How To Start Thinking About Podcasting

What is your recurring promise to your audience and how do you deliver on it week-over-week? Let’s talk about some of the fundamentals of developing, producing and launching a podcast that keeps listeners tuned in.

By. Rebecca Sananés


When I started my career in audio journalism the only obvious entry point was public radio. But by ten years in, I was working for the Prince of England. Things changed around me in the podcast industry even more quickly than I could grow my career. 

The sudden boom of podcasting saw everyone from a former president, to a reality TV star wanting their own shows. Over the past year, however, we’ve seen massive layoffs of producers.

In recent years, there has been an over-investment in celebrity hosts at the expense of an under-funding of producers, who actually make the podcasts audiences love.  While hosts are the hearts of the podcast, producers are the head – so, here is a peak behind the mic. 

How to start podcast

A lot of podcasts start centered around a host and a particular idea that the host can speak around. Commonly this happens by reaching out to people who have already built a social or public presence on another forum who has a clear perspective. What are their associations with culture and the world and their personal story?

Finding that unique nugget that your host can connect to emotionally, spiritually and intellectually that also taps into a cultural zeitgeist or universal experience is the seed that starts any creative and sustainable idea for podcast making.

For example, when we created Archetypes, hosted by Meghan the Duchess of Sussex, we started with the idea that our host would know more than anyone what it would feel like to be put into a box by the media and have to navigate complicated stereotypical narratives.

A lot of women and girls know what it feels like to be reduced to outdated labels. The Duchess has a universal perspective on this that on some level the audience and guests can relate to, instantly knocking down our dividing walls and allowing space for intimate conversation – which is what podcasts do best.

Some podcast history

At some point, people formed the impression that podcasting was just this easy form where people set up cheap mics in their garage and talk about whatever they want with other people and put it on the internet.

Back in 2021, actor Adam DeVine told Vanity Fair “[Podcasting is] infinitely easier than anything that we’ve ever done because you’re usually writing for months at a time, banging your head against the wall, trying to figure out the storylines and structure and the dialogue—and then you have to edit it,” he told the magazine. “We record it and then poof, pow, surprise! It’s in your earholes the next day.” You can imagine how the producers who make this “poof” look so easy reacted.

This narrative is probably the reflection of some of the early podcast celebrities like Marc Maron and Joe Rogan. But those are people who had already made massive careers and honed their talents of talking into a microphone; they just started doing it on the internet through an RSS feed. What they did, early on, is they brought their perspectives and personalities to talk to people about the things that interested them and it flourished from there. They weren’t two random guys talking into cheap mics in their garage, they were people who had honed their skill and perspective for many years.

Of course they ventured into podcast making in the early-mid 2000s. Since then the limitless landscape of podcast making and podcast recording has become matured . So now, you really need more drilling than ever before. You must identify your niche and equip yourself authoritatively to talk about so that the audience can connect.

Even though podcast making has come to be associated with the tech industry and the millennial generation that grew up on the internet, audio storytelling is actually one of the original broadcast forms. Most American storytelling started with radio. Franklin D. Roosevelt rallied the country through the Great Depression and the entry into World War 11 with his “Fireside Chats”. It was his unique perspective and voice, talking directly to his audience, saying the things that made his constituents feel connected to him and his leadership. It was a pre-podcast era and a lot has changed since then. The notion today is we are friends with our hosts.

Recent years in podcast

A colleague once told me that Broadcast by nature is broad and shallow. Broadcast is built to reach a wide audience with a lot of different interests in a short time without necessarily requiring the audience to be interested in one specific story. On the other hand, the podcast audience is niche but deep. Those listeners are invested in a more singular topic and have more time to consume it.

Because podcasting is on the Internet – and at least in the United States – it doesn’t have to follow the same FCC guidelines as radio or television, there are fewer constraints on how long your content is and the language you can use to talk about it. So your host’s job is to be in tune with their audience on a personal level. Great hosts find a balance of disclosure – how much can you let your audience into your inner workings without losing your professional discretion.

One of the best things we’ve seen in podcasting is the audience begins to trust hosts to guide them through news topics. They have an expertise, a honed perspective, that can really help navigate and streamline the influx of news and information with which we are inundated.

We’ve seen a few mass growth moments in podcasting in recent years. One such big boom happened in late 2016 when Donald Trump was running for president. Suddenly our information news cycle became a lot faster and it was happening in a sort of unreliable space – Twitter. Also, both he and fellow candidate on the other side of the aisle Bernie Sanders began to decry the “establishment media”, which made people question their institutional news sources.

So news channels and audiences both were looking for a slowed down explanation of the out of control news cycle – and they wanted that information from someone they could trust . So by the beginning of 2017 we saw The Daily, Pod Save America, Today, Explained, Up First, Pivot and many others – all of them delivering news through the filter of a trusted personality.

But there is a complicated side to shifting the way we get our news from neutral hosts to honed personalities. Part of why we trust hosts is that they are filtering through their authentic personality. So people are often looking to the Joe Rogan Experience to get information on the world, they trust him as sort of “their smartest friend” and he is not beholden to neutral facts, the way institutional journalism is. So it can become hard for audiences to differentiate, which adds to our culture of internet misinformation.

My perspective about podcast making

I started my career with a degree in journalism, especially audio, working in public media across the country at NPR stations. A fundamental difference between what hosts have been doing historically on the radio and in journalism is that their job was to try and objectively give the facts without inserting their opinions and personality into the story.

In podcasting we get something more from the host. Great podcast hosts are subject authority. They interact with their audience as if they were in the room with you. They are able to make the audience feel like they are a part of what is going on. They have a deep connection with their audiences and they add their own views and opinions as they navigate through the topic while podcasting.

So, Rule #1 in finding your podcast host is what is the topic with which they are connected to as a person. The host can therefore be a clinical person or a researcher or an academic or a subject matter expert in any domain. Their job is to be in the trenches with the listener and bring their authenticity, authority and personhood to the subject.

Making your podcast topical and engaging

Podcast production is all about building a roadmap from the seed of a nuanced idea.The best ideas come from simplifying a pattern or idea, by observing what is happening in the world and finding a way to tap into that concept in a way that dissects or pushes an existing conversation forward.

As part of the development process you need to also decide your commitment level and goals for the show. Are you looking to do a prestige limited series with a lot of reporting and sound design and narrative continuity that you might want to submit to some of the big awards? Or, are you hoping to make a quick snackable “always on programming” which is cheaper to make with more opportunity for ad sales.

Based upon these questions you will start to determine budgets, plan staffing, expectations and rhythm for recording and releasing your show. Every podcast I’ve ever worked on feels different, there is no specific formula because each show is personality based, it expands, leans on different storytelling methods, but for the sake of this talk let’s talk about what happens when you want to do more always-on programming – meaning the show is on every week, daily or some other often recurring slot of time. How are you going to make each show topical and engaging enough that your audience comes back week-over-week.

The most direct way to get started is breaking your podcast into segments or blocks. Questions you might ask yourself in brainstorming include:

  • What are the elements that you have in every episode that the audience will come back to?
  • Is every episode on one particular topic or are you looking at a few different stories and topics?
  • Do you start with a rundown of the news?
  • Do you have an interview every week?
  • Are you asking every interviewee some of the same questions?
  • Are you soliciting audience participation and building your community of listeners?
  • Do you have recurring co-hosts?
  • Are there quizzes on your show?

The grab bag of tools is really endless and mostly about what you think is fun, sustainable and different angles at getting at a singular idea. Being able to break your show down into segments keeps the show moving quickly for your audience, gives them a hook to look forward to and lays the groundwork for future expansion. If your show is one day a week and suddenly you are such a big hit that you could sell ads two days a week, if you already work off segments, it’s easier to start slotting in new segments to expand the show without getting redundant.

Monetizing and advertising your podcast

Podcasts for the most part are monetized through ad revenue. For the most part ads are sold as “pre-rolls” “mid-rolls” or “post-rolls”.

  • Pre-rolls – these advertisements are either right before the show starts or right after the show’s hook/introduction.
  • Mid-roll – these advertisements are at the halfway point of the show.
  • Post-roll – these advertisements are at the end of the show.
Part of the idea of a well structured show is to get listeners to listen through each advertisement break, instead of losing interest and listening to something else. So your last segment has to be as sticky as your opening hook – perhaps the recurring idea that the audience always wants to hear. Advertisers will also pay higher fees for host read ads because they keep your listener engaged instead of fast forwarding past ads. Ads have been especially popular in podcasts because if listeners already trust their host for information, it’s likely they’ll trust their host’s opinions on products they should be buying.

Seeking out the great guest

Let’s assume that, like most podcasts, a fair amount of your show is going to be your host talking to guests. This is again why it is so important to start with your host’s unique perspective and taste. It makes it easier to decide which guests will have a commonality and experience to share on the unique topic and since your host is already vulnerable in that space it gives the guest license to do the same. The podcast circuit can be small. Well known people generally only go on podcasts when they are promoting a new product, book, film, etc. That makes it difficult to differentiate the conversations. What will they say to your host that’s different that any other show they will have been on that month?

Outside of the obvious – guests who have renown and will bring numbers to your podcast just through their own celebrity – there are many ways producers think through booking guests.

Producers look for what we call “great talkers”. People who can stay engaged, tell anecdotes, make jokes, say things succinctly. Usually, unless the guest is already very well known, a producer will do a “pre-interview” to get a sense of how the guest talks about their area of expertise, what the host can expect and start to craft questions based on the conversation

We often bring on academics, someone whose area of study can round out the topic we are discussing. If the host is partially there to bring color and energy to the show, the guest can be there to surprise and delight even the host.

Because we’ve already established our unique format and perspective, sometimes we are able to book guests who may once have been well known, but we haven’t heard of from some time. This will tap into audience nostalgia, can bring new angles on a familiar person and hear an authentic conversation about a common topic as opposed to product promotion.

A big reason audiences come to podcasts is the sense of intimacy in podcasts. Listeners feel like we are getting a more authentic and raw side to the often ultra-polished media personalities we see everyday.

One simple way to access that is to give the host and guest an inherent commonality, they both are coming from a sphere of shared experience. Also, guests often have their own agenda – if you’re working with major celebrities or politicians or businesspeople, they are surrounded by press professionals polishing their talking points and strategy.

The host’s job is to get something new and unique out of the person in front of them. Of course, to give the guest space to talk about their current projects, but also to find something new from them and that often comes from sharing a specific and unique angle as opposed to the general angle they might be bringing to another show.

A great host has their guard down enough to draw something authentic out of the person in front of them for an audience that’s looking for connection to their heroes, while staying friends with the person in front of them and supporting them through potentially challenging personal disclosures.

Set for Podcast recording

The best case scenario is that you have regular access to a professional studio where your guests come in person to chat. But, let’s assume you want the flexibility for your host and guests, who have busy schedules, and need to be able to connect from home studios.

The object in remote recording is to get the setup to feel as close and as intimate as possible, to get some of the same emotion you’d capture if you were in the room. Think of it as tele-therapy – it’s probably going to be most effective to work with a therapist in the same room because they can read your body language and cues better than on screen, but you can get a lot through talking virtually as well as long as you feel good in how you take the call.

I suggest getting a screen as possible for your host to look at from a comfortable distance so that it feels less like a work Zoom call and more like a conversation. Make sure the host and guest only see one another and not themselves or the other producers in the session. It’s amazing how much just sensing that you have an audience or are being recorded will hinder honest conversation.

In these types of conversations I think the single most important ingredient to recording a conversation that feels special, new, different and affecting for an audience is how you create intimacy between host and guest. The most obvious way to create this chemistry is to do in-person, in-studio recorded conversations. The host and guest can read one another’s body language, feel close and unburdened by the blocks of technology.

Both host and guest ideally will have a USB mic so they can record directly into the podcast platform of choice (I am a fan of Riverside). The audio will automatically upload to a cloud account where producers can immediately access both sides of the conversation – guest’s tracks and host’s tracks – to download and start editing that audio into its final product.

Don’t forget both host and guest need to be wearing headphones, otherwise the other person’s audio will “bleed” into the other’s recordings, making it nearly impossible to edit.

Encourage both host and guest to be in as quiet a room as possible. In a makeshift situation those places are often small and insulated with no windows. (During the pandemic I saw many photos of very well-known broadcasters huddled in closets under comforters to pad their sound!)

Producers and the nitty gritty of podcast production

When I entered podcasting, hosts were themselves also producers – people who had built their career in audio. As the medium has become more popular, high-profile hosts, who themselves have limited experience in podcasts, surround themselves with producers in order to make their podcasts possible.
While in film and television, there are familiar titles such as writers, directors, editors, and producers – in podcasting fundamentally we all have one title, “producers”. Producers do it all – writers, engineers, researchers, interviewers, storytellers, editors, directors, bookers, managers.

Hosts and producers now work in a number of different ways but, for now, I’ll keep it to how the relationship works during interviews. One of the ways the producer-host relationship works is that producers will pull together the equivalent of mass research projects on the guest at hand to give the host the nuance, color and background of the person in front of them.

Producers also put together an “arc of the conversation”. They’ll flesh out key questions in a logical story order and highlight the questions that are must-haves in order to fully sit into the conversation.

Producers will often also pull together sound bites or other sound cues for the host to be able to lean on in conversation as starters and to evoke a visceral or emotional response from the guest. The host’s job is to digest that information as much as possible to use it fluidly in conversation – like any good dinner conversation – and lean on the prep throughout the interview if – like all of us, suddenly they get stumped as to how to keep the conversation moving.

Afterwards producers have a lot of tricks to trim, cut, edit, rearrange the conversation to make it as smoothe, cohesive and compelling as possible. We take out excessive ums, ahs, sniffles, sneezes – all the human noises that might distract a listener.

Producers should start recording before a guest logs in and until after they leave. Some of capturing intimacy is just getting the awkward, sweet and unfiltered hellos people give one another before they realize they’re “on”. It helps the audience acclimate to the conversation and really get the sensation of being a fly on the wall in the conversation. Also, people often say the best things at the very end of conversation, once they’ve warmed up and let their guard down and you will kick yourself if you’ve inadvertently stopped recording before you capture that (trust me, I’d know!)

Producers listen in as the conversation happens and they will every once in a while message their host covertly to either probe a question we’d like more information on, circle back on an idea or fact-check in real time. Basically the producer is there to be the hosts’ extra brain.

An engineer is there as well to troubleshoot the inevitable tech issues that may happen along the way. When all is said and done the producers take the audio and work their magic (but you’ll have to wait for my next blog for more on that backend process).

When you put this all together – a dynamic host, with personal stakes in a specific, but universal topic, a formatted show with clear segments built to keep the audience along for the ride, clear angles for specific guests, great preparation, and most importantly an intimate and approachable set up for the conversation, and then some really great producers, editors, sound designers, writers, marketers and ad sales team, you can’t help but have an amazing podcast on your hands.