Podcasting has grown into a prominent medium because it lends itself to an open environment of chatter. Hosts present shows as conversations among good friends, and listeners in turn feel like they know the hosts’ most intimate secrets, because they often do. When Max Linsky interviews Terry Gross, he asks her about her interview prep, which offers a glimpse into the studio of one of the most prolific radio personalities of our time. When comedians get behind the mic to discuss their most intimate experiences, we feel like we’re chatting with a friend. Popular podcast hosts are semi-celebrities in Brooklyn bars, and sometimes we tune into a show simply because it reminds us of our own family game nights.
In a time where traditional radio is often just an excuse to listen to sports talk, oldies, or even simple promotion, podcasts have been born into a world with an audience.
However, one thing that’s conspicuously absent from podcast coverage right now is podcasters themselves talking about their process: the experience of running a show, booking guests, and figuring out what you want your audience to get out of listening. It’s left to reporters to do an occasional review, and that often doesn’t go as deep or as personal as it would if the podcaster were to speak about their method or practice first-hand.
Well, here goes. Here’s how I tackle each episode of my show, Writers Who Don’t Write.
All at once, podcasting is a godsend, as one of the more easily manageable media platforms today, and a total nightmare. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into actually creating a show. Producing each episode is a massive homework assignment that never ends.
Each week you have to follow the same system on a loop, coming up with slight refinements each time.
Getting the show off the ground properly means some combination of conceiving an idea, pulling strings and favors to get bigger guests than who we’ve had before, designing a branding and marketing campaign (and implementing one properly), buying and properly using sound equipment, etc. After you’ve spent a small fortune purchasing the necessary equipment, you still need to find someone proficient in the dark arts of editing audio, and then convince them to do it on the cheap. Then there’s building a website, creating artwork, figuring out a distribution method, realizing that it costs money to host audio, learning how RSS feeds actually work, and then finally submitting RSS feeds all over the web. If others are involved with hosting or production, you have to do all of this within the parameters of dueling schedules.
You kill yourself to do all of this before realizing that not only do your parents not want to listen, but your brother will openly make fun of your decision to create a show.
In addition to building distribution (where people listen to the show) and a platform (how they become aware of new episodes), there’s also the small task of actually conceiving of and creating each episode. For this you need to research and prep; spend hours reading and writing, seek out and convince guests to come on board, resolve scheduling conflicts, record tape, piece it all together, listen with a critical ear, release this to your feed, and promote the hell out of the episode while promoting the hell out of the show (and to an extent yourself). Now, do this every. single. week.
I’m being extremely general here—each show produces it’s own barriers. Some shows involve travel, heady research, multiple interviews, music acquisition, and sound effect libraries that resemble the Triwizard Maze. There’s sound kits, soundproof rooms and studio space, computers and software involved.
And for all of this, no one is going to pay you unless you hustle and convince them of the show’s inherent value. There are instances of shows being created for brands, or to stir up new business, as well as other instances for event marketing, sponsorships and premium memberships, or Patreon-funded campaigns. However, the sneaky truth is that most shows can’t find advertisers willing to deal with the bother for fewer than 25,000 listens per episode, and my estimation is that 95% of podcasts currently listed on iTunes aren’t even close to that audience size.
But we do it because we love it, not because we think we’ll earn enough to pay off our student loans. Once you get past the total nightmare of producing a show, you get to bask in the fact that you have your own platform to tell your stories and those of people whom you admire. My show initially started because my co-host and I were bored at work and wanted a creative outlet to tell stories. Once we realized that most of our favorite writers were not only interested in coming on the show, but excited about it, we went all in.
Every podcast has its own challenges, and hosts deal with them in their own way. For example, we want all of the writers who come onto WWDW to feel comfortable and have fun. (We used to have a bar hidden outside our studio where we could relax with the guests.) However, we also recognize that the very premise of our show—writers telling a story they’ve always struggled with in the past—will often make people uncomfortable. We’ve dealt with tears more than once, but more often than not, our biggest obstacle happens to be how we deal with poor storytelling.
If a writer hasn’t written their own stories, they probably aren’t prepared to tell them to us and in turn, to thousands of invisible strangers. One of the most important things we can do is pre-interview the author to make sure their story is duly prepared and they’re ready to talk about it. In some cases, they’re dealing with their demons publicly. Are they ready to talk about them? We do our pre-interviews via email, and this usually works well to not only frame the story but to coax the guest into thinking about what they’d like to chat about rather than coming in cold.
Some people aren’t going to be comfortable chatting about their careers for an hour, but we’ve been able to find a point where our guests get comfortable and chat as if we’re old friends. This is an achievement I’m proud of and you’ll hear it in the quality of the shows released.
Media has known this for years, but there’s a certain thrill that comes with launching a new episode and seeing the listens slowly build over minutes, hours, and days. Watching the listens and tweets add up and knowing that something you created is having an impact is better than any gratification loop I’ve ever experienced on Facebook. But as always, there’s more work to be done on the next episode…