Podcast Problems: Top 10 Tips for Nonfiction Podcasts

Starting up a podcast is very on-trend right now, but it’s also scary. Depending on how you’re going about your podcast, starting one up can be a huge money sink and will almost inevitably be a huge time sink. While my Podcast Problems posts are meant as cautionary tales for podcast beginners, I think they can be a little discouraging and a little negative. I also think there are plenty of tips beginners could use that don’t need an entire post dedicated to them.

To be a little more positive and a little more thorough, I’ve compiled a list of my top 10 tips for nonfiction podcasts (which are listed in no particular order). It should be noted that because I have only worked in radio and listened to podcasts, this won’t cover anything on the hosting, iTunes, etc. side–but I’d love to hear from those who know more about that process! If you have any more tips, please feel free to discuss in the comments below.

1. Find your niche.

I need to break something to you all: “my friends and I are all really funny” is not a concept for a podcast. Adding themes to this (“my friends and I are all really funny and like video games”) is only slightly better. The podcasting market, like the YouTube market, is notoriously saturated. You will not be the next McElroys. This advice should not be discouraging; think of this as a way to highlight your expertise or a niche you think needs filling. You’d be shocked at how many hyper-specific podcasts there are, and how fun that is. I know that I’m a huge fan of podcasts specifically about the Disney theme parks. There’s that one about beef and dairy. Even The Adventure Zone was niche when it started. Find your niche and fill it–trying to be general is not beneficial here.

3. Know your niche.

When you make your show, get to know your audience and your community. No matter how niche, your show will be in the ranks of others, even if just tonally. Those shows I love about the Disney parks? They feel pretty similar to shows like Potterless or Left Trigger Right Trigger–informal, conversational, single-topic. Think about how you’re communicating based on your audience. How formal should you be? How informal should you be? Get to know the other shows in the niche to make sure you’re not stepping on toes and to make sure you get involved in the community. Talk other podcasts up if they’re in your niche. Help build your community. Another part of this, of course, is also making sure you know what you’re talking about. Unless you’re being purposefully bad at understanding your content, nobody is going to listen to a show by someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

3. Have structure.

Unlike fiction podcasts, nonfiction podcasts don’t have the luxury of being one long chunk of audio and sounding just fine. This depends on your show’s length, of course, but if you’re going for a 30- to 60-minute episode length, it should absolutely be broken up into segments. Have an introduction where you introduce both yourself and your show. If you have one main topic, have recurring segments that you can tie into the main topic. Myths and Legends is a great example of this, with its “Monster of the Week” segment. Take a break halfway through to focus on something that isn’t your main content, whether it’s to give a spot for ads, talk up your social media, or talk up other podcasts in your niche you’re loving. Remember that 30+ minutes is a lot of time, especially when most people listen at work or on commutes. You want to help listeners digest the information you’re giving, and you want to give them clean moments to pause so they can come back later without missing anything.

4. Have a vision.

When you start a show, figure out what you intend it to be. Is it going to educate? Is it only going to be a form of distraction? Are you trying to prove a point? Will your show have a planned ending, or will it go indefinitely? If it goes indefinitely, how do you plan on keeping your content fresh? Going in blind is a quick way to show the listener that you don’t have any long-term plans for the show, which will make it harder for most listeners to invest. Allow yourself to have a planned ending if that’s what your subject matter calls for. Don’t, for instance, be something like Serial, where your seasons are completely different from each other instead of just making a new show. Don’t be like S-Town, either, which stretched its length for no reason.

5. Don’t put your production on the back burner.

Audio dramas are probably the genre that most people think of when they think high-production podcasts, and the train of thought makes sense. So many audio dramas have beautiful, intricate production–but this actually says more about what nonfiction podcasts aren’t doing than what fiction podcasts are. I am of the belief that to be riveting, nonfiction podcasts require more attention to detail than fiction podcasts. Without a clean-sounding mic, the right amount of background music, the right amount of sound effects, etc., your podcast will fall flat and be forgettable. This article from the Columbia Journalism Review is an incredible guide on how to make sure you’re paying attention to your production.

6. Consider a co-host or interviews.

Co-hosts have some obvious benefits: you don’t have to do all of the talking, you have someone to bounce ideas off of, you have a different perspective, etc. The same goes for having interviews with people on your show. What most podcasters don’t think about, though, is the value of sheer difference in vocal timbre. Having bed music, sound effects, and other editing features definitely breaks up the sound of a podcast, but having vocal difference is the easiest way to make sure your listener doesn’t tune out. Hearing the same voice talk for 30- to 60-minutes is tiring on the ear, and listeners are more likely to actively listen when there are changes in voices. I have yet to find a podcast where only one person speaks and it remains captivating throughout. Even Myths and Legends, a show I love, has stretched of full minutes each episode where I find myself tuning out. If you want listeners to pay close attention, you’re going to need changes in voice.

7. Be authentic.

Authenticity is an interesting topic to discuss, because if you’re sitting down to record something, how “authentic” can one actually be? For podcasts, this is more or less YouTube rules. If you discuss your personal life, be real about it. If you don’t, use your own personality and humor to add voice. Don’t try to make a podcast that is overly serious if you’re not a serious person. Don’t try to force comedy if it doesn’t come naturally to you. Don’t try to suppress your personality; you’re most likely not going to be doing hard journalism, and even if you are, Serial has been praised for being both journalistic and personal. Your personality is likely what’s going to make you memorable. Don’t sabotage your best asset.

9. Make sure you focus on your story as much as your story.

When the Filmspotting team reviews a documentary, they ask the question, “Is this also a good movie?” When you write your podcast, don’t just focus on the information you’re giving–focus on what story you’re telling. If all you’re giving is education, this might not apply to you. If you’re bringing together stories on a theme, though, or if you’re having discussions about something in particular, think about what you’re trying to say. How are you going to pull together your recordings and conversations to not just give information, but say something between the lines? What’s the point of the story you’re delivering? If you can make a podcast but not understand its point, your listeners won’t either.

9. Be consistent.

This is useful advice for any content creator, but for nonfiction podcasts, this tip comes in a lot of different ways. Have a consistent upload schedule, and let listeners know when you’ll deviate from your schedule. Have consistent episode lengths, and clearly identify the episodes that are going to be longer or shorter. Be consistent with your show’s structure. If your show follows the “stories on a theme” format, stick to that format. Only switch to focusing on one story per episode for special occasions. If your show has a standard topic of discussion, try not to veer to much away from it. If you discuss a certain type of media, story, etc., stick to those things. There are likely other podcasts built to deliver stories like those in a way that makes much more sense than your podcast being inconsistent.

10. Make a show you love.

Here is the advice I gave about making a show you love on my Top 10 Tips for Fiction Podcasts:

This might seem like the most throwaway piece of advice, but I promise you, you do not want to overlook making content you genuinely, genuinely love. This advice is not the same as when people give it for writing. This advice is not the same as when people give it for making videos, acting, singing, or anything else. This advice is specifically to remind yourself that you will be spending hours editing your audio. When you write your script, think to yourself, “Will this be good enough to justify the 45 minutes I might spend cleaning up a 30-second chunk of dialogue? Do I care about this enough for it to motivate me through the hour I spend trying to pick a piece of bed music I don’t hate?” This is not the same as editing video. This is not the same as editing text. Nothing compares to having to hear one click in an actor’s voice over and over and over while you try to edit it out without ruining the line. When you’re planning your show, remember how much work it will take. Make a show you love–not just because it’s important to make art you care about, but because otherwise, you will eventually resent every second you spend editing, and your editing will suffer.

With nonfiction, though, this reaches even further. Not only do you have to think about editing, you also have the make sure your show just has basic energy and credibility. With nonfiction, you’re not acting–you’re giving your listener information. Sound bored or frustrated is going to be immediately transparent, and the more you come to resent a show you don’t want to make, the less people are going to want to listen. Do something that’s fun. Do something you’re passionate about. That’s what makes a show great.

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