How My Podcast Downloads Doubled Overnight

Twenty20 / @borderless_pixels

I started my first podcast “The James Altucher Show” in January 2015. I’m on around episode #220 (Tony Robbins).

I started my next one “Ask Altucher” (a daily podcast) a few months later. It was me answering questions with a guest host and we ran about 300+ episodes.

Then I started another one (inspired by Quora!) called “Question of the Day”, which was three times a week that I did with Stephen Dubner (co-author on Freakonomics). We ran for about a year.

Altogether, I’ve had about 30 million downloads, give or take. I forget.

I say this to maybe establish some credentials but also to show that despite this, I know next to nothing about whether podcasting is breaking out and I suspect nobody else does either.

So I will tell you everything I actually DO know.


A) PODCASTING HAS GOTTEN BIGGER EVERY MONTH

I mean this in two ways.

1. When I started doing it I was already late in the game. Guys like Joe Rogan started in 2009 and I think Marc Maron started in 2007. And there were already quite a few podcasts 2.5 years ago.

But, I still had to explain what a podcast was to most of my potential guests. And people weren’t always sure how to listen to podcasts.

Now there are 250,000 podcasts out there and they hand them out at the airports in LA and NYC if you want one also.

This is neither good or bad. If you want an excuse to call your heroes up and ask them deeply personal questions that are recorded for everyone to listen to then you should start a podcast.

Some podcasts have a hard time getting traction because of the amount, but this is true now for just about every medium.

But curation has become more sophisticated and a good unique podcast will rise to the top.

2. The podcasting audience has gotten a lot bigger. My traffic on my main podcast has quintupled since my first few months. There are some reasons for that which I describe below. But in general, more people are listening.

B) WHERE DO PEOPLE LISTEN?

They listen in their cars on the way to work and at the gym. Those are by far, #1 and #2. So if you don’t commute to work and you don’t go to the gym you might not listen to podcasts.

That said, I have a friend who is a designer who always has Joe Rogan on low volume while she designs. So it might be better than background music for working.

This can explain why the podcasting audience has gotten bigger. It’s much easier to listen to podcasts in the car now because you can hook the podcast app to the speakers. Also, I think some cars have podcasts built in. Ditto for some running machines at the gym.

When I do a podcast, I picture the listener is in a car and, that might not seem like something worth picturing, but it slightly leans my questions in a certain way, knowing that the listener is likely in a car.

C) WHAT INCREASES DOWNLOADS?

In this order:

  • Quality of guest
  • Quality of audio
  • Is it in-person?
  • Quality of production
  • Interviewer

Sometimes the order changes (more on “the interviewer” in a bit.) Sometimes the order is in reverse.

Maybe the most important thing, which I don’t mention: is

HAVE A UNIQUE VISION.

Do you have a unique viewpoint on peak performance? On politics? On martial arts? On comedy? On your own family history? On the Civil War? On Denzel Washington?

You have to. It has to be unique and entertaining.

Why should people listen to you versus the other 250,000 podcasts?

You have to be able to answer that. That is the ONLY thing you have to answer. And believe me, you have that answer if you put some time into it.

People like to listen to celebrity guests. If Marc Maron is interviewing Barak Obama, I listen to that one.

Quality of Audio is CRITICAL. People don’t realize how critical it is.

There are two types of people who listen to your podcast:

a) the person who always listens

b) the person who is told, “hey check this one episode out”.

Nobody will be told “check this episode out” if the audio quality is bad, no matter how good the guest or the interview is. Nobody is going to share a poor audio quality podcast.

So I almost always do in-person and in a professional studio with an audio engineer to clean things up afterwards.

My downloads doubled overnight when I made those two switches in one month. Nothing else changed but that but people were tweeting and saying, “check this out”.

Plus, when the it’s in-person, the rapport is much greater and the questions flow easier.

Production quality

Some podcasts are like news stories. Freakonomics, Serial, Startup, etc do high quality production podcasts. There’s extra interviews. There’s man-on-the-street. There’s more script.

Those podcasts get 10x the downloads of the average interview show?

How come?

Same as TV: people like a story more than a talking head. Period.

And it’s hard work. The podcasts I mentioned above probably have a staff of about a dozen or more to produce an episode a week.

There’s scripts, lots of logistics, lots of editing to fit the best material in an hour.

And, of course, a story.

This is why even for an interview show I like to somehow get the arc of a story: reluctant hero done good, etc.

Interviewer.

More on this in a bit. Most people can do an ok interview. “How did you get where you are?” and then you let the person talk.

But then there’s listening for those moments that need to be unwrapped. “I was a real estate developer with a drug problem first” and you interrupt and say “how did you get over the drugs?” Because they won’t tell you unless you interrupt and ask.

People write me, “let the guy speak!”

Trust me, if I let everyone just tell their pre-wrapped story, then all that would be said was, “I got over drugs and then made a gazillion dollars because I work really hard.”

I want to know when they were on the floor.

I want to know how “can’t” and “impossible” turned into the person sitting in front of me.

You only get that if you listen for the hidden spaces in what someone is saying.

An interview podcast is all about unwrapping the “can’t” that was in a person’s life.

My podcast is about how people in many fields achieved peak performance. You don’t achieve peak performance the first 1000 times you hit the field. You only hit it by mastering subtleties that are often hard to express later.

When I interviewed Tony Hawk, I had the challenge of getting a 48 year old talking about how he achieved peak performance in an area of life he had been doing since he was nine years old. He had no idea!

You have to ask the questions inside the questions.

I’ve been on podcasts where they ask, “What’s your favorite animal?” or “What book do you bring to a desert island?”

That’s fine if the interviewee is good with those. It can be entertaining but it won’t make the listener a better person in most cases.

D) DO PODCASTS MAKE MONEY?

I used to be roommates with a guy who was ranked #200 in the world in tennis. He made a living but mostly as a coach. He coached one of the top ten women. She made millions and he made an ok living.

It’s the same in almost every field. The top 200 poker player make a living. The top 10 make wealth.

Even in chess, the top 200 can make a living. The top 10 can make wealth (not as much as tennis wealth but they will never hurt for money).

Podcasts are the same.

Here are the basic economics of a podcast (not counting other business reasons for doing a podcast).

Costs: Studio time is $100–200/hour

Audio Engineer: About $100 per episode, give or take.

Producer (for scheduling and logistics and general help): $200 per episode, give or take.

Research: $50 an episode.

Do 1 episode a week with all of the above and that’s about $2000 / month. OR, you can do all of the above yourself and bring costs to zero (not counting the equipment costs. Which I don’t get into here because I use a studio).

Advertising: on average it’s about a $50 / CPM. 50,000 downloads and you make $2500. Only the top 1% of 1% of podcasts get 50,000 downloads per episode but the number in that 1% of 1% will get higher.

CPMs are also going up as more advertisers realize how great the podcast listening audience is (no joke: podcast listeners are buyers).

There are ad networks you can sign up with (I use Midroll, for instance, which is now owned by Scripps) to get ads.

Should you do ads? Even if they don’t break even for you?

I had to decide this. Was I selling out? Would people look down on my podcast if they had ads?

Tony Hawk gave me advice on this: “You’re not selling out unless you are selling.”

I decided to do ads because it made my podcast feel more professional. Listeners went up after I started doing ads although I am not sure they were connected.

I am somewhat embarrassed that my first episode WITH ads was with Derek Sivers (sold CD Baby for $20 million and has written one of my favorite books, “Anything You Want”).

Derek never does podcasts. But he came on mine because he said, “You don’t have ads.”

That episode was my first with ads. But it’s ok. We joked about it later and he’s coming on again.

Conclusion on money: Some podcasts make millions (Freakonomics, Joe Rogan, Serial). Some are very profitable but won’t make anyone rich (mine). Some breakeven and most lose money.

So you need other reasons to do a podcast.

E) OTHER REASONS TO DO A PODCAST

  • Call up famous people and ask them whatever stupid questions you want.
  • Get content from your podcast for books, articles, information products you sell, cocktail party conversation (“so I was just talking to Biz Markie and he told me she really WAS just a friend.”)
  • Practice the skill of interviewing. I am scared to death before every podcast. I listen to other podcasters and radio people and interviewers to learn how to be better. The skill of interviewing is related to the skill of listening and the exercise of curiosity. It’s a valuable skill in a world of uncertainty.
  • Drive listeners to other products your business might offer. You can be your own advertiser.
  • Have fun. I am a bit socially nervous. So sometimes when I want to get together with a friend I call them up and say, “hey, do you want to do a podcast about X?” and then we have a fun time for 1–2 hours talking about X and that’s my social life.
  • Be creative. I try to be creative every day. Given the work required to prepare for a podcast that is unique and different from the other 250,000 podcasts out there, I put “doing a podcast” in the “I was creative today” category.
  • Make friends with super famous people. This has never happened to me yet. Some two year old in me wants it to happen. When I read their books and see their movies I think, “this person could be my best friend. Or even someone I love.” Maybe one day. Maybe.

F) HOW TO BE A GOOD INTERVIEWER

When they had you a podcast at JFK airport, most likely you will decide, “I will do an interview podcast”.

There are all styles of interviewing. There’s the much more conversational style of Joe Rogan, who I enjoy listening to.

Then there’s what I call “the basics”. Guest comes on. Get the bio. Get the tough moments. Great podcast. There is nothing wrong with this. Often the basics are very valuable.

I have a motto which is unfortunate to all the people who are close to me: over promise and over deliver.

Which means I’ll spend a week preparing for a single podcast and do nothing else. I’ll read their ten books. I’ll watch the five other podcast they were on so I don’t repeat questions. I’ll watch videos from ten years ago that they did when they made a guest appearance on Oprah.

I’ll take lots of notes. I’ll try to memorize obscure facts. I’ll try to connect the dots of their lives into a larger story. Even a “podcast story” needs to have the Journey of the Hero in it.

What were they afraid of? What were they really trying to do? What insecurity might they have? What’s at the core of their troubles and their successes. What problems did they overcome and adventures did they have along the way?

Often I will even recommend in my podcast that people listen to other podcasts to get the basics out of the way. I want to get right into the things I’m curious about.

I do this because not only do I want a good podcast but I want to learn also.

Else, what’s the reason I want to talk to these people? I want to learn from them. When you realize that everyone has something incredibly valuable to offer and you learn to dig for that value, life becomes a lot better.

And so does the podcast.

G) WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU LEARNED

I prepare so much for a podcast, and I have so much nervous energy going into a podcast, that I often burn my brain out by the end.

Then I completely forget the podcast

As quickly as possible after the podcast I get out a pad and write down ten things I learned from it. There are ALWAYS ten things.

This way you know that even if zero people listen to the podcast, you just got incredible value out of it.

H) THERE ARE NO RULES

You don’t need a PhD. You don’t need a radio license. You don’t need great equipment.

You don’t need permission. I love the podcast titled “Denzel Washington is the greatest actor ever. Period.”

Every episode the hosts analyze a different Denzel Washington movie.

Genius!

Or Hardcore History by Dan Carlin. Is he a historian? Well, he doesn’t have a PhD. But nobody has to give him permission. And now he has one of the most successful podcasts out there.

Do a podcast about your family history if you want. Then you know you’ll have listeners 50 years from now when your great-grandkids want to learn about you.

Do a podcast about whatever fascinates you.

People are going to listen not for the guest or for the topic, but because you are entertaining and good at structuring a fascinating story.

Your enthusiasm and curiosity is what will cause people to listen, to share, to come back.


Are podcast breaking out?

I don’t know. There is so much media out there that everything is breaking out and transforming a little.

You can self-publish without a publisher on Amazon.

You can make a TV show without a network on YouTube.

You can now make a great all-star radio show with a podcast without any radio station.

This trend of “now I can only be heard” is only going to get bigger every year, every day.

With my own podcast I like people to think, “my life just improved” after they listen to any episode.

Do I succeed in this? I have no idea. I’m trying always to get better but it’s hard. There are a lot of smart people out there doing podcasts.

So say something unique and with vision that is worth hearing.

Then say it loud and everywhere you can.

You don’t need permission.

Permission granted.

Subscribe to my podcast so you don’t miss an episode.  TC mark

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