How to Build a Podcast

About four years ago, in summer 2013, a friend and I flippantly said “we should start a podcast!”

We were both rewatching a television series together (well, together-apart, we were actually just instant messaging about it as we watched one episode to the next) during the show’s summer hiatus and were having fun chatting about it and theorizing about the upcoming season. The show? Once Upon a Time, a sort of sleeper hit about fairy tale characters who live in the “real world.”

Neither one of us were superfans of the show per se, but we had spent the better part of our young adult lives in various fandoms (X-Files, Harry Potter, you name it… one of us was probably a big fan of it). By age 28, we both had a part of our lives that needed to be fulfilled by fandom… thus, Once Upon a Podcast was born.

The funny thing is, I quickly Googled “how to podcast” and proclaimed myself competent to start a podcast just a few hours later. We launched our show, but in the weeks and months (and years) that followed, I definitely spent a lot more time honing the craft. YouTube, like anything else digital media these days, is truly an art form: the competition is steep, the expectations from listeners (and, if you’re lucky, from your fanbase) is high thanks to all of the quality work out there, and overall podcasting and everything it entails behind the scenes is a very time-consuming hobby if not part-time job.

Luckily we have definitely enjoyed the ride. Four years later, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself an expert podcaster, but I have learned a lot along the way. About a year ago, we launched another podcast – this one a slightly less successful venture – which proved to be more fertile ground for learning about our selected art form. That podcast, which ended up being more of an uphill battle for us both – mainly, because we couldn’t quite tweak the topic of the show to our liking and to fit into the time constraints we placed on the podcast as well as our lifestyles – was at the very least a good experience because while our first podcast taught us what goes into a successful podcast, the second one taught us a lot about what doesn’t work with podcasting.

If anyone ever stumbles across this piece, what I hope is to share a little bit about what I’ve learned from my podcasting experience. I’d love to make this into a blog post series, so I’m dubbing it Podcasting 101, with topics on the various facets of podcasting that I have learned over the years.

One of the many things I’ve learned has been how to effectively narrow down a topic that suits you, and that you can maintain for years. I actually made a YouTube video on this subject, in which I relayed a lot of my thoughts and experiences on this. I thought supplementing it with a post might be a good idea because I didn’t get to everything I wanted to say in the video.

Below are a few pieces of advice I have for anyone starting a podcast (that I wish I’d had four years ago!) on how to come up with effective, interesting, engaging topics for your show. By coming up with a strong topic and sustaining it, you will hopefully be able to launch into a successful, and more importantly, fulfilling, multi-year podcasting venture.

Tip #1: Find a focus and stick to it. This is one of the first things you should think about when you first decide to start a podcast. You need to have a focus. If you think you have a focus, start narrowing it down.

I have discovered that it can be really overwhelming to podcast every week on a broad topic like “Entertainment” or “Food.” Although keeping your podcast broad may seem like a good idea that will give you lots of flexibility, it’s my experience that you can spend a lot of time hemming and hawing about what your next episode will actually focus on. Instead, try to drill down to a more specific interest within that category. For instance, if you love cooking Italian food, why not make it an Italian food podcast? Or even better, maybe you’ve discovered a unique way to cook vegan Italian food! Or, instead of entertainment, covering a much more specific topic – such as female superheroes in pop culture, or a specific television show or book series – will give you direction and then you can be creative within that topic when planning each podcast episode.

I actually learned the importance of this the hard way: my co-host and I set out to do a new podcast about pop culture. We quickly discovered that we couldn’t put out a weekly podcast on all of pop culture: there was simply too much to research and keep up with from one week to the next. Then, we had no idea where to begin: do we talk about the blockbuster movie that was released that weekend, the television show that got 12 Emmy nominations, the book that is flying off of shelves, the entertainment magazine cover that was making headlines? We didn’t know where to begin, and it made us overwhelmed. It wasn’t a hobby; talking about all of pop culture was a (more than) full time job. What was worse, no one knew what distinguished our pop culture podcast from all of the other ones out there. The genre was too broad and it was hard for us to be found. A narrower topic would have allowed individuals with that specific interest in that topic to gradually find us. That’s how we gained an audience in our first podcast: Once Upon a Time fans gradually tried listening to our podcast (among the several others that were active). Listeners who liked our style, stuck around.

Some things to ask yourself to help decide on a focus: What do you love? What do you like doing every day? What would you consider yourself an expert in? What communities do you already belong to and know very well? What do you not mind talking about on a regular basis? How much will you have to research the topic, and do you have time to research it? Does it fit with the public image you want to cultivate?
Tip #2: Know your audience. This one is key. If you know your audience – either the individuals you have attracted to your podcast so far or the listeners you’d like to attract to your show and engage with- you will be much more likely to appeal to more of those listeners. Generalizing who you believe to be your “target” audience will help you make decisions on how to tailor your content and keep them coming back from one episode to the next.

In our first podcast, we were one of the only podcasts with female hosts talking about the television series (which also struck us as odd at first since the television series itself is designed to appeal mostly to women). We knew that the audience we wanted was probably female, the target demographic of the series, and probably around 25-40 years old. Other things we discovered about our audience over time, like that many were professional women, many were from rural or “middle America” regions, many had families, helped us tailor some of our “informal/offhand” conversations on the show. For example, we would often mention something brief about our families or jobs, but we avoided talking about anything that felt was too out of the scope of the interests of this demographic. We knew we wanted to be LGBTQIA+ friendly and many of our audience members did engage with us to let us know they appreciated how we included the show’s LGB storylines in our discussion. We also felt like a lot of our audience was fairly conservative, so we made sure to not swear or bring up overly racy topics. As you can tell, once we decided on who our target audience probably was – and once data trickled in that proved our original thoughts – we were able to tweak our content accordingly.

Some things to ask yourself: Who is your audience? Can you relate to them? Where are they located? (Are those areas urban, rural, conservative, liberal, etc.?) What is their age? What is their background (ethnic, economic, educational, religion, etc.)? How did they find you? Why do they listen to your podcast? What do they get out of it? If you have no data on your audience or are just starting out, imagine your “ideal” audience and ask yourself these questions.

For my next podcast, I want to talk about wine. Only wine. For people who love wine. I also hope to get free wine out of it.


Tip #3: Build a community. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, other social media platforms as appropriate to your topic/brand (i.e. snapchat, YouTube, Vine, etc.) are critical to engaging and talking with your audience. This is nothing new, right? You already know to set aside several hours per week to manage your social media accounts and keep them active? Awesome. What you may not know is that you won’t just get listeners and downloads out of all of this social media “marketing”: by building a community, you will get a lot out of it, too. I find it very fulfilling to finally connect with my audience on a more personal level, as well as find that I learn a lot about what they want us to talk about more on the podcast. That way, when recording day comes along and I have a million ideas swimming in my head about what to talk about, sometimes I think about what I see our audience wants us to talk about and use that to help filter out what ideas to prioritize talking about. It’s a win-win situation: I get help tailoring my discussions based on what they tell me they want to hear, and they hear what they want.

What to ask yourself: What social media platform is a natural fit for your audience? What do you want to ask your listeners? (Then, go ask it!)

Tip #4: Don’t worry about others. This may sound contradictory to my previous two pieces of advice, but it is important to keep in mind that ultimately this show is your project. I feel like my podcasts are my children, and I need to be protective of them at all times. At times we have had to make creative decisions about the podcasts that weren’t always super popular with our listeners. Often, these decisions were made in order to preserve our personal sanity behind the scenes: for a while, we were making 1.5 hour long podcasts and they required me to edit far too late into the night on Monday nights. It was exhausting and I was in danger of burning out. When we cut some of our regular features on the show to reduce the show’s length to a manageable 45 minutes, a few people grumbled about it, but we stuck to it.

Also, you may be tempted to make your show similar to that of other podcasters who talk about similar topics. Don’t. It’s always okay to learn from others and draw inspiration from elsewhere, but it’s my experience that your podcast will stand out much better – and attract a larger audience – if you build your own style, format and structure. It’s more memorable that way, and you might pick up an audience member (or 1000) who really like that you bring something new to the table. On a related note, don’t worry about what other people are doing and how many people are out there doing a podcast on the same topic as you. If you are good at what you do, distinguish yourself and your show as offering a fresh twist or perspective, people will come. There’s room for everyone.

Tip #5: Curate your personality. Podcast listeners usually value the authenticity of a podcaster. The podcast host becomes their friend during a long commute to work or a redeye flight. So maintain that authenticity and be sure your personality shines through… but also, don’t. I believe it’s important to “curate” your personality. This means choosing the best aspects of you and your personality – and more than that, selecting aspects of your personality that you believe serve the topic of your podcast. For instance, if you are a witty chef in real life, maintain that in your podcast! If you are podcasting about a popular vampire television show, maybe mention your love of other sci-fi and fantasy novels and what you’re currently reading. Those are all aspects of you and your “real life” that would serve your podcast. But, if you are a witty chef and suddenly start ranting about how your marriage is on the rocks, that could really conflict with why a listener tuned into your show in the first place. Or if you are podcasting about a vampire television show and start waxing poetic about your love of growing garlic in your garden, that could throw listeners off and may discourage them from listening because that interest is just too far from their own, and that’s not why they are tuning into your show. There are always exceptions to this rule – maybe you have established that you have an eclectic personality and play up how something totally random is going on in your life at all times – if so, awesome! Just be sure you have a good reason for bringing that off topic discussion into the show, otherwise it could throw off listeners and discourage them from returning if they think you stray too far from your chosen topic, too often.

What to ask yourself: What aspects of your personality do you want to play up on the show, and what aspects do you want to leave off? Is an off-topic discussion in any way related to the topic at hand or do you think it will relate to the demographic of your audience?

Tip #6: KISS Keep it simple, silly (or stupid, depending on where you learned this rule!): The last piece of advice to you is simple: sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one. I recommend selecting a straightforward, clear topic that you love – and that your audience will immediately recognize when they are searching for podcasts – and sticking with it. Be consistent. Clearly communicate it. You can always be flexible and experiment and tailor and hone the topic at hand, and it can evolve over time, but a clear direction will really help you engage with an audience and be confident in what you are talking about every episode.

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