13 Lessons Learned in 13 Years of Podcasting

A few days ago marked the thirteenth anniversary of the launch of my first podcast. Back in August of 2007, I didn't know much about podcasting. In fact, I hadn't even listened to very many podcasts at the time. But when I discovered the ability to share a message, in an audio form, with people around the world, right from my own home, I was immediately intrigued. I knew I was going to start a show. It was just a matter of time.

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

Well, I did launch that show and it grew into a network of shows called Porchlight Family Media. We now have multiple shows in various niches with their own websites and teams that work very hard to make high-quality audio content for families to enjoy together. I also now produce podcasts for clients and have done podcast consulting and coaching for business executives, journalists, entrepreneurs, and comedians. I've learned a lot in the past 13 years. From my own experiences, from working with clients, from chatting with other podcasters at meetups, and from following trends in the industry. So I want to share with you a few of the lessons that I've learned. These are not in any particular order of importance, I simply jotted them down as they came to me.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

1. If you want to build a brand, you need a website

Sure you can have a Facebook page, or upload your show to YouTube, and yes, your podcast feed does syndicate your show out to podcast apps on phones wherever your listener may be, but you do not have control over any of those platforms. Something could happen at any moment and your content could be removed and you've lost the connection with your community. Unless you have a website (or a custom domain at the very least) that you have reinforced in the minds of your listeners from the beginning, in each and every episode. Your website is your home base that you should always direct your listener back to. Sure, create profiles on other platforms if you want to, but treat them as outposts, and always make it clear that your website is the place to go for everything related to your show. This will set you up for all sorts of potential product/service offerings, audience building opportunities, and business connections, but it all comes back to having your home on the web where people know how to connect with you.

Bonus tip: Since you have the website, blog as much as possible. Search engines are slowly beginning to process audio content, but they still love text. Give Google and the others plenty of text content to crawl to help send traffic your way. And blog posts are a great way to offer additional content to your fans between episodes.

2. Audio quality matters (nearly as much as the content)

In the early days of this medium there were lots of shows that didn't really have the best audio quality that still were able to gain a decent following. That was often due to the quality of the content or the engaging presentation style or personality of the host/s, but another big factor is that there really wasn't much to choose from. Today that is no longer an issue. This spring we hit one million active podcast feeds in the Apple Podcasts directory and as of this writing we're nearly at 1.5 million. That's a lot of content. We're talking over 34 million episodes here. Shows are of all different lengths, from 1 minute to 3 hours, but let's say that each episode works out to an average of a half hour. That's over 17 million hours of podcast episodes. Now, I know I've tossed a bunch of numbers at you, but the point is that if you don't give your first-time listeners a reason to stay, or conversely, if you give them a reason to tune out, they will bail on your show and just go somewhere else. And one of the top reasons I hear over and over (regardless of format or topic) for why people bail on a show: bad audio quality.

3. Engage with your listeners

I realize that not every show format lends itself to this or makes it easy to engage your listeners on the program, but do whatever you possibly can to do connect with them. Respond to every email or comment on your blog posts if you can. Give them shoutouts on the show, have specific segments where you include their comments and opinions (that are relevant to your show's content), solicit topic ideas from them and be sure to give them credit for suggesting it. People love to feel involved and connected to others of like mind, so build that rapport with them. Your loyal listeners will become evangelists for your show. And it really just makes a listener's day to get a mention on their favorite show. I know because I've been told that time and again by listeners and as a podcast consumer myself, I feel the same way when the roles are reversed.

Side note: ALWAYS mention the name of the person who sent in the feedback, left the 5-star review, or posted a comment on the blog when you reference it; unless there are privacy reasons not to. If they cared enough to take the time to reach out to your show, then have enough goodwill and courtesy to acknowledge them. It just irks me when I hear a host say something like, "We got a comment from someone the other day about X topic and I forgot to copy their name into the show outline, but they said..." It makes me think that this host is lazy and didn't do enough show prep or they just don't care about their audience. Don't do that to your community. That's not how to develop loyal fans.

4. You never know who is listening

This lesson can be taken a couple different ways. First, approach your show with the realization that every episode is going to be someone's first time to listen. Consider this when you create or hone your show open, segment transitions, or make references to "inside info" that only those who listen on the reg know about. Make sure that you are communicating your message or information clearly to both noobs and OGs alike. This can sometimes be tricky and takes some thought on creative and clever ways to do it, but it makes your show better and more cohesive when you are cognizant of this fact.

The second way to look at this lesson is this: you really never know exactly who just might stumble upon, be recommended, or seek out your show. I've heard of TV show fan podcasts that actors, writers, or directors of that very show have checked out. I had a similar experience with one of my shows where a very well-known industry professional whom I was interviewing began to reference things I had said in past episodes. Mind you, I didn't know this person was even aware of the show before I reached out for an interview, let alone that they had listened to it. So keep in mind that influencers, industry pros, and journalists in your show's niche may very well be listening. There's much more I could say about this, but I need to move on.

5. Opportunities you never dreamed of will come

I have been asked to guest lecture at a university, received invitations to speak at conferences, been granted press access to industry events, been featured in newspaper articles, met many of my personal heroes in my show's niches, and much more, all because of my podcast. Some of the people I've met due to my podcasts have led to business opportunities, others have resulted in great collaborators on projects, and still others have become friends who have even been house guests. These amazing opportunities would have never come along if I didn't have a podcast that was filling a need in a specific area of interest.

6. You can make an impact in your niche

As I pointed out above, you never know who is listening to your show. You could be speaking to the person who is in a position to address a particular issue in your niche and not even know it. That's the power of podcasting. So take care how you frame issues and perceived problems in your space; whether you're critiquing something or offering praise, your influence as a podcaster in your field can make or break relationships and sway someone's opinions on a product, service, or even on another person. Be thoughtful and intentional about how you express yourself. I'm not saying you must genuflect to every industry pro, should never speak off the cuff, or that you have to muzzle yourself and not share your authentic feelings, I'm just saying that you have the power to impact your niche in both positive and negative ways, so handle with care, honesty, and integrity. It will go a long way in building your reputation in your space.

Numerous times constructive feedback that we provided in one of our shows was taken into consideration by folks in the industry and used to inform and shape future products. In one of our niches we have even been able to create an annual awards show for the industry which has impacted people around the world. So what you say on your podcast does have an effect.

7. Professionalism goes a long way

Speaking of honesty and integrity, these are very important ingredients in handling yourself in a professional manner. When you start a podcast in a particular discipline or field, you will be looked at as a journalist. And whether others in the space view you as a muckraking, tabloid, rag reporter or a trustworthy, reliable individual with journalistic integrity is all dependent on how you conduct yourself. That goes for "on the air" as well as in your email and phone communications, and in how you behave in IRL interactions. You'd be amazed at how receptive people will be to you and how far you'll go with just a little politeness, a well-written email, and some gratitude.

Some tips: 

  • Re-read every email at least once before sending it and look for not only typos, but also unclear wording or lines that could be misconstrued; remember that inflection and visual cues are missing from text communication.
  • Ditch that personal email address (space_pirate_24@gmail.com or hotmess89@yahoo.com doesn't leave a good impression) and use one branded with your show name, preferably one through your own domain (you do have one, right? See Lesson 1 above) but at the very least set up a new account specifically for your show.
  • Set up a free Google Voice phone number for interactions related to your show and have a clean, succinct voicemail message with show branding.
  • Add an email signature with your pertinent information and perhaps even a logo.
  • Print up business cards for when those in-person networking opportunities arise.
  • Send out press releases when circumstances merit it; a big-name guest shares an exclusive on your show, a milestone episode is reached, you produce a tribute or memorial episode to someone in your space, you develop a new segment or feature that will be a huge benefit to your community, etc. All of these things can be presented in a way that is newsworthy to either general media outlets or ones specific to your industry.

Photo by KAUE FONSECA on Unsplash

8. Never stop learning and improving

I am constantly on the lookout for ways to improve my presentation, speech patterns, vocabulary, industry knowledge, show prep workflow, show segments, etc. I never want to think I can just coast on past achievements or yesterday's accomplishments. Last year's method for doing things may not still be the best way for today. One of the first big lessons I learned many years ago in my first corporate job was when an executive vice president (my boss's boss) sat me down and said, "Just because that's the way you've always done it, doesn't make it reason enough to keep doing it that way." There is a concept in the Japanese business world called kaizen that is worth doing a deep dive into and fully studying and applying, but in short, it means "continuous improvement". Every day look for ways to be better at what you do.

One of the ways I do this is by listening to dozens of other podcasts in my niche and adjacent ones, as well as shows that have nothing to do with my topic, simply to glean ideas. Not to copy or imitate, but to learn from how others do things. I regularly sample shows in areas that I'm not even very interested in because it helps us to get out of our little bubbles and see how other folks in other niches with different expertise and experiences operate. And not just other podcasts; grab a periodical and read an article, listen to an audiobook, read some poetry; anything to stimulate your thinking and get the creative juices flowing. You never know what you'll learn and how it could be applied to your podcast. And if you are actively seeking to learn, you will be more likely to discover something worthwhile.

9. It's ok to start small, if you do it right

My studio currently has thousands of dollars of gear in it, including nearly a dozen microphones, four computers, a 22-channel mixing board, and numerous pairs of headphones. I have accumulated a lot of kit over the years and that has grown even more since I began doing consulting and since moving into the world of voiceover work. But I didn't have any of this stuff when I started. I started with a USB headset. Now, as I pointed out above, audio quality is much more important these days than it was a decade ago, so while I wouldn't necessarily recommend you use a headset today, you can very easily start off with an investment of less than $100, provided you already have a computer. And depending on the type of show you want to make, you could start with even less money. So it's ok to start out small if you are thinking ahead and you make the right decisions during the early stages to set yourself up for success in the long run. 

A couple examples: 1. Don't have the budget for a monthly web host or the time to devote to building a website? Ok, then at least purchase a domain name that you can direct to your page on your podcast media host so that that branding is baked into your show from day one and when you reach the place where you're able to build out a full website, it's a simple matter of pointing the domain to your new site. 2. You don't have the personal bandwidth to do a show every week? Cool, do it every two weeks. Or one episode every month. You can always increase output as time allows.

10. Let your community get involved

You know those loyal fans we talked about a bit ago? Get them involved in your show. Listeners to my shows have become blog contributors, recorded voiceovers, guest hosted on episodes, conducted interviews, and served as sounding boards for show ideas. I've met several in person and have had innumerable virtual conversations with many others. This can help you to shape your show format or content with valuable feedback directly from an active member of your community and allows them to be a part of a program that they love. I've heard of shows who have eventually been successful enough to bring those loyal fans "on staff" as researchers, reporters, or social media managers. Leverage those connections within your community when possible and even if it doesn't turn into a paid position, a little swag to say thank you here and there is a nice touch.

11. The tools don't really matter

You're a Windows gal? A Mac guy? Love Adobe Audition? Have an affinity for Audacity? Won't use anything but Hindy? Really dig that Shure mic or do you sing the praises of the Heil PR-40? It doesn't matter one bit what you use to make your show as long as you're making a good show and it sounds good. No one is going to listen to your show and be able to tell which Digital Audio Workstation you edited and assembled your show in. (Unless you're using a stock music loop from GarageBand, but as long as it sounds good, no one is really going to care.) The point is, get the tools you need to make the show you want and then make that show. Don't worry about the tools, just focus on making the best show you possibly can with the tools you have, and that goes for both the content side and the audio quality side. Are there times when a software or hardware upgrade is necessary? Absolutely, but don't let the means of making the show take precedence over the show itself. Yes, you've got to make sure that the quality is good, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn't matter if you recorded your show with a Zoom, Marantz, or Tascam digital audio recorder or in software on MacOS or Windows 10. What matters is if your show is serving its target audience or not.

12. You really should edit

I've heard lots of podcasters over the years say that they didn't want to edit something because they wanted to be "authentic" or "genuine". Well, is it really authenticity and genuineness or is it just laziness or perhaps even thinking a bit too highly of yourself? Does that 12-minute, rambling, disjointed rant that you're calling a display of authenticity really need to be in there in all its "glory"? Was that really a valuable use of that time or could that have been edited down to a concise 5 minutes and still gotten across the same point? My mantra when it comes to editing is: Respect the listener's time! Authenticity should not come at the price of sloppy, disorganized, rabbit-trail-ridden orations. You might think that anecdote was hilarious, but does the listener have the context to appreciate it or is it going to just confuse them? Cut the fat and leave the meat.

And in regards to your guests, make them sound good! I'm not saying to edit the substance of what they are saying to put them in a good light or clip every single "um" so that it no longer sounds like natural speech. But I am saying that when they fumble for the correct word, or when they start to answer and then change direction, or if they stumble over something and misspeak, edit it! It takes only a few seconds and they will be more inclined to share your episode if you presented them well. And also, it's just the courteous thing to do, both for the guest and for your audience.

Of course, it is possible to overedit and make a conversation sound formulaic, robotic, or unnatural, so there must be a balance. But generally speaking, even if you are doing a talk show format podcast that has a very loose outline, it will benefit from some editing. Your audience is made up of busy people with lots to do and many entertainment choices so don't waste their time. Make them feel like they made a good decision to spend that 45 minutes with your latest episode as opposed to feeling like "that's nearly an hour of my life I'll never get back." Not every word that exits your mouth is "gold" that absolutely must stay in the show.

Pet peeve: Hearing a host say, in a publicly released episode, "I'll edit that out." *facepalm*

13. You probably won't get rich (or even earn enough to make a living), but that's ok

Yes, there are folks who have built lucrative careers or even just a lifestyle business around their podcasts. It's possible, but not probable, for the vast majority of podcasters. Unless you already have a successful business that you can integrate a podcast into in some way or you are a household name with a substantial following (in general or in your industry) then don't start a podcast for the money. If you do, you're likely to be very disappointed. But if you start a show because you love a topic and are passionate about talking about it and sharing with others and building community, you'll likely find it a very rewarding endeavor. The amazing experiences I mentioned in Lesson 5 above have enriched my life in so many ways. I am deeply grateful for the people I've met and things I've been able to do, and would never trade them for a financial payout. If prosperity comes along then I'll take it, but most of all, I just love making a podcast and connecting with all the cool people in my niche.

So there you have it. 13 randomly selected lessons that I've learned over the past dozen and one years that I have been podcasting. Have I always followed all of these things perfectly? No. Are these the only things I've learned? No. There is much more I could say about each of these and many other lessons I could have talked about too. These may not even be the most essential lessons for every single podcaster. But I do believe that the majority of the information I've shared here can be applied to any podcaster's own personal journey in some fashion. Whether you're just starting out, been going for a few years, or have yet to launch I think there are some helpful tips to take away from this.

Did you find this helpful? Please share it with someone who you think could benefit from it as well. Thank you! And post any questions you might have in the comments below.


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