Nobody's podlistening

Fifty thousand or go home.

I came across this New Yorker cartoon when scrolling through one of the (many) podcasting Facebook groups I’m in. (Sidenote: these groups are the only reason I use Facebook any more, but more on that another time.) It resonated with me, as I’m sure it would with anyone who has been making a podcast for a while. Anna and I have been doing our pop culture podcast, SRSLY, pretty much weekly since the summer of 2015, and there have definitely been times where it feels like nobody is listening and the whole exercise is completely pointless.

I think this is the flip side of the intimacy I wrote about a few weeks ago: when each listener experiences an episode separately, there’s no peer pressure to respond or take part. And that’s fine — it’s what a lot of people like about listening to podcasts, the fact that you can just listen and there’s no requirement to interact with it — but it can make producing them a lonely effort at times.

Which brings me on to what I wanted to talk about in this letter — numbers and expectations. Last week I made the point that the iTunes chart is not a good way of determining if your show is successful, and touched on the fact that podcast analytics generally are unreliable. But it is true that there are a few hard numbers floating around out there which are quoted often.

For instance, it’s the accepted wisdom that until your podcast approaches 50,000 downloads per episode, you’re unlikely to get any of the big name sponsors (Squarespace, Audible, Mailchimp) interested in spending money with you. A lot of people I’ve spoken to over the years — and I’m talking amateurs, not professional producers — have told me that they measure themselves and their show against this number. And of course, their stats show that they are pulling in only a fraction of that audience, and that makes them feel like they aren’t succeeding.

This is the result of podcasting being a medium which, on the surface, appears to have no divide between amateur and professional. Of course in reality something like the scaled up operation of This American Life has nothing in common with me and my colleague sitting in the basement of our office with some equipment that cost less than £500. But we all know of shows that started out on kitchen tables and then grew to the point where their hosts could make a good living from them (cf My Dad Wrote a Porno). It’s not like seeing Barry Jenkins picking up an Oscar for Moonlight and thinking: I could do that, I made that YouTube video that time. In podcasting, the big time always feels like it’s just a few (hundred thousand) clicks away.

But this is where the Facebook groups come in again. I’m a lurker, very rarely posting or commenting, but I do read most of what other people write in them. And several of the ones I’m in have what I think is a really healthy culture of people sharing screenshots of the stats for their podcast when they hit a significant milestone and explaining to other members what it took for them to get to that point. The threads beneath them are pretty much universally supportive, and I really like reading them.

However, many of these posts feature numbers that anyone working as a pro in podcasting would hardly count as a cause for celebration — we’re talking 1,000 downloads over a month in which 6 episodes were released, or something like that. A lot of them talk about how they started their podcast to serve a very niche little community they’re part of (something like: people who love Mexican food in Des Moines, Iowa — I made that up but it’s that kind of thing) and the fact that those people are listening is all they could have hoped for. These podcasters are happy, because they’ve set their expectations in the right place.