How To Monetize a Podcast

Podcasts are extraordinarily popular these days because so many people see a huge profit potential from programming that’s considered cheap and easy to produce. Of course, that’s just an uneducated and false perception. To create a successful podcast requires a level of sustained preparation and creativity that few are willing or able to contribute.

First, it is important to understand why podcasts are so popular throughout the world. It is because they serve niche audiences with content of specific interest — something not found in traditional broadcasting. It is also because of the explosion of internet-connected mobile devices, which allows audio listening anywhere on demand.

Marc Maron with President Obama doing a podcast in Maron’s Los Angeles garage, 2015

Marc Maron with President Obama doing a podcast in Maron’s Los Angeles garage, 2015

Audio podcasts are more popular than video podcasts for a reason. As former MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte famously said: “people have more ‘ear-time’ than ‘eye-time.” With portable devices, it is now easier than ever to listen.

In 2018, podcasts were most popular in South Korea, Spain and Sweden. The U.S. came in fifth. In statistics from late last year, the Edison Research in Somerville, N.J. found that for the first time the audience for podcasts became almost as ethnically diverse as the U.S. population itself.

That means podcast producers have an opportunity to create an equally diverse portfolio of niche content. With the right content, producers can gain listenership from the more than 50 million Americans who have yet to hear a podcast.

There is clearly a growing global democracy of podcasting. Anyone with a story to tell can tell that story to the world. The problem is with the relatively low-cost of entry, too many podcasts are now available. Audiences may want to listen, but don’t know where to begin in the flood of content. The Edison study suggests that making content available with broader appeal may be a key to hitting a much larger audience.

Podcasting, still less than 25 years old, is a media infant. Rob Glaser, the head of RealNetworks, introduced streaming audio at NAB, 1995. Since then, it has fundamentally shaken the foundations of traditional broadcast media, especially radio broadcasting.

That said, how does an individual or company break into podcasting and make money with it? It’s the same question one must ask when creating all art, since podcasting — like all media — is an art form. All art begins with a blank canvas. From that, comes a unique concept delivered with, in this case, a signature sound. It is very much like conceiving of a radio broadcast or other type of creative audio program.

A podcast starts with an idea. From the idea, comes a plan. Most successful podcasts are focused on a specific topic. Once the topic is decided, ask yourself if there is enough to say about the topic to expand beyond 100 episodes. Then create a 15-second or less pitch to summarize the idea. This is not as easy as most people think. Some call it an “elevator pitch,” the amount of time one has to pitch a project on a short elevator ride.

The name of the podcast should be broader than the planned topic of the show. This allows the show the creative flexibility to expand its content after a few episodes of experimentation. Creating this name is an act of branding. To abandon it can require starting over from scratch with a new name. Also, try to purchase a domain name with the show’s title for promotional purposes.

Once the idea is formulated, try to understand who is the audience for the podcast. Where are they located and how will they listen? What is the potential size of the listener base. Getting statistical information about your potential audience will be essential to learning how to make money from a podcast.

Who will host the podcast? Will there be one or more hosts? This is critical as to whether people listen on a long-term basis. If the topic lends itself to interviews, do them. This can substitute for a second host. Is the host conversational and authentic in their presentation? If the show is technical, is the host qualified to handle a range of topics?

Failing with the host questions are why so many companies don’t succeed at doing podcasts. They use employees with few communications skills and make the podcast only about their products, services or company culture. Often product managers host podcasts. This doesn’t work because the content is boring and not compelling to audiences.

Choose a length for the podcast. This should be connected to the topic. Podcasts typically range from five minutes to an hour in length. Don’t vary the length from episode to episode and stay on topic. Pick artwork, theme music and sound bridges that support the topic and integrate into the podcast. To bring credibility to the show, hire a third-party professional announcer to introduce the podcast.

Prepare some test episodes to get comfortable with the format. Either build an in-house studio and buy the needed equipment based on the concept or hire an outside professional production studio. Once those decisions are made and implemented, find a good podcast distribution vendor and secure promotion for the show. Start a blog or website and mail list to support the podcast. There are plenty of professionals to help accomplish this — for a fee.

As you probably have figured out by now, podcasts are neither cheap nor easy. To be successful, they require the same level of creativity as any radio or television broadcast program. Sure, we’ve all heard the “good luck” stories about those who accidentally launched a successful podcast from their bedrooms. But this is the rare exception, not the rule.

As to monetizing the podcast, that comes last. Be prepared to lose money in the beginning months. As time goes by and your content develops, it will be time to ask for money. There are multiple ways to finance podcasts. If the podcast is for a business, ask the business's clients to underwrite, sponsor or purchase spots in the podcast. Same for individuals with the right show. The content dictates the sponsor.

Sell services, such as instruction courses, or books related to the podcast. Use the listeners' community of interest to sell seminars or individual consulting services. Sell products related to the podcast topic through affiliation programs with vendors. Have vendors appear on the podcast to sell their own products or services. Do giveaways for related products to the topic, while selling other products. Sell an app for mobile gear specifically tuned to the podcast. Repurpose the podcast content for books, ebooks and magazine or newspaper articles.

As with every artistic venture, podcasts require customization by producers in order to exploit their promotion and income. There is no general handbook of instructions to follow for podcasts. However, with the right combination of compelling content, talent, audience and promotion, podcasts can hit gold and become incredibly successful. These possibilities are why this democratization of media is so popular. 

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