5 Addiction Myths Challenged by Maia Szalavitz in Unbroken Brain

Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction braids together three narratives: Maia Szalavitz’s personal story, what the science reports about addiction, and a call to action to change belief-based addictions treatment to evidence-based treatment.

Prior to the release of Unbroken Brain, Maia Szalavitz shared these images about the myths surrounding addiction and the science that refutes them through her Twitter stream.

Unbroken Brain Myth #1: There is an "addictive personality" that all people with addiction share.

Myth #1: There is an “addictive personality” that all people with addiction share.

People with addictions are more likely to have higher levels of certain traits like impulsivity or anxiety, however, not all addicted people have all of these traits and no single “addictive personality” has ever been found. Further, extremes on either end of the personality spectrum – like fearfulness and recklessness – can both increase risk.

Unbroken Brain Myth #2: Once an addict, always an addict.

Myth #2: Once an addict, always an addict.

Conventional wisdom has it that addictions are always a lifelong struggle. But in fact, half of people with illegal drug addictions overcome their problems by age 30 – and many do so by cutting down, rather than quitting entirely.

Unbroken Brain Myth #3: Addiction is an "equal opportunity" disease.

Myth #3: Addiction is an “equal opportunity” disease.

Not everyone is equally at risk. Addiction typically kicks people who are already down or who have unstructured or otherwise difficult lives. It is far more likely to affect people who have mental illness, those who have suffered severe childhood trauma, people with personality disorders and those who are poor and marginalized (although it is probably more common in the extremely rich who have more unstructured time than the middle class, as well).

Unbroken Brain Myth #4: Babies can be "born addicted" to drugs.

Myth #4: Babies can be “born addicted” to drugs.

Infants can be born with physical dependence on drugs like heroin or pain relievers if their mothers take them daily during pregnancy. But newborns cannot be addicted, even though they can suffer withdrawal. Addiction requires knowing that the drug is what you need to fix your symptoms, as well as being able to obtain it repeatedly and then taking it despite negative consequences.

Unbroken Brain Myth #5: Addicts have "hijacked brains" and are powerless over their behavior and unable to learn until they stop taking drugs.

Myth #5: Addicts have “hijacked brains” and are powerless over their behavior and unable to learn until they stop taking drugs.

While much of addictive behavior seems irrational, no one deliberately shoots up in front of the police or in court – and people with addiction clearly plan and work hard to ensure their drug supply and avoid detection. On the other hand, they do all this hiding and planning in order to gain access to something that is harmful for them.

This means that people with addiction can have impaired decision-making abilities, but they are not zombies without free will. While addicted, they can and do take important steps to protect their health like learning to use clean needles and how to reverse overdose.

Here’s a transcription of the text in these images (.pdf).

Maia Szalavitz has written extensively in multiple publications on how addiction myths are contradicted by the science of addiction.

Maia Szalavitz, author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction, has graciously agreed to speak in Blacksburg, Virginia on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

Learn more about Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia

Author Maia Szalavitz to Speak in Blacksburg, VA on August 3

Maia SzalavitzHandshake Media, Incorporated is honored to present “What’s a Town to Do About Addiction? A Conversation with Maia Szalavitz, Author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction” at 7:00 PM EST on Wednesday, August 3, 2016, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

UPDATE: Video and transcript are here.

Thanks to its generous donation of meeting space, the event will be held in the New River Room at New River Valley Community Services, 700 University City Boulevard, Blacksburg, Virginia.

Directions to New River Valley Community Services (NRVCS) in Blacksburg, Virginia

The event is free and open to the public and will include time for Q & A with author Maia Szalavitz.

No time to read Unbroken Brain prior to the event?

Here are our top picks from her most recent publications.

Read Author to lead conversation on the science behind addiction by Luanne Rife for The Roanoke Times.

Unbroken Brain braids together three narratives: Maia Szalavitz’s personal story, what the science reports about addiction, and a call to action to change belief-based addictions treatment to evidence-based treatment.

The author will be available to sign audience members’ previously purchased copies of Unbroken Brain after the conversation. Here’s a link to multiple ways to buy Unbroken Brain prior to the event.

Can’t attend? NRVCS will be livestreaming the event on its Facebook page on Wednesday, August 3, 7:00 PM EST.

To learn more about why Maia Szalavitz was invited to Blacksburg:

If you would like more information about Maia Salavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia, please contact Anne Giles.

. . . . .

Maia Szalavitz will give a public lecture on drug addiction at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise in Wise, Virginia on Thursday, August 4, 2016, 6:00 PM at the Banquet Room in Cantrell Hall. The lecture is free of charge and open to the public. Persons with family members or loved ones with addiction are especially invited to attend. For additional information, contact Hugh O’Donnell, 540-395-3926 or 540-762-0590.

Directions to Cantrell Hall in Wise, Virginia

. . . . .

Community Discussion of Unbroken Brain on August 31

Let’s continue the conversation after Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg!

We’ll Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitzgather for a community book discussion of Unbroken Brain on Wednesday, August 31, 2016 at 7:00 PM in the Community Room at Blacksburg Library, 200 Miller Street, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The book discussion is free and open to the public.

We invite you to prepare for a lively discussion by considering these questions.

No time to read the book?

If you’ll sign up on the Unbroken Brain discussion Facebook event page we’ll know how many chairs to set up!

To learn more about author Maia Szalavitz:

If you would like more information, please contact Anne Giles.

Last updated 7/28/16

What’s a Town to Do About Addiction? A Conversation with Maia Szalavitz

In 1996, Blacksburg, Virginia was deemed the Most Wired Town in America. In the 20 years since, the Town of Blacksburg has made dozens of “best of” lists for business, retirement, living and learning.

My dream for Blacksburg’s next accolade?

Most Recovered Town in America.

Why in the world would we want or need such a designation?! We have our street festival, Steppin’ Out, just around the corner! We’re fine! Right? We’re fine. Aren’t we?

Over 16,000 people 18 and older in the New River Valley area have alcohol and other drug problems. According to local officials I’ve interviewed, the majority of local criminal and traffic cases involve substance use. These numbers include a larger trend in Virginia, considered epidemic in the U.S., involving opioid addiction.

We, like other towns in the U.S., are not fine. The state hardest hit by the opioid crisis, West Virginia, is right next door.

Stephen Covey urged leaders, “Begin with the end in mind.”

What would be the “end in mind” for the “Most Recovered Town in America”? How would we know if we had achieved that end?

Maia SzalavitzTo begin to answer those questions, Handshake Media, Incorporated is honored to present “What’s a Town to Do About Addiction? A Conversation with Maia Szalavitz, Author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction” at 7:00 PM on Wednesday, August 3, 2016.

Thanks to its generous donation of meeting space, the event will be held in the New River Room at New River Valley Community Services, 700 University City Boulevard, Blacksburg, Virginia.

Read more about Maia Szalavitiz’s August 3 talk in Blacksburg, VA

. . . . .

In Blacksburg, Virginia, we’ve been reading Maia Szalavitz’s Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addictionsince it was released two months ago on April 6, 2016.

To prepare for Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, we’ll Unbroken Brain by Maia Szalavitzgather for a community book discussion of Unbroken Brain on Wednesday, June 22, 2016 at 7:00 PM in the Community Room at Blacksburg Library, 200 Miller Street, in Blacksburg, Virginia.

The event is free and open to the public!

We invite you to prepare for a lively discussion by considering these questions.

If you’ll sign up on the June 22 Facebook event page, we’ll know how many chairs to set up!

For more information about Maia Szalavitz’s visit to Blacksburg, Virginia, please contact Anne Giles.

Last updated 6/18/16

Signing Off on Podcast Production Services

At Handshake Media, our vision was to share the voices of our community through our own podcast channel and to help members of the “who can podcast” list below to set up their own podcast channels. We offered podcast production services for about 3 months with no takers, however. We’ve learned from previous ventures that if our labor force is small and our budget minimal, if we don’t have early adopters very early, we won’t be able to sustain a “wait and see” approach.

Who can podcast?

  • Authors of self-published books whose readers want to hear the author’s passion for the subject
  • Busy experts who don’t have enough time to speak with all the people who want to talk with them
  • Motivational and inspirational speakers
  • People who can voice opinions
  • Comedians and funny joke tellers
  • Singers and musicians
  • Poets and short story writers
  • Storytellers, and people who would like to preserve family stories for other family members
  • Political, business, and community leaders

Anyone with a message, in other words, can podcast that message to the world.
Why Would You Podcast?

Zoom-H1 by Handshake Media, Inc.

I have a feeling that local interest in podcast channels may follow a similar pattern to that of blogs. When I started Handshake Media in 2008 and pitched blogs and sharing blog posts through social media, the return on investment of sharing the story of an organization or business – not just descriptions of its products or services – was hard to sell.

Will blogs and social media really be used for marketing? That was the question I was asked in 2008.

Do people really listen to podcasts? Will podcasts be used for marketing? That’s the question we’re being asked in 2016.

We shall see what the answer is.

In the meantime, we’ll need to stop offering podcast production services. We appreciate everyone who met with us and considered our services.

We’d like to, however, offer up our extensive market research and thoughtful business model conception on podcast production services for anyone interested. Perhaps our work can help others move this idea forward in ways we weren’t able to.

Because we think members of our community have voices and ideas the world needs to hear.

Feel free to follow the links below and to study, copy and paste as you would like. Feel free to contact us if we can answer any questions or be of service in any way.

Why Would You Podcast?

by Laurel Sindewald and Anne Giles

If Charles Dickens were alive today, this pioneer of the “serial publication of narrative fiction” would be podcasting and we’d be waiting to listen to each installment of his story like we do for the next Harry Potter book.

Anne recording a podcast episode

The Oxford Dictionary tells us “podcast” is a blend of “iPod” + “broadcast.” It’s a “digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new installments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.”

Why would you podcast?

Because you’ve got a story to tell and you can tell it with your own voice.

BBC’s podcast, The Forum, published an episode just last year titled The Power of the Human Voice, discussing and demonstrating the influence of the human voice in communication and identification. In this episode, The Forum interviews three guests. Peter French, a professor and an internationally recognized expert in voice and acoustic forensics, speaks to the qualities and components of voices that can be isolated to track down and identify criminals. He also agrees with Anna Devin, an opera singer who shares how the human voice provides a spiritual connection, an almost primal, emotional connection in a way that is not yet measurable, and therefore unstudied by science. Diana Deutsch, their third guest, speaks to the importance of intonation in public speakers, and that intonation alone can affect an audience just as much as the content.

As a listener, I was struck by how personal their accounts felt, and marveled that the format of their conversation felt far more interesting, inclusive, and engaging than it would have had I merely read their interview. In interviewing Peter French, Anna Devin, and Diana Deutsch in a podcast, The Forum demonstrated the power of the human voice even as they discussed the topic. Podcasts have taught me that I would rather listen, in many cases, than read.

In fact, many people learn best by listening, and these people will be more likely to remember your message if you deliver your content as recorded audio. Other people struggle to see, with either full or partial blindness, and these members of your audience may appreciate audio content even more.

Podcasts also extend your reach by making your content accessible to people who are too busy to sit down and read. Podcasts and audiobooks are gaining in popularity, because they leave their audience free to drive, exercise, or do chores while listening.

Podcasts, like other forms of content marketing, allow you to build rapport with your target market as a company or professional who provides value, even before people buy in as customers. Unlike other forms of online marketing, podcasts allow you to reach your market even after they leave their online devices behind. Listeners will often download podcast episodes to listen to later, on iPods or other mobile devices.

Who can podcast?

  • Authors of self-published books whose readers want to hear the author’s passion for the subject
  • Busy experts who don’t have enough time to speak with all the people who want to talk with them
  • Motivational and inspirational speakers
  • People who can voice opinions
  • Comedians and funny joke tellers
  • Singers and musicians
  • Poets and short story writers
  • Storytellers, and people who would like to preserve family stories for other family members
  • Political, business, and community leaders

Anyone with a message, in other words, can podcast that message to the world.

Understanding Why We Have Wait Lists for Opioid Addictions Treatment

by Laurel Sindewald and Anne Giles

Wait lists for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addictions treatment can be months long, especially in rural areas. While opioid addiction is considered an epidemic in the U.S, patients struggle to access and then to pay for medications known to support opioid addictions recovery.

Buprenorphine is a partial opioid agonist used in maintenance therapy for opioid use disorders. As is methadone, buprenorphine is an evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder. Buprenorphine has been shown repeatedly to improve treatment outcomes more than behavior therapies (Clark et al., 2015; Bart, 2012) and more than abstinence-based treatment.

Wait lists for buprenorphine can be months long

Yet federal and state governments have intervened to impose a number of strict regulations, effectively limiting patient access to buprenorphine, beginning with the federal Drug Addiction Treatment Act of 2000 (DATA 2000):

  • DATA 2000 mandates that only physicians may prescribe buprenorphine. This is unusual, because nurse practitioners, as well as physicians, are typically given clearance to prescribe a number of schedule II opiates, including Oxycodone. Source
  • Physicians are required to complete DATA 2000 Certification. The government usually allows doctors discretion in determining what techniques and medications require what training. Source
  • DATA 2000 imposed 30-patient limits on physicians prescribing buprenorphine. Due to the Office of National Drug Control Policy Reauthorization Act of 2006, physicians must apply, after one year, to raise their patient limit to 100. Patient limits were imposed to reduce diversion of medication for street sale. However, the abuse potential for buprenorphine has been found to be less than that of full opioid agonists such as heroin or oxycodone. Diversion for illicit use has been limited in the US, and has typically been used therapeutically when diverted. There are no patient limits for prescription of other opiates, including oxycodone. Source
  • On July 8, 2016, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published new regulations for MAT in the Federal Register, allowing doctors to prescribe up to 275 patients at a time. In order to do so, doctors must have credentials in addiction medicine or addiction psychiatry from a specialty medical board or professional society, or work in a qualified practice setting providing comprehensive MAT treatment. These regulations will be effective on August 7, 2016.
  • Some states, including Virginia, require physicians to refer patients to counseling in order to prescribe buprenorphine. Counseling has not been shown to improve treatment outcomes for MAT patients. Source from 2016 / Source from 2015 / Source from 2011
  • While the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 requires health insurers to cover behavioral health services, this does not extend to MAT. Not all insurance plans cover buprenorphine, and in some cases doctors insist on payment in cash. If a patient has no insurance, the requirement to comply with counseling adds an extra expense that may be prohibitive.
  • Some states set limits on how long patients may be treated with buprenorphine. The SAMHSA guidelines for treatment with buprenorphine state that some patients may require many years, or even life-long maintenance.
  • Some states set age restrictions on who can receive buprenorphine. In Virginia, no one under the age of 16 is allowed to take the medication. This is clearly not because people under 16 never develop substance use disorders. The 2014 SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that 1.3 million adolescents aged 12-17 had substance use disorders. This means 5% of adolescents, or 1 in 20, met the criteria for a substance use disorder in 2014. 168,000 of these adolescents were addicted to pain relievers, and 18,000 were addicted to heroin.

Opioids produce tolerance in people over time, which means their bodies no longer respond to the drug as strongly as before. As tolerance develops, people take higher and higher doses of opioids to get increasingly lessened effects. If people with opioid use disorders are abstinent, their tolerance drops. This means if they relapse, they may try to take the kinds of high doses they had been used to, and so are likely to overdose and die.

As only a partial agonist, buprenorphine and methadone do not produce highs in patients who have, already, developed tolerance to opioids. Rather, these medications are designed to stabilize opioid levels while patients rebuild their lives, staving off withdrawal symptoms as well as cravings, and reducing the risk of lethal overdose.

“[T]he treatment delivery strategies that are often used and that can produce excellent patient outcomes (eg, frequent clinic visits, observed dosing, provision of intensive psychosocial services, limited take-home doses) may simultaneously decrease treatment availability, practicality, acceptability, enrollment, and retention for some patients. Alternatively, treatment paradigms that may be most convenient for patients and physicians (eg, infrequent clinic visits, reduced oversight, and providing longer-duration supplies of medication) may increase the risk of medication diversion and abuse and undermine treatment outcomes. This paradox poses significant barriers to the widespread therapeutic delivery of effective medications to opioid-dependent patients, particularly in rural areas with few services and significant unmet need for treatment.”
– Stacey C. Sigmon, Ph.D., Access to Treatment for Opioid Dependence in Rural America, 2014

When talking about MAT, we must be clear about our values and objectives. Above all, MAT is a non-punitive approach to opioid addiction recovery. Abstinence may be wished for, but in the meantime, treatment providers are hoping to reduce disease risk, crime, and death. Lessons from the AIDS epidemic may be helpful in understanding and implementing best practices quickly.

A recent pilot study indicates that buprenorphine dosing while patients are waiting for comprehensive addictions treatment significantly reduced illicit opioid use, including intravenous use, compared to patients on wait lists who did not receive buprenorphine. Even without additional addictions treatment, buprenorphine seems to be effective. The authors suggest that their findings could be especially useful for treating people with opioid use disorders in rural areas where treatment is hard to access due to limited transportation.

Latest science indicates that incarceration and punishment are ineffective, even harmful. Yet this did not prevent drug courts from lobbying against Human Health Services’s efforts to increase patient limits to 200. Fortunately, their efforts were not successful, and we may see patient limits increased in the near future.

The question remains whether patient limits should be imposed at all. In other areas of medicine, we trust doctors to limit their patient load to what they can effectively handle. We still trust doctors to prescribe painkillers, like hydrocodone and oxycodone, without restriction of dose or patients. Not that we should begin imposing arbitrary restrictions on other aspects of medicine. It is simply time for government to recognize addiction as an illness requiring treatment, not punishment, and that sometimes treatment includes medications such as buprenorphine.

With millions of Americans addicted to opiates and close to a  million still left without treatment, a 200 patient limit may not go far enough to ensure people get the treatment they need. Meanwhile, people are dying while they wait.

Updated 12/28/16

Image: iStock

The opinions expressed here are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Handshake Media, Incorporated, its associates, clients, or vendors.

The content of this post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional advice. Consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical and professional advice.

So People Can Hear, Too


Anne recording a podcast episodeThat’s me in the photo! I’m recording my very first episode for my own podcast channel!

Honestly, I was reluctant at first. How would I have time to both create episodes for a podcast show and co-launch podcast services in our locale with Laurel Sindewald, Handshake Media’s podcast producer? Sure, I could write the talk – I wrote how to prepare to podcast myself – but who had time to record the talk?!

Laurel said people need to be able to hear what I have to say, not just read it.

Look at her face.

I said okay.

I dragged my feet. The task seemed too huge. Laurel broke it down for me. I said, I don’t know what to say. Laurel said, looky, here’s what makes a good podcast. I read her list casually, then intently. I thought, oh, I could do that. And I’ve got that…

I sequestered myself with our recording device over the weekend. I did nothing. I finally tried early Monday morning but couldn’t remember how the buttons worked. I posted an update in our project management software, Basecamp, whining that it was just too hard for me.

Laurel sent an update back (I have her permission to share): Would you like to try doing your podcast recording together? We could feel our way forward on podcast content one bit at a time, recording together and working together on what you might want to say. Perhaps dialogue is an easy way for you to hit upon your truths.

I got tears in my eyes.

We co-created how we’ll price creating podcast channels and the list of needed items for creating a podcast channel. I provided these to Laurel then she she sent me very own podcast URL:


I felt thrilled!

The photo of me in this post is taken by Laurel as she listened to me record my very first podcast episode.

I think I am not alone in needing help to get started with a podcast. When I’m alone, I don’t talk to myself or to my cats. I contentedly observe silence. But when I’m with others, I readily talk and listen.

To start a podcast, I needed help with the technology, a listener for my talking, and an audience for my show. Laurel was stellar at all three.

And now what I have to say can be both read and heard.

. . . . .

If you live in the New River Valley of Virginia and my experience appeals to you, get in touch with me, Anne, [email protected], 540-808-6334. We’ll help you start your own podcast channel so you can be heard, too.

. . . . .

I wrote about getting “podcaster’s block” and more of my personal experience on starting a podcast channel in What I Learned About Myself from Creating a Podcast at annegiles.com.

. . . . .

In this episode from my podcast channel, I am reading the preface to Phoenix Rising. My plan is to release the book by chapter in a series of podcast episodes, then compile the entire recording into a single audiobook.

This episode was edited and mastered by Laurel Sindewald and produced by Handshake Media, Incorporated.

DBT Improves Emotion Regulation Skills for Addictions Recovery Success

Emotions are powerful. From emotions come passions, wild and driving, which spur us to create or to destroy.
How Self-Regulation Builds Recovery Success

We define emotion regulation as “the ability to assess and change one’s emotional state, particularly in cases of extreme distress.” Emotion dysregulation – also termed “affect dysregulation” – can manifest as under- or over-regulation.

In our post a year ago, we cited the literature that links emotion dysregulation to substance use disorders:
Emotion regulation requires both-and thinking

“Substance use disorders are strongly linked to emotion dysregulation in the literature (Beckstead et al., 2015, Nikmanesh et al. 2014, Fox et al. 2008, Matthias et al. 2011, Axelrod et al. 2011, Dishion et al. 2011).  It has been proposed that substance use begins as an effort toward emotion regulation or self-regulation, but if use leads to addiction, it only worsens one’s ability to self-regulate.  This is known as the self-medication hypothesis of addiction, an older hypothesis which is still supported by scientific literature.

The perceived need to self-medicate begins when emotions become intolerable, and when an individual is unable to regulate those emotions. In fact, “negative affect,” or unregulated, negative moods such as anger, frustration, and depression, is the primary predictor of relapse for addicted individuals.”
How Self-Regulation Builds Recovery Success

In the year since that post was published, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is showing increasing favor as the treatment of choice for those struggling with addictions. DBT is a behavioral therapy developed by Marsha Linehan to help individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) begin to simultaneously accept themselves and accept that change is needed. The skills DBT teaches patients are applicable beyond BPD, however: mindfulness, interpersonal relations, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance.

While scientists recognize more research is needed to evaluate DBT’s effectiveness outside of BPD, studies have been promising in demonstrating that DBT may improve distress tolerance, reduce depression, anxiety, and other negative affect moods, and has promise for treatment of substance use disorders. As early as 1999, Linehan found that DBT was more effective than treatment as usual in reducing drug use for women with co-occurring BPD and substance use disorders (SUDs). The mindfulness component of DBT has been extensively researched, and shows the most promise for treatment of substance use disorders.

“It is important to note, areas of the brain that have been associated with craving, negative affect, and relapse have also been shown to be affected by mindfulness training.”
Witkiewitz et al., 2013

Mindfulness is essentially a meditation technique borrowed from Zen Buddhism. To practice mindfulness, one must simply become more aware of the present moment, without thought of past or future, and accept it without judgment. Scientists have studied Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), a repeatable mindfulness-based training program, and have found as recently as 2014 that those practicing MBRP report significantly fewer days of substance use and decreased heavy drinking, as well as significant decreases in craving, and fewer legal and medical problems.

Addictions treatment has historically been a field riddled with unsupported and even unconscionable “treatments.” With already such strong support in the literature, dialectical behavior therapy may be the very best behavioral therapy available to people in recovery.

This post was updated on 12/17/2016.

Smokestack Lightnin’ Blues Band Rocks The Lyric

Hailing from Snow Creek, Virginia, Moonshine Capital of the World, Smokestack Lightnin’ Blues Band had everyone tapping their feet on April 20th at The Lyric in downtown Blacksburg, Virginia. For anyone who thought The Black Keys were the best of modern blues, be prepared to experience the full power of these blues songs, brought to life by Smokestack Lightnin’. These local musicians play with passion.

Smokestack Lightnin Band

Members (not in order of picture): Jeff “Sunshine” Criner (Guitar/Vocals) David Gregory
(Drums/Vocals) Marcus Morris (Bass/Vocals) Harry “Buster” Sink
(Harp) Henry Lazenby(Guitar/Vocals)

Podcast produced by Laurel Sindewald of Handshake Media.

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.