Tips and Tricks for Working with a Co-Host
Top podcasters share their tips on choosing the right person to share the mic.
Killer co-hosting partnerships are not just born. Finding the right combination of people on a show can be a process: You need to know what to look for, how to make the relationship work, and what to avoid.
But before you do any of that, think about why you’re looking for a co-host. Rachel Corbett is head of podcasts at Australian media group Mamamia and runs an online podcasting course. She also hosts PodSchool, a podcast about, well, how to make podcasts. Corbett feels that some podcasters go for the tag-team approach for the wrong reasons.
“If you’re looking for a co-host because you’re too scared to do a show on your own rather than because it’s the best idea for the format and content of the show, that's a mistake,” she says. “I also think it’s a mistake to assume that because you’re good friends with someone in real life that it will translate into a great podcast dynamic. Podcasting is a skill, and it’s different to having a chat in a bar, so take your time to try some different combinations and record episodes before you go live, to make sure you’ve got the chemistry and combination right.”
If you’re confident that co-hosting is exactly what your podcast needs, read on for some tips about how to find your dream teammate.
The best matchup is similar but not identical
Of course, co-hosts need to have a shared passion for their show’s subject, but the similarities don’t need to extend much beyond that. No one wants to listen to two people furiously agree with each other for the duration of a show. “The real magic in a podcast is when you’re surprised by your co-host, challenged by their thinking, or just rolling on the floor laughing because they sideswiped you with a funny line,” says Corbett. “A mix of that stuff creates a show people want to be a part of, and that’s essential if you want to build an audience and turn that audience into raving fans.”
That description perfectly fits My Dad Wrote A Porno, the English podcast where Jamie Morton reads chapters from terrible erotic novels written by his father, and gets reactions from co-hosts Alice Levine and James Cooper. He feels that the success of the show has a lot to do with how the three of them interact naturally.
“We’re not professional comedians,” says Morton. “In fact, we’re not comedians at all. We’re just three friends, and our aim is to make each other laugh. When I first showed Alice and Jamie the first book, we were down at the pub. On the show, I want to recreate the feeling of that night.”
Prepare, but leave room for spontaneity
No matter what creative outlet we’re talking about, there are those who are planners and others who like to fly by the seat of their pants. But even those who prefer the spontaneous path admit that, when it comes to podcasting, some planning is necessary to keep a show on track.
Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor have worked together as co-writers on Welcome to Night Vale since 2012 and have since built a podcast empire that includes Fink’s Alice Isn’t Dead and Cranor’s Within the Wires. This year the duo started co-hosting Start With This, a podcast about creativity.
“Joseph and I can lean heavily on the confidence that we know each other very well and have had a lot of these conversations about creativity over dinner or a beer on the train,” says Cranor. “But we still prep and work with an outline of what we want to cover in each episode of Start With This.”
Morton agrees that consistency helps produce a quality podcast, but he doesn’t script out My Dad Wrote A Porno beforehand. Instead, he and his friends improvise.
“We still record the show at each other’s houses, over a meal and a few drinks, and whoever is hosting has to cook,” says Morton. “It worked that way from the beginning, so we don’t want to move it into a studio. Also, I read the chapter we’re going to discuss beforehand, because I’m not the best at public speaking, but Alice and James are hearing it for the first time when we record the episode, so their reactions are fresh.”
Pull your weight
One weak link will break a chain, so make sure you’re not that link. Everyone on the team needs to know what commitment is expected of them, what they need to prepare, and exactly what their tasks and responsibilities are. Communication with your co-host is key, too, so you understand what each individual is bringing to every episode.
“If you’ve paired up with someone who’s happy to turn up and talk but not do much else, the show probably won’t have a very long life,” says Corbett.
Play to your strengths
If co-hosts have different areas of expertise, it might be most effective to divide and conquer. For instance, if your co-host is a research maven and you’ve come from a sound engineering background, then it makes sense that each of you take on roles that play to those strengths when it comes to creating and producing your podcast.
On My Dad Wrote A Porno, Morton recognizes the different sets of skills his co-hosts bring to the podcast. As the show has progressed—it has now completed four seasons—he’s noticed that the trio has more defined roles than they did at the beginning of Season 1.
“I’m the son who’s living with this horrible reality of what his father does,” Morton says, laughing. “Alice brings this perspective as the funniest, smartest woman batting back all of these ridiculous notions that my dad's putting in the books. And then James has got a completely different perspective because he's gay, and he knows nothing about straight sex. So it's actually really interesting that that none of us tread on each other’s toes in terms of how we’re coming to the books.”
Learn to communicate non-verbally
There are lots of places where it’s fine to talk over each other—in a bar, at a football game, when you’re meeting cute in a romantic comedy.
But it doesn’t work so well in a podcast, because it can sound messy and confusing. So you and your co-host need to figure out ways of communicating with each other without saying anything.
“Hand signals are really important if you’re prone to over-talking or if you just want to make your life easier in the edit,” says Corbett. “It also really helps to use improv’s ‘yes, and…’ approach rather than shutting things down [or] cutting them off.”
Useful signals include raising a hand when your co-host is speaking to indicate you have a point to make when they have finished, pointing and nodding at your co-host when you’re asking them to contribute something next, twirling your index finger in the air to indicate a line of thought needs to be wound up, and holding up a number of fingers to indicate how many minutes remain in the recording.
Listen to each other and remember your audience
Bad dates and bad co-hosts have many things in common: The individuals talk about themselves too much, they don’t ask questions, and they’re thinking about what they’re going to say next rather than listening to what the other person has to say.
“I think the single most important rule when working with podcast co-hosts is to always want the person across from you to sound their best,” says Corbett. “Listeners like hearing when people dig each other, so if your main goal is to make your co-host sound amazing, it’s impossible to fail.”
Joseph Fink adds that it’s important to always remember it’s not all about the two or three people in the recording booth.
“A podcast is not just a conversation between me and the other person making the podcast,” he says. “There’s this silent person listening in who doesn't know you, [so] you don't want to focus too heavily on inside jokes. Just always be aware that there’s a third party there that doesn’t know you and remember what you’re there for and what your show is about.”