The Best Podcast Formats

Fifty seven million Americans are monthly listeners to podcasts, an audio medium that has lingered in the digital sphere for a little over a decade. But with its projected growth rising steadily in recent years, the podcast holds unlimited potential in becoming an integral medium of entertainment, education, news, and more for its digital audience.

So Many Podcasts, So Little Time

There are a vast array of podcast genres, spanning from investigative stories to comedy interview shows to daily recaps of political news. Podcasts also range from short and sweet 15-to-20 minute shows to hour-long discussions. The podcast world is a broad one, with specific niches for content that suits the listener’s hobbies, interests, and even political perspectives; they’re like television shows, but without the visual elements.

Despite the near-limitless niches and genres, there are a few constants that are similar, and are reflected within the most well-received podcasts: the format. There are a handful of formats for a podcast that are widely used by almost all shows, regardless of their topic. Every audio editor or podcast producer approaches their work with a direction in mind, which influences the style, or format, of the piece. A successful podcast format would effectively engage the listener and hold their attention for its duration, guiding them through the story, or script, of the show and leaving them more entertained or knowledgeable about a subject at hand.

The Interview Format

One of the most popular formats is the interview, which is scripted into a casual, but not-too-casual chat between a host and a guest. Some podcasts interview an expert or two who shed more light on a specific topic of interest, or the guest could be an individual with a fascinating life story or experience that is relevant to the show. The host is usually responsible for guiding the conversation, asking the guest specific questions to lead the podcast in a certain direction. The interview format is the simplest, easiest podcast style to create for a show, and it simultaneously gives listeners a diverse array of opinions and speakers per episode. WTF with Marc Maron is a great example of this format; Maron intertwines humor and authenticity into every episode, and has been commanding big-name guests.

The Roundtable

The second podcast format expands beyond the personal one-on-one conversation of an interview-style podcast. The round table podcast integrates a variety of guest speakers, with some recurring or with multiple hosts, and is more of a discussion. Sometimes, the round table format could suit a comedy podcast, but NPR Politics and Pod Save America both bring a unique twist to this style in their politically engaging discussions. Pod Save America’s hosts bring an array of opinions, jokes, and guests into a biweekly discussion of national politics. Call Your Girlfriend also.

The Crime Story

The Serial and S-Town podcasts developed a highly captivating storytelling format that is based around crime stories. The podcasts take investigative journalism down another road into a real crime drama — without the visual elements. This format features a narrator who immerses the listener into their world, describing how the story came to their attention and the events as it unravels under their investigation. These podcasts don’t rely solely on the narrator; integrated into the audio are also background noise, suspenseful music, and interviews with sources to cement the reality of the story into listeners’ minds.

The Niche

Finally, there are short, niche-specific podcasts which quickly delve into specific topics, intended to educate and inform listeners who might not have time to listen to an entire hour of conversation. Podcasts like The Daily and Ed Tech NOW deliver information shortly and succinctly, while not losing the personality and conversation structure of a podcast. The host of The Daily, Michael Barbaro conducts several short interviews with experts or fellow New York Times’ reporters to condense key news events into a 15 to 20 minute audio report. Ed Tech NOW, a 10-minute podcast, seeks to inform teachers and educators about the latest technology in the K-12 classroom, while also featuring guests who are professionals in the education system.

Every podcast is unique, but there are styles that are repeatedly emulate to ensure that listeners receive the information in an engaging, understandable manner. Above are only a handful of the most popular and successful podcast formats. There are hundreds of other variants, each adapted by a specific podcast to suit its audience and niche. The podcast format does not exist to constrain creativity; instead, it serves a useful purpose to engage and inform audiences.

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