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Chapter 4. Formats > Adopt a Format for Your Podcast

Hack 20. Adopt a Format for Your Podcast

Apply the elements of a format to your podcast to give listeners a reason to subscribe to your show.

To format or not to format. That's a question many podcasters ask. Some believe formats smack of radio and are completely inappropriate to the ad hoc podcast, and others believe a format can help get content to listeners in the best way possible.

Deciding if a format is right for your show starts with understanding the term.

In its broadest sense, the term format refers to a show's style. There are sports formats, talk formats, news formats, and others.

But more specifically, the term format refers to how material within a show is arranged. In that sense, a format is an invisible framework on which your content rests. For example, you can format a sports show in several different ways: you can feature a series of three quick interviews separated by music clips, or you can feature one long interview bookended by music clips. Both are sports shows, but they are formatted differently. How you arrange those blocks of sound is how you "format" your show.

Formatting starts with choosing an overarching theme for the show's content. Will it be a political show, a review show, a music show?

Once you have a theme, envision your ideal listener. Start with yourself; how would you like to hear the theme approached? With one guest, or with many guests? With lots of music and not much talking, or the other way around? If you're doing a music show, for example, you could play a lot of music and occasionally interview a musician…or you could host a talk show about music and feature an occasional performance by a guest.

Ultimately, some details of your format will change with each podcast, and others will stay the same. All that's important in this initial planning stage is that you decide what your listeners will enjoy hearing.

4.2.1. Decide on a Duration

How long should you make your podcast?

First, think about your listeners. What do you want to tell them in an episode of your show? How long will that topic hold your listeners' attention? Ask a few friends interested in your subject matter how long they might invest in listening to a show such as the one you're developing. Also, your listeners are likely to be doing something else while the show plays in their ears, such as working out, biking, or commuting. You can always match the length of the show to the length of that supposed activity.

Having some boundaries for the duration of the show is important for listeners, because it lets them know what to expect. It's also important for you, because it helps you to know how much content to put together.

Podcasts generally range from 15 minutes at the short end to 40 minutes at the long end. There are no hard and fast rules about time in podcasts, and that's one of the great aspects of this medium. Typically, you want to start shorter and then go longer as you build your experience, or if the day's topic warrants it. One technical limit is 80 minutes; beyond 80 minutes, your listeners will no longer be able to burn a CD to listen to your show.

Another reason to decide on a duration for the show is to ensure you have enough time to produce it. An average podcast takes up to eight times the duration of the show to produce. A 15-minute podcast will take up to 2 hours to research, script, record, edit, and post. Shows that are mostly talk will take less time, and complex music or interview shows will take more time. You should know there are trade-offs when it comes to production time: for example, you can save some time by not writing a script, but the unscripted recording might take longer to edit.

Here is a quick formula for determining duration: start with the number of free hours you are willing to commit to your show each week. Then divide that number by 6 and you will get a general duration for your show.

4.2.2. Block Out the Show

Radio shows map out their format, based on a clock. They literally have a clock on a piece of paper, similar to Figure 4-1, that shows how long each segment of the show will be and what it will contain.

Figure 4-1. A simple radio clock for a one-hour show

A show is made up of blocks of sound known as elements. Production elements are standardized elements that are generally the same in each episode. These include such things as theme songs, introductions, and credits, and the way they're presented helps establish the show's identity. For example, using upbeat production elements creates the sound of a fun show.

Content elements, also known as segments, are the real substance of the program. These can be interviews, in-depth reports, or sets of music.

Between segments, radio relies on transition elements, which carry the listeners' ear from one piece to another. Usually these are bits of music, sound effects, or short bits of talk introducing the next radio segment.

But that's radio. Can these ideas apply in podcasting?

Elements offer predictability. They give a structure to the show that listeners can depend on, while allowing the host to be creative within that structure.

If you are already podcasting, you're probably using some basic elements. You likely have an introduction to start every show. And you probably have a farewell (a production element known as an ender) to wrap up your podcast.

But you can also use elements to set your podcast apart from others, by coming up with some regular segments that are unique to your show.

For example, David Letterman and other late-night television hosts have opening monologues. The audience tunes in, expecting the show to follow a certain format. But Letterman also has his "Top Ten List." When Dave moved from NBC to CBS, the contract specified that CBS would get the "Top Ten List property." That's because a portion of the viewing audience shows up every night looking for the Top Ten List, even if they don't stick around for the rest of the show. The monologue is a standard content element in late-night talk shows, and the Top Ten List is a content element unique to Dave's show.

Format elements are the not-so-secret weapon that broadcasters, and narrowcasters, use to engage and hold an audience.

Narrowcasting is the opposite of broadcasting. Broadcasting is the term used to describe traditional radio and television content. Broadcasts are meant to serve a wide audience base and thus must appeal to a large spectrum of people, whereas podcasts can service a much smaller and narrower portion of the audience; thus, narrowcasting.

4.2.3. Create Great Content Segments

A great content segment does two things:

  • It engages the listener by sounding interesting. This means if you're telling a story, you'll use an appropriate tone of voice (i.e., somber for a serious story), vary your pacing, and use dynamic language or good writing to keep listeners involved. If you're playing music, you'll put the songs in an appealing sequence, vary the rhythm or style a little or a lot, and create an evocative mood for the show. The way your content is presented aurally helps to engage your listeners.

  • Great content informs, entertains, or inspires. What do you have to offer that's unique? Figure that out, and build your show around it. Perhaps your news show reveals behind-the-scenes details your listeners don't have access to. Your talk show might feature someone with an unusual personal story, prompting your listeners to think about an issue in a different way or inspiring them to take action. If you're presenting an opinion, try to offer a fresh and well-reasoned perspective.

To develop great content, ask yourself if you'd listen to this segment, and be honest. Would it keep you coming back? Test it on a few friends, or set up an email address and ask your listeners for feedback directly. Don't get stuck thinking you have to include things you don't care about. If you find yourself wanting to listen to a segment you've produced over and over, you know you've hit the mark.

Overall, great content can be listened to and enjoyed more than once. It's unique and universal at the same time. If it's engaging, your listeners will want to share it with others. And if you consistently create great content, your listeners will keep coming back, and their word of mouth will help build your audience.

4.2.4. Create Great Production Elements

At the very least, podcasts need an introduction and an ender. In the introduction, you introduce the hosts, and give the name of the show and a catchy phrase that describes what the show is about. Your ender should have whatever credits and sponsorship information you want to share with listeners. You should also thank the audience for listening, ask for feedback, and let them know they can find out more on your web site.

There are other production elements as well. A billboard or rundown is a short element that acts like an appealing contents listing for your show. Keep it conversational, and describe what you are going to talk about in the order it will appear in the show. In this way, you encourage listeners to stay with you for the entire podcast.

Another production element is a teaser. This offers just a little information to get listeners excited about a segment that will appear later in the show. That works well on radio, but not as well in a podcast, where the person can just fast-forward to the segment. What does work is teasing your next show at the end of the current show.

Another production element is a promotional spot or promo. This is an element that isn't within your show, but instead, takes the form of a short (30 second or so) commercial for your podcast. It contains a clip from the show, or a teaser that will get people excited. Ideally these should be scripted and tightly edited. Promos come in handy when you want to trade spots with another podcast to attract more listeners, or when you want to show up on Podcast Bunker (http://podcastbunker.com/).

4.2.5. A Few Lessons Learned

While researching this chapter, I had a chance to talk with a number of podcasters about what works and what doesn't. Here are some fundamental lessons they have learned:


Try out new format elements continuously. Request feedback from your listeners and use this feedback to dictate how you do your show. Everyone we talked to said that with every podcast, they were getting better and better. Strive to do the same.

Keep it light and have fun

Listeners can tell if you are bored, angry, or uninterested. Listening to your podcast is optional. And normal people don't stick around for something unpleasant. Follow Ben and Jerry's motto: "If it's not fun, why do it?" Listeners look at podcasters as friends, and who wants friends that are angry or unpleasant?

Respect the audience

If you think your time is valuable, you are not alone. Your listeners think their time is valuable, too. Listening to your podcast needs to be a rewarding experience for them. So, spend the time to design and write a podcast that provides a unique perspective and is worth the audience's time.

Strive for saucer eyes

Keeping your audience engaged is critical to keeping them coming back. Broadcasters call the effect of total engagement saucer eyes because of the look that people give you when they can't wait to hear what's next. If you hear a story that holds your interest, break it down and ask yourself what you liked about the content, and what about the way it was told kept you enthralled.

Keep it simple

Storytelling through audio works best when you have a linear narrative flow from the beginning to the end, and when you have only a few characters and key themes. Have a few larger points you want to get across in your podcast story and keep returning to them and reinforcing them. A story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Multiple hosts

Adam Curry makes the single-host format look drop-dead easy. The reality is quite different for the average human who doesn't have years of MTV experience. A multihost format is much easier to pull off because you can think about what to say next as your co-host is talking (of course, be sure to listen actively enough to your co-host so that you can respond appropriately). It's also easier on listeners to hear two people have a conversation than it is to listen to one person rant. So, grab a buddy and podcast together.

Remember, the most unique and important part of your show is you. Tell us what you care about, give us your thoughts in your own voice, and do the show your way. If you care about what you're saying, we will, too. Be yourself; that's what will keep it interesting for listeners.

Stacy Bond

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