Enrich Your Show with Listener Interaction

Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski, Photo by Stevie Chris
Marcus Parks, Ben Kissel, and Henry Zebrowski, Photo by Stevie Chris

Giving your audience a voice is a great way to build loyalty and develop content.

All podcasts rely on their relationships with listeners, but some go a step further and actively incorporate listener feedback or participation into episodes. Shows like Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People are actually driven entirely by fan participation (each show features a call from a listener who shares a story); others, such as Last Podcast On The Left (LPOTL) employ a hybrid model where the host pursues an idea and also includes some fan feedback.

“One of the reasons our show was able to get such a large fanbase is because all of these people interested in true crime, interested in aliens, interested in cryptids—they could come together under one tent and realize that it can be fun,” says Ben Kissel, one of LPOTL’s hosts.

Fan stories feature prominently on Side Stories, an LPOTL spin-off launched a year ago by Kissel and fellow host Henry Zebrowski. Side Stories has a looser style that's perfect for email roundups, story updates, and topics too small for their own episode. “We specifically did Side Stories attached to LPOTL as a way to talk to our people and have an ongoing conversation about current events,” Zebrowski says. “I like to hear audiences’ reactions to stuff. We're trying to entertain people as best as we possibly can.”

Drumming up responses

Not all shows have LPOTL's enormous fanbase, which Kissel says generates hundreds of submissions a week. Other podcasts have to be a little more active in soliciting feedback.

Jamie Miner has hosted Uglee Truth with her sisters, Paula and Stephanie, since 2013, and in that time they have built up a loyal audience—and by naming their fanbase, they've imbued it with a touch of exclusivity. “My sisters and I call each other 'Ug,' and only we can be Ugs. We call our listeners HUgs—Honorary Ugs,” Jamie says. “We've had many friends in our private lives say they want to be Ugs and the response has always been, ‘You can be an Honorary Ug or a HUg, but never an Ug."

Uglee Truth closes episodes by reading fan letters. Jamie says she typically draws from a half-dozen submissions, but only if she’s consistent in asking for them. “When we solicit, we get a nice response from many listeners. If I don't ask, listener submissions are very few,” she says.

Occasionally, the regular asks won’t be enough, and submissions will dry up. Jamie says she doesn’t sweat those times, since normal volume typically returns, but she is ready to act if that’s not the case. “If the drought is significant, the cure is always more interaction on social media,” Jamie says.

Below are more tips from the industry experts on how to engage with your audience.

Establish lines of communication

Listeners can’t write in without knowing where to address their comments, so both Uglee Truth and LPOTL use submission boxes embedded in their sites. LPOTL Side Stories also namechecks the email account in episodes in lieu of directing listeners to visit its homepage, while Uglee Truth will pull feedback from anywhere it's posted. “We receive the majority of our communication via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter direct-messaging,” Jamie says.

Another option used by other podcasts like Reply All is to set up a voicemail box, where listeners are encouraged to leave recordings for playback in episodes. This route removes the middleman layer, where the hosts read the message.

Steer the conversation

Fans generally like to engage with the hosts of the shows that entertain them, but they're not always the best judges of what makes for compelling content. It’s helpful to steer feedback in directions that will align with the show’s voice. Befitting its wild nature, LPOTL doesn’t have too many hard-and-fast rules, save one.

“The only thing we do not want to hear about is that you've committed some kind of violent crime,” Kissel says. Aside from avoiding criminal confessions, Kissel says he’s also advised fans to keep written letters short and to the point.

Uglee Truth cautions listeners to avoid commenting on topics that have no chance of being discussed on the show. “We avoid politics or subjects that are divisive in our current social climate, because we consider our show an escape from all the truly ugly subjects in our world,” Jamie says.

Develop recurring segments

The relationship between fans and hosts can organically develop recurring themes, or inside jokes—as the hosts of LPOTL have discovered. Their personal habits and quirks are frequent fodder for banter on the show, which deepens listeners' sense of connection with them. “You hear more about our lives, and hear more about Kissel's lack of towels and lack of ability to take care of himself,” Zebrowski says. “He does not own a bathroom towel.”

This has led, despite Kissel’s repeated denials, to fans writing in to offer up towels for him. It’s become a long-running joke that has taken on a life of its own. “It's just so fun to joke directly with the audience,” Zebrowski says.

Uglee Truth’s entire fan feedback segment is essentially one recurring gag. Since much of the podcast's content revolves around the hosts’ awkward interactions, the featured fan letters recount uncomfortable situations in the lives of listeners, and the segment is called "The HUglee and Awkward Moment of the Week."

“There's not a week that passes where we're not saying or doing something socially or physically awkward,” Jamie says. “My sister and I simply share our weekly awkward moment, lamenting on how typical it is for us. When we started, many of our listeners reached out with a ‘Same, girl!’”

The naysayers

Bear in mind that if you open yourself and your show up for listener interaction, you may get some negative feedback or even become a target for abuse and trolling (though the latter is less likely if your show, in general, isn't provocative). "The… occasions in which we have received negative feedback were usually listeners simply disagreeing with our opinion on a subject, almost always women-based issues," Jamie says. "The response has been the same in that we say, 'We accept that our opinions differ and we appreciate you listening!' Defusing the comment with respect has almost always worked for our show." She says there was another instance when an organization wanted to pick a fight as a publicity stunt, but she and her sisters spotted the motive and steered clear.

The LPOTL hosts shrug off haters entirely. “It’s the internet. Everybody’s allowed to have an opinion,” Zebrowski says. “There’s so many different options for entertainment. We can all just move on.”

—Zach Brooke