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How to start a podcast: overcoming “The Fear”

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You want to start a podcast.

Maybe you have an idea for a podcast that you like. You have a few podcasts that you dig, and hosting your own seems fun and cool (and it is). Maybe you think a podcast would be a great marketing vehicle to run in parallel with your business.  

All that sounds great. Then, you look into it. You quickly find that it’s not as easy as you thought.

There’s equipment you need to buy. You need to know how to set it up and use it. Gotta find a studio or quiet place to record it, right? What is soundproofing? How does one plan an episode? Who’ll edit it? Do people pay someone to do it? How does one find that person? It’s going to need some sort of marketing. Does this mean I have to spend 10 hours a day on all the social media platforms? How do podcasts get on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts or any of the seemingly hundreds of platforms out there. What is SEO and why does that matter? Do you really need a website? How do people make money from it? Do people just call Mail Chimp and tell them where to send the check?  How much is all of this stuff going to cost?

Most conversations that I have regarding podcasting revolve around those very questions. You don’t know what you don’t know and it’s scary. Over time, I gave it a name.

I call it “The Fear”, and it’s extremely common. 

You want to start a podcast, you have to deal with The Fear. 

Clearly, people don’t like feeling fear. I don’t. We’d all like to see ourselves as bold and fearless, wouldn’t we? Believe me, if you hear someone say that the unknown doesn’t scare them, that they gladly embrace change, or that they don’t see obstacles–only opportunity, you’re hearing either a dangerous narcissist or a self-congratulatory phony. Or both.

I crossed over to podcasting after almost 3 decades in the radio industry. When I started in the 90’s, stations in every town had live and local DJs on the air 24 hours a day, therefore there was an extensive pipeline of talent from towns of all sizes.  

Corporate consolidation has ended that. Computers play both the music and pre-recorded talk breaks that an air talent recorded remotely. It may be hard to believe, but there’s a very good chance your favorite radio station’s DJs are neither live nor local (assuming that you even listen to the radio anymore).

I first cracked a mic in Oxford, Mississippi at the Ole Miss campus radio station. Oxford has a population of just under 25,000 and enrollment at Ole Miss hovers around 20,000. Because it was a college station in such a small town, there wasn’t much pressure. A college radio station isn’t going to fire you because you aren’t a seasoned broadcaster. The stakes were low. The experience was invaluable. It was a nice way to ease into a career as a on-air talent.

After I graduated from Ole Miss, I got a job as an on-air talent at a station in New Orleans. After a year in New Orleans, I moved to a bigger station in Memphis, then Tucson, then Cincinnati, and eventually radio’s Holy Grail: Los Angeles.  At each stop early in my career, I had access to hours and hours of mic time. I had the time and freedom to make mistakes, get better, experiment, and learn valuable lessons. By the time I “made it to the pros”, I was more than prepared for it.

Here’s why I’m telling you this:

No matter the size of the city, all of these radio stations had studios loaded with expensive equipment, on-site engineers to fix things when they break, a pre-established brand and built-in audience, significant investment, management and human resources, account executives securing sponsorship dollars, promotions and marketing departments armed with budgets and street teams, social media departments, video crews, and office space.  All I had to do was focus on content and connection with fans.

Looking back, I’m not sure I’d have started a career in radio if I had to do all the things it takes to start a podcast. When I moved from a career in radio over to podcasting, it didn’t take long for me to realize that, while I had all kinds of great talent advice to offer podcasters, I didn’t have enough empathy.

I had to learn all about The Fear. 

If you want to start a podcast, you have to do everything for yourself or figure out how to delegate it. Either way, every buck stops with the podcaster. SEO, marketing, distribution, booking talent, editing, sponsorships–ALL the bucks. Podcast talent has to consider workflow, budgets, technology. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was daunting. In good times and bad, The Fear is always there. I learned to appreciate that.

Because of both of my career experiences, I understand well the value of a creator having most if not all of his or her energy focused on “what comes through the speakers”. In radio, all your bandwidth is spent on content. Most podcasters don’t have that luxury.

My co-founder and I knew that if we could take away the things that rob emerging independent podcast talent of time, confidence and energy, de-mystify some of the perceived barriers of entry, and streamline workflow using systems commonly employed in the radio industry, we felt we’d have a distinct advantage over other podcasting tech companies. More bandwidth for creativity equals better content.

We I took the better part of a year to observe independent podcast talent.  We wanted to understand what motivated them, what demoralized them, how they measured success, and what tools they used to prepare, record and distribute.  

What we found is that the podcast hosting services available to and most commonly used by independent creators isn’t nearly as robust as what we had access to in broadcasting.

A free, easy-to-use hosting platform doesn’t make it easy to start a podcast. It doesn’t help with The Fear.

In addition, we found that many podcasters either had a lack of understanding of the value of having a website that acts as a home base for content (let alone how to build a website and use SEO to drive growth) or they had a lack of understanding of what it took took to build and maintain one.

We found that there are misconceptions about using licensed music and soundscapes for podcasts. Fan engagement beyond social media is a struggle. Guest booking is a huge pain point.  Basic show-planning tools similar to ones that the radio industry has been using for decades are not available.

As if those issues weren’t enough, the single largest point of frustration for podcasters is that they had to sign up and pay for several different services that weren’t designed for podcasting. These services don’t work together. Podcasters have to create and refine workflows based on these limitations. It is a giant time-suck.

That said, speaking to existing podcasters didn’t tell the whole story. What about people that want start a podcast, but never get it up and running? Why is that happening?

We spoke to as many of these people as we could and asked them what stood in their way when trying to start a podcast, what intimidated them, what fills them with anxiety and self-doubt, what fed procrastination.  We kept hearing the same thing over and over again. How much is this going to cost me? What equipment do I need? I don’t know what to buy. Do I need a website? Do I need to do video? How do I do that? I don’t know how to edit video. What do I call the show?  How do I get it to show up on Apple Podcasts or Spotify?

People struggle to start a podcast because they are overwhelmed with what they don’t know.

Our conclusion is that, while on paper, the barrier to enter podcasting seems low, The Fear is vastly underrated and not discussed nearly enough.  The Fear is a formidable enemy.

This is the part where I fill you full of motivation and dime-store philosophy, right?  Nah. Let’s skip that for now.

I first want to assure you that there are people out there that see and feel The Fear.  It’s real. Helping people overcome it is our mission. It’s our “why”.

The second thing I’ll say is that The Fear is mostly a product of not only the newness of this medium but of the fact that it’s, for the most part, DIY. Those are reasonable fears. It’s not laziness or the vulnerability that comes with putting your thoughts out into the world. It’s the process. The Fear.

Podcasting growth has been explosive over the past 24 months.

Someone will start a podcast by the time you finish this paragraph. The “let me tell you about my podcast” jokes and memes have been going strong for over a year now.  No better time for you to start than now, right?

You look into it. You ask Google how to start a podcast. Bam! The wealth of information at your fingertips gives you hope, but it quickly fades as you realize that none of the articles and YouTube videos tell you everything you need to know. Not all of the information applies to you. It leaves you feeling inadequate and it leaves you with the thought that maybe podcasting isn’t for people like you. Sound familiar? Why is that?

Because this content you’ve found on Google or YouTube isn’t really for your benefit. It’s content marketing designed to rank on Google so that it attracts enough eyeballs to be monetized.

You aren’t being helped–you’re being marketed to.

You’re getting just enough information so that you’ll buy their course, or give them a follow, or subscribe to their channel.

For instance, you may have come across a “Best Podcast Microphone 2020” article telling you what microphone to buy. You’ll be given your options and you’ll learn the benefits and drawbacks of each. Now you know what to buy, but then what? The article you won’t tell you how to hook the microphone up, how to position it in relation to your mouth, how it matches up with the rest of your equipment or your recording environment. 

Anyone can post a search-engine-optimized “How To Start a Podcast” video complete with the obligatory Amazon Affiliate links, but the video isn’t going to prepare you for everything. By design, you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, which is why the last thing in most of the videos is a “for more information, like/subscribe/click/spend” solicitation.

There’s a very good chance your attempt at helping yourself by conducting online research has made The Fear grow stronger. When was the last time you tried to diagnose yourself by visiting WebMD.com? How did that work out for you?

So what’s the solution? 

First, acknowledge The Fear.  It’s not irrational. There’s nothing wrong with you.  Podcasting is still, by and large, a mystery to most. Accept that.  

Second, manage your expectations.  This is key. Let’s expand on that.

As it was when I started in radio at that tiny college radio station in Mississippi, the stakes right now are low for a new podcaster.

I think it’s important not to assume that sponsorship money is going to fall in your lap the second you start a podcast. Don’t expect your podcast to immediately funnel a metric ton of new business to your current hustle. Consider where podcasting is at this stage. Revenue isn’t on par with consumption for a couple of reasons: it’s a new medium and the way consumption of old media is measured isn’t compatible with it.

You have time and room to develop.

Don’t obsess over week-to-week analytics.  There are going to be up weeks and down weeks.  Look for trends over time.   

Make yourself available to guest on other people’s podcasts.  Invite them to guest on yours. Not every guest spot will move the needle.  The chemistry won’t always be perfect, but the experience will make you better at your craft.

Don’t compare yourself to celebrity podcasters.  People and brands with built-in followers have a huge advantage…and you don’t. You might very well be the next Joe Rogan, but it won’t happen the day, month or year after you start a podcast because you clearly aren’t starting from the same place. 

That’s not to say Joe had an easy road. I’m saying he built a fanbase over years and years of touring, hosting, and commentating. He’s an authentic, respected talent. He combined that sustained effort with his skill and ability as an interviewer, intellectual, and conversationalist to put himself in a position to command millions of eyes and ears.  He found an outlet that suits him very well. It certainly suits him better than hosting Fear Factor!

Don’t break the bank when buying your starter gear. 

Use your phone for video. Do you have a drawer full of old phones like I do?  Charge those up and use them for multi-shot video. It’s fine. 

Delegate episode editing to a freelancer and let him or her figure out how to make it sound good.   Use all-in-one podcasting tools like Podcave that provide professional-grade podcasting hosting used by the largest radio corporations and media entities (OMNY Studio), a custom podcast-themed website builder and website hosting (WordPress) that includes SEO Analysis, a library of fully-licensed music and soundscape created by the company that provides music to radio stations and podcasts all over the globe (Benztown), podcast episode-planning tools, a directory of other podcasters that you can invite on to your show as a guest, and fan engagement tools that allow you to stay in touch with your community.

The relationship between reality and The Fear is disproportionate.

The calvary is coming. It’s getting easier to start a podcast with each passing day. We’re all trying to figure this out and share our learnings. If you can manage your own expectations, you’ll be fine. Take my advice from above, start a podcast and let it rip. The podcasting learning curve can be steep, but it moves quickly.

One last thing: this community is very helpful. Unlike the various radio stations in your town, podcasts compliment one another rather than compete with one another. All of us have been there and most of us are willing to help however we can. Reach out. Make things easy for yourself, take it easy on yourself, and maintain a healthy relationship with The Fear.

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