Learn from the mistakes I’ve made before making your own.
I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts. Lately, it’s probably my primary form of entertainment. I can fold laundry while laughing along with the McElroy brothers and bake cookies while learning about sharks with Wendy Zukerman. Naturally, after falling in love with this medium, I decided to start my own show with a close friend just over a year ago. You’re likely in the same boat, so I’m writing this article so you can learn from my own mistakes.
Honestly, I didn’t expect our little show to go anywhere, and I still don’t. Sure, we had some initial success. We broke a few thousand downloads in less than a year, had anywhere from 50–100 loyal subscribers, and were picked up by a small podcast network in Vancouver. When I started that show, I would have been happy to have had even just one listener who cared about what I had to say, so as far as my own expectations, it was more than successful.
Through word of mouth and internet connections, I’ve been able to gain experience editing and to be a guest on various shows. Now, I’ve taken a step back from that show to focus on freelance writing (yet another passion of mine). Of course, I’m sure I’ll start another podcast in the not-too-distant future, but for now, I am sticking to paid labour before I go back to working for myself and for free. Alright, now that you know my qualifications, let’s get to some tangible advice! That’s why you’re here, aren’t you?
1. Podcasting is First and Foremost: A Hobby.
If your goals are to become the next big podcast, let’s just take a step back for a minute. Think of the top podcasts and why they are famous. Three come to mind for me:
First, there’s Serial, one of the earlier ones to “viral.” Its production value is through the roof and unless you have a massive budget to hire audio editors and researchers, you probably won’t be making something comparable. Second, there’s Joe Rogan, not one I listen to, but generally, people like to refer to it when I edit audio for them. His show is well-known because he is well-known. Third, we have My Favourite Murder, a comedy podcast about true crime. This one does have humble beginnings, but I would say that’s because it was a niche that didn’t exist yet (and is definitely oversaturated now).
All these shows are wildly successful. However, if you’re like me, you probably have a budget of zero, aren’t already a celebrity, and have an idea that isn’t groundbreaking (no offense). At the end of the day, it should be something you want to do because the chances of hitting it big are slim. I’m not saying you can’t approach it with a serious mindset, but if you start dropping tons of money in it, don’t expect to make it back.
2. Patreon will not cover your Expenses
Everyone and their dog has a Patreon nowadays. Artists, Writers, Podcasters, the list goes on. If you aren’t already familiar with it, it’s a website where artists are paid to do their work by their fans. It’s gotten to the point that it’s hard to stand out because so many people are using it.
Again, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it, but you should have a realistic outlook. We did set up at Patreon fairly early and managed to make enough money that it covered a year’s worth of podcast hosting. Mostly because we asked good friends who believed in us, and we were lucky they did.
Overall, it’s important to note the amount of time and effort to make a good Patreon page that will attract lots of fans will be just as much or more than making the podcast itself. We often spent far more time on it that could have been spent doing other more practical tasks.
3. Good Equipment is more Important than Good Audio Editing
You can just record with your phone or laptop now, right? Everything has a microphone inside of it! A valid assumption, but please trust me when I say it’s wrong. There are a few reasons I would like to discourage this.
First, you can absolutely hear the difference in audio quality. The first show I was paid to work on as an audio editor involved cleaning up 10 minute daily talks that the host recorded on his cellphone and uploaded directly to Anchor (a podcasting app with some questionable business practices). The background noise is hard to remove, there’s an echo, and it’s just not clean and crisp. Some background noise can work in something like an audio-drama, but if it’s not intentional you should avoid it.
Second, the file type is often annoying to work with. In a pinch, I’ve had to use my phone to record something and the file type was difficult to change to one I could work with on Audacity (a free audio editing program). If you’re doing it all yourself, as most podcasters are, then you’ll want to keep things simple and compatible with the program you are using to edit the show.
Third, you can save yourself time in postproduction by having good quality audio from the start. Things always happen, but if you don’t have to spend hours making the interviewer and interviewee the same volume every time, you’ll be much happier.
Of course, it’s your show, and at the end of the day if you have good content you can still attract dedicated listeners. Personally, when I listen to a show with three people talking in a room to one microphone, I stop listening and I don’t go back. Even if I’ve been told by close friends that the content is amazing, I don’t care. Not everyone is like me, but making a good first impression should be something you want to do regardless.
It’s also not that expensive to buy a decent microphone. There are plenty of cheap ones around $50 and you can always look for some second hand online (Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc). I dropped about $90 each on our two microphones for my first show and I don’t regret it.
4. You will have to make a Twitter Account
I had been resisting making a Twitter account for a long time. There are enough social media sites that I’m on already, why do I need this one?! Connections, that’s why. It took me a while to get used to it and understand how it worked, but now I love it. Twitter is like the colloquial version of LinkedIn. Another social media I resisted but had to give into as well.
Because I was following and interacting with other podcasters on Twitter, our podcast got found by a small group of independent podcasters. My co-host and I even did an interview on one of their shows and after a few meetings, we joined their network. (Cheesy heartfelt shoutout to my cave goblin friends).
Thanks to Twitter, we also entered some small contests to be featured on the front pages of small podcast listening apps, and shockingly we won one of them. Thanks to that, our show was on the front page of Castbox for a month (personally, this is my favourite app to listen to shows on, also because it’s connected to Twitter.) With all that free advertising, we got a few dozen new listeners and fans.
5. Podcasts Require more Work than you Expect
This is kind of obvious, but I feel compelled to say it. I’ve helped a few friends start a podcast and watched their show fade into obscurity as soon as I leave them by themselves. Not that surprising given that many podcasts don’t make it passed the one year mark or make more than a single episode. Basically, a lot more work goes into a podcast than you realize. Let’s break down just some of the things you don’t think about that take time:
- Booking Guests
- Brainstorming Topics
- Logo and Website Design
- Writing Questions/Scripts
- Transcribing the Audio
- Writing a Blog Post/Show Notes
- Self Promotion on Social Media
Each of these things takes time and effort. Sure, you can probably do it quickly and each task is pretty simple and quick to do on their own, but there is a lot of them. Did you notice I didn’t even mention recording or editing the audio? Those are the two most crucial pieces! However, these things I mentioned take a good portion of your time as well.
At the busiest point, I was probably spending 20 hours a week doing all these things for my podcast. That’s like having another part-time job.
Wow, that was pessimistic… should I start a podcast at all?
YES! Please start a podcast! It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. I don’t regret it for a second, and I already have 10 ideas for new shows I want to start. While you might not get famous or make money, you will make good friends. Podcasting is the best medium because it is so low entry. Anyone can record a topic about anything!
Hollywood isn’t going to write funny fantasy stories like Sidequesting. Nor am I going to find specific episodes about Moss (also know as Bryology) like on the show Ologies! Where else will I get to listen to Canadians talk about true crime other than Dark Poutine? How about a Dungeons and Dragons game focused on finding the best recipe for chicken wings as in Dragonwings Pod? And of course, there is the delightful meta-humour of listening to people pitch podcast ideas to each other as with Podcast vs Podcast.
Everyone can make a podcast. This is the medium that lets us shamelessly share every nerdy thing that fascinates us. Listeners get to learn things they never even knew they were interested in.
I’m not trying to discourage you from making a show about pickling strange vegetables or rating celebrities’ eyebrows. This article is just to help remind you why you want to make a podcast, and face the hard truth that not everyone likes to talk about. I hope you start a podcast because it’s something you love and want to share with the world. Those are the shows we need. There is so much stress, and fear, and pain in the world, especially right now. Podcasts are a shining light that let us escape some of the realities of our day-to-day.
Hopefully, this helps you bring your podcast dreams to fruition. I wrote this honest advice to keep you from being too focused on profit and validation from others and to make something you are proud of.
Now go make a podcast, damnit!
P.S. Bonus points to whoever starts a podcast rating celebrities’ eyebrows. I will subscribe as soon as you rate Kristen Dunst’s eyebrows.