RESPONSE: 3 Hidden Lessons Behind Top Podcasts to Help Yours Stand Out

1,154 Words. Plan about 5 minute(s) to read this.

Thoughts from the Content Marketing Institute for budding podcasters were shared here. Here’s my response to the points that stood out to me.

CMI’s big idea #1.

“At first, format trumps talent.” And then later…“Avoid the race to the bottom of simply booking the biggest guests in your niche and meandering through an unplanned episode. Instead, find your format.”

Response. To record an effective show people will listen to, you need a plan, agreed. However, the article cites an example of a 15 minute long episode carved into blocks of minutes and seconds.

Perhaps that’s what you need when working against an ultra-tight timeline. However, an outline that provides structure should be adequate. Overly structuring a podcast is burdensome and can serve to stifle interesting conversation. Freedom is one of the benefits of podcasting.

Podcasting is NOT a digital regurgitation of radio, although many try to shoehorn podcasts into a radio format, because the radio business is what they understand. However, podcast content is different. Distribution is different. Listener consumption is different. Monetization is different.

And perhaps most importantly, timelines are fluid. 15 minute long podcasts are being created under an artificial time constraint that begs the question…why?

On the other hand, having no format at all before hitting record is indeed bad news. Wandering, random conversations are wastes of the listeners’ time. Stay on point enough to maximize the amount of information you’re sharing or able to get your guest to share. Writing a solid outline ahead of time will get that done.

A great deal of my time each week is spent researching my guest (if there is one), reading about our topic(s), and constructing an outline with a story arc that will engage the listener. That’s my “format” such as it is, and it’s all you need. Don’t obsess about music, corny bits, falling precisely onto specific minute and second marks, etc. Just get the content right–that’s most of the battle.

CMI’s big idea #2.

“Time constraints are your strength (Spoiler alert: Nobody wants your 60-minute show).”

Response. This is flat-out wrong. The length of your podcast episode has everything to do with fair treatment of the material chosen for the episode and nothing to do with creating a bunch of abbreviated episodes to stuff the future download queue.

As a podcaster, you must know how to move the conversation along. There comes a point where you’ve talked about a topic enough, and it’s time to get to the next thing. On the other hand, many subjects offer tangents that are worth exploring. Podcasting is about right-sizing the time spent as the conversation progresses.

The limit of your podcast episode is not constrained by the clock. The limit is when there’s nothing else worth discussing. That is decidedly a balancing act, as no one has the attention span for your ocean-boiling, yak-shaving carrying on even if it’s interesting. There is some limit. But I can say with confidence that 60 minutes isn’t necessarily that limit.

Case in point: a Tim Ferriss Show episode is routinely over an hour, and not infrequently more than two. Tim’s show is perhaps an outlier, but it’s one of the most popular podcasts in the world for a reason. The content is just that compelling, despite the length of the shows.

A second case in point is the TED Radio Hour on NPR. This frustrating show is constrained by a very specific format, as it’s not only a podcast, it’s also a broadcast radio feature. Therefore, the content ends up as a mix of stretching out some segments longer than they need go, while also rushing through certain guests that clearly had more to offer.

The TED Radio Hour is slickly produced and predictable, but the ultimate value for the listener is sacrificed on the altar of format, length being a chief limitation. Too bad. In TED Radio Hour’s heyday, which I believe is long past, they found some very interesting topics and people.

Final case in point comes from experiences with my own shows. Show duration is just not a problem.

  1. I know from interacting with hundreds of audience members over many years that 60 minutes is just fine. They have long commutes. They want to flex their brains while mowing the lawn. Etc. Time is something they are willing to expend on worthwhile content, and therefore, they want to hear complex topics treated fairly.
  2. On one show, my co-host and I experimented with locking down the show to 30 minutes. No one thanked us for this. In fact, the opposite was true. We had listeners tell us that the longer shows were better, and so we went back to the longer format.

If your show is decent and the subjects you choose demand it, someone will want your 60-minute show–just so long as you aren’t waffling on after you ran out of worthwhile things to say.

CMI’s big idea #3.

“Create recurring segments or content brands within the show.”

Response. I have no big disagreement with this point, but don’t obsess about it. When your show is new, it hasn’t yet found its voice. Give your show ten or more episodes to settle into a groove, then see what segments naturally occur.

Once you’ve picked them out, run with them, but don’t be a slave to them. You don’t have to have material for a recurrent segment every single show. Do it when you’ve got it, but don’t force it if you don’t.

For example, on Citizens of Tech, we have “Content I Like” and “Today I Learned” segments on pretty much every show. Eric and I are always finding interesting things we want to share for those bits. On the other hand, we also have “Privacy Watch” and “Deathwatch” segments, but we don’t run either of those two segments every show. There’s just not enough interesting content to fill those segments every episode.

Stop overthinking.

There is no one-size-fits-all to podcasting. What works for one audience won’t work for another. However, the opportunities are endless. Stop trying to find a magic formula that will gain you audience. I don’t care how good your show is, audience will take a long time to accumulate if you don’t have an existing audience to use as a launching pad for your new show. (And maybe even if you do.)

So…forget about all of that. Be creative. Be different. But be focused, delivering a consistent product that is, at the end of the day, yours. If it’s good, the audience will follow if you’re patient enough and perhaps get a few lucky breaks.

The podcasts I am the most interested in now tend to be rather “out there.” Weird stuff, with odd formats. I appreciate slick production values, but at the same time I’m sick of homogenized polish that render podcasts sterile, canned, and phony.

Make something you want to listen to. Other people will want to listen to it, too.



Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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