Starting a Podcast, Part 4: Standing Out in Crowded Spaces

Hey, folks—Grant here, making a rare blogging appearance! I wanted to follow up on Peter’s “Starting a Podcast” series with my own suggestions. This won’t be as formalized as Peter’s multi-step procedure; rather, I want to touch on a few specific points which need serious consideration. So, let’s start with the most difficult.

Standing out in crowded spaces

Here’s the bad news: Statistically speaking, when you start your podcast, it’s a good bet I won’t care about it.

I keep a close eye on /r/podcasts, and that particular subreddit is constantly barraged with “We just recorded our first episode, tell us what you think” requests. I’ve never found any of those podcasts interesting, and after thinking about it, the fundamental problem is that they don’t have a unique voice. I call this the “two guys talking about stuff” problem. So many podcasts are two people with no particular expertise and an unoriginal approach to their topic or topics, which appeals to basically nobody. Many don’t even have a particular subject to podcast about, instead talking about “whatever”—and I can hear the same irrelevant chatter waiting in line to place my lunch order, without cluttering up my phone.

Nailing down that unique voice requires you to think hard about two related components of your podcast’s identity: What are you talking about? And what differentiates you from other podcasts in your niche?

What are you talking about?

Podcasting is all about finding your niche and specializing in that area. Listeners want podcasts which appeal to their interests, and they want consistent perspectives and reliable information. That doesn’t mean you need to be industry professionals to podcast—I’ll talk about that in a moment—but it does mean you need to pick a niche and focus on it.

Those niche subjects vary in scope and audience, of course. Radio dramas like Serial have a much larger natural audience than, say, a podcast about tabletop RPGs and Christian theology. But after three and a half years of podcasting, Saving the Game is still the only podcast approaching tabletop roleplaying games from a Christian perspective. We occasionally branch out, but our core competency is the intersection of faith and roleplaying. When someone finds us (maybe because they were looking for that specifically, or because they were looking for one or the other of those core elements), they know what they’ve found and they know whether or not our show interests them.

If you haven’t nailed down your core subject, no one will know what they’ll get from your show—and that means no one will listen, because you’re not providing the content they want on a regular basis.

What differentiates you from other podcasts in your niche?

I’ll admit this can be tricky. For a podcast (or any other production) to stand out, it needs to provide something no one else provides.

Expertise is a good start. Peter and I both listen to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff (we had Kenneth Hite on a while back, and I think we both fanboy’d over him a bit.) Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws are long-time professionals in the RPG industry, and they both know their subject matters—cinema, storytelling, game design, industry practices, food, horror, literature, history, paranormal nonsense, and occult weirdness—exceptionally well. Of course, you don’t need to be an industry professional to have this sort of expertise. Plenty of hobbyists put in the time and effort to become well-versed in their field, and that’s more than enough.

If you aren’t starting off with that sort of expertise, don’t worry: We didn’t either, and neither have many other successful podcasts. Practice and repetition grant familiarity and expertise over time. Dan at Fear the Boot—one of the longest-running tabletop RPG podcasts out there—has repeatedly called FTB “a monument to their failures”. Those ‘failures’, however, are all problems and situations which arose from their gaming experiences; and ten years of podcasting about their games has given them plenty of material and enough expertise to offer meaningful advice from multiple perspectives.

Perspectives do make a difference, by the way, and they can be a great starting point for your show. If you’ve got a perspective that’s naturally unique—a woman and/or a person of color in a hobby traditionally dominated by white males, for example, or a foreigner in a new country—that’s an immediate differentiator. It’s not sufficient for a good podcast, but it stakes out a challenging, interesting ground and promises originality, and that’s a great beginning. Likewise, gathering multiple perspectives around the mics will help ensure your podcast never seems stale, and will help you reach a larger audience—after all, with multiple distinct voices, listeners are more likely to hear someone they immediately connect with!

Finding a new way to approach a common subject is difficult, but it may well be the most rewarding way to stand out from other podcasts. System Mastery is one of my favorite (NSFW) podcasts about tabletop RPGs. It could have been two guys complaining about things they hate in roleplaying games and praising the things they like; and that would have been generic and boring. Instead, they approached the same subject by breaking down specific individual games, one per episode, in a way nobody else does. They still talk about the same things—what makes a game good or bad, how to be a good player or game master, what game design elements fail or succeed, etc.. Their framing device is unique, however, and they stand out as a result. (Their sense of humor certainly helps, but humor alone usually won’t carry a discussion show very far.) Similarly, Happy Jacks RPG Podcast (again, NSFW) stands out by having two segments: Roughly an hour of roundtable discussion, followed by about an hour of reading and replying to listener emails and questions—something few other podcasts focus on. The Gameable Pixar Podcast (neé The Gameable Disney Podcast) breaks down animated films into their fundamental story elements, and looks at how to use those in tabletop games. Those unique approaches keep me coming back to these shows every week.

Both of my podcasts aim to stand out by approaching their subject in unique ways. Saving the Game has an obvious, naturally unique framing device: No one else (that we know of!) discusses tabletop roleplaying games and collaborative storytelling within a Christian context. (There are plenty of “geeky Christian” podcasts out there, of course—we’ve had several on as guests, and The Crossover Nexus combines even more of those voices.) We also make an effort to acquire expertise—we’ve joked about our nine-page outlines before, but that level of research and detail makes us a resource as much as entertainment. The MacGuffin Factory, on the other hand, is in a crowded field of writing podcasts. It stands out by focusing on writing hooks, framed by a given sort of macguffin and/or plot device each episode, delivered rapid-fire and designed to inspire other storytellers.

One final trap I want to warn you about: Shock value. Many “two dudes talking about stuff” podcasts try to lean on crude humor and an ‘Explicit’ iTunes tag to attract attention. That worked in the ’90s for rock and rap albums, when the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” sticker was shorthand for “this music will annoy your parents and mark you out as a cool kid”. Problem is, the Internet’s too full of NSFW material for that trick to matter anymore; it’s lost its punch. A few people will titter over crude jokes and stick around for a bit, but if you don’t have anything to say between those jokes, your podcast won’t go especially far. If your natural voice lends itself to an ‘Explicit’ tag, that’s absolutely fine—I listen to several excellent NSFW podcasts, and linked to two above!—but don’t depend on being grosser than everyone else to stand out and seem interesting (or worse, ‘edgy’.) Trust me: There’s always someone more disgusting on the Internet.

Moving forward

That’ll do it for this post—I wrote a lot more than I expected, to be honest! I’ve got more coming, so stay tuned for discussion of consistency; professionalism; engaging listeners; listener self-identification (and why politics and religion are so dangerous); passion vs. statistics; and more. I’ll also make sure to write up some practical advice on recording and editing using Audacity, screenshotting the episode I’m currently editing and demonstrating why I do what I do.

If there’s anything else you want to have me or Peter weigh in on, please let us know about it in the comments, or via Twitter, Facebook or email. And if you’ve happened across this post because you’re looking for podcasting advice, take a minute to listen to our show—if it’s a topic you’re interested in, of course!

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