As I mentioned in an earlier post, I listen to a lot of podcasts. I've pieced together several elements that I feel go a long way towards making a successful podcast. The more of these elements that are present, the more likely a podcast is going to earn my listening time.
1. Involve a radio guy
I guess in the interest of gender neutrality, I should say radio person, but off the top of my head I can't think of a female radio personality that I enjoy listening to enough and would be able to carry a podcast in the absence of other elements. So, radio guy. Of the top 4 podcasts I listen to right now, 2 are actual radio shows (Bob & Tom and Tom Leykis), one is a radio guy (Mac OS Ken), and the last includes a couple of radio guys (MacBreak Weekly). And I do mean on microphone. For example, Girls Gone Geek is produced by a radio guy, but it just isn't all that good.
Radio folks earn their living by making what you listen to interesting and engaging. They usually have great voices. They know how to keep conversation moving. They know what sounds good. All of the skills that keep them alive on the radio translate perfectly into podcasts.
2. Involve multiple people
Listening to one person go on and on gets old pretty quickly, not to mention it is challenging for one person to fill all of the air space. Think about your average talk radio show. The host will usually set a premise, solo, for the first 10 or 15 minutes, and then go to the phones. The reason they do this is that the interaction is far more entertaining than listening to the host alone.
Off the top of my head, I really only subscribe to a single podcast that is well done, entertaining, useful, and features only one person: Mac OS Ken. He's a radio guy, and I'm sure that helps a lot. I tolerate the MacCast because it is an informative podcast, but his voice drives me up the wall. He also has some mannerisms where he's trying to be a radio guy, and it's clear he considers them to be trademarks, but they are so corny it detracts from the otherwise useful content. Pretty much all of the other podcasts I listen to involve multiple people.
One notable exception is the podcast for Battlestar Galactica, narrated by Ron Moore. This is hands down the best TV podcast I've encountered, and rivals some of my non-TV subscriptions. Although he occasionally has cast members join him, primarily he's on his own. He is able to interact with the TV show, so that tends to make up for the fact that he's alone. He is also primarily a writer by trade, so he's able to come up with things to say the entire time. Compare to the Scrubs podcasts (I'm not sure if this still exists) that are hosted by each character at some point, but particularly the ones by Zach Braff. He just starts watching the episode, and forgets to talk. It's annoying.
3. In the absence of other elements, be brief
This one is highly dependent on the other factors present. If you have multiple people, and at least one of them is a radio guy, then your podcast can go longer. The fewer elements that you have, the shorter your podcast needs to be.
A good example of this is Mac Tips Daily. He's solo, he's not a radio guy, and he has an irritating voice. But his podcast is over in less than 5 minutes. Ok, I can deal with that. Compare to the MacCast, where he's solo, not a radio guy, has an irritating voice, and goes on for over an hour. Ugh. When I mentioned podcast guilt in a previous post, I'm talking about the MacCast. It is a very informative and useful podcast, and he definitely puts his heart and time into it. But man, is it painful to listen to. I do so because I feel that I should, not because I particularly enjoy it.
The flip side is MacBreak Weekly. Multiple people, radio guys, and it would not bother me in the least if that was a 4 hour podcast. They've been pushing towards 2 hours lately as it is.
The model is probably Mac OS Ken. He's basically just reading the news. He gets in, reads some headlines, cracks some subtle jokes, and gets out typically in less than 15 minutes. He is talented enough to make that show longer, but he chooses not to, and I think that is wise. He added a pay show on Saturdays, Mac OS Ken Day 6, and made the deliberate decision to give paying subscribers more show for their money. The Saturday show typically runs 45 minutes to an hour. But, savvy radio guy that he is, he really doesn't try to pull that off alone. He will typically have guests and conduct interviews. He went longer, and brought in another element; more people. These radio guys know what they are doing, and amateur podcasters would do well to pay attention.
4. Involve Andy Ihnatko
I've enjoyed Andy as a writer for years. It has been interesting to hear him as a podcaster. He's not really a leading role kind of guy, but he is a stellar supporting actor. MacBreak Weekly is not as good when he's not there, Apple Phone Show is not as good when he's not there, and the only episode of the Talk Show that didn't completely suck had him as a guest.
However, Andy can only do so much. That Talk Show episode, while significantly above average for that podcast, still wasn't very good. Apple Phone Show has recently changed format, so Scott Bourne is no longer a significant on-air presence, leaving Andy to carry most of the show on his own. He puts in a valiant effort, but it just isn't as good as when he would interact with Scott. Also, I think that what he is saying would make a better article or blog post.
Bottom line, if your podcast involves Andy, I'm at least going to give it a listen. If you have enough of the other elements, there's a pretty good chance I'll hang around.
It's worth noting that I have not described the subject matter of the podcast. I'm not going to say it doesn't matter - because it does - but if you have these four elements, you could probably talk about underwater basket weaving. A good subject matter becomes icing on the cake.
So let's a review a couple of my favorites, in case it wasn't already obvious. MacBreak Weekly. Radio guy, check; multiple people, check; length appropriate to other elements, check; Andy, check. Four for four. Mac OS Ken. Radio guy, check; multiple people, actually no, but: length appropriate, check; Andy, bzzzt. MacCast. Radio guy, bzzt; multiple people, bzzt; length appropriate, bzzt; Andy, bzzt. Ouch. Apple Phone Show. Radio guy, sort of; multiple people, yes but not at the same time; length appropriate, not bad; Andy, check.