Ira Glass spills the beans on what makes an engaging podcast

Chris Duncan

After creating three of the most successful podcasts of all time — This American Life, Serial and S-Town — Ira Glass finally came clean on how exactly he did it with a talk at South by Southwest.

Before Glass began, he was sure to make the audience know he’s not exactly an expert in what he was about to talk about.

“Podcasting is like the wild west now, with a lot of people trying a different thing,” Glass said. “I would like to say my coworkers and I had a smart plan that would make us different, but I’d be lying. We had no plan.”

Kicking off the presentation with a set of slides, Glass emphasized the importance of stories. Although Glass said everything on the podcast is fact checked, he wouldn’t label what he does as reporting, but storytelling. Glass mixed a story live in the front of the audience, transforming a dull story into something that makes the listener want to stick around.

“I figured this out in my 20’s, and I quickly realized that I hadn’t had an original idea,” Glass said. “They do it in every magazine. I was talking to a friend in the park and he said that (storytelling) is in literally every sermon ever.”

Moving onto his second point, Glass emphasized that failure in podcasting is necessary. Showing the audience a list of stories that would go into one show with several cut out, Glass said that sometimes stories die right from the start due to bad interviewees. However, he reiterated that these experiences are necessary to learning how to properly tell a story.

Glass also discussed the ability to know when content is of a high quality, telling the audience they need to amuse themselves. Glass said that in American news, there’s generally a strict division between serious content and humorous content, something he thinks should change.

“First of all, they’re not accurately describing the world,” Glass said. “Funny moments keep the world interesting, make people want to tune in. I mean come on, have a laugh… you don’t have to choose between serious things and (funny) things, you can do both.”

Showing the audience photos and video clips of many of his company’s experiments, Glass said that it’s important to try new things in order to make stories interesting. He’s previously performed radio shows with dancers live, and even put together a 14-minute musical with Lin Manuel-Miranda.

Glass attributes his accidental success to how the show mirrored the style of the internet. The adoption of that aesthetic is extremely common, making audiences feel like they’re having a one-on-one conversation with whatever they’re listening to or reading.

Wrapping up his talk, Glass shared with the audience the true scale of podcasts. His team’s original goal with Serial was to get 300,000 downloads per episode. Serial averaged around 16,000,000 million downloads per episode in its first season. According to Edison Research, 1 in 4 people in American has listened to a podcast in the past month.

“Our theory on what we’re making is that there are a lot of different ways to do this. But when it comes to narrative, podcasting can be TV. If you give people good narratives and quality, they will come and listen.”