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Just how hard is it to start a podcast? It isn’t. Starting a podcast, especially for someone with a bit of technical aptitude, is easy. The actual problem is keeping up with the podcast. Podcasting is a major time commitment that busy people struggle to keep.
For many, I think there’s a romantic notion about podcasting. “Hey, I have all these ideas to share, and I’ve got a creative streak. I think I’ll start a podcast. Fans and money will rain from the sky!” The thought of getting your show with some cool intro music, snappy patter with interesting guests, hijinks with your friends, offbeat humor, or maybe deep content hard to find elsewhere is stimulating and exciting. Your own show! How cool will that be?
You will find moments of joy and wonder as a podcaster. But, podcasts produced regularly and worth listening to are a lot of work — a job. If you don’t love it, you’ll find yourself easily distracted. You’ll skip a week. Then another. And the next thing you know, you haven’t put out a show for over a month, and you’re wondering why you should bother picking it back up.
I’ve seen this cycle happen to folks at least ten times over my seven years of podcasting. And I think I know why it happens. When you strip away the romanticism, podcasting is a grind.
The podcasting grind.
Show planning is the first major challenge. Let’s say you’ve committed to a weekly podcast schedule. Assuming a couple of breaks for vacation, that means you need 50 show ideas for a year. 50.
Just how hard it is to come up with show ideas depends a lot on your format. If you cover the news or perhaps new releases in some product niche, then the shows tend to write themselves. Even in this sort of format, you have hours of work reading the news, checking out feeds, and monitoring social media to see what’s going on and choose your subjects. You’ll be constantly reviewing and sifting, and deciding how to put your own unique stamp on the stories once you record. It’s a lot of work.
If your show is serial fiction or otherwise completely original content, then you’re writing a completely original script. Good luck keeping up with that at a weekly cadence if you have a day job, unless sharing your creative work with the world is a passion that drives you.
If your show is deeply technical, you have the challenge of making sure your facts are correct. There’s always room to be wrong, and invariably you’ll be wrong here and there in a tech-oriented show. My point isn’t that you need to be perfect as much as you need to have enough correct to be considered worth listening to on your technical topic. And that requires research. That research might come in the form of a project you’re doing at work, and therefore not seem so difficult. But it’s all a required effort, nonetheless.
Writing your show is the next step once you’ve decided what, exactly, you’re going to talk about. You don’t have to write a complex script. You probably don’t want a word-for-word script for fear it won’t sound natural when recorded. (Unless you’re good at voiceover work, but that’s a different discussion.)
Just an outline will do. That outline might contain points you want to make, or questions you want to ask your guest. But you need that script to keep your episode on track. Very few people can record a random conversation and end up with a result other people will be interested in listening to.
Script writing takes time. Even composing a simple outline to guide the conversation is an effort requiring you to truly think through your episode and the flow.
Recording is another critical piece of the puzzle. Let’s assume you’ve got the mechanics of recording down. Your choice of microphone, capture device, etc. is all sorted. Great! You still have to do the actual recording. Every. Week. If you’re solo, I suppose that’s not too hard if you’ve got the self-discipline. But if you’ve got a co-host and/or guests, you have to get the time on the calendar coordinated, sort out the conference call or meatspace meetingplace, get together, and record.
The more people involved in a recording, the more complex it is. Each person participating in a show is a potential weak link that can force a reschedule. People get sick. They go on vacation. They get called into work unexpectedly. Life intrudes. A rescheduled recording session makes it very hard to get a show out the door on time.
Even with everyone on the line and ready to go, you’re in for about 75-90 minutes to get a 60 minute show recorded. On remote calls, it can take time to get everyone’s mic sorted out, explain logistics to your guests, and so on. And even in person, there’s a process to get everyone settled and get the recording going.
Editing is the next challenge. Let’s assume you’ve settled on an hour-long format, a common choice. Now, you need to edit what you recorded. Fix the talking over the top of one another, the pregnant pauses, and the misfires. Add the bumpers and the bookends. Add the ads, assuming you’ve monetized. Depending on how OCD you are and how smooth you are as a host, this will take you roughly 2-4 hours for every hour of content, once you’re competent with your editing software.
Of course, you could take a minimalist approach to editing. Some do, and their shows sound…well, hrm. The end result sounds like little time was invested in editing. If the content is just that good, maybe you can get away with skipping an edit…but I’d bet against it. Unedited podcasts tend to abuse their audiences.
Publishing isn’t too challenging, but it does draw on your time. Although not strictly required, many podcasts have a website that anchors the show. This provides a landing page for the podcast, and a place for listeners to focus and discover older episodes. A common tactic is to write a short blog post that accompanies the episode. The post will contain a show summary, along with interesting links referred to in the show. Some include a show script, or even an entire transcript.
Along with the optional blog post, the finished audio file itself must be tagged and uploaded to your hosting provider. An RSS feed with the audio also has to be updated so that iTunes and other podcast aggregators are notified about the new show. The RSS feed updating is usually automatic, but it’s another one of those things you have to keep track of. If your RSS feed stops working, subscribers won’t see your new show when you’ve published, and you’ve got a troubleshooting task on your head.
Marketing your show is another major time suck, if you intend for your show to grow. People are unlikely to find your show just because it’s available in iTunes. You need to evangelize your show. You need to interact with listeners of your show. You need to manage social media around your show. You need to cross-pollinate your show with other podcasts. You need to advertise. While this can be automated to some degree, there’s still a human touch required for your marketing to work most effectively. Fans are made one at a time, and you have to work for each of them.
The quality of your podcast will be the best marketing, because listeners will tell other people about excellent shows. Thus, you will see organic growth if the show is solid. But if you are counting on word of mouth alone to grow your show, you probably won’t grow as quickly as you want to, if at all. Your show has to be filling a unique gap with a large potential audience to see that sort of success. Other than that, you’re going to have to slug it out.
Marketing is not a one-time event, either. Marketing is a constant effort to generate awareness of your show to those who have never heard of it before. It’s also a reminder to those who have heard of your show that you’re still there. Not everyone who hears about your show once is going to subscribe and become a fan. Humans don’t work like that. You have to keep after them. Most folks won’t act until after repeated exposure.
Can you keep going?
The easiest way to cut down on the logistical burden of podcasting is to reduce your frequency. Many folks shoot for a weekly show, when bi-weekly or even monthly is more realistic.
Another option is to minimize the backend burden as much as possible. Services like podbean.com make it both cheap and easy to get your podcast out the door. I only mention Podbean because I’ve used them as the lowest barrier of entry to get a show off the ground. There are plenty of other podcast hosting services around when you exercise your Google-fu.
Working with a co-host spreads the load of creating and producing episodes. A podcast with two hosts also has the advantage of vocal and perspective variety that might help keep listeners engaged. Of course, you have to share the glory if the show is successful, but that shouldn’t be a problem if you can keep your ego in check.
This post might seem like I’m going out of my way to discourage prospective podcasters. I’m not. Just the opposite is true, in fact. I’m hoping that armed with insight into what’s really involved, more folks will be ready for the challenge. I say go for it! Make a great show that your fans will love as you steadily release new episodes, each better than the last.
Ethan Banks writes & podcasts about IT, new media, and personal tech.
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