The year of the DIY podcast network

“The notion that a network is going to spot raw talent and scoop it up, making you wealthy (or at least wealthy by podcast standards) and famous (or at least famous by podcast standards) is a myth.”

I talk to dozens of journalists, storytellers, and interesting people every month who are thinking of starting a podcast. The most common question: How long should my episodes be? My answer is generally to say that there’s no firm answer to that question — and if you ask it of anyone else and they answer, never listen to anything that person ever says again.

The second most common question I get is: Should I join a podcast network?

That’s a really complicated question.

The answer, along with a number of directional indicators I see in podcasting now, is leading me to believe that 2019 will be the year where we see a proliferation of DIY podcast networks.

As a number of opinionated folks, including me, have observed over the past few years, there’s a growing chasm between the “haves” and “have nots” in podcasting. One example of this playing out is podcast networks. And by networks I mean distributors who produce and acquire content, then make it available to audiences — companies like Gimlet, iHeartRadio, Radiotopia, Barstool Sports, Wondery, as well as many dozens of smaller boutique networks and groups.

While podcast networks dominate the “Top Podcasts” charts, command the best advertising deals, and are routinely covered in the press, networks actually represent very few podcasts. Less than one percent of podcasts are associated with a network.

Those networks themselves have very different interests and needs than the 99 percent. While most independent podcasts want to grow and then monetize audience, most networks are more focused on building relationships that favor repeat listening across many shows — and increasingly favor listening in their own apps, on their own sites, and behind paywalls rather than in the open RSS podcast ecosystem.

I should say that I love networks. Networks create fantastic content that is pushing our industry forward. Many of my favorite shows have a network affiliation, which are very effective and prosperous relationships. But as the networks grow, they have less in common with and have less to offer almost every new podcaster. Not every successful podcast belongs to a large network; fully independent podcasts achieving success is becoming more and more routine. But even they need to pull some strings to get enough momentum to get attention, attract an audience, and make some money to pay for it all.

So for most new podcasters, when they ask if they should work to engage a network upfront, my answer is usually no. Joining an established podcast network makes sense only when your podcast has grown beyond what you can do for yourself — and most new podcasters aren’t anywhere near that point yet. The notion that a network is going to spot raw talent and scoop it up, making you wealthy (or at least wealthy by podcast standards) and famous (or at least famous by podcast standards) is a myth. Networks understandably gravitate to talent that shows the potential to be amplified. You have to create that initial spark and potential success all on your own. Often, unless you’re an established talent in another medium, in order to capture a network’s interest, you need to be making some money and doing fairly well audience-wise before they even want to talk. They don’t make you money; they make you more money. They don’t make you famous; they make you more famous.

This may sound a bit depressing to unaffiliated podcasters, but it shouldn’t, as there’s a huge difference between networks and networking. Those without a network can still generate a network effect.

So, if networks aren’t the right path for most podcasters, what is? Well, to answer that question, let’s look at what tactics work at building audience for podcasts. And to answer that, let’s start with what doesn’t work: almost everything.

I have never seen a single dollar spent on marketing a podcast that I feel paid off. To be clear, I mean traditional marketing. I’ve seen creators, networks, and distributors (including myself) run print ads, produce slick videos, put signs on buses, do billboard campaigns, do paid social media posts, takeover transit stops, print brochures, and create giveaway tsotchkes like keychains, t-shirts, buttons, and stickers. Among all this, I’ve never been able to find a single instance where any of this activity generated any quantifiable and measurable increase in listening as a result.

But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible or a waste of time to market podcasts. Quite the opposite. In fact, good news, the effective and proven ways to market your show and build audience won’t cost you a dime.

If you are familiar at all with “guerrilla marketing,” a lot of what I’m about to say will feel very familiar. I am not necessarily a huge follower or evangelist for guerrilla marketing generally — it’s fine. But when it comes to building audience for podcasts, if you look at the proven tactics that work, they tend to fall inside that framework.

Guerilla marketing was first popularized in a book titled, no surprise, Guerrilla Marketing, written by Jay Conrad Levinson in 1984 and updated several times since. The core of guerrilla marketing focuses on two tenets. First: While traditional advertising may work well for large businesses, it’s often financially ineffective or impractical for smaller, scrappier businesses (like podcasts). Guerrilla marketing is tailored to those businesses who have to find other methods to build, grow, and maintain their customer base. Instead of investing money, guerrilla marketing encourages you to instead invest time, energy, imagination, and information. Guerrilla marketing replaces expensive efforts with high-touch efforts. Second, and more importantly, Levinson preaches that guerrilla marketing is also understanding that “marketing” includes every contact you have with the outside world. It means that marketing isn’t an event, but an ongoing process of engaging with your audience and potential audience.

Therefore, even though networks might not make sense for many podcasters, taking advantage of a network effect is relatively easy. In fact, thousands of podcasters are doing it now. And it’s working — which leads me to believe it is only a matter of time before the concepts they use become the mainstream norm, rather than the relative exception they are today.

So when asked, I often counsel network-queriers to just start their own network, completely D.I.Y.

Doing so is simple. Gather a group of 4 or 5 other podcasters. You should pick others who you believe might share an audience with your podcast. They can produce a show that shares a lot in common with yours, or one that you believe would appeal to similar audiences. Then make arrangements to promote each other, via spots in each other’s shows or via social media, websites, newsletters, and so on. Other “free except for your time” networking for growth strategies can include being guests on each other’s shows, participating in online groups around your show’s subject matter, attending events where your future audience will gather to evangelize your show, and so on. While you can do these activities solo, why not band together with others? If you have a podcast about movies and want to set up a table at a pop-culture convention, why not split the cost and time spent “manning the ship” with a friend who has a similar show?

If you scout around online, you’ll find lots of inspiring examples of DIY podcast marketing to get you started. And as these tactics grow in use, there will be more and better guidance on how to execute them.

Your DIY network could last for a few weeks, or create an ongoing relationship that lasts for years. That’s totally up to you.

Regardless of what tactics you use, they all allow you to utilize relationships you have with friends and colleagues to boost your audience, which accelerates everything else: ad revenue, booking access, live events, press interest, and so on. It works, won’t cost you much (if anything), and you aren’t chasing a network relationship that may not actually accomplish anything more than you could do on your own.

A number of times in the past, I’ve compared the burgeoning podcast industry to a similar trajectory found in the history of the music industry. At first, everyone was a little guy — passionate little guys just as in love with the product as its fans. Then, following some meteoric growth, some of the little guys became big guys — and all the little guys wanted to become big guys. Then the chasm between the little guys and the big guys grew and grew, until their worlds bore almost no resemblance to each other. I mean, how much do Beyoncé and John Prine have in common? They both sing into microphones and release recordings…and that’s about it. But over time, the little guys figure out ways to be little yet successful, ways that are markedly different than the way the big guys work.

When I was a young kid and listening to my local rock station in Cleveland, WMMS, they played a liner over and over again with The Who’s Pete Townshend where he said, “Rock-n-roll will always, always, always overcome…eventually.” That sentiment has always stuck with me, and it applies here. Even as podcasting shows signs of maturing and stabilizing, the future is bright and exciting and full of possibilities that we haven’t even begun to imagine. And just like music stardom, fame will not find you sitting alone strumming in your bedroom. You need to go out and make some noise.

Here’s to a great year of listening ahead.

Eric Nuzum is a podcast and media consultant and has been an executive at NPR and Audible.

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