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.

Robert Hernandez   Racists and sexists get replaced

Nathalie Malinarich   Video — yes, video

Tamar Charney   Seriously: What do you do for people?

Emma Carew Grovum   The year of the loyal reader

Libby Bawcombe   Haikus of the news

Ben Smith   The pendulum starts to swing back

Amy Schmitz Weiss   Local news isn’t where you thought it was

Matthew Pressman   The battle over objectivity intensifies

Annie Rudd   A more intimate aesthetic of politics — on Insta

Don Day   Timewalls and other reader revenue experiments

Bill Adair   Another year fighting Trump’s falsehoods

Kyra Darnton   A shift to depth in video

Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff   From news fatigue to news avoidance

Angilee Shah   The year news orgs say “yes” to real leaders

Alberto Cairo   A year of uncertainty and confidence

Rachel Glickhouse   Newsrooms will prioritize audience needs

Carrie Brown-Smith   Advocating a healthy civic life is no journalistic crime

Andrew Donohue   Voting rights becomes the new climate change

Shalabh Upadhyay   A culture clash on India’s growing Internet

Cristi Hegranes   A year to invest in the security of local journalists

Lauren Katz   Community becomes a core newsroom value

Angèle Christin   Algorithms and the reflexive turn

Nicholas Jackson   More transparency around newsroom decisions

Joshua Darr   The nationalization of political news will accelerate

Knight Foundation   A year of local collaboration

Linda Solomon Wood   The year of the climate reporter

Julie Posetti   The year of the fight back

Ståle Grut   A new dawn for 3D tech in journalism

Matt Skibinski   Quality and reliability are the new currencies for publishers

Jesse Brown   Canada’s subsidy for news backfires

Laura E. Davis   More access, but not that kind

Jake Shapiro   Podcasting is media’s slow food movement

P. Kim Bui   The misfits become the bosses

Reyhan Harmanci   Selling more stories to Hollywood

Winny de Jong   Data journalism goes undercover

Jim Friedlich   Meet Citizen Kane 2.0

Mario García   The rise of content “pilots”

Carolina Guerrero   Spanish-language audio blows up

Brian Moritz   The subscription-pocalypse is about to hit

Jonas Kaiser   Catching up with “Neuland”

Tshepo Tshabalala   Ahead of African elections, unlock partnerships with fact-checkers

Adam Thomas   In Europe, foundations invest in news

Zuzanna Ziomecka   News leadership gets an overdue upgrade

Sue Robinson   Reporters go on the offensive

Masuma Ahuja   Make foreign coverage less foreign

Michael Rain   The year of the culturally relevant curator

Joel Konopo   Influencers become the new liberated power in Africa

Ariel Zirulnick   Participation gets professional

Eric Ulken   The year you actually start to like your CMS

Alexis Lloyd & Matt Boggie   The year product leads media

Steve Myers   From trying to cover it all to covering what matters

Joe Amditis   Give the audience a seat at the table

Michael Grant   More newsrooms experiment their way to success

Rubina Madan Fillion   Fighting the reality of deepfakes

Dheerja Kaur   A focus on problems, not platforms

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Readers are only getting started

Renan Borelli   Developing loyalty means developing your talent

Catalina Albeanu   Being responsible for what we don’t know

Jonathan Stray   More algorithmic accountability reporting, and a lot of it will be meh

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   Podcasting battles East Coast bias

Nikki Usher   Three ways national media will further undermine trust

Frank Chimero   Leave the phone at home and put news on your wrist

Jenée Desmond-Harris   It finally sinks in that some people aren’t white

Hearken   Pivot to people

Christa Scharfenberg and Vickie Baranetsky   The year of the lawsuit

Kate Myers   Journalism continues to be bad for democracy

Jonathan Gill   Publishers build a common tech platform together

Mandy Velez   Putting the social back in social media

Kelsey Proud   Journalism becomes the escape

Geetika Rudra   The year of actionable (local) journalism

Cory Bergman   Journalism as a technology service

Becca Aaronson   From bridge roles to product thinkers

Mariana Moura Santos   From pageviews to impact

Meredith Artley   Huge demand for…anything but politics

Colleen Shalby   Representation becomes more than a talking point

Johannes Klingebiel   We all grow hooves

John Saroff   The pivot to reader revenue’s unintended consequences

Umbreen Bhatti   The story doesn’t end for the people we quote

Kawandeep Virdee   Media wants to take care of you

Ben Werdmuller   The platform tide is turning

Kevin Douglas Grant   A year to embrace journalism as public service

Kainaz Amaria   We consider who’s behind the camera

Shannon McGregor   More bogus embedded tweets in our stories

Raney Aronson-Rath   We learn “digital” doesn’t have to mean “short”

Elizabeth Dunbar   Local reporters reflect on what’s not important

Heather Bryant   We are responsible for how we use our power

Jennifer Dargan   You don’t build diversity through one-off training sessions

Charo Henríquez   Pivot to journalism

james Wahutu   Think 2018 was bad? Wait until you see 2019

Rishad Patel   A design system for responsible publishing

Robin Kwong   Tech shouldn’t be the only field pollinating “news nerds”

Pia Frey   You can’t solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis

Matt Waite   “I went to Node.js because I wished to live deliberately”

Jesse Holcomb   We’ll get better at making the case for local journalism

Matt Karolian   Publishers come to terms with being Facebook’s enablers

Steve Grove   A reckoning for tech’s work with news

Rodney Gibbs   A bright — and young — year for audio

Millie Tran   There is no magic — you’ve got this

Tim Carmody   Unlocking the commons

Thomas Hanitzsch   The rise of tribal journalism

Borja Bergareche Sainz de los Terreros   Entering a more balanced era

Julia Rubin   Meeting people where they are

Callie Schweitzer   The rise of the conveners

Andrea Faye Hart   Doing less harm, not just more good

Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau   A more sincere definition of “community”

Talia Stroud   Engaging people across lines of difference

Tushar Banerjee   Interactive ads will be the new face of display advertising

Nico Gendron   Reaching Generation Z beyond the coasts

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   A long, slow slog, with no one coming to the rescue

Stephanie Edgerly   It’s time to understand the un-audience

Bill Grueskin   Toward a symphony model for local news

Zainab Khan   Publishers whose products can stand up to social media giants will win

Kristen Muller   Local news fails — in a good way

Alyssa Zeisler   We expand what (and how and who) we serve

Mike Isaac   The old exit doors for digital media companies are closing

Josh Schwartz   A pullback from platforms and a focus on product

Efrat Nechushtai   Journalism wants to be your friend, not your teacher

Salem Solomon   Correcting our corrections

Francesco Zaffarano   Towards a rethinking of journalism on social media

Rebecca Searles   From silos to Swiss Army knife teams

Monique Judge   Committing to the truth, calling out lies

Sarah Stonbely   Mapping the local news ecosystem — with scale but detail

Craig Newmark   The end of “loudspeakers for liars”

Cherian George   Fake news wins in Asia

Greg Emerson   Power to the user

Nisha Chittal   The homepage makes a comeback

Heather Chaplin   Agree we’re partisan — for the democratic system

Simon Galperin   After capitalism’s fire, journalism’s secondary succession

M. Scott Havens   Time to swing for the fences

Chase Davis   We can acknowledge what we don’t know

Mat Yurow   Content competition from the tech companies

Mike Caulfield   Ditch the media literacy cynicism and get to work

Sarah Marshall   A return to destination journalism

Victor Pickard   We will finally confront systemic market failure

Stefanie Murray   Local news wakes up and starts collaborating

Carl Bialik   Fatigued news consumers will pay more for less news

LaToya Drake   Listen up: New stories, new storytellers

Frank Mungeam   Tonight at 11: News, sports, and climate change

Eric Nuzum   The year of the DIY podcast network

Elizabeth Jensen   Going where the Acela can’t take you

Tyler Fisher   This is journalism’s do-or-die moment

Gabriel Snyder   Journalism doesn’t fit well in a funnel

Errin Haines   Say it with me: Racism

Whitney Phillips   Our information systems aren’t broken — they’re working as intended

Alexandra Borchardt   Newsrooms need to build trust with their journalists, not just the audience

Francesco Marconi   The year of iterative journalism

Ole Reißmann   The rise of vertical storytelling

Manoush Zomorodi   Tech will do for information overload what it did for mindfulness

Mike Rispoli and Craig Aaron   Government funds local news — and that’s a good thing

Simon Rogers   Data journalism becomes a global field

Jeremy Gilbert   AI finally becomes helpful

Peter Cunliffe-Jones   The focus of misinformation debates shifts south

Axie Navas   The traffic hunt, CMS battle, and magazine identity crises loom

Seema Yasmin   We will create our own spaces

Glyn Mottershead and Martin Chorley   When a tech company pulls the plug on your story

Adam Smith   Platforms will have to help rebuild trust in news

Renée Kaplan   Our future could lie within our own organizations

Zizi Papacharissi   Old interface, say hello to the new interface

Andrew Ramsammy   The great re-pivot to audio

Jean Friedman Rudovsky   Cross-newsroom collaborations strengthen communities

Dave Burdick   Seeing our blind spots

Hossein Derakhshan   The news is dying, but journalism will not — and should not

Sarah Alvarez   Simplify and redistribute

A.J. Bauer   The coming splintering of conservative media

John Garrett   You can’t raise prices forever

Peter Bale   Venture capital runs out of patience

Cindy Royal   For journalism curriculum to change, its faculty needs disruption

Marie Shanahan   Newsrooms take the comments sections back from platforms

Taylor Lorenz   Personal branding is more powerful than ever

Pablo Boczkowski   Reimagining the media for post-institutional times

Patrick Butler   Measuring impact will increase audience trust

Moreno Cruz Osório   Damaged credibility and a new threat in Brazil

Sue Cross   Return of the water cooler

Joanne McNeil   Building a digital hospice

Darryl Holliday   Let’s talk about power (yours)

Rebecca Lee Sanchez   We are all actors in the running rampant of political theater

Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer   The most beautiful sentence in 2019 is “No.”

An Xiao Mina   The death of consensus, not the death of truth

Seth C. Lewis   The gap between journalism and research is too wide

Ernie Smith   The year we step back from the platform

Amy King   We should listen to the kids (especially on Instagram)

Dan Shanoff   Bet on sports gambling

Elisabeth Goodridge   Yes, they signed up — but our job’s not over

Justin Kosslyn   Text hits a tipping point

Rick Berke   The year of loyalty

Jared Newman   AI-generated fakes launch a software arms race

John Biewen   Podcasts keep getting better

Elite Truong   What do we owe the next generation?

Adam B. Ellick   Video forensic reporting goes mainstream — and local

Soo Oh   Just showing our work isn’t enough

Kjerstin Thorson   Time to get mad about information inequality (again)

Jack Riley   Facebook refugees, from ad revenue to news habits

Almar Latour   Reported facts, weaponized in service of action

Logan Molyneux   Seeing social media for what it is

Alexandra Svokos   Good luck convincing us millennials to pay

Claire Wardle   Forget deepfakes: Misinformation is showing up in our most personal online spaces

Heba Aly   The rise of international nonprofit news

Steve Henn   Smart speakers get smarter

Celeste LeCompte   Local news needs local conversation to survive

Rachel Davis Mersey   Local news goes minimalist

Gideon Lichfield   Goodbye attention economy, we’ll miss you

Elva Ramirez   News — but make it cinematic

Candis Callison   Learn from Indigenous journalists on covering climate change

Mandy Jenkins   Fight the urge to run away from social media

Jeff Chin   We detox from Chartbeat