(Being a podcaster, I spend a lot of time thinking about podcasting from a craft perspective—looking at what other podcasts do and considering what works or doesn't work about those shows. I decided recently that I wanted to start including some of those thoughts in this newsletter, and I hope that's of interest to you. If not, I'll try to make it clear in the subject line when I'm going to talk about podcasting, so you can skip them more easily.)
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I was listening to Chuck Tingle and McKenzie Goodwin's podcast My Friend Chuck this morning and thinking about how much I enjoy their introductory banter. It got me to thinking about podcast intros and how divisive they can be. Some people love them, some people hate them. I think what it comes down to, really, is whether you listen to podcasts more for their content (and therefore you mainly think of them as a conduit for delivering that content) or whether you listen to them more for their personalities. Obviously, there is a lot of overlap. I think most listeners respond to the hosts on a personal level, and want the hosts to be interesting or genial or entertaining. And I think most people also want the content to be compelling. But I think it’s a meaningful distinction and one worth thinking about when considering what kind of show you want to make and what kind of audience you hope to attract.
The most common complaint I hear about podcast intros is that they are a waste of time, that people don’t want to hear all the “blah blah blah,” and would rather just skip straight to the good stuff. I think that makes sense if you're listening mainly for content. I think in extreme cases, this kind of listener might think of the hosts as incidental or interchangeable—it’s not the host that matters, it’s everything else. That’s a bit reductive, of course, because I think most people understand on some level that the host’s style and demeanor and the qualities of their voice does make a difference in how the rest of the content is framed and delivered.
On the other hand, there are listeners who don’t mind intro monologues or banter, or who actively enjoy such. And I think this speaks to another aspect of podcasting people talk about a lot, which is the intimacy, and the relationship between listener and show/host. You hear this all the time, right? How having a podcaster’s voice in your head on a regular basis makes them a part of your inner life. How it almost feels like you’re friends or even family, even though intellectually you know that you’ve never met or even spoken.
Again, I do think there’s a lot of overlap here, because many people who dislike intros can still feel that relationship or connection to a show or its hosts. And many people who feel that connection will still get bored with some episodes if the content isn’t there.
I suspect that part of this also has to do with what kind of shows one gravitates toward. If you’re mainly listening to interview shows or round-table discussion shows or the ubiquitous “two guys talking” type of show, I think you’re more likely to feel that personal connection. (My gut feeling is also that the more DIY or casual sounding the podcast is, the more you may feel that connection—assuming that it is interesting or well-produced enough that you stay listening.)
On the other hand, if you’re mainly listening to news or news-adjacent shows, or if you’re listening to highly produced feature shows (e.g. Radiolab, This American Life) or documentary shows (e.g. Serial, S-Town), you might be listening more for the segments than the interstitials. That format of show tends to give you a lot less visibility into the host’s life or personality, often have rotating hosts, and just generally give you less time with the host. The structure of the show reflects this—the host talks during the interstitials, not the segments.
Not to say that you never get personality in these shows. I think that long-time listeners of This American Life do have a sense of who Ira Glass is, for example. And certainly his sensibility shapes the show. But that’s not really a focus of the show. Compare this with a show like WTF, where even though ostensibly the draw is the interview, the whole episode is run through and through with Marc Maron’s personality and point of view. In a lot of ways I think people listen more for him than for the guests.
Personally, I do listen to shows like Radiolab and This American Life and other reported or production-forward shows. I listen to a lot shows in that category, actually. But I find that I’m also much more likely to skip episodes of those shows if I’m not interested in the topic. On the other hand, the shows where I come back for almost every episode tend to be the ones where I’m connecting at least as much with the hosts as with the content. Some examples: Pop Culture Happy Hour, Between the Covers, VS, Commonplace, WMFA, My Friend Chuck, The Adventure Zone. These don’t all involve intro monologues or banter, but for the ones that do, I tend to find that part just as interesting and satisfying to listen to as the “content” portion of the show. And I think that speaks to the power of that personal connection.
None of this is to say that one way or the other is better or “right.” Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But I do think that that personal connection is something that encourages long-term audience retention and deeper audience engagement. And so if that’s something you want to do with your show, it can be worthwhile to think about how to format and structure your show to allow that kind of engagement. It could mean intro monologues/banter, but it could be something else. The point here isn’t to force it or to be presentational about it, but rather to think about how you can allow opportunities for your authentic personality to come through in your show. How can your listeners get to know you? I think that’s an important question to consider.
This isn’t to say that it’s sufficient to just say “Well, I’m an interesting person so people will obviously want to listen to whatever I have to say.” There’s still craft involved in making a show for an audience. Aside from which, a lot of podcast newbies tend to overestimate just how interesting they actually are. This is why you end up with so many “three guys with a microphone talking about nothing” shows.
(To be clear, it’s perfectly fine to make a podcast just for yourself and your friends, just so that you can have fun. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. But if you want to make a show other people want to listen to, it does take more than that.)
Putting yourself and your personality into your show can be a really great way to create a loyal audience, I think. And so thinking about how to do that can be useful. But I think it’s important that it not be done cynically. It needs to be something that fits you. For myself, I quit doing personal monologues in my show a while ago, and now in my intros I just introduce the guest and do some show-related housekeeping. I do like having a venue to present my own thoughts, but it just never felt right for Keep the Channel Open, and writing the monologues was a lot of work. Even without the personal monologues, though, I think that KTCO does have a lot of opportunity for people to get to know me as the host, because the way I structure the interview portion of the show is very conversational and not just question-answer-question-answer. The monologues I used to do were intentionally about trying to create a connection with listeners, to keep them coming back even if they didn’t know the guest, but doing it that way always felt forced. Letting the interactions in my conversations speak for themselves is more organic and authentic for me.
Interestingly, LikeWise Fiction has a lot less opportunity for me appear as me during the “content” portion of the show, because I’m trying to present the story and its characters, not me. But, conversely, I can put more of me into the intro and outro when commenting on the story. I find that interesting, anyway. The intro monologues I did for KTCO were modeled on what Maron does in WTF (though in my own style and voice, not his), but that didn’t work for me. It just wasn’t a good fit. Meanwhile, the intro/outro commentary I do in LikeWise Fiction is modeled on what LeVar Burton does on LeVar Burton Reads, as well as a bit on the interview portions of the New Yorker: Fiction podcast and The Other Stories podcast. And this does feel right to me.
All this is just to say that I think it’s okay for some people to hate intro monologues and for some people to love them, that finding a way to connect with your audience is good, and doing it in a way that authentically fits you is best.
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Some other news:
- The big news since my last letter is that I launched a new podcast in October: LikeWise Fiction. On this show I'm reading outstanding short stories written by women and nonbinary authors, authors of color, and LGBTQIA authors. So far I have released four episodes, featuring "Whale Fall," by Alvin Park, "How to Be Chinese," by Celeste Ng, "Crow's Eye," by Sarah Hollowell, and "The Best Light Fades," by Rachel Lyon. I am really proud of this new show and I hope you'll have a listen!
- I've also released two new episodes of Keep the Channel Open. I talked with poet Marisa Crane about sentimentality, inviting audiences into our private experiences, and why we love Schitt's Creek. And I talked with essayist and disability advocate Keah Brown about representation, ableism, interviewing, and the 24-hour news cycle.
- Keep the Channel Open is on a short hiatus for the end of the year, but while I'm on break I'm re-running some of my favorite past episodes. The first one I re-shared was my 2018 conversation with poet Ada Limon.
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I'm starting to work on my end-of-year lists and looking forward to figuring out my goals for 2020. Whatever you've got going on right now, I hope you're well.