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By: Tallie Gabriel on May 13th, 2020

Podcast Format Possibilities: Narrative

You don’t just want to make another branded interview podcast (and believe us — we don’t want you to, either). But if your podcast doesn’t follow the interview format, what are your other options? In this series, we’ll examine other types of engaging, entertaining podcast formats, so you can choose the right one for your show.

Hello! We’ve made it through another month of quarantine, and with the changing of the calendar page comes the final installment of this series. We hope these Podcast Format Possibilities pieces are helping stir up some creativity and inspiration for you, or at the very least, point you toward some great shows to listen to in these strange times!

Last but certainly not least, we’re taking a look at narrative shows. Narrative shows are, in my opinion (though I’d wager it’s a pretty well-shared one amongst showrunners), the hardest type of podcast to pull off well. I say this from experience scripting and co-hosting some Unthinkable episodes with Jay, and producing my own show, Hidden Connection

So what’s the big deal with narrative shows? If they’re so hard to make, why do showrunners often choose this format instead of a simpler approach? Venture on, dear reader, to find out.

What Does a Narrative Style Show Sound Like, and Why Would I Want to Make One?

Narrative shows tell — well, a narrative: a story told through careful scripting and editing. The host in this case acts as a narrator, weaving together bits of audio with their own monologue in order to carry the story forward. Stories can be either fictional or nonfictional. In either case, they require a lot of editing to piece together the full narrative. 

The narrative podcast format has been made famous by shows like NPR’s This American Life, Serial, Radiolab, Invisibilia, and others, in which hosts set listeners up with an introduction to a story, include sound bites from interviews with the story’s subject(s), and pepper in their own narration, conclusion, and opinions about the topic at hand along the way. 

This might sound a bit like a scripted monologue, and it should: the narration part of these shows is a scripted monologue. The key difference here is that a narrative show requires the showrunner to quilt interviews and other soundscapes into their episode to create a fully comprehensive story. While a narrative style show will feature plenty of sections of a host delivering solo scripted text, it will also interweave other types of audio to advance the underlying plot.

Narrative showrunners have the unique opportunity to shape and craft their stories using multiple elements (their own voice and script, their interviews, sound design, and so on). Showrunners who really excel at this format create some of the most impressive (and engaging, considering all of the work and multiple types of audio involved) listening material. If you’re like plenty of Americans (myself included) who were first struck by podcasts’ journalistic potential when listening to these expertly produced, so very human NPR shows, you probably already have a soft spot for this format and equate it on some level with a Very Good Podcast. Of course, there are challenges and requirements that, when skimped on, can make narrative shows Very Bad, but we’ll get to that in the next section. 

Narrative podcasts also present the opportunity for some extremely creative audio fiction. Some of my favorite examples are Welcome to Nightvale, a show delivered as if it’s real community updates for the fictional, spooky desert town Nightvale, and Naomi Alderman’s The Walk, a show in which the listener is the protagonist who must follow instructions in order to deliver a very important package. It’s part thriller, part exercise routine (it keeps you moving with your heartrate up!) and wholly unique. 

If you think fictional audio dramas don’t make sense for a branded show, think again: In The Electronic Propaganda Society, marketing sage Mat Sweezey turns marketing lessons, musings, and predictions into a Netflix-worthy fictional tale. 

If part of what’s drawing you to create a show is the opportunity to let your creative storytelling chops shine, the narrative format might be best for you. The format of narrative shows relies on some darn good storytelling. You want to tell the kinds of stories that get your audience to stick around. To stay, not just show up.

Challenges of Narrative Showrunning

If your org doesn’t have a particularly large podcast budget, or if you’re entirely self-producing your show, you’ll likely end up acting as show creator and editor of a narrative-style show. This means you will not only craft your questions, script the rest of your narration, and write the story you want to tell in a show format — it also means you will need to cut audio and perform sound design. Editing audio and perfectly tailoring a podcast’s soundscape is tricky and time-consuming, especially if you’ve never done it before. Getting the music swells just right — but not in a way that overwhelms the speaker — cutting out every extraneous “um,” and re-recording your narration to fit the cadence you’re going for are not the most glamorous of showrunning tasks! 

Additionally, if you’re going to opt for a narrative show that involves interviewing guests (like Unthinkable), make sure you don’t get stuck in a “talking head” executive interview format (you know, the whole reason you’re reading this series in the first place). Conducting interviews is just one piece of the narrative format pie; you have to be willing and able to add the rest of the ingredients in order to make the show palatable, and in order for it still to be considered narrative.

Because it requires so many moving parts and so much attention to detail, it’s easy for a narrative show to flop. A strong storyline has to act as the backbone of this type of show — all shows should have a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s especially important for a narrative show to connect all the moving pieces into one cohesive story. It’s all well and good to have a strong interview or a strong monologue, but if the episode’s separate elements don’t flow together, you risk creating a mediocre show without a strong story structure. The overarching idea of a narrative show is to craft a compelling story — if you don’t successfully map out and outline where you want the story to take your listeners (and identify how you’ll get there by uniting your show’s component parts), you risk losing their attention or leaving them confused about what to take away from your narrative.

Narrative shows require plenty of attention to detail and a unique level of responsibility for the showrunner. When shaping a story, you choose which elements and sound bytes to keep in and which to omit — and editing out certain pieces of dialogue can totally change the meaning of a statement. It can feel a bit like playing God as you choose how to tell a story, so showrunners must be especially mindful of doing a story justice, especially when dealing with non-fiction or when telling someone else’s story. Part of being an effective showrunner is giving your show a clear voice, and this might mean presenting a specific opinion about your show’s subject. When you have control over the narration, you need to make sure you’re injecting your opinion intentionally, with proper journalistic ethics in mind.

The Final Verdict

Narrative shows are the most in-depth in terms of workload and moving pieces, but when done right, they can create some truly stunning examples of audio storytelling. If you have a strong storytelling vision, scripting and editing skills (or the resources to hire a good audio editor or co-writer), and the ability to spend hours crafting and creating your show, you’re in the position to make something pretty exceptional. But if this sounds exhausting or just plain not worth it, there’s nothing wrong with that — there are plenty of other (in fact, we’ve highlighted four) valid show formats that absolutely still make for good listening material and might better fit your time availability and skill sets. 

And with that, congratulations! With all of that plus the info from the last four posts from this series in mind, you’re ready to go on to make your own great show in whatever format works the best for your skill sets, resources, and the stories you have to tell.

Curious about other podcast format possibilities for your show? Check out our past posts in the series: the Unscripted Monologue, the Unscripted Co-Hosted, the Scripted Monologue, and the Scripted Co-Hosted.


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