By Justin Kempf
What is a Successful Podcast
After hosting a podcast for almost three years, I have learned quite a bit. However, I continue to find so much more to learn. Still, I think the Democracy Paradox meets my definition for what I call a successful podcast. Some will debate this with me. They will argue a successful podcast must make millions of dollars or receives some ridiculous offer from a company like Spotify. But I believe the space for podcasts remains diverse and has room for multiple goals and objectives. For me the Democracy Paradox is successful, because it receives widespread respect from many scholars, activists, and, most important of all, listeners. In other words, I think I can say I host a successful podcast.
Still, most podcasts do not achieve even the modest expectations they set out for themselves. Most new podcasts give up after just seven episodes. Others grind out episode after episode, but fail to achieve even their most modest goals for the project. A big part of the reason for failure involves the unexpected challenges of a podcast. For starters it takes more time than most people expect. The second challenge is the downloads for a new podcast almost always disappoint its creators. Moreover, downloads do not necessarily translate into listeners. So, the audience is frequently far smaller than its creators had hoped.
Nonetheless, many podcasts do overcome these challenges and develop a modest audience over time that contributes to the public discourse. Still, it’s easy to get disillusioned or just make excuses for poor results and fail to do the hard work necessary for a podcast to succeed. Below are a few tips to host a successful podcast that apply regardless of whether those goals are modest or lofty.
Curiosity is Essential
A successful podcast requires an overabundance of curiosity from all those involved, but especially the host. Many of the most successful podcasts produce well over a hundred episodes. Some produce hundreds or even thousands. It’s easy to get bored over time, especially when the host feels like they’ve heard the same ideas from past guests. A common challenge for podcasts is to create a niche that has enough flexibility to allow for the discussion of a broad range of topics.
Some will notice I have emphasized curiosity rather than expertise. A lot of podcasts feature genuine experts as hosts. Some do exceptionally well, but most struggle to host effectively. The problem is they find it difficult not to make the conversation about them and their own ideas. An audience might find this interesting for a few episodes, but will gradually lose interest over time. The easiest way to avoid this trap is through guests. However, many experts use guests to make a point about their own ideas rather than bring out insights from the guest. Too often they lack the curiosity in the ideas of others that is necessary to build and sustain an audience over time.
Make Sure to Prepare
Whether your podcast involves an interview, a roundtable discussion, or a narrative, it’s necessary to do the homework beforehand. Typically, this involves some reading. A lot of interviews center around a book or an article. It makes an interview easier when the guest has put their ideas down on paper. It also helps, because the guest has clearly thought through their ideas. Still, even when the guest has not written anything, it’s important to do some background research before developing an outline for questions.
Secondly, every podcast should have at least a basic outline. Interviews or roundtables should have some basic questions prepared. It’s surprising how often hosts will simply wing an interview. Some believe it’s preferable to an inflexible list of prepared questions. I think it’s possible to prepare questions while retaining flexibility. But it requires additional preparation so you are comfortable moving off script. For instance, it helps to listen to past interviews with a guest or even just podcasts on the same topic.
It’s important to have a sense of how past conversations have developed. Part of the reason is simply to make sure important themes don’t get missed. However, it also helps to recognize gaps in other podcasts. Look for opportunities where your podcast can bring forth new ideas or explore old ideas in new ways. It’s always amazing when a well-known guest with multiple interviews under their belt says something for the first time on your podcast.
Listen to your Podcast
It sounds narcissistic to listen to your own podcast, but it’s absolutely essential. You need to know what the final product sounds like. It’s important to notice missed opportunities or poorly chosen phrases. Just make sure you work on improving those for the next episode. Also make sure to ask yourself the tough questions. Would you get bored listening to this? Does the pace draw you into the conversation or lost your interest? Do you find yourself wanting to skip certain segments or parts?
It helps when the host participates in the post-production edits. When hosts edit for content, they force themselves to listen to the interview multiple times. It also helps them learn tricks for the recording that make edits easier and cleaner. A lot of hosts who do not edit their own podcasts do not listen afterwards either. Experienced podcasters can tell the difference between hosts who work on their craft and those who don’t. Hosts who do not tend to make the same mistakes over and over without any effort to improve. It’s not enough to just listen to your podcasts, however it’s difficult to improve unless you do this first step.
It Will Take Time
Finally, it’s key to remind people that it takes time. Unless you have a professional podcasting team already assembled, you will need to learn as you go. You will likely make some mistakes. Successful podcasts learn from those mistakes and continue to improve week after week. It’s also easy to start out with a bang, but lose momentum. The first few guests might include some popular guests or some fascinating topics. It’s hard to keep that momentum up for 10, 20 or 50 episodes.
Eventually, your podcast will need to establish a clear identity that resonates with an audience. But that takes longer than most people expect. It took me about 20-30 episodes of the Democracy Paradox just to learn the basics. Still, even after 141 episodes, I find I learn something new about podcasting after every episode. For many this is a far larger investment than they are prepared to invest. Nonetheless, others genuinely enjoy the process and eventually will host a successful podcast.
If you want to launch a podcast or have a podcast that needs help, feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice. I can also provide professional consulting for those looking for more substantial assistance including strategic planning, operations, or management and mentoring.
About the Author
Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.
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