So you want to start a Podcast?

By Faizal Farook. 

Faizal is a freelance political journalist and former producer of the BBC podcast 'Political Thinking with Nick Robinson'.


Starting your own podcast can look got easy and difficult at the same time. You’ve a subject you’re interested in and someone you think can talk about it, you have a mic and you have the recording equipment – so you’re good to go right?


But there are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there; with many different styles, subjects and of varying quality. How do you decide what yours’ is going to be like?


This brief guide is intended to help you think through what you want your podcast to be. It’s not about the technical aspects of recording and editing, but about some of the initial creative decisions you’ll have to make.


It’s aimed primarily at people who want to make journalistic/topical podcasts so most of the examples given are factual podcasts but some are from other genres, just to give an idea of what’s possible.


1. The first rule is that there aren’t any rules. Sort of.

The whole point of a podcast is anyone can do it, and do anything they want. That probably doesn’t sound like an initially very helpful statement but it’s something to bear in mind as you read the rest of this guide. We’ll look at some of the distinctive elements of contemporary podcasts as a  starting point for you to reflect on and develop your idea, but it doesn’t mean that you have to do things the same way. Once you can understand what people are doing and why, you can decide if’s best to follow their lead or do things differently.


Imaginary Advice: An award winning ‘experiment in audio fiction’ by poet Ross Sutherland


2. A podcast is just a radio show right?

What’s the difference between a podcast and a radio programme?


Mainly that podcasts are on the internet and not the radio. And what that most affects is duration. In radio, you have a fixed time slot and a fixed number of episodes. In a podcast you have long as you want, as often as you want.


This is a blessing and a curse. Anyone who has ever made radio knows the pain of cutting what feels like essential piece of audio to hit your duration but also knows that feeling of hearing the audio when it actually airs and wishing you’d cut it down more.


You make the call about how long you think your podcast should be, though the great thing with podcasts is you are not fixed episode to episode. The main criteria is that it holds the listener’s attention for the duration. If this week’s episode feels like it needs to be shorter then cut it down and if next week’s needs to be longer so be it. Some podcasts vary in length massively from week to week others are roughly in the same ballpark.


There doesn’t seem to be any particular sweet spot between duration and popularity – American comedian/UFC commentator Joe Rogan’s interview podcastis always near the top of the charts and clocks in anywhere between one and a half to three and half hours per episode – though most podcasts tend to be around the more manageable 45 – 60 minute mark.


As well as length, there tended to be stylistic differences between radio and podcasts (which we’ll cover later on), but these days the influence of podcasts and American public radio means they’re becoming increasingly stylistically similar.


In terms of subject matter, podcasts have expanded the possibilities for audio storytelling far beyond the interests and focus of commissioners of speech radio.


The prevailing wisdom was that most podcast fans listened on headphones on their laptops and phones, and that might initially have accounted for the emergence of the more intimate podcast style but nowadays the emergence of smart speakers like Alexa and might be seeing podcasts listened to like the radio.


3. Do you want to have a chat or shall I tell you a story?

By and large there are two kinds of journalistic/topical podcasts: people sitting around a microphone talking or a narrative driven documentary either with one story per episode or a bigger story with lots of subsets.


A traditional radio show is a bit like going to a panel discussion in a lecture hall. There’ll be a chair who’ll follow a structure, asking the panel interesting questions, which they’ll answer in turn with occasionally interjections, and you’ll have an interesting formal discussion focused on the subject at hand.


Podcasts tend to be more like taking those same panelists down to the pub and spending the evening chatting about the area you’re all interested in. You can be serious or silly as long as you’re engaging. The conversation can go off on interesting tangents and disappear down rabbit holes. The atmosphere is more informal, relaxed and convivial, people can bring in personal elements, make jokes, question and talk to each other in a more relaxed and revealing way. Unlike a news interview, it’s about the host’s perspectives and opinions as well as the interviewee’s.


Think chat show rather than traditional news interview.


That doesn’t mean you can’t do challenging or serious, but the same principles apply – the interview can be a bit more freewheeling and digressive than a regular interview. And of course, you’re free to mix up serious and weighty with personal and pop.


That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have a structure or given any thought to questions, but with no time constraint you can give yourself the space to go with the flow, and see if interesting avenues lead anywhere and not worry too much if they don’t.


Some podcasts are just a conversation, whilst others have segments and a structure.


Podcasters also have the freedom to take a more eclectic approach to interviewees and who can interview whom – for example, actor David Tennant recently interviewing former Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his new podcastor singer Jessie Ware interviewing London Mayor Sadiq Khanfor her popular food show Table Manners.



Political Thinking with Nick Robinson– Today Programme presenter and former BBC Political Editor looks back over the week in politics and has an in depth interview with a leading politician

Brexitcast– chart topping weekly podcast from BBC’s Brexit A-Team – Laura Kuenssberg, Adam Fleming, Chris Mason, and Katya Adler.

Pod Save America– Former Obama staffers are joined by politicos and comedians to dissect US politics from a Democratic perspective.

Reasons to be Cheerful– Former Labour leader Ed Miliband MP’s very successful political podcast

Adam Buxton– Cult comedian talks to interesting people.

The High Low– Journalists Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes take a weekly look at news and pop culture



There is a category of more serious, news focused content, usually daily or weekly podcasts from bigger media organisations.

They tend to focus on what is happening behind the headlines and have a more conversational style. Some are very chatty, some more sober and traditional.


Talking Politics– Professor David Runciman takes a step back to look at the big picture in politics in this podcast from the London Review of Books

The Daily– New York Times’ daily news podcast

Grenfell Tower Inquiry– Daily coverage of Phase 1 of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry

Newspaper Regulars: Times Red Box, Guardian Today in Focus, New Statesman, The Spectator



There tend to be two main types: the ‘boxset’ a single narrative told in depth over a series or a more traditional thematic series featuring self contained episodes based on a premise.

The ‘Boxset’

The key features of the boxset are stories that have lots of components that can be delved into in depth. This has often led to the traditional linear story progression being replaced with a more back and forth, circular structure as events are retraced and protagonists revisited from a series of different angles or with new insights as more information is revealed. These tend to be constructed with an eye to the dramatic, with reveals, high stakes, surprises and cliffhangers.


Of course, this can also raise difficult ethical questions about where to draw the line between telling a story in an interesting way and treating documentary journalism as entertainment, especially in the ‘true crime’ genre.



Serial– the true crime podcast phenomenon credited with taking podcasts into the mainstream.

The Assassination– BBC World Service unpicks the assassination of Benazir Bhutto

The Caliphate– New York Times Foreign Correspondent Rukmini Callimachi examines ISIS and the fall of Mosul

Slow Burn– Each series takes an in-depth look into a contemporary American political scandal

The Drop Out– A Silicon Valley scam and the instant rise and fall of a young billionaire.


Thematic Factual Series

These are much more like a traditional radio programme in that they are structured and follow a regular format and focus on a different topic each episode. Usually these tend to be based on personal stories, rather than say an exploration of a more abstract idea such as climate change, but that’s not always the case.


The Tip Off– each week a journalist tells the story behind one of their big investigative scoops

Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History– the pop psychology writer looks closely at events in history he thinks have misunderstood

Heavyweight– host Jonathan Goldstein tries to make things right that went wrong in people’s pasts

IRL– Podcast from software developer Mozilla that deep dives into the issues affecting our digital lives


3. Go Big or Go Home

When it comes to narrative series, a key differentiator seems to be production values. In documentary radio, production tended to take a secondary role to the speech and content, whereas podcasts treat the production as a true equal to the content. The sensibility is often closer to television, the programme has to not just contain interesting information but also be entertaining. That often means a focus on narrative drive, compelling characters, ‘drama’ and innovating with structures. This approach raises real issues in terms of journalistic ethics, though that is an editorial decision for programme makers to grapple with. The difference is a bigger attention to atmosphere and emotion.


But listening to many of the discussion style podcasts, you’ll hear a vast difference in quality. Some are recorded in professional studios but lots are recorded with basic mics in someone’s kitchen, living roomor even in the pub. A good rule of thumb is that as a minimum the quality of the audio shouldn’t distract from, or impose on, the content.


4. Show your workings out

One of the key characteristics of podcasts is being a bit postmodernist and making it as much about the process of telling the story as the story itself.


For example, a news podcast will try and move beyond the story as being reported to give an insight into how the news story came about – who the journalist bumped into, the way sources leak information, how they uncovered a certain document etc. So alongside the story, you are telling the story of how you tell the story.


Even stylistically, you’ll find that podcasts often include off mic conversations, outtakes etc.


5. Make a little me time.

The beauty of podcasting is that you can make radio for whoever you want. If you want to make something for a niche audience you can go ahead and do that, you don’t have to cater for a general audience in the way you would for a radio programme.


Whatever your obsession, whether R.E.M.,Wrestlemaniaor  ‘chick lit’,  you can make a podcast out of it.


There are hundreds of thousands of podcasts out there, mostly people discussing things. What makes a particular one compelling? A good idea/subject counts for a lot, but it seems that the most important thing is that you like the hosts company. Think of it like groups of people chatting at a party, some will have people whose company you enjoy, talking about something you are interested in, some will be talking about something you’ve no idea about but it’s interesting and fun, some will be chatting about something you do like but they are boring to you.


So make the podcast you would want to listen to, about something you are genuinely interested in. It’s difficult to say what podcasts will find an audience, but start from where you are. That doesn’t mean that you won’t need to entertain your listeners, but the first step to that is to entertain yourself.


6. How long has this been going on?

As I wrote earlier some podcasts are a short and sharp 20 minutes and some are mammoth 3 hours. Some people put their conversations out pretty much unedited, some edit and some like Krista Tippett’s On Being  podcast put out both an edited and unedited version. It’s your call – just remember to think of the listener!

Hopefully, that’s all been of some help in thinking about how you want your podcast to sound and what you want it to be. Even if you are not exactly sure yet, your podcast can be an evolution. Once you get started you can change things as you go – after all you are the commissioner, the editor and the producer. Listen to a load of podcasts, think about why you like the ones you like, what keeps you listening, and what is it about some that put off. Good luck!

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