We all love listening to the NPR style, story-driven, narrated podcasts. But how are they made? Find out how to write & produce a next-level show.
As more and more podcasts flood into our podcast apps, producing a show that stands out among the crowd to grow an audience is getting harder and harder.
The ‘find your niche’ paradigm is shifting. Now that nearly every market vertical, subculture, and microcosm of Reddit has its own podcast, your show has to differentiate in some other way to cut through the noise.
One way to do that is to create something that goes beyond the simple interview format, something that is harder (but ultimately far more rewarding) to produce — a narrative podcast.
What the best narrative podcasts have in common
The strength of narrative podcasts lies in their ability to connect deeply with the listener. Because every moment of the experience is tightly scripted, they take their audience on a journey, constantly re-engaging and contextualizing.
If you’ve ever listened to a podcast from This American Life, NPR, the BBC, Gimlet, or any of the other masters of the art, you’ll notice they do a few similar things very well, such as:
- They’re well researched, diligently fact-checked
- They elicit an emotional response
- They have multiple guests or contributors per episode
- They’re never stagnant, they’re constantly moving the story forward with new ideas, characters, sound design etc
- They’re often not structured chronologically
- They’re not too long – generally under 30 minutes (there are plenty of exceptions, of course)
- They uncover something new, unexpected, or delightful
- They inject the personality of the host(s)
- They’re often serialized
Instead of asking the same old guests in your niche the same old questions in a tired Q&A format, narrative podcasts bring something new and original to the table.
The result is a podcast that offers greater depth, insight, immersion, and overall quality that gets listeners hooked and coming back for more.
How to structure a podcast
When you move away from the standard interview or round table formats, you suddenly have a ton of options for structuring a narrative. You’re no longer restricted to a very linear way of developing a story.
I think of structuring a podcast like planning a long journey.
You have the destination in mind, but which route do you take to get there? Should you take the freeway or the scenic route? The latter might be longer, but you’ll take some interesting unexpected turns. The freeway gets you from A to B as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Once you know your destination, you’ll be able to figure out the sections that will make up the trip. Maybe you need to take a bus, then a train, and then walk a little. It’s like figuring out which characters you need to interview (and in what order) to tell your story.
Once you know what the journey is going to entail, you know what you should take with you and what shoes to wear.
Okay, I’m stretching the analogy a little, but you get the picture. Telling a great story is about understanding where you want to take the listener – the destination – and then sequencing events such that they arrive there at the right time, having enjoyed the ride.
Some ideas to get you started
All this to say – there is no single way to structure a podcast story. A true-crime story is inevitably going to be structured differently from a tech story, for example.
Some narrative vehicles to consider for your story:
- The cold open. Want to hook your listener right off the bat? Do away with your standard intro and drop them right into the story. If you’re looking for good podcast intro narration ideas, this is a great place to start.
- Three acts. Yes, all stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but a standard interview format forgets this. It’s linear. Think about how your story will have the three acts of setup, confrontation, and resolution.
- The ‘e’. An extension of the cold open – begin your narrative in the middle of the timeline of your story. Bring the listener right into the action at a pivotal point before circling back to the beginning of the timeline to give backstory. Then continue on past your starting point to resolve and conclude.
Producing a narrative podcast
It’s one thing to know you want a narrative podcast, another to sit down and produce one.
Here’s how we do it:
Whether you’re starting a brand new show, or launching a fresh season for an existing one, you need to get clear on your podcast’s concept.
Key questions to ask yourself at this stage:
- Who is this podcast for?
- What do we want our show to help them with? (Hint: this could simply be ‘entertainment’, but it’s important to be clear on your goal and structure your content accordingly).
- How will your show stand apart from others on the same topic? What new information or angle will bring to the narrative?
- Is this a one-episode story or will it be told over the course of a season?
- Who will you need to interview for it? And how will you reach them to be involved in the project?
- Who will be the narrator?
2. Research and planning
By far the most important work in producing a great narrative podcast happens long before you hit record. Once your show’s concept is nailed down, it’s time to go deep on researching the subject and your guests.
Plan out your episode outline(s) so that you have a super clear picture of the structure of your narrative, and what each interviewee is going to contribute to the story.
This way when you go into an interview with one of your guests, you’re not asking random questions hoping for some golden nuggets or a great anecdote. You know their role in the story, and can ask questions until you get the pieces you need that contribute to what you’re trying to say.
Record your interviews, head out on location to record any incidental sounds you need, write your narration scripts to pull the story together, and transcribe everything so you can begin the editing process.
This is where a lot of the magic happens. I’m not talking about editing in the sense of cutting up audio in Audacity or Pro Tools or removing ums and uhs. This is about editing content and structuring your narrative to make it as engaging as possible.
A good edit is what separates a novice narrative podcast from a pro one.
Carefully select pieces of your interviews and sounds to weave your narration around. Refer back to your episode plan and research you made in stage 2 to give it structure.
We love to use Descript for this – a super powerful tool for editing a podcast.
A pro tip from experience: less is almost always more. Be ruthless in your editing! if a clip isn’t critical to the story you’re telling – cut it!
5. Sound design
Music and sound design aren’t just icing on the cake. They are a core part of great storytelling.
Music and sound can completely change the emotion of a narrative. They shouldn’t be an afterthought once the story is done, you should be thinking of how they will play a role in your show right from the pre-production stage.
There are a ton of great places to get music and sound effects for your show. Use them to heighten the emotion of a scene, to ground your narrative in a time and a place, or to signal a change of pace or location.
Just get started
There’s is a LOT that goes into making a narrative podcast, but the process is incredibly rewarding and the end result is something that stands out above all other podcasts.
It can feel daunting at first, but the only way to learn is to get stuck in and give it a try.
If you take the time to carefully plan and structure your episodes, select the right guests, edit ruthlessly, and use music and sound design effectively, you’ll be well on your way.
With practice, your productions will improve with every episode you create, providing more and more value to your listeners each time.