Considering the Role of the Narrator in Podcasting

We’re all familiar with the podcasting host, a.k.a. the narrator. It’s that assured voice who weaves in and out of the story, stick-handles the interviews with aplomb, and who often talks directly to the audience, letting us know that we’re in good hands.

Sometimes the narrator is an omniscient “voice of God” talking to us, explaining all the ins and outs of the story. Sometimes it’s a first-person voice, sharing intimate thoughts and feelings with us as we move through the content. Both these established approaches to narration can work well in audio storytelling, whether we’re talking about interview-based or documentary-style podcasts. But they are used so consistently they’ve become a kind of spoof-worthy trope, begging the question – what else is possible?

In the vast majority of podcasts, very little consideration is given to the role of the narrator in relation to the content of the story – which is a huge missed opportunity. After 20 years of writing, producing, and editing audio stories, I now approach every new podcast project with a few key questions specifically about the narrator:

  • Who IS this person narrating the podcast?

  • Why am I listening to them?

  • What is his/her/their relationship to the topic, or the guest?

  • What role are they playing in the story?

  • What sort of journey are they on?

  • Why should I trust them?

This last question is especially important.

With podcasting, the key to engagement is building audience trust. As we know, trust cannot be bought, it must be earned organically. So here’s the thing: a story or interview feels more organic if the narrator takes an approach that is more curious, more inquiry-based, and less omniscient. After all, nobody likes a know-it-all. Audiences respond well when narrators reveal more of themselves – their doubts, questions, the things they don’t know about the story or guest but want to discover.  A great example of this is the epic amount of second-guessing done by narrator Brian Reed in the hit podcast S-Town. He agonizes over whether the main character of his story is a hero or a charlatan. And as he wrestles with this question, so does the audience. We are with him, step by painful step.

Podcast audiences are a sophisticated bunch. They’re easily bored, and they have a LOT of choices. That’s why it’s imperative for audio storytellers to think carefully about the role of the narrator, and to change it up sometimes.

Jen Moss is the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of JAR Audio.

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