What Do The Best Podcasts Get Right?

I’m a total podcast junkie.

I just love this medium for publishing content, building connections and fostering community.  A podcast is a mix of topical content, personalities, stories, production value, and one-on-one / one-to-many interaction, all in one medium.

Part of the attraction to podcasts is their practicality.  I can listen to them in the car, on my daily hikes with the dog, when I’m waiting for a train, etc.

I just launched my new podcast, Bootstrapped Web, which I spent several weeks preparing.  That gave me the opportunity to give lots of thought to this question:

What makes a podcast great?  

What are some common elements that the best podcasts tend to get right?  What are some reasons why I might stop tuning in?

Here are few things I came up with:

Consistency

Every Tuesday morning, I look forward to a new episode of Startups For The Rest of us.  Every Thursday, it’s the Lifestyle Business Podcast.  Mixergy is almost every day.

Keeping a consistent posting schedule is super important for podcasts.  While a blog can be updated whenever there is news or inspiration, a podcast is a program.  Podcast listeners have different expectations than blog readers.  Keep them hooked by delivering on schedule, every time.

Structure

Every podcast approaches this in different ways – which is another reason I love the medium so much.  No rules!

Content, length, segments, topics, advertisements, guests/no guests, and so on…

I like it when a podcast establishes their structure and sticks with it for every episode (again, consistency).  It helps me as a listener know what I’m getting into.  The first listen is always a gamble.  But if I like it enough to stick around for a few more episodes, then I’ll know what to expect.

Pre-Recording Preparation

After tuning into so many different podcasts over the years, it becomes clear which ones take time to prepare the episode content beforehand, and which ones just press record and wing it.

Some podcasters prefer the latter, keeping it loose and spontaneous.  Like a couple of friends shooting the shit, and we as the audience get to eavesdrop on their conversation.  While this might be OK as background content to an afternoon work session, I tend to prefer something more organized and prepared.

We all know of the extensive pre-interviews that guests on Mixergy go through before getting on camera with Andrew Warner.  This operation Andrew has put together is truly best in class and it shows.

Others prepare topics, talking points, and interview questions beforehand.  Again, it’s easy to spot evidence of this because the conversation flows nicely from one topic to the next.  No stopping to consider what to talk about next.

Vulnerability

There’s something special that only a few podcasters do that seems to resonate and propel their program to greater heights than all that rest.  That is, they make themselves vulnerable.

Podcasting is a very intimate medium.  You’re really putting yourself out there to the world.  It’s easy for anyone to stick to a script and cobble together a program.  But going off-script and showing your true self — your opinions, your insecurities, your emotions — is what people will really connect with.  Having the balls to say that thing that you might not even tell your closest friends, but blurting it out on the internet airwaves… That’s the secret sauce.

Marc Maron’s WTF podcast is one of the most successful out there.  Why?  Because his brand of comedy is all about his raw, introspective honesty.  Listening to WTF, I get to hear about all the insecurities, failures, triumphs, and emotions that a professional comic goes through.  And because of the way Maron puts himself out there, his guests put down their guard and get into the nitty gritty too.

Andrew Warner of Mixergy takes it to that special level as well.  He often talks about the “mental chatter” that all entrepreneurs deal with — the insecurities that come with taking risks and not being afraid of (public) failure.

Check out Brené Brown’s TED talk, The Power of Vulnerability.

What do you think?

Please comment or tweet me and tell me what you think makes a podcast great?

By the way, here’s my current list of podcast subscriptions:

Those are just the ones that I’m actively listening to (nearly every new episode) these days.  The list goes on with a few older favorites that I check into from time to time… Freelance Radio, Founders Talk, The Frequency

And a few new ones I just started getting into: Empire FlippersEntrepreneur on Fire.

Like I said.  I’m a total junkie for podcasts 🙂

  • I like the post Brian! I used to live in Norwalk for 4 years, small world!

    I’m fairly new to podcasting (now 57 episodes in) and I have to say it’s not easy bringing out the vulnerability…I think I’ve gotten much better but I’m actually focusing more on bring my own weird personality and sayings into the show for listeners to hear more of “me” within the shows.

    It’s been fun to say the least but have to agree that your list is a good one. We share some similar interests when it comes to quality podcasts.

    Thanks for sharing.

    greg

    • Brian Casel

      Hey Greg – Ah, cool. I moved to Norwalk 3 years ago and love this area. I’ll be here a while.

      I’m not sure I’d consider 57 episodes as “fairly new”. Looks like you’ve made it much farther than most new podcasts do.

      I like how you really focus on your niche – mobile – and build lots of topics around that.

  • Brian,

    I couldn’t agree more!

    Thanks for turning me on to new podcasts, too.

    One of my favorites is “Sound Opinions” at soundaopinions.org. If you really dig music – this is it!

    • Brian Casel

      Thanks Roger! Always looking for new ones to check out 🙂

  • First, I’m stoked to be on the list!

    A “no rules” world is great for new media avenues like podcasting and web shows. (and podcasting isn’t new in the sense, it’s the rise in mobile that has brought it back to life)

    But a world without rules is dangerous especially when you’re in the ears or eyes of your audience. If you sound off, or mis pronounce words, or fumble and mumble like I do occasionally — it’s nerve wracking.

    Did I sound stupid?
    Am I going to lose a listener?
    Does anyone want to listen in the first place?

    Enter in vulnerability…

    You’re a wide open book at this point.

    Now people are following you on twitter, seeing your G+ updates, and now listening to you on the air. You’re there for the world to see and judge your brand. If you’re taking the traditional interview route like I am, you’re vulnerable to your guests too.

    I haven’t had any specific training in any of this.

    How to ask the right questions, how not to offend anyone, all while trying to balance good content. I’ve been taking the Andrew Warner approach and just being as open as possible.

    I was nervous in this interview…
    Do you like this content?
    Do you want to see something different?

    And with that said, how do we constantly improve our content? Your list is twice the size of mine. That’s like 14-16 hours worth of audio consumption.

    Is our audience that passionate? How do we deliver the most value in the least amount of time? How many times a week? Mind boggling really.

    I love this no rules world and where it’s going. It’s a very exciting time. Can’t wait to se what you have in store for us in your next adventure!

    • Brian Casel

      Thanks Matt – and great work on your interviews.

      Nothing beats great interviewers. I think the best in the business (at least the ones on my radar) are:

      – Charlie Rose
      – Howard Stern
      – Andrew Warner
      – Marc Maron

  • Brian – solid post. I’ve been through the Andrew Warner wringer for his show and it is tough! I was hammered with questions which actually helped me through the process of figuring out what my value is as well. Awesome process and he’s still the champ.

    I’m at episode 457 of my podcast of which I use a mix of the interview types you list out. Sometimes I prep my guest, sometimes I just roll with it but it really depends on their ability to carry the conversation. I can talk but no one wants to hear me yammer on for an hour. The best episodes are the ones that start in one direction and end up somewhere completely off course but in a good way. The key is to know when to be rigid or not. IMO rigidity limits the ability to let your personality shine – anyone can ask questions…

    My 2 cents. Whatever you do, this is an amazing media upheaval to be a part of – and, hopefully, contribute to.

    Rob

    • Brian Casel

      Awesome Rob, thanks for the insight. After that many episodes you must really have a firm grasp on what works.

  • Hey Brian good stuff mate and thanks for the inclusion.

    I tend to go for podcasts that have hosts with charisma – @Jason @tropicalmba etc. It’s more of an entertainment thing for me. Occasionally I’ll get something practical out of them but more often than not it’s just inspiration / entertainment I think.

    Let me know if you need a guest for yours!

    • Brian Casel

      Same here Dan. I also gravitate towards personalities that I would in real life. My fav hosts are the ones I can see myself getting a beer with.

      I also found some hosts didn’t fit that criteria in the beginning, but over time really grew on me. I guess once you get to know someone (in real life or through a podcast) you start to see them and their show in a different light.

  • Thanks for the shout, Brian!

    I’m a big fan of some of the other podcasts mentioned as well. (Mixergy, LBP, Web Domination, etc.)

    I totally agree with you regarding personality and vulnerability. There’s nothing worse when firing up a podcast than listening to someone who acts like they’ve got it all figured out and preach to you for the next 30-45 minutes…ugh. I listened to an episode with Andrew on the Entrepreneur on Fire podcast (I believe) that was interesting where him and John discussed the different ways to run your show…was a great episode for podcasters.

    I know you’re new to our show…please feel free to let us know what you like, don’t like, etc. I’d be really interested to read or hear a critique from someone who listens to so many other shows!

    • Brian Casel

      Hey Justin –

      Thanks! Cool, I’ll definitely check out that episode of EOF.

      I’m only a couple episodes into Empire Flippers, but I can already tell it will be a regular listen for sure 🙂 Look forward to connecting soon.

  • Brian,

    I think you’ve hit it on the head with vulnerability. I’ve been listening to podcasts since 2005, and I think I never enjoy a podcast as much as when they are personal.

    Quality of audio, structure, consistency have varied between all my favorites along the way, but what always brings me back is the personal touch from a host or show opening up and being real with the audience. I think that is why podcasting garnered such a community behind it: the connection between the host and the audience. This is something podcasts can do much more than most other mediums out there.

    When I started my first solo podcast, I made it a point to try to make sure listeners understood they were going on an education journey with me as I did my interviews. I can tell from the people I have connected with that have formed around my show that being vulnerable with them is definitely a key to a podcasts success.

    • Brian Casel

      Thanks Erik –

      Yes – I think it’s great when the audience and the host are learning together. I love seeing the progression that hosts take over months/years of tuning into their podcasts.

      That’s the idea behind my upcoming podcast (starting next week!). It’s about bootstrapped businesses and how we “learn by doing”. Announcement coming soon…

      I’m checking out Beyond the To-Do List now!

  • Hot damn! I made the list. A new listener (thanks to your post) just advised me of it. Thanks for listening and thanks for including BootStrapped with Kids here.

    You have beautiful websites btw I’ve admired them since I found you in the Microconf Crowdvine site.

    • Brian Casel

      Hey Brecht – Ya I dig your new podcast! I’m starting one (epside 1 next week) also in the Bootstrapping niche 🙂 More to come…

      Thanks – Would have loved to meet at Microconf. I had a ticket but unfortunately a last minute thing came up and I had to cancel the trip. Bummed. Next year!

  • Emily

    Thanks for the recommendations! I’m a huge fan of podcasts as well, and I have many go-to podcasts when I’m sick of listening to mainstream radio (which is almost all the time!) I’ve listened to a bunch of the podcasts you mentioned, and can’t wait to check out the rest!

    I am surprised, however, that you left out Keith and The Girl, seeing as how they have been revered as the pioneers of podcasting (they started back in 2005), and have since established an undeniable presence in the world of podcasting. I’ve heard interviews of the Keith and The Girl hosts on FOUR of the podcasts you’ve mentioned (Mixergy, Foolish Adventures, Rise to the Top, and WTF–I even recall Marc Maron having cited Keith and The Girl as his inspiration for becoming a podcaster!).

    I personally think Keith and The Girl belongs at the top of this list! They exhibit every one of these characteristics, and have developed an incredibly loyal fan base, many of whom have even gotten tattoos of the KATG logo on their bodies (you can see pictures of over 100 tats at http://www.keithandthegirl.com/tattoos/)!

    If you haven’t heard it, I highly suggest you give Keith and The Girl a try, and hopefully make a much-needed addendum to your list! You won’t be disappointed!

    You can listen to the show and find extras such as videos, show notes, forums, and chat rooms HERE:

    http://www.keithandthegirl.com/

  • Do you think the time will come that podcasts hit the mainstream?

    I see your list and think about all the reasons I don’t listen to podcasts at all. I think it boils down to being too difficult to get the routine set up. For instance:

    1. How would I listen to a podcast?
    2. Can podcasts be automatically delivered to me somehow?
    3. When would I find the time to sit down and listen?

    Blogs are really easy to consume, yet I still have trouble finding and tracking blogs that I like to read.

    The mainstream however, enjoy an easier life. Want to read something? The newspapers update their front page many times per day, Want to listen to something? Everyone knows how to tune into broadcast radio, and have a time and place that they would usually listen to it.

    Judging by your list and these comments, there is so much thought and effort put into creating these podcasts. And they are targeted at so many niches that collectively they could serve the mainstream. I hope that one day a wider audience can access them.

    • Brian Casel

      Hey Jervis –

      Yes – as old as the medium is, I do believe that podcasts are still just getting started in terms of widespread adoption. Yes, I believe they will rapidly grow in the years to come, and mobile is playing a huge role in driving that growth. And I expect podcasts will be integrated into cars in the near future, and that will be a huge driver (pandora and other internet radio is already being added in cars).

      Here’s how I’d answer your questions…

      1. I listen to podcasts on my iPhone, using Apple’s Podcasts app. There is also http://www.stitcher.com. I prefer the Podcasts app, which downloads episodes to my phone and doesn’t use data to stream them. I’m sure there is an equivalent Android app.

      2. Yes, the iPhone’s podcasts app does this. I “subscribe” to the podcasts I want, and the latest episodes are automatically downloaded to my phone when they become available. I also set them to only “keep” the most recent 2 episodes, to free up storage space.

      3. I listen to podcasts a lot when I’m driving in my car. I also listen on my daily walks with my dog. And I listen when I go running. Believe it or not, a great Mixergy interview keeps me going during workouts better than my music playlists 🙂

      It’s probably quite different in Australia, but here in the USA, the mainstream media outlets are very disappointing, and radio is probably the worst of them all (here). The US news outlets are hyper-partisan, which is a major turn-off to me. Beyond (crappy) news, and sports, there aren’t many other choices in mainstream media.

      And there isn’t much quality programming targeted at entrepreneurs, which is why I love business podcasts so much. So yes, podcasts are really great for niche interests.

      Another note about blogs vs. podcasts… There are 4+ million blogs and only about 300k podcasts. There is a lot of room for podcasts to grow and it’s much easier for good ones to break through the noise.

      • What I think works about radio is that everyone has one and understands how it works (and we still have some good programs):

        drive time gets the better presenters, late evening and other off peak times are for the newer or more niche topics – this is true of the non-commercial radio too.

        Everyone has an iPhone or equivalent, but there isn’t that same understanding about how podcasts work. I’m imagining a future where I can tune in to a radio station that plays podcasts back to back. The listener no longer needs to maintain an inventory. I know that Casel has the Thursday 2pm slot, and that Mixergy is always on the 5pm drive.

        If I’m late tuning in, well I just miss the first five minutes. No big deal.

        I agree with your points about podcasts being prime for growth in the future. Melbourne alone has over 3 million radio listeners, while the most successful podcast I could find in the world had 300k. It makes sense that with a lack of quality content in mainstream media that people will search it out in other places.

        • Brian Casel

          Good point Jervis –

          But if TV is any indicator, I think people are moving very fast towards “on demand” content and away from scheduled content. Not sure if it’s the same in AU, but most TV watchers use DVRs these days. There’s also very big trend in people cutting out cable TV altogether in favor of web content, like Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, etc. — All of which is “on demand”.

          And that’s basically what podcasts are really… an “on demand” way to listen to content that interests me, when and where I want.

  • Pingback: How Choosing The Right Feedback Leads To Greater Product Focus - w/ Dan Norris of Inform.ly - Bootstrapped Web | Bootstrapped Web()

  • I’ve thought about starting a podcast for my video game website for a long time, but a couple of things come up whenever I think of it. First, are people interested in listening to one guy talk about games for half an hour. I know a lot of people are doing podcasts on their own and some of them are really popular, but when you’re doing something on your own, you lose all the interesting discussions. How do I even start podcasting when there are so many terrific programs out there? This is more related to finding your voice (metaphorically speaking of course) and getting more confidence, but it’s scary nonetheless. We’ll see what happens, but podcasting both as a medium and as a way of reaching out to your audience sounds tempting and really fun.

  • Pingback: Why Being an Interviewer Would be Hard – myrtletheturtle()

  • Pingback: Blog #5 | COMM 201()

  • Wendy John

    Thanks John – that is a good read -informative, concise and short ! Just very new to the podcasting game too (Doomsday on iTunes) and have also received advice from my uni lecturer to share my personal narrative = vulnerability. I’m good, I reckon, with Structure and pre-recording prep (I prefer well structured podcasts too – fav is Freakonomics) but the challenge I will have is consistency…I just can’t get as much done caring for a 2 year old as I thought I could! But there’s got to be a better way to get good structure and production values and to be able to publish consistently. Maybe it’s the efficiency of practise? Any other tips are welcome!