When Two Are Better Than One

Creating charisma in a co-hosted podcast — a short guide, featuring Sarah Marshall and Alex Steed.

Pippa Johnstone

. 6 min read


Co-hosted shows, done well, have a certain magic to them.

When I look at my own listening habits, I certainly gravitate towards co-hosted podcasts. It’s the rapport; the chemistry between two people who know each other well gives me that feeling of having company as I’m going about my day. A co-hosted podcast has the ability to make me smile to myself, laugh out loud while I’m home alone, or pull myself out of a funk.

Sarah Marshall is the co-host of two podcasts, You’re Wrong About, with Michael Hobbes (who just announced he’s leaving the show), and You are Good, with Alex Steed, a self-described “feelings podcast about movies.” And, she says the same — even when listening to rough cuts of her own shows: “I will start smiling when I hear myself […] happily conversing with someone else. I am just being cued by my own emotional tones. That’s how easy I am to scam as a mammal.”

Artwork by Abigail Swartz of Gray Day Studio

We’ve all heard podcasts with hosts shouting over each other, ones where the two voices are indistinguishable, or others where the spark just isn’t there. So how do you get it right?

1. Think about what role each co-host plays.

A few years back, our executive director of program development, Geoff Siskind, was on the team developing Hackable, a podcast about cybersecurity. Going in, they had one host locked: Bruce Snell, a security expert. But having an expert host talk to other experts might not make for the most dynamic or accessible show. Enter Geoff, as co-host.

“My character was supposed to be the rube. The character I played on that show was 20% stupider than I was in real life. I needed to be perpetually surprised and somebody for Bruce to kind of point a finger at and laugh at.”

Geoff says that just like you need a focus statement for a story or an interview, you need a focus statement for a co-host. Why are you choosing to add another voice? And what is that person supposed to do?

When casting a co-hosted show, ask yourself questions like:

  • Who is the optimist here, and who is the skeptic?
  • Who is the easy laugh, and who has the drier sense of humour?
  • Who is the fount of energy, and who is the grounded, calming presence?

To be clear, these subtler roles don’t need to be put on, or really even acknowledged between the hosts. I co-host a podcast myself called Word Bomb, and the division of roles between myself and my co-host is loose. She tends to cover the more technical aspects of language, and I tackle the social justice elements. But we don’t talk about the dynamics of our personalities for the most part, even if we might both be aware of the contrasts.

Co-hosts of Word Bomb, Karina Palmitesta and Pippa Johnstone (Credit: Ingrid Forster Photography)

We all play roles in different relationships in our lives, depending on the dynamic. To one friend, you might be the goof, to another, the wise listener. We fall into these roles within our families, our friend groups, our jobs, and often organically draw out different qualities in ourselves depending on the situation. In the co-hosting context, it’s about being aware of who you play in the dynamic — and maybe dialing it up 20%.

2. It’s about generosity.

“You can’t try and be the funniest person in the room.” — Sarah Marshall

Sarah Marshall and Alex Steed, the co-hosts of You are Good, said it’s about sharing the mic. In each episodeSarah and Alex (and usually a special guest) dissect a beloved film for what it means to them, what it might say about our world, asking vital questions like “who’s the daddy?” (the show used to be called Why are Dads?).

And generosity is a key part of what makes this show sing — bringing out deeper, more vulnerable conversations than your typical movie podcast. Sarah said sometimes it’s about letting the other person make a joke or a point you wanted to make, “we are trying to support each other so that each person gets to say their best thing.” And that keeps the energy flowing.

This reminds me of an exercise we used to do in theatre school. We’d work with a scene partner and pass a big exercise ball back and forth as we ran our lines. The point was to get us to listen, while always keeping the ball moving.

The needs of a podcast are very different than the needs of a play, but I think the lesson stands: it’s about remembering you’re a part of an exchange. If someone tunes out or decides it’s their time to monologue — the ball falls.

3. Always remember your audience.

Even while you’re engrossed in conversation and listening deeply (we hope) you have to keep an awareness that your show will be heard. This means you can look for simple ways to include listeners who might not know a reference or a term you’re using. And like Geoff Siskind said, don’t be afraid of playing the rube.

Alex Steed said in their dynamic, he sees Sarah and the guest’s interaction as the most interesting part of the show, “I think of myself as the listener of the show, asking the questions that I think a listener would ask.”

While Alex is most certainly doing more than listening, keeping that awareness of what a listener might be confused or curious about is essential. After all, your audience is really the silent partner in the conversation.

4. Time. Space. And Editing.

The last piece of advice I got from our co-hosts was to take your time — both in the recording and in your production schedule. Don’t expect a seamless, snappy back and forth on your first try.

Sarah said they recorded a bunch of episodes of the show before they started releasing them. “Start by saying, okay, let’s cook a batch of these and see how they come out.” That allowed them to know what they were making before putting it out into the world.

In the recording studio, they take their time as well. This allows them and their guests to ease into the process without the pressure to perform. Sarah said she’ll record for even two or three hours to get a one-hour episode out.

And on that note, a bonus tip: never ever forget the value of a good editor. Even for a loose, conversational show like You are Good, there is a lot left on the cutting room floor.

“Recording a lot of material and editing it down really can’t be overestimated. I think we all like to fantasize that there is some world adjacent to ours where people converse very quippily and efficiently, like in The West Wing, but it’s all editing.” –Sarah Marshall

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