Making It: the Lonely Road of the Small to Mid-Size Podcaster

I used to scour the internet for articles about podcasts. Now I can’t stem the flood.

When I began my show in the spring of 2012 I’d occasionally find an article about podcasts on Nieman Lab, but otherwise it was a case of Googling ‘podcasting.’ Generally you’d come up with lists of tips-and-tricks from guys with home studios making their shows over Skype. Coming from a public radio background complete with all those sensibilities, it wasn’t the information I was looking for.


Me in the CUNY J-School studio, 2012

Now I have the opposite problem. Public radio itself plus ex- and current public radio producers (plus loads of other people) have embraced podcasting with fervor, and they can’t stop talking about it.

There’s lots of analysis of podcasting these days, interviews with podcasters, articles in major newspapers, and, of course, podcasts about podcasts (next: podcasts about podcasts about podcasts?)

But with all this hype, I feel like I’ve lost my bearings.

The other day I had a conversation with Erica Heilman of Rumblestrip Vermont. If you don’t know it, the show bills itself as ‘good conversation that takes its time’ and that is one way of summing it up, but it doesn’t do it justice. I’ve never heard anything like her surprising, moving, wonderful shows Inside DCF and its follow-up Six Parents. Six DCF Stories. Start with these.


Erica mid-interview

We are both one-woman bands. We both fall in love with our tape when we get stuck into it and we both do a ton of editing to craft our shows. We each have what I’d call small to mid-sized audiences: multiple thousands, but not tens of thousands per new show – and certainly nowhere near the 50,000 per episode most sponsors are said to covet before they’ll bother supporting you (see an earlier piece where I refute this idea – I speak from experience). Yet we have smart, engaged, loyal audiences in multiple countries.

But sometimes in this world where the big networks and shows get all the attention, and the writing on podcasting is largely about audience growth and making money, we wonder what the hell we’re doing.

Lately we’ve both felt burned out. We’ve both wondered how to attract new listeners in a landscape that feels increasingly saturated with content. I know the audience for podcasts is growing, but I’m skeptical that it’s growing faster than the number of podcasts bursting to life every week.

“There’s so much getting made, potentially there’s an audience for everybody,” said Erica. On the other hand there’s so much getting made, how can anyone possibly find most of these podcasts, let alone find time to listen to them? Of course they have a much better chance of finding a public-radio-sponsored podcast that has access to a publicity department before it’s even out the door – something the average independent producer would kill for. 

Both of our podcasts are fueled solely by our visions and can feel quite personal. I was beginning to feel insecure about that aspect of my show, given the podcasts with resources behind them (and bigger audiences) all seem to be built via committee. But as Erica said, “Maybe there is something special in the sound of a program borne entirely from one person’s heart and brain.” I hope so.

Another issue lone podcasters like us face is the ability to produce regularly on top of the other work we’re doing – the work that actually pays. Again, conventional podcast wisdom has it that you should produce on a regular basis, and for many networks at least, their preference is once a week.

I release once every two weeks for most of the year – taking a couple of short breaks and doing the occasional re-release. I think the idea is the more often you produce the likelier you are to build a loyal audience. But neither Erica nor I are convinced our listeners can even keep up with a new show once every two weeks, on top of everything else they’re doing and listening to. Would it be a mistake to let production slip?

We don’t have the time or ability to do much marketing because we are doing multiple other jobs on top of our shows. And to be honest, the best listenership jumps I’ve had are from press, and press I never sought. I just got lucky. The best boost you can hope for as a podcaster is to be featured on another podcast with a huge listenership – you’ll then pick up a fraction of those listeners. But only a fraction, which is why the size of the show you’re on matters.

In short, when you love what you do but are on the smaller side, it’s easy to feel submerged by the torrents of podcast coverage, to feel you must be irrelevant because you’re not part of the club. 

Yet each of us feels we are doing work that matters, and this is backed up by the feedback we get from listeners.

In a world of hype, what matters more?

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