The anatomy of the Moonshot podcast and how we’re tracking so far

Earlier this year — in March 2017 — Andrew Moon and I launched the very first episode of Moonshot. This article will hopefully answer any questions you may have about the show — how we’re tracking — what gear we use — and where we’re headed.

Moonshot is a podcast focused on people chasing ‘moonshot’ ideas that seem almost impossible. To me that’s what Moonshot was when we started — almost impossible — but we’ve now achieved well over 100,000 downloads, we’ve started making (some) money, and we’ve even been mentioned in the Financial Times! Getting to the launch point wasn’t easy— and continuing the journey has been even tougher.

The Early Days

Like many overly ambitious startup projects — Moonshot took us a while to get off the ground.

The concept for Moonshot is something Andrew and I had been talking about since 2015. In fact — I was determined to make it happen — so I actually approached Breakmaster Cylinder, who makes the theme music for Reply All, to compose the theme music for the podcast (This was in August 2015). I also approached my friend Andrew Millist to create our amazing artwork — branding is everything in the podcast world. The process had started — however due to work commitments, and Andrew moving to San Francisco, it took us a year to even get the trailer out in the world. One of us was always busy, so it was often hard to schedule time for a Skype call to organise things.

The initial concept of the show involved a mix of pre-cut interviews with Andrew and I talking through the tech afterwards. We wanted the show to be short — initially we were thinking around 15 minutes — and it needed to focus on big ideas. However we realised early on that it was quite difficult to make a banter driven talk show compelling when the hosts are based on opposite sides of the world. We’d actually recorded a whole episode like this and started putting it together… but when we realised it didn’t work we simply trashed the concept and started again.

With both of us being journalists we wanted to make sure that whatever we put out in the world was actually of a high quality — so we decided to move towards doing scripted narrative podcasts as it would be easier to produce given the location constraints and only required us to record our lines separately rather than be on a call at the same time.

In early 2016 I submitted the concept for Moonshot to an innovation grants program run by The Walkley Foundation — Australia’s peak journalism body. To my surprise they eventually shortlisted the project. This was the motivation I needed to get going — so I quickly purchased a copy of ProTools determined to get the podcast out before I had to present to the judges in August. I figured I’d be fine — I worked as a video producer so I was familiar with video editing software so how different could audio editing software actually be? As it turns out — a lot different.

Work commitments meant I didn’t have a lot of time to learn new software — and in the process of trying to cram in some ProTools sessions I realised what a terribly complex piece of software it is to use. I couldn’t find any tutorials on how to use it for making podcasts — everything was geared towards music. The software kept crashing on my Macbook, and the other frustration — I had to use a special USB security key to even open the software. It’s just not designed for the average user — or even the advanced user. To this day I still have no idea how this became the industry standard.

However my presentation to the judging panel was fast approaching so in an effort to impress — while in a hotel room in Sydney, I quickly cut together a trailer using a free copy of Hindenburg which I’d scored when I entered a podcast competition. It turned out Hindenburg was built for journalists, it was easy to understand, and I got the trailer finished and submitted to iTunes before my presentation.

The panel must have loved my pitch — because we won our funding grant and received $5000 AUD for our efforts!

However it took us another 6 months before we got our first episode out in the world. But when we eventually launched it was like a huge weight was lifted — the first one was out in the wild — imperfections and all.

The Launch

I don’t quite know what we were expecting when we launched… I guess I imagined masses of people downloading the show and having it be an instant success. But that’s not the way things work for most people.

The truth is we only had one episode ready when we launched, and we were publishing the first episode 6–7 months after our initial trailer. So in that way we really stuffed up our launch — although I believe this helped us win our funding grant. Andrew and I were also both working full-time in quite demanding jobs, so even if we had immediate success we wouldn’t have been able to push out any new content as we didn’t have time to even record it.

The first few months of statistics were quite low.

The first episode didn’t receive many downloads — we weren’t expecting many and we hadn’t really done much pre-promotion. But the fact that it was out in the world was motivation enough to keep going. But it become pretty clear that with demanding jobs we just weren’t going to get anything done.

I wanted to focus on something I was passionate about and I was passionate about the podcast. So I started applying to visit conferences as media so I could record interviews with some of the speakers. A few of these were approved, so when I eventually quit my job in April 2017 — I suddenly had enough time to dedicate to making the podcast, and I had a few places to go where I could source interviews. A few entrepreneurs that I admired also agreed to do interviews which was helpful and motivating.

At the end of May we launched our second episode — looking at Artificial Intelligence. It performed better than the first episode — but it’s all relative. The podcast was only receiving hundreds of downloads (see chart above). We then published another episode as a bonus a few weeks later which kept the momentum going.

While we didn’t have much of an audience — the first few shows were a great opportunity for us to refine the podcast and experiment with our style. It also was great to have one of us dedicated to getting the podcast out in the world.

Getting Featured

Everything changed for us in late July. I was trying to push more episodes out, but Andrew was incredibly busy with work, so the turnaround was still too slow for my liking. However I’d been building up a lot of content —and we were thinking about different styles of doing the show to speed up production. We decided to start publishing extended versions of interviews as they were often fascinating and included too much extra detailed to include in the standard show format.

When we published more content in mid-July we were able to follow up with other interview content almost immediately. This definitely helped boost our audience as we had more frequency. But the one key thing that changed our trajectory was getting featured in Pocket Casts.

Some people say getting featured in apps does nothing for your podcast —but for us it changed the whole game.

We were featured in Pocket Casts and it changed the trajectory of the show.

We were first featured in a tech newsletter called The Sizzle — it’s run by Anthony Agius — and we saw a definite boost from the newsletter. People were subscribing more than usual… and then it happened. All of a sudden our numbers started soaring above what we’d seen the day before… but they weren’t coming from The Sizzle audience — or from Apple Podcasts — they were coming from Pocket Casts. It turns out Pocket Casts moved us into the #1 featured spot.

I couldn’t believe what had happened — I actually posted in a Facebook group asking other podcasters to check if we were featured in their country and we were. The best part was that on android devices the #1 featured podcast has a rather large image — which made our artwork really stand out.

Thanks to the feature we quickly shot up Pocket Casts trending list until we hit #1, and we remained at the top of the list for several days. I was pretty excited about this as we had knocked 30 For 30 — a brilliant podcast from ESPN — out of the top spot.

The numbers

We added more than 50,000 downloads in just a few weeks due to being featured on Pocket Casts.

In real terms the Pocket Casts feature helped deliver more than 10,000 downloads per episode to our show. People would download one episode, and then the next, and then the next. Over the duration of our time in the featured section we added upwards of 50,000 downloads to the show directly attributed to Pocket Casts. The game had changed.

Since the feature — most of the episodes have continued to increase with most episodes now sitting in the 13–15,000 range. Our episode with Kevin Rose is currently the top performing episode with more than 15,000 downloads. We have achieved more than 125,000 total downloads which has given us a good base. Currently a majority of our audience — upwards of 80% — actually come through Pocket Casts. This is very different from the industry average which usually places Apple Podcasts in the number one position.

Seeing the numbers increase and remain as listeners has given us more motivation to chase stories and put together an even better show.

Dealing with Feedback

Feedback is always interesting. You want to have great feedback — but sometimes you don’t get it. Overwhelmingly the feedback for Moonshot has been positive — people love the show.

Some have posted pictures of themselves listening to the show — and have been mentioning it in online forums and on Facebook and Instagram. It’s so encouraging to see great feedback.

Although while many people loved the show — we did notice a few comments and reviews saying we were using too much music and that it was turning them off the show. Someone even left us a one star review because of it although said they would still continue to listen. It really hurt to read the negative feedback… but they were right!

I totally overdid it on the music front for a few episodes. I was thinking like a video producer not like an audio producer. In video you use music to pull someone through your content — and while the same is true in audio — because you’re producing content for the ear you have to be more sensitive as it’s easy to overpower the listener. I’ve since gone back through the archive and fixed up some of the episodes to reduce some of the music — and I might make some further adjustments. We’ve also cut back on the music used in new episodes.

The feedback we received was hard to hear — we’d love to think we got everything right — but our audience was right and they’ve made the show better. Feedback is awesome!

Promoting the show

We’ve tried a bunch of different forms of advertising in the process of growing the show. The first thing we tried was advertising on social media. We tried Facebook and Twitter ads — but it was clear early on that these ads aren’t a good way of actually driving subscribers, unless you have a bunch of money to sink into the promotion. We had some money thanks to the funding grant but we didn’t want to waste it on Facebook ads.

The reason for the lack of engagement is people aren’t usually actively looking for a podcast when they’re on Facebook. Google Ads is actually a better form of promotion as you can target similar shows and keywords that people are actively searching for. So if someone searches for ‘good technology podcasts’ they’re probably in the mindset for listening to a new show. The only issue with Google Ads is they can be quite expensive.

However — the best form of advertising has been paying for promotions on other podcasts. Many podcasts will know that existing podcasts are one of the key ways people find out about new shows, so when we’ve run ads on other shows we’ve often seen Moonshot quickly shoot up the Apple Podcast charts. Apple uses new subscribers as a key indicator of their ranking system and seeing your podcast move up the charts means you are probably getting some new subscribers. So from now on we’re only going to focus on promoting the podcast on other shows.

The Gear

One thing I’ve found when producing Moonshot is that everyone wants to know what sort of equipment you use to make a show. So here goes!

This is the setup that I use for podcasts with details on why I use them.

Field recording: In the field I use a Tascam DR-100 MkIII recorder. This is a beast of a recorder. It has dual XLR with lock-in connectors so the cables don’t fall out — and the preamps don’t have much noise compared with other popular recorders from Zoom like the H4n. There is also built-in mics but I never use them. I love the ergonomics of the design and the material feels very high-end, the buttons are big and easy to navigate, the volume wheel helps for making easy adjustment to the levels, and it has two hooks where I can attach a neck strap (I use a Peak Design Slidelite camera strap as it’s easy to connect and disconnect). But while many recorders have these features — the main reason I bought the DR-100 MkIII was the inbuilt battery life! It has an inbuilt battery that will power the device for around 6 hours of recording with phantom power and even more if you have the phantom power off as I always do. Also you can use a couple of AA batteries for a few extra hours if needed. Not having to think about battery life is easily the best productivity hack you can have.

Field mic: Nothing beats Rode mics for quality and price. They’re a great Australian brand that gives excellent recording quality at an affordable price. In the field I use the Rode NTG4+ shotgun microphone. The reason I use this is I want to isolate the sound of my interview talent. Shotgun mics really help you get close to the talent which will help the audience focus on your story. The other reason I use the Rode is battery life. Notice a theme yet?

The Rode NTG4+ has an inbuilt battery that will last for 100 hours of recording — 100 hours!!! I pretty much charge it once every few months just to be on the safe side — but other than that I don’t have to think about it at all. If the light is green I know I have at least 20 hours of battery remaining, and even if it turns orange I still have more than 10 hours! It’s an excellent mic that makes working in the field significantly easier. I also use the Rode WS6 Deadcat for protecting against wind, and have recently purchased the Rode PG2-R pistol grip for minimising handling noise.

Headphones: In the field and in the studio I use the Sony MDR-7506. They’re excellent headphones for monitoring audio and they’re generally a great price. I have a set that I use in the studio and a set in my backpack for field recording. The Sony’s are pretty much the industry standard.

Other field gear: I use Canare XLR cables — because I love having coloured XLR cables and they’re pretty high quality for the price. I always have a Mophie powerstation XXL just in case I need to charge anything — usually I end up charging my iPhone. And I use a Kata 3N1–35 PL backpack which I had leftover from the days when I had a DSLR. It’s a great backpack although they don’t make the Kata brand anymore as Kata was purchased by Manfrotto. I’ve been looking for an upgrade but haven’t worked out what I’ll get yet.

Studio Mic: In the studio I use a Rode Procaster. I love this microphone as it’s got a great sound at really affordable price. It’s a dynamic mic so doesn’t need to run phantom power, has an inbuilt pop filter to help with plosives, and has a 10 year warranty. I use it with a Rode PSA1 Studio Arm, and Rode PSM1 Shock Mount. Andrew uses a Shure SM7B so sometimes we have to work to match the audio — but I think we’ve now got everything sounding pretty similar.

Studio Recording: I record direct into my mac using a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. The 2i2 is a pretty good interface that connects via USB. It has a couple of XLR inputs and has the ability to supply phantom power. I do find the recording levels a little soft with the dynamic mics so I often use a Tritonaudio Fethead to boost the gain coming in from the Rode Procaster. I use this setup for any studio work and also it works well with skype. That said, I’d love to upgrade the Focusrite to a broadcast mixer where I could use a mix-minus setup to run phone calls, Skype, and other audio through the board — but for the moment the Focusrite does the job just fine.

Editing

For editing I use Hindenburg Journalist Pro. As mentioned earlier in this post — I tried ProTools early on. But honestly — ProTools is a terrible piece of software for editing a podcast. It’s overly complex, it requires the use of an expensive USB iLok key, and it crashes if the settings aren’t right. I also tried Adobe Audition but I thought that was geared more towards audio for video production and came with a large monthly price tag.

Hindenburg Journalist Pro however is designed for journalists and centres more on voice driven audio. There’s plenty of features it doesn’t have that other systems do but that’s also its advantage. It’s simple to use and does everything you need for producing a high-quality podcast.

This is the edit window for our episode on robots.

For Moonshot we generally script everything in Google Docs. Scripting the episodes forces us to think about how they’ll be assembled — and it also works better with the workflow. Generally I do a first pass on the script and then Andrew will read over it and clean it up. We then record all our lines before we start the edit.

Once we have all the audio together I’ll then go through each bit of audio and clip up the relevant grabs and place them in the clipboard on the right of the screen for easy access. Then it’s just a matter of assembling everything and adding music. Sometimes we’ll make further adjustment to the script at this point as we might extend some grabs or remove sections completely as often things are better on paper than they are in reality.

Our music comes from a mixture of places. Some of it comes from Breakmaster Cylinder and some of it comes from Epidemic Sound. We’ve also used some AI generated music from Jukedeck in previous episodes (actually we used it in our AI episode we just didn’t mention it in the show).

Hosting

For much of the life of our podcast we’ve been hosted with Libsyn. They’re a great host for people starting out and provide a reliable service with lots of available methods of distributing your podcast. Other good hosts worth considering include Whooshkaa, Omny Studio, and Podbean.

I recently decided I wanted to shift the Moonshot (and Lawson Media’s) podcast hosting to a new host. While I like Libsyn, the hosting will become far more expensive as we grow and look to monetise. It’s much easier to change platforms when you have a smaller audience — so a couple of weeks ago we decided to move to Art19. I was very impressed with the Art19 platform, and they have a great embeddable audio player that plays episodes almost instantly. They’re a great host used by many of the top podcasts, and I’m glad we made the move.

The other interesting thing we do for Moonshot is we mirror our podcast feed through the Lawson Media website (http://feeds.lawson.media/moonshot)/. This means we will always be in control of our RSS feed and can add further shows under the same branding. I had someone on Upwork write a php script for me and I run this on a regular basis to look for changes in the feed. It’s not the best solution but it’s pretty effective.

Making Money

People often ask me how we’re going to make money from the podcast. Obviously many podcasts are supported by advertising and this has been the first approach we’ve tried.

It’s only been in recent episodes that we started taking on advertising and the sponsorships will help us pay some of the costs associated with running a podcast. Ad rates are quite good for podcasts — often ranging upwards from around USD $20 CPM (cost per thousand downloads) and can become quite a significant source of income if you have a really well performing show. Our ad rates are usually in the $20–30 CPM range and we have a maximum of 3 ad spots per show.

We source our advertising through a couple of different agencies. Most agencies work on a revenue share model which can be anywhere from a 20% to 50% split.

One of the agencies I really like is AdvertiseCast — a great website for selling podcast ad inventory. We’ve had a lot of success with getting high-quality sponsors through AdvertiseCast so I can definitely recommend them.

Another company we use is Placard Media — an Australian ad agency that’s focused on podcasts and has brought us a few key campaigns. Andy who runs Placard is great — so if you ever have the opportunity to work with him you should.

Based on our current progress I think if we can grow the audience by a multiple of 3 or 4 then this will be my full-time job going forward. At that point we will have enough income from the show that we can look to hire some other staff to help speed up the production process and include the extra depth our listeners crave. Obviously we aren’t a Gimlet Media, or Panoply (yet), but we’re competing directly against some of their audiences — so the sooner we can bring on more help the better.

I’m also looking at other ways we can supplement the income for the show and many people have suggested Patreon. It’s something that we might consider however I’m not sure it’s the best option for monetisation at the moment. We might explore a donation model through another platform though. I’ve also been thinking about a membership based model where we offer other products like videos or live Q&A sessions with key entrepreneurs for a small fee ($5–10 a month). Another path for revenue is selling merchandise — we have an amazing logo which would look great on a wall or on a coffee mug — so we’re looking at some options in that space.

What’s next?

The next steps for us include trying to get the show out on a more regular basis. Our current goal is to have episodes at least every fortnight, but it’s incredibly time intensive to put together a scripted narrative show and record all the interviews. However when we have extra content and interviews available you’ll see the show more frequently.

Our audience has also been asking for longer episodes with more depth. We’ve added a little bit of length to the show and we’re trying to meet that demand but it’s challenging when you’re a really small team. Hopefully though we’ll be able to increase the frequency and eventually revisit some of the previous topics so we can dive further into the specifics. I’d also love to physically visit most of the talent in person to do interviews where they work — but that’s only an option once we’re at scale and have some budget.

Unlike the Gimlet Media’s of the world — I don’t have VC funding for Lawson Media and Moonshot — and I didn’t come from a previously successful podcast that I could use to help springboard the initial growth. But we are growing Moonshot using any means we have, and we will do our best make the most of any growth opportunities that come our way.

Our focus with Moonshot is really on putting out a great product for our listeners and we’re happy focusing on that — because we love it! That said — if any VCs also love what we’re doing and want to support a non-US podcast business — please feel free to reach out and have a conversation.

I’m working on other podcast projects for Lawson Media that you’ll hear more about in the coming months — some are podcasts and some are not. I’ve actually been awarded a second innovation grant of $5000 to work on another podcast related project. This one is not a podcast but it’s designed to improve podcast discovery. There will be an MVP out before the end of the year so stay tuned.

For me podcasts are a growing business and there’s an awful amount of potential — especially when you look outside the US market. And while Moonshot is relatively a small podcast — we have a consistent audience — we’ve experimented and improved with every episode — and we have a lot of potential for growth.

One of the key things we need to focus on is growing our audience on Apple Podcasts. Our audience largely comes through Pocket Casts which is unlike most other podcasts. But if we can really grow the Apple audience then the show will be much more sustainable in the long term and we can provide our audience with more of what they want! :)

Thanks for reading — if you loved this story, why not subscribe to the Moonshot podcast.

Moonshot explores big technology ideas and the people trying to make them happen. You can find Moonshot on iTunes, Pocket Casts, and Android.