5 Things 2020 Taught Us About Podcast Storytelling

Peaks and valleys, and even higher peaks. 2020 was a roller coaster ride in the podcasting industry, just as it was everywhere else. Listenership dipped in the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic when, suddenly, we weren’t listening on our commutes anymore. But then, when it dawned on us that we were in this for the long haul, streaming and download numbers climbed back up to surpass pre-Covid levels. The reason for this is simple: Podcasts give us freedom from the tyranny of video. As Loren Cecil of Esquire puts it, “the world is looking for a sweet reprieve from screen life. Nothing better to end the day with than a voice gently relaying all kinds of higher knowledge to you. It’s a perfect way to pass the time whether you’re walking, cleaning, cooking, staring into nothingness.”

So, we  survived. As an industry, we made the cut. But what have we learned? And how will the lessons of 2020 be carried forward in the way we create and share podcasts in 2021? After  hundreds of urgent conversations with our clients in the branded podcasting space over the past year, we’ve identified several key learnings that we think are here to stay, at least until the next unprecedented global crisis tips the scales in an entirely new direction. 

1. Respect where your audience is at.  

People have lost loved ones. People have lost jobs. They may be facing eviction, or food insecurity. At the very least, their lives have undergone an upheaval unlike any this generation has seen before. By all indications, it will be some time before vaccines are widely distributed and things return to “normal.” So now is definitely not the time for the hard sell. Vancity Credit Union created the Good Money podcast series in the early days of the lockdown as a way to connect with their members during a very challenging time. “Vancity wanted to create a channel for people that helped ease their financial anxieties in a time of uncertainty, but also told the story of our connection to each other and the ways we can all help make our communities better,” said Scott Perchall, Director of communications for Vancity. “We really felt that a podcast would be an easy way to reach our members and anyone else who may have had questions they couldn’t get straight answers to anywhere else.”

2. Hosts Get Real. 

Being a real, authentic host is more important than ever. Zoom calls with toddlers in the background. Cats wandering across screens in the middle of online staff meetings. Business on the top, boxers on the bottom (if that…). In 2020, we saw it all. We now know each other’s secret taste in knick-knacks. We’ve literally been to the puppet theatre and seen the strings, so there’s no going back to that “professional” veneer we used to cling to so desperately. Newsflash: we’re human. This is why in 2021, hosts and guests need to work even harder to “lift the curtain” and get personal. Bryn Askwith and Michelle Horn are co-hosts of Where You Are, the Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre’s podcast for the BC Children’s Hospital. They’re also moms. On their podcast, they often share stories of their own parenting challenges because they know that hearing them admit fallibility makes their listeners feel less alone with their own fears, insecurities, grief, and stress.

3. Be helpful. 

More than ever, podcast producers and brands need to ask themselves: 

  • What does our audience need? 

  • Why should they spend their valuable time listening to this podcast? 

  • How can we help them? 

One key question we like to ask our clients that synchronizes this is: “What does the world need most that you are most qualified to talk about?”

Does your audience need to escape into an exciting fictional story that allows the realities of COVID to recede for a time? Will they gain valuable insight into how to bake a sourdough loaf? Get the latest on politics in Washington or Ottawa? Find out the safest way to travel and see family? On Out Travel the System, hosted by Nisreene Atassi, Global Head of Communications at Brand Expedia, every episode serves the brand’s mission to be as helpful as possible to their customers. Expedia knew their listeners had a lot of questions about travel safety, canceled trips, where to book in advance, and so on. So even in the height of a pandemic they were able to increase listenership on their podcast simply by giving people what they needed: useful and up-to-date information about travel, and some stories from the road to keep them inspired.

4. Diversify voices. 

The frustratingly polarized debate that surrounded the U.S. election highlighted the critical need for people with differing opinions and backgrounds to engage in intelligent cross-communication. We need meaningful dialogue, people, and lots of it, in order to find a path through the conflict. 

Twitter is #NotHelping

Facebook is an echo chamber. 

But podcasts, where people can engage in long form conversations, offer a beacon of hope for diversification in an otherwise binary landscape. Only by listening will we learn to understand one another. PosAbilities, a non-for-profit that offers community living support, understands the value of listening. This year they created Good-For-All, an in-house podcast featuring the voices of people with disabilities and their families. So whatever your diversity quotient is on your podcast, why not double it? Reach further in your search for hosts and guests from diverse cultures and perspectives. Don’t be afraid to put guests on the same episode who can (respectfully) disagree with one another. Now is the time to listen and learn. This is the only way things will get better. 

5. Take risks and get curious. 

We know it feels counterintuitive in the middle of a crisis. When change is afoot, the knee-jerk reaction for some of us is to cling to what we know. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that even when the rule-book gets set on fire, people have this incredible capacity to adapt. Customers adapt. Audiences adapt. So looking ahead to 2021, even established branded podcasts are doing some deep soul searching. Disruptors, a newly revamped RBC podcast hosted by John Stackhouse, takes a profoundly inquisitive approach to the future, interviewing experts and business disruptors who are using tech innovation to fuel Canada’s economic recovery. It’s bleeding-edge content from one of Canada’s oldest banks. Ask yourself: What are the priorities of your podcast? How will it adapt or change with the times? Think about your role in relation to the global upheaval we’re all experiencing. You might not be who you think you are. Allow your podcast to be an exploratory brand mechanism. Let it lead the way forward by asking questions — not by lecturing or clinging blindly to a format. 

Famed actor & comedian Amy Poehler once said: “Sometimes painful things can teach us lessons that we didn’t think we needed to know.” 2020 has been a terrible year, but our industry has survived (and thrived). We’re going to take some of the lessons learned in 2020 to hone our craft and tell better stories, inspire more listeners and ride the podcast wave into 2021 with our head held high. 

Care to join us? 

Jen Moss is JAR Audio’s Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer