I'm a woman with a podcast so I was intrigued when my local public radio station, WNYC, invited me to an event put on specifically for my kind. The event, Werk It, took place last week at WNYC and I'm writing about it in case anyone else can benefit.
I couldn’t make the second day, which focused on pitching. As a podcaster who's not affiliated with a network I’m concentrating on the advice for indy podcasters that came on day one. The conference focused on women - because women don't podcast as much as men - but I think any independent podcaster can get something out of this post.
The panel on indies featured Crissle West of The Read, which totally took off in what I consider no time at all and now has 115,000 subscribers. Then there was Lauren Spohrer from Criminal, which also hit the bigtime quickly. It now has a million downloads a month. Hillary Frank began The Longest Shortest Time in her house. After her successful Kickstarter WNYC came calling, and she’s now there. Lynn Casper co-hosts Homoground, by and about queer musicians and music lovers, and Kaitlin Prest of The Heart (formerly Audiosmut) is now, like Criminal, with Radiotopia, which I think of as the golden kiss for podcasters (you get money and new listeners!)
What I'm about to say comes partly from Werk It and partly from my own experience as an independent podcaster.
Because you are going to need it. It’s wonderful that shows like The Read and Criminal leapt into the podcasting stratosphere within a year or two, but those are like the stories of your friend who met the love of her life on a first date, in college, wherever. The rest of us have to tough it out in the dating trenches for years before we meet the right person. I’m seriously hoping it doesn’t take me as long to grow this podcast as it did to find the right guy, but at least I’m practiced in the art of waiting.
Kaitlin Prest put it best when she said that “motivation is more important than time” when it comes to your podcast. Producing a regular podcast can feel relentless. I produce mine every two weeks, which may not sound like much. But on top of other, (paying) work, cutting the tape and writing the show is a lot. Too often I’m tweaking the writing the day before I head into my closet to track. Sometimes I have to skip a production cycle altogether because of work. You need to be motivated and excited to produce what you’re producing, to keep going when you don’t have many listeners. I was doing my show for 18 months before I had more than 1,000 listeners. That probably sounds crazy to some readers but I loved what I was doing, knew the topic (women and work) was important and needed, and had enough encouragement from existing listeners to continue. Now, new listeners tell me they go back and listen to all the old episodes.
As Hillary Frank said, “Take what people say about the numbers with a grain of salt. It’s about making the thing that’ll bring in the numbers.”
In my case it was some surprise press in major publications – and a mention of the show on Planet Money – that pushed up those numbers. Many podcasters have tales of their numbers rocketing when their show is featured on another podcast. It especially helps if that podcast is called This American Life.
Build It and They Will Not Necessarily Come
We all like to think our creations will magically find their audience, but this isn’t true, at least initially. I suspect it may be even less true in a podcast world that seems to be exploding. Some podcasts will of course take off shortly after launch because they touch a collective nerve, but many podcasts are on niche topics and you must be prepared to do the work to let people know you exist. I was so excited to launch my show in 2012 I totally forgot about taking any steps to get on 'New and Noteworthy' in iTunes. (I was featured on iTunes almost three years later - not complaining.)
Until you start a podcast you have no idea how time-consuming marketing is. All you want to do is produce the content and make it as good as possible. Many creative types are not natural salespeople. God knows I’m not. I learned a lot on CUNY’s entrepreneurial journalism program, where I launched The Broad Experience. Still, like a lot of women I am not good at saying, ‘I’m great, come and listen to my show.’ I dislike boasting about my work. That said, I do it. You have to be prepared to silence that voice that tells you it’s unseemly to self-promote. Find your comfort zone and keep at it.
I’m not just referring to social media. Unless you have a huge following, those channels aren’t enough. You need to get in touch with publications or entities that are like-minded – that have more reach than you – and ask them to check out your show. Also, consider a Kickstarter, but wait till you have a base audience to support the campaign. I haven’t gone down this route but many podcasters have pulled off successful Kickstarters, most famously 99% Invisible. The most recent one I’m aware of is Jacki Lyden’s campaign for her podcast, The Seams. And the bigger you grow, the more you can build live events into your marketing efforts. This is working well for Criminal, The Read, and The Longest Shortest Time.
I'm not saying word of mouth doesn't work. It does. Many of my listeners have come to me that way. But it's usually not enough to build you an audience of tens of thousands of listeners. And let's face it, most of us want that.
I love the story Hillary Frank told at Werk It and in previous interviews about how she landed sponsors for her show. This happened when she was still independent. She approached sponsors when she was planning her Kickstarter and picked companies she actually felt had helped her as a new mom. She called, left a message for the marketing manager, and asked if they would provide matching grants for her various Kickstarter goals. None of them had done anything like this before, and each said yes.
I’ve done something similar with The Broad Experience but I wasn’t as clever as Hillary. Last year I approached a few companies I felt were trying to do something positive for their female workforce – or at least wanted to be seen to be doing something positive. These are big companies we’ve all heard of, and each of the three said no to sponsorship. But then I approached the Financial Times, which I’ve been reading for years, and they said yes. They have a good women in business page and I knew they wanted to increase their female readership. I should add this relationship, which we termed a partnership (part of the deal was that I interviewed one of their journalists for each show), got off the ground when I had far fewer than 10,000 listeners. I got a lot more than the CPM rate for the three shows I did with the FT. If I were to sign up with a sponsor using the CPM rate model right now, I’d get $250 per sponsor per show.
You can get more than this often-discussed rate if you sell the sponsor on the value of your audience, which in my case is educated, smart, curious, ambitious and busy (and mostly female). These days I am approaching companies whose products I use that I feel have the same mission I do – to empower women in the true sense of the word – and I’ve had some success.
The key is to have a niche and find sponsors that gravitate to your people. These may be smaller companies with a scrappier attitude than Procter and Gamble.
All this sales(wo)manship is time-consuming and as a result I don't do it as often as I should. Rather I go through phases of doing it and phases of letting it slide. I am always disappointed that I don’t have enough time to truly focus on my show. But the pleasure The Broad Experience has brought me is unlike anything else I’ve experienced at work. I'm building a real community online. I get candid, heartfelt emails from listeners of both sexes telling me the show has actually changed they way they think and act. They've given me ideas for stories and listeners have been wonderful guests on the show. I could never have achieved any of this if I hadn’t started my own podcast.
So if you have something to say, say it. Just be prepared to werk it too.