If it seems to you like podcasting is making a comeback, hold it right there. It never went away, according to Michael O’Connell, host of the It’s All Journalism podcast and author of the forthcoming book Turn up the Volume: A Down and Dirty Guide to Launching a Podcast.
“Thousands of podcasts were out there, thriving,” O’Connell says, before Serial made a huge splash in 2014. But most people didn’t know much about podcasts until the true crime series from the creators of public radio’s This American Life “created a buzz for itself and for podcasting.”
So what are the keys to creating a successful podcast? That depends on how you define success.
Podcasts are niche products, by definition. “When you choose a topic, you are limiting the size of your audience,” O’Connell says. “Expect your audience to be much smaller than you imagine…and don’t expect to make any money at it.”
The average podcast gets just 150 downloads per episode each month, according to O’Connell. That’s not nearly enough to appeal to advertisers. And besides, most podcasters give up before they get to the 150 download plateau, which usually takes about six months.
There are podcasters who do turn a profit, of course, but O’Connell says almost all of them already had an audience before launching a podcast. And they make most of their money not from advertising but from marketing to their audience. Adam Carolla, for example, sells merchandise, books and live appearances to his fans.
If you’re not intent on making a living with a podcast, what you need to succeed are passion, authenticity and commitment, O’Connell says.
“If you have a message you are passionate about, people will connect to your passion and listen.” That’s more important than broadcast-quality audio or high profile guests. “I don’t want to downplay the importance of good audio production. It’s important to master it, but it’s not that difficult to master.”
O’Connell says regularity is crucial to success. “Establish a rhythm and a routine for people to come check out your content.”
All you need to get started is a microphone, an audio recorder (which could be your smartphone) and a website. Edit audio with Audacity (it’s free). Interview guests using Zencastr, also free for hobbyists. Put your podcast up on SoundCloud or a similar hosting site, embed it on your own site, promote it on iTunes, and you’re off.
How long should a podcast be? As long or as short as it needs to be, O’Connell says. He calls BS on the “recommended length” of 22 minutes. A recent study found the average listener stays tuned for 33 minutes. The sweet spot may be somewhere in between, since many people listen while commuting and the average commute time in this country is…26 minutes.
O’Connell’s advice is to “start short, earn long.” Do 10 minutes a week when you begin and see how it goes. But keep this in mind: there’s a big drop off in listeners after two minutes. “If you don’t hook them, they’re gone.”
Finally–this may be obvious–before you start a podcast, listen to some! Here are a few of O’Connell’s and my favorites:
Into the Dark, a true crime series from American Public Media.
Millennial, a show about “how to maneuver your twenties.”
RadioLab, a show about curiosity, from WNYC.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which breaks all the “rules.” Published sporadically and can be hours long.
And a megalist of 50 more, from The Guardian.