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Sound Design: Your Podcast Format

| August 26, 2014

By Holland Cooke
Radio Consultant


cookewriterBLOCK ISLAND, RI — As the firings continue, radio performers are migrating to on-demand delivery, entering an arena exponentially more crowded than the airwaves.

HOW crowded?  There may be no accurate way to count how many podcasts are out there.  Do-it-yourself audio publishers have been at it for over a decade, since back when “podcasting” referred to iPod devices that were intended to be music players.  Now, think of “P-O-D” as “programming on-demand,” which consumers now expect and favor.  Edison Research estimates that 39 million Americans now listen to podcasts every month; 20% listen to 6-or-more per week.

Podcast Best Practices have emerged. 

Google “podcast tips” and you’ll find plenty, most for utter newbies (i.e., “State your name and the name of your podcast at the beginning”).  Because you’re a pro, we’ll skip to the Advanced Placement stuff:

Understand how users are using, and package accordingly.  Visualize the listening context where you hope your download or stream will be heard.  Also from Edison Research data:

  • Smartphone ownership has grown 500% in five years, now approaching ¾ of the under-55 population.
  • Almost half of Americans – 124 million – listen to Internet audio each month, 94 million each week.
  • 26% listen in-car via smartphone.  2/3 listen via computer, 2/3 listen via smartphone.

Assume that listeners are on-the-go.  Segment the show so in-car and other mobile users can pause and re-enter at logical break-points.  Doing so won’t turn off listeners sitting-stiller at computers.

How consultant-like does THIS sound? Format your podcast. 

No, your podcast need NOT conform to the on-air format clocks that attempt to play to ratings methodology and accommodate stations’ heavier commercial load.  But as you arrange content blocks, note how HBO’s successful “Real-Time with Bill Maher” is formatted:

  1. Mercifully brief produced open;
  2. Well-written-but-not-too-long monologue;
  3. Interview segment: Well-prepared questions asked of intriguing people, some-of-whom you’ve heard of (who often say things you weren’t expecting to hear), others-you-haven’t-heard-of (and you end-up wanting-to-know-better);

Note a common thread so far?  Don’t just wing it.

  1. Panel, participants of differing viewpoints, led by the host’s fact-based bullet points and outspoken take;
  2. Then a featured guest, at first interviewed by the host, then interacting with panelists;
  3. “New Rules” is a scripted comedy segment, a half dozen quick edgy bits that play off the week’s news and the societal observations that are such rich fodder for comedians.  The last New Rule runs longer, and is the host’s scripted byline think piece.
  4. Then comes an invitation to join the after-show, online, where panelists respond to questions and comments viewers submitted during the show’s first live airing.
  5. Closing credits billboard next week’s guests.

How might YOUR show be similarly segmented?  Some segments could be title sponsored.

Avoid “random thoughts.”

It’s a phrase I actually heard in – and intended to describe – a podcast by seasoned radio talent who should know better.  Presume that nobody has time for random thoughts.

Plan each segment, so it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Because people now expect to participate in their media, consider inviting callers, but NOT live.  You won’t get live calls, because you’re creating on-demand programming.  So, logically, you should also invite participation at callers’ convenience, via voice mail.

If you want to monetize the podcast, forget :30 or :60 spots, which don’t work in this context.  Instead, sell:

  • shorter sponsor billboards, Public Radio-style;
  • what’s being called “native advertising,” content about the sponsor or relevant to what the sponsor sells or what the listener can accomplish by visiting a sponsor’s web site; and
  • coupons, simple print this page PDFs, available on your or the sponsor’s web site.

Ask listeners to forward your podcast to their friends, and make doing so easy.  And explain how to subscribe, to those to whom your subscribers do forward.

Remind ‘em that you archive all episodes, so they can pick-N-choose at their convenience.


Holland Cooke ( is a media consultant, working at the intersection of radio and the Internet.  Follow him @HollandCooke on Twitter; and look for HC’s reports from the NAB/RAB Radio Show in Indianapolis here next month.

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Category: Advice