Choosing your podcast format will set the vibe of your show for listeners right from the start.
But wait, what are we talking about here?
What's a podcast format anyway?
Your podcast format explains how many voices are on your show, as well as their purpose.
Sometimes there’s only one voice carrying the entire episodes. Other times, there’s a host who brings in small audio snippets from many voices. Or perhaps it’s somewhere in between.
On top of the number of speakers, you also have to ask, “What’s their role?”
Are they equal partners, like cohosts? Or is there a clear moderator-interviewee dynamic?
You may have an idea in mind about which podcast format you want to choose, which is great! Many new podcasters have a gut feeling about the podcast format right from the start. (But it's ok if you don't, too!)
So in this post, my goal is to help you identify the right podcast format to suit your style and your goals. That way, you’ll be able to get out there and start podcasting with the confidence of a barista making her hundredth latte swan. (How do they do it???)
How to choose the right podcast format for your show
There are six primary podcast formats. There are no hard rules, but the styles do tend to suit podcasts in different ways.
I recently produced a podcast series where I created one episode in each format, so you'll find those episodes throughout the page, too. They're actively releasing in July 2020, so if you'd like to be notified when the next episode in the series comes out, check out the podcast here and subscribe.
Let’s take a look!
1. A solo podcast
As a solo podcaster, you are the sole soothing voice on your show. You are most likely delivering prepared content, although it doesn’t need to be fully scripted. (You could also choose to work from a rough outline.)
A solo podcast mimics the feeling of attending a lecture or watching a TED talk. Since there’s only one “presenter” - you! - it’s a one-way stream of communication.
Going solo is a great choice for educators and motivators, or sometimes investigators. If your goal is to share knowledge with a wider audience, then this could be a great fit.
Another way to think about this format is to ask, “Does this feel like something I would get up on stage or in a classroom to share?” The classroom could be 4-6 people, but you should feel like it’s something you could confidently communicate and hold your own.
Here’s the thing though. When you podcast alone, you’re the only perspective or expert on the show. Obvious as that sounds, many podcasts benefit from bringing in guests or a co-host (see below) because that invites new viewpoints into the conversation.
Oh, and it also creates an actual conversation, instead of a one-way knowledge transfer.
Here's my short 15-minute solo episode on the pros and cons of doing a solo podcast. (You can also read the full episode write up here: Solo Podcasting with host Melissa Guller.)
So if you want to be seen as an authority on your topic, a solo podcast can be a great fit. But for many shows, you might be interested in some of the options that invite more voices to the mic. Such as…
2. A co-hosted podcast
A co-hosted show shifts the dynamic from one host to a team of 2-3 equal voices. So what’s great about having a co-host (or two!) is that you introduce another perspective to the conversation.
This can be a great option for podcasts of all topics, and in particular, it’s a great choice for any casual shows. (For example, a pop culture show wouldn’t feel as relaxed or friendly with only a solo podcaster.)
This friendly vibe can be a huge advantage. Because unless you’re interested in building your authority as a teacher, most podcasts are discussion-based. So whether you’re sharing a passion, reacting to the latest episode of Survivor, or analyzing different ways to grow your email list, it’s almost always beneficial to you - and to listeners! - to hear more than one voice.
In a lot of ways, co-hosting is more natural than podcasting alone. Most of us don’t regularly talk for 20 minutes straight; we chat with friends!
And it’s that easy back-and-forth between co-hosts that makes listeners feel like they’re literally sitting right next to you. They’ll start to feel like they know you, and that intimacy and genuine connection is why co-hosted shows are so popular.
Ideally, you’re co-hosting with someone you enjoy talking to! And when you get together, your shared passion and interest in your topic will be infectious.
I invited my Book Smart co-host Em Hammel Shaver to join me for this very special co-hosted episode of Wit & Wire, where we talked about our process, how we worked together, and what we'd recommend to all new co-hosts out there before you get started.
Click here to see the full show notes: Co-hosting with Book Smart co-hosts Em Hammel-Shaver and Melissa Guller
The benefits of co-hosting
The benefit of “multiple perspectives” is undeniable. But another huge perk to co-hosting is having a partner to share the workload.
In Book Smart, Em & I tag-teamed so much of the podcast production process. While Em was writing our show notes, I was managing our social media accounts or handling the editing process. When we were deciding which books to read next, we’d have fun conversations about why some books might make for a great episode (or why some books were so terrible, we couldn’t understand why they were so popular).
Having each other made the whole process not just easier, but truly more enjoyable! A big reason why we started Book Smart was to create an outlet to share our mutual nerdy love for personal development books. And our recording sessions are fun! We record in the morning, take a lunch break to catch up and brainstorm new podcast ideas, and then we record some more.
(Quick note: co-hosts don’t have to be in person! Modern technology makes it easy to record remotely, which I’ll cover in an upcoming blog post. Click here to get on our email list to make sure you get that post right when it’s released next month.)
One last perk to co-hosting? It cuts down on your need to find guests.
Co-hosted shows can certainly include guests occasionally, but if the logistics of working with guests sounds intimidating, or if you don’t believe there are enough logical guests to invite onto your show, a co-hosted podcast can be a great option.
The slight downside to co-hosting vs solo podcasting is the fact that you’re dependant on someone else. I personally think that the pros far outweigh the cons here, but you do have to be willing to openly communicate and plan with a partner if you want to go this route.
3. A podcast panel
Similar to co-hosting, a panel podcast includes roughly 3-5 voices who regularly appear on the show, like a morning talk show.
This can be a fun dynamic because like co-hosting, it brings camaraderie to the conversation. It also brings more people to the metaphoric - or literal? - table to split the workload.
One more benefit to a panel discussion is that in addition to multiple perspectives, you also frankly have a wider reach as a group than any one person could individually.
So for example, instead of 1 person (you) promoting each episode, now there are 3-5 of you. (And your moms.)
But with mo’ people come mo’ logistics. So if you’re going the panel route, know that it means you’ll need to carve out time for 3-5 people to regularly record together.
This could be as straightforward as scheduling a weekly recording time, whether it’s in person or over the wonders of the internet (remotely). I will say that remote recording gets more complex as you add more people, but it’s certainly not impossible.
If you’re looking for that talk show vibe, or to bring together a group with a shared interest or diverse perspectives (or both!), then go for the panel.
To share more about their experience, I invited Andy and John from The Purple Rock Survivor Podcast to share how their podcast has grown over the last 7 years, how they keep things fun with their community, and why it's so important for podcasters to have a point of view:
4. An interview-style podcast
The interview introduces a new role dynamic to the podcast. Because unlike a straightforward co-hosted show, an interview-style podcast has two clear roles: host and interviewee.
The host is the constant voice throughout the series. You’re the moderator of the experience, so you set the tone both by curating the right guests and by leading the interviews.
The interviewee, of course, is the person you bring in to share knowledge or perspective with your audience. Their background and reason for joining will depend on your topic, but the episode will largely be an opportunity to showcase and share their expertise or experience with your listeners.
The benefits of interviewing
Interview-style podcasts have a ton of huge advantages.
First, the interviewee brings the content. When you’re a solo host (or a co-host), it’s up to you to develop the episode material and create an engaging experience from start to finish.
But with an interview show, all you need to do is find the right guest, and then they bring the good stuff.
Now don’t get it twisted. You’ll still have to put in the work to find the right guests and do your research.
And being a great interviewer is a skill, and it doesn’t happen overnight. It will probably take you a few episodes to find your stride.
But when you’re always bringing new guests to the show, you’ll be able to expand your listeners’ horizons and share a ton of great information.
Interviewing means learning & networking. (In a non-terrible way.)
When you’re an interviewer, you have the opportunity to ask smart, funny people what they think about topics or experiences you find interesting. So not only do your listeners learn, but you do, too!
There’s one last major, major benefit to running an interview-style podcast. And that’s the opportunity to network in a truly authentic and mutually-beneficial way.
WAIT, don’t leave because I dropped the “N” bomb (networking). I’m a book-loving introvert myself, but I was shocked to realize how open people are to joining a podcast if you just ask.
When I was interviewing guests for my first podcast, Figuring It Out, I only had 1 person ignore my cold outreach email. Literally everyone else I emailed said yes! And by the end, I not only had a guest application process, but I had to start turning people away.
It was insane.
So if you’re worried about not finding enough guests, I can guarantee that won’t be the case. As long as you’ve done your research to validate your podcast idea, there will be plenty of guests who want to join you.
Is it hard to find podcast guests to interview?
Here's the truth.
I was shocked by how easy it was to find guests. Most people are excited and willing to join your show because it elevates their expertise and clout, too.
But what surprised me even more than the “yes” rate was how sincerely I connected with these guests.
I’m still in touch with several former podcast guests as friends, and it’s even how I met my Book Smart co-host Em! I originally found her through the magic of the internet when I wanted to talk to someone who knew about dating profiles, and boom. MenAskEm.com popped right up. I cold-emailed her to join Figuring It Out, we recorded what later became my most popular episode, and then 4 months later I put a ring on it and asked if she wanted to co-host a podcast with me about personal development books.
And in addition to our podcast, we now have regular FaceTime hangouts 🙂
So if you’re looking to provide your audience with tons of knowledge from lots of people, or you’re hoping to meaningfully grow your professional girl gang, then interview-style shows could be a great fit.
5. A narrative podcast
With a narrative podcast format, there’s usually a host or moderator who ties the episode together to tell a story. And what makes this format stand out is that bigger plotline, or narrative.
For this format, your narrative could be fictional or nonfictional. Both work really well!
But what all narratives have in common is the host’s voice throughout. In addition to the host, there are usually shorter sound clips or interviews from other people interspersed throughout. There can be fun musical or sound elements as well.
This can be a great choice for investigative podcasts, or really any topic where you’re piecing information together.
But the biggest downside to a narrative podcast is that they take a tonnnnn of work and time. It’s not as straightforward as just sitting down to record an interview; you likely have to script out the full episode, figure out who you need to interview for those sound bytes, and either learn more advanced editing skills yourself or find an editor to outsource the work.
That said, with high effort comes high reward. When they’re done right, narrative shows are some of the most engaging podcasts because the crisp production keeps listeners on the edge of their seats. (Er, their headphones.)
We love drama. We love suspense. We love a good resolution at the end.
Stories are the heart of entertainment for a reason. So if you’re willing to do hella work, this could be a great choice for you. (But my real advice? Don’t choose a narrative for your first podcast unless you’re absolutely convinced it’s the right choice, and you’re willing to put in the work.)
6. Mixing podcast formats
Some podcasts successfully mix formats, and so can you!
For example, you might do a solo episode once a month, but weekly interviews the rest of the month.
Or maybe you usually stick with a co-hosted format, but occasionally it makes sense to bring in a guest expert.
So don’t be afraid to try new things! And if you aren’t sure about your format yet, try a mix. You’ll quickly find out which suits your style best.
Podcast format FAQs
What if my podcast is fictional?
Fictional podcasts are becoming increasingly popular, but not every podcast format makes sense for a fictional show. For example, interviews may make less sense (unless you’re doing a mockumentary like The Office. Which honestly, that sounds amazing.)
The most popular fictional podcasts are typically narratives or solo podcasts. But if you have a creative idea, run with it!
What if I want to produce a serial podcast (instead of episodic)?
“Serial” is the name of one of the most popular podcasts of all time. But the phrase “a serial podcast” also refers to a show where the episodes are sequential, and pick up where the last one left off.
You can produce non-fictional or fictional serial shows. In either case, you’d be telling a small part of a larger story in each episode.
This approach only really works if you do have a bigger picture story or plotline to share. Otherwise, most creators will opt for an episodic podcast, where listeners don’t necessarily have to listen to every episode in order from the start.