Ever listen to a podcast and wonder what goes into making one?
Want to understand why your friend is spending hours and hours squinting at a screen, muttering to themselves about “too much compression”?
You’re not alone.
Demand for podcasts has gone way up this past year; 80 million Americans are now weekly podcast listeners; that’s 17% more than there were in 2020.
Supply has gone up to meet it; on average, a whopping 17,000 new podcasts were started each week in 2020.
I’m among those thousands.
Since launching Heard About, I’ve gotten to interview a former White House press secretary, Pulitzer Prize finalists, a former presidential speechwriter, and the chief marketing officer of an MLB team.
Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
What It Takes to Have a Podcast
Initially, I thought all I had to do was find interesting guests and talk to them.
I didn’t realize just how much goes into making a podcast you can be proud of.
Before you even start, it’ll cost you.
- Hardware: noise-canceling headphones and a good microphone (I like the Rode NT-USB)
- Subscriptions: a recording platform that preserves sound quality (I use Squadcast), a transcription service (Otter.ai), a place to host your podcast (Podbean), and even a music library (Epidemic Sound)
Are they absolutely necessary? No. Do they make your life way easier and substantially improve your production quality? Definitely.
Next, it’s time to create. Think of it in three steps: prep, production, and promotion.
In a world where there are more than two million podcasts and 48 million episodes, you need to make yours interesting. That requires doing your homework, planning episodes, and spending time scripting.
If you have a guest podcast, it means pitching, scheduling, and asking good questions in interviews. If your guest has written a book… well, let’s hope you’re a fast reader.
When I interviewed Tim Evans and Marisa Kwiatkowski—two Indianapolis Star investigative journalists who broke the Dr. Larry Nassar/USA Gymnastics sexual abuse story in 2016—my prep involved reading every article they wrote on the topic, listening to past interviews they’d done, pulling up footage of the Nassar trial, and watching all of Athlete A, a Netflix documentary that was made about the reporting work they did.
You need to make it sound good. Some people outsource this part, but that can get expensive.
This can take a lot of time, though, especially for interview episodes.
Take heart; it gets easier. At first, production took me a long time – nearly 10 hours per episode. Now, I’m down to a couple of hours per.
What this episode looks like in GarageBand.
If a podcast plays in a forest, and no one is around to hear it, is it worth making?
Promotion exists in three categories: owned, earned, and paid.
- Owned: Get syndicated on Apple, Spotify, Google, Pocket Casts, and all the rest. You can also create a website, newsletter, and social media profiles for your podcast.
- Earned: Publicity you don’t pay for, including being a guest on other podcasts, having other people (including friends and family) spread the word, or reporters and bloggers writing about you in articles.
- Paid: Advertising, from Google and social media ads to 15-second spots on the radio and Spotify.
A takeaway here is that you don’t always need a big budget to get your podcast out there.
Grit and grind, sweat equity, and good old-fashioned hustle can go a long, long way.
Never Compromise the Brand
A successful podcast, however, requires more than just prep, production, and promotion.
It requires a vision. Is there a big idea that you can articulate in simple terms?
Take Heard About, for example. It’s a show that looks at things everyone has heard about—big, famous moments in our shared history and culture—and explores the communications angle behind them.
Whether my guest is President Bill Clinton’s White House press secretary who handled the Monica Lewinsky scandal or the creative director who designed the GEICO Gecko, it’s about the untold story behind the story you’ve heard about.
The more laser-focused you can be on that vision—that big idea—the better.
Because, inevitably, we encounter a very common temptation: the temptation to compromise.
Especially when you want to stick to a release schedule, you hear the pounding drumbeat—“prep, produce, promote… prep, produce, promote…”—and it can feel so unrelenting.
For Heard About, getting guests is my biggest challenge.
There are only so many people who have been involved in famous events, and only so many of them will even read my pitch.
Enter that temptation to compromise—to lower my standards for what guests I have on, dilute the podcast’s vision, or widen the net so much the show becomes unrecognizable—just so I can keep churning out content.
But the way I see it, if I can’t stay faithful to my big idea, it’s not worth doing.
I’ve realized this goes beyond podcasting, too.
In anything, it’s easy to get complacent, settle for the minimum viable product, or focus so much on the day-to-day tactics that we’re not thinking about how—or if at all—they connect to our big-picture strategy.
That’s not a good place to be.
The question on our minds, in any line of work, should be, “Is what I’m doing right now actually advancing my overall mission? Or am I doing it out of habit, because that’s all I know how to do, or just to feel like I’m getting something done?”
Don’t sell yourself short.
Keep Your Day Job
Speaking of selling, Joe Rogan signed a contract worth over $100 million with Spotify, and now we all want to be podcasters.
Here’s the problem: we’re not all Joe Rogan.
Podcast-opia is ruled by an oligarchy.
The Daily recently hit an incredible four million daily average downloads.
But the numbers drop drastically as you go down the list.
On average, the top 3% of podcasts get only 6,700 downloads on a given episode within a month of its release.
The bottom 50% get fewer than 28.
That means the vast majority of podcasts don’t get monetized.
And that means, if you want to do this, you need a much better reason than money and fame.
If you want those, TikTok is calling your name.
Here are three things I’ve gotten out of Heard About that keep me loving podcasting:
People You Get to Meet
The podcast community is like no other.
People here—like Gini, right here on Spin Sucks—are creative and smart, endlessly supportive, and deeply passionate about what they do.
You’ll find that people here have amazing stories to tell and are more than happy to share tools of the trade with you.
If you have a guest podcast, you get to meet incredible people that way, too.
Take Dr. Clarence Jones, for example. Dr. Jones was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s attorney, adviser, friend, and speechwriter—and the co-writer of the “I Have A Dream” speech.
Even if I live for as long as he has (90 years old and going strong!), I’ll never forget the stories he told about meeting Dr. King, marching with him, and being part of creating pieces of literature that changed the course of history and will be treasured forever.
Stories You Get to Tell
You know what they say: with great podcasts comes great responsibility.
When you have a podcast, you have a platform.
As with any other platform, it’s something to steward.
People are listening to you. What will you say?
For me, I’ve enjoyed elevating lesser-known, truly important stories.
For instance, I recently got to chat with Suzyn Waldman, radio broadcaster for the New York Yankees and currently the only woman in the entire MLB with that kind of job.
She talked about blazing a path for women in sports and why the decline of radio is a terrible thing for everybody—two valuable perspectives that you don’t hear too often.
Things You Get to Learn
Remember how we talked about just how much goes into making a podcast you can be proud of?
When you create your own podcast, you become a one-person research, production, editing, and marketing team.
Along the way, you learn a tremendous amount.
You get better at talking to an audience (useful in any context).
You learn how to make things sound good (and with most of us working from home, high-quality microphones have replaced expensive outfits as the best way to make an impression in a meeting!).
You learn how to persevere (if I had a dollar for every rejection or no answer I’ve gotten from people I’ve pitched, I’d quit the day job).
You also—and this is another reason to do a podcast primarily because you’re passionate about it—get to think and learn about things you love.
I work in public relations and communications, so I thoroughly enjoy talking to reporters, speechwriters, and creative directors.
I like seeing how they think in starkly different ways about one common thing: how do you tell a good story?
If you have any favorite podcasts, you can send them my way.
And if you have your own, definitely get in touch.
If something means enough to you for you to sacrifice the time, sleep, and sanity I know you’ve sacrificed for it, I want to hear it.