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A Podcast Hosting Primer

Some people start hosting podcasts because they think it sounds fun. Some people start hosting podcasts to reach a wide audience or to dive into a topic they love.

And some people start hosting podcasts because their boss sends them a Slack message that says “Hey, we’re launching a podcast and I’d like you to host it.”

While I can’t claim credit for the original idea of Palisades Hudson’s podcast “Something Personal,” last summer I sat down to begin recording the first season. That entire season is available to listeners now, and our team is already gearing up to begin work on season two. I had never hosted a podcast before, but I enjoyed making our first season. With 16 episodes under my belt, I’m hardly an expert, but I have learned a few things along the way. If you plan to give the podcast host’s chair a spin, I can offer a few tips.

Since I’m not an expert, I also sat down with my friend Geoff Moonen, a podcast producer and the co-host of the “‘Fun’ & Games Podcast” on the Certain POV podcast network. While Geoff protested the “expert” label, he has been hosting for seven years and his audio production background extends even longer. If nothing else, I suspected he could give me a few pieces of advice from farther down the podcasting track.

A Personal Approach To Hosting A Podcast

Step One: Build On Your Strengths

As Palisades Hudson’s editorial manager, I might have gotten the call to host our podcast regardless of my other skills. That said, I suspect our marketing team may have considered the fact I had previously mentioned a background in theater and public speaking. Talking in front of people has never bothered me; not only did I appear on stage through college, but I was a member of my high school forensics team. (The National Forensics League has since rebranded as the National Speech & Debate Association, presumably because so many teens were routinely getting puzzled questions about their interest in crime scenes.) I’ve also had a bit of vocal training for both speaking and singing.

Geoff is a musician and voice actor, so I asked him if a background in performance like ours is common for podcast hosts. “Weirdly enough, it feels like 50-50,” he told me. While a lot of podcast hosts he has encountered have histories as performers, he mentioned that many others came to podcasting as journalists or as experts in the topic the planned podcast would cover. All of these backgrounds offer tools to help hosts succeed, even if those tools are different. Be aware of what you bring to the table and don’t hesitate to draw on the relevant skills you have already mastered.

Step Two: Learn To Sound Like Yourself

Even if you come to podcasting with a background in public speaking, you may need to get used to talking on mic, especially if your podcast — like most — isn’t live. I know it took me a bit of trial and error to settle into a voice that felt natural but that also worked well for a recording.

One advantage I had was that I listen to a ton of podcasts. Just as reading widely helps you to become a better writer, listening widely can help you to learn how different podcast hosts sound and why certain approaches work. This isn’t to say there is one way to succeed at any particular format. Terry Gross and Marc Maron are both high-profile interviewers who ask compelling questions to a wide variety of guests, but their respective approaches suit their temperaments and backgrounds.

As you start, it’s important to understand how you (and your team, if you’re working with one) want the show to feel. In talking with my collaborators, I nailed down questions such as: Who do we envision as our audience? What tone are we trying to create? How polished or casual do we want the finished product to feel? At its best, I hope “Something Personal” feels like I’m sitting next to someone at a dinner party who, it turns out, is an expert in a topic I want to learn more about. The listener can “eavesdrop” on that conversation as I get my guest to explain complex concepts to me, and maybe draw out an entertaining anecdote or two. Not every podcaster should necessarily have that same goal, but whatever your aim, articulating it clearly before you start can help you to find what sounds natural.

One of the skills I have started to build over the first season of our podcast is finding the sweet spot between preparation and spontaneity. I don’t need to be an expert in the episode’s topic; that’s my guest’s job. But I do want to make sure that I understand the topic enough to ask smart questions. If I run across points in the background material that confuse me, that can also indicate a great place to ask more questions on the listener’s behalf. In our first season, we focused largely on topics covered in a book I edited, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. That gave me a head start on preparation, but also illustrated to me how useful thorough preparation can be.

I asked Geoff a bit about scripts, as that was an area where “Something Personal” evolved over the first season. Scripting turned out to be great for intros and outros, but we found that conversations worked better with a more flexible framework. Geoff agreed: “I very rarely need a full outline. If I have one: Great, I’ll follow it. I find what works best is having put [in] some time, some research, especially if it’s a subject where I only know bits and pieces. [...] I find, for conversational podcasts, having too tight of an outline is very restrictive.” Bullet points and outlines are helpful, but for us, writing out questions or responses word-for-word ended up creating a result that was more formal than we wanted, too.

While you want to sound relaxed and natural, you should also stay mindful of fillers and transitions: “um,” “like,” “you know.” Everyone naturally includes these in everyday speech, but in recorded audio, too many can distract a listener. After recording several episodes (and editing their transcripts), I became more aware of my own tendencies, especially as we moved away from formal scripts. A particular trouble spot for a host can be transitions, especially if you plan to move on to a new topic. “All right,” “OK,” “absolutely” and others are all fine ways to react to a guest answering your question, but if you fall into the same response every time, try to mix it up. Or ask yourself whether you even need a transition as such. In a recorded interview, just moving on to the next question is much more natural than it would be in a casual conversation, where you want to acknowledge what the other person said.

Similarly, while you want to sound like yourself, it helps to be aware of your speed, volume and tone. There is no optimal choice for any of these, but slowing down a little, for example, can often make listening more comfortable. As for tone, listeners can hear when a host is smiling — and when the host is definitely not. If you are genuinely interested in what your guest is saying, it will show in your voice. That, in turn, will help the listener to stay engaged. Don’t fake emotions, but to the extent that you can, lean into the reactions that naturally arise. Podcasting is by nature an intimate medium, and in a show with guests, the host serves as the listener’s stand-in. Stay mindful of that privilege when you record. If you work alone, try some test recordings to make sure you sound the way you intend to; if you work with a producer, trust his or her feedback.

Step Three: Trust The Experts

Speaking of producers, for “Something Personal,” I am lucky to have two experienced professionals on board in Ali Elkin and Joseph Ranghelli. Joe also directs, mixes and edits the show, meaning I can focus on hosting, while many podcast hosts necessarily wear more hats. But a good podcast isn’t simply a matter of recording messy audio with the faith your talented editor will save you, even when you have a talented editor. Working with Joe and Ali was a process that stretched before, during and after our recording sessions.

From the beginning, I had the advantage of expert advice on my equipment and software, and I recommend other first-time hosts reach out to knowledgeable sources if they can. Audio production experts can also help you to adjust your setup once you have it, especially if you are recording somewhere other than a studio. For example, if you record at home, you may not have thought of various rooms in terms of acoustic properties. You will quickly become aware of the merits of rugs and curtains, and the downsides of appliances that constantly whir at a high pitch. If you work with a producer, he or she can likely help you to identify problems and reassure you about other factors that are relatively easy to work around in post-production.

If you plan to record video for your podcast, keep lighting and backdrop in mind. Learn from my rookie mistake: Don’t wear a top that is the same color as your couch if you plan to record sitting there. Someone seeing you from the other side of a camera may also be able to help you to adjust your lighting and angle to best flatter yourself. And if you work with a team, they can also support your guests to make sure they look and sound their best too.

Step Four: Get The Experts To Trust You

Not every podcast takes the form of interviews, but the one I host does. I took a shortcut toward putting my guests at ease, though: Every guest on the first season was a colleague who I’ve worked with for many years, so all of them know me well. We do, however, plan to branch out to include guests beyond the Palisades Hudson team in future episodes. I am grateful I had something of a practice run as I got used to leading an interesting conversation.

Not everyone at Palisades Hudson participated in theater or speech team before joining the company, so one of the most important factors in creating an engaging episode was putting my guests at ease not just with me, but with podcasting itself. Our producers and I always took time to explain how the recording would work. For example, unlike public speaking, you can fix mistakes in a podcast. I certainly had more than a few flubs in asking questions. This often allowed me to demonstrate the best practice for dealing with mistakes in the moment. It is not intuitive to fully stop speaking, pause and start over, rather than correcting yourself in the moment as you would do in a live speech. But once you start cultivating the habit, it becomes easier.

Overall, I like to keep a light hand on the tiller during an interview. We provide our guests the questions I plan to ask in advance, since I don’t want to take them fully off guard. When we invite people onto the show from outside Palisades Hudson, I plan to send them some sample episodes as well, so they can get a feel for the show’s tone. Yet while preparation is important, some of our better episodes include tangents or unplanned side tracks. If a tangent truly goes so far afield that it doesn’t make sense to leave in a main episode, it could serve as interesting bonus content. But even if it never reaches a listener, it is much easier to make a strong episode with more content than you need than with the bare minimum (which is intuitive for me as a writer, as I tend to find the same is true with first drafts).

As a host, beware of talking over your guest. In normal conversations, breaking in or “cross talk” is common, but it can be hard for a listener to follow. If you are being recorded separately, natural noises of agreement or understanding are easy to leave in or remove at your editor’s discretion, so you don’t generally need to avoid them. You also don’t have to avoid laughing if something is genuinely funny. But if you have a full question, it makes more sense to wait until your guest comes to a natural stop. If you want to correct or change something, it will also be easier to wait for a clean break and start again if necessary, rather than breaking in mid-thought.

More broadly, listening has been a critical skill for me when conducting an interview. To paraphrase author Stephen Covey, we often listen with the intent to reply, not with the intent to understand. This pitfall is even more dangerous when you have a list of questions in front of you and a microphone in your face. But listening attentively and cultivating your natural curiosity can offer all sorts of benefits. It helps me to keep an ear out for jargon or other terms a listener may not know. It also helps me to know when to ask a clarifying question, or when to repeat back a summary to make sure I (and by extension, the listener) have understood a concept. And listening closely gives me a better sense of when to linger over a point or when to move on to the next idea.

I have experimented with how much of myself to include in conversations with my guests. As the host of an interview podcast, I am aware that the episodes are not about me. But sharing my own stories or connecting with what we’re discussing in a real way can offer a sense of inviting a listener into (forgive me) something more personal than keeping my responses general. It’s a balance I am still learning to strike, but one that enriches the show when I get it right.

Building Podcast Hosting Expertise

While I stand by all of the advice above, the truth is that mastering a skill takes time. Whether you believe in the “10,000 hour rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell or whether you’re trying to get to Carnegie Hall, there is no substitute for practice.

Geoff offered this metaphor: “You and I both cook. It’s time with a knife. You can be told different ways to hold the knife. You can be given some advice about grips and about speed and everything else. You can be corrected in ways you should not hold the knife. There is absolutely concrete information that you could basically read in an article or emulate from a photo.” But when I asked him whether he had any particular advice for himself when he started hosting seven years ago, his response was a little broader. “I feel as though, probably any kind of advice I would give myself would be absolutely outside of the time spent in front of the microphone. [...] Anything I can go back and tell myself seven years ago, I could write on a three by five index card. And that’s about it. Everything else is absolutely, as you said, putting in the hours, putting in the time.”

For what it’s worth, he did later give me the contents of that hypothetical index card:

index card with podcast advice from Geoff Moonen.

I will keep that (virtual) card in my pocket. And while I hope this article has helped any aspiring podcast hosts who found it, it doesn’t really surprise me that the answer to “how to become a good podcast host” is “just keep doing it.” There really is no substitute for practice in any other complex skill I’ve learned; why would this one be different?

I was delighted to receive so much kind feedback on the first season of “Something Personal.” Hosting a podcast turned out to be a lot of fun, and I hope that our listeners found the episodes interesting and educational. But if nothing else, I can promise you that each following season will benefit from a more experienced host than the first one did. Ultimately, my biggest piece of advice for learning to host a podcast is that there is no way to get to episode two — or to episode 200 — other than recording episode one.