Even the simplest podcast or radio programme has a structure. Whether you have thought about it or not, you are going to have a
The question is, how can you best structure your podcast to bring your listener through from beginning to the end, keeping the listener informed, surprising them with information they did not already know, motivating them to become involved and leaving them wanting more? There is more than a dash of showbiz in your average podcast.
This chapter looks at different structures. You need to decide which you will adopt and how you will make the best of it.
Sometimes the word “format” is used to describe a structure. Many of the TV programmes you watch are strictly formatted and you will find national variations of familiar formats around the world. Radio is less formatted, but will have a structure.
Not every podcast producer will agree with me when I say this. You should not be constrained by the structure. If you have a really complicated magazine programme with lots of people working on it, then one day you are offered a lengthy, in-depth interview with someone you are eager to have on your show, or you have the opportunity to hold a live public discussion with an audience in a local venue – something you have never done before – you would be daft not to abandon your normal format for a special programme.
I suggest strongly staying within your editorial brief. If your editorial purpose is social action, don’t in the next episode produce a cookery show. Unless – of course – it’s cookery for social change, which is not a bad idea … Have that one on me!
Structures are almost always a work in progress. Formats are usually tied down. Johnny compares the structure of a radio programme to a journey. “You have an A to B destination route but on that route you might have a roundabout in the middle. You might go down different pathways but you come back to the original question.”
Why bother having a structure or a format? People, your listeners, like a degree of familiarity. They like to instinctively understand the internal navigation of the show. They like to be taken on a journey but have confidence that you know where you are going, and they are happy to follow. From the production team’s perspective, the building blocks of a structure will help make the podcast. Whether you follow the structure dogmatically or have a less formal approach, you as producers will ask
- How will we make the beginning and grab the listener’s attention?
- How will we approach the interviews to bring the listener along and motivate them to participate?
- How will we organise the internal promotion or “signposts” (“coming up next”, “later in the programme”, “next week”?
- How to and when to add listener comments?
- If you are going to carry advertising or sponsorship, how do you keep the listener listening?
There are many other questions. Many will occur to you when you have made several podcasts.
Olly Mann told me, “You can be a bit more confident about content that you wouldn’t put in a radio programme. “Answer Me This” is really tightly edited and we want it to be pacey. But equally there are conversations in there that for a radio broadcast you would cut because they are too edgy or about something too niche. Whereas with a podcast you can have the confidence that if a person is listening and if they are 40 minutes into the show, they’re probably not going to turn off.
“I find it really useful when there is some I really like who has done a really in depth interview … I’ll happy listen for a couple of hours. It’s more like reading a book than listening to a radio programme.”
The simplest structure is beginning, middle and end. Some of the best podcasts and radio programmes are just this. All of the emphasis goes into the middle bit. The rest is “Hello” and “Goodbye”
Beginning: Introduction setting out what listeners can expect to hear in the programme. There might be some “tease” content to keep people listening. . To use music or not? To use music to talk over or not? It is part of the style of your programme – you need to decide. Here are some radio programmes and podcasts to consider. Each are different, There is no “right” answer.
Middle: This is where the story goes, or the main point of the show. This is where the purpose, prospects and running order come to life.
End: Here is where you say goodbye and (for example) give contact details, where the listener can email their thoughts and comments, where they can get more information. You might even have a little promo for “next time”. And most definitely Credits
Everything else is an extension of this simple 1, 2, 3 structure
Here are some others
- Adverts, Beginning, Middle, End
- Adverts, Beginning, Middle, End, Adverts
- Complex beginning, Adverts, several sections of middle, End
- Complex beginning, Adverts, Mid-section part 1, Contact details, Internal Promo, Mid-section 2, Pointers to related story, End Credits, “And finally” “Next Time trail”.
The pace of the programme is also part of the overall plan. Pace will be determined by the programme’s personality, the information and content you are dealing with and the target audience. It is also important to consider how people listen to podcasts; usually on the move, often with headphones or earbuds, sometimes in the car and almost always alone. As has been said several times, listening to a podcast is a very intimate affair. The pace is likely to reflect that. It might be more conversational. All of that depends on the audience and their expectations.
Sometimes the content will be difficult, complex, emotional. TalkRADIO producer Johnny Seifert says you need to give the listener space to think and reflect. “You need to allow the listener to interpret what they just heard. Silences are so important, and those pauses will allow the listener to gather their thoughts, and then you can move on. The structure is really important.” Of course, Johnny is not talking about long pauses. A heartbeat’s silence can give the listener that moment to adjust to what they have just heard.
How you move from one story to another, transition, is important.
The Podcast Introduction
What should you say in the introduction? You can hear some wonderfully creative and inventive introductions to podcasts, often more creative and inventive than your average radio programme. Among my favourites is Freakonomics at freakonomics.com.
Here are some others:
- Trumpcast (Slate podcast)
- Irish Times Business Podcast
- The Bottom Line (BBC Radio 4 programme and podcast)
- Sunday (BBC Radio 4)
- Woman’s Hour (BBC Radio)
- Irish Times Media Podcast
- Media Podcast (Olly Mann podcast) and of course,
- Freakonomics (Podcast)
The key is to practice and refine. What is the friendliest fastest way to pull your audience into your podcast?
People who love to produce creative radio and audio can really experiment in a podcast. They can get it wrong, they can try something new, and they can take a new approach to the very start of the show. You don’t have a management structure that makes the rules that flattens the creative spirit. You have the licence to fail, to try again, to be better. And creative people find their reward in following through to realising their vision. So they will invest more time.
I have heard and argued with experienced and highly professional broadcasters who say that you shouldn’t give it all away in the intro. Keep the listener surprised. Don’t tell them what’s on the show. People who say that are in a minority, I disagree with them, but I would not say they are wrong. They may well be right. Their argument is based on the belief that if you say what’s on the programme and a listener doesn’t fancy anything on the menu, they will listen no further. The argument is logical. I have never seen evidence to support it. I think the people who argue this and are successful, are so because their listener knows they will be delighted with something in the show, and the presenters and production team have built a great relationship and the audience consistently enjoys what they hear. So, a menu in those circumstances is unimportant.
There is another good argument for not putting too much effort into the start of a radio programme; people will be tuning in later. The main reason for a menu is to bring listeners from one programme (the one they have been listening to) through to the next (the one you are making). For linear listeners to live broadcast radio programmes, that is a good reason for a menu.
So why have one in a podcast? Why make it special? I believe if you keep the content a secret, people might well not bother past the introduction, because they sense there is something better somewhere else. Remember, yours is not the only podcast in their pocket.
A well written, warmly spoken and welcoming script saying “hello and here’s what we have for you this time” is as good as any tricks and creative starters you can come up with. When you are starting out as a programme producer, keep it simple. Then as you progress there is room for development. Listen to a wide range of podcasts and hear what others do. Copy the best.
Should there be music?
Later in the chapter on Rights: Music, photos and readings. What you can, can’t and should do I’ll discuss how to stay on the right side of the law. Do you need music – a theme or signature tune? It’s entirely up to you. Some podcasters are really creative in the use of music not just in the introduction, but throughout the programme. Once again, I will refer you to Freakonomics and to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. The wonderful Radiolab podcast will give you lots of ideas for introductions and structure and how to use music and other sounds.
As yourself and your team: “How can we be more creative?”
Internal promotion – signposts
Within the structure of the programme you may have important reminders and signposts to keep the listener with you. Here are some:
“Coming up” Almost everyone who is listening to your podcast will have heard the introduction. But at times – and not too frequently – it is useful to remind people what will be coming up later in the programme. Not everyone listens in one sitting or completes the programme in one day.
If you are a community radio programme with people tuning in and tuning out all the time, then the “coming up later in the programme” is essential. If you have a lot of material in the podcast or programme, sometimes not everything gets on the opening menu anyway, or you will have an interview with just one side of an argument, so “later we will hear what people opposed to the idea think” is a good way to show balance (providing you want to show balance! The joy of podcasting is you do not have to be balanced – but it can help.)
“Find out more on the blog/website” One of the features that makes a podcast more than just audio you can download, is the supporting website or blog. A blog is better than a website because the listener can add comments. A website with a comments section would do, but a blog is often best. On the blog you can have supporting content such as photos, maps, additional audio – an extended interview, for instance – not used in the podcast. You can add all the contact details for guests, stories and even the running order or scripts. You can add notes and promotions for forthcoming editions. Most of all you can add detailed descriptions of content of the podcast. These are the “show notes” See later in this chapter.
Comments on previous podcasts. A podcast should include comments from listeners which they leave on the blog or email to you.
How to comment. Information on adding comments or email address for the podcast.
As part of the structure, you should consider creating “tent poles”; moments or stories in the podcast or programme distributed throughout the show so listeners will listen through as long as possible.
You will probably start with the best or one of the best stories, the most relevant interesting, inspiring, the lead. Do you feature the “next best” next, and the “third best” after that? Well, first of all, not everyone will agree with you on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. “best” story. If you can rank them, then why would everyone listen through to the end? If you are a community radio programme, people will join you through a live show. Do you want them to hear just the less interesting, less important stories at the end? producers schedule stories. The best (probably) at the top, a really good on interesting story – sometimes a funny story at the end “and finally …” then mix the best and the more mundane giving the show light and shade throughout. This is the producer’s challenge; keep the audience listening right to the end. You do that by refreshing the show constantly, telling people about the interesting stuff coming up soon, having teasers (“What made the elephant sneeze? We’ll be talking about a twitchy trunk later in the show. But first, pealing onions”), populating the show with good stories as tent poles. And no, I have never produced a story about sneezing elephants of pealing onions. You never know, you might be lucky!
Segues – and how to make people cringe …
“Moving right along …” Please never use that phrase.
A segue is the transition between one piece of music to another. For our purposes it is the transition from one story to another. It is the combination of the back announcement “… that was …” of one story to the cue into the next story. The idea is to be as conversational and seamless as possible. It can be difficult. Sometimes it is not even desirable to attempt a seamless transition. Sometimes you need silence.
Jenni Murray and Jane Garvey present BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour. If you want to learn how to write perfect scripts, seamless transitions between stories and how to do beautifully effective interviews, then listen to that programme.
Often music is used to separate stories at difficult junctions. What sort of music and how it is used will depend on the style of the programme and audience expectations? Sometimes a music stab, a single staccato chord will do the trick. Sometimes more time is needed. TalkRADIO podcast producer Johnny Seifert told me about a recent problem he had linking two very different stories. “We had Oritsé form JLS talking about his mum having MS. It would have been horrific going from that into an interview with Lee from Steps talking about a show at the Edinburgh Festival. So instead I put a trail in the middle that separated them. The audience has the time to gather their thoughts and move on again.”
You can hear more from Johnny on the “Podcasting For …” podcast where he talks more about structure, audiences, recording and editing.
Highly experienced and talented presenters can lead their listener through a programme from one item to the next with the greatest finesse. They come out of a story, connect it to a relevant thought which leads (perhaps via another connection) to the next. Another BBC Radio 4 presenter to learn from is Eddie Mair. Along with that scripting skill he has the ability to speak directly to the listener, ask penetrating and concise questions and add humour just at the right time. He also understands the value of a moment’s silence as a junction.
As a prospective podcast and programme maker listen to great presenters. Use how they work and what they say as opportunities to learn. Some are simultaneously presenting a radio programme and running a master class. I would welcome your suggestions at podcastingfor.com
When I was a child (that’s a long time ago), there was a TV programme on each evening called Tonight. It always ended with “That’s all for tonight, the next ‘Tonight’ will be tomorrow night. Until then, good night.” except of course on a Friday when it ended “That’s all for tonight, the next ‘Tonight’ will be Monday night. Until then, good night.”
I was a kid. I was amused easily. For me it had the appeal of the repetitiveness of a bedtime story. As far as I was concerned, it was the highlight of the programme. I was 9 years old when the last Tonight was broadcast. I loved it. Apart from “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin” (Listen With Mother), it was probably the first catchphrase I had come to recognise.
The end of the show, and the final stories should not be what’s left on the shelf after all the good stuff in gone. The phrase “And finally…” on many programmes leads to the last item. The funny, amusing or intriguing yarn.
As the producer, you will want people to listen to the end. This is where you will usually have the credits. “The Credits” is the list of all the people who have worked on and contributed to the show. The credits will include a final mention of the advertisers and sponsors. You will talk about how to contact the podcast and the blog address. You might promote what’s coming up next time. Sometimes the credits can roll on for quite some time. Crediting everyone and everything is not mandatory. People might or might not listen right to the end. You are recognising the effort of all the people involved. The credits create good-will and if you are a voluntary organisation and people are giving up their time for free to make the podcast, the least you can do is say “thank-you”.
Some presenters don’t do “goodbye”. It’s their style and anyway, does saying good-bye make sense? Some don’t say “hello” either. Some, on the other hand, go right over the top: “Well, that’s all we have for you this time, I really have loved your company for the last hour. It has just been wonderful being with you and I hope you’ve enjoyed being with me …” And so it goes on, all sweet and syrupy and … well, basically false.
Make the end of the show important. Make it a call to action. Create a functional wrap that will encourage people to download and listen to the next podcast or subscribe to the series. You could also promote another podcast that you think is important and related to the programmes you are making. Send people there. We are at a time in podcasting when finding really good programmes to listen to can be difficult. I always appreciate someone I trust recommending a podcast for me the listen to. We need to support each other rather than compete in a negative way. We can compete positively by working together to raise standards.
The end is as important as any other part of the programme. You are likely to rehearse the top of the show before you begin recording – or going live on air if you are making a community radio programme. Do not forget to write, plan or rehearse the end of the show. If you don’t, you will arrive there and you have no idea of how to stop. Coming out of the last story and just saying “That’s it for this programme. Goodbye” is not good enough. Rehearse the beginning, rehearse the end. You will find flaws and be able to fix as needed.
The end is the successful completion of the show. It has a good symmetry. It feels just right. More importantly it sets people up for the next time. Give your audience something to remember and to expect in the future.
In our programme structure we have reached the end of the show, but for the production team, there is still plenty to do.
Shortly we will be heading over to the blog. Once your programme is recorded, you will start writing your “show notes”. Show notes are a summary of what is on the programme, who is interviewed, perhaps some quotations from guests. Show notes are likely to be the first thing people will know about the podcast. They are there to encourage people to listen.
The show notes on the blog can also contain additional material; photos, maps, short videos, links to other podcasts, websites and blogs. It is really worth enriching the blog post with plenty of information.