The Five Types of Podcasts
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Podcast (n.): a program (as of music or talk) made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet Merriam-Webster
While “podcast” is a catch-all term to describe on-demand audio in its many forms, we can break down the different formats into categories that can be helpful tools when laying out the creative strategy for a podcast.
Below, I’ve outlined the five types of podcasts and included some examples of shows I love that exhibit some of the creative ways other podcasters have adapted each format to their own style, messages, and objectives.
Interviews are the bedrock of many podcasts.
Putting the entire focus of each episode on an interview allows the audience to deep-dive into a subject and really get to know both the interviewer and interviewee. The questions we ask in a conversation – and the answers we give – open a door into who we are, how we think, how our experiences have influenced our worldview and day-to-day lives. That can be a gold mine of great tape if you build a rapport with the other person and have a genuine conversation.
With a consistent host/interviewer, each episode could be an interview with a new person who fits with the message and tone of the podcast. There are also examples that include several interviews played one after the other. The interviewees could be big names that the audience will recognize, or they could be friends, colleagues, family members, or anyone – the key is to have an engaging and interesting conversation no matter who is on the other side of the microphone.
While each episode doesn’t necessarily need to be long, this format normally tends to be longer than other formats. A conversation can really build momentum, and the listener picks up on that. Podcasts that use this format normally publish episodes from 45 minutes long to an hour and a half or longer to allow the space and time for the audience to engage with the interview.
More glitz and glamour doesn’t necessarily improve the quality of a podcast. Sometimes, the core of a show is just a microphone and a narrator.
We love to listen to well-written stories. The narrated show format can strip away other production pieces like music and ambient sounds and let a compelling and expertly-written script carry the episode. The Anthropocene Reviewed and the Memory Palace are great examples of this, where the scripts for each have a very distinct style, yet are both grounded in extensive research, relevant personal anecdotes, and the fundamentals of storytelling which combine for some of the most unique and engaging podcasts, even though the majority of each episode is just one person talking.
There are other podcasts – typically those in the business category – that sound less scripted. The narrator has bullet points in front of him or her but improvises on the mic rather than reading pre-written lines. This can give a more approachable tone to the podcast, allowing the narrator to be natural, to have fun, to go off track a bit and tell personal anecdotes which lighten the episode’s tone. Podcasts have the power to replicate the feeling of a face-to-face conversation between the listener and the narrator, and running without a script allows the narrator to approach it like they were talking to a friend at a coffee shop.
Some podcasts lean into this friendly approach by including two narrators in each episode and having them discuss or debate a specific topic. This is a common podcast format for shows that focus on music, film, TV, entertainment, politics, and/or current events. It allows the listener to get two different perspectives.
Typically, narrated podcasts that rely on a well-written script are shorter – 15 minutes to 30 minutes long, on average – than the more open formats, which can be an hour or longer.
Some podcasts use every tool available to them – a well-written script, a good narrator, clips from multiple interviews, creative music, ambient sound, and artful sound design – to weave together episodes that show the full power of audio storytelling.
Narrative shows are engaging because they touch on each of the six elements that create a compelling narrative: theme, setting, characters, plot, conflict, and narrative arc. Just like a novel can be so good that you can’t put it down, or a TV show can be so good that you have to binge watch the entire season at once, well-crafted narrative podcasts can captivate and hold our interest in a great story.
That engaging story could be different from one episode to another, or it could be carried through an entire season. The story really dictates the pace and time it needs to be engaging. Longer isn’t always better; some stories can be fully wrapped up in 20 minutes and still be riveting and compelling, while others need nine or ten episodes to show the full complexity of the characters, plot, conflict, and themes.
Just as a narrative show can capture our curiosity and hold our attention for non-fiction stories, audio fiction can do the same for our imagination.
Podcasters are continuing to push the creative boundaries of the medium, and the growth in audio fiction is one of the most exciting trends in the space. When we read fiction, we engage our third eye to visualize the story, seeing the setting and envisioning the characters in each scene. Audio fiction podcasts tap into that same power through ambient sound that transports the listener into the story.
An excellent example of this format is The Message, an eight-episode sci-fi series produced by GE in partnership with Panoply that tells the story of a team of cryptologists decoding an alien message using technology developed by GE. In 2016, the series won the Webby Award for Best Use of Native Advertising and showed that audio fiction can be a creative vehicle for brands to share their message and engage their audience.
The specific story for each podcast dictates whether it should be just one episode or a whole series, just as for narrative shows, and there’s no average episode length for shows that follow this format. As long as it continues to serve the narrative and hold the listener’s interest, episodes can range from 15 minutes to an hour long.
Not all podcasts need to start from square one.
There are many podcasts that take content that has been previously recorded and repackage it in a way that is unique and engaging for a podcast audience. This could include audio recorded during a conference session, at an open-mic night, or even from anonymous phone calls. Or it could be pulled from the interviews a brand collects while shooting a video, or presentations their leaders have shared with the team. The possibilities are endless.
The podcast can be creative and strategic in the way it curates and packages the different pieces of content – the TED Radio Hour pulls clips from TED Talks that have been presented over the years around the world that are relevant to an episode’s specific theme. For example, you can contextualize the existing audio in a new way that highlights a broader theme or makes it relevant to current events. Another popular approach is to repurpose shows that were initially produced for radio so that they can be accessed on-demand as a podcast.
This format maximizes the reach and value of the content. Rather than sharing that content on only one channel, a podcast can repackage and share it for as long as the content is relevant.
At Ambedo Audio, we work with our clients to bring quality, value, and creativity to every project – no matter which of these five approaches we agree is best. Together, we help them choose which approach would work best for the messages and audience. No one approach is better than the other; it all comes down to what will best tell the story and achieve your objectives.
Originally published on Ambedo Audio's blog on April 13, 2020.