Q&A: Recode’s Eric Johnson on podcasting’s power (and pitfalls)

This award-winning exec warns against chasing shiny new objects—like his own audio format. He sheds light on his favorite tools and techniques, and he sounds off on the Oscars, as well.

Thinking about podcasting? Wondering what tools professional podcasters are using—and which newbies should try? Looking for a reason not to give audio storytelling a shot? 

Eric Johnson, producer of “Recode Decode with Kara Swisher,” says podcasting can be “a communicator’s most direct path to audiences,” but he warns against underinvestment and overhyping it. 

He also says this is the “Golden Age of Podcasts.” 

He should know. Recode Decode was named AdAge’s 2019 Podcast of the Year, and guests have included Hillary Clinton and Elon Musk. 

Here’s a Q&A in which Johnson offers his take on everything from podcast pitfalls and last week’s Academy Awards to PR pitches:

Ragan/PR Daily: What do you love most about your job at Recode?

EJ: Tech journalism isn’t just about the gadgets—it’s about complicated issues affecting our lives. For example, we recently had guests on talking about the controversial section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives internet companies broad immunity because of an 25-year-old law. 

Ragan/PR Daily: You also write a movie reviews newsletter. What did you think of the Oscars?

EJ: The Academy has a history of bad choices, and I’m aware of the lack of diversity in this year’s nominations. Movies like “The Farewell” and “The Last Black Man In San Francisco” certainly have a greater claim to be representative than a movie like “Joker.” I mean, it’s a fine supervillain story, but …

Ragan/PR Daily: It sounds like you had a strong take on Best Picture. What was your pick?

EJ: “Parasite.” It’s a masterpiece and will be remembered for decades to come. It was surprising, emotional—and told a story that matters. 

I also admire when a film can come in at a lean 90 minutes. That’s more impressive than a three-hour-plus epic like “The Irishman.” 

Brevity is key for me. I guess it stems from my experience as a journalist, where I was taught to KISS (keep it simple, stupid). I covered the video game industry and got pitches from PR pros before I was a podcast producer. Many tended to overcommunicate. I still get bombarded with 1,000-word emails. 

Ragan/PR Daily: What sets audio storytelling apart from other forms like movies?

EJ: TV, movies and books are usually complete, isolated experiences that have your full attention. But radio and podcasts are designed with the assumption that the listener is distracted. Maybe you’re washing dishes or taking care of kids the kids, for example.

The creator has to recognize that. One way to capture divided attentions is to frame your content as a conversation. One voice raises questions and another answers. NPR does a great job of this. Dialogue-as-narrative is an overlooked format in communications. 

Another big difference is editing. In film, audiences understand a smash cut. There’s an intuitive visual logic to it. But there’s less context in audio, and you have to be more careful. For example, you have to use audio cues to indicate a scene change. 

Ragan/PR Daily: Why are podcasts an opportunity for communicators?

EJ: You can have the best designed email newsletter in the world—and it’s still just an email. But you can stand out with a podcast. It’s literally voices in people’s heads. You also have a more direct path to them, because it reaches them in their personal time. 

Ragan/PR Daily: What are the top mistakes people make when launching podcasts?

EJ: No. 1 is underinvestment. People think you can put an intern on it, and it’ll be OK. That’s false. You can make a bad podcast when you put in only three hours a week, but nobody will listen. That’s why I say starting a podcast is easy—and making one is hard.

If you’re serious about podcasting, it must at least be a half-time position. Ideally, you need someone to go all in. It’s not just editing and hosting. They have to think about the editorial calendar, producing the show and marketing it. People take it for granted that you can upload an MP3, but it’s far more involved.

Lack of frequency is another mistake. Our show is out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We get tweets if we don’t publish on time. So treat it like a deadline that must be hit. You’ll lose your audience if you post two episodes and come back a month later. 

Another pitfall is not taking risks. Most corporate podcasts are too conservative and don’t want to ruffle feathers. Well, you won’t get subscribers if you play it safe. It’s a delicate editorial balance for a communicator to strike—so ask yourself how much creative license you have before you invest. 

Ragan/PR Daily: What audio and editing equipment do you use? 

EJ: Vox uses Shure mics and ProTools for editing at our studios in New York, D.C. and San Francisco. I prefer Adobe Audition for editing on my computer, but both are great.  

Ragan/PR Daily: What’s your advice to communicators looking to grow their careers?

EJ: Don’t overcommit to any one thing. It’s beneficial to have a flexible, experimental mindset. For example, many media companies pivoted to social media video a while back. Then it turned out the metrics were inflated and you couldn’t monetize it as much as you had hoped. That doesn’t mean don’t do video; it just means try different things. People were laid off to make room so their companies could invest in video, and then a second round of layoffs hit when they couldn’t justify video salaries. It’s sad.

Don’t lose sight of the fundamentals if you’re thinking about new ways to reach audiences. Don’t chase shiny new things at the expense of what you’re already doing.  

Of course, podcasting is the shiny new thing. It’s great if you want to jump on board. But I’m always wary of overhyping it as “one size fits all” communications channel. 

Brian Pittman is a Ragan Communications consultant and event producer. 

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