What Makes a Great Podcast? 7 Hosts and Producers Weigh In

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“You can really tell when someone is ‘putting it on,’ trying to sound different to how they really are,” Wendy Zukerman, host of “Science Vs,” tells TheWrap

Everyone, it seems in 2019, has a favorite podcast. More than 700 million people listen to podcasts on a monthly basis — or double the amount of people that listened only five years ago — according to venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends Report. That growing demand has led to an influx of shows and a booming business: The podcast industry is expected to pull in $514 million in ad sales this year, according to a joint report from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PwC. By 2021, the report anticipates ad sales to hit $1 billion. With the industry flourishing — and a deep reserve of shows to listen to — TheWrap reached out to some of the top hosts and producers in the business for their take on what makes a good host and podcast.

1. When it comes to hosting a podcast, what key attributes come to mind? Looking back, any advice you’d give yourself before starting out?

  Dan Rubenstein Host, “Sports Wars,” a multi-episode breakdown of some of sports most iconic rivalries Enthusiasm and curiosity about [the] subject — that comes across in the audio without taking oneself too seriously. Also, a ton of reps to get comfortable with your own voice (and if applicable, a co-host or co-hosts), and a focus on quality above listener numbers or ad dollars. It’s easy to get bogged down on thinking about how to grow a show’s popularity, but more difficult — and more worthwhile — to push yourself to make better and more ambitious shows with the belief that listeners will increase if the quality is consistently there. Wendy Zukerman Host, Gimlet’s “Science Vs,” investigating and dissecting scientific controversies Try to be yourself as much as possible. And try to relax. There were some seasons of “Science Vs” where I was so stressed out, trying to make everything sound perfect. It’s punishing to listen back to it now. In audio, I think you can really tell when someone is “putting it on” — trying to sound different to how they really are. And it’s very awkward and annoying to listen to. You just want to be yourself. Not everyone will like it, but hopefully someone does. Mum?… dad? big sister… SOMEONE?   Christene Barberich Refinery29, co-Founder/Global Editor-in-Chief and Host, “UnStyled,” a weekly podcast that explores life through fashion Remember that podcasts are a long-term relationship with your audience, so be patient, consistent, and like any living thing, allow it to unfold and evolve as you begin to see what’s working and sticking and what’s not. I’m so proud that we’ve built this “UnStyled” community from a hashtag, but it’s also taken a lot of time, energy, and personal commitment. When we’re in production, me and our very tight production team can be working on episodes after-hours and on weekends for months. I’ve also learned it’s important to define what “success” means for your podcast early on. You have to understand that means different things for different platforms and hosts, and it often falls outside of traditional parameters. Nailing down what you’re trying to achieve before you start will help steer the direction of your content and anchor you as a storyteller. I can’t emphasize this enough: Be flexible! There have been so many times I’ve had a high-profile guest on and thought the conversation would be headed in one direction given my research and questions and then very organically went somewhere else. You have to be sensitive to these moments and both follow where the guest’s interest and instinct is going but also guide the conversation and episode to offer real value and a complete story to your listeners. Because at the end of the day, I measure my success on how much me and my listeners can learn and grow from each conversation, how moved we are by what’s shared and how curious they become for the next episode. Vik Singh Host, Poda Bing,” a “Sopranos” retrospective series [There are] three key attributes: confidence, knowledge and enthusiasm. And as far as advice, don’t let perfect get in the way of really good.

2. As a producer, what’s been the “secret sauce” to crafting your shows? Beyond having a compelling host, what do you need?

  Mike Coscarelli Manager, Podcast production at Betches Media For anyone starting a podcast in 2019, I really think the key is having a unique premise and the focus to stay on track with that one premise. For our network, “UUP” and “Diet Starts Tomorrow” are our two most popular shows. One takes a realistic, honest look at modern-day dating and the other takes aim at Instagram wellness culture with a sprinkle of sarcasm. Besides the audience relating to and enjoying our hosts, I think these shows are successful because the audience always knows what to expect when they get a new episode. Our hosts are great at maintaining the focus of their show’s premise, or mission statement, if you will. Adam Ostrow Chief Digital Officer, at Tegna, which recently launched “Bomber,” a show documenting the law enforcement hunt for the 2018 Austin serial bomber For us, being in the true crime space, the ultimate goal is to create a highly entertaining product. It’s our journalistic approach that drives our vision from the onset. TEGNA journalists have deep roots in their local communities, and when you have a case like the Austin serial bombings, it affects them as much as it does the rest of the city. With “Bomber,” our journalists [had] the freedom to explore the case from many angles to tell an incredibly compelling, entertaining story. We want to immerse our audience in the story and give them the full experience of what [it] was like to live through a particular case. So we’re telling the story from the point of view of all the main characters: the victims and their families, law enforcement and, iif possible, the people who committed the crimes. We’re using as much original source material as we can. What made “Bomber” so compelling is how we were able to capture the raw emotions and terror that gripped the community. We’re trying to get the audience to feel those same emotions, to get them invested in the story and make them feel like they are there on the ground while it’s happening.   Paul Robalino Manager, Development and Creative Strategy, CollegeHumor Media While the CollegeHumor brand will have been going strong for 20 years this December, our podcast initiative is relatively nascent. Our fans love watching the heightened versions of our office antics in our regular comedy sketches, but live streams and events, chats on Discord, and social media taught us that fans wanted even more of an unfiltered look at who our cast really was. Podcasts allow listeners to hear how our cast and staff members genuinely goof off and riff with each other, offer a behind-the-curtain glimpse at how our content is made, tease upcoming projects and more. We tested a number of different concepts but found that what worked best was genuine passion and sincerity. Our series “Tales from the Closet,” helmed by Ally Beardsley is a queer roundtable that tackles the spooky (and sometimes hilarious) experience of being in the closet. Brennan Lee Mulligan’s “Adventuring Academy” was a direct response to fans’ outpouring of love for our tabletop RPG show “Dimension 20” and the desire to share tips and tricks from a talented DM. Barring time limits on our production days, the discussions on these and all our shows could easily extend past the one hour we allot because of how engaged and enthusiastic our hosts are about what they’re talking about. Our cast members, hilarious as they are, are three-dimensional, multifaceted human beings, and are thrilled that fans are now getting to see that.