Jon Ellenthal of The Smart Drivel Podcast: “Make it your goal to give the listener a gift with each episode”

Make it your goal to give the listener a gift with each episode. If someone is giving you 25 minutes of their life, you need to give them something that’s worthy of their investment. It could be a few laughs, some fun facts, entertainment, some company, or even a distraction from something else. As part […]

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Make it your goal to give the listener a gift with each episode. If someone is giving you 25 minutes of their life, you need to give them something that’s worthy of their investment. It could be a few laughs, some fun facts, entertainment, some company, or even a distraction from something else.


As part of my series of interviews about “5 things you need to know to create a very successful podcast”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Ellenthal.

Jon Ellenthal has 30 years of experience building and leading early-stage companies. He is currently the Chief Strategy Officer for ApiJect Systems, Corp., a new company that is revolutionizing how the world gets injectable vaccines and medicines — whether for pandemic defense, commercial pharmaceuticals, or global health. Jon is also the Co-Founder and Board Member of The Upside Travel Company, the latest travel innovation from Priceline founder Jay Walker. Previously, Jon served as the CEO of Walker Digital and is a Founding Patron and former President of TEDMED, the health and medical edition of the world-famous TED organization. Earlier in his career, Jon was the CEO of Synapse Group, Inc. He hates it when people from other floors in his office building come to his floor to use the bathroom.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of your “personal backstory? What is your background and what eventually brought you to this particular career path?

I have always worked on entrepreneurial ventures that were trying to change how an industry does business. I love the challenge of figuring things out on the fly and adjusting to new information in real-time. A business plan never unfolds in a straight line as you head from point A to point B. I imagine in some ways it’s like doing live TV. I suspect that’s why I enjoy podcasting so much — the real-time give and take involved in creating something that is useful and entertaining to others.

Can you share a story about the most interesting thing that has happened to you since you started podcasting?

What’s most interesting is that both Kurt and I were looking for a creative outlet outside our formal careers. I think in a parallel universe we would love to be writing screenplays or for a TV show. Before starting Smart Drivel, we considered collaborating on a screenplay but decided on a podcast at the urging of friends. Friends told us we had great banter, obvious chemistry, and knew a bunch of useful stuff. It seems they actually enjoyed listening to us talk, and Kurt and I are not the kind of people who need to be asked twice to talk more.

The other interesting thing is I now get recognized everywhere I go and am hounded by fans who want selfies and autographs. It’s crazy. Oh, wait. That’s somebody else.

Can you share a story about the biggest or funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaways you learned from that?

I often think about how our podcast would be different if it were live rather than recorded. That would up the ante quite a bit, and there’s no doubt I would have a lot more embarrassing missteps. Thank goodness for post-production. That said, we had quite a few problems starting out as we got to know how to use the equipment we needed. If I never again have to hear Kurt say, “is the red light on,” that would be a great gift.

How long have you been podcasting and how many shows have you aired?

We have been at it for a little over a year now and we recently published our 50th episode. We record a new episode every week, releasing them on Apple, Spotify, and all other podcast platforms every Monday at 9am ET.

What are the main takeaways, lessons or messages that you want your listeners to walk away with after listening to your show?

Smart Drivel is a playful conversation about history, pop culture, language, observations, and weird things that humans do. Our motto is, “we promise the drivel and hope for the smart.” Listeners can have some laughs while accidentally learning something they really don’t need to know but are kind of glad they do. When we do it right, the podcast is fun, funny, and informative.

In your opinion what makes your podcast binge-listenable? What do you think makes your podcast unique from the others in your category? What do you think is special about you as a host, your guests, or your content?

Our podcast is easy listening and light-hearted. We are two good friends that have effortless conversations that take unexpected twists and turns, and we can poke fun at each other in a good-natured way. Kurt and I know an awful little about an awful lot and we love to get into conversations about anything and everything. Each episode is approximately 25 minutes, and all of our topics are evergreen. We don’t discuss the news so there’s never any risk that an old episode is no longer relevant.

Doing something on a consistent basis is not easy. Podcasting every work-day, or even every week can be monotonous. What would you recommend to others about how to maintain discipline and consistency? What would you recommend to others about how to avoid burnout?

Well, this is kind of a trick question…we never burnout or have discipline issues largely because our podcast is the same kind of conversations Kurt and I would be having anyway. It just so happens that we’re now recording them for others to [hopefully] enjoy. Our topics are just the jumping off points for our conversation and then the banter ensues. I know it’s a bit cliché, but we really enjoy doing the podcast. In many ways, it’s the highlight of our week. We’ve been told by listeners that it’s very clear we’re enjoying ourselves and it really comes across in the recordings.

What resources do you get your inspiration for materials from?

Kurt is mostly inspired by his dog who he insists is his muse, and my third-grade teacher in 1974 had an outsized impact on me.

Ok fantastic. Let’s now shift to the main questions of our discussion. Is there someone in the podcasting world who you think is a great model for how to run a really fantastic podcast?

I love the informality and intelligence of The Rewatchables from Bill Simmons, the insider access of Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, the stories of How I Built This with Guy Raz, the tone of Business Casual from Morning Brew, and the authenticity and insights of 3 Things with Ric Elias

What are the ingredients that make that podcast so successful? If you could break that down into a blueprint, what would that blueprint look like?

Blueprints are overrated in a creative endeavor. People need to talk about things they are interested in and know something about, just get started, and use feedback to refine the content to better serve your intended audience. Focus on the people who really enjoy the podcast and find more people like them.

You are a very successful podcaster yourself. Can you share with our readers the five things you need to know to create an extremely successful podcast? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)

  1. Pick a co-host that you have natural rapport with. The more effortless the conversation the better.
  2. Experiment with topics and content but don’t wander too far from who you really are and the things listeners enjoy.
  3. Make it your goal to give the listener a gift with each episode. If someone is giving you 25 minutes of their life, you need to give them something that’s worthy of their investment. It could be a few laughs, some fun facts, entertainment, some company, or even a distraction from something else.
  4. Have a good time yourself…listeners can tell if you are truly enjoying yourself or just going through the motions.
  5. Just keep showing up and don’t take yourselves too seriously. You will screw up, misspeak, forget something important.

Can you share some insight from your experience about the best ways to: 1) book great guests; 2) increase listeners; 3) produce it in a professional way; 4) encourage engagement; and 5) the best way to monetize it? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)

  1. We haven’t used guests, but we’ve thought about it. It’s something we’ll need to experiment with, because fitting a 3rd person into our conversation will be tricky. It would require both Kurt and I shutting up, which is as rare as Halley’s Comet.
  2. Increasing listeners takes a lot of blocking and tackling unless you already have an audience in another media that you can cross-promote the podcast to. Steady social media posting, being a guest on other podcasts, and building a library of episodes will build your audience slowly but steadily.
  3. We send our episodes out for sound mixing to give us the most professional sound. There are a lot of talented sound editors on sites like Fiverr.
  4. The most successful podcasts come right out and ask listeners to do things. Leave reviews, refer friends, follow them on Twitter, FB, and IG. We need to get better at making sure we make an ask on every episode.
  5. Most of the podcast publishing platforms can help with monetization. If you have a large audience, there are media agencies out there that specialize in placing ads from national advertisers in podcasts.

For someone looking to start their own podcast, which equipment would you recommend that they start with?

There are some great resources online that rank and recommend podcasting equipment for every budget and experience level. They will do a better job answering that question than I can.

Ok. We are almost done. 🙂 Because of your position and work, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Do not park in handicap spots without the proper credentials. Not only is it rude and self-important (“the rules don’t apply to me” and “I’ll only be a minute”) but it’s seriously bad karma too.

How can our readers follow you online?

www.smartdrivel.com, Twitter, IG, LinkedIn

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