Which Type of Podcast Would Work For You?
Podcasting isn’t exactly new. People have been listening to shows designed for personal audio players since around 2005 or so, but we’ve always said that you don’t need to do something first to do something well.
Simply put: This is a great time to be considering podcasting. While a bit of recording knowledge is certainly welcome, even the novice can put together a reasonable show using off-the-shelf kit, apps and editing tools that won’t break the bank.
Better still, podcasting works. Even before investigative series Serial made podcasts a topic of watercooler conversation, many people have discovered that the medium is a great way to raise awareness of issues, stories, and even their own brand.
Talking into a microphone for an hour may sound daunting, but luckily this isn’t a requirement. A podcast isn’t like hosting the Breakfast Show. There are several different ways to produce an episode, from group chats to more spliced-and-edited content.
The Solo Podcast
To start with, let’s strip this right down. No co-stars, no special guests, no tap-dancing dogs. It’s just you, in room with a microphone.
This may seem like an easy option, if you’re the sort of person who hates going out there to find interview subjects. But it also means it’s all down to you to keep the audience interested.
Early last year, novelist Aaron Mahnke was looking for a way to encourage people to sign up for his mailing list.
“I figured they might get some entertainment out of some of the stories I uncover while doing research for novels,” he told the Guardian. “I planned to write a white paper called My Five Favorite New England Myths because this area of the country is just so rich with spooky folklore.
“I got three or four myths in before I realised that people weren’t going to have time to read it.”
Instead, he created Lore, a regular podcast that sees Mahnke act as a guide to the stories of the weird, spooky and barbaric, sharing myths and folklore from around the world.
It’s a simple premise. Over the course of around 20 to 25 minutes, it’s just us, Mahnke, a light musical backing, and a few of history’s most enticing and chilling fireside tales. Each podcast is self-written, and comes to about 3,000 words of narration.
If you’re fascinated by the process of audio podcasting itself, you might find yourself sucked in by HowSound, Transom’s episodic how-to guide to good audio broadcasting. Host Rob Rosenthal almost approaches HowSound like a lecture series, picking a topic and using insight and examples to show the cogs in the machine of a compelling recording. While it may seem dry to some, it’s absolute gold dust to anyone that’s interested in learning about how to edit a story or use music to maximum effect.
This approach could work for you too, if you’re looking to share anecdotes, columns, or interesting tales from your research. But these podcasts are always better short and sweet, because no one wants the two-hour Best Man’s Speech.
The Panel Podcast
Right, let’s start inviting friends. The panel podcast (We’re making up all our own terms here. Bear with us) involves more than one host, bouncing off each other and filling air-time with conversation and conflict.
With an approach like this, you’ve got a bit of help. If you’ve got good chemistry with one or more people, it can make the time fly by, although – once again – watch out for that clock. While it’s not unusual for podcasts to run over an hour, that doesn’t mean that people can listen to you for that long.
So, what do you talk about? Some tackle current events, while others strip-mine a single topic and drag it out over a few episodes.
Seeing as we’re just finished with Super Bowl week, we might as well mention the Around the NFL podcast. Run by the NFL itself, it usually features a regular panel of four (depending on who makes it that week). The topic? Pretty much anything that’s happened in pro American Football that week. It’s the chemistry between the panelists that makes this one, and the easy flow of conversation that comes with a lot of on-air experience. It’s mostly light-touch, water-cooler conversation stuff, but it works as a way of catching people up on the week’s action and sparking debate.
Not a fan of the NFL? How about My Dad Wrote A Porno? In this podcast, Jamie Morton and his friends read from a pornographic novel written by Jamie’s 60-year-old dad, and frequently get sidetracked with comments and discussions. The focus here is much more on humour than eye-watering NSFW content, and the tone is light and warm rather than dismissive and mocking.
If you’re a bit nervous about taking on a podcast yourself, but reckon you have good chemistry with friends and colleagues, this approach could be a good way to break down events in your area or industry, or wade into an interesting topic together.
The Interview Podcast
If you’re just finding your feet in podcasting, this approach can be a really good way to start. Think of it this way: You’ve got someone to help you keep an audience interested, and the fact that you’re involving a range of other people means that you’re keeping things fresh, and potentially attracting different listeners each time.
However, this does leave you with the pressure of finding interesting guests, and getting the most out of them. So a good network and a bit of work on your interview and conversation technique couldn’t hurt. Some people are better at this than others, but the more you work on it, the better you’ll get.
There are several great examples of this approach out there. Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast has a theme of sorts, but it’s mostly Marc chatting and joking with an impressive roster of comedians and well-known figures. Marc’s personality and wit drives the podcast on, but his ability to get conversations flowing with a wide range of different people makes this long-running podcast hugely popular.
Industries love to hear about their own. And interviewing success stories in a certain field can be a good way to build up a following. Take Debbie Millman’s Design Matters podcast. Debbie started the podcast in 2005 as “an inventive way to ask my heroes everything I wanted to know about them”. She’s since turned it into an award-winning anchor show on Design Observer’s media channel.
The Documentary Podcast
It’s no surprise that the best versions of these come from the radio industry. After all, putting together slick audio segments is their bread-and-butter. The best place to start here is with This American Life, the spectacularly-consistent and popular series from WBEZ.
Each episode, host Ira Glass introduces a group of audio documentary stories on a theme, whether it’s babysitters, education or the housing crisis. This American Life draws in a wide roster of different voices, and that keeps the stories fresh. But they’re always well-produced, and the over-arching theme is often interpreted in exciting and affecting ways.
This approach is also used in one of my favourite podcasts of 2015. Hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia blends scientific research with storytelling to tackle “the invisible forces that control human behaviour”. Alix and Lulu have a flowing rapport and a conversational touch, but the research underneath is fascinating. Are computers changing human behaviour? What would happen if we didn’t have fear? And what do our thoughts say about who we are?
Recording a documentary-style podcast isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart. It requires a certain grasp of editing and a good sense of how a story fits together. But if you’ve got a bit of time and skill (or some professional help) and a big story worth telling, this can really set you apart from the rest.
What are your favourite podcasts? Which approach has worked best for you? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter or Facebook