What makes a good podcast?

Tips on making a good podcast

As nobody outside of my immediate family knows, I was the host of a comedy podcast for four years. It was called The Second Column. We did 200 shows, some of them amazing, some of them weird, some of them best used to torture our foreign enemies in CIA interrogation rooms. That’s why, every once in awhile, a friend who’s starting their own podcast will ask me for advice.

Most recently it was the wonderful and talented Rasika Mathur (pictured above), who was the star of my old sketch group Prime Company and a guest on our show. Rasika is starting her own podcast, a relationship show for Indian men and women.

I was going to email her back, but instead I’m putting it all down right here so I never have to write any of this ever again, giving me more time to pursue my true passion of basement horses.

1. Do something original
If someone else already does what you plan to do, do something else. We DON’T NEED another show where comedians talk to comedians. (I used to do one. I know how badly it is not needed.) What we need are original, unexpected shows that make you want drive the long way home in your car just so you can listen another 20 minutes. The best example I can think of is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. The premise is this: What if some guy in Oregon took the most boring class you took in in school (history) and made it awesome with blood and sex and also the sound of swords clanging in the background? Boom. Hardcore History.

Rasika, you’re on OK ground here. I don’t think anyone is dominating the Indian relationship space yet. There could be other Indian relationship shows, but it’s not like all of my friends are always going, “Dude, have you checked out Hot Curry Nights yet?” (Hot Curry Nights is what I would call my Indian relationship show.) There is room for growth here. You chose a narrow topic with a potentially broad audience–IT guys and undersexed Mindy Kaling-types. Good choice.

2. Guests are good
Unless you’re Paul F. Tompkins (the bastard whotookmehjob!), don’t try and do a one-man show. Tompkins can do it because he’s a comedy savant. But most people aren’t. Most people are boring and only have anything interesting to say for 10-15 seconds, tops. Have cool people on your show–people I’ve never heard of. Talk about interesting things. Enjoy each other’s company.

Rasika, you’re hilarious, and you probably could pull off a one-woman show, but given the nature of what you’re trying to do (give relationship advice), I think it’s best to have guests with different points of view.

3. Not everything needs to be a joke
I hate when podcasts veer away from interesting subject matter to chase a joke. Our show was definitely guilty of this. Follow the most interesting thing until you’ve exhausted it, and then move on. If what you’re talking about has value, even though it’s not funny, that’s fine. A podcast where the listener laughs for 60 straight minutes would be exhausting anyway. There is a rhythm to the best shows. Marc Maron’s WTF podcast alternates between deep, hilarious and tragic. Rasika, I am guessing any show about relationships will do the same.

4. Market the hell out of your show and get an audience
The Second Column was terrible at marketing. We thought people would just find our brilliance. Or that our semi-well-known guests would lead to increased numbers as their fans fell in love with us. And while some of our shows did get thousands or even tens of thousands of listens, most didn’t.

You want lots of listeners and not for the obvious reasons of making money (more on that next.) Having many listeners will keep you motivated and hungry. It will also help your show because your audience will suggest topics for you to discuss. Howard Stern is a great example. He could walk into the studio, answer the phone for four hours and do a better show than anyone in the country. Why? He has many listeners, and they are part of the show. The Sklar Brothers have great listeners, too.

Bottom line: You need listeners to keep you on top of your game and to do some of the work of making the show for you.

5. Don’t care about money
If you approach the show from the angle of, “I am going to make money off this” or “I am going to use this to get a radio show,” then you’ve already failed. Podcasts only lead to decent money if the host is already famous. You need to create something completely authentic that people will love. Podcasters are not paid in money. They are paid in relevance, and there are many ways they can cash in on their relevance. (Public speaking gigs, books, work in media.) Don’t dream about ads for audible.com and Legal Zoom. Forget that, make a great show and dream bigger.

6.  Work with awesome people
I worked with the funniest guys I know. They made me laugh and still make me laugh. Find your guys–a good engineer and/or producer, guests you would talk to again, whoever. The real fun of podcasts is getting to spend time with people whom you would not normally ever get to meet or spend a lot of time with. I got together with Mike, Carlos and Sean every week for four years, and even though there was no financial payday for us, we became best friends and we met a lot of great people, and doing that show has helped each of us in unexpected ways.

7. Listen to your audience
You’re going to start off thinking your show is about one thing, but your audience might have other plans for you. There are many examples from the world of business of companies offering a product for a certain audience only to have a completely different audience buy their products. (Here’s one.) That doesn’t mean compromise. It means be open-minded enough to offer value to the people who want the value you have to offer. (Damn it, I sound like Tony Robbins. Sorry about that.)

Rasika, I think your audience will accept the premise of your show, but you might be surprised by why they like it and what specifically they like about it.

8. Launch a website and get on Facebook and make your friends help you
Or else no one will ever find you. Make yourself as easy to find as possible. There are people who want to listen to your show, they just don’t know it yet. Stick your flag in cyberspace. Get one of your cool, artsy friends to help design the logo. Ask for help. People will give it to you. Everyone who likes you is invested in your success. They’ll pitch in. I’m writing this because I want to live in a world where Rasika Mathur has a kickass podcast.

9. Create a universe within your show
Your universe should include a theme song, phrases you like to use, segments, anything recurring. Differentiate your show. This signals your values and has the benefit of giving your audience a fun way to communicate with you and with each other. The best shows do this organically. This whole idea is how we got “Baba Booey.”

10. Take photos with your guests 
Then share them. These photos will be some of your show’s best marketing. Guests love them and so do listeners.

OK. That’s all I got for now. I’ll add more as I think of them.

Good luck, Rasika, and all of you other podcasters who are planning to start your own show. I loved it the first time around and look forward to doing it again.

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Author: Joe Donatelli

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.