Don't try to make an original podcast

Originality sucks. What people want is more of the same. Really.

If you don’t really work on Fridays, then congrats! You nearly made it to the weekend! In this #vanlife of podcasting publications we’re already on the road and researching overnight parking in Studio City, California.

We’re here in Studio City, home of many film and TV (and maybe even podcast) productions, because I’ve been thinking about originality and the trap that creators fall into when they try too hard to be original. By the end of this post, you will probably have 10 new ideas for podcasts that aren’t original but are better than your most original ideas.

A couple weeks ago, I started watching Mythic Quest on Apple TV+. Feeling clever, I wrote this on Timber’s Discord server:

I'm watching Mythic Quest on Apple TV+ and it feels like someone walked into an executive's office at Apple and was like "Ok, here's the pitch. It's Silicon Valley, but about a game company," and the executive was like, "I love it. Let's fast track this." And then it really was fast tracked in every way, from writing, to filming, to editing. And what came out of that process is exactly what you imagine would come out.

And yet. I don't hate it?

The reason I didn’t hate it is that I love Silicon Valley. It was so relevant for me in my life as a startup person. It felt original, but I also want 100 more Silicon Valleys. Do that story again and again, creators! I’ll eat it up every time!

I would also binge 100 Breaking Bads, 100 Mad Men… Wait a minute, Mad Men feels like Silicon Valley but 60 years ago and in New York. For that matter, Ozark is literally Breaking Bad, but with Jason Bateman. I still love it!

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I use examples from movies and TV because they’re widely relatable, but the same is true of podcasts. There’s too much bad advice out there to be unique. This piece of content marketing from Castos that ranks high on Google for the search terms “good podcast ideas” says, “The top podcasts on Apple Podcasts and Google Play are popular because they’re unique.” Are they, though? Currently two of the top ten are The Daily and Up First, aren’t those both news-o-the-day shows with the same content? Another two are Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard and SmartLess with Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett. Aren’t those both upbeat, kinda-funny, celebrity-driven interview shows?

Basically this tells me that people want what they know. They are less likely to take a risk on something truly unique like a fictional series where the dust mites in our eyelashes are controlling humankind and leading us blindly into germ warfare than they are something familiar like a story of a loving, well-intentioned father who is forced to start doing crime to save his family in an impossible situation.

So when you come up with your next podcast idea, why not start from something that’s already a hit? You can take a show like 99% Invisible, You’re Wrong About, Floodlines, or Darknet Diaries, and use the ingredients that make people love it in a new way. You’ll be more likely to attract an audience than if you try to come up with the most unique idea ever.

Even this post is just my own perspective on something that’s been said forever. Here is not just one, but two more examples from writing blogs. They’re worth reading because they go into some of the ideas about how many plots there really are under the sun. We’re here for podcasts, though, so listen to this. Guy Raz covers the topic thoroughly and entertainingly on this episode of TED Radio Hour from 2014. I heard this one on the radio a few years ago and enjoyed listening to it again to write this post.

In the episode, Raz interviews several people with interesting things to say about originality from music producers to fashion designers. My favorite is a guy named Kirby Ferguson who’s central thesis is that everything is a remix and he gives examples from George Lucas’s Star Wars to Steve Jobs’ iPhone. I looked up Ferguson, and he’s still on the same trip. You should totally take two minutes to watch this short video he made with the “everything is a remix” theme, because I think it helps demonstrate my point.

Looking at all those Tik Tok clips and thinking about how Tik Tok is the fastest growing social media app ever, it makes it clear that what people want is theme and variation. Remixing. More of the same but slightly different. People want this so much more than they want true originality. Tik Tok realized this and made it the core feature of their social media platform.

I’ll leave you with a final idea. What is the most beloved thing to human beings? If you guessed children, you’d be right. And guess what children are? Remixes of parents. Someone out there should do a whole big doctoral thesis on how people’s love of theme and variation in all the arts is rooted in biology, genetics, and childrearing. Right?


Thanks for reading. Good luck with those podcast ideas! We are still hoping for some more people to come join us in The Edit. If you don’t already know about it, it’s podcast help and feedback from professionals for $20. Find out more and join us by hitting the button below.

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Enjoy your weekend! See you next time!

—Jon Christensen