Podcasts are popular. But are the right shows getting attention?
Current podcast rankings and ratings make it hard to discover independent, niche podcasts. Let’s look at, for example, this widely-shared TIME list of the 50 Best Podcasts to Listen to Right Now. It’s a solid list with some truly incredible shows, but most are produced by the big players in the radio radio. In short, it’s the podcast equivalent of checking out the Billboard Top 40 to find music to listen to. And that new Drake song is catchy — but if it’s all you’re listening to, then you’re missing out.
You probably haven’t heard of Relic, Champagne & Lobster, and Can We Still Be Friends. They’re independent podcasts (about lost artifacts of history, food, and differing movie opinions, respectively) that are 3 of the 100 indie shows that our team behind Listen Notes recently interviewed. From our interview archive, I learn more about what it’s really like to be an indie producer. The result is a snapshot of indie podcasting today — a look at the best, worst, most inspiring, and most frustrating parts of venturing into independent podcasting today.
First, some themes — why are people making podcasts in 2018?
According to Infinite Dial’s 2018 report, 64% of the population will be familiar with podcasts by 2018, and 44% will be podcast listeners — a steady increase from previous years. It’s easy to see why: podcasts are an efficient, effective way to capture attention and tell a powerful story, direct to your audience. With more ways to listen to podcasts (hello, smart speakers) and easy access to podcast-making tools and software, it’s no wonder that so many independent podcasts are being produced today.
Sydney Axtell, host of Burnt Out.
Here’s some key trends and commonalities I found about why independent creatives are making the leap into podcasts:
To tell stories.
One of my favorite interviews in this series is from Sydney Axtell, the host of a show called Burnt Out. She recounts the experience of being at a women’s leadership conference and feeling overwhelmed by the energy and passion in the room. She felt so inspired by the stories of the people she met that she wanted to continue that experience, in podcast form. Her podcast strives to create the same vibe as the conference that was so transformative — inspirational, story-driven, community-oriented, and shedding light on issues that women leaders face.
Storytelling is the driving force behind many other independent shows, such as Jose Guzman’s The Pay Day Podcast (street interviews with New Yorkers), Deirdre Breakenridge’s Women Worldwide (interviewing mostly women about their careers), and Surf Memphis (two twenty-somethings telling the stories of their couchsurfing guests). Some also use storytelling to prove a point, like Ari Andersen, who is out to prove that Millennials Don’t Suck. As with any creative medium, it starts with a story.
Because they want a place to dive into a really specific world.
Personal advocacy and awareness for a cause or business venture.
Independent producers are using podcasts as a creative outlet to inspire, educate, and support their audiences. Many of the podcasters interviewed talked about how they wanted to create an audience in order to get out a message or idea that they see as important. For example, Civilla Morgan launched her show, Childless by Choice, to raise awareness and create conversations. Non Wels created You, Me, Empathy after a near-death experience.
A podcast can also be a powerful way to build an audience for professional endeavors. Neely Quinn makes The Training Beta podcast, which is an extension of their day job as a nutritionist and rock climber. Eric Rosenberg is a full-time freelance writer who runs a podcast called Personal Profitability, an audio extension of his own blog of the same name.
How are independent podcasters actually making money?
Well, often, they’re, er… not.
Most radio-makers have hopes to turn their hard work into a viable business. But with start-up costs, like equipment and editing software, and regular expenses like website hosting fees, the costs of making a podcast can add up. On top of that, promotion of your show can be costly. Social media management tools and advertising costs can add up. Submitting your own show for the chance to get recognition, like in the Webby Awards, costs money. So, can independent podcasts really be profitable?
Rob Maurer, host of The Definitive Tesla Podcast, generates around $565/month through listener donations. Okay, that’s about $8/hour — but it’s a start! Rob uses Patreon, a popular site for creators to set up a platform for donations and fan support. Some shows also take one-time donations via PayPal and rely on the generosity of their audience.
What about sponsors? If you’ve listened to any podcast in the last month, you’ve probably heard a carefully-crafted spiel about the simplicity of Squarespace, the comfort of MeUndies, the luxury of a Casper mattress, the deliciousness of a Blue Apron box. According to Wired, podcast sponsorship is a lucrative path for advertisers, with a few players dominating the advertising circuit.
Sponsorship is front-of-mind for many independent podcasters; of the 100 interviewed, over half of them mentioned ‘sponsors’ or ‘sponsorship’. Sponsorship has become such an integral part of the podcast-listening experience that some shows, like Squatch Smashers, choose to add fake sponsors into the show in lieu of having real ones. That said, if you’re a smaller podcast, it can be tricky to get the attention or buy-in (and money) of a big-league sponsor. The sponsorship status of many indie producers can be summed up with a hopeful “not yet, but maybe soon!”
As a result, many producers that we interviewed aren’t making any profit from their show — and they’re okay with that. They talk about how they’re not in it for the money — the goal is creativity, fun, and audience growth. “I gain nothing financially from podcasting,” says Sit Down & Shut Up host Joshua Tracey. “While it would be nice to be at a point where that is realistic, my real benefit is having the creative outlet and a strong listener base.”
Lessons & tips from indie podcasters
Tip #1: Find a friend. Many of the independent podcasts interviewed were founded by friends, partners, or siblings.
Relevant to Our Interests, a podcast about entertainment, is run by two friends. they interview — you guessed it — their friends. The host, Frank Shaw, says that the primary benefit that podcasting gives him is “an opportunity and excuse to talk to my best friend once a week that’s not through a message or text”. Plus, he gets to share that conversation with the world.
Other friendship-podcasts interviewed include Ben and Vicki, the Australian team behind comedy podcast Insane Ramblings; a husband-wife produced show called Sh*t Happens When You Party Naked; The Jupiter Boys, two brothers who claim to be from the planet Jupiter; and Smart Enough to Know Better, a podcast by two improv theatre friends.
Tip #2: Know the technical stuff. You don’t need to own a private studio and a top-of-the-line microphone to produce a show, but you do need a good set-up. So, how do real independent producers create their own mini-NPR (often in their basement or closet space)? Here’s how a few producers described their podcasting process:
“I use Libsyn as my podcast host. I level my audio with Auphonic. I have two Audio-Technica ATR2100 USB mics and a small Xenyx mixer… I interview most of my guests via Skype, and I use the Ecamm Call Recorder as a recording device.” — Non Wells, host of You, Me, Empathy
“I designed our setup to be as mobile as possible while still focusing on quality of audio. We run 1 or 2 Audio-Technica AT2020 mics (depending on if we have a guest) mounted to desktop mic stands and we record on a Zoom H5 which I also use as my primary microphone. This allows me to monitor the levels as we’re recording and saves me from having to tweak anything in post. I use Garageband for any post work since it’s always so minimal; however, if it were more involved we’d be using either Pro Tools or Adobe Audition.” — Mind Gap host Justin Straundland
“I use Zoom to record, Audacity to edit, Podcast Press to copy the post over onto my website; Libsyn. I have conversations with people and invite them to be a guest if I think they will be a good fit for my audience. I use Zoom for guest interviews.
I write each episode out as a blog post, that way I can use the wording as a transcript on my blog, I then record and make it chatty.” — Ruby McGuire, host of the Rock Your Fabulous Biz Podcast
Still a bit unsure of what to add to your Amazon cart? Check out Transom’s Podcasting Basics series, which covers everything from microphone types to editing software.
Tip #3: Get advice from your community. Each interview in this series ended with a question: “What advice would you share with aspiring (new) podcasters?”. The advice was widely varied. Some talked about the importance of scripting and planning for shows; others talked about just jumping in and getting started. Edit, but don’t over-edit; release a few episodes at a time at first, but don’t worry about it being perfect. And talk to more experienced podcasters for advice (they’re nice!).
The JNT Baggers suggested seeking communities and spaces where other podcasters are. “Join community based podcasting groups on Facebook. A lot of veteran podcasters are in those groups and will or have answered almost every question you can think of in regards to podcasting.” They say that one of the biggest benefits of starting their podcast has been the opportunity to collaborate with other podcasters that they’ve met along the way.
Johnna, the producer of food podcast Champagne & Lobster, talked about the importance of being really passionate about your topic. “Choose to talk about a topic that you LOVE for your podcast. Podcasting is just like any other passion: if you do not love it, there will be plenty of days where it will be a challenge to do it,” she said. “If you love it, that challenge will be overcome with that passion.”
As with any new venture, consistency is key. “The most important detail the newbies need to hear is to be consistent, persistent, and on schedule,” advised horror podcaster Spooky Boo. Tudor Alexander suggests that patience, consistency, and vision are key: “Be patient because there’s a lot to learn and the world is diverse with options. Be consistent in the sense of consistent action towards your goal and you will get there. Vision is also important because it is where you are going — why are you doing what you are doing and what is it that you want to contribute and share with others? How are you making their lives better?”
And the advice I found the most: focus on making killer content for the show, and the rest will (hopefully) follow.