Ira Glass is arguably the most popular name in podcast storytelling with his groundbreaking work on projects like This American Life, Serial and S-Town for WBEZ Chicago, an NPR affiliate, and the rest of the world. In his Sunday session at South by Southwest (SXSW), Glass revealed seven secrets behind “accidentally making the most popular podcast ever” and gave storytellers some very valuable tips for their audio narratives.
— SXSW (@sxsw) March 11, 2018
1. How to Tell a Story
First and foremost, Glass explained the importance of telling a good story. Often, podcasters publish an episode without any real direction or point.
“A good story is a sequence of events and its forward momentum, no matter how banal,” said Glass.
He gave the example of Chris Ware, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, whose emotional, real illustrations can communicate an important subject with just one drawing. Being good at a craft is not easy; it takes time, practice and great effort.
2. Failure is Success
Glass was quite transparent that ideas for new stories and episodes are always messy.
“It’s really just chaos,” said Glass. “We pitch each other, get suggestions from listeners, argue on Google docs,” all in an effort to get the best stories possible. Often, his team has to nix good story ideas in favor of better ones.
— Steven Cutbirth (@SvenC) March 11, 2018
3. Amuse Yourself
When developing the podcast S-Town, Glass’s team worked for two years chipping away at a story without much of a direction.
“We got two years into the story with Macklemore, and we were not sure if there was even a story at all,” said Glass.
It was reporter Brian Reed’s genuine interest in the story that made the work worthwhile, and it paid off big time, receiving over 40 million downloads in one month.
— Britton Upham (@txupham) March 11, 2018
4. Try New Things
According to Glass, it’s important to venture out and do something you’ve never done before, especially as a storyteller. Examples of this include NPR’s experimentation with comic books, tattoos, a music app, and even commissioning a mini musical. “We really mixed it up,” said Glass. Instead of sticking to the routine, Glass encouraged writers, podcasters, and storytellers at-large to step out and try something new, even if it’s scary.
5. Marketing without Marketing
One of the most interesting points of Glass’s talk focused on the similarity between the asethetics of radio and that of internet communication in general. “Our show already matched the aesthetics of the internet – jokey and chatty – light conversation. When podcasts came along, we were ready.”
For NPR, the best marketing strategy was actually not marketing at all. Because the storytelling was so compelling and genuine, shows caught on like wildfire. For Serial, the goal was 300,000 downloads. They ended up with 190 million. S-town, being a little “artier”, its goal was 40 million in 3 months, but they reached that in one month.
“Many marketers and advertisers don’t understand the scale of podcasting– that it’s just as large as television.” – @iraglass Serial's audience reach was greater than Breaking Bad finale and Wonder Woman opening weekend! 😮 #sxsw #yrsxsw pic.twitter.com/rikQ0mFjwn
— Young & Rubicam (@YoungRubicam) March 11, 2018
6. How to Interview Kids
Especially with children, Glass approaches interviews the way he would host a party.
“If you act stiff, your guests will. If you tell stories, your guests will,” he said.
Some of NPR’s best episodes have featured kids. Glass said they are often the easiest to interview since they are usually more open and reactive than adults. He tries to bring that personality to each of his guests, child or not.
— Ian Hopkinson (@hopkinson) March 11, 2018