Podcasting: Lessons from the First Year

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Tim's Co-Host on the show, Tom Breen.
Tim’s Co-Host on the show, Tom Breen.

As 2015 draws to a close, I’ve been looking back through my files about new things I’ve learned this year, and many of the most important lessons have come from the new podcast I started this year, Critical Mass.

The show is about science and religion, and it came about as the result of a conversation with a former colleague and classmate about the two topics. The more we talked, the more we realized that we had similar opinions on intersection between science and religion, chief among them that we were disappointed with the way that interface was portrayed in most media. That conversation eventually led to us launching the show, which wasn’t my first attempt at producing a podcast, but was the first one that really took root and flourished, finding an audience and a sustainable business model.

After eight months and 30 episodes, I’ve learned a few things about what seems to work (and what probably doesn’t) in terms of keeping a podcast going. This advice represents my experience, if people have found other things to be true, I’d love hear about them.

Here are my main takeaways from the first year:

1. Choose A Topic or Format You Love

I think this is probably the single most important factor in determining the likely success or failure of a show over the long haul. If you want it to succeed, you’ve got to build a show around something you are truly passionate about. Podcasting is becoming a more and more popular form of media, but because the barriers to entry are incredibly low, there are a LOT of podcasts for listeners to choose from. As a result, finding an audience and generating revenue can be difficult, and will certainly take time. That commitment of time and energy will be easier if you are doing because you love it. Is your show about something that you care about so much, you’d do it even if you knew that no one was going to listen to it? If not, consider picking another topic.

2. Choose A Topic or Format With Legs

The second big thing is to choose something that you think will provide you with enough content on an ongoing basis. For most shows, this means choosing something based on news or current events. The reason for this is that it might take a couple of months for your show to really get on its feet, and you need to make sure that you don’t run out of steam before you get there. For example, you could launch a podcast discussing the films of Quentin Tarantino, or the history of modern cosmology (I’d listen to both of them), but eventually you’d get to a place where you feel like you’ve said all there is to say. Now, there are some shows (Serial comes to mind) that have a clear endpoint, but those are shows put together by experienced producers who already have a big audience. If you are just starting out, you probably want to do something open-ended, and that means picking something that will stay fresh.

3. Work With People You Like

One of the things that seems to make podcasts interesting is that they are so immediate, so personal. A podcast is basically someone whispering in your ear, which I think is one reason why personal true stories seem to be the basis of so many of the most popular shows. In order to achieve that feel, it helps to work with people you like, because the chemistry that you feel when recording it (whether it’s with a co-host, or just with your producer) will absolutely come across in the recordings. Tom and I genuinely have a good time on our show, we often say that we are basically recording an hour of the stuff we’d be talking about off the air anyway. Working with people you like also makes it fun, which helps you keep it up, and I can say for myself that it helped me stay motivated even when it felt like we weren’t getting anywhere, because I didn’t want to feel like I disappointed my co-host.

4. Make It Sound Good

This advice may sound trivial, but it’s actually pretty important. If you are serious about putting together a podcast, invest the time and money in learning how to make it sound good. It certainly helps to invest in some specialized recording equipment, but if you don’t have a budget, you can still do a lot to improve sound quality by reading up on some basics of sound recording. A decent podcast can be recorded using nothing but your phone, and edited and mixed on a free and open-source piece of software, but only if you are careful and smart about how you do it. There are a bunch of great tutorials on the web, so do some reading. If you do have a budget, a basic DIY studio can be had for around $600, which is a pittance compared to what high-quality audio recording used to cost. Making it sound good isn’t just for the audience, it’s also for you. You will have more fun and stay more motivated if you are turning out a product that sounds professional.

5. Be Patient. Keep Going.

The last (and most important) thing is just to stick with it. As I said, there is a LOT of content out there, and it may take time to find your audience. Don’t expect to get tens or hundreds of thousand of downloads right out of the gate. (If you get a thousand downloads, you’re doing pretty well). Over time, hopefully your audience will find you, and if you’ve built yourself a model that is sustainable, you will be able to keep that audience for a long time.


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