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Lies You’ve Been Told About Podcasting

A podcast professional podcaster’s guide to the ‘Wild West’ of digital media

Nick Hilton
Aug 28, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo: Eddy Tang/EyeEm/Getty Images

As a professional podcaster, I have to deal with a certain degree of myth-making. It comes from everywhere — from those who have only the faintest idea of what I do to others who work in the industry. “Podcast” is an incredibly amorphous word these days — at once ubiquitous and uncomfortably alien. My job begets varying degrees of confusion, exaggeration, and, shall we say, imaginative expertise.

Here are some of the lies you’ve been told about podcasting. I might not have access to any profound or wise truths about the industry, but I am capable of calling bullshit on many of the specious claims you’ll hear from diehard listeners and creators alike.

“There’s no money in podcasting”

There is money in podcasting. I’ve made a living in podcasting for the past few years, and I’m very familiar with how much money advertisers are willing to spend. I also eat food and have a roof over my head. The word “podcast” is sexy. Marketing budgets have never been higher. Of course, you need to find the right partners and cultivate meaningful relationships with them. But the money is there if you have the skills and savvy to find it.

Rates offered by host and distributors who work as a podcasting “agents” aren’t what you should be aiming for, either. Hosts, agents, and distributors provide an important service that takes much of the pain out of podcasting, but it’s a racket. You’ll get a better cost per thousand (CPM) by striking a deal with a local florist than flogging out-of-the-box website design or audiobook subscription services.

“Podcasters are hobbyists”

Some podcasters are hobbyists, sure. It depends on your definition of the term. When you observe that someone is a tennis player, are you looking at the guy who goes to Sandals once every three years and has a knock-up with the club pro, or are you looking at Roger Federer?

The podcasting format has long since graduated from the domain of bedroom DIY, and has blossomed into an industry that nurtures genuine superstars. Calling podcasters “hobbyists” is a bit like supposing all bloggers or YouTubers are hobbyists: some people fake it until they make it, of course, but the industry is no longer nascent. It’s a genuine, multimillion-dollar global enterprise. Podcast revenues in the U.S. grew 86 percent between 2016 and 2017. It’s difficult to achieve that kind of growth on the back of “hobbyists.”

“Podcasters aren’t hobbyists”

A popular backlash to the assertion that podcasters are hobbyists is a defensive declaration that it’s a serious business. “Look, I make my living from podcasting, and you may very well do the same,” podcasters announce.

I still stumble across stuff on the Apple store that sounds like it was recorded with a tin can, or begin a new episode only to find myself listening to seven hours of two bros discussing BoJack Horseman. Podcasting is still the Wild West. Its best qualities go hand in hand with its worst ones. It’s an unregulated marketplace, and some people will, rightly, refuse to take it seriously. The biggest distinction between hobbyists and pros is not listenership but quality — no matter what your stats and charts say, your audience will be able to tell the difference.

“No one will listen to your show”

You’ll hear the same fear-mongering in podcasting that you will in indie filmmaking — or any creative industry. “If you build it, they will come” isn’t always true, but it’s a function of the expectations you set for yourself. If you think your show is the next Serial or Chapo Trap House, then a couple hundred or even a couple thousand listeners feels like nothing. But imagine yourself in a room with 200 people — how would you feel addressing that room? That’s what you’re doing in every episode.

And how would you feel as an advertiser, knowing that someone is standing up in a room of 200 people and plugging your mattress or razor for 30 seconds? Suddenly, a captive audience of 200 seems much more impressive. Even a small audience is an effective audience.

“People will listen to your show”

Of course, people won’t actually listen to your show. The odds are always against you. After all, “if you build it, they will come” is a big fat lie. The work of podcasting is only partially in pre-production and production of the show itself. The hard, unrewarding graft is in the marketing.

Assuming that good content eventually rises to the top (and that streaming services or Google will do your PR work for you) is one of the biggest mistakes new podcasters make. Once your podcast is on all the channels, that’s when the real work begins. Most shows get a few token listens from friends and family, but never find a way to cut through the enormous variety already available. It’s simple supply and demand, and whenever you start a new podcast, supply outstrips demand. To succeed, you either need to be brilliant or lucky enough to crash through that barrier, or to find a niche where the supply-demand ratio is more in your favor.

“Podcasts are like jazz”

People who make fancy-pants, NPR-style podcasts love to jabber on about how revolutionary the format is — but I find all that particularly yawn-inducing. Yes, podcasts benefit tremendously from being a very flexible format — podcasters don’t pay by the minute or fill pre-designated broadcast slots. So podcasts can be as long as you want, but also as detailed as you want, with as many episodes as you want, as many hosts as you want, and on whatever subject you want.

But this idea of podcasts as free-form and experimental belies the fact that the most successful podcasts subscribe to very traditional narrative techniques. Generally, they’re classic radio shows: the audio documentary, the soap opera, the chat show. The more avant-garde your podcast format, the less likely people are to listen to it. There are no hard-and-fast rules in this business, but successful podcasts tend to cluster around a few tried-and-true structures.

“Podcasts should be structured like traditional radio”

I’m a current affairs podcaster, so I believe in structure. I edit quite aggressively, try and hit all the right timings, and I want my listeners to become familiar with my show’s format. My advice to new podcasters usually amounts to choosing a structure and building the podcast around it.

I would, of course, be wrong. Many of the best, most unique elements of podcasting come from how it breaks out of the manacles of radio. To try and exactly replicate NPR or BBC Radio for the sake of tradition and dignity is to miss out on some of the opportunities of podcasting. I would always urge caution when creating podcasts that are like “jazz,” but to play them as Mozart also misses a trick.

“Podcasts are special”

Here’s the kicker: Podcasts aren’t special.

There was a time when simply working in new media was exciting. Journalists who quit newspaper jobs and went to work on the first online news sites were rockstars. It was the next frontier. And podcasts have held that distinction for a long time, not just against radio, but against more established digital formats.

It may be a signal of podcasting’s failure that after 15 years of being used by mainstream media, it’s still seen as the next big thing. Podcasting hasn’t quite laid down concrete foundations like blogging, social media, or online video. When I introduce myself as someone who runs a podcast company, I still sense a frisson of exotic curiosity. Working in blogging or social media doesn’t elicit the same response.

Because that mystique endures, the discourse around podcasts — from those outside of the industry, but also from those within who feel an added need to justify their work — often makes it seem exceptional. In truth, podcasting isn’t special. The pre-production, production, and distribution works like any form of digital media. For advertisers, the product is not markedly different from a radio or TV commercial, or even from print or online advertising. The process of marketing a podcast bears no dramatic difference from shilling a website or magazine. There are, of course, differences — they’re just unremarkable ones.

What matters, as ever, are numbers. What matters is who and where your listeners are. What matters is what the show is, why it exists, who is making it.

These are the same concerns that have existed since the Caveman Gazette, and will exist when think pieces are being beamed straight into our brains and hot takes are being lasered onto the moon. The idea that somehow the rules don’t apply only makes sense if you actively don’t want your show to be understood and engaged with by society as it exists today.

Written by

Writer. Podcast entrepreneur. London. Interested in politics and the media. Co-founder podotpods.com Email: nick@podotpods.com.

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