Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Recently, I saw a quote in the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2022 that stood out to me.
It says: “In our qualitative research in both the UK and US, it was striking how many younger people regularly listen to The Joe Rogan Experience [podcast], even as they worry about some of the content.”
One participant in the survey commented: “I listen to Joe Rogan a lot but he’s not a reliable news source. He’s just some guy with a podcast.”
Anyone with much interest in podcasts will probably be familiar with Joe Rogan and his – how should we put this? – controversial show. But if his name isn’t ringing any bells, The Joe Rogan Experience is one of the most listened-to podcasts ever. It’s fronted by American comedian Joe Rogan, who has been under fire for his divisive views, offensive slurs, and spreading misinformation (particularly about Covid-19). Some music artists even boycotted Spotify as a result.
The reason I’m saying this is because it shows how as you build your podcast, you’re building a whole personality, brand and reputation with it.
It’s never been easier to make a podcast – anyone can rant into a microphone from the comfort of their own bedroom and release their content into the wild. So, inevitably, there will always be great content and not-so-great content to choose from. But where do we draw the line between the good and the bad? And how can you ensure that you and your podcast team (producers, scriptwriters, social media marketers etc.) are being responsible?
Here are my top tips to keep you on the right path…
Think like a journalist (a good one, that is)
I come from a journalism background and, in all honesty, I don’t think podcasters are that different to journalists. In fact, many journalists are podcasters – Louis Theroux, Stacey Dooley, Alix Fox and Victoria Hollingsworth to name a few. Whether you host a chat show, true crime series, or a self-help podcast, most content could equally work as a tabloid column, radio package, or as part of a TV magazine show. After all, regardless of what medium you are using, we’re all just trying to tell a story.
So, with that in mind, you need to ask yourself a question: are you being a good journalist or a lousy one?
- Using a clickbaity title to draw listeners in, and then not actually delivering the content you’re teasing
- Failing to back up your ideas with reliable sources and quotes from experts
- Even worse, simply cooking up fake news
- Committing ‘churnalism’ AKA spewing out the same stories as everyone else (we want original content people!)
If so, you might want to rethink your strategy.
Remember, quality content always wins. Think about what makes your podcast unique. What are people getting from it? These are the aspects that will make your show special and turn a one-off listener into a loyal fan.
Don’t confuse fact and opinion
Let’s make one thing clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with having an opinion. Imagine doing a film review podcast that lacked any opinion. Or tuning into your favourite celeb’s podcast – whose personality you admire so much – and yet their episodes are bland, lifeless and robotic.
We need opinions in podcasting because opinions spark fresh ideas, original content, and curious thinking. But (and there’s always a but) you need to be responsible while doing this.
Let’s imagine you have a fitness podcast. In your next episode you’re going to be sharing your own home workout that you swear gave you abs in less than 5 days. Nobody else has tried it though, and you’re not a personal trainer or qualified expert. What do we think of this? Is your opinion valid here? And what would be the consequences of you sharing it? How would it affect you, your brand, and your listeners?
Of course, the strongest opinions are always supported by research and evidence. This could involve:
- Gathering facts and figures from a trusted source – and preferably adding your sources to your show’s footnotes, so that your listeners can check them out themselves
- Speaking to a qualified expert and getting a quote from them (or having them actually guest appear on your podcast)
- Acknowledging the opposition – if you can show you’re aware of counter-arguments and have considered them too, this presents you as a much more open-minded person, who has looked at all the evidence before making a decision, rather than getting lost down one narrow-minded narrative
- Adding context – for example, your statement might only be relevant today, or only true in a certain country
Adding disclaimers (where necessary) is also good practice. For example, if you’re giving mental health advice, there is nothing wrong with sharing your own thoughts and experiences. But chances are, you are not a therapist. So, remind your listeners of this and tell them, “remember folks, this is not medical advice. Visit your doctor if you need further help, or talk to a qualified expert. I’ve left some resources from the NHS in the show notes.”
Be transparent in ads
Podcasts must clarify when a message is sponsored. As stated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), “when ads appear during podcasts, they are subject to the same rules as ads on social media and video-streaming services.”
They also said: “Whenever a brand gives a podcast publisher any kind of ‘payment’, any subsequent podcast segments that refer to the brand should disclose this.”
If you fail to do this, your podcast could be in big trouble. This is what happened last year to Steven Bartlett, host of one of the biggest business podcasts ever, The Diary of a CEO.
The ad in question was for the meal prep company Huel (who feature as a sponsor for pretty much all The Diary of a CEO episodes). The ad began with the sound effect of a page being turned, followed by the words from Steven, “Just a quick one. For many years people have been asking for a coffee flavoured Huel …” and ended with “back to the podcast”. In the episode’s description, Huel was listed as a sponsor.
But the ASA didn’t think this was good enough and the ad had to be removed. They explained: “the beginning of the [ad] section did not include any upfront wording that obviously identified it as an ad. We further considered that the page-turn sound effects at the beginning and end were brief and quiet and therefore had the potential to be missed or overlooked.”
They also felt the advert was too similar in style and tone to the rest of the podcast. Therefore, it wasn’t obvious that Steven had transitioned into paid material.
We can all learn from this blunder. It shows how transparent you truly need to be. Make sure you clearly state when material is sponsored (say it loud and clear) and make it obvious that you’ve pivoted into an ad. And if you re-mention this brand later in your episode, you need to clarify that they are a sponsor again.
Reputation is important
When it comes to ads, it never hurts to do a bit of research. A nice sum of money from a sponsor might be tempting, but what if this brand is receiving backlash for something serious online? Would you still want to be associated with them?
There might be some obvious choices. If you have an environmental podcast, you won’t want to be sponsored by somebody caught up in fracking and fossil fuels. Or, if your podcast is all about feminism, perhaps avoid working with a company being accused of sexism.
But this doesn’t just apply to sponsors. Think about your podcast guests too. While there’s no need to hire a private investigator to find out their internet search history and who they voted for in the last election, you do need to use some common sense. A quick bit of research could be the difference between adding a meaningful guest to your podcast – who helps your show to grow – versus being accused of endorsing a questionable character at an insensitive time, which could ruin your podcast’s reputation.
Of course, people can change and you never, truly know if somebody you idolise now could be the internet’s most-hated person tomorrow. So, my advice? Just be mindful, be sensible, and think about where your audience and your own values lie.
If you would like more information about attracting the right sponsors to your podcast, check out this blog.
Use trigger warnings
Trigger warnings are becoming more common in today’s media. This is when a statement is made before potentially upsetting or traumatising content is shown, so that vulnerable people have the chance to back out.
There’s no reason why, where appropriate, podcasters shouldn’t be using trigger warnings. They’re particularly important if you’re sharing a story that isn’t ‘typical’ of your normal content. For example, let’s say you have a podcast about families affected by suicide. Listeners won’t be surprised if they hear upsetting, suicide-related conversations. On the other hand, if you have a podcast about home baking and your latest episode features a detailed story about suicide, your listeners may not expect this and could appreciate a trigger warning.
After all, with a podcast, it’s easy to forget that anyone could be listening. Podcasting is an intimate medium, and the words you say can really stick. This makes podcasting incredibly special – and powerful. Don’t overlook the influence that you have.
If 10,000 people have listened to your podcast, that’s not 10,000 versions of you. No, these people will have their own upbringings, personalities and backgrounds. Keep this in mind when covering sensitive topics, including (but not limited to):
- Sexual assault
- Dieting/eating disorders
- Body image/dysphoria
- Abuse (physical, verbal, emotional etc.)
- Homophobia, transphobia, racism and other forms of discrimination
While some consider trigger warnings to be over the top, I believe it’s better to be safe than sorry. It takes a few seconds to mention a trigger warning and could make a huge difference to your listeners. And remember, a trigger warning isn’t about telling somebody they shouldn’t be listening – it’s about giving them a choice. You’re putting them in control, which shows that you have respect for your audience.
Speaking of your audience, it’s a good idea to make your podcast as accessible as possible and user-friendly.
Consider things like:
- Colours – there are certain colour combinations that colour-blind individuals tend to struggle with (such as red paired with green). Try to avoid these in your podcast cover art and other visuals.
- Captions – do you have transcripts available for your podcast episodes? These are great for SEO purposes, but also help those with hearing impairments, or who struggle to keep up with your conversations. Think about captions for your social media content too.
- Language – this will be more relevant to some podcasts than others. But if, for instance, your podcast is really popular in Hispanic locations, you could consider making a Spanish version of your transcript. You can hear more about this in our recent webinar about multilingual podcasts.
Diversity is important too – in front of and behind the mic. Have a think about how representative your podcast truly is of your community. If your last 20 guests were all white, middle-class, English, straight and cis-gendered, could you ask yourself, ‘would a different perspective bring something refreshing, and interesting, to the table?’
Build up and out
Some would argue that podcasters have a responsibility to ‘give back’ to their community. In other words, you should be a proactive member of the podcasting space.
Don’t be afraid to follow other podcasters on social media, compliment their work, and engage with other members of your niche. This doesn’t have to be a competition. Getting your name out there and forming meaningful relationships is one of the best ways to grow your podcast brand, network (find future podcast guests, get invitations to podcast events etc.), and build a positive reputation for your show.
If you would like to know more about community management on social media, check out this blog post.
Support, don’t steal
On the subject of supporting others, your victories shouldn’t be at the cost of ripping others off.
You might have heard of Crime Junkie, one of the biggest true crime podcasts. Each episode, host Ashley Flowers retells a crime, taking us on a journey of twists and turns. However, it seems many of these stories weren’t hers to tell.
Back in 2019, Crime Junkie received multiple plagiarism allegations. Parts of their scripts were word-for-word copies of other authors, journalists and researchers’ work. As a result, a handful of episodes of the show have been taken down.
Podcasting is no different to other forms of media – you cannot steal other people’s work. If you want to reference somebody else, quote them properly and consider leaving sources in your show notes.
Know your music
Despite common myths, you cannot feature other people’s music in your podcast unless you have been given permission. This applies even if you aren’t making any money from your show. Some podcasters wrongly think that just using a snippet of a song is acceptable (under the ‘fair use’ claim) but this does not apply to podcasts. Doing so is copyright infringement – and that’s a hard no.
The best thing to do is to create your own original music, or if you really want to feature a particular song, get solid permission. Matt Hill explains how to do this near the end of this webinar. However, be aware that many songs come with a hefty price tag attached if you want to use them, so be sure to put some money aside in your podcasting budget if this is the route you want to take.
Hopefully, these tips have given you a clearer picture of the dos and don’ts of podcasting.
If this has left you full of anxiety and scratching your head over your podcast’s ethics, you can relax. Think about how many podcasters there are today. Lots. Think about how many of them have plenty of fun, make fantastic shows, and never hit any outrageous speedbumps. Lots! Besides, you should be podcasting because you have something great to offer your audience – so stick with that, and let’s see where it takes you.