Can Your Podcast Change a Listener’s Life?

Andrew Norton and Rob Norman of Personal Best
Andrew Norton and Rob Norman of Personal Best

A few podcasters share why it's an effective format for talking about self-improvement

Self-improvement has existed as a genre for decades. From Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936 to The Oprah Winfrey Show’s 25-year run, people have been turning to media to make themselves better for a long, long time. And recently, podcasts have started to get in on the action. From audio advice columns to longer, narrative-driven shows, there’s been an advent of self-improvement podcasts that take listeners through a guests’ quests for betterment. We sat down with some the creators behind these shows to learn more about why audio is such an effective medium for capturing the struggle for change—and whether they believe the changes they suggest will really stick.

You don’t need to know everything

A traditional feature of the self-help genre is expert guidance from someone who has their life together. That was exactly what Andrew Norton and Rob Norman, hosts of the CBC’s Personal Best, decided to avoid when they set out to make their show. “We’re not Dr. Phil,” says Norton. “It’s like a self-improvement show that isn’t run by experts. We’re no better than that person.”

Each installment of Personal Best finds Norton and Norman trying to help solve a guest's problem, and the range of topics is broad: There have been episodes dedicated to chronic oversleeping, text-message flirting gone wrong, and learning how to land a backflip. The duo are along for the ride, but they don’t claim to be authorities, and the format lends itself well to audio, according to Norman. “If we were to make this as a TV show, I’m sure we’d probably show results. But because it’s radio, we can’t do that,” he notes. “So the way we kind of got around that is by having people kind of report their own success. We make it a much more personal experience—a lot more reflective experience.”

Audio as a medium also works well for the podcast version of Slate’s popular advice column Dear Prudence. On the show, host Daniel Mallory Ortberg and a guest read listeners' letters and then talk through potential solutions—-a back-and-forth that isn’t quite as possible in the column. “Written advice columns often have to wrap things up sooner, and being able to talk through what I think a letter-writer should do is a little more exciting,” Ortberg says.

That potential for surprise keeps listeners interested, according to Andrew Norton. “We're as clueless as the person that we're helping to start an episode. And where we end, we are also genuinely surprised. Which I think makes it extremely scary, but an extremely rewarding show to make,” he says.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg of Dear Prudence Photo by TK
Daniel Mallory Ortberg of Dear Prudence Photo by TK

When you use the pros

Not all self-help podcasts take this more casual approach. Take NPR’s Life Kit, a recent series designed to lead listeners through different topics with the guidance of experts, everyday people, and NPR's own journalists—money, parenting, wellness, even friendship. “It’s what we do every day, which is broadcasting good information, but taking it a step further and making it more actionable,” says Meghan Keane, managing producer of Life Kit. “So, taking all the good expertise of [our contributors], and presenting it in a format where we're talking directly to the listeners about how they can apply it to their lives.”

The series is the brainchild of an NPR team that sought to develop new programming that reflected their goals as an organization, according to Keane. “We have all this great knowledge and information within NPR from our journalists, and it seemed like an opportunity to talk directly to the listener," she says. "One of NPR's main missions is to promote growth within community and public service, so it seemed like a perfect fit.”

Life Kit was designed to follow a basic template with experts talking through a particular subject so that listeners have clear takeaways from each episode, but also to be flexible enough that each one can be different. “We get to color between the lines any way we want,” says Keane. “Sometimes it means that we visit a family who's struggling with all their kids being glued to their phones, and spend a day with them and apply advice that we learned from experts and their experiences. Or it's doing a callout, so we have a lot of listener voices and share experiences [such as] how they bought their first home and the kind of trials and tribulations that came with that.”

And despite the show featuring reporting and expert voices, it’s tone is still as approachable as a show like Personal Best or Dear Prudence. “I think what is helpful is it's like coming to a friend for advice,” Keane says. “I kind of joke that Life Kit is your friend who has all the great advice, and the friend that you always ask, ‘Hey, do you have good advice about how to start investing?’ Or, ‘What's your workout?’ Or, ‘I have this parenting question.’

“I'm hoping Life Kit can be that friend, someone who doesn't talk down to you, someone who you trust and is reliable,” she says.

It’s about the journey, not the destination

One area remains tricky to measure: outcomes for the advice-seekers. “I'd say at this point I usually get one to five updates a week,” says Ortberg. “I don’t run them all, but they’re usually pretty positive.”

While NPR’s Life Kit is relatively new, listener feedback has been positive so far, notes Meghan Keane. “The kind of feedback we’ve gotten is like, ‘This came up in our lives, and it was uncomfortable. Thank you for helping with that.’ Or oftentimes, we get a lot of people being like, ‘I love this episode. Now here’s my specific situation. I’d love for you to figure that out.'”

The team at Life Kit have also heard specific ways that people listeners have begun to take their advice. “We did an episode about medical debt, which we were kind of like, oh, gosh, this is going to be so deadly boring and really a downer. But interestingly enough, I've heard the most about that episode.” Keane says. “People being like, ‘I got $2,000 knocked off my ambulance bill because I used the advice in your podcast.'”

And according to Keane, changing the way listeners think about self-help could be a positive change as well. “I think people underestimate the power of just like small positive changes in their life,” she says. “Between the little mindset shifts and the actionable tangible actions you can take. Those things add up and make you feel good and make you feel a little bit more in control.”

That’s a perspective that Personal Best’s Norton and Norman have landed on through their work on the show as well. “I think everybody who went through the experience [of taping an episode] changed their perspective on something. And maybe that's the key to self-improvement,” Norman says. “And really, not all of our guests achieve what they want to achieve, but everyone walks away saying, 'Oh cool, I learned something. I feel better about this really hard thing and I feel more resilient, moving forward.' And so that ends up kind of being the win,” he says.

And those wins can help listeners change their tune as well, according to Norton. Listener feedback has made it clear: “You can kind of help someone with this weird thing in their life and maybe they flipped something that might've been a shitty day into a little bit of a victory.”

—Katie Ferguson