By Vik Singh
I’m sometimes asked how I built an independent podcast network with zero name recognition, press, or industry backing. Not only that, it generated millions of downloads, was featured on Apple’s podcast page for a month next to Conan O’Brien and Dr. Phil, and resulted in life-changing relationships with top players across television, film, music and sports. How did an unknown podcaster accomplish all that?
My answer? Well, besides pleading at least partial insanity — especially since I left behind more secure opportunities to pursue a passion right as I was starting a family — I credit one element in particular: obsession. That’s the first thing that comes to mind every time I talk to somebody who’s thinking about creating a podcast or any type of creative content.
I quickly figured out I couldn’t parlay being midway through one career into one in media and storytelling. If I was going to start over, I knew I’d have to bet on myself. So that’s what I did.
I chose to focus on shows I’d want to listen to. I attribute whatever success I’ve had to staying true to that. If you’ve got an audience of one, you have something. If you go far enough down the road, you’ll realize that’s what drives everything: results, quality, sustainability, even mental health!
When I’m not producing my own shows or partnering across the spectrum to make shows with talent and brands, I host workshops in my studio in Los Angeles to coach people on getting started. The following is a distillation of those sessions. Even though my story is a bit different, in that I built a recording studio where Lady Gaga could conceivably record her next album, anybody can get started, even a dilettante. The operative word and through line here, as always, is “obsession.”
Word has it
While mileage may vary from one listener to the next, after making plenty of shows and listening to even more, I’ve realized that the best podcasts are slow and immersive. They go a mile wide and a mile deep. They leave no stone unturned. Or, when they do, they leave behind an ocean of possibility in the listener’s mind.
Presenting information that’s rich in density and detail starts with writing. While writing is the engine that powers most creative output, with audio you’re asking your listeners to rely on their imaginations. That’s both an opportunity and a burden. When there’s no picture to round out the story, it’s driven by the writing, which needs to activate imaginations and sustain attention. In an ever increasing, hyper-fragmented, distraction-heavy environment, writing has never been more important. It informs the music, the narration, the possibility. In many ways, it’s your single line of defense against your audience choosing to do one of the million other things vying for their attention.
Writing and writing well is a subject unto itself. But here again, genuine obsession will drive one sentence into the next. One great thing about the podcast format is that the writing can be loose and conversational. As people often say, write like you talk. There’s no better sandbox in which to put that truism to work than a podcast outline and eventual script.
Domain competency helps, but you don’t need to be a subject matter expert. Some of the best shows are ones where the narrator guides audiences and, many times, learns and uncovers things along the way.
Silence is Golden
Besides writing, another key component of podcasting is interviews. Some podcasts are exclusively interview formats while others incorporate them, documentary style, to propel a story. Either way, solid interviewing technique is invaluable. Good interviews go largely unnoticed, like LeBron James logging a triple double or Steph Curry hitting nine threes in a single game. But bad interviews can be as egregious as the Malice at the Palace. The best advice I ever got, and something I’ve learned from listening to some of the best to ever do it, is to get out of the way.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Caro, whose work is famously obsessive and meticulous, offers this legendary advice in his memoir Working — Researching, Interviewing, Writing: shut up. Silence is the key to interviewing. It’s so important that he goes out of his way to create devices to keep from talking at all: cleaning glasses, ashing a cigar, writing little reminders in the margins. The best answers tend to surface when we let them breathe. A rule of thumb that’s worked well for me is that when I’m ready to speak or respond, I wait an extra beat. Similarly, when the best photographers think they’re close enough to their subjects, they take one step closer. That final bit of fine-tuning makes all the difference.
Next up: the tools of the trade. There’s no point in delving into the specifics of gear. There are as many equipment and workflow options as there are off-menu items at your favorite eatery. Did you know Chipotle made nachos? Don’t judge. The bottom line is, you need gear. It may be true that if you handed Jimi Hendrix a phone book, he could still make music, but equipment does matter. Not only are there broadcast and delivery standards to think about, but listeners are also discerning and expect quality, even if they’re getting content for free.
Many books explain those items in detail, so I’ll spare you an infomercial on the audiovisual industrial complex. Put plainly, gear matters. People notice. And it will show in your work. Now, you don’t need to be Skywalker Sound or a public radio veteran. It certainly gives you an unfair advantage when you are fluent in recording science, vocal chains, EQ, compression, editing and sound design, all while being able to write and organize an episode or series. But knowing what you don’t know is helpful too when you’re starting to accrue knowledge and expertise or collaborate with domain experts.
Brass tacks: People forgive an average story (just look at some of the stuff that’s out there today). But they won’t forgive average audio. Don’t fall prey to the internet and the trolls that inhabit its corridors. Be mindful of quality always. At the risk of overstating my point, be obsessive. It’s important to remember, though, that it’s never the tools alone that matter most, but how we use them to get our stories in front of audiences. The best tools are the ones that mostly stay out of your way and let you create.
Edit, edit, edit
So, once you’ve scripted Peabody-worthy material, interviewed subjects like Oprah, and recorded it all like Rick Rubin, the next step is editing. Here, the credo is simple: respect your listener. William Strunk said it best in The Elements of Style: omit needless words. Many brain trusts have debated and pored over data to figure out the right length for a podcast. In general, they should be as long as they need to be and not a second longer.
Besides the standard practice of eliminating verbal tics and repetition, using silence to create space between words and sounds is crucial. Most podcasts weren’t designed to be listened to at one-and-a-half times or double normal speed, sports and political free-for-alls notwithstanding. A well-edited show won’t go unnoticed. Most of the feedback you’ll get will be from listeners who appreciate the economy and nuance of your finished work. If edited correctly, listeners will go back thirty seconds to re-hear what was said in awe. And if you’re really hitting thirty-footers from Logo Lillard territory, your tale of the tape will include listeners writing stuff down and even sharing the moment with others. Whenever I edit something, that’s my litmus test: Would a listener share this? And while William Goldman’s famous dictum “Nobody knows anything” is instructive here too, audiences do sense when something is too long or too short. If you edit correctly, you’ll leave listeners wanting more, like songs you wish went on for another verse. Few hit that mark, but that’s why we do what we do. It’s why we keep putting up the shots.
After the words are properly organized and your material is cut to perfection so that once the culture gets hold of it your style becomes a verb, there are sonic considerations to be taken into account, from music to sound design. It’s no different from film and television. Music and sound bind everything together. While most projects can’t earmark resources for a Tame Impala-Travis Scott collaboration, there are plenty of places you can go to find the right sound for your project. You can literally dial in what you’re looking for (a tool I use actually has rotary dials and sliders) and find something that works, even if it’s just a temporary track until, you know, Pharrell’s people reach out and whatnot. If you have the bandwidth and resources, original music and sound design go a long way, both business-wise and creatively. It can get weird if the same sounds are used across many shows. If you control all aspects of your show and the underlying IP, you only set yourself up for cleaner deals once it pops off. Again, listeners notice, and Reddit can be a very unforgiving place. The painters of the greatest masterpieces didn’t scrimp around the edges of their canvases; every detail was measured and considered. Your music and sonic elements should be treated with as much care as the words surrounding them. As John Adams once wrote to his wife Abigail, “I did it all for posterity!” While that’s a niche reference to the HBO series (if you listen to any shows I’m on, you’ll notice I can’t help myself, at times), it rounds out my thought regarding the importance of details.
Let’s say you have a cut of your show that’s ready for the world. Whether you run it through a post house or your spare bedroom for mastering (the final polish to ready the mix for public consumption), the business end of things takes hold. How in the heck do you get people to hear it? That’s distribution. If you’re big enough or if your project was commissioned, odds are that distribution will be lined up in advance. But for most shows, you’re on your own. Therein lies opportunity. Much like Sundance film darlings, a show that takes off creates leverage for better terms and future projects.
But no matter what anybody claims, there is no straight path to listeners’ ears. Some of the best-resourced, talent-led projects perform dismally, whereas a guy in his basement in Spokane rapping about the lost art of the midrange jumper is generating industry buzz and tokenizing episodes into NFTs.
Distribution is a goal, a milestone. But it’s not a reason to make or not make the thing. Stay obsessed, and if your finished work has obsession coursing through its veins, people will notice — including distributors. Like Scorsese once said, a director’s job is to get the audience to care about her obsessions. It starts and ends with that. That’s the work.
That said, there are some actionable ways to optimize your own distribution and even generate distribution deals post-launch.
For those of you who still browse bookstores or remember what it was like digging through crates at your favorite record store, artwork matters. In a sea of content, across all media, it’s what people often see first. And, like it or not, you’re judged on it. Less is more, but a combination of clever typography and illustrations plus a distinctive color palette goes a long way.
Next, to achieve real scale, your podcast can’t exist in a vacuum. It needs a beachhead that includes a website, a newsletter, a subreddit, and social media platform-specific content such as audiograms, video clips, a Discord page, and (truly baller level) a YouTube channel. This doesn’t mean just posting recycled stuff and collecting emails so you can boost sell-through and show false data points to sponsors. It means actively interacting and providing value. It means keeping the dialog of your podcast going when listeners aren’t listening. It’s all about attention. Note: While many of these touch points are upfront cost centers, when harnessed properly, they’re also pathways to diversified, recurring monetization.
More in a moment on monetization. (That’s why everybody makes a podcast, to get really rich, right?) If a billboard on Sunset Boulevard or Times Square isn’t realistic at the moment, the best way to get the word out about your show is to advertise where the ears are: other podcasts. Even better, be a guest on other people’s podcasts. You don’t need a publicist to book you on shows; just send a compelling cold email and follow up. Pile up your stack of “No” responses or non-responses and treat them as “Maybe laters,” keep in touch and build relationships over time, and things will happen. No podcast is too small when you’re building a grassroots campaign. One listener begets many. Audiences work like compound interest on a long-enough time horizon. Fortunately, podcast content is evergreen. Time is on your side.
Show me the money
Monetization isn’t binary. If a distribution deal with the inherent advertising opportunities that follow doesn’t materialize, there are other ways a show can generate resources, even just enough to sustain the project, keep creating episodes and grow audience share.
Simply put, it’s all about the listeners! Listeners’ support shows their love, plain and simple. The data backs this up; startups that have based their entire business model around fan-supported content have garnered multibillion-dollar valuations. Incidentally, listener support also provides a wonderful proof of concept for IP exploitation and other long-tail opportunities.
The most direct method is to ask your listeners. Be your own ad! Especially when you have a track record of episodes that listeners can return to in the archives that demonstrate you’re the real deal as opposed to a fly-by-nighter. A visitor to Kanye West’s house once noticed a portrait of him above his fireplace. As legend has it, the guest asked, “Hey, Kanye, how come you have a picture of yourself over your fireplace?” Kanye deadpanned, “If I don’t believe in myself, who will?” You have to love your show enough to sing its praises. Thanks to frictionless technology, your audience will oblige. If you’re really exceptional, they’ll even spread the word. The best kind of marketing is the kind money can’t buy.
What else can you do? Sell merchandise (and even give some away). Commission art from one of your listeners and co-promote it. While many think of these as customer acquisition costs, they’re more like value-adds that create community and drive engagement. Podcasts are cultural totems. Your listeners will happily rock whatever you put out. And even though you can’t have that coveted billboard on Sunset or have Scott Galloway read your pre-roll ad yet, you can have true fans walking around their communities with your swag. A guy walks into a bar and sees a shirt about a podcast. The rest is history. It could happen to you.
If you build a base of regular listeners, go premium. Apple and Spotify now allow creators to charge for podcasts. But you don’t need them to create your own exclusive, branded offering a la Disney+ or Sundance Now. There are tools that, among other things, take a much smaller cut, give you complete control and access to your audience, and don’t exploit their privacy. Subscription-based shows are an ideal route for creators who want to control their own destiny rather than rely on the race-to-the-bottom ad model, and concentrate on building the best content for the communities they’ve built. So offer up bonus episodes, ad-free listening, access to archives, VIP seating — let your imagination run wild — and build a premium offering that makes Disney+ take notes.
Another scalable monetization model is events. Pre-pandemic, people were paying as much to attend podcast live shows as they were to see major acts in music or comedy. There are certain logistics involved and it adds more to your plate, not to mention the fact that the live-show industrial complex is a maze of its own. But it’s a path. Perhaps now more than ever, people will be headed out in droves to see their favorite show live and in person. The connection and intimacy podcast creators share with their audiences is what truly distinguishes podcasts from other media.
When it’s all said and done, how do you know if you’re on the right track? Ah, metrics. Look, raw downloads are the path of least resistance for many among the media cognoscenti and certainly matter for advertisers. But those numbers will either come or they won’t. You can’t really control them. More useful metrics to pay attention to — metrics you can actually control or meaningfully account for, to a degree — are growth and engagement. Are listeners increasing incrementally over time? Are you on top of interacting or interfacing with them in memorable ways? If the answer to both of those questions isn’t yes, that’s on you. Evaluate what you could be doing differently to activate the base of listeners you do have. Nothing is more powerful than mobilizing your one thousand true fans.
That’s all I’ve got. Hopefully, this fell somewhere between a primer and a roadmap to building the next great podcast. If you want to do things that scale, do things that don’t scale first. Go niche. Be obsessive. Make something you would be willing to make for free, but endeavor to make it as if you had all the resources in the world. Experiment with form and style. Worry about connecting with one listener at a time. Every piece of content you produce is an opportunity. If some or all of this resonated, it won’t be long before we’re all listening and talking about your show.
Explore all of Vik Singh’s podcasts at his company website, alternatethursdays.com, and follow him on IG and Twitter @helloimvik.