Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be podcasters

We’re in the midst of a new golden age for audio. Podcasts help us get ideas into our brains while our bodies are otherwise occupied. It’s easier than ever to consume podcasts, so podcast listenership is growing.

The best time to start a podcast is yesterday. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

I started my podcast, Love Your Work about a year ago. This is what the growth chart looks like.

Not bad. The average episode has about 3,500 downloads, which puts me somewhere in the top 10% of all podcasts. I’ll be releasing my 50th episode this week, and I have nearly 175,000 total downloads.

Like more and more things in this world, Average is Over, and the very best get a huge portion of the pie. Tim Ferriss’s podcast gets about 500,000 downloads per episode.

Consider the economics of a podcast at my level: the industry-standard advertising rate for podcasts is around $30CPM. If I had three advertising slots all filled up, that would be about $315 per episode, or $1,260 a month for my podcast.

That is not a solid business: spend 10 hours a week producing something that makes you about $1,200 a month? (In reality, the number is lower, as I haven’t filled up my ad spaces.)

So, my podcast is still not sustainable from an economic standpoint. Consider the incredible advantages I’ve had in starting my podcast, and the work I put in in the years leading up to its launch.

A caveat: I am swinging for the fences with my podcast. My podcast explores the internal mental and emotional worlds of my guests. In the crowded space of entrepreneurship podcasts, there’s not a ton of space to differentiate.

If, however, I wanted to start a podcast about alligator wrestling, the space may be less crowded. If your podcast topic is very specific, you can command higher CPMs for advertising, depending upon the niche.

Also, I’m aware that there are other ways to monetize a podcast. If you are a good coach or consultant, you can make more money with fewer listeners.

All of this to say that, in my case, I’m still glad to be running my podcast. It lets me have deep conversations with some of my biggest heroes. I’m impacting my 1,000’s of listeners, building social capital, and it eases some of the isolation of living abroad.

The most important thing about starting a podcast is that you love podcasts, and you love the craft. I listen to podcasts for hours every day. I had listened to enough podcasts that I started to get annoyed that the podcast I wanted to listen to wasn’t out there. I became a connoisseur, and started the podcast I wanted to listen to.

Here is the amount of work that goes into making an apparently-decent podcast such as mine:

  • Listen to podcasts for hours every day. Are potential guests interesting over audio? How do they respond to questions? What haven’t they been asked?
  • Listen to bad podcasts. Sometimes, it’s in the process of researching guests, other times, it’s to remind me what it feels like to listen to a bad podcast, so I don’t create the same. Bad podcasts can still have some good ideas in them.
  • Re-listen to your episodes. I’m looking for points where I could have asked a more interesting question, or where I missed an opportunity to “yes/and” a great point a guest made. I also have to listen a couple of times to find the story of the conversation for recording the intro, and writing emails, tweets, and blog posts.
  • Study great interviewers. Howard Stern, Larry King, Terry Gross — almost every interviewer has something you can learn from.
  • Read the books of your guests. I even read books of guests I haven’t invited yet (and not everyone accepts).
  • Go to the Podcast Movement conference. I met other podcasters to share tips and challenges.
  • Administrative stuff. I finally have editing help, but there are lots of other nuts-and-bolts: inviting guests, securing sponsors, securing music rights, choosing a new mic, promoting on social media.

Overall, I put about 10 hours in researching and preparing for each interview, and mining out the gold afterward. James Altucher estimates he spends 10 hours, too.

There’s lots of podcasting “wisdom” out there on how to run and grow a podcast: Mostly, be as opportunistic as you can with your guest choices, lower the quality for the sake of more output, and distort your stats to disappoint your sponsors.

I don’t do these things, and I expect the bubble of those who do to burst someday.

If you have a solid starting platform in a specific niche, starting a podcast may be a good idea for you. It may not even have to be good, and you can improve as you go.

But, as Ryan Holiday recently said, most people should not start a podcast.

It’s quite possible that I’m just a deluded podcasting obsessive, much like Orny Adams in Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedian. But, I believe that the ultimate growth hack is a love for your craft, and a willingness to immerse yourself in the details of that craft, and push your carefully-constructed worldview through it. If you’re considering starting a podcast, ask yourself if you’re up for that challenge.