I recently created a new podcast called Culturally Relevant, where I interview fascinating writers/filmmakers/artists to talk about big ideas. I’ve never worked harder on a podcast before, nor have I ever been more proud of something I’ve made. I hope you have a chance to check it out and subscribe.
Getting this show off the ground has revealed to me just how different the podcast environment is today than when I first started podcasting over 10 years ago. In many ways, it feels like it’s the absolute worst time in the history of mankind to start a podcast. It is also, coincidentally, the best.
Let’s start with why it’s tough out there.
Big money has come to podcasts: VC money and other forms of investment have come flowing into podcasts. Gimlet Media recently sold to Spotify for over $200 million. Luminary has entered the game with over $100 million in investment in the hopes of becoming the Netflix for podcasts. We are a long way from when podcasting was the sole domain of hobbyists. Many podcasts are now extremely well funded, giving them the means to have high production values and longer lead times on their episodes. They also have marketing budgets in the tens of thousands that allow them to advertise on other podcasts and even other forms of media. If you don’t have a big budget to produce and market your show, it can feel like you are David going up against 10,000 Goliaths.
Celebrities have caught wind: Celebrities and TV personalities have begun converting their massive fame into podcast equity. People like Adam Carolla and Mark Maron led the way, and now folks like Dax Shepherd and Conan O’Brien have also realized there’s an audience for them in the podcast world. It used to be that when I landed a big interview with someone on a press tour, I’d be so thrilled to have a big differentiator for my show. Now, you can literally listen to Alec Baldwin interview that same person. And most people? If they only have time for one show, they’re probably going to go with Alec.
Discoverability is a challenge: Related to the previous two points, it’s very difficult for a small new show to get discovered. It used to be that if you netted a few hundred subscribers in your first week, you might show up in a “New and Notable” section or even a “Trending” section on Apple Podcasts or another podcast app. That might lead to more subscribers, which might get you into the “Top Podcasts” chart. It was a virtuous circle that could drive up subscriber numbers for even small timers. Today, you need to multiply that initial subscriber number by about 10x or 100x to get noticed. Furthermore, there are now more podcast apps in the game, meaning that you have to impress multiple algorithms, not just one.
On the flip side, it’s not all bad out there. The initial modest success of Culturally Relevant has shown me that there are reasons it’s actually great to get into the podcast game right now.
The audience for podcasts has never been larger: According to a recent study, about one in three people in the US listen to a podcast every month. That’s the highest it’s ever been and it looks to get bigger in the years to come. Sheer audience size is not just about numbers; it also means people are more familiar with basic elements like how to find and listen to podcasts. They’re less likely to turn up their nose at the idea of checking out one of these things and that means it’s easier to recommend something to people that they’ll actually try.
It has never been easier to make a podcast: Between the high quality microphones everyone is carrying around with them in their pockets and apps like Anchor that allow you to create and publish podcasts on your phone, there has been a proliferation of services and support for podcasters in recent years. This means it’s never been easier to create a maintain a show using cheap online tools. There are also countless resources on YouTube and blogs and websites (like this one!) that will help guide the way.
It has never been easier to make money from a podcast: Between Kickstarter, Patreon, and selling ads, it’s now a real possibility for people to make a living off of podcasting. Short of that, you can use the money you make and reinvest it back into the show, thus growing your listener base, getting more money to reinvest back into the show, and so on forever. The ability to monetize is a potent tool for podcasters looking to level up their production value, marketing capabilities, or just increase their quality of life.
So there you have it! While launching a new show has been a time period of great discouragement and rejection, it’s also been encouraging to see how the podcast environment has improved for newcomers out there. In any case, if you enjoyed this article, I hope you have a chance to check out Culturally Relevant. And if you like that show, please consider sharing it with your friends. As I’ve indicated above, it’s one of the most important ways for people to find a show like mine.
Since I’ve had a particularly intense podcast schedule recently (I’m basically producing four podcasts per week), I’ve been slacking on these newsletter updates. I want to try to keep to a weekly schedule but once every 2-3 weeks is more realistic until my schedule dies down. That said, here are some online links I’ve found interesting lately:
- First off, in case you missed the news, I also recently created a weekly podcast about the HBO Original Series Succession. Be sure to check it out at successionpodcast.com. It’s a lot of fun.
- In a recent episode of Culturally Relevant, I chatted with Alex Perry about the last days of American missionary John Allen Chau. I’d highly recommend this conversation and the Outside online piece that Perry wrote about John.
- Also on the podcast: I spoke with Samantha Allen about what it’s like to be queer in America’s red states.
- Elizabeth Lopatto has an entertaining look at WeWork’s S-1 filing. Scott Galloway also has a brutal takedown of it. I don’t give investment advice, but I’m going to run as far away from this public offering as possible.
- Matt Stoller’s newsletter has an entry on why Hollywood doesn’t have the ability to take as many bold chances these days, at least when it comes to movies. It’s an insightful essay, with especially great observations about Back to the Future.
- CJ Hauser’s essay, “The Crane Wife,” went a bit viral on the internet a few weeks ago. I recently had the chance to get to it and it is heartbreaking and incisive. Highly recommended.
- Speaking of toxic relationships, on a recent episode of Culturally Relevant, I recommended this video from Philosophy Tube on the subject.
- Elisabeth Donnelly has written a piece for Vanity Fair on the limitations of our streaming future.
- I didn’t think I’d be interested in reading a corporate history of Spindrift but Rachel Sugar at Vox proved me wrong.
- Here’s a fun one: Calypso Mellor at Kotaku wrote about why most videogame archery is bunk.