Christmas is almost certainly a distant memory by now. Whether it was the smell of mince pies and mulled wine or masks and hand sanitizer which stood out, the season is usually marked by everyone and everything slowing down and relaxing – unless you’re in charge of the cooking and presents.

For me, however, Christmas has started to turn into something quite different. The Publisher Podcast Awards – now in their third year – usually close for entries in mid December. Before the entries can be sent to judges, the Media Voices team does an initial longlisting. This involves quality checks on all 220+ entries, and initial judging on competitive categories.

That’s an awful lot of listening. But it’s good fun. Every dinner time in December and January started with the words, ‘I’ve just been listening to a podcast about…’ My husband is now armed with all sorts of random facts about what type of flour the Tudors used to theories about where all the water on Mars went. On a side note, if you want a podcast recommendation, I can probably suggest something!

All this is very well, but apart from making me an insufferable dinner guest, what can I draw from it? For publishers, whether you’re looking to start your own podcast or have a jam-packed portfolio, there are a number of learnings I can share from my many, many hours of listening.

High quality is now non-negotiable

One of the benefits of podcasting is the low barrier to entry. Anyone with a microphone – or even a phone – can shoot the breeze and get a podcast out there. For publishers though, the stakes are higher. When putting a podcast out, especially if it’s associated with a magazine or news brand, there are expectations of quality that most podcasters don’t have to worry about.

Audiences have generally been forgiving of less-than-perfect audio quality, as long as the podcast itself isn’t unlistenable. The early days of Covid especially saw publishers grapple with replicating studio quality in homes. Podcast mics sold out on Amazon, and hosts ended up under duvets or in cupboards to attempt to maintain quality.

But this year’s cohort showed that those days are well past us. In our first year of running the Awards, flawless audio quality made a podcast stand out. Now, it’s the standard. The podcasts that are leading the pack are ones which are enhancing the production with background music and sound effects to create a more immersive listening experience.

That’s not to say I’d advise going completely bananas and layering every minute with sound effects. But it’s worth thinking about how a few carefully chosen effects or segments of background music could take your episode to the next level.

As for spoken audio, this now needs to be as good as possible. There are plenty of tools in audio editors to help combat issues from budget microphones and difficult rooms. It’s worth spending the extra time getting the speech crisp and clear.

Interviews aren’t a tired format

Interviews are the easiest way to do podcasting. Many journalists and writers talk to people of interest as part of their daily jobs. So recording an interview and packaging it as a podcast is a very accessible next step.

The format has been critiqued in the past as the lazy option, especially when celebrities launch yet another interview-based podcast talking to other celebrities. Does that mean it’s no longer a viable option for publishers?

Absolutely not. Interviews were the most common type of podcast out of the 150+ I listened to, and if done well, they’re still incredibly powerful. Even just plain old one-to-one chats between a host and a guest were fascinating if the questions and discussion were carefully crafted.

An hour flew by listening to food historian Annie Gray talk on the History Extra podcast about everything from recipe books to veganism. I found myself wishing Author in Your Classroom’s interview with Benjamin Zephaniah was three times the length it actually was. Brummie Mummies’ wonderful interview with Sophie Cooper very nearly had me signing up to be a fitness instructor. You get the idea.

Of course, there were some exceptional podcasts that went beyond the interview format too. Bed of Lies from the Telegraph was a stand-out documentary-style podcast, weaving first-person accounts and narration into a compelling story. The Week Junior’s Mysteries of Science had an entertaining multi-host panel format as well as contributions from listeners. And Engineering Matters from Reby Media – a leader in the field – has tried a number of different formats to create its multi award-winning episodes.

There’s no such thing as too long

…but some publishers really need to learn the value of a good edit. It’s difficult to generalise on lessons when it comes to podcast length. Some podcasts can hold my attention for hours, others are a struggle to listen to for more than ten minutes. Sometimes this is for reasons completely outside of the podcast’s control. But sometimes, you listen to an episode and know it would have been much better had it just had a good edit.

It’s worth approaching podcasts in the same way you do written content. Some episodes are designed to be feature-length, with guests that can hold listeners enraptured for hours in the same way a multi-thousand-word feature could in a magazine. Others are stronger for focusing on just the best bits; having the podcast equivalent of a couple of killer quotes to hang a story from.

This is of course tricky to navigate with guests, especially if you have a set format. Hosts have some part to play in this in being able to draw out difficult interviewees. For publishers with editorial staff in these positions, that will come with experience.

As radio consultant Valerie Geller once said, “There’s no such thing as too long, only too boring.”

But there is such a thing as too many ads

Three-quarters of the podcasts I listened to had some form of advertising in them. The most common seemed to be dynamically inserted ads, although there were fixed read-outs present too. Host-read ads were almost completely absent from this year’s cohort.

For the most part, these ads were fairly balanced and actually quite relevant to the podcasts in question. In fact, I very nearly ended up buying a compost bin from a very well-placed Gardeners’ World magazine podcast ad.

But one point to note was that the quantity of adverts had really started to creep up against some podcasts compared to previous years. A couple even had 2 mins+ worth of ads before starting the actual show, in addition to mid-roll.

It’s tempting to squeeze in an extra ad here and there. Perhaps the pressures are coming from commercial teams. This is a very delicate balance. Unlike banner ads in emails or on websites, which can be easily scrolled past or ignored, podcast ads take time to get through before getting to the good stuff. Listeners are generally tolerant – even welcoming – of a few relevant ads. But this isn’t an area to start pushing, or audiences will simply drop off and find something else to listen to.

Final notes

A great podcast can be about absolutely anything, from photonics industry progress to simply narrating a daily walk. My final learning from listening to all these podcasts is that if you want to launch or improve your own, listen as widely as you can. Note which ones capture your attention and why. At the very least, you’ll find yourself some excellent new listens.

Note: This piece was first published on What’s New in Publishing and is republished here with kind permission


Entries for 2023’s Publisher Podcast Awards open in autumn this year. The team behind the Awards are running the first ever Publisher Podcast Summit in London in October 2022. This will have sessions designed for publishers at all stages of their podcasting journey, whether they’re looking to start their first series or are looking to take their existing podcast/s to the next level. For more details on both the Awards and Summit, please go to publisherpodcastawards.com.