A few years ago, the idea that podcasts would make the news would have seemed laughable. At that point, a majority of Americans had no idea what a podcast was. Those who did know thought of them as vaguely geeky or the preserve of public radio fans, or both.
Plenty of people still don’t know what a podcast is, but that’s changing. 2014 was the year of podcast phenomena like “StartUp” and “Serial.”
“StartUp,” produced by former “This American Life” and “Planet Money” reporter Alex Blumberg, grabbed headlines and six figures’ worth of downloads as Blumberg took the audience along on his journey of trying to fund and build a podcast network. (Is that meta or what?) Real-life murder mystery “Serial,” a project of “This American Life,” took up column inches as it leapt to No. 1 on the iTunes podcast chart and notched up millions of downloads within weeks of its first episode.
Podcasting is basking in a cultural moment, and podcasters like me are hoping it will last. Hosting a podcast can bring immense satisfaction to the maker, and sometimes even income — even if he or she doesn’t quite reap the success of those two blockbusters.
Edison Research publishes a digital media report every spring. Its 2014 numbers saw a 25 percent jump in weekly podcast listenership over the previous year. But perhaps the most interesting and hopeful finding for podcasters is this: Smartphone adoption is driving this trend.
In 2013, 34 percent of people listened on a smartphone. In 2014, 51 percent did. That’s bound to shoot up again this year. Listening to podcasts is just so much easier than it was in the days of synching your iPod with iTunes. And it’s going to become even easier as more cars incorporate podcast technology into their dashboards.
There are tens of thousands of shows out there, and they come in all different formats, from narrative storytelling to how-to guides. What’s telling when you look at iTunes’ top podcasts is that so many of them are either public radio shows or podcasts produced by existing public radio producers. The big ones include “Serial,” which has had listeners all over the world hooked and has spawned podcast listening parties.
Then there’s “StartUp” and “99% Invisible,” a show about architecture and design that has run several hugely successful Kickstarter campaigns to fund itself and has spawned a new podcast network focused on storytelling, “Radiotopia.” There’s the evocative “Strangers,” and another ode to deep storytelling, “Love + Radio.”
These are some of the public radio darlings, and they’re brilliantly done. But Slate also produces a stable of nonstorytelling podcasts featuring some journalists who have never done radio at all, including its popular “Political Gabfest.” The New Yorker produces a well-loved fiction podcast, and of course there’s the hugely popular “WTF” with comedian Marc Maron.
These are just a smattering of what’s available. There are also masses of podcasts produced by non-journalists, some of which have tens of thousands of listeners of their own.
Mike Pesca is a former NPR journalist and sports reporter who now hosts Slate’s newest podcast, a daily news show called “The Gist.” He describes the switch to podcasting as “liberating” and cites a recent show as an example.
“I start off in the first seconds of the show and call a (Catholic) cardinal a ‘pain in the ass cardinal,’” he said. “It would be almost wrong for NPR to say go ahead and say that.”
But it’s fine for Pesca to do so. It’s his show, free of FCC rules governing content, and with a certain expectation that Pesca will be his loud, inventive, irreverent self.
The best non-radio-show podcasts often have a different feel from radio, and his is no exception. They’re more intimate, more freeform, sometimes ruder. Pesca’s description of hosting a podcast as liberating echoes my experience, even if our shows are very different.
My podcast, “The Broad Experience,” is all about women and the workplace. I think of it as the “Freakonomics” of women and work. I’m fascinated by human behavior and the culture of the workplace, and how gender plays into that.
In public radio, especially when you work for national shows, three to five minutes is the average length of a feature story. So to have the luxury of talking about a topic for as long as I want is fantastic.
That said, I wouldn’t recommend going on too long just because you can. I do a lot of editing to keep my show focused and on-point. But I like the way the podcast lets me have a more personal relationship with the audience and gives me the opportunity to experiment.
If you work in print or online and are considering trying this, there are a few things to consider. Depending on what kind of show you want to do, bear in mind that podcasting is time consuming. I spend many hours doing interviews, cutting tape and then embroidering the whole thing into what I hope is an elegant whole, sewn together with my own storytelling.
Some podcasts are a lot less labor-intensive. I was listening to one of the New York Times’ science podcasts recently, which had a straight two-way interview format. That’s much easier to edit and put together.
“Don’t think it’s easy,” Pesca said. “Have respect for the medium you’re entering.”
As a new or independent podcaster, you need to ask yourself why you want to do it. I launched my show because I wanted to report on the topic of women and the workplace in detail, and as I continued I began to realize that I was building a brand around these issues, which has been good for the rest of my career. “Brand” still strikes me as a horrible word in many ways, but you do need to think about that — the audience increasingly wants to know which subject matter to associate you with.
Podcasting can be hugely empowering. You’re putting your own work into the world under your own steam, on the topic of your choice. On the one hand, it feels great not to have an editor reining you in. On the other, you miss their guidance. Be judicious. Don’t let your ego take over.
I try to be as good an editor of myself as I can possibly be, given I can’t pay a real one. I always allow enough time to work on my shows, never trying to cram too much into one day. I always need to step away from a show that’s in progress and come back fresh the next day. That break, that little bit of distance, inevitably means I then cut something I was dithering about the day before.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
Talking of money, you’re probably wondering if you can earn any through podcasting. Slate’s podcasts have been very successful. Advertisers flock there, and hosts read out those sponsorship messages, which have been shown to be a lot more effective than other types of advertising. Still, Slate already had hundreds of thousands of readers before it began podcasting. In short, it had a built-in audience.
For any independent podcaster, earning anything from your work is a challenge because building audience is a challenge. I have had several small-scale sponsorships of my show, to the tune of a few hundred dollars per sponsor. And I’ve lately begun a partnership with the Financial Times on a few shows. This is the first time in more than two years of work that I finally feel I’m earning decent money for the podcast.
This is a fairly unusual deal, and it’s come about because the FT’s mission and mine align quite well: I have a lot of smart, ambitious female listeners. They want more smart, ambitious female readers.
Conventional wisdom says you must have 20,000 to 25,000 downloads per show to be taken seriously by sponsors (I don’t). For an independent, reaching those numbers takes a serious input of work, and either luck or the passage time, or both.
Before you start, ask if you have time for the extra, ongoing commitment. Listeners want regularity. For most of the year I produce my show every two weeks, and while that may sound doable, it can be a lot on top of everything else I do (i.e. paying work). I work many weekends and a lot of evenings. Don’t underestimate how much of a commitment it is to produce a good show on top of the rest of your life.
If you’re with an established news outlet, you still need to think about allocation of resources and why you want to podcast. But getting started is pretty low risk. One of the great things about audio is it’s relatively cheap to produce.
Many traditionally print outlets have already launched into video. The thing about that, as podcaster and public radio producer Julie Sabatier points out, is that it requires more of the audience. Audio, on the other hand, “is a way to multitask,” Sabatier said. “Print and video don’t do that. They command all your attention.” Audio content gives your readers a whole other option.
Jeff Emtman is host of the “Here Be Monsters” podcast, which examines our relationship with the unknown.
“Fill a niche that doesn’t exist,” he said. Say you want to cover hyperlocal news: “If there’s another local podcast in your city, unless you are doing something drastically different, no one is going to listen.” Being different in some key way is vital to success.
And listen carefully to what is already out there to get a sense of topic and style. There are thousands of quality shows just waiting to be discovered.
Ashley Milne-Tyte is a public radio reporter and host of “The Broad Experience” podcast. On Twitter: @ashleymilnetyte