I was talking to my brother the other day about what advice we’d give to other people from New Zealand wanting to become actors (like him) – he’d been asked to answer that question for an upcoming interview. My first serious answer was that I’d suggest watching everything you can get your hands on – part of the reason for that being that it teaches you that quality and success don’t always go hand in hand (terrible films can make a lot of money, and phenomenal films can linger in obscurity). I went on to say that I think it’s crucial people get into the industry for the right reasons: that if you go into it wanting to do great work, you’ll make good choices and be satisfied with what you’ve created and how you’ve spent your life even if you never end up with millions of dollars and rumours that you dated a Jonas brother. If you go into it just wanting money and fame, you’re likely to end up with neither – and your body of work will just look like a bunch of attempts to “make it.”
On a similar note, I think a lot of people define success in podcasting as hundreds of thousands of downloads per week and sponsors coming out your ears, making it into New and Noteworthy and eventually being able to live off your podcast. If you define success that way, then on the flipside of that, having a small pool of subscribers and no sponsors would be the definition of failure. And I don’t think that’s a particularly useful or valuable yardstick.
Success and failure are (generally) subjective, and determined by the goals you go into the project with (or as Karly would put it, your intention). And I don’t mean we should be setting easy, flimsy goals for the sake of being able to tick boxes, like “I want my mum to listen to every episode.” If you want to feel like you’ve succeeded in your podcasting journey, you need to find a goal that really matters to you.
If you’re going into podcasting as an entrepreneur, I think it’s especially easy to fall into the trap of “I want x many sales/dollars based off x many episode downloads.” And that’s definitely possible to achieve and it’s good to think about, but by making that your sole objective you might be shooting yourself in the foot – while podcasting audiences are more open to native advertising than people consuming other kinds of media, people aren’t going to engage if they feel like they’re just being sold to for an hour a week. You need to tap into your underlying philosophy, your “why” – the things that make your business different. Think about what you would want to share with someone who doesn’t have enough money to buy your product or service – what you think is so important and so valuable that if even one person walked away changed by your message, you’d feel like you’d accomplished something worthwhile (even if you didn’t make a single dime). That’s where great content is born, and where great content exists, audiences tend to follow.
We see this reflected in the podcasts that *have* gone on to make a lot of money through sponsorships and sales – very few, if any of them, were primarily intended to be money-making ventures. Serial started out as a passion project, paid for by funds siphoned off This American Life’s budget – they were aware that it would eventually have to find its own budget if it was to continue, but the drive behind creating it wasn’t financial (they wanted to try and create a HBO/Netflix type serial storytelling experience, but purely using audio). They managed to fund the second season through donations and sponsorships from people who loved the first. Welcome To Night Vale, which became the most downloaded podcast on iTunes during mid-2013, was created because Joseph Fink really liked podcasts, wanted to work with a friend of his on a project, and was interested in the idea of a world where every conspiracy theory was true. The show became popular via word of mouth on Tumblr (a social media site that’s a hotspot for fan activity) and they’ve managed to maintain an advertising-free show while making some profit by selling merchandise and tickets to live recordings.
It’s also worth noting that numbers and downloads and sponsors and all those other shiny metrics do not determine impact or value. I’m not saying they don’t help or aren’t nice to have, but there’s many good examples of podcasts which could be considered incredibly successful despite not having any of the numerical hallmarks of “success”. FurCast, a podcast for therians (people who believe they are animals living in human bodies) has a modest subscriber base, but every week they answer questions for people struggling with this particular identity issue and help people feel like they aren’t alone. The Recovery Warrior Show has less than a hundred sponsors on Patreon, but when you read the reviews left for this show both on its website and iTunes, you can see the value of the support it provides for people recovering from eating disorders. They may not be raking in thousands of downloads and dollars, but they are making a measurable impact.
Finally, taking audiences out of the equation: I think it’s also worth considering that you can get a lot out of the podcasting process before you publish a single episode. Asking yourself to talk about what you do and what you’re passionate about for an hour each week (whether you’re doing it alone or in interview format) is both incredibly challenging, and incredibly revealing. It’s a good way to challenge yourself; to learn a new skill, to reach a new audience, to commit to creating something every week. I know I seem to find a way to get Casey Neistat into pretty much every blog I write (what can I say, he’s one of my personal heroes), but – when he started vlogging on YouTube every single day, he did it as a personal challenge – no goal in mind other than meeting his commitment to make and upload a short vlog every day for a year. In his words: he did it to kill all of the excuses that stopped him from making more movies. Three million subscribers later, he says he’s an infinitely better filmmaker because he met that challenge – and he enjoyed it so much that he’s planning to keep doing daily vlogs indefinitely. You can’t underestimate the potential impact of setting yourself a challenge just to do something, and not letting yourself back out. If your goal is to prove to yourself that you’re better than you think you are, and strip away all of the excuses and learn what you’re really about and capable of – all you have to do to succeed at podcasting is show up and do the work (if you need some help on the accountability front, I highly recommend getting yourself into the Radcasters community, or checking out Karly’s Facebook group for people who are ready to show up and speak up).
So: in short, the only way to fail at podcasting is to do it with nothing but dollar signs in your eyes, and without passion and purpose. The second you’ve got a spark of either of those, you’re on the road to something truly special.