Even before the 2014 runaway success of Serial, the business of podcasting has been on a hot streak. Radio personalities, artists and others are increasingly joining the trend, hosting a colorful array of podcasts that are often quite different from what they do in their day-to-day music and radio worlds. Many say they have quickly learned — often from making mistakes — what works or doesn’t work as they navigate this newer industry.
Among them are Big D & Bubba, who host a podcast with executive producer Patrick Thomas that is an extension of their syndicated morning show, but with fresh content rather then recycled show bits. Tim Hattrick, best known as half of the long-running country morning show Tim & Willy, now hosts the Scared Sh!tless podcast, which focuses on cybercrime, security and privacy issues. KVOO Tulsa, Okla., morning host Rowdy Yates and KSAM Huntsville, Texas, afternoon driver Steve Rixx host Texas Radio Tales, in which they highlight the state’s rich radio history through interviews with its broadcasting legends. And Caroline Hobby — best known as a former member of country trio Stealing Angels, two-time contestant on CBS’ The Amazing Race, CMT personality and former HitShop Records promotion exec — hosts the weekly podcast Hyper Caroline Hobby, where she conducts one-on-one conversations with country stars, songwriters, industry executives and athletes.
A recent ComScore research study found that 1 in 3 current podcast listeners plan to increase their podcast consumption within the next six months. It also found that nearly 1 in 5 Americans in the advertiser-friendly 18-49 demographic listen to podcasts at least once a month, and that figure rises to 1 in 3 among men ages 18-34. A separate study by Bridge Ratings Media Research predicted that podcast ad spending in the United States could reach nearly $170 million in 2016.
Among the factors driving the widening reach of podcasts, says Yates, are increased “ease of use, ease of distribution [and] more broad-appeal topics.” And he believes broadcast personalities’ experience behind the microphone puts them in a great position to offer podcasts with “a dimension of sparkle and showbiz.”
Because licensing music for podcasts can be quite tricky, most tend to be talk-based. But experts say there’s an art to doing them well. “Podcasts are easy to create, but great podcasts aren’t,” says terrestrial radio veteran Denise Oliver, now a consultant for BlogTalkRadio. “Quality requires thought and preparation. A successful podcaster is an on-air personality, producer and marketer all wrapped up into one.”
Experts say there is no magic formula for the right length or frequency for podcasts. Oliver says both should be driven by content. “To paraphrase podcast expert Dave Jackson, ‘Your podcast should only be as long as it’s not boring.’ ” Generally, however, “podcasts of 20-30 minutes are long enough to present a satisfying amount of information and keep the audience engaged for the length of a commute or workout, which is when people commonly consume podcasts,” says Oliver. “They can be any frequency, as long as they’re regular so listening becomes a habit.
“There’s really only one thing top podcasts have in common, and that’s great storytelling,” continues Oliver. “Whether it’s humorous or serious … you want to strive for those ‘driveway moments’ when you don’t want to get out of your car because you want to hear what happens next. Of course, the beauty of podcasts is you can get out of your car and continue to enjoy the show on your phone.”
Big D & Bubba posts new episodes of its podcast weekly, with most running 30-45 minutes. Guests include artists, comedians, radio industry friends and executives like Warner Music Nashville president/CEO John Esposito. But Thomas says they’ll also occasionally do “serious” episodes too, like when they had members of the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division on to talk about “the challenges and rewards of their world.”
Thomas says the biggest thing they’ve learned is “not to take it too seriously. Our radio show is fun and conversational, so why would we treat the podcast any different?” There is one big difference, however. “In radio we assume that people are tuning in mid-conversation, but that’s not the case in a podcast,” he says. “They will, in all probability, start at the beginning.”
As for advice for fledgling podcasters, Thomas offers: “Don’t be afraid to experiment. Fail fast. Fail often. Find what works best for you, and you’ll find your niche quicker that way.”
Hattrick posts new Scared Sh!tless episodes on Fridays, each about 20 minutes long. He says of his show, “We love our technology … but we’re oblivious to all the ways we can be hacked, tracked and manipulated. Give me 20 minutes a week and I’ll scare you into a safer digital life.”
His favorite episodes have been the ones where he talks to hackers, whom Hattrick calls “the smartest and sneakiest people in the world right now.” Surprisingly, he says, finding guests is often easier than booking country stars for his terrestrial radio interviews used to be. “In this realm, if you read about an interesting person, you tweet them, and nine times out of 10 they tweet you back and come on the podcast,” he says. “That never happened with Garth [Brooks].”
Hattrick says his favorite podcasts are the ones that skip the small talk and launch directly into the topic. “I know this is going to make a lot of my former program directors laugh,” he says, “but I like to get right to the good stuff.” He also offers this advice to would-be podcasters: “Think about how you talk to your friends at a barbecue. You’re unfiltered, opinionated and sincere. The reason your friends listen to you is because you’re real. Don’t fake it or force it when you launch your podcast. It’s a platform that honors the art of genuine conversation.”
The still-new Texas Radio Tales will have new episodes monthly, each about a half hour, although Yates says, “Steve and I agreed we would never let the clock dictate anything.” He says the biggest draw for their podcast, and others, is the guests, which he says are “the magnet that will draw people to you.” Amusingly, however, he says that the older broadcasting legends he and Rixx interview often have to be warmed up to the unfamiliar concept of doing a podcast.
Just a few episodes in, Yates says they have learned not to edit so much. Having worked in a test market for the Portable People Meter, “it has taken me a while to get out of the word-economy business” in the podcast world.
Hobby, who posts a new edition of Hyper every Wednesday, each ranging from 30-60 minutes, says one of her favorites so far has been her interview with former Tennessee Titans player Tim Shaw, who is battling ALS. Since launching her podcast in March, she says she has taught herself “to stay out of the way of my guest, but also help guide [them] to fully express their inspiring story. I am just a vehicle, and I take that job seriously.”
Hobby says to others who might be thinking of launching a podcast, “Make each episode something you personally are crazy interested about. You must love the work you are creating for it to resonate.”
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.