How to nail a good podcast topic

Microphone wearing headphones on a mountain of other microphones

The podcast medium has a low barrier to entry — anyone can start a podcast. The barrier to success is higher, even if you only define success to mean publishing more than three episodes. The reality is, there are a lot of podcasts that never make it past that threshold, or that flounder around for a year before the creators give up because nobody’s listening. 

Some of those shows are based on a flawed idea — a topic nobody cares about, a point-of-view we’ve all heard before, a group of hosts who think they’re funny but aren’t. But there are also shows that are based on a perfectly good idea, and fail anyway. 

Knowing how to turn an idea for a podcast into an actual, repeatable, compelling show is critical for any podcast creator. 

There are some basic steps everyone should take. Write out as many episode ideas as you can — if you can come up with at least 10, your idea probably has legs. Show that list to a few people you trust to be honest with you, and ask if they’d listen. 

There’s also an argument to be made for just getting started creating, and figuring it out as you go. But that will mean a lot of trial and error, a lot of time and effort, and a fair amount of money. Generally, we’d recommend doing a little more thought and work before you start recording. 

To help you do it, we talked to Gina Delvac, who co-created the independent show Call Your Girlfriend in the summer of 2014. CYG went on to run for more than seven years, charting as high as #28 on Apple Podcasts and racking up tens of millions of downloads. Gina has also worked as the head of in-house podcasting at Spotify and done independent consulting for some of the biggest names in the biz. She helped us put together a list of tips that will help you stand out from the start.

Find your hook 

Developing a good podcast — even a lower-lift model like a chat show — takes a lot of deliberation and planning. The bad ones often suck in part because their hosts just turn on the microphones and vibe out; the good ones have more structure behind them than their easy-breezy banter suggests. Gina knows all about that: Call Your Girlfriend was a chat show, and when it premiered, “two women talking was itself an innovation,” she says. 

But Gina and her co-creators knew it even that wasn’t enough; to succeed they’d need a unique hook — a point of view or concept that nobody had heard before. During development Gina actually made a mixtape of clips of different shows that CYG might pattern itself after — everything from The Dinner Party Download to On Being. Then she and her hosts discussed what topics were right for the show, and what their distinctive angle on them could be. 

Market research like this is key. If you aren’t listening to the kinds of podcasts you want to make, how can you know what the market is missing? When Gina meets with new consulting clients, “The main things I look for are commitment, consistency, and some kind of creative edge,” she says. “If this is something that's been done 60 times before, and someone coming to me doesn’t know that, that's a flag for me.” 

So you need to figure out two things: what’s your topic, and what’s your hook? It’s not enough to make a podcast that’s, say, “about sports” when shows like Pardon My Take and Spittin’ Chiclets already exist. Why are you a new or different voice in this conversation? How will you tackle an under-covered niche — or shed new light on one that already feels over-exposed? 

For instance, no one would have said we needed to speak another word about Jonestown, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, or Tonya Harding…until You’re Wrong About came along. Its well-researched, counterintuitive takes on recent history spawned a genre of similar shows, including Maintenance Phase, which brings a wellness-and-diet-culture hook to that format. 

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, but you do have to add a feature or two that will make your show feel fresh, unique, and exciting, and motivate listeners to add it to their already-crowded subscription list.  

Decide on your goals 

“The difference between what you can make versus what you can make commercially viable is as big as the income gap in our society,” Gina says. Call Your Girlfriend became a legitimate part-time job for her and its hosts, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. But it started out as a hobby. It only became a success because of the amount of work they put into making and promoting the show. 

It’s great to dream big. Maybe your goal is to be the most-downloaded music show on Apple Podcasts every week; if so, build that into your plans, and work extra hard to nail down a fresh, exciting angle on your topic. 

But your ambition doesn’t have to be directed at commercial success. “If someone's like, I just really want to talk to my dad, that's great,” Gina says. You just have to understand that it “might be a creative project” — i.e., you won’t make any money on it. In that case, shape your topic around your personal goals — airing the full story of your dad’s childhood, or just making something you and your dad are proud of. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Bottom line: You’re allowed, even encouraged, to make something just because you love it. But if your goal is to build an audience and a brand that can generate meaningful income, you’ll need to choose a topic that has the appeal and the durability to get you there. 

Consider your format

Publishing regularly, ideally weekly, is the best way to find and grow an audience. When Call Your Girlfriend started out, the show was biweekly, because “that's how much we could deliver,” Gina says. But that was a different era, before audiences had made podcasts part of their rituals and routines, and before the space was so crowded. “Now if you want to build consistency with your audience, I think you have to offer them a lot,” she says. 

Still, a weekly format doesn’t make sense for every show — and certainly not for every budget. A chat show, for instance, likely costs less and requires less commitment week-to-week than something scripted, which might require reporting, research, and writing, as well as finding and clearing rights to archival audio. 

So let your budget and your hook tell you what makes sense. One of the reasons there are so many shows about news, pop culture, and sports is because each provides an endless (relentless?) stream of stuff to talk about. Do you have the kind of hook that can either offer fresh takes or generate new stories every week? Or does it require a level of story development that’s suited to a seasonal format, where you release 10 episodes a year? 

And wherever you land, but especially if it’s on a weekly show, ask yourself if you’re going to want to tell the same kind of stories, day in and day out, for years. “This can become a medium where something that was a really thrilling idea to you four years ago continues to be your life for years beyond that,” Gina says. “So it has to be something that is very self-renewing if you intend to persist for the long term.” Because at least for now, the long term is where the money is in podcasting.

Once you’ve decided how often you’ll publish and whether you’re doing a continuous show or breaking up into seasons, there’s one last question to think about: Is this project going to be audio-only? Or are you ready to plunge into video podcasting? 

One of Gina’s jobs at Spotify was to identify existing shows that might benefit from a video element, which basically came down to shows where the visuals mattered to the audience. It was pretty intuitive, she says: former YouTubers and fashion people were the go-tos, since “how they present themselves mattered.” Setting up video equipment and making sure you look good might be a pain, but there is a big potential payoff: never underestimate “the meme potential of gesture.” And don’t forget: more people consume podcasts on YouTube than anywhere else. 

Read our guide to making a video podcast — without killing yourself

Identify your structure

You also need to figure out how you’re going to tell your stories, or structure your conversations. Big meandering blocks of text don’t work any better in headphones than they do on the page, so draw on your elementary school language arts lessons and consider an outline. It can be the same format every week, or you can mix-and-match recurring segments depending on your topics. But either way, giving yourself a clear structure to fill in will make producing new content every week easier than staring down a blank page every single time. 

Having the show run roughly the same way every time offers your listeners a sense of familiarity and routine; it helps them orient themselves within the space of the podcast, so they have some sense of where they are in the run time. Think of The Daily, which always signals that the end of an episode is around the corner with Michael Barbaro’s signature delivery of “Here’s what else you need to know today,” followed by a quick rundown of in-progress news stories. Listeners like feeling in on the joke, like regulars at that bar on Cheers. Give them a structure they can follow, and maybe even a chorus to join in on once in a while. 

Scripted shows come with their own format built-in; a well-written script will guide listeners along from the beginning to middle to end of a conversation or story. But having a clear structure, or at least a set of recurring segments, can be particularly useful to keep chat shows from feeling baggy.

A perfect example is Forever 35, “a podcast about the things we do to take care of ourselves,” hosted by Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer. On their weekly long episode (they also do shorter mini-’sodes with a different format), the hosts start off with banter, usually focused on a particular topic– picks for an upcoming Sephora sale, or a discussion of how to find the right therapist. Then they segue into an interview that makes up the meat of the show. They close by setting intentions for the week ahead, and checking in on how last week’s intentions went. It’s not complicated, but it means that each segment of their conversation is focused and contained, and instead of feeling like you’re listening to them talk idly, you know you’re in for a carefully planned-out show. 

Protect your friendship  

One final tip, which has nothing to do with content or craft but is worth mentioning. A lot of creators start podcasts with friends. Inevitably, those relationships will be tested by creative differences, personality clashes, business decisions, and stupid-but-universal stuff like who’s more popular with audiences. “Not all friendships make good business relationships, and we've seen that podcasts can end friendships,” Gina says. 

She and her Call Your Girlfriend co-creators were friends before they were business partners, and one of the reasons they’re still friends is because they made clear deals with one another early on about who would do what, and who would own what.  

We’re not suggesting that you hire a lawyer (yet). But we are suggesting a podcast prenup, laying out some basic agreements around division of labor, rights, and money early on. If your collaborators aren’t into that, you might want to re-think embarking on a partnership together. 

“The best collaborators are people where you're able to ask questions and think things through up front,” Gina says. “The homie that just wants to vibe out on it may be the most creative person you know, but also, once the vibe shifts, you may not be able to meet the demand of what your audience is asking of you. You lose some commercial potential in that. And you obviously don't want to lose a friend either.”

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