A few people have asked me lately what makes for a good podcast. Since my podcast is far from the most popular, and since most podcasts are not like mine, and do not (and should not) try to be like mine, perhaps I am not the right respondent. Nonetheless I offered a simple formula:
A podcast really works when it is the dramatic unfolding of a story and mood between the guest and host.
Or expressed in other words:
What makes for a good podcast is the dramatic tension between the guest and host.
If you think of Russ Roberts at EconTalk, often “the story line” is something like “I am a Mensch and you are a Mensch, and we are going to talk this through together.” In earlier times, it had more elements of “you are going to put forward some mainstream points, and I am going to push back with market-oriented economics.”
Many of the most famous podcasts are variants of: “We will pretend to be talking about something, but in fact we will exploring new visions of masculinity for a Woke and post-Woke world.”
The visual images and home pages associated with those podcasts are often so…manly. The T-shirts! The muscles! It is also why those podcasts fail so badly at having significant numbers of interesting female guests, addressed on their own terms.
Many episodes of Conversations of Tyler are “I’m going to try to show people just how smart you are, but it will end up a wilder and more precarious ride than you might have thought.” Occasionally a guest flunks the test (though they might still be smart). Alternately, the podcast with Daniel Carpenter was the first episode of “Tyler gets upset at a guest, they really have at it!”
I called my podcast with David Deutsch “weird and testy” — that too is dramatic tension. One listener tweeted: “Tyler’s delight at having a guest who doesn’t hedge or mealymouth is palpable.” Few tweeted about the substance of the disagreements.
One woman wrote about it: “Without understanding everything he said, I find myself mentally stimulated & spiritually inspired. Such a purist, an idealist, a truth-seeker w/ religious zeal. Not religious myself, I could see myself eventually submit to his religion”
She meant Deutsch.
Some listeners enjoy how the guests are surprised and delighted by the questions. With Alexander the Grate — the homeless guy — the question was how he would perform at all. I thought he was excellent and very interesting, but there was real suspense leading up to that point. “And will Tyler question him just like he does everyone else?”
Get the picture? I’m not saying these listeners are indifferent to the content, rather they filter it through the unfolding story about the dialogical interaction. I don’t know of any successful podcasts that violate this principle.
One reader wrote to me: "...some very few podcasts are high level professionals in the same field, with a lot of respect for one another, exploring the space and enjoying each other’s company, especially when effectively “meeting for the first time.” I feel like this is maybe on the order of 1-5% of podcasts I hear. Most podcasts I listen to are “just” very high quality interviews."
My podcasts with Lex Fridman or Tim Ferriss would be examples of that, and there are plenty more out there without yours truly.
So, to use Hansonian rhetoric, “Podcasting isn’t about the podcast!” If you are seeking to understanding a podcast, including your own, start by asking what the basic story line is. Where the dramatic tension lies. Do you have enough dramatic tension in what you are doing? What is the actual reason why you are not attracting more quality guests of a particular kind?
I am not claiming comparable expertise, but to return to my own endeavors, they are most influenced by: Monty Python’s Flying Circus (especially the interview segments, which maintain remarkable dramatic tension), Seinfeld (wonderful ensemble work), Curb Your Enthusiasm (for how long can you keep people on edge?), and the TNT halftime show with Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, etc. (what makes for a dramatic or memorable interjection?). I doubt those are the right sources for your podcast, but perhaps you should look far and wide as well, rather than just listening to other podcasts. Howard Stern is perhaps another useful source?
If they had had another season of Seinfeld, would Jerry have to have started (again) dating Elaine? The dramatic stories in a podcast also need to change and evolve over time, and perhaps I will return to that topic in the future.