10 lessons learned after 6 years of producing a podcast that you’ve never heard
What happens when your podcast ends? I’m not asking about the end of your favorite NPR or Ringer show, by the way. I’m asking if you know what happens when your own podcast ends — one that you conceived, created and co-hosted with friends. The bleary-eyed 2:15 a.m. fights with GarageBand presets; the growing contempt for the sound of your voice; the ever-growing awareness that you don’t know the first thing about audio production…and probably never will. Yeah, that podcast. Whether you’re a podcaster or just someone who’s asking, “Why am I reading this?”, I’m happy to share with you the super-secret fate awaiting every single podcast out there.
Are you ready?
Buckle up, because here comes the truth.
The answer is…
…nothing. Absolutely nothing happens when your podcast ends.
When your final show streams, that’s it. It’s complete even if it isn’t. No one sends you a sympathy card. You won’t find lilies left at your desk or doorstep. Your employer doesn’t give you bereavement time to be with the co-hosts of your show. It doesn’t matter how many sponsors you have. No points are awarded if you meticulously planned a series finale instead of losing interest at Episode 5. It’s just the same silence as before.
But this is how things should be, right?
Well, I’m not so sure that I agree. You see, our podcast just ended and I’m inexplicably as sad as I’ve ever been. It’s not like NBC cancelled my sitcom out of the blue or something; I’m the one who ended the show. But even though I knew it was coming, I didn’t anticipate all of this genuine, 100%, no-bullshit, hits-me-in-waves grief. All I need is for someone to pull me aside and say:
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
That’s right: I just want to hear life’s most well-intentioned, empty sentence. We all know that phrase is a parody of itself. But, just like every Al Pacino performance after 1992, we go along with it anyway. It’s a reflex. When we see someone in mourning or in pain, that’s the phrase that tumbles out. And while “I’m so sorry for your loss” is hilariously hollow, it still rubber-stamps our grief and makes it real. This isn’t going to happen, though. I’m not grieving a person here; I’m grieving a shaggily produced, haphazardly released podcast.
So that’s why I don’t want to dwell on what I’m feeling so much as understand why I’m weighted down with sadness over something that, ironically, has no weight at all.
Six years ago, I created Drop the Needle — a podcast about music, media and mental health. (P.S. If you’ve never heard of the show, you’re dead to me. Kidding.) Back then, as an alcoholic in early sobriety, I couldn’t find a show that tied together my exact interests and needs. So, just like any good impulsive, impassioned creative idiot would do, I went and created my own. I did it without without thinking through the idea, researching similar shows, or pricing out podcast gear. Forget the practical stuff.
No, I was miles past that point, securing an RSS feed before I knew what an RSS feed was and I never looked back. I had conversation topics when I didn’t know what I wanted to say about them. I had a tagline before I had co-hosts lined up. I was focused on all the wrong things — especially when you’re creating something to help other people. (Looking back, our tagline “We’re just like NPR’s All Songs Considered for the recovery community” might just be another way of saying “We straight-up stole the format of another podcast for our own selfish purposes.”)
Anyway, Fun Fact Time: when Drop started, there were slightly more than 200,000 podcasts (total) on the US iTunes charts. But this number counts inactive shows, too, which means the figure was full of what I’ll call “zombie pods” — these audio ghost ships that had been abandoned and set adrift somewhere along the way.
This means that we were really only rubbing elbows with about 60,000 podcasts:
First off, even facing 60,000 active podcasts, it takes a special kind of newly-sober hubris to go, “You know what? I’m still gonna make my mark.” It’s like I was suddenly some seen-at-all firefighter racing into hell, thinking me and my firehose were going to clean things up. But I just didn’t care how many other podcasts there were out there — I just cared how many other podcasts were doing what I felt Drop the Needle was going to do.
After my rigorous five-second Google searches didn’t reveal any direct competitors, I did notice an interesting trend: the recovery-related podcasts were always in flux. I’d just be getting into a show when their release schedule would suddenly become erratic or simply go dark for good.
Maybe it’s because of the following fact: there are now 2.4 million podcasts — and that’s without all of those zombie pods.
Read that again: 2.4 million.
That’s 2,400,000 concepts, ideas, takes, hooks, and voices that you have to cut through. You can look at this one of two ways, I guess. You can be pragmatic and tap out (“This isn’t worth my time”) or you can look at this as an opportunity. Maybe there’s so many podcasters competing for the same small real estate that you’ll somehow accidentally stand out. I tend to look at it this way, though: despite using the All Songs Considered format, our show remains pretty unique. Sadly, “unique” doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot anymore.
That’s because of the Doesn’t Matter Math (below). Between 2016 and today, there’s a +160% difference in the number of podcasts:
With this in mind, you start to reconsider why your pod is only getting a thousand downloads per episode, let alone ten. That’s why it’s important to go inward and reflect on the very first seconds of your podcast’s life. What was the spark that brought it to life — and why should you keep it going? Personally speaking, we believed in the simple “If we help one person” edict so much that we recorded about 90 episodes, streamed 81 (many of them listenable), and currently have 57 of our shows available — all aimed squarely at music-loving members of the recovery community.
It’s a good thing that we never had goals when it came to the show, I guess. Otherwise, I’d have insisted we limp to 100 episodes rather than what we ended up with. Still, quantity over quality was never our thing, either — especially when each episode posed a topic or a theme (e.g. “Responsibility,” “Regret,” “Jealousy,” “Forgiveness”) that we’d each address with songs. You can’t exactly burn through those topics in an afternoon and bank four or five episodes. Each recording was an emotionally exhausting exercise.
I feel that Drop the Needle had a good run and lived a good life. It feels right to have ended it where we did. That’s why this isn’t a eulogy about the death of a podcast. It’s an appreciation for the lifespan of a creative idea that was carried forward into reality.
Still with me? Well, if you’re still angling to launch your own podcast (against all prevailing headwinds and/or logic), I’ll share everything I took from the experience of producing our ramshackle little show — one that surprisingly found listeners in ways that consistently surprised all of us.
#1: Your podcast isn’t really about you.
No one cares about you — and I don’t mean this in a cynical “No one loves you” kind of way so much as a selfless one. That’s why the “we” I mention with Drop the Needle refers to the two people who actually brought the whole thing to life: my friends Sean Golden and Mike Verlie. I’m ambitious, sure, but I’m also not great at enunciating words and I prefer the company of other people. In other words, I knew that the show hinged on two main roles: someone familiar with recovery and someone familiar with music. I figured I’d just fit in there somewhere in the background.
On paper, Mike and Sean really have no business being in the same room. In reality, however, their collaboration is one of the things for which I’m most proud in life, not just the podcast. As the show evolved, watching the two of them lock into comfortable, familiar rhythms reminded me that (1) I’m surrounded by wonderful human beings as friends, and (2) I had no idea how great things can be if you just shut up and let other people talk.
“Our resident music expert” is how I’d regularly introduce Sean, and as often as he’d scoff at the title, I’d scoff right back. He’d been a college radio DJ and when we met, he was regularly writing for the music blog The Wounded Jukebox when he wasn’t busy throwing seconds-old song after seconds-old song at me. The irony is that Sean’s knowledge of music is as vast as his kindness.
I met Mike in a treatment center. I was paralyzed and terrified there (“a grown man weeping,” as he’d later describe me) and he actually went out of his way to help me in there, even going so far as to secretly call my family (a huge, we’ll-kick-you-out no-no in treatment centers) for me. That’s all you need to know about Mike. His heart is so large that he’ll risk his own situation for someone else (a weepy stranger, no less) and not expect anything in return. The only way I could think to repay his kindness was to put him in front of a microphone to help other strangers.
So, before you do anything, make sure you have your Seans and Mikes lined up. Even if you’re the planet’s most charismatic person, you won’t get very far by podcasting alone. It’s a medium that demands voices other than your own because no one wants to listen to someone having a conversation with themselves.
#2. Be sure you have something to say.
I can’t tell you how much the phrase “Write about what you know” pissed me off when I was younger. You don’t have all that many experiences when you’re a teenager (at least I didn’t), so my writing back then was a lot like spinning your bicycle wheels with the gears off. Lots of words; nothing to say. But I kept thinking, “Well, how the hell do people write Deep Space Nine? They don’t know about space stations and wormholes in real life. They’re writing scripts.” Clearly, I was missing the point.
This is true about podcasts, too. If you’re all revved up about launching one, this also means you’re ready to launch your voice out in the world. What do you have to say that millions of others haven’t, can’t, or won’t? Every single podcaster on the planet has been jolted by the same exact lightning-bolt impulse:
“Hey, you know what? I should do a podcast.”
This is usually followed up with a “Wow, this recording equipment isn’t so expensive” discovery, too, which is a one-two punch that many never recover from. There’s a third thought, though, and it’s one we never really admit to. It’s an assumption that goes like this:
“Of course people will want to listen to me.”
Whatever unique point of view or perspective you think you have… well, this should also be a moment of pause. Putting yourself out there is a bold thing, but it’s also an equally naive way of showing the world that you think something to say that no one has ever heard before. If you’re anything like the rest of us, you’re not a compelling expert so much as an eager fan of something.
#3. Podcasting is a job.
Podcasting can be as fulfilling as it can be fun — but it’s work. Like, real-deal work. I remember talking to a writer friend of mine (a playwright with the best name ever: “Vidas Barzdukas”) about the day-to-day drudgery of being a writer. A successful creative project isn’t done whenever you feel like doing it, he reminded me. Routines and rigor are the things that get you from the blank page to the end result.
It’s a job and you can’t think of it otherwise. If you’re cool making no money and it’s a hobby, fine. But if you want to create something and be taken seriously, you have to keep at it. “I don’t like having written, but I love having written” is a common refrain, but he somehow put a finer, working-class point on it all: “If you’re a true writer, artist, or musician, you’re bringing your lunch pail to the job site every day,” he said. “It’s not fun. It’s a job.”
Oh, and if you doubt my alcoholic memory, that’s cool. It’s a good thing that I constantly scribble down what my smart friends say on restaurant napkins (or, in this case, a hole-in-the-wall bar napkin). I still have the one from that night out with Vidas. <See below as Paul drops the mic.>
#4: Guest appearances are better.
I’m a far better podcast guest than a podcast producer. From the jump, I was in over my head, but since I believed in the theme and concept of Drop, I kept moving forward. Still, as seasons went on, I pulled my voice further and further back from the fore. I know it’s counterintuitive, but I also knew that I didn’t have anything more interesting to say than what Sean, Mike or a guest did. At least, not in the space of our show.
It’s far better and far more altruistic being the guest on someone else’s show than self-producing and sharing your ideas through your own channel and platform. You’ll never self-publish your way forward in life, so sharing your story elsewhere strikes me as the better road to go. Plus, asking someone to be a guest on their show is a great litmus test for how unique your story/viewpoint really is.
#5. The stats don’t matter.
Listenership doesn’t matter, but the listeners do (i.e. Stop looking at the goddamn numbers.) Don’t worry about who you don’t have listening to your show and focus on the people who are. With our show, there were countless sites providing me numbers for listenership and I don’t know that any of it mattered. If nothing else, it made things worse.
In the end, if it was 10 listeners or 10,000, we felt the same way about what we were doing. Your podcast is one of 2,400,000 other shows, remember? There aren’t any “ratings” unless you’re a celebrity podcaster. The majority of our episodes could’ve been downloaded by countless bots instead of live people, too, which means that maybe some of our episodes were never actually heard once by human ears. I’ll never know. If I turn my back on an apple, is it still red? Who knows and who cares? But for the entire run of the show, any spike in listenership or downloads or Instagram comments validated, in my mind, the work. That was the barometer.
Just be happy if you have more than one download.
#6. If you’re thinking about merch, it’s already over.
If you’re thinking about merchandising or monetizing your podcast with T-shirts or coffee cups or other trinkets, you’ve lost your way. You’re not respecting the soul of your show. I know this because we sold merch for Drop the Needle for a hot second. The sales were staggering, too. I was able to put my kids through college on Season 3’s sales alone.
Naturally, I’m joking. We sold three or four units, I think, of whatever it was that we sold. All I know is that I spent more time Googling “custom coffee cups,” designing the art, putting it up for sale, packaging, and mailing the stuff that, in the end, the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. Instead, I could’ve used that time to learn more about editing and mixing.
#7. Use it as an excuse to talk to your friends.
If, after all of this, you’re still dead-set on being a podcaster, use the show as an excuse to see your friends as much as an excuse to interview people you admire. That’s what I did.
With the help of my kids’ eager and creative babysitter Caitlin, we recorded our very first test show at the rear of a busy Panera Bread. This was after we drove around for an hour trying to find a place to meet. (We’re big planners.) And because I’d bought too-nice podcasting equipment for the gig, you couldn’t hear our voices so much as the soda machine and emptied trash bins in crystal-clear, left-to-right, stereophonic glory. After that, we quickly relocated to my dining room, but having three kids means three unpredictable voices in the background, so Sean’s apartment was next. After all, he shattered his knee and was waylaid for a few months. We just brought the show to him. Then, it was Mike’s impossible-to-reach subterranean spot near Ohio State’s campus before we landed in the dining room of Sean’s new house.
In other words, I just followed my friends.
Wherever we could get together, that’s where the show was taking place. Take away the podcast and it amounted to me just wanting to be with them so I could capture our conversations.
#8. Integrity, no matter what.
If you don’t respect your own show, no one else will, either.
If you say “New episodes every Thursday” — well, that’s a promise you must keep, if you’re serious. The show is a reflection of you as a person. Can you consistently bang out, without fail, an episode when you say you will? If not, re-think your reasons for doing a podcast and/or your strategy overall.
I say this because my ambitions routinely ran up against my reality. I’d be editing into the wee hours of the morning for something listened by 50 or 60 people who likely didn’t care if the episode came out as promised. But I felt that when you make a promise like that, keep to it. I never considered that I could move the goalposts. So maybe promise your listeners “every two weeks” and stick to that schedule. If you just Johnny Appleseed your episode releases whenever and wherever you feel like it, you won’t build a following.
Also, there’s no pressure worse than self-pressure. Be honest with yourself and don’t kill yourself in the process.
#9. What does “success” look like to you?
I never had an ending for Drop the Needle in mind. It had the ending it was supposed to have, though — I’m 1000% convinced of that. In our final six-episode season, I threw everything I could at the show, just to keep it alive. If Mike or Sean weren’t available, I was determined to have a Plan B in place in the form of new co-hosts. I realize now that I was doing too much to sustain something that had run its course.
I brought Drop the Needle back not to kill it off, even though that’s what it exactly what happened. The last six episodes are as good as anything we’ve ever made, but they’re the equivalent of “You can never go home again,” too. We’re all in different places when we stopped recording right before COVID. It’s neither bad nor good. It just is what it is. Personally speaking, the last season of the show opened up a happiness I never thought possible, but I can’t speak for everyone else involved beyond:
- We started something and then we finished it.
- We had something to say and then we said it.
- We put our voices out into the world and connected with some people.
That’s all you can hope for, I think, when it comes to something creative. When you narrow your expectations to “Reach just one person,” a project like Drop the Needle is all the more authentic. I’m sad about the end of the show, but I’m not sad because it ended. It’s little more than a time capsule for me now. And while I’m deeply proud that it exists, I’m even prouder that we brought it to a conclusion. Ending anything on your own terms is its own accomplishment and, for me, the silence right now sounds a lot like success.
#10. Say goodbye, but don’t stay there.
I couldn’t find a good place to put the video below anywhere above. It defies explanation so I won’t even try to describe it. It’s just a wonderfully weird thing that perfectly explains the self-aware melancholy that I have about setting Drop the Needle loose on its own “rusty, root beer river.”
I appreciate that you came all this way with me here, much like those listeners who followed the show to the finale. I know that I certainly don’t give my time and attention freely to anyone or anything on a good day, so I sincerely appreciate that you went the distance. I have no idea if these are helpful observations or just utter nonsense, but I’ll say that the simple act of writing them down afforded me the ability to say goodbye and walk away from the riverbank.
R.I.P. Drop the Needle (2016–2022)
You can hear the final episode of the show here.
Paul Fuhr is the author of the well-received alcoholism memoir Bottleneck. His next book, How to Relapse Like a Pro, arrives this winter. His writing has appeared in The Literary Review, McSweeney’s, The Sobriety Collective, InRecovery, AfterParty and The Fix, among others. He lives in Columbus, Ohio with a sassy cat named Miss Moneypenny.