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Rush Limbaugh has, at various times, claimed credit for the elections of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump—and given how narrow electoral margins have been recently, he may be right. But now, in a free-market fashion that even conservatives have to salute, an explosion of podcasting is causing the tide to turn.

Progressive Podcast

So here are a few tips to the up-and-coming crop of progressive podcasters (I’ve been contacted by dozens this past year) from somebody who’s been doing it (on live radio, live TV, and two different versions [paid and commercial-funded] of our podcasts) for around 15 years.

  1. Forget that you’re a liberal: it’s about the show, not the content.Yes, I know that today’s so-called conservatives are bent on destroying the American way of life, installing single-party rule, wiping out our civil liberties, and leading us into wars around the world just to enrich the military-industrial complex. But while a thoughtful and in-depth analysis of today’s political situation may go over well in a classroom, it can be death in a podcast.

Your podcast must be relentlessly entertaining. It must conform to the rules of broadcasting, from voice modulation to clean transitions to resets of topic if a single podcast covers more than one. Keep things popping.

Your podcast must be relentlessly entertaining. It must conform to the rules of broadcasting (podcasting is, after all, a form of broadcasting), from voice modulation to clean transitions to resets of topic if a single podcast covers more than one. Keep things popping.

  1. Give them a forehead-slap every hour: have brilliant progressive content.While content won’t beat presentation, it does keep bringing them back, day after day, assuming good presentation. Podcast listeners want to be entertained, but political podcast listeners also want to be educated. They need help winning the water cooler wars. They want to know the history, details, and practical application of their ideology.

My rule of thumb is that in every podcast I must give my listeners at least one or two good solid “forehead slaps”—a bit of information where the listener slaps their forehead and says, “Jeez, I never knew that!” or, “I knew that, but I never thought of it that way!”

  1. Bring a chainsaw to the knife fight. Always carry something to the show that’s bigger than the obvious issue being discussed, and be mercilessly interesting. See things in some incredible new way, continuously drop mind-boggling information, and entertain people in ways they hadn’t expected. Figure out what’s your “unfair competitive advantage”—what you know, what you do, how you present—and use it ferociously. As Phil Tower, one of my old mentors, often said, “Be unpredictable!”
  2. Beware of guests who agree with you.When I was first on the air back in 2003, I figured out that a guest I agree with will either take over the show or create boring, “ahhh, yeah,” talk radio. But it wasn’t until around 2005 when Michael Medved had me on his show to argue with him—and told me he only seeks out guests to disagree with—that I got my own forehead-slap about how critical it is to be selective about guests, if you’re going to have them at all (I rarely do).

Sure, Larry King and Terry Gross do guests brilliantly. But Terry Gross and Larry King have a Very Rare Talent—the ability to be nearly transparent/invisible in a way that draws from their guests deep and unexpected levels of intimacy and detail. If you must have guests on your show, try first to limit them to people with whom you strongly disagree, unless you have that Very Rare Talent.

If you must have on sympathetic people with whom you agree, follow the late Art Bell’s formula and get only people who have such startling, brilliant information and first-class presentation that they’ll hold your listeners with you. But remember the risk: unless you’re as good as Chris Matthews at controlling a conversation, it’ll be their show and not yours during the time they’re on, and, because of that, the quality of your show will vary depending on your guests.

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  1. Have a take.Whenever Louise (my wife/producer) and I listen to a podcast, our first question is, “What’s this guy’s take on the topic?”

What’s truly amazing—and distressing—is the number of podcast hosts who just ramble on, seem to agree with every one of their callers/guests, or just read the news and complain about it; they never firmly stake out their own unique, original, and thought-provoking take on a topic, and that will kill a podcast.

  1. Throw away the rulebook.Harper’s Magazine ran an article years ago about how a liberal talk show could be successful by following a particular formula in a particular way. While the article did a decent job of creating a formula for a program, it entirely missed the power of personality. Nobody is ever going to listen to talk radio or a podcast because they like the format: it’s the talent that makes the show, and the information that carries it.
  2. Learn the rules.That said, it is still important to know the rules and formulas followed in the talk industry, because broadly the “rules” of talk radio are the same as the “rules” for a good podcast. Just as Picasso learned how to draw with classic technique and accuracy before he broke the rules and invented his own style, it’s critical to understand the systems pioneered by talk radio legends like Val Geller, Mike Malloy, and the late Jean Shepherd (whom you can still hear on the web in archive). Deconstruct other hosts’ podcasts to find their internal roadmap (Michael Savage is fascinating in this regard). Read Val Geller’s books. Study the trade publications like Talkers and Podcast Business Journal. Learn the rules so when you break them it’s done intentionally.
  3. Talk to your listener, not your co-host or engineer.Podcasting, like radio, is the most intimate of mediums. While a TV screen is “over there,” radio and podcasts create an “in here” imaginative process inside the listener’s head. Done well, it stimulates your mind and touches your heart. Subtleties of inflection, timing, and the use of silence can paint a picture or fill a hall in the listener’s imagination. Television only poorly recreates images on a distant box: a good podcast is experienced as a caress, a whispered murmur, or an electrifying and inspiring call to arms. It’s up-close and personal.

For example, television doesn’t use compressors/limiters to homogenize its audio anywhere near as completely as do radio and podcast processors: Uniquely in radio and podcasts, some of the normal volume-based emphasis is stripped from our voices.

To replace that lost emphasis, personalities must use tonal modulation, which the listener’s brain seamlessly converts back into a perception of volume modulation. This is why “radio voice” tonal modulation sounds overdone in person, on the phone, or on television (remember Ted Knight?), where the volume modulation is left intact. It’s only on radio or a podcast recorded with studio processing that it sounds normal.

And, like politics, podcasting isn’t something one can learn to do well overnight. Anybody who knows how much hard work and practice goes into producing effortless-sounding talk stands in awe of our industry’s truly genius-level talents like Mike Malloy, Jim Bohannon, Randi Rhodes, and Howard Stern.

  1. Keep it current. Sign up today for newsletters and news notifications from the top progressive websites.And get the news reports from the right-wing think tanks as well. Get on all the email lists you can. Read voraciously, and daily.Remember that talk radio grew out of local news and community affairs programming, and political podcasting grew out of talk radio, and both generally must be grounded in the topics of the day.
  2. Don’t worry about the competition. I’ve known people whose goal was not to produce their own unique podcast, but instead to imitate somebody else. If there’s any one key to creating a compelling podcast that people keep coming back to over and over again, it’s to be genuine. Just be yourself. Don’t overthink or try to strategize your positions; just follow your core values and instincts (while being informed, of course). Listen to your gut. Read to your listeners’ comments. Notice what causes people to share your podcast with others.

America is waiting, so get started. There’s a huge audience out there for progressive podcasts, and they’re waiting for their forehead-slaps, their ammunition for the water cooler wars, and their validation of a progressive worldview. Tag, you’re it!

thom hartmann

Thom Hartmann
Independent Media Institute

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.