Yesterday, The Busy Creator Podcast turned two years old, and in reflecting on the journey so far I want to share the lessons I’ve learned with you, the fresh-faced rookie podcasters and even those thinking about starting your own show. Most of these lessons apply for other projects too, such as blogs, video seres, and indeed to most types of business endeavors. Since each lesson carries a certain amount of emotional bruising, please learn from me to ease your own journey. Take each as a call to action rather than a cautionary tale.
You’ll Get Better
As with most forms of productive work — that is, work where a “thing” is produced — the first ones are crap. But spending any amount of time with your show will allow you to improve dramatically, and fast. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even by the third or fourth episode I was learning new editing shortcuts, new interviewing techniques, and feeling much more comfortable on the mic.
The performance aspect is perhaps where the greatest gains can be seen. There’s not a podcaster out there who doesn’t cringe at hearing his/her own voice in those early days. Most of us can hear the shyness in our tone, the questioning between the lines in our own conversations. We aren’t sure this is right, because it’s inherently new and strange, but after a few episodes, we find the groove. Quite literally, we find our voices.
The early repetition also allows new podcasters and producers to be systematic about workflow and to stumble across steps which can be automated or batched. You’ll get better at all aspects of podcasting. Give it a few episodes. Commit to doing 11 episodes and examine how far you’ve come. You’ll be amazed.
I’ve heard from veterans this effect is amplified by the time we reach 500 or 1000 shows, but I’ll have to verify this when the time comes.
Experiment, but Stay True to Principles
Chances are you started hosting or producing a show because you were inspired by the work of someone else — someone pro. You’ll examine their podcast and pick apart tactics to copy. This could be elements like a cold open, an intense highly produced introduction with third-party voiceover, musical interludes, calls to action at the top of the show vs. the end, etc. etc. Some of these will seem much more natural for you than others.
The only way to find your flow and format is to experiment. Move the intro around, try different music, re-write your calls to action, do whatever you think feels natural — it’s your show, after all. The key is to remember your core principles — the reason your show exists and the message you’re seeking to share with the world.
Your audience sticks with you is because they appreaciate your point of view and your experience. They’ll be extrememly forgiving if you adjust the opening line script or if you suddenly introduce a backing musical track. In fact, most people won’t notice! They’re not downloading for each specific theatrical choice but for overall access to you.
The danger in too much experimentation, though, is that you forget who you are and what kind of show you’re producing. Don’t try to be a morning-zoo DJ and then a BBC journalist in two consecutive episodes. Don’t immediate switch from a 60-minute roundtable to a 7-minute highly scripted zap of a show. Instead, play with small stuff and make slow evolutions.
Be OK with Small Numbers
Sorry to break the bad news, but I’m not a multi-millionaire. My show doesn’t earn 20,000 downloads per day, and I don’t have sponsors knocking down my door to run ads. In fact, my show is still very niche and small. To put things into perspective, I just crossed 40,000 lifetime downloads. When Marc Maron interviewed President Obama, they saw 750,000 downloads in 24 hours. So yea, there’s still a mountain to climb.
It took me a long time to be OK with this fact. I expected my show to take off like a rocket, especially in the months after I left my last full-time job and had more time and mental bandwidth to dedicate. But in the absense of “overnight” success, I had to take a good hard look at why I created this project, and who it serves. Some hard thinking went into it, and I emerged with some new questions to ask myself.
Instead of asking “How can I get 20,000 downloads?” I started asking questions like “Will someone find value in this episode if they discover it 3 years from now?” or “Will my guest be proud to share this conversation with her parents?” This mindset shift doesn’t happen instantly, but I’m glad it did. My focus can now stay on each individual episode, and doing the best work I can in the moment, rather than worrying about how I can swindle the entire world into listening. The former is much more actionable.
Audience growth is a tough nut to crack — markets are fickle, listeners are busy (and cynical), and they don’t like new things. I also came to discover that in podcasting just about everything is niche, with a few notable exceptions: social media, entrepreneurship, weight loss, and personal finance. Perhaps we can throw successful pop-culture stuff in there, like the odd Star Wars fan-cast, or a few top-tier Comedy shows. But really, everything is designed for small audiences. If you’re producing a show about model trains, don’t expect to pull down numbers the way Tim Ferriss does when he interviews the coolest Silicon Valley baron.
The real competition facing podcasters aren’t other podcasters, but the entire world of media distraction.
The “Competition” Isn’t Your Real Competition
The Internet is big. Chances are good someone has created a similar show in your same sector. Instinct might lead you to believe they’re competitors, but that’s not how we should think. The real competition facing podcasters aren’t other podcasters, but the entire world of media distraction.
Even in 2016, most people aren’t regular podcast listeners and indeed may never had listened to a single podcast ever. According to research from the Pew Research Center, only 33% of the over-12 population had ever listened to a podcast. Even fewer, 17%, listened in the past month or could be considered regular podcast listeners. Instead, folks still spend their time watching tv, listening to commercial radio, seeing movies, streaming music, or reading. (yes, reading!)
So if you’re hosting a show about punk rock music, don’t think of the other punk rock podcasts as competitors, but instead as collaborators! Cross-link to their episodes and articles, invite them on your show as guests, post comments on their blogs, retweet their links, and otherwise show your support! Chances are good that the audience of those shows will also enjoy yours, and will make the time to listen. The hard work has been done — these folks already know how to listen to podcasts in general, and have developed the specific habits of subscribing to a show in your same niche.
I recently did an entire show about “the competition” introducing my listeners to other podcasts, magazines, schools, courses, consultants, and marketplaces surrounding my own topic of business and productivity skills for creative professionals. I’m not afraid of the competition; it’s unlikely that my listeners will jump ship, and more likely that they’ll appreciate me as a source for recommendations and resources.
Unexpected Results Can be a Good Thing
As I mentioned, I was hoping for huge listenership and appropriate cashflow as a result. But that didn’t happen. What did happen, however, was valuable in its own right. Specifically, there have been two “side effects” of my podcast over the last two years.
First, I have been able to build a body of work. Every conversation I record, edit, and publish builds toward something bigger — it creates a collective truth, a compliation of experiences and insight from the industry pros I speak with. I am in the habit of remarking, by way of my show notes, the Tools, Techniques, and Habits discussed in the show. These get transferred into a Google Sheet, and every now and then I comb through for patterns and trends. Only by looking backwards can I see the value created; I can see time compressing, revealing something greater than the sum of so many hours of podcasts. This knowledge becomes expertise. Applied in new challenges, this makes us all better practitioners and leads to even more great experiences. That’s what’s meant by the body of work in podcast terms. Much like a weakling child, I feed it little by little, and it grows into something formidable.
Second, I am now completely happy to share in the achievements of my guests. As a teenager I thought myself very callous, so I was pleasantly surprised to find genuine pride and selflessness in sharing and celebrating the small victories of my guests and collaborators. If this sounds very touchy-feely, it’s because it is. I now feel that even the small gestures of retweeting my past guests (and new friends) helps us connect and feel closer. These aren’t just people who talked on my show for 45 minutes, they’re now traveling companions and comrades in arms.
In preparation for each show, I research my guests and try to learn as much as I can about their work. This usually means following them on social media and taking a good look at their websites, but could also mean watching videos and listening to other past podcast appearances, which are much more intimiate. Following our email correspondences and the conversation itself, I feel that we’ve created a new relationship — and in a much more meaningful way than I could do in an online forum or via social networks.
This second aspect — building relationships — was part of my podcast by design, from the start. My entire show is a thinly-veiled effort to talk to the creative, interesting people I don’t get to see on an everyday basis. Those transactions were predicted, but how I felt caught me by surprise, and I’m happy it did.
It’s Easy to Find Advice, but Hard to find Help
Most of us podcasters are avid readers of blogs and may participate in Facebook groups, online forums, subreddits, and a variety of other communication circles. But the hard lesson I had to learn these past two years is that most of this seemingly-endless communication amounts to advice, not help.
Advice often means well; it may come from experts who’ve experienced what you’re currently struggling with, or from service providers who regularly solve this exact problem. An entire industry now exists around this sort of advice, especially manifested as expertise-based media. TED Talks are a great example of this, and frankly, so are many podcasts. But where the advice frenzy becomes problematic is when you start to hear echos of it. Where there’s nothing but inspiration and motivation, rather than step-by-step aide.
You hear this largely as platitudes and isms. Folks who’ve read every article by a specific author/speaker/entrepreneur now spew quotations like some kind of Jeopardy-playing robot. Here are a few well-meaning expressions off the top of my head which might be profound in and of themselves, but really offer no help in a moment of crisis:
- “Sometimes the only way out is through.”
- “The riches are in the niches.”
- “The hardest steel is forged in the fire.”
- “Fail fast.”
- “Don’t be afraid to pivot.”
- “You gotta hustle.”
These quips are not helpful because they lack the emotional support essential to complete a complex challenge or to see the correct path amid the chaos. Even worse is the related generalities you often hear proposed as solutions. Tactics without an underlaying strategy:
- “Go on Pinterest.”
- “Focus on your audience.”
- “Leverage social media.”
- “Find online forums.”
Why didn’t I think of that!? I did. Years ago. That’s not helpful.
“Don’t let anyone should on you!”
After a while it becomes easy to ignore these morsels of “advice.” A good trick to build that particular muscle is to follow the advice of Cliff Ravenscraft with his challenge “don’t let anyone should on you.”, as in “You should run some Facebook ads.” Other people love hearing themselves dish advice, but so often it’s not appropriate for you and your particular challenge.
The way to find genuine help is much harder. To help means to have patience, to understand the problem in detail, to have empathy for the emotional side of someone else’s struggle, and to spend your own precious time monitoring another’s progress. Common wisdom says build an accountability group or mastermind, or seek out a partner or mentor who has an actual investment in your success. But these are easier mentioned than found; in fact, after two years of producing my own show I still haven’t found a sure-fire source of help when I need it.
Through some online groups I belong to, I have been matched with a few accountability partners, and we do chat online, but not as much as I’d like. I had three previous partnerships and an accountability group fizzle out as various members had major changes to their schedules (full-time jobs, babies, etc.). It’s tough to keep an online group going without equal involvement from all parties. If possible, find someone in real life to share your journey and to push you to be your best. Along these lines, I’ve recently created the New York City Podcast Meetup group to meet in person and discuss some of these same issues. If you’re local, and facing some challenges, come join us.
“Expect anything worthwhile to take a really long time.”
Just Keep Going
My friend — and 2015 Best of iTunes Podcaster — Debbie Millman has an adage. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a really long time.” Clearly, this applies to podcasting, as it does to everything in life. But the unspoken sequel to this is simple: “And don’t bloody quit!”
There have been moments over the past two years where I wanted to quit. When I questioned why I spend so much energy and time toiling in obscurity. When I pondered my own self-worth for failure to achieve instant [Internet] fame. When I wanted to do anything at all but edit a clunky conversation with someone who says “y’know” in place of commas. When I wanted to skip writing monthly newsletters or update my show’s Facebook page. Somehow, I managed to push through, knowing that consistency and perserverence are super-important. Even if no one sees that specific Tweet or reads that individual blog post, knowing the production machinery still works, and that I’m able to produce a show is itself a reward. Consistency is also how that body of work gets built, how relationships grow, and how reputations spread. I’d rather be known as someone sufficiently dedicated to slog away at a podcast for 2, 6, or even ten years, than be known as someone who tried a thing once and it was fun for a minute, but didn’t stick.
There’s also a hidden side to not-quitting. It allows us time to prepare for when the spotlight finally shines on us. Putting in the hard work as a small-timer or amateur builds the spiritual foundation for future success. You may find not getting what you wanted ended up being the best thing for you. But only if you don’t quit.
The Road Ahead
It’s hard to say what comes next. I’d like to say I have some secret weapon to unveil or that I’ve hired an assistant or received some grant to buy shiny new microphones, but none of that is true. In many ways I feel like I’m just getting started. Two years, perhaps, is just the warm up, and all the work I’ve done so far is to merely pave the way for the next chapter in this project. Stay tuned and find out — we’ll see what the next two years bring.