What Makes a Good Podcast?

Zoom-H1 by Handshake Media, Inc.A podcast, much like other media, is most popular when it entertains or enriches the listener’s life in some way. In answering the question of “what makes a good podcast,” we decided to take a peek at what people are already enjoying, and investigate why these podcasts have captivated listeners. Other articles have listed popular podcasts, but in this post we break a handful of different podcasts into the elements that make them engaging.

Serial by This American Life and WBEZ Chicago“One story told week by week”

Serial began as a true crime story of a girl who was murdered in Baltimore in 1999. Much like a TV show, listeners were kept in suspense as the host, Sarah Koenig, interviewing local people, family members, and dug deep to document what happened. The full story is told through Season One. A dedicated audience awaits a new story in Season Two.

Serial features:

  • Several musical themes to introduce the episode, ease transitions, and to cue the listener into important parts
  • A brief, compelling introduction with music telling the listener who is producing the show, who is speaking, and what the podcast is about
  • Interviews with many different people
  • Interesting, true subject matter
  • A common theme and a question to answer
  • An engaging storyteller
  • Professionally edited audio (no filler words such as “um,” and no background noise)

Embedded by NPR – “Takes a story from the news and goes deep”

Kelly McEvans chooses a story she finds intriguing and investigates the story further. Stories are varied and shocking, including coverage of an HIV epidemic due to prescription opioids in a small town in Indiana, a recent biker shootout in Waco, and how gangs stopped buses in El Salvador. Kelly asks the hard questions, such as what is it like to experience withdrawals from pain pills. She takes a story and makes it personal.

Embedded has some of the same features as Serial:

  • Music to introduce the episode, for transitions, and for emphasis
  • A brief introduction of the show producer, the speaker, and the topic
  • Interviews with people involved in the story
  • Interesting, true subject matter
  • A common theme
  • An engaging storyteller
  • Narrated parts are carefully edited (no filler words or background noise)

Freakonomics Radio by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt – “The podcast that explores the hidden side of everything”

Covers the enormous economic relevance of ideas that may have been obscure or unpopular in the past. The show is hosted by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, who supplement their own research and insights with excerpts of recordings and interviews with the major players in each topic. Examples of the subject matter they have investigated include whether the world is ready for a guaranteed basic income, the economics of sleep, and the real-world effects of payday loans.

Stephen and Steven’s initial partnership yielded a book first, described on their About page; “Levitt and Dubner wrote Freakonomics, a book about cheating teachers, bizarre baby names, self-dealing Realtors, and crack-selling mama’s boys. They figured it would sell about 80 copies. Instead, it took up long-term residency on the Times best-seller list, and went on to sell more than 5 million copies in 40 languages.”

  • Music backs the entire episode, with a variety of excerpts of songs from artists the hosts enjoy.
  • Each episode is introduced with music, the episode’s sponsor, speaker, a little bit about what the show covers before introducing the episode’s topic.
  • The hosts interview relevant people and leaders for each episode.
  • Hosts have vibrant, engaging speaking styles.
  • Topics are highly relevant to modern professional Americans.
  • The channel has a common theme.
  • Voice tracks and interviews are clearly edited and mastered to remove “ums” and improve audio quality.

The Joe Rogan Experience by Joe Rogan

Joe Rogan, an actor and comedian, hosts long conversations (two hours!) with various prominent people, including “comedians, actors, musicians, MMA instructors and commentators, authors, artists, and porn stars.” According to his about page, “The Joe Rogan Experience was voted the Best Comedy Podcast of 2012 on iTunes.”

  • Podcast is introduced with episode sponsor and the speaker. The channel, as well as each episode is sponsored by multiple companies, who are introduced at length before the podcast starts.
  • The entire show is videotaped, presented as audio and video on the podcast site. The video is also available on YouTube, while the audio is available on iTunes.
  • Episode audio is professionally recorded and mastered, but fillers such as “um” are not removed.
  • Though the show has a wide variety of content depending on the guest, it does have a common theme: two different personalities and minds chatting casually about the world

Radiolab by WNYC

“Radiolab is a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” Various hosts from Radiolab interview experts and prominent figures sharing stories on interesting topics, such as two prominent scientists discussing the earliest evolution of multicellular life. The Radiolab website also has a blog and a collection of videos.

  • The episode begins with an introduction of the show, the host, the guests, and the topic.
  • Episodes are professionally recorded and mastered.
  • Diverse, theatrical music and sound effects are added in different places to illustrate the topic being discussed.
  • Guest speakers and hosts are tonally expressive and playful with their speech.
  • The show has the feel of a performance rather than simply an interview.
  • Sponsors are showcased at the end of the podcast.

2 Dope Queens by WNYC

Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams have made their show popular with their incredibly funny and vivacious personalities and relaxed repartee. 2 Dope Queens is an increasingly popular comedy podcast featuring primarily Phoebe and Jessica, “with their favorite comedians, for stories about sex, romance, race, hair journeys, living in New York, and Billy Joel. Plus a whole bunch of other s**t.”

  • The episode begins by introducing the sponsors, a joke, music, and the hosts.
  • Jokes and pop culture references are continuously woven throughout their content.
  • A live audience is present for their show.
  • The show is professionally recorded and mastered in a studio.

Common qualities from all of these great podcasts are clearly great content, professional quality audio, and reliable, themed content. Podcasts reviewed here also bring in a variety of voices and minds, indicating that the best podcast shows, while consistent in content and hosts, keep things fresh with new personalities and human voices.

For more great podcasts, take a look at Buzzfeed’s review of podcasts in 2016, Time’s analysis of the best podcasts in 2015, and podbay.fm’s top podcasts.

Inspired? If you would like to start your own podcast channel, take a look at Handshake Media’s Podcast Services.

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