[00:00:00] Speaker A: At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, I'll posit that for a podcast to be good, it might need a good host.
Like, hopefully, if you keep listening to this, then you think, I'm at least okay. And those who don't probably bailed a while ago.
So good hosting seems simple, but how do we become better hosts? I've always felt like I'm just kind of winging it, learning on the go. So I asked Elaine Appleton Grant for help.
[00:00:31] Speaker B: It's are you bringing who you are to the table? Because we all can feel when someone is putting something on next.
[00:00:43] Speaker A: Elaine takes us inside her podcast, Sound Judgment, to teach us what it means to be a good host, or at least a better one. My name is Stuart, and this is Audience, a Casos original series where we go behind the scenes of all kinds of podcasts to uncover their creative process.
But before we get to all the creative stuff, here's a quick note for our podcasters.
Creativity is the most important part of the process, and without it, your podcast won't get very far. But you also need a support system, aka Money. We can help you there. Castos lets you monetize all of your episodes, even the old ones, with a press of a button. There's no chasing sponsors, no extra editing work, none of the headache. You can even tap into your own support network. Let your audience directly support your podcast through onetime or recurring donations with Castos Commerce. If you want more information, just check out the links in our show notes.
Okay, let's get back into it.
[00:01:49] Speaker B: I'm Elaine Appleton Grant, and I am a former public radio reporter, producer, and on air talent. Worked for three different NPR affiliates and had work on NPR. And for the last four years, I have been running a podcast production studio, consulting and training firm called Podcast Allies. And last year, I started a podcast about the craft of audio storytelling and particularly about hosting called Sound Judgment.
And I live in Denver.
[00:02:22] Speaker A: So before we go any further yes, let me just acknowledge that it is a bit OD to go behind the scenes of a podcast that essentially goes behind the scenes of podcasts on my own podcast that goes behind the scenes of podcasts.
Just needed to put that out there. Anyway, I value Elaine's opinion because she's got the credentials.
[00:02:44] Speaker B: Before I left Public Radio in 2015, I spent close to three years as the senior producer of a daily hour long program called Colorado Matters, and that's a magazine format show.
And so we covered the top of the first half hour was typically hard news conversations, and the second half was more typically softer stuff, cultural stuff, cooking, authors, music, all kinds of stuff like that. And so it was know, we had a staff of five or six people and that's showrunning, right, everything before that at New Hampshire Public Radio as a health reporter for three years. A lot of my career was spent in magazines, and again, I covered a lot of things, but business was a very big beat. And in fact, when I started doing podcasts back in 2018, I was the first writer and producer on a wondry show called Business Wars Daily, which is still out there, like millions of downloads. And no, I wrote 550 episodes and produced 600 episodes of that show. So it was entertaining news analysis every morning. And the gimmick was that if something happened, you had to pose what happened to or by a company against its rival. So you'd have McDonald's versus Burger King or you'd have Boeing versus Airbus or you name it.
[00:04:20] Speaker A: And now Elaine runs Podcast Allies, a production consulting and training service for podcasters.
She also hosts and produced Sound Judgment, which profiles some of the best hosts out there to try and learn what it takes to be a good host. She's also given presentations on the topic of what she calls hostiness. So when I connected with Elena a while back, it was almost like I got a private consultation.
[00:04:51] Speaker B: Well, let me just ask you right now, if I just say to you off the top of your head, with no time, who's your favorite host, your favorite hosts? Roman Mars. Okay. Why?
[00:05:01] Speaker C: I think he's personable. I think he feels like a friend, and I think he also knows how to delegate. He understands it's not his show, it's a collective, and that he's kind of responsible for anchoring it, and he knows when to lay out during a conversation. And I think that to me, is as important as knowing what to say as knowing when not to be too present, I guess. And so he's pretty good at, I think, letting his contributors and producers take the reins where they need to and then guiding us along the rest of the way.
[00:05:38] Speaker B: So if Roman Myers were to disappear from 99% Invisible, would you be as inclined to listen to it?
[00:05:45] Speaker C: Depends who replaced them.
I'm going to name another one avery Truffleman. I love her if she were to take over. Yeah, 100%. She's one of my other favorite podcasters. But to your point yes.
Well, I think she's got this superpower of taking what seems kind of like minutiae of every day and expanding outwards to tell a bigger story, which is really interesting to me because I work almost exactly the opposite. I, like, kind of building these big frame stories and then zeroing in on something about it that's pretty interesting. And I think what she does is actually probably a lot harder, because it's really hard if you listen to her series. Nice try about building utopias, and especially during her second season, where she kind of comes up with this idea of we tried to turn our own homes into utopias. And so she tells the stories of home appliances, and it would never occur to me to tell that the doorbell would tell a really big story, but it does.
[00:06:49] Speaker B: Yeah.
[00:06:51] Speaker C: I think just from a workflow standpoint, from an intellectual standpoint, it's always been really easy for me just to kind of think of something really big, and then as I kind of get into the research, follow those rabbit trails, I think a lot of people can do what I do. I don't think very many people can do what she does. I mean, you've talked to a lot of different hosts on sound Judgment, and they come from different backgrounds. Their shows have different formats, they have different skill sets. But is there a quality they all share?
[00:07:20] Speaker B: I think there are several qualities that they all share.
Early on, I decided that one of the goals of my show would be to build up a body of work, to really study this skill of what makes a beloved host. What does it take to become a beloved host? And I started to look for commonalities, even though the genres and the backgrounds are different.
And I kind of made it a quest to see what are the universal skills and characteristics of cross hosts.
And we're only 20 episodes in. There's so much to learn still. But I'll tell you some of the initial patterns that I've seen in a broad sort of 30,000 foot view, I would say there are three to four things very broadly. One is the relationship you have with your listener.
How well do you know that listener? Do you have an avatar? Do you know who you're speaking to? Have you made the show that only you can make that is going to attract your particular listener?
And that includes what Juleka Lantigua at LWC Studios calls cultural competence.
Right. So cultural competence being, let's say you have a staff of producers, and in her case, their studio makes shows and films, actually, for a Latina for the young Latina audience.
Do you have people on your staff who have that lived experience don't just know how to speak Spanish? I could speak Spanish, perhaps, but I wouldn't have that lived experience. So it's really, how well do you know that listener, and what kind of relationship do you have? The second is what John Barth, who was the former chief creative officer at PRX, calls sound vision.
And I love this term because it's broader than sound design. It's what does your show sound like, including what does your host sound like, and what's the attitude and the pacing and the feeling of it that is designed to attract your ideal listener. Right. And when you start to think about, like, what's my sound vision?
That's a big deal, and every show has one. But if we don't think about it, it's unintentional, and it may be very bland or boring, or it might sound like an anchor that you've been hearing, or what you think you're supposed to sound like or whatever and doesn't work. So I think really good hosts have a sound vision and of course the show has a sound vision. And then the third one is what Glenn Washington of Snap Judgment calls an animating force or your motivation. Why are you there in the first place? What is it that you bring to the table every single time? It might be a part of your personality. It might be a value you care about. It might be a curiosity that you're just endlessly curious about something. For him, his animating force behind Snap Judgment and everything he does is empathy. He says, I want to make you walk in someone else's shoes for a while. So that's a third one and then a fourth one, which I'm not sure if it actually might fit into one or all of those is what I call psychological safety.
But you might call it generosity or curiosity. And so psychological safety is it's the permission that you're giving either a guest or a source or even a staffer to be candid and transparent and emotional and be who they are.
And that takes a lot of skill and it takes in many cases, a certain kind of person as well. And I think that that's there and it's there when you say so and so feels like a friend.
There's some kind of quality that is encouraging that intimacy. Like Glenn Washington again, he says he walks down the street, people stop him and tell him their deepest, darkest secrets because they feel like they know him. He of course it's a parasocial relationship.
He doesn't know them. So those are 30,000 foot view.
[00:12:04] Speaker C: Does the role of the host change a little bit from, let's say, one genre to the next? Because really my real comfort level is more like narrative nonfiction kind of audio, documentary adjacent type of work. And I feel like as a host for that, obviously there's some overlap. But I also think it's very different than what someone like Terry Gross, for instance, who for the most part seems like she's making a relatively direct to tape type of show.
[00:12:35] Speaker B: Yeah. Now if we could hear the raw tape, I would love to hear that raw tape and see the difference because I do believe that a good straight interview is often very heavily edited, but we don't hear it.
It is very difficult to make a consistently great straight interview show. I think it's one of the myths out there. It's the first thing that a lot of new podcasters, when they say, I want to make a podcast, they automatically assume it's going to be an interview show because we all talk, right? We all learn to talk when we're little. So it seems simple. And in fact, I think there's a lot of reasons why a straight interview show is almost as hard or can be as hard or even harder than, say, a narrated interview show. But I won't belabor that point. We could talk about that for an hour. Yes. Is there a difference between someone who is a great straight interview host and someone who's really good at narrative nonfiction, for instance? Yeah, I think there are a lot of differences because delivery is a skill and interviewing is a set of skills, and you can be really great at one and not terribly comfortable with the other.
[00:13:56] Speaker C: You mentioned Hostiness, and you sent me this presentation you had done called Hostiness.
[00:14:00] Speaker B: Yes.
[00:14:01] Speaker C: And we won't go through it side by side, but I do like the acronym Hear Me. Can we kind of just briefly go through the letters? And how about this just to help guide it along? I'll talk about the letter and the one that goes with it, and then you can kind of explain it to me. How about that?
[00:14:17] Speaker B: I think that's great. Do you want to hear the origin story of that? Hear me. Yes, I do.
So this is not that long ago. I just used hear me for the first time at the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. We did a workshop on on air talent and improving Your on Air Talent. And as I said in going through sound know, I do these takeaway lessons at the end of every episode. And there can be I only voice three or four because there's only so much time, but I can write often ten or 15 per one episode. There's a lot of lessons, and everybody is different. And so I was trying to find a way to simplify, how do you remember the most important points?
And so I'm sitting in my living room at a table, and I've got a Scrabble game out, and I'm going, I need a framework. I need this mnemonic, not an acronym. It's a mnemonic. And my son, who's 21, walked in and I said, hey, can you help me?
I need this mnemonic. And it needs to match up with certain qualities.
And so I'm saying it's relationship, it's engagement, it's transparency, motivation, authenticity. And he moves the letters around, and in, like, no time flat, he's like, how about Hear me? And it was perfect because, yeah, as hosts, we want you, the listener, to hear us.
But in my view, it's even more important to realize that your guest, your source, and your listener, your audience, needs to feel heard.
Right? So it's sort of both ways. Kind of a mnemonic. So that's where it came from.
[00:16:15] Speaker C: Yeah. Kind of cute. You got the hear part in there too.
H stands for human.
[00:16:22] Speaker B: Yeah. So we were talking about the difference between interviewing somebody and a conversation and also that we will get into this later, but a good host is really touching their audience, giving the audience a feel of, like, either I've learned something new or there's an electricity there. And so a human by human, I mean authenticity, presence, transparency.
It's the opposite of the Walter cronkite voice. It's the opposite of mimicking. IRA glass. It's are you bringing who you are to the table? Because we all can feel when someone is putting something on. That's not to say that hostiness isn't performative in some way, but I think you can be authentic and perform well. So that's what I mean by human.
[00:17:22] Speaker C: E stands for engaged.
[00:17:24] Speaker B: Well, engaged is what we all want, right? We're all worried about audience engagement.
Suffice to say, the name of your show, I think, implies how do you hook your listeners and keep them coming back? So it's how engaged are you with your subject? Like, we were talking about presence, really, that attention. But also, how are you using a variety of tools of storytelling to hook and keep your listener? So I developed yet another framework that you could apply very specifically tactics to increase your engagement.
[00:18:00] Speaker C: All right? And you found a loophole here on A, but we'll let it slide.
A stands for your work of art. Art being all caps.
[00:18:08] Speaker B: Exactly.
And that's because you got to do something sometimes to make a mnemonic work. I cannot say that word. It's your product, right? It is the thing you're making. Have you designed your show thoughtfully? What's the format, the frequency?
Where are your creative guardrails?
What exactly are you creating? Is it a product market fit? And you do need to know what you're going to do and what you're not going to do. It turns out to be equally important, I think. So a story about that is I had just been at Colorado Matters, the show that I ran at Colorado Public Radio for not too long, and it was a presidential election, and Hillary Clinton was running, and she'd written a new book. And we had a lot of authors on our show, and she was coming to Colorado, and they offered us an interview with Hillary Clinton. So of course I really, really wanted to do it. And my boss at the time said, you can't.
That does not fit the parameters of our show. And I said, You've got to be kidding me. And the reason was, know, Colorado Public Radio is an NPR affiliate, and Colorado Matters focuses on things of interest to Colorado listeners, or at least the western region. It had to be specific enough that authors, the only authors we had on our air were either Colorado authors or people who had a connection to Colorado or the west.
And NPR, on the other hand, has every great author you could ever imagine. And so the point was, if you put Hillary Clinton on our air, how do you differentiate CPR from NPR?
And I was really mad at the time, and I can't tell you how many times I've told that story since, because it's brilliant.
[00:20:05] Speaker C: Well, Colorado is in the United States, and had she become president, it would have mattered.
[00:20:11] Speaker B: Well, yeah, of course it would have. You know, it was a very extreme view, frankly, of having creative guardrails. And so sometimes we need an extreme example to demonstrate what we mean. But a much more subtle example is I'm going to try not to do too much industry news on sound judgment because it's a show about the craft.
That's a much more subtle example because those lines can be kind of blurry sometimes.
[00:20:42] Speaker C: All right, so we're on R. R stands for relationship.
[00:20:45] Speaker B: Yeah. So, Relationship, it's what I was talking about before. How well do you know your you know, one of the best examples of this I had never heard anything so specific was when I had Jaleka Lantigua from LWC on to talk about she hosts one of their shows, which is how to Talk to Mommy and Poppy about anything. And it is very specifically about the intergenerational experience of a family where there's a parent or parents who are immigrants, but you perhaps have been raised in the US. And there's an intergenerational conflict between those cultures a lot of times. And so that's why it's called how to talk to Mommy and Poppy about you know, we're talking about Spanish speaking families, bilingual families, typically. And she spent several months before she ever launched the whole studio researching her avatar. And so she tells me during this conversation, everything we do is for Kenya.
She said, Kenya is a 20 something Latina. She's just graduated from college, she's starting her first job, and then she goes on to know Kenya has, like, two siblings. She's the middle child. She does this, she does that. And she cares about this, she cares about that. She's been with us for five or six years. Oh, she just had a baby. And I said, Whoa, wait, hang on a second. I thought Kenya was not real. Is she real? And she I you know, I made her up out of demographics that I researched for six months. And everything we do has to answer the question, will Kenya listen and will she share it? And they're literally following Kenya, who's on their website through the life cycle, like, she was made up six years ago, and now she's older and now know, gotten married, and now she's thinking about having a baby. And I was like, wow, you're talking about her like you're about to have her to dinner.
It's pretty brilliant because then you know who you're designing for.
[00:22:57] Speaker C: Yeah, I borrowed that idea from Julika to make up an avatar. Yeah, I have one for my own show, Obscure Ball. I have a Gen Xer named Scott who works in it, prefers bourbon over beer, still listens to his favorite bands from college, but he's married and has two kids and only sees his best friends five times a year.
[00:23:20] Speaker B: Exactly.
[00:23:23] Speaker C: Maybe one of the most grounded avatars anyone's ever made. But M is motivation.
[00:23:33] Speaker B: Yes. And that is what Glenn Washington called his animating force. It's what I talked about before.
So for him, it is empathy. As he mentioned on that Abimrod, you know, when he was doing Radio Lab, it was about curiosity. He was just endlessly curious.
For me, I think I love to learn craft. I love to learn how people make creative things, especially anything to do with writing, performing, storytelling. I'm just really, really curious. So that's one thing. But also I am animated by the desire to lift up the quality of this craft that we're all doing. What's your motivation for doing your personal podcast?
[00:24:23] Speaker C: I like storytelling. Kind of like you because I love sports so much. Obscure Ball is a sports storytelling podcast. I want to make a podcast that could be that's not for everyone, but that could be for anyone.
And so I like exploring those lesser known stories, the stuff that's kind of happening adjacent to the big moments. And so the best compliment anyone's ever given me is, I don't like baseball, but I like your podcast.
[00:24:52] Speaker B: Yeah.
And like you, I love to learn stories that other people don't know. I think that is largely responsible for the success of things like revisionist history, because it's the history we don't know. We all love to be let in on a secret and just sort of go down these rabbit trails of something fascinating.
[00:25:13] Speaker C: Or like with like 99% with 99% invisible. It's like, oh, you think you know, but actually you don't. Now here's why.
[00:25:19] Speaker B: Yeah, like, you're wrong about same kind of thing.
I love that sort of stuff.
[00:25:25] Speaker A: Oh, yeah, definitely.
[00:25:27] Speaker C: E is emotion.
[00:25:29] Speaker B: What often makes an episode memorable is those emotional moments.
So here's an example.
We have an intern, her name is Audrey, and she was finishing up all of our transcripts. We had gotten behind on our transcripts and so she wound up listening to, I think, almost every single episode all the way through.
And so I asked her to tally up some lessons from each one. I just wanted to get her take on things.
And so what she wound up saying is, well, here's two episodes that had really clear lessons that you could write down, and here are two episodes that really didn't have such clear lessons, but they were emotional and she resonated with them much more.
One was about the intersection of grief and podcasting and pod fading and yeah, well, it was a woman who had a great podcast. And then in rather rapid succession, more or less out of the blue, both of her parents passed away and her podcast was one that she did with her sister. And they had to figure out, do we pause? What do we do, what do we tell our listeners? It was very emotional and the other one was actually another grief. The first one. It's called Dinner Sisters. It wasn't intended to be a podcast about grief or an episode about grief. It was intended to be an episode about a podcast that comes into our kitchens. The second one is about grief, a show called I Swear on My Mother's Grave, which is sort of pure emotion. And it's very memorable. And I think that we don't all know that, and we don't know how to interview for it. And of course, you don't want to be exploitative, but it's the emotional moments, highs and lows, funny, sad, whatever, that we remember as listeners, as audience members. That's what emotion means.
[00:27:36] Speaker C: There some of your more recent ones since they're probably more fresh in your mind. I'm going to name the host in their show, and maybe you can tell me something you like about them as a host. All right. Dana Black. I swear in my mother's grave.
[00:27:47] Speaker B: Dana Black. I just mentioned her Dana. I did not know this when I chose her show. It's just a great show. Dana is a union actor, and she's a voice actress. She's a theatrical actress. And she is amazing. And she brings so much presence and warmth and utter transparency to this memoir show that started out as well. Actually, I don't know. She does a mix of memoir and interview, and we pulled apart a memoir episode. And I happen to like memoir to begin with. I like stories told by people about their own lives. When they do it well, I think it's very difficult to do well. And her writing is just phenomenal. And she's so, like she's your best friend. Right away she was asking me uncomfortable questions about my life, and I was like, oh, hold on a second.
You just want to go. And she started out an episode sitting around a campfire. I mean, it was a sound thing, but still it felt like you were sitting around a campfire with her as her friend. And I just wanted to do that. I wanted to go and toast marshmallows and drink gin and tonics with her around a campfire.
[00:29:09] Speaker C: Sam Mullins, wild boys.
[00:29:11] Speaker B: Oh, Sam. Sam is phenomenal. Have you heard wild Boys?
[00:29:16] Speaker C: I heard the trailer.
[00:29:18] Speaker B: Okay. So Wild Boys is this very successful show. He won podcast of the year at the Ambies this past March for Wild Boys. It's a serialized narrative mystery. I don't want to call it necessarily true crime, because there's not a lot of crime involved, but it's definitely a mystery set in the town where Sam grew up, which is this rural, sort of bucolic sounding town in Canada. And Sam was a comedian. He's another person who I did not know was an actor until I spoke with him. So I find that I really am drawn to people who have acting know, it helps in the mic, I think have had some training, but I didn't know it. He comes across as very sincere, very authentic. He is an absolutely amazing writer. One of the things that came up again and again in our conversation is his use of specific words and specific scene descriptions that are unlike anything that you've heard before, that are so evocative that you just I've always loved the theater of the mind quality, the driveway moment quality, that we call it in NPR, where you're not done with a story yet, but you're home. You're in your driveway. You have to sit in your driveway to hear the end of it because you've been transported to another place and time and people. He is so good at describing characters and getting feeling across and places and moments. And it's that specificity of language. And it turns out he said that it's a game that comics he was a comedian like to play with each other. Let's list the 30 ways that you could describe this thing and then pick the top three. I thought it was brilliant.
[00:31:14] Speaker C: Ahmed Kapoor and Michael Osborne from Famous and Gravy.
[00:31:17] Speaker B: So they have a really interesting show. They had a hard time categorizing Famous and Gravy. It used to be categorized as self help. Now it's categorized as like arts and entertainment. And what it is, is a show that asks, would you have wanted this dead celebrity's life? And in every episode they're literally going through together. It's a buddy show. They're going through twelve questions that they crafted, like they're grading the first line of somebody's obituary. And then they're sort of grading their love in marriage and their public persona, their achievements, et cetera, et cetera. A lot of different things. And then at the end, they sort of switch and make a plea to St. Peter as if they were that person.
St. Peter let me know. This is why you should let me in. And it's funny. It's really funny. They start out with sort of a quiz show routine that's hysterical, that brings in listeners as participants. But underlying it, it's very serious because it gets you to question your own life and are you actually doing what you would like to have somebody say about you at the end of your life, or that's fulfilling. I think it's a brilliant premise. I think they're very funny. They're good friends, they've known each other a long time, and they're really good together. They have great rapport, which is not always the case, and they're distinctive from each other, which I think is a mark of good co hosting, is that you're bringing different things to the table.
[00:33:02] Speaker A: Thankfully, it didn't feel too much like Inception or anything like that. Profiling a show that's kind of similar to this one. In fact, while we're on the home stretch of our season three, sound Judgment recently launched their season three. Elaine recently did an episode with Anna Cell, the host of Death, Sex and Money. That's great. Though all of her episodes are worth giving a spin, being a good host seems like it's more of an art than a science. And while most of us are still trying to figure it out, elaine and her guests are here. To help. Sound judgment is available anywhere you get your podcast or email@example.com.
And now it's time for our podcasting tip, where our guests share some wisdom with the rest of us.
[00:33:47] Speaker B: I'm Elaine Appleton Grant, and my podcasting tip is to think about momentum from the very beginning. You want to think about how are you going to pull your listener on a journey with you through this episode all the way through. And if you have a series from one episode to the next, perfect.
[00:34:12] Speaker A: Audience is a Castos original series. Our founder and executive producer is Craig Hewitt. Production assistance is provided by Esell Brill, Jocelyn DeVore, and Marnie Hills. Our website and logo design is courtesy of Francois Brill, our head of product here at Castos. All music comes from the Storyblocks library. This episode was written, edited, narrated, and produced by me. I'm stuart barefoot. Check out Audiencepodcast FM for more episodes or just search for it anywhere. You get your podcasts next time on Audience. I talk to Charles Austin from the podcast episode one about well, this one you're just going to have to listen to because it's hard to explain.
You can no longer be more absurd than real reality.
[00:35:00] Speaker C: You just have to be equally as.
[00:35:01] Speaker A: Absurd as reality because there's no way to top it.