At a conference earlier this year, Jordan Harbinger, the founder of Art of Charm, a Top 50 podcast on iTunes, got up and said something that I thought was brave. He told the room of entrepreneurs, authors, and public personalities that they should probably not start a podcast.
Some people might have thought this was hypocritical or selfish. After all, Jordan has a very popular podcast and makes a lot of money running it—wasn’t he just reducing the competition? Wasn’t he telling people not to do something that he had already done? No, he was doing something brave. He was telling people what they didn’t want to hear. He was telling them they shouldn’t do something, even though that thing was trendy, and popular.
There’s no question we’re in the middle of a podcasting boom. Something like 1 in 5 Americans has listened to a podcast in the last month and there are now more than 60,000 active podcasts, and it’s never been easier to start, which is why over 100,000 people have in the last few years.
I can see why. I love podcasts. I’m a paying subscriber to Howl and have listened to a good chunk of Marc Maron’s archives. When I want to learn about something—whether it is parenting or ancient history—podcasts are one of the first things I check out. I’m a subscriber to a half dozen great shows (from Brian Koppelman’s to Tim Ferriss’s to Rich Roll’s). I’ve helped launch popular shows like James Altucher’s podcast and helped write a New York Times bestselling book based on Lewis Howes’s show The School of Greatness. I’ve appeared on some of the biggest podcasts around and have written about how powerful they can be. I’ve been on close to a hundred different shows at this point—some multiple times—and placed my marketing clients on countless others. I’ve even had offers and suggestions to do my own show.
I think this allows me to say in a fair and unbiased way that most people should absolutely not start a podcast. To take Jordan’s advice and make it blunter: Do not start a podcast. The world would be a better place if you didn’t.
Because “lots of other people are doing it” is a really poor reason to do anything. Because the world doesn’t need another interview show conducted on Skype. Because thinking something would be fun and easy—because you were on one yourself or listened to an episode—is a really superficial understanding of a complex and difficult production. Because when someone really respects a medium, they don’t half-ass their contribution to it.
If one were to really look at the motivation and intention behind far too many of the people trying to get in on the boom, those are the exact reasons they’d find. People want to capture the same success that they’ve seen others have—but they don’t ask why those people have it. Invest in quality production? Why bother? Come up with an original or unique format? Why bother? Learn the art of interviewing or the craft of enunciation and entertaining an audience? You mean that it doesn’t just come naturally? Can’t I just throw it up on iTunes and make millions?
As a general rule: when everyone is talking about some trend, the smart money ignores it and does the opposite. Meanwhile, it’s the lazy, the selfish and the lame that try to imitate and cash in.
I’ve noticed that for far too many podcasters almost everything they say and do could be boiled down to them trying to do as little work as possible and impose on others as much as possible:
Will you give me an hour of your time to appear on my show? Oh, you will? Here, pick a time from my calendar (god forbid, I schedule around you). Will you introduce yourself to the audience? Will you answer this obvious question I could have figured out with a quick Google search or that you’ve already answered on five other shows? Now that the episode is posted, will you promote it on social media for me? Will you send it to your email list?
And then these people are surprised when their shows are boring, have no listeners and advertisers aren’t lining up to buy out their inventory. Was there any other possibility? They’re barely even trying.
It’s an open secret in media that most hosts and journalists aren’t familiar with the guests’ work. Jimmy Fallon doesn’t have time to watch every single movie and the Good Morning America anchors can’t read every book from every author they have on. It would be unfair to hold podcasters to a different standard—but I will say it is embarrassing how many podcasters aren’t even engaged in the conversations they’re having as they have them.
They’ll ask you a question, you’ll give an answer and then you can almost hear their eyes scan the paper they have in front of them as they move on the next question on the list. It’s disrespectful to the guest, but that’s not my real problem with it. My problem is that it makes for really boring audio. Who wants to listen to someone literally phone something in? Why should you listen to a conversation that the host isn’t even listening to?
The problem with the gold rush mindset is that it believes that the gold is just there to be picked up. That a trend is so overwhelming lucrative that anyone can strike it rich if they show up. Of course this is not true. Podcasting—interviewing—is an art. It requires skill. No one is born with that skill.
Worse than the laziness is the transparent lying and transparent manipulation that is rampant with the new crop of “me-too” podcasts (I imagine they are trying to compensate for their lack of effort with marketing hacks). In my email right now, there are close to fifty un-responded to inquiries from podcast hosts asking if I or one of my clients might appear on their show. Without looking at them, I can tell you what they all say—because they all seem to use the same template.
Please appear on my top ranked podcast, they say, when they really mean they were featured on iTunes’ “new and noteworthy” section for five seconds (I’ve never actually seen proof of this either). I’m a huge fan, they say, which isn’t true (more on that later). Our show does XX,XXX downloads per month or year, which deliberately avoids disclosing how many downloads each episode actually does and there is rarely any actual proof that these numbers are real. Or they’ll tell you how many tens of thousands of social media fans or email subscribers we have (which again, doesn’t give you any sense of what an episode’s audience is). Then they proceed to list their trademark famous guests (I won’t list the names because I’d rather not embarrass anyone) which can seem persuasive until the fortieth time you see a certain name used like this in an email and realize that this person will apparently agree to any interview request from anyone at anytime. And finally—proving they’re not actually a fan—if you don’t respond to this email right away, they will resend it automatically a few days later, because they’re not actually sending it to you in the first place—a CMS program is.
Of course, what’s not in this email is that if you do agree to appear, they plan to follow up with another one I might have mentioned earlier: Will you promote this episode for us? We want to see it on your social media! The ultimate admission that they don’t have an audience of their own—that the show is actually a lame attempt to siphon off fans from people who do…as though that were the only growth strategy available. As if making compelling work wasn’t a better way.
As Tim Ferriss put it in a recent post about podcasts, instead of half-assing it and coasting, people should “find something else [they] can whole-ass.” Jordan told me it wasn’t until 250 episodes in that he felt like he really began to master the craft and build a real audience. Imagine that—250 episodes and more than five years—where the only reward was the process, the act of doing. That’s the kind of effort it takes to get it right, to get the kind of success that way too many people think they’ll have by just throwing something up on iTunes and calling themselves a podcaster. That’s what whole-assing looks like.
Look, I’m not down on podcasting, period. Not at all. I love it. There are even some new shows I’m enjoying. Lance Armstrong’s podcast is fantastic. Malcolm Gladwell’s which started earlier this year is great. Neil Strauss and Gabby Reece just started a new show (with an unusual twist—it’s recorded in a hot barrel sauna). But these were people who have real platforms, who clearly took the time to understand the medium, and most importantly, they have actually invested the time and resources to do it right. They aren’t looking to cash in either—they’re actually excited about the opportunity to explore a new art form.
I am down on copycats and trend followers. I like podcasting too much and value my own sanity (and the sanity of other awesome people) too much to think that the world needs us to collectively waste time on other people’s self-indulgent personal brand building. I remember when blogging was the rage and I can see now how many of those people were never serious about the medium—and how much effort went to waste when they eventually quit.
It’s because I love podcasts that I am happy listening. The world needs more listeners. We could probably make do with less talking. So unless we’re going to put in the kind of work that Jordan or some of the greats have done, let’s just be listeners—until we find something we are willing to invest in.
So please, please don’t start a podcast. Do your own thing instead.