Serial Makes Me Want to Stop Podcasting

Golden Age of podcasting? Not if you’re an indie.

It’s the podcast phenomenon that you can’t get away from.
This serialized podcast covering the murder of Hae Min Lee and the possible innocence of Adnan Syed is everywhere. Sarah Koenig and her team have already become the first podcast to reach 5 million downloads. Mailchimp (Serial’s main sponsor) is garnering huge value for their initial investment. Nobody saw this coming. Hell, I hadn’t even heard of Serial until Josh Dzieza wrote about it on The Verge on November 7th.

With everyone losing their shit about Serial’s popularity there is this notion that we’re entering the “golden age” of podcasting. More to the point: We are being lead to believe that podcasting is now the “it” thing and can be successful.

Whoever “they” are, they’re wrong.

Remember Adam Carolla?

Oh how quickly we forget that until episode 1 of Serial dropped on October 3rd, the biggest news in the world of podcasting was Adam being sued by his lifelong friend Donny Misraje because of money. Money that supposedly was to be generated from podcasting.

Members of a tiny club: successful podcasters.

The biggest point I took from this article was Adam was one of the few people to actually produce a successful and profitable podcast. Aside from a VERY few elite (Leo Laporte, Cali Lewis, to name two) podcasting is a labor of (unpaid) love.

When you’re a nobody you stay a nobody

Since 2004 I too have been a podcaster. I read about podcasting on Engadget and cooked up the idea of The Geekcast. The idea was simple: mimic the much-loved but canceled The Screen Savers and have some fun. For a while people came and listened. Then they didn’t. Like movies, books, and TV shows, people’s interest shifted like the tide. At its peak, The Geekcast clocked in at 1,100 listeners.

That fantastic milestone soon dropped as people found other shows. Then slowly the numbers dwindled. I took a break (“podfaded” in podcast speak) for 18-months. Creating an entire podcast on my own had burnt me out. In 2009 I came back and since then I’ve been cranking out a show that bares the same title but has morphed as my interests have shifted. I also brought on a long-time friend as a co-host.

I came back but the listeners didn’t. The show floats along a lowly but steady download metric that’s never shifted regardless of the effort put into drumming up interest. A failed Kickstarter and even a zero-patron Patreon campaign to simply help pay for the domain and server space has shown absolute failure. For the past year I’ve seriously considered ending the show because what’s the point of pouring love and time into a weekly entertainment show if almost nobody is listening?

Springboard Is Everything

So why is Serial so popular (aside from the amazing story that unfolds each week)? How did Leo Laporte build TWiT into such an empire? It’s quite simple: they had a springboard to bring in an initial group of listeners. Word of mouth handled the rest.

TWiT? Just look at the fans of The Screen Savers (myself included) and when you hear Leo is creating a podcast, you subscribe. It’s an instant audience.

Serial? Their secret was using the huge audience of This American Life. They inserted episode 1 into the TAL feed and boom: instant audience. If you liked that episode then you quickly subscribed to Serial’s dedicated feed in order to hear more.

These methods are fantastic but when you’re Joe Blow from Chicago who wants to podcast, it’s important to remember these reports of “golden age” and “advertising breaking out in podcasts” are reserved for the few elite media properties that have a vital component: a built-in audience. Without that springboard, your show is a hobby with a tiny listenership.

If only the media recognized the thousands of struggling podcasts wishing for a fraction of Serial’s success. When most shows can thrive, then we will truly enter this elusive “golden age” of podcasting.