SXSW Panel Recap: Ira Glass

The king of podcasts on achieving audio storytelling success

What is the secret behind three of the most successful podcasts in history? According to Ira Glass, whose team created viral podcasts This American Life, Serial, and S-Town, there is none. But, he said there are a few helpful key points you can follow – seven to be exact.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Glass said he calls his podcast episodes “stories,” steering away from defining words like “journalism” and “documentaries,” because they are a combination of these and more. He added that stories are all about emotion, and what really drives stories is the forward momentum of events. Narrative suspense, he said, can get people to concentrate on things that might not even be interesting. An efficient plot that provokes an idea is essential. The best stories, he said, happened when a team member became obsessed with something.

Glass also discussed the importance of amusing yourself as a journalist while doing interviews to provoke emotion because “if you are in the story business you are in the feelings business. … Our job as journalists is to describe the world,” Glass said. He added that “funny moments make the world more interesting.” The first minute, he said, will determine if a listener stays, and usually they don’t test market but simply follow topics that interest them for as long as it takes. This has led them to learn the importance of trying new things, from touring with a dance company to commissioning songs and making movies, one of which will be out next month on Netflix.

Serial, released in 2014, reached 16 million people in season 1, a number greater than the opening viewership of many successful TV shows and movies. He said according to figures by Edison Research, one-quarter of Americans over 12 say they have listened to a podcast and that podcasts are advancing quickly, with This American Life getting 1 million listeners in four years, Serial achieving this in four weeks, and S-Town in four days.

Finally, he added, children are the easiest to interview because they are less guarded and remarked on the importance of being open, telling stories, and being emotional when interviewing so that the subject will do the same. In other words, as Glass put it, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”

Accidentally Making the Most Popular Podcasts Ever

Sunday, March 11, Austin Convention Center

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Ira Glass, This American Life, Serial, podcasts, SXSW Interactive 2018

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