Step 2: Choose Episode Topics

Episode Planning Guide

Amy Domestico avatar
Written by Amy Domestico
Updated over a week ago

Make evergreen content the foundation of your content catalog

As a podcast host, you’re standing on the shoulders of radio giants but have a few key advantages. The first, is that podcasts can be consumed by listeners at their leisure on their device of choice. Before the invention of digital audio files and online distribution (web pages, RSS feeds, the iTunes catalog, etc), you could only listen to what the radio station played. This means that radio hosts had to rely on a “hit economy” and try to win over large, live audiences.

Search, RSS feeds, iTunes, and other discovery services have changed how people consume media. Now, listeners are surfacing episodes on their own time. If a new listener comes along and likes your show, they can find and listen to all of your other shows.

If you isolate an audience and create compelling content to meet their needs, your show can become a valuable media property. In fact, your show can become more valuable than shows that seem like massive hits. The key to creating a catalog of shows that build value over time is to focus on evergreen content.

Evergreen episodes are tightly planned around a timeless theme. For example, This American Life has a show titled “Mind Your Own Business” that features storytelling about meddling on a personal and national level. These are themes listeners can enjoy now and years from now. Call Your Girlfriend’s “Body Talk” episode wraps news stories from the week in the broader context of thinking about how women’s bodies are portrayed in the media. The key to what makes these episodes evergreen is the fact that the episodes have a core topic. This topic is laid out in the title and description of the episode and can be found by potential listeners via search. Even if these shows are broadcast live, most of the listens will happen as they syndicated across multiple channels (iTunes, Stitcher, etc) and downloaded by listeners who are searching for the content topic featured in the episode. As you hone your craft, you’ll learn how to create episodes that are tightly-focused around a topic and write titles and descriptions for those episodes that help listeners find your content as soon as you publish it and down the road.

In Ellen’s case, she’s going to provide practical information for parents and coaches of child athletes. Her interviews, advice, and analysis will find an audience over time. She’ll notice a jump in downloads for certain episodes at the start of football, Little League, and basketball season because potential listeners will be searching for information. As listeners find a single episode that fits their interests, they’ll explore the rest of her catalog. Ellen will gradually accumulate listeners.

If you are creating a traditional radio show, you will focus on a listener’s live experience. You might broadcast more than once per week because you want to have conversations about timely topics - What happened in last night’s NFL draft? How did listeners react after the President’s speech? What course of action should the Mayor take after last night’s events? You’ll have listeners call-in live so they can participate in the conversation. You’d like for listeners to download previous shows but most of your listening will happen live because the content is designed to benefit live listeners. Check out Hagmann and Hagmann Report and BostonRed. The live shows you listen to on the radio are also an example of this format.

Most likely, you’ll combine traditional radio and new media strategies. You might have live callers in your podcast and edited segments in your live show. Pull out your ideal listener personas and ask yourself: “Would my listener want to engage live or download this podcast?”. After you have a sense of when and where your ideal listener would consume your content, you can begin to make choices about the format of your show.

Select episode topics with authority-building in mind

Pretend you are at a cocktail party and you start a conversation with a group of people about cooking and kitchen renovations.

You ask “What are the different types of stoves I should consider?”

Tom, Shaun, Sherry, and Tiff offer answers like “induction”, “electric coil”, and “gas”.

You answer a follow-up question: “What are the best induction stoves for under $2000?”

This time, only Sherry and Shaun answer. As you ask more questions like “When would I choose an induction stove over a gas stove?” and “Do you think induction stoves will phase out gas and electric cooking?”, only Sherry answers. It is clear that in this group of people, she is the trusted authority about kitchen renovation.

Believe it or not, authority on the Internet is built in the same way. If a listener is looking for information about Alzheimer’s and comes across a show by a doctor, that doctor and show will seem authoritative if there are many high-quality episodes that dive into nuanced topics related to Alzheimer’s. Each bullet point could be a show in itself and could spawn future, nuanced shows. As podcasters learn what audiences like, they can drill down into topics over time.

If a doctor, caretaker, patient, or parent of an Alzheimer’s patient were to embark on this podcast, they could choose which topics to focus on by starting with the broad topics and then drilling down when audiences showed an interest. For example, they might do a show about early-stage symptoms in general and then do a single show on each specific symptom. They might do the same for drugs, topics about caretakers, and other topics.

The key is to keep each episode tightly focused on a subtopic.  This way, the listener has a clear and distinct value to take away from each episode.

Case study

Ellen is ready to plan her first three shows and  is looking for evergreen topics that will help her build authority. Above, we showed you how to make a simple bulleted list of topics. Mind maps are a visual tool you can use to brainstorm topics.

We use because it’s free and easy to use. Start a new mind map add a broad topic. Check out how Ellen started her mind map.

Simple, right? Next, Ellen spent time adding subtopics. You should write as many as you can, if you try this.

Ellen has noticed that most of the trending topics, news notifications, and chatter in her community has been about pro sports. She decides to “zoom in” on football and connect that topic to the other ideas she’s listed.

Ellen realized that her podcast should mimic the structure of a football game. She’s going to have a half-time interlude, locker room interviews, a closing whistle, and game quarters. She thinks she should start the show by focusing on hot news items from the perspective of a parent who has kids involved in football. The rest of her show will consist of practical interviews and emotional storytelling. These themes have long-term staying power.

Now that Ellen knows she wants to focus on a few broad football topics related to children in sports, she can begin to verify that these are the right topics by doing some research.

Research and Prioritization

You should have an ongoing list of ideas. Some broadcasters create a “future file” where they store articles, notes, and lists. Others carry around a notebook or open up notepads on their phones when inspiration strikes. The goal is to come up with many ideas and then narrow those ideas down and strategize engaging content.

If you’ve defined your show mission broadly enough, there should be a large list of potential topics. Instead of covering topics based on your interests or trying to cover every topic under the sun, you should focus your energy on topics that are most important and valuable to your listeners. When you become an advanced podcaster, you’ll learn how to take topics you love but are not on the minds of listeners, and wrap them in stories that make them accessible and interesting. This kind of storytelling takes a lot of experimentation and information about your audience.

Here are a few steps you can take to stay on top of the news and events that are top-of-mind for your listeners. Use these tools to prioritize topics:

  • Make Google Trends your homepage. You can see what the world is searching for at-a-glance. Sign-up for email alerts about searches related to your show.

  • You should also use Google Trends as a topic exploration tool by doing searches for specific terms. For example, Ellen searched for “football” and scanned to the bottom of the results page. This is a great way to plan shows around what people care about and add depth to your content by covering a variety of subtopics over time.

  • Use Feedly to search for and subscribe to blogs your listeners might read. Ellen has subscribed to local sports, family fitness, and teaching blogs.

  • Follow Twitter users who resemble your ideal listener. Find them by searching for hashtags related to your podcast.

  • Stay on top of trends, memes, and hot conversation topics in your community. You can look at trending hashtags, top news stories, and what your ideal listeners are talking about and sharing.

  • Sign-up for Google Alerts. This is a service that pings you when articles about selected topics are published to the web.

  • Watch and listen to podcasts, music, and TV shows that are relevant to your show.

  • Participate in topical Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, and forums.

  • Keep track of holidays using this calendar. You can create rich content around lesser-known holidays, “this day in history”, anniversaries, and birthdays. (By the way, International Podcast Day is on September 30th!)

The nice thing about the BlogTalkRadio platform is that you can schedule and produce shows quickly. If you find that there’s a hot news story or meme circulating on the web, you can plan content around it and add to the conversation while it’s hot. That being said, you should be thinking about the long tail and the listeners you’ll capture months and years after you air your show.

Case study

Ellen knows that she should plan her topics for the next 3-4 shows so she can start planning and securing guests. Here are the themes she’s brainstormed so far in her mind maps:

She returns to these tools to prioritize her topics:

Strategy: Google Trends visualizes popular search terms. You can use it to compare the popularity of different topics you have in mind. Click around and see how many sub-topics you can find within a single area.

Tool:  Twitter and Hashtagify  

Strategy: On Hashtagify, search for broad topics. You’ll find related hashtags on Twitter. You should search for these hashtags on Twitter to see what kinds of conversations people are having.  

Tool:  iTunes search - Head to the “Podcasts” section of the iTunes store

Strategy: Take a look at other podcasts your ideal listener might like. These can inspire your topic, format, and outreach. Don’t be overwhelmed by the polish of these podcasts - they’ve had a lot of time and effort poured into them. With time, effort, and focus, your podcast might rise to the top of iTunes!

Ellen knows that each episode is an experiment and she needs to learn what her audience wants to hear. Since it is football season and there appears to be conversations on Twitter and searches about kids’ football, she decides to do four shows about different topics in football. As she analyzes the performance of each show, she can decide where to do a deep dive.

Here are the topics for Ellen’s first 4 shows:

  • Preventing childhood injuries on the football field

  • Helping your kids through football tryouts

  • Understanding high school and college football recruitment

  • Coaching 9-12 year-old football players

  • Sports nutrition for kid athletes

Ellen adds these to her editorial calendar. She still needs to plan each episode, write titles and descriptions, and secure guests.

If you take a look at Ellen’s calendar, she’s able to plan for Halloween and upload a Halloween-themed episode the day before the holiday because she knew it was coming. Ellen knows that she needs to set time to outline each episode, secure guests, record, edit, and upload the episodes. If this schedule is too ambitious, she can easily move to a bi-weekly show to give her more time in-between each episode.

The key is to plan ahead and provide a consistent structure for your listeners. As you create and air episodes, you will learn how your audience reacts to your structure. You can use metrics and feedback from your audience to iterate your format over time.

Action items

  • Start a “future file”.

  • Subscribe to podcasts, blogs, and news updates related to your topic.

  • Open your calendar and schedule your next 3 shows. Then, add blocks of planning time before each of those shows. If this schedule looks feasible, proceed! If not, it’s ok to adjust to an easier schedule and grow from there.

  • Spend time mind mapping and writing lists until you have topics for your next 3-5 shows.

  • Prioritize these topics using tools like Twitter and Google Trends.

  • Add these show topics to your content calendar and brainstorm possible guests.

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