To podcast or not to podcast?

So you want to start a podcast? The market for podcasts is growing and it seems like everyone else is doing it. That said, there are a few things you probably want to think about before you dive head-long into the podcasting pool. Peter Houston has a few suggestions.

I’ve written recently about podcasting for two very different types of magazine, super-pragmatic industry titles InPublishing and Publishing Executive and Foul Play, a classy, True Crime indie.

The difference in these assignments sums up perfectly the massive explosion of interest in podcasting. From who’s making money in the medium to what to listen to as a fan of murder and mayhem, podcasts have become a big deal. A quick look at the podcast charts shows podcasts as different as ‘Desert Island Discs’ and ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’ in the top 10.

And for me, it’s nice to be writing about growth in a media landscape where almost everything else is shrinking.

The 2018 Infinite Dial Study by Edison Research and Triton Digital shows a 4% increase in podcast listening in the US, with 44% of Americans saying they have listened to at least one podcast. Monthly listening in the US is at 26%, with the most regular listeners tuning into an average of seven podcasts a week.

2017 research from RAJAR and Ofcom in the UK reports less familiarity with the format, with just 24% of adults saying they had ever listened to a podcast. Regular listening also appears to be lower than in the US – only 8% listen to a podcast on a weekly basis.

But Ofcom also reported that 42% of survey respondents said they were listening to podcasts more often and 43% said they had maintained their listening frequency.

Research from Spotify supports the idea that the podcast habit is growing in the UK – the music streaming service reported 68% of respondents to a survey said that they were more likely to listen to a podcast today than three years ago.

Podcasting’s ‘overnight’ success

You might be relatively new to podcasting, but podcasting is not new. For more than 15 years, people have been mashing up media files and RSS feeds to create these radio-broadcast-blogging hybrids.

In the beginning, making and listening to podcasts was a pretty geeky past time. Inclusion in iTunes made the format more accessible, and the introduction of 3G smartphones made listening on the go easier. But podcasting didn’t hit the big time until 2014 when Apple launched a standalone app and ‘Serial’ landed.

Serial, a 12-part investigation of a 10-year old murder, was the first podcast to have a water cooler moment. People talked about it the way they talked about movies; at its height, each episode was drawing 1.5 million listeners.

The thrill of true crime, the outrage at a potentially wrongful conviction slowly revealed, caught the public imagination and podcasting hit the mainstream. From about 3,000 podcasts listed on iTunes in 2005, there are now fast approaching half a million.

To podcast or not to podcast?

Does the fact that there is a growing public appetite for podcasts mean that you should be hopping on board the audio content bandwagon?

Yes, you probably should, but only after you’ve reality checked your expectations and committed to delivering a regular show worth listening to.

The first thing to realise is your new podcast probably won’t make you rich. Yes, some podcasters have posted massive hits and made money from sponsorship, subscribers and even by selling TV rights. But that probably won’t be you.

You’re more likely to be among the 99% of podcasts that don’t get anywhere near the 50,000 listens per episode that is considered the benchmark for commercial viability by the larger advertising networks.

Networks like Acast offer an entry point for publishers into networked advertising revenue. But selling sponsorship to your key accounts is probably a better route to cash, and you get to have a conversation with them about helping them connect with their market in new and exciting ways.

You also need to recognise that you’re going to be in this for the long haul.

Giving up after three episodes is not going to cement your reputation as a progressive publisher committed to experimenting with new formats. And if that sounds trite, it’s a sobering thought that most new podcasts don’t make it past episode seven.

Ready to start?

If you’re OK with not having thousands of listeners, not making much money and committing some time and energy, you’re going to need some kit. Some people do make podcasts on their iPhones, but as a professional publisher, you probably shouldn’t.

If you’re recording in your offices, set up a quiet space and if it echoes, get yourself some foam baffles. Invest in a decent desk mic – my Blue Yeti was about £120. If you’re going to be out, spend as much as you can on lapel mics.

We record Media Voices over Skype and, for the most part, it works. But you do need to make sure the Wi-Fi at both ends is solid and you should encourage (tell) your guests to use a headset or a desk mic and headphones to avoid echoes.

You’ll also want audio editing software to edit out any mistakes you make and edit in music and effects. I use Audacity, mainly because it’s good and free. Chris and Esther use Adobe Audition as part of Creative Cloud, which is also really good, but most definitely not free.

You will also need to set up a hosting account to store your audio files and run your RSS feed. We use Soundcloud for hosting. It does a good job for not a lot of money, but there are many alternatives, including Lybsin, Blubbry and Podbean.

For comprehensive recommendations on podcast hardware and software requirements take a look at The Podcast Host. They also do a very good podcast about podcasting, called Podcraft.

Buy equipment, build a strategy

You can buy your hardware and software. What you can’t buy is your own podcast strategy. That will be unique to you and depend entirely on your subject matter, your audience and your objectives.

It’s important to mirror the content you publish in print and online in your podcast; the tighter the niche you target, the more loyal the audience will be.

That said, how can you do something different? How can you create a show that is specific to your audience but does something you can really only do with audio? Interviews and conversations are the obvious place to start, but audio long reads can also work.

The general rule of thumb is that a podcast episode should be about the length of the average commute, maybe 20 or 30 minutes. But many of the most popular podcasts run to an hour or more, with listeners completing shows in two or even three sessions. The secret is to know your audience – will they appreciate shorter, snappier shows or long, in-depth interviews?

Podcasts episodes come out daily, weekly, every two weeks, once a month. Set your frequency to match the information cycle in your market – if there’s news breaking all the time, a daily or weekly show will work.

If you’re on a slower information cycle, then monthly will work fine – maybe you can use the podcast to trail your latest print issue.

You also need to think about your resources too – how will you handle research, recording, editing and distribution and promotion? Remember, making a 15-minute interview podcast is a lot quicker than a serialised drama.

Beyond making your podcast, getting it to listeners is a huge challenge. Finding anything in any of Apple’s stores is never easy; discovering podcasts are no less difficult. And although apps like Sticher offer alternative discovery channels, the market is fragmented.

But don’t despair, publishers have a head start. Exploit your existing email newsletters and social media to turn magazine readers and website visitors into listeners.

Peter Houston co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast. He is a writer, consultant and trainer working to help publishers build a sustainable multi-platform future. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing conference and is a judge on several magazine awards. He has written about media for The New Statesman, The Drum, FIPP, InPublishing and Publishing Executive and researched and wrote the ‘State of the Media, 2017’ for The Media Briefing.