Photo by Joshua Earle

Having an idea for a stand-alone, single shot of media won’t work so well in podcasting. You need an idea that will play out over time as a series. How do you shape a podcast idea into a ten, twenty, thirty, or forty episodes? That’s the first challenge faced by everyone who wants to create a podcast.

Written by Lee Schneider


Here’s how I go through the podcast discovery process with clients. We begin by posing some Big Questions.

  • Why do you want to do this podcast?
  • Who will listen and why?
  • What themes can we develop?
  • What guests will we attract?

Sometimes the answers are obvious:

“We want to do this podcast so more people will know about our products and services.”

“We want to use this podcast as a training platform for our people. They can listen and learn from the best folks on our team.”

“We need to establish ourselves as thought leaders so we will invite high-profile guests.”

Those are all great reasons to build a podcast. If you came to me with one of those launching pads as the start of your podcast we would be able to build out a series of episodes with guests you or I discovered, or we would write scripts that re-purpose your best materials.

But sometimes the answers to the Big Questions not so obvious. They are harder to pin down because your starting point is more personal.

“I am an author promoting my book.”
“I’m a business coach promoting my services.”
“I’m a creator who wants to explore her creative process.”

In client discovery sessions we often find that the process of building a podcast based on ideas like those will force you (in a good way) to rebuild your business pitch, change the way you talk about yourself, or re-frame how you share your media. The reason for that rethink is that in podcasting you have to think in multiples. To make multiple episodes work you need a theme.

Finding Your Theme

A successful podcast needs a theme. Scripted fiction podcasts have a theme; non-fiction podcasts have a theme; talk-show style podcasts have a theme. The theme is the undercurrent moving the story along, the Big Idea behind your show. Locking down a theme can be tough, but once you do, you see how all the episodes connect and play off each other.

One of my favorite sponsored podcasts we developed at Red Cup was called EdTechNOW. It started as an online conversation for educators and administrators to work out how to cope with the digital world. We developed season one to be about educational apps, platforms, and working methods. Teachers came on the show to share how and why they were using technology in the classroom. Administrators became guests on the show to discuss how they coped with the storm of new apps and digital platforms their teachers wanted to use. This open-ended panel discussion worked well for the first season. The show’s sponsor, Stackup was able to use the show to build thought leadership and make new friends in education. Many of the guests we invited on the show were potential clients of the company. This is a tactic I encourage many clients to take: Use your podcast as an on-air networking event. Make new friends.

For season two of EdTechNOW we needed to go deeper. Stackup’s users were teachers, parents, and students who wanted to track their online learning. Stackup was introducing new features to its product, importantly one that allowed teachers and online learners to measure the reading level of any reading material they discovered online. This was great news for teachers who assigned online reading and needed it to be age appropriate.

In my development process with Stackup’s Director of Education Noah Geisel, who was also the podcast host, we hit on the idea that Stackup was helping educators bring digital literacy to their students. That became our theme for season two of EdTechNOW. Digital literacy is a critical skill now and will be one for a long time to come. It was the perfect vehicle to propel the podcast through a successful season two.

If you are grappling with the theme of your podcast, try this simple exercise. What if you were writing a letter to the editor about what you make, the issue you want to illuminate, or some change you want to see in the world? Write that letter. Make it short, 300 to 500 words. Read it over and I’ll bet your theme will be looking back at you. It works because of the combination of advocacy, being opinionated on purpose, and needing to keep it short. It’s a challenge sometimes! But give it a try. The letter-to-the-editor format will focus your thoughts on your theme and why your audience should care about it.

Discovering Your Format

Another decision point in podcasting is the format of your show. I’m developing a series now for the FutureX Podcast Network. It’s a scripted drama. Each episode will be fifteen minutes long. It’s a show about cybersecurity with a lot of ideas and keeping each episode short makes for the perfect flow between drama and information.

Most podcasts I produce are in the 20-30-minute range per episode. Some, like the recent Ambassadors of Love started in the 30-minute range and pushed out to 40 or more minutes each episode. The reason was that the early episodes were simple back-and-forth exchanges between the co-hosts. The hosts, Amy and Priya, focused on a book about business or spirituality (or both) and made the concepts of the book their own. Later episodes included guests. The conversations were wide-ranging, included life stories, anecdotes, and case studies. So the shows needed to be longer — in 40-minute range as I mentioned — but not too much longer. There are some hour-long podcasts out there but most listeners don’t listen all the way through. Breaking a conversation into a Part One and Part Two also doesn’t work well. Listeners might never come back for that part two. Good editing is the better option.

Setting Your Cadence

In my discovery sessions with clients we also get into how often to release an episode of the podcast. There is an argument to be made for releasing one episode per week, and one to be made for “binge-releasing” from five to ten episodes at once. Which is right for you? It depends on whether you are using the podcast to build to a product launch or event (releasing one a week works best for that) or if you are more interested in thought leadership (the binge release works there). Newsy podcasts have to be released “on the news” so they are daily or once a week. Short-form dramatic scripted podcasts work as binge releases; long-form scripted podcasts can go week to week. It really depends on the character of the show.

Building Your Audience

There are a few tried-and-true methods for building an audience. Start with getting five stars on Apple Podcasts and encouraging reviews and ratings. If you are launching a brand-new podcast, you’d be well-served to get all your friends and family members to rate it when it comes out, and to post comments. Podcasts with activity like that tend to get noticed by Apple, and might be featured by other listing services, like aCast and Podchaser. I always list client podcasts on as many services as I can find, from Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, Castbox, Overcast, TuneIn, and the new services that will doubtless have appears since this post was published.

Listeners discover podcasts on many channels. We want to put your podcast before them to be discovered in as many ways as we can think of, including all social media channels. Creating visuals for podcasts is also a good idea. We use Recast and Headliner, two simple, free apps that make podcast episode promos fun to watch.

Another strategy is to appear as a guest on other podcasts that are somewhat like yours. At Red Cup, we work on those bookings for clients. When your listeners post about you on social media, read those posts on the show. Offer to answer listener questions on the show. When listeners donate on a platform such as Patreon, read their names on the show.

We think of podcasts as part of an ecosystem that includes their show notes, transcripts, social media feeds, print interviews, and articles written about the shows. This year we are building more events into our promo efforts; look for the FutureX Podcast Network at the Outlier Podcast Festivals, for example.

Success at getting discovered means providing your listeners with many ways to find you. It’s all part of building a master plan for your show. if we build that plan right from the start, beginning with strong client discovery sessions, I know we’ll have a successful production cycle.

Want more ideas like this? Get my email about living a creative life.

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