What Makes a Good Podcast?

I discovered podcasts a bit late a few years ago, but now listen to many of them either in the car or while walking.  As a teacher of college students, I pay close attention to what seems to work or not work.  How do you maintain attention?  What makes a podcast worth my time?  Do I walk away with something new?  Do I even manage to get through the whole episode?

Keeping these things in mind, I offer the following advice:

  1. If the podcast is about something in particular, then make sure you stick closely to that subject.  I was excited to begin a new fantasy football podcast.  The hosts proceeded to spend the first fifteen minutes (or more as I checked out) talking to a musician friend of theirs about his new tour.  Hey, remember me?  I was here to listen to you talk about fantasy football.
  2. Do not focus on how you feel about doing the podcast, the dynamics of podcasting, etc., unless, indeed, the podcast is about the great emotional rewards or struggles of podcasting.  Listeners are not terribly interested in your psychological state unless the podcast is about you and your psychological state . . . and is advertised as such.
  3. If you have guests, spend most of your time asking the guests questions and letting them answer.  There is very little point in having guests if you are going to talk over them.  You may have so much you want to say that guests don’t make sense for you.  That’s okay.  Just remember not to bother with guests in that case.  Otherwise, you will frustrate the guests and the listeners who have tuned in to hear the them.
  4. One great thing about podcasting is that there aren’t strict time limits.  A podcast interview need not involve cutting guests off at artificial points as a way of getting to a commercial break.  On the other hand, some guests can talk too long, repeat themselves, filibuster, etc.  After a guest has had a full and fair chance to speak, it may well make sense to ask another question, to redirect, etc.
  5. Perhaps the greatest sin involved in podcasting has to do with hosts who make it a regular feature to banter with one another for several minutes at the beginning of each show.  I recall a podcast with a young, hip, Christian approach in which a gang of younger hosts carried along in the “hey, we’re clever” sort of way for quite some time at the beginning of each show.  Many of the bon mots were punctuated by the almost static-y giggling of one of the members of the team.  Real substance is much more satisfying.  If you need to warm up, go ahead and warm up for 5-10 minutes before you hit the “record” button.
  6. Take advantage of the archivability of podcasts.  Podcasts have tremendous evergreen potential.  If done thoughtfully and with an eye to the kind of material that endures, then a podcast from 2006 can remain interesting for a long time.  Because of this feature of the format, it is important to do a good job with labeling.  Apple’s iTunes podcast store only allows for a little room in which to explain what a podcast is about.  When putting your episodes online, make sure that they can be easily browsed by topic.
  7. If you want to hear a master of the form at work, I recommend Russ Roberts, who does the EconTalk podcast.  Roberts is a professor of economics, but he is the kind of person who has read widely and well and understands a good many things about life.  The combination of education, culture, and courtesy in Roberts makes him an ideal interviewer.  He seems to know how to pick people with interesting ideas, the right questions to ask them, and how to help them make those ideas understandable to the listener.  Peter Robinson’s Uncommon Knowledge podcast is likewise highly edifying, but he doesn’t produce nearly as many episodes as Roberts does.  Roberts is the king of high output podcasting that leaves you smarter than you were when you began.
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