How to make a living as a podcaster, explained by Peabody Award-winning producer Lea Thau
Hundreds of stories and nowhere to tell them.
That was the dilemma Lea Thau faced when she was the executive director of The Moth, an organization that holds events at which people get up on stage and tell a story, without notes or props.
Because there is only so much stage time, many stories go unheard. So Thau set out to launch a Moth radio show: a show that could replay old performances or tell new stories. Every door in traditional radio had closed in her face.
That’s when she turned to podcasts. It was still an emerging medium, so when the idea was first suggested, Thau wasn’t quite sold on it.
“I was like ‘What? Giving away our content for free?!’” Thau says during a phone interview. She’s talking to me from the car, because per usual, she has a packed day ahead of her.
But she eventually warmed to the idea. While she had an established career in storytelling, she had never produced radio before, so she thought a podcast would be a good way for her to learn audio production.
Thau interviewing subjects for her Strangers podcast.
“I had never opened an editing program. I had never recorded an interview,” says Thau. “So this was an opportunity, I felt, to cut my teeth a little bit and put out one story at a time and start building an audience.”
The original plan was to launch the podcast, create a following, and ultimately parlay that into a radio show. But she ended up loving the medium—and the format loved her back.
“There’s a very strong relationship with the audience,” said Thau.
Thau’s story is like many others. She wanted to create, she believed in her product, and she worked until it came to fruition.
But how does one go from obscure idea to thousands of downloads? What “work” does it take to build an idea for a podcast and turn it into a successful business venture that can support its creator financially?
Your podcast idea must have an irresistible hook
After launching “The Moth” podcast in 2008—which then became a radio program the following year—Los Angeles-based radio station KCRW invited Thau to come and produce a podcast with their team. That show became “Strangers,” which now averages about 500,000 downloads per month.
Thau had this idea to bring would-be strangers together, sharing the most intimate and private parts of their lives. Her sign-off every episode, “Don’t be strangers,” is not so much a farewell as it is a mission statement, asking that the audience listen to and connect with one another.
Thau insisted on being independent from the station, using KCRW to help only with the final mixing of episodes. She wanted complete creative control, and felt the best way to do that was to do everything herself.
Build the audience first; the money, marketing, and expansion comes later
There can’t be any promotion or fundraising without a product to promote or raise funds for. Creating the podcast and cultivating an audience is a critical first step for those looking to crowdsource initial funding.
“If you think you’re going to go out with something that has absolutely no following yet, and meet a goal, then you’re going to be disappointed,” said Thau.
The closer the audience feels to the podcast, the deeper the network is, the better the chances are of reaching that funding goal. This can be a full-time job in and of itself. Keeping track of merchandise and promotions and rewarding those who donate, takes a lot of time throughout the fundraising campaign.
It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to launch a podcast. Smartphones have built-in, quality microphones, and free trials and tutorials on audio editing software can keep costs low for the first few months.
More advanced microphones and recorders can also be a wise, small investment to up the ante on the production. Popular podcasting microphones can range from $60 to $230 on Amazon, and Thau says that professional quality makes a difference to an audience that has hundreds of thousands of podcasts to choose from.
“It’s worth investing in recording equipment that’s a little better than your iPhone,” said Thau. “You’re reaching people who already listen to podcasts, who are potentially podcast aficionados, always looking for new great content.”
Costs will need to cover equipment, any software needs (Garageband for the Mac and Audacity are both free, and an Adobe Audition subscription is just under $20 per month), and the time it may take to build the audience before sponsorships come into play.
Understand the three main sources of podcast revenue: sponsorships, crowdsourcing, and grants
While crowdsourcing can often be the most effective way to secure launch funding, sponsorships are what keep a podcast running.
“It used to be that people said that you had to get to 20,000 downloads per month before anyone will even talk to you,” said Thau. “In my experience though, maybe 50,000 downloads per month is when you actually can get some real sponsor interest.”
But it’s not as simple as hitting a number. Fielding sponsorship offers and reaching out for more is a tremendous amount of work for one person trying to also create a quality product, which is why so many podcasts join networks.
A network can expand an audience and help handle sponsorships, leaving the podcaster free to create and craft his or her product. That stability can transform a passion project into a living.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]You have to have some drive to be like, ‘I don’t want this to just be ok.’ This landscape is too competitive[/quote]
“You have to have some drive to be like, ‘I don’t want this to just be ok.’ This landscape is too competitive,” explained Thau.
That financial flow takes time. The first episode of “Strangers” was uploaded on December 13, 2012, with Thau as its only employee. It was a couple of years before she hired some help on a part-time basis, and it wasn’t until last year that she felt comfortable taking on full-time employees.
Today, she pays her salary and the salary of two full-time employees with health benefits. Quora reports that for every 1,000 downloads, advertising rates are between $25–$50, which puts “Strangers’ in the $12,500–$25,000 monthly range ($150,000–$300,000 yearly range). Thau said “Strangers” was fortunate enough to be on the higher end of the spectrum rate-wise.
It’s a long way from where Thau began, a newly single mother who decided to embark on an often thankless journey to build a show. The early days were far from ideal, but Thau says the timing is never going to be perfect.
“I had a tiny child, my fiancé had just left me. I was alone with (my son) most of the time. I would work until 2:00, 3:00 in the morning a lot, and he’d wake up at 6:00,” said Thau.
Baby on one arm, podcasting mic on another—a normal day for Thau
That’s where passion comes in, and that’s the most important part—passion for the product. Without a show that interests people, touches them, and entertains them, the audience will go to one of the other 300,000 plus podcasts that are only a click away.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]First thing’s first: Just start.[/quote]
But that’s all what comes next. First thing’s first: Just start.
“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” said Thau. “You have to just start making something.”