The opening moments of a podcast episode can make or break the show. The first sounds that new listeners hear will determine whether or not they stick around for the rest of the episode. The opening also sets the tone, instantly conveying the type of show that it is: Is it funny or serious? Fiction or non-fiction? Highly produced or low-fi? You only get one chance to make a first impression. What do you want to convey to your audience?
There are a number of different ways to open a podcast episode, but there is some general advice that we offer to all podcasters: First, every episode should begin in the same manner. Unless your podcast requires listeners to start with the first episode, assume that you might have first-time listeners checking out any given episode. To make the show accessible to new fans, and to keep a consistent sound across the entire podcast, we recommend opening every episode the same way.
Second, make the opening short. All of the listener feedback we have ever gathered on podcasts has been unanimous on this point: Listeners want podcasts to get to the “meat” of the episode quickly. Avoid long music clips or indulgent chit-chat at the beginning of the show. In general, we recommend that you keep produced introductions to less than 7 seconds and that you aim to get to the main thrust of the episode (the interview, the first segment, the story, etc.) by the 60-second mark, and definitely no later than the two-minute mark.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the different ways to open a podcast:
1. Podcast Intros With Instrumental Music
Many podcast episodes begin with instrumental theme music. Some have hired musicians to write and record original music for the podcast intro, while others have decided to go the less expensive route and purchase royalty-free music. It is difficult and expensive to negotiate the rights to popular music, so few if any podcasts open their shows with hit songs.
Here’s The New York Times‘ podcast, The Daily, which uses instrumental music to open the show:
2. Music With Voiceover Announcers
A podcast intro might also combine instrumental music with a read by a voiceover talent. The voiceover artist may announce the name of the show, a tagline, or and/introduce the hosts.
This Week with George Stephanopoulus begins each episode with a voiceover talent:
3. Produced Elements as Podcast Intros
A produced introduction can also incorporate other elements besides just music and a voiceover read. For example, The D Brief podcast also incorporates nightlife-related sound effects, such as wine glasses clinking and a DJ checking a microphone into its introduction. These sound effects help convey what the show is all about.
The hit podcast Serial incorporates a recording of a prison phone call into its introduction to set the tone:
4. A Cold Open to Start the Podcast Episode
Some podcasts begin without any produced elements at all. Instead, the host simply starts talking. This can give the show a more casual, intimate feel, but it can sometimes make the show sound unprofessional, so use this technique with caution.
The storytelling podcast The Moth begins with a cold open:
5. Podcast Openings With Teaser Quotes
Some podcasts will precede one of the above introductions with a “teaser” — a short bit pulled from the heart of the episode and copied to the front. For example, a podcast that features one-on-one interviews may take a particularly juicy quote and place it at the beginning of the episode. Many public radio and other journalistic outlets use this technique.
The Dirty John podcast does this:
6. Pre-Roll Ads
Podcasters that monetize their shows will often begin episodes with a “pre-roll” ad, meaning an ad that comes before the official start of the show. These ads are usually read by the host of the podcast, and are often dynamically inserted, so people who download the episode in different places or at different times may hear different ads. These are acceptable for podcasters who are monetizing their shows through advertising, but for organizations using podcasts as a way of marketing themselves should avoid this technique.
There are a handful of other elements that occasionally precede the official opening of a podcast episode, such as an episode number or a warning about explicit language. When deciding how you want the opening of your episodes to sound, we recommend that you sample a variety of different podcasts and identify the ones you like as well as the ones that you don’t. This will help you shape the sound of your own show.
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