Here is the podcasting process I’ve developed over nearly 2 years of iteration. It’s not perfect, and it’s not for everyone, but for many indie thinkers I think this is the best system. Certainly better than any other piece of “how to run a podcast” content I’ve yet to encounter.
This is intended to be directly useful to at least some of you, but I’d also love to hear questions, comments, critiques, or specific requests for additional explanation/instruction. I will probably build this out in some way.
I just listened to the a16z meta-podcast on how they run their podcast. I was struck by how — though filled with strategic insight — their entire framework and all of their advice was totally useless for individual thinkers/makers/creators bootstrapping a podcast as one part of a socio-technical production system. The main reason their strategic framework is useless for people like us is that it assumes a huge production budget! If you have the money to pay a team of editors, their advice seems great. But what if you have no budget at all, and hardly enough time to produce one podcast every week? And not to mention, if you’re interested in obscure intellectual stuff that doesn’t lure anyone with dreams of great wealth, like a startup podcast does?
That’s the strategic challenge I’ve been trying to solve for the past 2 years. After so much iteration, it’s about time I share the framework I’ve developed. Then I’ll explain in detail the tools and workflows I use to run my podcast in line with this framework.
The quantity vs. quality tradeoff
In podcast system design, there is a tradeoff between quality and quantity. Within a given period of time, a fixed supply of labor power, the more effort you allocate to improving quality, the fewer podcasts you can create and publish.
The main hypothesis at the core of my system is that creative thinkers and makers with modest audiences and little funding should heavily favor quantity over quality. Given how many thinkers and makers I’ve met who seem very concerned about their podcasts’ quality — and, at the same time, fail to deliver volume consistently — I’ve come to realize that my system is very far from obvious. So let me explain the rationale and give you the concrete details of my own system.
The diminishing marginal returns of audio quality
Assume that audio production quality (including audible features but also substantive content density, which is an editing artifact) can be understood as a distribution, such that an unedited recording of my marijuana-hazed ramblings with an analogue tape recorder in a busy nightclub produces a podcast in the zero percentile of production quality. Basic consumer technology is now good enough that nearly any podcast recorded by anyone, in any empty room of their house, with any digital technology lying around, with no editing, would already be somewhere around the 60th percentile.
Professional podcast producers differentiate themselves by moving from the 80th-90th percentiles of production quality to the 95th-99th. This makes sense if you already have money and a substantial audience to start with. But you have to understand diminishing marginal returns. The value derived by moving from the 80th percentile of production quality to the 95th is much less than moving from the lowest percentile to the 60th percentile. This is one of the key facts undergirding the logic of my system.
My theory here is mostly based on my observation of other projects and my own trials and errors iterating my own system. The only data I have to support my theory come from my own results. My podcast is not huge but for a solo podcast about my own fringe ideas and random friends on the internet, with no clear branding or particular value proposition or even a coherent tagline, it punches far above what you would predict by listening to its audio quality. (~80th percentile globally, or more than 1000 downloads per episode on average.) Regardless, my theory is speculative and I could be wrong, so take or leave my suggestions as you see fit.
General principles to Automate+Proliferate
As much as possible, develop a technology stack to optimize for volume, consistency, and quantity of outputs, but merely satisfice for everything else (doing the best you can with the least amount of effort). When it comes to preparation, editing, and promotion, first automate as much as possible; then, whatever can’t be automated, reduce to the easiest possible heuristics and decision rules. I keep the latter on index cards.
The basic rationale is that you don’t have the time or money to start with really high quality. If you follow the workflows of professional podcasters, you’ll bankrupt yourself temporally and financially before you ever get off the ground. On the other hand, quantity can be used to compensate for the quality you can’t afford. At least in the short run. If you follow my framework to produce one episode every week for 100 weeks, you might have the results of someone who produced one really high-quality episode every week for 50 weeks. If you can get your automations humming really nicely, maybe you can achieve the same result with 2 episodes per week over 50 weeks. To be clear, these particular numbers are arbitrary, I’m just using them to illustrate the idea.
A few people will eventually complain about the production quality here and there, but it’s surprisingly advantageous to have a few things for people to complain about! Think of it as a strategically placed tripwire, which alerts you when you have your first listener who cares… Also, something I learned in practice (I promise I’m not clever enough to have strategized this in advance): The low production quality will become a natural and reasonable hook if and when you decide to test the waters of patronage. “You want better quality? Here’s how you can help me deliver it!” In one way or another, as you gain an audience, you can gradually invest more in quality.
By this point, you might be wondering how I’ve setup my tools and workflows to Automate+Proliferate. Here’s my system, concretely.
Tools, sequences, and workflows
- Livestream podcast on Youtube
- Download audio track of the livestream
- Automatic editing and uploading with Auphonic
- Automated syndications via Libsyn
- Automated distribution with Zapier
Recording on Youtube
First, by recording my podcasts via Youtube livestream, and then posting the audio to the normal podcast feed, I build my audience on two platforms with no extra labor. It limits my editing options, but really it justifies my podcast’s lack of editing and manages my audience’s expectation. You have to be creative piecing together such non-obvious complementarities, to make a system that works for you and your brand. My podcast listeners get that I record first on Youtube, because I tell them, so the imperfect audio is not as upsetting as it might be. “It’s not that I’m lazy, it’s just that my podcast is recorded live so editing is not an option!” Also, people who listen to stuff on Youtube and people who listen to stuff on their podcast app — these are totally different people, I’ve come to believe. So I’m pretty confident this system-design choice really has built me two audiences for the price of one, rather than just splitting one audience into two locations.
After a livestream is done, I download the audio using an app called Clipgrab. (None of the online, in-browser utilities can robustly handle long videos, I’ve found).
Editing and posting with Auphonic
Then I upload the audio to Auphonic, which is an automated podcast editing service (paid subscription). It doesn’t make my Youtube audio sound like Serial, but it ensures that the speakers are roughly similar in volume, that all podcasts are set to one common volume level (industry standard -16db), and that any particularly bad background noises are dampened. The honest truth is I am not certain that Auphonic has delivered a tangibly improved listening experience, as I never noticed a major uptick in positive feedback when I started using it, but I think it does! At the very least, it eases my conscience knowing that I’m doing my honest best to deliver listenable audio, within my constraints. But an equally valuable aspect of Auphonic is that it helps you automate a whole bunch of other tasks in the podcast-uploading process. This is why it’s definitely worth the price. You can upload intros and outros and have Auphonic automatically add them to the edited audio track before it’s uploaded to your podcast host (also done by Auphonic). You can upload templates for your podcast show notes. You can export to multiple destinations, all at once. You can also generate a bunch of formats, including transcripts via AWS or Google Cloud. (Though I stopped doing these because I wager that the machine learning will be way better one or two years from now; I’ll transcribe all my podcasts then!).
You can have Auphonic publish immediately on Libsyn, or you can just have it push to Libsyn — and you can publish or schedule it later. I do the latter. I also have it push to my Google Drive.
Aside on patron delivery
Once it gets edited and pushed by Auphonic, I have Zapier automations that will push it to a private RSS feed reserved just for my patrons. That seems to work robustly and I was quite pleased with my time-saving cleverness, except that I eventually started manually creating Patreon audio posts anyway. That way patrons get an automatic email (I want them to know I’m hustling, in case they neglected to subscribe to the private feed I gave them) and also it gives me a regular flow of Patreon-branded items to share on social media (I shill for patrons much less than average, so I have to do something; sharing a link to something I posted on Patreon seems like the least offensive way to run some minimal, recurring “promotion” for patronage).
Mostly automated publishing, syndicating, and promoting (Libsyn, Wordpress, Overcast, Zapier)
After I post a quick audio post to Patreon, I will schedule its release on Libsyn. Within Libsyn, all new published podcasts are automatically syndicated as blog posts on my Wordpress site. I have an automation that will post a tweet for every new blog post. I have automations that add all new blog posts into a particular text file on Dropbox, as styled HTML links, such that I can copy and paste each item into my Friday morning newsletters. No writing on my part is required; metadata from the Wordpress post is arranged by the automation to provide written context for the link.
Once it goes live on Libsyn, if there are particularly good moments, I might use the Overcast app on iOS to create some clips and share them to Twitter. (If I’m busy, I tend to neglect this step. Not sure if this is wise or not.) This is a really nice and convenient functionality, and the clips get a lot of listens on Twitter generally. I am not sure to what degree this clip sharing drives podcast subscribers. Podcast subscriptions and downloads are metrics that I have not yet given much attention to, honestly, in the larger scheme of my system. Getting too concerned with these metrics and specific conversion rates would require me to start running proper statistical models, which — trust me — I look forward to doing. But at my current stage, it would be vanity (similar to optimizing for quality). There are still obvious, lower-hanging fruits for me to optimize, and I’m not yet big enough that these kinds of analyses would be worth the labor. Maybe soon though!
For some time, I would post podcasts to relevant subreddits on Reddit but I stopped doing that. In part, it felt kind of spammy and somewhat egotistical to post my own podcasts. A few of my podcasts were shared by other people to subreddits, so after I saw that, I think I stopped sharing myself because I was hoping my fanbase would eventually start doing that all the time. I don’t think this has really happened. Sad. I’m agnostic about whether posting to subreddits on your own behalf is worth it. At the very beginning it’s probably worth it, beggars can’t be choosers.
I also have a Zapier automation that pushes a link to the podcast’s blog post on my Discord server.
I track all my podcasts, at each stage of this process, in Airtable with a Kanban view. So I can see the whole system as a pipeline. This helps me ensure that the flow of the whole system is on track. The stages in my table are:
- Need to invite
- Youtube done
- Patreon posted
- Libsyn scheduled
That’s pretty much it. Maximum bang (of volume, consistency, and distribution) for the buck (of my own time and effort). I’m able to do one per week (most of the time) and there have been weeks I’ve done two, even while doing lots of other stuff. My audience grows, modestly but effortlessly. As I said at the beginning, I’m now in the 80th percentile globally, according to the data I’ve seen. If you want to be a fancy professional podcaster, get some money and hire a professional audio engineer. If you don’t have money and just want to pursue disinterested intellectual interests, develop your ideas, make friends, and slowly build a modest but nonetheless real audience, consider using my framework. Let me know if you do!