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Podspotting: 5 tips for a better podcast

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Every year the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism releases the State of the News Media, a data-filled snapshot of the media habits of Americans. According the 2012 edition of that report—which used data from Podcast Alley—there were 91,659 podcasts by the end of 2011.

Now, Podspotting hasn’t listened to all 90,000 of these podcasts. But as a voracious podcast listener, I have caught a staggeringly large number of them, from focused-as-a-laser oddities (like the excellent Whiskycast) to the dozens of general-interest sex shows I scoped out in the course of researching the top sex podcasts. And in doing so, I’ve made a not especially surprising discovery: There are a lot of also-ran podcasts out there with crippling problems.

It’s a frustrating and frequent occurrence to stumble upon a podcast with serious promise but equally serious flaws—a show that could be great were it not for one or more fixable transgressions. And some of these defects are astonishingly common; listen to enough podcasts and you, too, will suffer a strong sense of déjà vu when you hear yet another rambling, unfocused host or an interview with a guest that sounds, quite literally, phoned-in.

Yes, the podcast seas can be choppy, but it need not be this way. After hearing one too many halting podcasts, I’ve crafted this list of five of the most important pieces of advice for any podcast producer or would-be producer—a rebuttal of sorts to some of the problems that I keep hearing over and over again as I scope out new shows.

1) “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

You may recognize that quote; it’s one of the many famous lines uttered by Polonius, King Claudius’s counsellor in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Polonius is wrong about nearly everything in Hamlet—and (spoiler alert!) eventually gets himself rather unceremoniously stabbed and killed—but he was at least right on the money with this one. Most podcasts needn’t to stretch past one, two, or three hours. Although there are a select few podcast hosts on this planet that can hold court and stay entertaining for such an incredibly long period of time, it’s a tremendously rare skill. There is only a one in 7 billion chance that you are Jimmy Pardo, and those aren’t good odds.

Instead, most podcasts could benefit from shedding some minutes; a podcast is likely to be more impactful and memorable—and less likely to suffer from directionless rambling, perhaps the most common and cardinal sin of the podcast medium—if it’s shorter. Plus, there’s an inversely proportional relationship between a podcast’s running time and its accessibility. A three-hour podcast asks for an enormous commitment from prospective listeners; by contrast, even the world’s busiest person could find time for one of Scientific American’s 60-second podcasts.

2) Audio production matters.

When queuing up a new podcast for the first time, there’s probably not a more immediately noticeable red flag then obviously shoddy audio quality. Sub-par sound can take many forms: a host or a guest that sounds as though they were recorded through a tin-can telephone, sound levels that resemble mountainous topographic maps, or distractingly loud ambient noise that reveals that the show was probably recorded on an iPhone in a busy taqueria.

This problem can plague even the most ostensibly professional podcast—particularly in live episodes. Even if your podcast is something of a lark, if you want anybody other than your friends and family to listen to it—heck, if you want even your friends and family to listen to your podcast for more than five minutes—you’ll need to get serious about recording a professional-sounding show. Get yourself to Amazon and buy a halfway-decent microphone.

3) Diversity in voices is a good thing.

To put it bluntly, many podcasts are hosted by two or more 20-or-30something white guys. Not only can this get monotonous for a listener’s ears, but in the most egregious cases of same-sounding hosts and guests it can even be difficult to discern who’s talking. A more diversified mix of hosts and guests of varying genders, ages, and backgrounds is not only likely to make your podcast more interesting, but it’s also likely to make the show more lively to the ears.

4) Premise and format are your friends.

Just as a very small group of hosts can successfully pull of a long, windy, rambling show, very few hosts can pull off a show without any sort of real premise. And even if you could, the podcast universe probably already has enough “A group of friends and/or a guest talk about whatever pops into their head for three hours” shows. Instead, take inspiration from the many funny, enjoyable podcasts that excel thanks in part to a unique premise—like Nerdist Industries’ Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, in which comedians Michael Ian Black and Tom Cavanagh, well, eat snacks. It’s a loose framework that the hosts depart from frequently, but it’s at least something. Or consider Earwolf’s very funny Who Charted?, featuring Howard Kremer and Kulap Vilaysack, who take a look at the week’s music and film charts and use those as a launching pad for their riffs.

A premise helps to distinguish your podcast from those 90,000 other shows out there. Similarly, a format gives a podcast some structure, keeps it from excessively sprawling, and makes life easier for producers and hosts. It’s a lot easier to stick to a release schedule when you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day, week, or month.

5) Originality is a virtue.

As inconceivable as it may seem with so many podcasts out there, there are still plenty of ideas, genres, subject matters, and approaches that haven’t been done by anyone—or at least not done well. If you want your podcast to garner any attention, it will have to do something different, and do it well, but that’s not as tall an order as it may seem. After all, at the end of the day the podcast medium is still a relatively young one. It’s also a medium with low barriers to entry and limited almost only by your imagination. An original premise or focus will not only distinguish your podcast from other shows—probably more importantly, it will almost certainly make it more fun for you to produce.

Illustration via by derrickkwa/Flickr