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3 Lessons Learned from the Top Podcasts

Millions of listeners can’t be wrong.

From Serial to This American Life to Fareed Zakaria GPS, these podcasts have achieved success in all forms – millions of downloads, hundreds of broadcasts, and perhaps most important of all, a loyal, engaged following.

So, what makes a podcast about foreign affairs so popular? Why was Serial, a show about yet another murder mystery, catapulted into iTunes history? Why is it so interesting to hear about every day stories from every day people?

Here are three lessons learned from these top podcasts, and what you can do with your podcast to achieve the same level of success:

Lesson learned: Be a good storyteller

Podcast: Serial

Serial is the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in the history of iTunes. The show centers around a journalist’s re-investigation of a 15-year-old murder mystery. It is a suspenseful, fast-paced story that instantly becomes addicting.

Many people attribute Serial’s success to the story itself. But, why did this particular murder mystery catch so many people’s attention? There are dozens of TV shows, radio shows, podcasts, and books about murder mysteries, and very few have reached the same level of success as Serial.

That’s because a story can’t stand alone. A good story needs a good storyteller – a narrator that makes the story come alive. And Serial’s narrator, Sarah Koenig, is exactly that.

The addicting part of Serial is Koenig’s narration — the way she keeps asking questions, finding dead ends, talking with different people, and following up with leads that go nowhere. She evokes real feelings from her listeners. You can’t help but feel frustrated, curious, hopeless, and empathic throughout the show. That is not an easy thing to accomplish over the radio.

So, here’s the good news for you. Any story can become special or addicting with the way it’s told. The narrator carries the show, and it’s up to you to take your listeners on the journey with you. This is why the topic of your podcast matters so much – you need to showcase your passion and grab your readers’ attention with your narration.

Lesson learned: Solve your audiences’ pain point

Podcast: Fareed Zakaria GPS

As a CNN anchor covering foreign affairs, Fareed Zakaria discovered his target audience’s pain point. People want to know what’s going on in the world, but find politics boring or just don’t enjoy reading about it. He capitalized on this feeling by making an easy-to-digest podcast to give his listeners exactly what they want: a way to sound smart.

Entertainment Weekly’s Senior Editor, Adam Markovitz, said it best, “Problem: you hate reading about politics but don’t want to sound dumb. Solution: Subscribe to this weekly cheat sheet.”

It’s one thing to have an informative, quality podcast with actionable advice and tips. It’s another thing entirely to have a podcast that actually improves your target audience’s lives, like Zakaria’s.

Let’s think about this in an agency context. Let’s say you want to have an advertising podcast targeting ad agency owners. You could talk about successful campaigns, the process behind landing great clients, and how to come up with innovative advertising ideas. That’s helpful, actionable advice.

Or, you could find out what keeps these ad agency owners up at night. What is their pain point? What do they want? If your podcast can answer these questions, and essentially make their lives easier, you’ll build a loyal following like Zakaria in no time.

Lesson learned: Be relatable

Podcast: This American Life

Hosted by Ira Glass, This American Life is a weekly radio show highlighting different stories around the same theme. These stories are often first-person narratives by every day people across the United States. It has been airing for almost a decade and is broadcasted on more than 500 stations to 2.2 million listeners.

This American Life may not sound like much. It doesn’t have the suspense of Serial or the intellect of Fareed Zakaria GPS. It is, in essence, a glimpse into people’s lives.

And that is the secrets to its success. This American Life may be the most relatable podcast out there. We hear stories from people like us – we understand their lives, we know their challenges, and we see ourselves in them. It’s like talking to a friend.

Take this same approach when interviewing people on your podcast. Using our same advertising podcast for agency owners — try to avoid interviewing the richest, most successful agency owners. One or two interviews like this may be interesting, but your listeners won’t be able to relate to them at all. Their lives are too different.

Instead, interview your target audience. When your listeners can relate to your guests and your content, they’ll be more engaged and find the information much more helpful as it will pertain directly to them.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Studying popular podcasts like these is an effective way to learn what works and what doesn’t work. Listen to Serial, This American Life, and Fareed Zakaria GPS and think about how you can use their strategies in your own podcast. It can also be helpful to listen to bad podcasts to learn what to avoid. Finding the key to your podcast’s success may take some trial and error, but you might as well get a head start by learning from the pros.


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