About 10 years ago (or was it 11 years… or 12 years… let’s cap it at 10 before I start to feel too old), I got a Sansa Clip. I loved my Sansa Clip. The killer app for me was podcasts. Today, my Sansa Clip is long gone, but I’m still a voracious podcast listener.
I’ve come to realise that there are things I like to hear in podcasts, and things that I don’t like. In this post I’m going to list 5 things I like, and 5 things I don’t like. If you produce a podcast, read on – you just might find something to make your podcast a little bit better.
As a bonus, you’ll see me specifically mention some of the podcasts I listen to – while this post isn’t really about recommending podcasts, I suppose you could infer that since these are shows I listen to, I must think they’re pretty good. And I do.
Here are 5 features that make for a good podcast.
Having a predictable run-time makes it easier to plan consumption of a podcast. I know my walk from place A to place B takes about 10 minutes, and I know that’s enough time for a quick episode of 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy. Or I might start listening to an episode of Risky Business or Motley Fool Money because I know the start of those podcasts are news segments, which are fine to break in the middle. But I’ll avoid starting an episode of The Inquiry because those are about 20-30 minutes of deep-dive, which is a good thing, but they require some focussed listening so I prefer to consume them in one go when I’m on the train or something.
I don’t want to check how long each episode takes, I want to be able to always expect consistency from the podcasts that I subscribe to. I think there’s a place for all run-lengths. The key thing is consistency.
I already alluded to this point on the previous point. Having a consistent format is closely related to having a consistent run-length, but it isn’t exactly the same thing.
Many podcasts have a mixed segment format, for example starting with a news segment, followed up by an interview segment, etc. Having a consistent format aids consumption in a similar way to having a consistent run-length, but I think it’s perhaps even more important because I suspect it plays into “habitualization” and improves ease of information consumption. I have no data to back that up other than my own subjective opinion, so take this with a grain of salt. It’s just my opinion based on my own personal subjective observation.
Putting out episodes consistently over time is a hard task and a big ask. Sometimes you need to miss your scheduled slot. And sometimes, some podcasts like to air “repeats” to fill a slot.
I think it’s ok to repeat an old episode when there’s no time to make new one, but I think at a minimum you should tell the listener that you’re airing a repeat, and better yet include a bit of commentary around the re-run.
One podcast that’s especially ace at this is Linear Digressions. When they re-ran their episode on the Enron dataset they reflected on how they had said during the podcast that “there would never be another dataset like this” only to have the Sony email breach happen not too long after. Adding a bit of commentary like that doesn’t take too much effort, but it adds a lot for the listener. Even if I’ve already heard an episode, if some new information is presented that adds new context or a new perspective, I might want to listen to a re-run anyway to see if I can glean some new insight with the new context or new perspective.
Distinctive intro/segue/outro audible prompt
Even the smallest investment in production elements goes a long way. Distinctive audible cues really improve listenability. It does not have to be very sophisticated. A small jingle at the start and the end, or even just a chime between segments… a little bit goes a long way!
Some people are naturally gifted or highly experienced interviewers, and some guests interview better than others. I think some editing is always worthwhile to maximise the value for your listeners. It’s actually extremely hard to tell when audio has been edited.
Here are 5 features that make for a not-so-good podcast.
Being wrong without issuing a correction
I listen to Talking Business to get a sense of what’s going on with the Australian economy. They cover a wide breadth of issues, and this year of course they had to talk about WannaCry and NotPetya.
Cybersecurity is in my wheelhouse. That is why it irked me when Talking Business did, in my opinion, confuse listeners into thinking that the perpetrators of WannaCry made millions of dollars. There is just no evidence to believe this – hundreds of thousands, sure, but millions is a gross exaggeration. Maybe what they meant to say was that all ransomware campaigns combined are raking in millions, that’s plausible, but that is not what they said on their show. Anyone who heard their show would have come away with the impression that WannaCry netted millions for the “perps” (as they call them).
Here’s the thing… cybersecurity is in my wheelhouse, so I could call out this error. But what about all the other topics that are not in my wheelhouse? What about energy policy, labor market trends, and the myriad of other topics covered by this show? I might have come away from one of their episodes with misinformation on any of these topics.
I took to Twitter to point out to them that I found their segment on WannaCry and NotPetya to be misleading, but they did not acknowledge this.
Mistakes are simply a fact of life. What’s needed is correction discipline. I know this can be done, because Risky Business does a fantastic job of this. Time and time again, they will say something, and on the next episode they will issue a correction acknowledging their error and presenting the right information. That is why their listeners know they can can trust them.
I’m not talking about jingles here, I’m talking about actual full length musical presentations. I mean unless of course your podcast is about music, but if it’s not, I don’t think music has a place. I listen on 1.5x, so music sounds broken. Risky Business did this for a while and I’m glad they stopped.
Excessive stereo speaker shifting
Having multiple speakers (besides the regular host) on a recording could, in theory, make it difficult for the listener to keep track of who is saying what, leading to confusion. One technique to mitigate this risk is to playback different speakers at different levels on the left and right channel.
The problem is when one particular speaker rattles on for an extended period of time. Getting an earful in just one ear for a couple of minutes feels a bit uncomfortable.
Maybe this technique works best when the shift is very subtle.
Your bloopers are really not as funny or charming as you think. Have enough respect for your listeners not to force them to listen to your screwups. It’s not like a credit sequence at the movies that you can just walk out of – having something to skip past in a podcast is a chore. Maybe you’re driving, or maybe you’re standing in a crowded train – getting to that +15s button isn’t always easy.
Extended sponsor pitches
Sponsors are great because they keep our favourite podcasts on the air. We all benefit if sponsors do well on podcasts because they will keep sponsoring. Our interests really are aligned here.
Some podcasts, like Risky Business, have an advantage when it comes to sponsorship. Because of their subject matter, it’s very easy to do sponsored interviews. But this doesn’t make sense for all podcasts, so some podcasts have to include a pitch by the host.
I recently started listening to a podcast where the host consistently rattles on for 2-3 minutes about the sponsor (that’s 2-3 minutes of a 15 minute-long podcast) which is just self-defeating because now I’m in the habit of starting the podcast, waiting for about 1 minute to reach the sponsorship slot, then I just mash +15s a few times to get past it. I don’t even bother listening to the sponsor pitch anymore because it is just too painful.
I think it’s silly to think that the length of a sales pitch correlates with conversion. Be smart with sponsor pitches. You can’t convert me if I’m incentivised enough to skip past the pitch entirely, so don’t make it worth my trouble to reach for the +15s. You miss 100% of the pitches that aren’t heard.