If you were to start a podcast today, with zero podcasting, broadcast radio, or speaking experience, you could still have something very helpful to the success of your podcast journey – your background. This background is the foundation of your beliefs, your personality, and your specialized knowledge, all of which are important to your podcasting success.
Zack Borst is a great example of somebody who has used his non-podcasting background to create a unique and entertaining podcast. He’s the co-host and producer of Pwned, a weekly information and cybersecurity podcast addressing real-world security challenges.
Due to its technical nature, “security” is a subject that could easily turn boring. But Zack uses his background in stand-up comedy and storytelling to keep Pwned both entertaining and funny. He goes into each episode of the podcast with an organized plan to deliver focused and informative content that’s driven by guests who live and breathe security.
I asked Zack for more information on how he makes Pwned and thoughts on making great podcasts...
Zack’s Podcasting Equipment
Zack’s Podcasting Philosophy
How (and why) did you start podcasting?
I started as a hobby and happened to have just gotten started professionally. I actually worked in public safety for the last 8ish years but previous to that had worked in video and audio production.
RELATED: This is some of Zack’s pre-podcasting video work...
What makes a great podcaster?
You need to be someone that people enjoy talking to in the real world. If you can strike up a conversation with anyone and they stick around to talk to you, you'll be a good podcaster.
It helps to have interesting experiences that you can use to weave a story together as well. Being funny is also great. Levity can help break tension and drama.
What makes a great podcast episode?
You need a hook to get people in. That can be the lead into the episode or simply have subject matter that people want to hear.
Once people are in, you need to keep them there. It's easier for me because our podcast is so specific and the people listening listen through the entire episode around 90% of the time.
If you're running a random thought style podcast, that can be more challenging. You need to plan and you need to edit. Your favorite podcasts are likely massively produced, even if they sound like they're just goofing around.
What do you wish you'd known when you started podcasting? Why?
That you can just start doing this. I was an avid listener from the very early days of podcasting. I love talking. Ask my family, I've been a living “podcaster” since I was a child and can talk for hours to no one in particular. What I didn't realize is that I could throw a mic in front of me and get paid for it.
What do you love most about podcasting? Why?
It's a very intimate medium. You're putting people directly into your ears and listening in on conversations. It allows incredible access to people who you otherwise would have never been able to have a conversation with. I love episodes that pull back the curtain, particularly in entertainment and comedy.
What's the worst thing about podcasting? Why?
Yes, anyone can record anything and call it a podcast and that's democratized the medium, but there are so many podcasts that ignore the basics.
Know how to use a mic, know what mic you should use, EDIT EDIT EDIT EDIT EDIT. When you get started, you can get a pass for a little bit, but at some point, bad audio, structure, and editing will simply turn people off.
What makes a great podcast interview?
When it's real. I can listen to good conversation for hours.
Think about when you’re on vacation and sitting on a beach with friends and family – you can talk forever and time flies by. That's what a good interview can be like.
It's also fun when something is revealed during an interview that you didn't expect.
What's the best thing that's happened to you because of your podcast?
Getting hired by a company to run their podcast. The fact that I now get paid to do this is so weird.
I have serious impostor syndrome. There's not a huge amount of professional podcast producers out there and I think I hold myself to standards that are slightly unrealistic. I'm not at the level of Serial, but I think I make good stuff.
What's something you attempted to do on your podcast failed miserably?
Winging it. It rarely works. People think they are more clever than they are and without some sort of path for an episode to take, you end up frustrated as hell in post-production trying to salvage a dumpster fire of an episode.
What non-podcasting skills do you have that have helped you to be a better podcaster? How have they helped you?
Stand-up comedy. I did it for a couple of years and it really helped me learn how to think on my feet and speak confidently even when things go south.
I'm not the primary host of the podcast I produce, but I tend to back him up as co-host, because I can fill in the gaps as he's getting through his material which is makes his life easier and lets me play around a bit.
Walk through the process you follow to create a podcast episode...
First you need an idea.
Some of our episodes are basically fully scripted in which case I just polish them with some post-production.
You need a story arc even if it's just an intro, the meat of the episode, and an outro. It's like fishing, you want to get people hooked, keep them on the line, and then release them after you get them in the boat.
Walk through the process you follow to market/promote a podcast episode...
This has been one of the more challenging aspects of podcasting. There are so many platforms and outlets that it can be hard to find what works for your specific podcast. We've done pretty well without a lot of external promotion, but this is something I am working on.
How do you find new topics/guests for your episodes? How do you do research/outreach?
Just ask people. I wish I had known this when I was younger, but you can literally just call and email almost anyone and a really high number of people will talk to you. That's good advice for podcasting and in general.
What's the #1 thing you've found to be most effective for growing your podcast? How do you implement this?
Consistency and quality. We're in some weird times with the COVID-19 pandemic right now, so we’re having to use remote systems for the podcast and there's a degree of quality degradation that comes with that.
I can't be in room with my equipment and help coach everyone through the process right now, but I think listeners understand since we're all spending our days in Zoom meetings and phone calls.
Your biggest podcasting mistake...
Not starting a decade ago. I read the tea leaves, but thought it was something I couldn't do.
If you were to start your current podcast all over again, what would you do differently?
The podcast I produce existed before I was hired so there's a year of material that's really good, but our host didn't have the audio production experience to make it pop. There was nearly a year between seasons as well, so we had to start from scratch and couldn't carry the momentum he had developed previously. He's running a company though and what he was able to do with the little time he has was really impressive, so it's been great to take the reins with production and let him focus on sharing good information.
What advice do you have for other podcasters? Why?
If you're thinking about starting a podcast, just do it. There's unlimited space in podcasting and everyone has an interesting story. Also, learn basic audio production and editing. That's the secret sauce that so many people ignore.
Your incredible story can only get you so far before people tune out because of bad sound. It's lazy.
Audacity is free, learn it. YouTube has a billion how-to videos. Social media offers you access to the leaders in the space. Also, use your money to buy a good mic BUT NOT A CONDENSER MIC! Get a dynamic cardioid pattern mic unless you're in a studio.