How to Develop a Podcast Episode Format Listeners Love
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It’s an odd detail to remember perhaps, but one of the things I most remember from my time with Anthony Bourdain was him sitting in the back of a cab. It wasn’t a special cab. It wasn’t a particularly visible cab, either. It was nighttime, and Bourdain had just arrived in Mexico. I know that because, just a few minutes prior, he’d used a few short bursts of narration and B-roll to set the stage for the events to come.
Pretty typical of the cold open for Bourdain’s show.
Next came the opening credits. That part was familiar — always the same across every episode of Parts Unknown on CNN.
Then, the cab. He was sitting in the back, asking some simple questions and getting some equally simple replies, but they were profoundly revealing.
About 90 minutes later, I closed my notebook and leaned back on my couch. I’d gotten everything I needed. But since Netflix commands my attention, it rolled me past Mexico and into the next location. What’s the harm in spending a little more time with the master? I’ll find a way to tie this back to my work.
Thus, I completed my first “extraction.” Of course, I had no name for it back then. (I’m still not convinced it’s not a real thing, with a real name, that someone in a dark editing bay somewhere in LA could probably define for me quickly. Uhh, ya man. It’s called an “episode graft.”) But since we do all this digital stuff for a living, you and I, we get to make it up as we go: I’m calling it an extraction.
An extraction is the process of observing and then documenting the underlying framework of an episode.
Although I couldn’t actually sit down to talk to Anthony Bourdain back then (I made my first extraction while he was still alive, too), I could sit with his show, and a pad of paper, and my forefinger lingering over the pause button. I spent 90 minutes on an episode that was far shorter than that, watching a few minutes, pausing, and documenting a few elements to describe what I’d just seen. The goal was to document (or extract) the entire rundown of his episodes.
00:00 to 00:22 — COLD OPEN — Intrigue the viewer, set the stakes and themes, and end with a smash cut to the show intro.
00:22 to 00:45 — SHOW INTRO — theme music / IDing the name of the show and the host
Those sections were easy. They have overt names across most programs. The cold open is a common convention. The show intro is unmistakable: It’s right there, every time. The rest of the episode, however, would be trickier to understand. After all, it’s not like Bourdain’s show — or most shows we admire — identify the names and purposes of each component piece. But make no mistake: They’re there. Find them, and you’ll find the underlying framework of the entire show — one that both the original creators and YOU can use to create a consistently great series (not to mention, refer to whenever you want to make a change to evolve the show).
And so, there I was, trying to make sense of why my storytelling hero was sitting in the back of a dimly-lit cab, bouncing on some Mexico backroads, asking some simple questions about the driver’s life and home.
00:45 to 2:30 — A BLOCK — ????
Hmm … what was this for? Why meet this cab driver? Why did this content make it into the final episode when I know they captured hours upon hours of footage that didn’t? There’s got to be a reason. What is it?
Throughout the remainder of the episode, I took the usual tour around various physical, intellectual, and emotional places with Bourdain. Looking back at my notes now, I can see it more clearly: A BLOCK is where we meet the Local.
The Local is one of two types of subjects found on travel shows, documentaries, and journeys of all kinds. (You, a B2B marketer, probably don’t make a literal travel show in which you move between physical places. You might, though, explore a set topic or niche, in which case you’re on a different kind of journey — a journey of understanding. It’s a journey nonetheless, so you should pay careful attention to the two types of travel show subjects.)
The Local is someone who embodies the themes and geographies of the episode. They’re quite literally a local: someone who feels it, navigates it, and is regularly affected by it — whatever (or wherever) “it” is that you’re exploring. That cab driver talking to Bourdain was unknowingly playing the role of a Local for the show, simply by being a local to that city. Other common locals on Bourdain’s shows included restaurant patrons, musicians, business owners and employees, fishermen, and more. By looking at a certain place or certain themes through the eyes of someone who lives it, we see WHAT is happening.
The other type of subjects are Guides. (Again, I’m making this up: Is this an official industry term somewhere else? Perhaps. Moreso, however, it’s what I ripped out of Bourdain’s show during my “extraction” exercise.) Whereas Locals show us what is happening, Guides tell us why it’s happening. They can comment directly on trends and themes. For Bourdain, these were the journalists, authors, academics, and others who could step back from the daily lives of, say, living in Mexico and discuss the forces at play that would cause that cab driver to say what he said and to live the way he did.
For Bourdain, the Locals were often fellow chefs, people with whom he’d developed such a deep bond that he could be frank enough, vulnerable enough, and fun enough to discuss things in plain language. No need for pretense. This wasn’t a performance. The cameras would fade into oblivion. This was two friends just hanging out, philosophizing about why things are the way they are. (The drinks and food often helped.)
So there it was, sitting in front me the whole time. A BLOCK of a great episode would introduce the viewer to the Local. Later, in B BLOCK, we’d meet the guide. With both voices now “available” for the edit and for the viewer, we could traipse around a location, dive deep inside some important topics, and reach some refreshing and emotional places, together with the show’s most “macro-level” guide: Bourdain himself.
I scribbled in my notebook, my brain experiencing that good kind of hurt when something finally makes sense but might escape forever unless you document it.
00:45 to 2:30 — A BLOCK — MEET THE LOCAL
Underneath, I added some “beats,” some smaller moments that fit into the larger block of time.
– A gripping quote or shot of B-roll
– Establish the setting and who the person is
– A major question evoking the entire episode’s theme
– A few follow-up moments to advance action/sequence of story events
– Music scoring the entire thing, rising to finish the block
– Transition with B-roll to the next block
Was this exactly their plan? Did Zero Point Zero (the production company behind Parts Unknown) have a documented episode rundown like this? Probably. Maybe? Perhaps. I have no idea.
Doesn’t matter. I performed my best attempt at episode surgery. A rundown removal. A story-ectomy. My scalpel was my sight, my table was my notebook (also, my table was a table). My qualifications? A useful self-delusion that I could create a show as good as my hero’s.
I think we could all benefit from some useful self-delusion.
Rarely, if ever, do we shape our shows to contain any kind of format, whether overtly known to the audience or just implicit (like Bourdain’s), intended only to guide the creators towards the best possible outcome. We leave things to chance. We fire up a microphone or a camera and swear we can wing it, because “we don’t want to feel overly produced” and “we like the authenticity of it” or “we don’t have the resources for lots of fancy editing later.”
The thing is, we see time and time again how deeply resonant shows achieve that sense of emotional attachment between creator and listener without doing lots of expensive editing. Instead, they have a plan as they head into the process. That allows them to capture better material with greater intent — and yes, edit afterwards as time and money allow.
Perform an extraction. Find the show or shows that inspire you most, or that most resemble what you aspire to build. Document their rundown. What are the blocks? How long do they run? What are their overt purposes for the viewer? Are there any beats, any smaller moments that help execute the block?
Extract the rundown of your favorite show, not so you can make a cheap derivative, but so you can see as plain as day that they have a plan, an original approach, and a refreshing care for craft. Because you do, too.
Then, once you have that format in hand, you can imbue it with everything that makes you YOU, everything that happens when you bring your full self to the work.
We’re all on a journey to create the best possible episode. What if we started by extracting it instead? It’s not the end of your journey, but it’s a damn great place to start.
To go deeper into the ideas of episode formatting and segmentation, we suggest the following episodes of our podcast, 3 Clips, where we make sense of great podcasts, a few little pieces at a time: Binge Mode | StartUp | Radiolab. You can stream the episodes at those links, or listen and subscribe here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Overcast | Stitcher
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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