November 11, 2014
I’m going to talk about podcasting for a minute.
I just got back from Third Coast, the huge biennial radio/audio storytellers’ conference. It was packed, the most crowded of the three I’ve been to, and as usual you come home inspired, exhausted, and often with a cold.
This year podcasting was a big topic and as a podcaster myself I attended both sessions of Own Your Thing, the panel on podcasting. Each panel featured luminaries like Alex Blumberg of the fantastic Startup podcast, Lea Thau of Strangers, Nick Van Der Kolk of Love + Radio and Hillary Frank of The Longest Shortest Time.
I loved the emphasis on podcasting and these sessions in particular. Perhaps next time – if this golden age of audio is still with us two years from now – we can also hear from some smaller podcasters about what they’re doing. Because all the latest talk and media attention around podcasting tends to center around the huge success stories: Startup, Serial, Strangers, and of course 99% Invisible, which has elevated podcasting to a new level.
But what about the rest of us?
The most successful podcasters have something most of us don’t: they either have backing from a public radio station such as WNYC or KCRW, or they have benefited from the on-air blessing of Ira Glass. Or both. Those things (but especially Ira) can lead to tens of thousands or more listeners.
Yet most of us are laboring away in a vast, overpopulated digital landscape, trying to be heard above the din.
When I heard Kerri Hoffman of PRX tell the panel that podcasters should concentrate first on building our audience to 20,000 before thinking about trying to land sponsors, I had to say something, even though I was shaking with nerves. I won’t repeat what I said in detail, but in short I have managed to get sponsors for my show – including a deal with the Financial Times involving actual grown-up money – despite having fewer than 10,000 listeners. I am proud of each of those listeners because I am doing this all on my own, without backing from a station or a radio god. There are ways to make sponsorship work for you even when you don’t seem to fit into a traditional CPM-type revenue model. With me, it's been about finding brands whose mission is aligned with my own.
Building the audience
The other point I want to make here is that I don’t believe those working in the public radio world have any idea how hard it is to ‘build an audience’. They come from a place where they have an audience of hundreds of thousands or more listeners, and they take it for granted. An audience of 20,000? In my dreams - yet when I worked for Marketplace, with its millions of listeners, I would have seen that as tiny. To a small, one-woman band like myself though, getting to 20,000 feels like a mountain to climb, listener by listener. There is no shortcut that’ll get you there quickly. I continue to beaver away hopefully on the lower slopes. After all, last year 5,000 listeners seemed like a lot.
I’ve been doing my show for two-and-a-half years and for the last year-and-a-half I’ve been producing one show every two weeks for most of the year. I’ve been lucky enough to be featured on a few ‘best podcast’ lists this year in publications including the Guardian and Gawker. My show also got a mention on one of the Planet Money podcasts back in the spring when I was working there. Those were wonderful surprises, and each time my listenership shot up considerably. But gaining listeners is a hard slog even with those accolades ringing in my ears. The reason I don’t doubt myself is that I get emails and tweets every week from women – and even the (very) occasional man – from the US and abroad saying how much they enjoy the show. Meeting some of these listeners (including two from Australia!) was a highlight of Third Coast. I get donations. I even have a few sustaining members.
But if I hadn’t got on those lists, would I still have fewer than 1,000 listeners per show, which is what I had at the end of last year after 1.5 years of work? It is tough for lone-wolf podcasters to attract attention, even ones with public radio connections like myself.
I agree with what the Third Coast panelists said: first, make a good product. Then, as you begin your climb, try to get on other people’s shows, as any cross-promotion is helpful. Doing a Kickstarter campaign can also help build awareness of your show (haven't tried this yet).
Here are my methods for building an audience for my show on women and work:
- Caring a lot about the quality of the show
- Choosing the best guests for each theme I cover
- Word of mouth. Lots of it.
- Being featured on ‘best’ lists (though you can’t control this)
- Experimenting with a PR firm to help with marketing, which led to me
- Being featured on a public radio show as a guest where I was allowed to plug the podcast
- Continuing to report on women and work issues on the air so if people hear me and decide to Google me they'll come across my show. One of these stories led to a guest spot on Marketplace Weekend where I got to mention the podcast.
- Being a panelist at events on the subject of my show
- Being in a podcast network for a year didn't help my listenership much but the network, Mule Radio, shut down this spring (and did virtually no marketing of its shows). But being in a network can definitely increase your listenership if it's the right network for your show. A friend recently joined Jesse Thorn's Maximum Fun network and has seen a bump.
And a couple of great points from Jeff Emtman of the Here Be Monsters podcast:
Fill a niche that doesn’t exist
Cover the same kind of ground (i.e. great storytelling) but have a different aesthetic, as Jeff does with Here Be Monsters.
If anyone has other suggestions, I would love to hear them - please post a comment below.