Format Structure Sound and Style
Hello friends,

It's a rare Friday drop of Narrative Beat, for no better reason than the fact that it's summer. And in summer, sometimes things get a little behind schedule.

Over the past few months, I've been spending a lot of time working with clients on new podcasts. And I often find myself saying things like, "Listen to this podcast. But don't pay attention to anything except the way the two hosts interact. Is that what you had in mind?"

Or I might say, "So…you want this to be storytelling (like podcast A) but interview style (like podcast B) with a few elements of podcast C? Yeah. We can do that."

And I realize, designing a podcast can be a lot like creating a recipe for a new dish. You take elements of things you've enjoyed before and try to work them together in new and interesting ways.

And so, with apologies to Samin Nosrat (author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking,) I'd like to present Format Structure Sound and Style: The Stuff You Gotta Figure Out Before You Make a New Podcast.
Random cookbooks photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.
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Okay, I'm going to suggest something that might sound crazy at first. Podcasts come in two basic formats: conversational and scripted.

In a conversational podcast, you might hear one person interviewing another person. Or it might be a bunch of people, all talking to each other. Or anything in between. But when I say "conversational," I mean that at its essence, it's a conversation.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have your fully-scripted podcasts. These are the ones that most people think about when they hear the word "narrative." Lots of public radio offerings. This American Life. Serial. Snap Judgment.

Now you're probably thinking there are a whole bunch of the podcasts that don't fit neatly into one of these two categories. And you'd be right!

Because, like the other elements of podcasting, format works on a spectrum. And between the two ends of that spectrum, there are an infinite number of possibilities.
So maybe you're a chatty show, with nothing more than a couple of ideas to guide you for an hour?

(Ugh, really? I mean, I'm bored after about :30 seconds. But you do you.)

Maybe you're an interview based show, but sometimes the interview is interrupted by narration, when the story needs to be explained or moved along?

Maybe two people are having a conversation, and you're both working off scripts, but you want to maintain the illusion that you're just talking?

Maybe you're Radiolab, where the script is really a transcription of conversations that you've had over and over and edited until you got them just right?

Maybe you are This American Life or Serial or Snap Judgment, where you have a host or reporter reading from a script, but there are also bits of conversations dropped in between sections of narration?

Maybe you're like The Long Game, a podcast I produce with Foreign Policy and Doha Debates. Some episodes are interviews. Some are non-narrated narratives. Some are fully scripted features. We tell each story using the format that's best for that story, and we use a strong theme (along with structure, sound and style) to make each episode feel like it's part of a cohesive show.

There's no wrong choice here. It's all about what you're trying to accomplish. And how much time you have to spend on this thing. Because as you push that lever closer to the "scripted" side, each episode will take you more time.

So you're not just thinking about what you want your podcast to sound like. You also have to consider how many hours you can put into each episode.

Yep…you guessed it. I'm gonna say there are two possibilities again. But again – like with format – it's a spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum, you have episodes that are structured by topic.

Maybe you're explaining something?

First you have to understand this. Then you can understand that. And then I'll explain this other thing.

Maybe you're debating an issue? Or chatting about your favorite books? Or discussing the reasons why you love ice cream?

Your main structuring tool is topic. Concept. Idea.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have episodes structured entirely by chronology. They are narrative.

This happened. Which led to this other thing happening. Then you wouldn't f-ing believe it, but this happened.

Like with format, you can play around until you find the mix that works for you.

So maybe you're largely structuring your episodes by topic, but using anecdotes and other narrative elements?

Maybe you're largely structuring your episodes by chronology, but you need to "break" your narrative from time to time to explain important concepts?

The truth is, there are very few podcasts that are 100% topical or 100% narrative. Usually, you're gonna land somewhere in the middle.

Look, there are plenty of podcasts that use a bit of music at the top and maybe another little bit at the end, and the rest is "dry." And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with it.

But when clients come to me, they often have big dreams. They start saying words like "highly-produced" or "sound-rich" or "immersive." And my immediate response is, "What's your budget?"

Let's face it, it costs very little to sit a couple of people in front of a microphone and let them gab.

Sure, it takes more time to write a script and edit it. But many people can do a large amount of scripting on their own. They might need me to train them. They might need me to edit them. But they don't need any special equipment or software or music subscriptions.

Similarly, you can totally do narrative on the cheap. Structuring an episode by chronology does not need to cost you more time or money than structuring it by topic.

But for most people who are new to audio, the graph for sound is going to look something like this…

Okay, so here's where things get really funky. Because style isn't just one lever that you pull to one side or the other, depending on your preference.
Style is dozens, maybe even hundreds of levers. And you can play with them all. Move them back and forth until you get the recipe just right.

Fast Paced — Relaxed

LOUD — quiet

Serious — Irreverent

Light — Dark

This is where the real fun comes in. This is the part that's gonna take a while to get just right.

But if you get the other stuff all figured out first, that'll give you the time and space you need to play around with your style.
That's it for this time. Our next Narrative Beat chat is on Monday, August 8 at Noon Eastern. It's open to all members of the Narrative Beat community. So if you haven't joined yet, check us out here!