Reasons not to start a podcast

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One of the things that I love about podcasts (there are several) is that anyone can start one. There’s no bouncer at the door telling you that can’t come in. There’s no commissioning editor, no pitching, and no licence. All you need is an idea, a device that you can record on, and somewhere to dump your files. Given that mobile ‘phones and laptops can all record, then chances are you’ve got something that you can use close to hand. If you don’t mind limiting your creativity, or losing some of your archive then plenty of hosting sites offer a free plan where you can post your creative outpourings online for nothing. You don’t need to edit your shows, but if you do there are free editors like Audacity or the more complex Reaper. Paid systems like Audition or Hindenburg might do a better job, but free is free, right?

In fact, in a survey by The Podcast Host the most popular editing system was the free one, Audacity.

So, making a podcast is free. There’s no-one to tell you what to do, and unlike YouTube I’ve heard of a podcast being taken down (if you have let me know!). There’s nothing stopping you….. but wait.

The guys at NPR Training have just published a ‘read this first’ guide on podcasting that reflects a lot of my thinking on podcasting and the challenges.

There first tip is ‘don’t just throw spaghetti at the wall’. In other words don’t just throw something out and hope it sticks. The first step, they say, is to really work out what it is you are doing and who you are trying to reach. This is advice I give to all my students in all of their work. By working out how you are hoping to reach, you know how to talk to them and how far you can push them. Some podcasts almost trade on their ability to be offensive; either because they swear (a lot) or they talk about things like sex or serial killers in ways that some radio listeners would find offensive. Because podcasts are an opt-in medium then the listeners find the content that they want and that suits them, and this leads me to a key point in some of my recent work. When thinking about the key traits of the medium, I’ve come to realise that innovation is supremely important. If we think of the most successful podcasts, then what often differentiates them is that they have innovated. Podcasts like ‘Welcome to Nightvale’ and ‘Serial’ both presented forms that were not already present in podcasting and have now been copied, copied, and copied. You can see this at work in the award winning British podcast The Griefcast an interview show where comedian Cariad Lloyd talks to other comics about death. This is a great example if an idea that would never have made it passed a radio commissioner but that really works as a podcast. There’s focus here and a good reason why you’d want to share it.

Some of the biggest podcasts are unusual. If someone told you 2 years that the Royal Albert Hall in London would sell-out a spoken word event where 3 people you’ve never heard of would read out and discuss self-published amateur pornography I think you’d have found that hard to believe. But that is what’s happened.

It’s happened because the idea had cut-through. It innovated and it’s core theme was simple. His Dad has written a bad novel and it’s funny. Through word of mouth and hard work it’s now a global hit.

Both NPR and the Podcast Host talk about quitting. Maybe because the show isn’t working or because you’ve just lost your mojo. Bearing in mind that the reason why many people favour podcasts over radio is the sense of authentic intimacy they generate. Listeners can feel really connected to their shows and you can see that if you visit the Facebook groups many shows start, or even the ones started by listeners that the hosts aren’t even in. There is some sense here, but it raises a question. Some podcasters are keen to monetise their shows. They attend events like Podcast Movement to learn how to make better shows and how to turn it into a living. But this comes back to the original point; anyone can have a podcast. You don’t have to be good and you don’t have to have an audience. It’s a very competitive field and no-one has a right to an audience. Even the biggest shows can find that something hasn’t worked.

In the iTunes world your position in the chart can be significant factor in how many people can find you. Unlike the singles chart, the iTunes podcast chart is not a listening chart but a chart of attention tracking new subscriptions and listener comments. This is why podcasts urge you to subscribe and comment and why shows like the ITV Love Island Podcast can go straight to number 1 in the UK chart. The arrival of a Google Podcast App, is a big step change here and may go someway to changing things, but in the meantime podcasters need to recognise that getting into the chart is no easy task. It takes patience, innovation, or a big platform to shout from. Of course, none of that matters if the reason you have a podcast is simply to have a voice. It’s easy to obsess about the data, to worry that the listener you once in Toronto seems to have left you, or to check the iTunes every week. Whilst data is important, the most important thing is you. If you believe in what you are doing, or you just enjoy it then carry on.

But, you should question if podcasting is the right medium for you. Don’t do it because it’s cool. Don’t start a network because you think that would be a good thing to do. Don’t do it badly. If you must do it, do your best job and put the time in.

This was posted back in 2018, just as the podcast wave started to build. Fastforward to now and we find ourselves in the great USB-Mic Famine of 2020. As lockdowns kicked people went online and bought USB Mics by the box load. No doubt a good number were radio stations needing to broadcast from home, or other creatives and content makers who relied on studios. But, as this video suggests a good number will have been bought by people stuck at home with a podcast idea. People seemed to take offence at this video, seeing it as a public broadcaster having criticising the podcast community. I don’t think that’s it all, nor is it about quality; although that is an issue. For me, this is about the thing you wanting to say fitting the podcast format.

Perhaps two mates talking will be great fun; possibly even for their other mates too, and whilst I wouldn’t want to rain on their parade maybe they should have a Zoom call or something? But maybe that small audience doesn’t have the time or the interest to listen and if they don’t who will?

The point is, find a great idea and then find the right medium or format. If you want to make it anyway, go ahead. That is part of the fun of the medium, but will it become a global smash? Maybe not.