It might surprise you to learn that there's more faith-based (known as "Religion & Spirituality" in Apple Podcasts) content being produced than any other podcast format.
Why? I have my theory. And that theory is that every preacher, pastor, and priest records everything that's said from the pulpit, which makes it easy to turn what's said into a podcast episode.
Then add recordings of Bible studies. And Sunday School lessons. And also shows from late-night radio preachers, devotionals, church-based music, religious programming for children, and faith-based philosophies from non-Christian religions.
When it comes to volume, faith-based content creators are doing something right. But there's more to "good content" than volume.
Joe Iovino produces and hosts Get Your Spirit in Shape for United Methodist Communications, the communications ministry of The United Methodist Church. Get Your Spirit In Shape featuring conversations with authors, leaders, and bishops about growing as disciples of Jesus. I asked him about lessons secular podcasters can learn from the faith-based podcasting world.
What can faith-based podcasters learn from secular podcasters?
Four things: marketing, personality, interviewing, and podcast specific content.
Marketing is sometimes be treated as a dirty word in the church. Over the years, we’ve developed a Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come” mentality.For decades that worked. When a church building went up in a neighborhood, there was a built-in audience. Today, we have to work harder to get people to hear our message.I know we’re never going to crack the top 100 in downloads, but we can do better. We can reach more of our 12 million members. We’re going to do that by getting people talking about us in their churches, at choir practice, or wherever they gather.
As Christians, we’re all about story. Jesus told stories. The Bible is filled with stories. In an old gospel song we sing about sharing our faith with the words, “I love to tell the story.”So, when I first started hosting, I wanted the story to take center stage and I tended to just blend into the background. I’m learning, however, that the podcast needs to have a consistent personality from episode to episode, and as the host, that’s me. I’m the one constant. I used to fight that, but I’m working to develop my persona as “lifelong church guy” and inject that into the conversations.
Conversations are the lifeblood of my podcast, so the third thing we can learn from secular podcasters is how to interview. My interviewing heroes are not from the faith community. For example, I’ve learned a lot from listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. He has a way of moving guests into a deeper conversation where they get at some sensitive, difficult issues. When he risks vulnerability, guests become more comfortable with sharing things they may not have shared anyplace else.Another of my interviewing examples is Erin Andrews, especially as a sideline reporter for the NFL. She is a very good listener who is able to ask some really great follow-up questions. I want to do more of that. Also, she’s a fan who enjoys the opportunity to talk to the winning team. The fun she is having is contagious.Along those lines, but far sillier is Conan O’Brien in his new podcast. He shares a rapport with his guest and they have fun together. There is something contagious about that. As you can tell, I think about how to get better at interviewing quite a bit.
One more thing I think we can learn from secular podcasters is to create content specifically for our podcasts. Many faith-based podcasts recycle material by posting a sermon or some other live presentation as is. It can be difficult to sift through the extraneous stuff sometimes.For some, the recycling works. Many of the top performing podcasts are audio from sermons at megachurches. I used to put one of those out, and they are the easiest way for individual congregations to be in the podcast space. They are great for members who miss church on a Sunday and want to catch up, but I think we need more.I hope Get Your Spirit in Shape fills a niche for those who want to learn about our leaders, some helpful topics, and can find ways that they can grow in their faith. I hope we’re modeling good conversation techniques from a place of faith.
What can secular podcasters learn from faith-based podcasters?
Focus, balance, and care.
I think by our very nature, faith-based podcasters have a specific focus. We may talk about a variety of things, but we keep coming back to our faith. That is really consistent.I’ve have heard some other podcasts that are all over the place. There’s no obvious bottom line, no lens through which their conversation is filtered. It might differ greatly from week to week.For example, when talking about immigration, I might really want to talk about the politics of it all. That might even be an interesting conversation, but it’s not what we do. As an example, I had a conversation on immigration with that Latina pastor that was faith-based. We talked about the people, her church, and how her faith was helping her through a difficult time because Get Your Spirit in Shape is about helping United Methodists grow in faith and practice.Another example is a regular series of interviews we call our “Meet a Bishop” episodes. On the surface, they are simply profiles of our bishops. But I’m always asking them questions about how they have lived out their faith from their first encounters with church—maybe as children—to today. They serve as an example of living out our shared faith, delivering on the promise of offering spiritual nutrition and exercises.
The United Methodist Church has more than 12 million members on four continents. We are a large, diverse body and part of my responsibility is to represent the whole church. Balance is important and also something it might be good for some secular podcasters to emulate. While I would hesitate to say that most or even many faith-based podcasts are good at balance, but I think the best ones are.One faith-based podcast I listen to is very aware of the variety of faith expressions in their audience. Some of their listeners are Christian church members, some are former Christians, and others are out or searching. Keeping all of that in mind as they share around issues of faith is really helpful. They’ll often say something to make sure everyone feels included in their conversation.A roundtable political podcast I listen to is a good example of a secular way of doing that. They slant progressive, but one of the hosts will often share the conservative argument on a topic so that they are not always arguing against the proverbial straw man. Additionally, they will occasionally have guests on who do not agree with them. I really respect that.
One more thing I think secular podcasts can learn from faith-based podcasts, and I hope I don’t get on a soapbox here, but as a person who represents my church and my faith, I have to be careful about what I say and how I present it. As I said earlier, I do some heavy preparation for most episodes—researching the topic, reading the guests’ book, understanding their work, etc. I can’t just turn on the microphone and share what I “think” about a topic.We want to be an authoritative, trustworthy source for what it means to be United Methodist and how we might grow as people of faith. To do that, I need to be careful with what is presented on the podcast. I need to know the official position. I need to get in touch with what I think and feel about the topic. I need to do my homework, which I love because I love what I do.I so hope people hear that in each episode. I love what I get to do and the opportunity I have to share what I am learning with my audience.