Why do podcasts like mine want more listeners?

This might seem like a really obvious question: why do I, an academic and independent podcaster, want more listeners? Of course it’s because we want our content in more ears, right? But why do we want our content in more ears?

I have two shows right now: one that’s a history podcast called Consolation Prize, made by academics but targeted more toward history-lovers who aren’t in academia (though many of our current listeners are academics); and one that’s for kids, called Big If True, about random big things in the universe. Both of these shows need listeners, and here’s why.

Minifigure with headphones and laptop

Why listener numbers don’t matter

Before I get to why we do want listeners, there are few ways in which listener numbers DON’T matter to me.

I don’t care about ad revenue.

It’s important for us to say at the outset that we don’t need listeners to drive ad revenue. Many podcasts survive only on ad revenue, and I don’t have any problems with ads in podcasts. Goodness knows I’ve bought things because of podcast ads, so they clearly work (research bears this out). However, at this moment in the life of both of my shows, no one would advertise on our show anyway because…we don’t have enough listeners! But even if we do ever hit that mark, ad revenue is never going to be a primary driver of listenership. For starters, I don’t know that we’ll ever even do ads. Certainly there are some ethical issues with placing ads on a kids’ show. And since Consolation Prize is run by an academic unit, there are likely some complicated legal issues with ad revenue there as well.

So will my shows always be ad-free? I can’t make any promises, but signs point to yes, or limited ads at most.

Listenership isn’t an ego trip.

There are some podcasters who seem to view their listener numbers as some sort of validation of their worth, or, less charitably, a trip for their ego. I won’t lie that it feels good to see the listener numbers go up, but we don’t want listeners solely so we can brag about the number of listeners.

Girl listening on her bed, with headphones on

We do need listeners, however!

Listenership numbers still matter. Here are a few reasons why.

We think our shows have value.

For both of the shows that I helm, I think we’re telling stories that people need to hear. (If I didn’t, it would be stupid for us to have a show.) I’ve become increasingly convinced that podcasting is an effective way of disseminating information, and I think our shows do a good job of it. So of course I want people to hear it. Plus, we put a TON of work into each show, and so it’s nice to see that other people value the work as well.

We want to showcase other people.

We love having guests on the shows because it gives other people a chance to show off what THEY do well. That’s why I love having junior scholars on Consolation Prize; it’s why we reach out to scientists and historians and other people. It’s so fun to spread the news about all the amazing scholarship and adventure that’s happening in the world, and we want our guests to get as much great feedback on their work as possible.

Bigger numbers breed better content.

There are a lot of ways bigger numbers breed better content.

First, bigger numbers mean more incentive for guests to come on the show. Naturally, if people are going to sit down for an interview, they want to be heard by a lot of people. So the larger audience, the more likely prospective guests will say yes. Plus, the likelihood of a guest having heard of our show and thus be more interested in coming on the show goes up if the listenership is bigger.

Second, bigger numbers mean more revenue through other means. We don’t have a Patreon or microdonation system set up yet for either podcast, but it doesn’t seem worth it right now because of the small listener numbers. The numbers just don’t support us even bothering with the setup of those accounts. But at some point, Big if True in particular is fully self-funded, so it would be nice for us to make a little bit of money in order to improve our setup and expand our outreach.

Third, bigger numbers, of course, is a self-fulfilled prophecy: the more people who listen, the more other people who listen. Right now, I know probably 75% of our listeners personally in some way. It sure would be lovely to get people to listen whom I DON’T know personally. Everyone says that word of mouth is the best advertisement for podcasts, so the more mouths words can come out of, the better.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Well, there are a few takeaways:

  • Listen to my shows. 😂
  • Actually, that’s it. Listen to my shows. 😂

Top Ten Podcasts of the Year

Yeah, I talk about podcasts a lot. One might say I’ve become mildly obsessed with them. But I’ve learned so much from listening to podcasts, and I’ve learned SO MUCH from making them, that I have opinions–a lot of them–about what makes a good podcast and about my favorites.

Spotify told me that my top listened-to podcast for the year was Throughline, from NPR. What Spotify doesn’t account for is that I listen to a lot more podcasts on the Overcast app on my phone than I do on Spotify (though more on Spotify now that I’m not commuting anywhere, since March anyway). And the number of listens doesn’t necessarily line up with the way I feel about podcasts. So I decided I’d make my Top 10 list for the year, just for fun, going from 10 to 1.

10. HowSound. This one is on my list because it’s been incredibly helpful for me as I’ve learned about podcasting myself. I’d actually give it a tie with Gimlet Academy, which is where I first got my start in thinking about what an episode should sound like.

9. The Incomparable Game Show. It’s not all serious over here in Abby’s Podcast Land. I don’t listen to all of the game shows, but I listen to many of them, especially Inconceivable and Random Pursuit. (Honorable mention for silly game shows: Go Fact Yourself.)

8. Preble Hall. The only naval history podcast I know, so how can I not love it? I also assign this in classes.

7. Believed. This one is a short-ish series, and full disclosure, I haven’t actually listened to all the episodes yet–but it’s because they’re so heavy and hard to listen to. It’s about Larry Nassar and the sex abuse tragedy in USA Gymnastics. Phenomenally well-produced.

6. The Heist. A similarly short series, but I learned more about Steve Mnuchin than I ever wanted to.

5. Twenty Thousand Hertz. Between being an audio producer now and a lifelong amateur musician, I love this show. It ticks all the boxes. My kids are big fans of the Jurassic Park episode.

4. 99% Invisible. I’ve actually only just started listening to this one, but I listened to like 5 episodes in a row recently, which I think is a pretty good indication that I like it. Someday I’d like to get a story on 99% Invisible—still looking for the right pitch.

3. Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. This is actually the one show that I listen to within mere hours of its release almost every single week. It just makes me happy. It’s my life aspiration to be famous enough to be a guest for “Not My Job.” A ways to go before we get to that point, though (unless they’re looking for a person who produces a very low-volume niche podcast).

2. Throughline. Throughline is ONE of my favorite podcasts—Spotify wasn’t misrepresenting things. I have learned a lot through listening to this podcast, both about history and about podcast production.

1. Reply All. If you know me at all, you knew what this was going to be. Reply All is my favorite podcast and it’s not close. My favorite episode ever is still #116, Trust the Process (the Sports-Sports-Sports section), but I can’t think of a single episode I don’t like. Special shout-out to new host Emmanuel Dzotsi, who produced my favorite newer episode, #167, America’s Hottest Talkline.

Now, I listen to a LOT of podcasts. So narrowing down to just 10 was very challenging. Some honorable mentions include DIG: A History Podcast, Code Switch, Conversations at the Washington Library, and others that I’ve surely forgotten.

What are your top 10?

Podcasting in Class

I asked on Twitter yesterday if those who used podcast creation as part of their classes would share their materials or, even better, their podcasts. I got some pretty cool stuff. So here’s a roundup, possibly incomplete (the threads kind of got away from me a few times). If I’ve missed something you suggested, or if you have additions to/amendments, please let me know!

Podcast Examples

Here are some of the podcasts that were created during the course of a semester, by students.

Podcast Methods

Here are some of the rubrics/instructional materials about podcasting. (I received a few others that aren’t available on the web, so I am not posting them.)

Additional resources

Here are some additional resources that people mentioned for teaching with podcasts.

  • YouTube tutorial for Audacity
  • Programming Historian tutorial for Audacity
  • NPR guide to podcasts for students
  • Jessica Abel, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio (New York: Broadway Books, 2015).
  • John McMahon, “Producing Political Knowledge: Students as Podcasters in the Political Science Classroom,” Journal of Political Science Education 0, no. 0 (July 16, 2019): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1080/15512169.2019.1640121. (unfortunately paywalled)
  • Hannah Hethmon, Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits (2018). (The author has also generously offered to Skype into any class that reads this book–that’s no small offer! She’s on Twitter @hannah_rfh.)
  • Jim McGrath, Podcasts and Public History, History@Work

Resources for Use in a Podcast

This is a list of things that you might want to incorporate into your podcast, such as sound effects, etc.

Resources for Creating or Hosting a Podcast on the Web

None of these resources is outright free, but many have very limited free plans.

  • Soundtrap, for collaborative podcast creation
  • Podbean, hosting service
  • Libsyn, no free plan but the old standby host for many successful podcasts
  • Descript, an online editor and transcription creator
  • Buzzsprout, hosting service with some other bells and whistles