Couldn't make it out to our Storytelling Structure for Podcasts panel at YouTube Space LA? No worries! We pulled out some of the highlights for you from the evening featuring:
Sim Sarna: The co-founder of digital media company and podcast network, Unqualified Media, and the producer and co-host of the award-winning celebrity podcast “Anna Faris is Unqualified.”
Jay Connor: Writer, producer, consultant, and founder of Extraordinary Ideas, where he serves as the co-host of the popular podcast “The Extraordinary Negroes” in addition to his role as Editor at The Root.
Ben Adair: Founder & executive producer of Western Sound, a Peabody and Webby Award winning journalist and podcaster
Charlie 'Rocket' Jabaley: Creator of the "Charlie Rocket Show" podcast, former entertainment executive, and Nike athlete.
Podcasting is one of the most intimate and authentic mediums out there.
Ben: I think that when you’re listening to a host in your ears for an extended period of time, […] they become your friends that you’ve never met before. It’s a responsibility of the host! When people recognize me on the street, it blows my mind! And when they say, “I feel like I know you”–that’s the most amazing compliment a podcaster can receive. There’s a responsibility with that! If you’re lucky enough to have ads in your podcast and make money from your podcast, there’s a responsibility when it comes to selling those ads. You need to be authentic because they trust you, and you never want to lie to your listeners. When you sell them an ad, make sure–listeners know if you’re authentic or not.
As far as podcasting, the connection that the host has and even the guest has with their audience is unbeatable.. Much more so, I think, for TV, for sure. I think one big reason for that is mechanical, and it has to do with mic placement. When you’re on TV or doing something for video, the mics are always really far–they’re out here. But when you’re doing the podcast, the mic is right here. And when that gets transmitted through earbuds, or even through the speakers of a car, it has a really tangible quality that feels like a person is not just speaking but speaking to you.
Jay: There's also the technological aspect. There are different ways you can record remotely or in person, but in having those conversations, they’re intimate themselves. Part of the reason podcasting is viewed [as authentic and intimate] is the intent behind it. When you look at radio, radio is focused on current events or when it’s television, you’re telling these fictitious stories. With podcasts we’re operating from this position of sharing things we’re passionate about and exploring that world.
Don’t wait for your podcast numbers to “pop.”
Sara: So I’ll answer very realistically: there was no tipping point [for Girl in Space]. Slow and steady growth, no hockey stick. I think a lot of this comes from managing your expectations and having realistic expectations at the outset. Which, I feel, is sort of the opposite of inspiration because it’s just kind of realistic. But for me, I've just been slow and steady. It’s definitely lead to opportunities–I’ve gotten speaking engagements like this, so my career has maybe taken off, but the podcast’s growth has been fairly steady and slow.
Jay: Don’t obsess over the numbers. You never know who’s listening. I was at a networking event, and I ran into the assistant of Beyonce’s mom and she was like Yeah, the whole family listens to your show,” and I was like “The…. whole!? Family?” I was bugging out. Those people are going to create opportunities for you.
It takes a lot to sound effortless.
Charlie: My podcast is half an hour long, and my engineer spends 5 hours editing.
Sara: I’m generally a one-person team. I have a director who helps with coordination and a lovely team of voice actors, but I do all of our outlining, sound effects, music, production, editing, scripting, marketing. A thirty minute episode of Girl in Space generally takes me 60-80 hours to create. So! It’s not chore work–I love it and I work it.
Jay: I’m the franchise–I’m the one who’s editing, who’s researching, who’s writing up the scripts. It takes a long time, but it does depend on the premise of the show. In total per episode… Shit. I would say 8-10 hours on raw editing.
Ben: We’re doing a season of 30 for 30 on ESPN, and by the time it comes out we will have been working on it for fifteen months. And it’s five thirty-minute episodes. But you get better. When you first start, it takes a long time, especially to make something that sounds good to you. The thing is, if you listen to podcasts like Anna Faris, they sound good. And you’re going to record yours, and it’s not going to sound like that at first.
Sim: We started three and a half years ago, and I pulled eleven episodes of the first twenty four. After a year of going through and learning what we learned and evolving the podcast, we were embarrassed! But that goes to show you–I’m a big proponent of editing. For us–we have seven people on one show. Plenty of prep work, and then probably twelve to sixteen hours of editing.
Sara: I wanna say, you heard a lot of scary numbers right then, but don’t let that stop you.
Ben: The way you get better is by doing it! You just have to do it. And it may take you ten hours for your first episode, but when you’re ten episodes in, it’ll be nine hours, and when you’re fifty hours in, it’ll be seven and a half… you’ll get better at it!
Jay: So start on a weekend, is what he’s telling you!
You don’t NEED to include video.
Charlie: Currently I haven’t done any video on the podcast for a reason. I wanted to create space for an innovative idea to come. Everybody keeps telling me that my podcast is going to take off when I put it on YouTube because YouTube is a discovery tool, but I’m just not stimulated by the idea of having a camera watching me talk. I come from he music industry–I don’t want to watch a music video of just Drake on the mic, talking. That’s a bad music video! So. I’m thinking of the podcast as like, the song. How do we make a music video for the song. It can’t be just me.
Sim: I work with Anna Faris and other celebrities, and so I passed up on video deals and streaming deals because those would completely kill the podcast and everything that makes the podcast special. So for me, I’m completely anti-video, when it comes to certain podcasts. Not all! But for mine, they’re special to me as an audio experience.
Ben: I'm not into having cameras, either. You know when there’s a camera out and people are just kind of aware of it at all times and kind of on-guard?
Sim: I’m anti-camera in [my recording sessions]. Even just taking pictures of what’s going on–because I’ve noticed that, too. Even if our interns start to take a picture, you can notice a guest recoil just a little bit because they’re having this really great time, this really intimate conversation in a small space.
Change up how your interview.
Charlie: I did not want to create an interview-style podcast. The biggest podcasts in the game are storytelling podcasts! I’m in the self-development space, and I don’t feel exactly entertained by a self-development interview. Podcasts are a big investment, and sometimes they can be kind of boring for the audience. Like, I’m about to go into 45 minutes of something–that’s a fear the entire audience has.
When I do decide to interview people, I think about how to reinvent the interview game–like maybe they spend the night at my house. I get interviewed all the time on podcasts, and they always ask me the same questions–and I hate that! I don’t want to tell the same stories a million times, especially for my audience who listens to my other interviews. I don’t want to promote that podcast to my audience, because why would they want to hear the same thing they’ve always heard?
Ben: When I go out and do interviews, the worst place to do them is in a studio or an office. I always want to take them out to a place that makes sense so we can do something or look at something or point at things and talk about them. People forget that they’re talking with me and I’m pointing a microphone at them, and they forget that millions of people are going to listen to this. It slips their mind and they free themselves.
Podcasts are perfect story vehicles
Ben: What makes podcasting different than TV and movies is the immediacy of the human voice. Our ears are automatically tuned to any kind of story. So what is a story? A story is a sequence of actions, and a number of things in a row. Even if you talk to three year olds, you’ll get “…and then, and then, and then.” It’s just how our brains are hardwired, to recognize that. So when we’re structuring our stories, we just have to make sure there are characters that are well-defined that are doing things that are leading somewhere. Even the most boring story–your ears still want to listen. Whenever we start shows, we start with a story–somebody doing something, and leading you down a path. That’s the way you really catch people’s ears.
There are a LOT of opportunities in podcasting
Sara: I don’t think Girl in Space is that fantastic [Ed. note: Disagree.]–if it was in a book, I don’t know if it would have reached the success that it has reached in audio. And I think that’s because of the intimacy of that voice–those characters are alive in your ear. If you were reading that same story in a book, I just don’t think it would be compelling! I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and I think there’s something really magical, whether it’s chemistry or physiology that happens in there. Which I why I encourage a lot of writers to explore the avenue of podcasting. It’s just such a fantastic way to tell your story. There’s millions of books out there–there’s not even a million podcasts yet.
Guesting is the best way to market your show.
Ben: The thing that works to promote your podcast is the thing that’s always worked to promote your podcast, and that’s getting your podcast on other people’s podcast. Right? So getting famous guests is great, and that will help the specific episodes that they’re on, and some of their fans will stick around, but getting you on other podcasts to talk about your show–that’s when you’re gonna engage with other audiences, and they’ll convert over to your audience.
Sim: That is my favorite way to market.
Ben: Whenever we come out with a show, we come up with a marketing plan, and for me, the most important part of it is how are we going to place this podcast on other shows .
Jay: I built up a name as a writer, so I kinda cheated. I had a network of friends who were already popping. Like, let me hit up my friends from Very Smart Brothas, and our first episode did 30k. You can definitely build an audience. To that point, the best advice is what Ben said–just collaborate and work with other people.
But I think it’s very important that you add value. People may come to you acting selfishly, saying “Hey, I want you to do this for me.” You should be saying "Hey, I can do this for you and it’s going to be a mutually beneficial relationship.” When you approach someone, make sure you’re looking out for them.
Get your audience involved.
Jay: We definitely keep our audience in mind and talk to them. We record the show with our audience in mind. You can’t record like you don’t have an audience listening!
On my show we have specific segments where we engage with callers directly–whether that’s thanking our Patreon patrons or thesegment where we do a Q&A where people ask us a most random-ass colorful questions–and we answer every one!
Sara: You’re not podcasting for yourself, just like you’re not YouTubing for yourself. It’s not about you–it’s about them. I talk to a lot of podcasters and I ask them who their audience is, and they don’t know. It’s so important to know your audience! You don’t have to know demographics, specifically, but you need to know who you’re talking to. I voice the main character and it goes back to that the engagement comes through the tone and the warmth. My story is told to a second person–her father–and that “you” draws you in.
Content is, as always, key
Sim: Create good content. As far as tricks and teasers, yeah, that’s great, but for us, it’s always about word of mouth. Make good content, people will tell other people, social media will do its job, and people will find you. Yeah, we had Anna Faris to start, but that’s not enough. To have a successful podcast for three years, and to have sold out ad inventory–there are celebrities that come and go all the time in the podcast industry. You have to always make sure that the show comes first and you're always making good content. If a show isn’t great and people aren’t telling each other about it, you’re not going to have a successful show. That’s it. Doesn’t matter who you are.