How to make podcasts that people will actually listen to, according to Ira Glass

Preventing boredom is somewhat of an obsession for Ira Glass: “the moment that someone stops listening,” as he puts it.

The founder and longtime host of This American Life has become a poster boy for podcasting. And he’s done it by developing a signature playful approach to sequences. Rather than using the standard “narrator, tape, narrator,” he jumps around, making up his own rules.

He’s even concerned as he stands on stage fiddling with his misbehaving iPad, remarking self-deprecatingly that “this is probably the most boring piece of entertainment to have been on this stage.”

But the university students in The Studio at The Sydney Opera House were too stunned that they were sitting in a journalism workshop with Ira Glass to be annoyed.

A girl leans over and whispers, “I’ve listened to every episode of This American Life and have his quotes all over my wall.”

Ira Glass speaking at The Studio, The Sydney Opera House

Working his way up from an intern at NPR, Glass first put TAL to air in 1995 from WBEZ in Chicago. Now it is broadcast from New York on more than 500 stations to about 2.2 million listeners worldwide, including those of our very own ABC.

Glass goes into detail on how he does it. “Instead of using a news format with the most important bit of info at the top, we use a sequence of events to tell a story, beat, by beat.”

Making a compelling narrative is a mixture of finding the right dialogue and the right emotion at the right time.

“Great quotes don’t just occur in nature,”: he says. “You have to draw it out.”

Luckily for audio nerds, Glass advises that great quotes are something you can “bait” for by “constantly mapping out the story in your head even before you record”.

Serial changed the game. The true crime investigation brought podcasting to a whole new audience as it “drew on the popularity of binge-watching”. It turned into a podcast gateway.

Its format, like that of TAL, also subverts the journalism-school teaching that reporters shouldn’t insert themselves into the story.

“In a good story, you’re actually the most accurate witness to what you’re documenting.” Glass said.

Another subversion: Glass calls the line between entertainer and serious journalist “bullshit”. You can be both, he says.

Good podcasting relies on “narrative and idea”, he says. Does the plot have tension, drama and surprise? Does it have universal themes?

His advice to younger journos is “to create as much as you can”, even though it will be terrible when you start.

“If you’re not writing something every two weeks, then you’re in trouble.”

Overall he’s encouraging.

“It’s an enormously exciting and fluid time. Because the entire [media] industry is collapsing, you can just get out there and make things.”

Editors note: If you want more resources on making a great podcast, here are a few websites for your reference.

1. Read Ira Glass’s manifesto on storytelling.
2. My favourite takeaway is about using sound and music effectively, not distractingly — let it rise on the action, and drop away on the idea. Find out more at Transom.org.
3. For tips and tricks on storytelling and radio equipment visit This American Life.
4. Write, listen, edit and repeat. You can’t improve without practice.

Eliza Berlage is the Walkley’s program coordinator.