-packed tight with goodness, life is too short and listening requires too much attention. Keep it short. Nothing wrong with a 20 min podcast. I may fudge on that one, but honestly, unless you're interviewing Osama Bin Laden or Steve Jobs, 30min. Most hour long podcasts I listen to could very easily trim out 30min of happy-talk fluff and be much, much better for it.
  2. Break your podcast into chapters. This is a nice feature for your iTunes listeners. Especially if you disobey #1. 
  3. Have fun and be real. I've noticed something about the best podcasts... they're having fun, and it shows. Bring your enthusiasm, passion and enjoyment for what you’re doing to the podcast, and let us feel it with you. But be real – go easy on the hype, hyperbole, veiled self-promotion, and other repellent over-the-topness.
  4. Be chunky. Make segments short, diverse and put an audio bumper between your segments. It can be music, a sound effect, or at least a voiced transition. This keeps it interesting. A single droning line of ramble can really make the eyes glaze over. You need variety, we're an MTV generation, like it or not. We like it fast, varied, pithy and fun.
  5. Don't ramble, be organized. This should seem obvious, but some podcasters just flip on the mic and ramble for an hour or more. Horror! If you are interviewing, prepare the questions ahead of time. Send them to your guest so they can be coherent. Don't stick to it slavishly, but let it keep you from ad-hoc preparation on my time during the podcast. If you aren't interviewing, take the time to prepare exactly what you'll be talking about. Write down an outline with talking points and notes. Move quickly and coherently through them.
  6. Cram, cram, cram as much good stuff as you can into the time. Our minds move quicker than your mouth, so do your best to pack your podcast full of goodness and move quickly.
  7. Be regular, but only if you've got quality. I'd much rather listen to an excellent quarterly podcast, than a mediocre weekly one.
  8. Get decent audio! Seriously, the tin-can-and-string / Houston-to-Apollo-11 sound really kills things. A little effort and investment in a decent mic, and a little work on post production not only makes you sound better, but it's not as hard on the listener. When I listen very long to a poor audio quality podcast it gives me a headache, hurts my ears and wears me out. Make a pop screen, that helps too.
  9. Get a buddy. If you can, get someone with whom you can riff, someone who brings another layer of experience and expertise. It helps you be chunky. Two have an easier time than one keeping things moving, plus it's just usually more interesting. Don’t add someone just because you’re too scared to do it alone or because they are your friend, however. A good rule of thumb – if they aren’t smarter than you, keep looking or do it alone.
  10. Have show notes on your blog. If you mention something, make a list of links to explore your topics in more depth. It also helps you move quickly through your podcast – don’t spell out web addresses and carry on at length about stuff you can just put in the show notes.
  11. If you're doing interviews, don't be Charlie Rose. In other words, shut your stupid face and let your guest talk. That doesn't mean sit there and let them ramble. Provide regular engaging questions and guidance to keep things moving, but don't spend time trying to be smart yourself, be a master facilitator in helping your guest share great stuff.
  12. Don't interview Jason Fried. And I don't mean Jason specifically of course. I'm saying come up with someone fresh to interview. Jason has been interviewed dozens of times. I love Jason and I love listening to him riff as much as the next guy, but at some point we need to be more creative. There are many topics, interview subjects and approaches that have been done to death. Give us something fresh.
  13. Don't be scared to throw a show away. It happens. You get a crappy guest, you do a crappy job, your audio blows, whatever. My advice is to use podcasts to put your best foot forward. Because podcasts demand so much attention, they really need to be high caliber. If you write a mediocre blog post (for example: this one) your readers can skim, skip and move on. With a podcast, they're trusting you with very precious attention for that period of time. Treat it with the utmost respect. If in doubt, toss it.
  14. Do some editing. Take a note from NPR or other audio documentary style programs. You don't necessarily need to give us every single utterance made during a period of time. Just like you might prune copy from a rambling blog post to tighten it up, tighten up your podcast. A little post production work goes a long way toward making an excellent podcast.
  15. Use music. Music really softens a podcast up. I don't want an MP3 of your favorite songs, don't waste my time. But as part of an intro, as a little background on occasion, and as transition material, music can really polish things up.
  16. Tighten up that intro and keep moving. Honestly, if I have to listen to one more podcast with too many participants where they all ramble and introduce themselves and plug themselves and congratulate each other my face is going to bleed. If you need to warm up, do it off-air, don’t put me through it. I’m warm, fire away.
  17. Go ahead and advertise. We want you to make some money for your hard work, but at least try to make it interesting, and always keep it concise. Plus make it clear if you’ve been paid to mention something. We trust you not to praise something just for money, respect us enough to be honest about it.
  18. Verbally identify your podcast at the start of your podcast. Be quick! But tell us date, issue number, topic/guest, etc.  We need this meta data to give it context. Someone may listen out of sequence or even years or decades later. Take a few seconds to lay it out at the start.
  19. Don’t make me your third wheel. My time is precious, and I’m giving you some of it. I don’t want to  listen to you laugh at each other’s jokes and carry on a jovial conversation with each other about nonsense. You may think you’re very interesting, but you’re probably wrong.

Well, I've just set the bar impossibly high for myself. Ok, let me say this: doing a good podcast is hard. It takes equipment, production, planning, and good editing. These things take time, effort, money and expertise. So let me add one final one to the mix.

20. If you have something important/valuable to say, get something out there. It may not be perfect, but if you've got great content, some omissions from the above list are tolerable.

There, I'm covered.

The gold standard for podcasts, of course, are the This American Life, and Radio Lab on-air radio shows, turned podcasts. You don’t have their resources, talent or experience, so don’t be too discouraged when you don’t reach it, but for our sake, please at least try.

Get free blog updates and tips by email

Great post! You outline the really simple but key steps for a great podcast. Those steps are important - My podcast was named one of the top 5 in 2008, and I did my research before starting.

Though I have to admit- the 30 min rule is great, except if you snag a guest like Martin Lindstom, that rule should go out the window!

Posted by: Brian Martin | Feb 11, 2009 5:14:35 AM

I was going to list out the items that I disagree with, but then I realized that I disagree with most of the items mentioned above. Some of my favorite podcasts (The Talk Show, Smodcast, YLNT, etc) are long, rambling, unorganized, often poor quality recordings of people BSing with each other. Sure, good audio quality and some production work can help, but they're not key to success. Its about content—and in some cases that content doesn't have to be polished and rehearsed. To me, that is the key difference between Radio and Podcasting. And the two podcasts you mentioned are "radio" shows—not really podcasts.

Posted by: Shaun Andrews | Feb 11, 2009 5:43:40 AM

@Shaun - TAL and RL are indeed radio shows, hence my caveats, and I'll admit I prefer the same discipline and approach that makes a radio show great to be employed on a podcast.

Posted by: Carson McComas | Feb 11, 2009 8:04:29 AM

Love your comments about entrepreneurs and podcasting.

Posted by: Kevin Cullis | Feb 27, 2009 7:52:11 PM

This is a great tip sheet. I've been looking at how to use audio and video 'casting for knowledge management—and like you—pointing people to TAL, etc. I actually pitch it to clients as "Clientname Radio" because I think that model is so familiar and successful. I also emphasize that simple journalistic practices (provocative interview questions, excerpting and paraphrasing, etc.) can greatly simplify the process. I would disagree with you about the Charlie Rose (or Tavis Smiley) approach, but you have to be that to pull it off. Actually, it can turn your interviewee into a buddy and make the audience feel part of a conversation.

Posted by: Steve Barth | Apr 10, 2009 11:09:57 AM

I disagree with #2. I hate podcasts with chapters as I hit the next button to go to the next podcast, I go to the next chapter, and the next chapter. This also means you are either ignoring those people who don't use itunes, or you are publishing multiple formats. I would agree if apple provided some way for us poor PC only people to create chapters. Other than that, I love this list.

Posted by: Dave Jackson | Jun 4, 2009 7:58:23 PM

For most of peoples writing is just something to read, but for you it seams something to make a living and enjoy what you are doing. Thanks for sharing ideas with all of us in the world, we appreciate it. Also we want to invite as many people as possible to get knowing our site and become important to them, so please give us a nice shot http://www.solidamerica.com Costa Rican pictures, videos, traveling in the cities and a lot of products to buy at our stores.

Posted by: Costa Rica | Aug 9, 2009 4:49:29 PM

Great Info! Thanks for the post!

Posted by: Jessica | Oct 13, 2009 1:32:26 PM