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The publication of my book by Columbia University Press in Oct ’22 (now available globally, yay!) spurred me to write this blog post. It’s aimed at academics who are thinking of making a podcast. But the advice applies much more broadly, so feel free to adapt to your own!

Academics and educators are increasingly turning to podcasts to disseminate research and advance teaching and learning. Although it’s relatively easy to make a podcast compared to other media formats, it’s much harder to make a great one! There are over five million podcasts competing for our ears, so here are some tips to help yours attract and retain an audience.

Siobhán McHugh with host and co-creator Patrick Abboud at an early production meeting for The Greatest Menace. The post-it notes are colour-coded for narrative elements. The Greatest Menace has won/been a finalist in eleven awards.

1. Podcasting is an AUDIO medium.

(Yes, some people listen to podcasts on YouTube, and some podcasters post videos of their shows, but audio is core). So understand audio’s strengths and weaknesses. Audio is linear and temporal: it exists only in real time. That makes timing an essential component. If your show is too dense, with no pauses to let things sink in, listeners will zone out. Use music and “stings” as punctuation to highlight a point or switch direction. A pause is like a period/full stop; a music bridge signals a new paragraph.

2. The pillars of audio (and podcasts) are VOICE and sound.

Your voice tells us not just what you think (your words), but how you feel about it (your tone) and who you are (your accent, age, and personality). Be real: either improvise (from notes) or write a script that reflects how you actually speak. Using contractions such as “we’re going,” not “we are going,” will help you sound natural, not stilted. This confers authenticity and builds empathy.

3. Use MUSIC to set mood and regulate pace.

Make sure it’s tonally apt, not chosen by algorithm. It should not compete with the content. And it should begin and end in the right places for the dramatic or emotional impact you want. Wrong or poorly deployed music can make a podcast unlistenable.

4. Use SOUND to add imaginative and affective depth. 

Ambient sound—like birdsong, an airport, or a sporting event—can evoke pictures in the listener’s mind and take them instantly to a place or time. I once heard a podcast in which two academics discussed a guest’s journal article on how to interpret ‘infant vocalizations’. For thirty minutes, the author earnestly described the range of vocalizations in technical language. A five-second recording of a baby gurgling or crying from tiredness or hunger would have gotten the message across a thousand times more effectively and engagingly.

5. Podcasts do PERSONAL really well.

If your topic offers a chance to do in-depth interviews, where subjects can describe and reflect on their lived experience, that’s audio gold. Ask pertinent questions, listen with rapt attention, and know when to keep quiet, and you’ll have the bones of a great podcast right there.

6. INTIMACY is the most sought-after currency of podcasts.

It derives partly from the power of audio to connect with our imagination and our emotions as well as our brain, much more creatively than, say, the prescribed pictures of television. The sense of intimacy can be heightened if you listen alone, as most do, and heightened further if you listen via headphones. Studies show that people listening to the same content via headphones, not speakers, retain it more.

7. Production quality matters.

Audio has its own grammar and logic. Learn the basics of a good quality recording: simply placing the microphone too far away from the speaker can squander that much-vaunted intimacy. Wear headphones when recording so you can troubleshoot. You might, for example, turn levels down to avoid distortion. Learn to edit: most interviews benefit from being filleted, and editing speech is not much harder than cutting and pasting in Word. Listen back critically to your show—in real time—to see where it drags or gets repetitive, and cut accordingly. It’s like doing a final copyedit to a print manuscript. Adding theme music at the start and end, plus a few acoustic “stings” to signal new sections, is like formatting a longform article into an introduction, sections, and a conclusion: it adds pleasing shape.


Eighty percent of podcasts are “talk,” but even chat can be more engaging when it has a beginning, a middle, and an end—that is, when it has a story, rather than self-indulgent banter that doesn’t know when to stop. In The Rest is History, the historian hosts joust and joke, but they also stick to a cracker of a story, ad-libbed from copious research. Episodic narrative podcasts, whether investigative journalism (Wind of ChangeS-TownThe Greatest Menace*); memoir (Goodbye to All This); or fiction (HomecomingPassenger List) at their best are an art form as skilled as any web series. They rely on a plotty story (what happened); 3D characters (who it happens to, developed through word pictures and scenes); strong script or narration (a relatable host with an overt connection to the story); tight narrative structure; and, the one most newcomers overlook, evocative storytelling-through-sound (those scenes that yank us to that street, the mournful seagull that places us by the Atlantic). Also, it’s a collaborative art, and takes massive amounts of time to do well, so find the funding. (About $250 to $300,000 per series, or c. $50,000 per hour of narrative podcast is a realistic unit cost for premium shows: absurdly cheap compared to TV.)

9. Publication.

Before you make your podcast, think about your potential audience. Who do you want to hear this? What niche are you filling? Now, via social media and your networks, alert those people to your existence. First contact is usually visual: they will see your podcast’s artwork on their phone or other device, so make sure it is striking and apposite. Some people color-code, blue for corporate themes, yellow for pop culture, and red for true crime. Ponder a good title and tagline, and add show notes and a website that amplify your content. Then engage with your listeners: podcasting is two-way communication, even if that communication is asynchronous. Another of its great strengths is the parasocial relationship listeners develop with a host, a bond of trust and companionship much valued in an age of misinformation. Answer listeners’ questions and reply to their comments. If a listener community builds, talking to each other on social media, you’ve hit the jackpot.

10. LISTENING as emancipation.

I provoked laughter at a media conference when I summed up podcasting as “God’s gift to ironing.” It’s true! Most listeners multitask, a boon in a screen-driven world, as we acquire knowledge or immerse ourselves in story while commuting or walking the dog. But—especially if you are setting audio texts for students—it is important to learn how to listen critically. Ask students to note which parts made them get emotional and to think about why. Where did their attention wane? Which “character” did they warm to or dislike? How did they picture the characters?

I once played an award-winning audio feature, Dreaming of Fat Men, to a class. In it, producer Lorelei Harris invited self-described fat women who loved food to come into the studio, have a fabulous feast, and interact. The women describe with rich sensuality, irony, and humor their enjoyment of food, life, and each other’s company. My students listened avidly. At the end, one said: “They don’t sound fat.” It was a simple but profound reminder that audio can liberate us from preconceptions and judgment, conscious or not. Audio doesn’t even need you to be literate. Podcasts can harness these qualities to be a democratising and inclusive force in the world. So go start a podcast—just like books, there can never be too many!

For in-depth advice and analysis on making narrative podcasts, see my book, The Power of Podcasting: Telling Stories Through Sound (Columbia University Press 2022). It has before and after script iterations from award-winning podcasts I’ve worked on. This blog is republished from Columbia University Press Author Blog, 23 Dec 2022, with thanks to editor Maritza Herrera-Diaz.

Siobhán McHugh is honorary associate professor of journalism at the University of Wollongong and of media and communications at the University of Sydney. Narrative podcasts she has coproduced have won seven gold awards at the New York Festivals Radio Awards, among other accolades. They include The Last Voyage of the Pong Su, Wrong Skin, Phoebe’s Fall, The Greatest Menace, Gertie’s Law and Heart of Artness.

The Power of Podcasting: Telling Stories Through Sound

 NewSouth Books, UNSW Press, Feb 2022.

Order HERE with free intro chapter.

Newsflash: US and European edition coming October 2022 with Columbia University Press!

Hard to describe this book: it’s a crazily ambitious attempt at a cultural survey and critical analysis of podcasting as a new medium, that’s also a ‘creative confessional’, replete with insider takes on the artistic and editorial side of crafting podcasts, plus a homage to the global audio storytelling community, old and new. Here’s the sell.

Podcasting is hailed for its intimacy and authenticity in an age of mistrust and disinformation. It is hugely popular, with journalists, entertainers, corporates, celebrities, artists, activists and hobbyists all dipping a toe in the podcast pond.

But while it is relatively easy to make a podcast, it is much harder to make a great one.

In The Power of Podcasting, award-winning podcast producer and audio scholar Siobhán McHugh provides a unique blend of practical insights and critical analysis of the invisible art of audio storytelling. Packed with case studies, history, tips and techniques from the author’s four decades of experience, this original book brings together a wealth of knowledge to introduce you to the seductive world of sound.   

  • A rare blend of academic depth and insider professional knowledge, the book places podcasting in the broader context of radio and international audio storytelling.
  • McHugh draws on her extensive networks to interview key figures in podcasting. She also provides rigorous analysis of landmark podcasts including Serial, S-Town and The Daily.
  • The book includes actual script iterations and detailed description of the production process of the making of hit podcasts the author worked on (e.g. The Last Voyage of the Pong Su).
  • The book surveys current podcasting trends, including the push for inclusion, equality and diversity in the industry. It canvasses podcasts made from China to the Middle East.


Siobhán McHugh is an award-winning writer, documentary-maker, academic and podcast producer. She has won six gold awards at New York Festivals for co-produced podcasts including Phoebe’s FallWrong Skin and The Last Voyage of the Pong Su, and has been shortlisted for a Walkley, a Eureka science award, the NSW Premier’s Audio-Visual Award, NSW Premier’s History Awards and the United Nations Media Peace Prize (twice). She is the author of The Snowy, which won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction, and is founding editor of RadioDoc Review, the first journal of audio storytelling criticism. McHugh is Honorary Associate Professor in Media and Communications at the University of Sydney and Honorary Associate Professor of Journalism at University of Wollongong.

“Essential reading for anyone aspiring to make memorable audio. This is the ultimate guide to podcasting from a master of the craft.”– Richard Baker, multi-Walkley-awardwinning host of Phoebe’s Fall, Wrong Skin and The Last Voyage of the Pong Su

‘A love letter to the power of podcasting and audio, from one of the most experienced storytellers with sound.’ – James Cridland, editor of Podnews

‘An invaluable resource for anyone interested in understanding today’s global podcasting phenomenon. I learned so much.’ – Carolina Guerrero, CEO of Radio Ambulante Studios

‘Storytelling is Siobhan’s gift, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this book is written as an immersive narrative … the ideal book for students, trainers, researchers and anyone who wants to learn about the inner workings of podcasting.’

– Kim Fox, Professor of Practice, American University in Cairo and co-chair Podcast Studies Network

Much more than a how-to guide for aspiring podcasters … A reminder of the power of sound and the huge potential of the podcast medium.’ – Richard Berry, University of Sunderland

‘Absolutely fascinating, and a terrific lesson in how to tell good stories.

Whether you seek instruction, or simply to know why some podcasts are better than others, this book is for you. Considering how rapidly podcasting is developing, McHugh manages to keep it bang up to date, charting the latest trends and the ever-expanding honour roll of podcasts circulating around the world. For those looking for practical guidance in creating or improving their own podcasting, she populates the chapters with real, living, breathing people in all the highs and lows of their humanity, which is, after all, the secret to great radio, journalism and outstanding podcasting.

– Olya Booyar, Head of Radio, Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union

At home with newly arrived book! [Photo Kirk Gilmour]

This is a talk I gave in December 2020 for the Oral History Network of Ireland annual lecture. I discuss how to turn interviews into an audio story and how to use music and ambient sound to build a narrative. There’s a live demo (starts 37.01) of converting a ‘raw’ interview to a story, using music and chickens (!) to add mood and pace. For readers of my book, The Power of Podcasting: this is the interview with entertainer Ingrid Hart I describe in the Prologue!

Video of talk (50mins) is HERE. It contains lots of illustrative audio clips from three of my projects: the podcast Heart of Artness, about cross-cultural relationships behind the production of contemporary Australian Aboriginal art; the radio documentary series Marrying Out, about sectarianism and bigotry in Australia; and the radio documentary series Minefields and Miniskirts, about Australian women’s role in the Vietnam war.

I’ve co-authored a detailed academic article about the collaborative process behind making Heart of Artness here.

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