How To Start A Top-Rated Podcast
Creating And Launching A Top-Rated Podcast
By: Ryan Hawk
98 million people will listen to podcasts this year, according to Edison Research. The reason why, may have to do with the intimacy audio provides. As Malcolm Gladwell notes, “It’s surprisingly easy to make someone cry with audio. Podcasts open you up to emotion.”
Creating The Learning Leader Show has allowed me to gather life-changing knowledge and generations worth of shared wisdom. I’ve been fortunate to have 150+ conversations with some of the world’s truly excellent leaders. If you are interested in what it takes to create and start a podcast of your own, the following guidelines will be instructive. One should know however that the investment of time and effort are significant, as witnessed by the reality that the average new podcast ends after seven episodes.
For those interested in starting their own podcast, the benefits are numerous…
Here are some of the most notable reasons for such a pursuit:
I have become a better communicator: Keynote speeches, presentations, and one on one conversations. When you regularly converse with leaders who have sustained excellence for an extended period of time, it “levels you up.” More importantly, I’ve become a much better listener. As Geoff Colvin would say, having an unscripted podcast is “deliberately practicing” how to listen effectively. Being a great communicator is a critical component to impacting people’s lives.
The Learning Leader Show has also given me cause to purposefully connect with my heroes. Where before my emails to thought leaders might be ignored, now I have the platform—and the reason—to reach out to nearly any person in the world and ask to chat for an hour. It’s beautiful. Often times, that one-hour conversation leads to a deeper connection, and people I once viewed as famous celebrities are now my friends. That does not happen without my podcast.
I’ve reached concrete goals as well. The Learning Leader Show was ranked No. 1 in the “New and Noteworthy” category on iTunes during the eight weeks it was eligible, and it now resides near the top of the “What’s Hot” section. It is listened to in 103 countries, making the podcast a truly global show.
And yet, despite the accolades and personal gains, the best aspect of the podcast is by far its ability to impact a listener’s life. I love receiving emails such as these:
“Thank you for having the vision, desire and drive to start your podcast. I have listened to every single episode, and I’m a huge fan. My husband is tired of the phrase “I heard this on The Learning Leader . . . “
“I had a big interview coming up for a promotion in the military field. I’d never listened to a podcast before, but I was interested in David Marquet. I did a search for anything related to him to read about or listen to in preparation for my upcoming interviews. I found your podcast and interview with David. I listened and enjoyed it. I decided I wanted to listen to more and see what I could glean from all this discussion on leadership. I found that I enjoyed it quite a bit. Low and behold, I got the promotion, Ryan! I cited your podcast in my interview with the Chief as one of the many things I was doing in preparation for this potential leadership position.”
For those considering the creation of their own podcast here are some answers to the questions I regularly receive regarding the launching and progression of my show:
When (and why) did you start your podcast?
In 2014, I began the application process to earn my PhD, but after studying the curriculum, I realized that I would have disliked a number of the classes. So, I decided to create my own form of “Leadership PhD.” In addition, I wanted to share what I was learning with the world. Thus, The Learning Leader Show was born.
Why, of all mediums, a podcast?
Look at how we watch TV today—DVR, YouTube, Netflix, etc. When studying the methods in which people (especially millennials) consume media, the research suggests that young people prefer on demand media. That’s what a podcast is.
Moreover, I love podcasts. As a secondary activity, I listen while I’m driving, walking, running, exercising, grocery shopping, waiting in line at Chipotle, etc.
How do you get such great guests?
A few factors here:
- I seek out interesting and inspiring people: Reading books, Twitter, articles online, listening to other podcasts, browsing Fortune magazine, meeting people at events—all of these outlets provide me with names of new and exciting people I can potentially bring onto the show. More than that, it’s my overall thought process. I am always thinking about potential guests for my show. That mindset helps me get some of the best and brightest in the world. I would urge all podcasters to A.B.P.: “Always Be Prospecting.” Also… I use Evernote constantly. Preparation notes, guest ideas, or new potential interview questions are put into Evernote on an regular basis. Having a system in place to get my thoughts “on paper” helps me avoid forgetting them.
- Write a compelling “cold” email (an email to someone who you do not personally know). Three months prior to launching, I set goals of sending (at least) 15 cold emails every week. It’s important that each email is individualized. If the prospective guest thinks you are cutting-and-pasting a note, then you have a low chance of success. My master list of guests I want to have on my show currently contains 471 names. I have recorded over 155 conversations for my podcast. Essentially, it takes at least three cold emails for me to land one guest (and more in the early phases when your show is unknown).
- Ask for referrals: I ask every guest if they know anyone who would enjoy investing their time with me on my podcast. This starts with the idea that they enjoyed themselves and felt my show was worthwhile. It is critical that I spend a great deal of time preparing for each guest. When they see that commitment and that level of respect, they are typically willing to make introductions for me. This has led to some incredible relationships.
How do you decide who should be a guest?
I reach out to people who I believe would bring massive value to my audience. As Austin Kleon says, “I look for interesting people who do interesting things.” When I got started, I was investing two or three hours most days cold-emailing guests (it takes time to personalize them), and I was fortunate that some people agreed to come on the show. (I’m going to write an entire post in the near future on how to craft compelling cold e-mails).
If you are scared of being ignored or rejected, then I would advise against starting podcast. However, if you’re willing to grind it out, to learn and to write convincingly, then creating a successful podcast is possible.
I am often pitched by publicists to have their clients (usually authors with a book coming out) on my show (this started once my podcast became more popular, probably around episode No. 50). I will say yes to those guests only if I’m interested in them and feel it will bring value to my audience. If not, then I will politely decline (while also maintaining a good relationship with each publicist). Remember, if it won’t bring value to my listeners (and me), then it’s a no.
I refuse to publish marginal content. If I publish an episode, that means I think it’s really good. (And yes, unfortunately there are episodes that I’ve recorded that I have never published)
How important is iTunes?
Very. 75 percent of the downloads per episode come from iTunes. It is the easiest place for people to subscribe to your podcast. Make sure you launch with at least three episodes, and then release three episodes per week during your eight-week period in iTunes’ “New and Noteworthy” category. As Tim Ferriss put it, “This (amount of content) appears to help with iTunes’ ranking, which — like best-seller lists — can be self-propagating. The higher you rank, the more people see you, the higher you continue to rank, etc.”
Prior to launching, I spent a lot of time learning the mechanics of iTunes and trying to understand how a podcast could grow from no listeners to hundreds of thousands. And while few people know exactly how the iTunes algorithm works, here are a few keys that I’ve learned to be helpful:
- Release at least three episodes at launch and three episodes per week during your eight-week stint in “New and Noteworthy”
- Invest the hours to send personal emails to the majority of your contacts (friends, family, colleagues, etc.) and ask them directly to listen (and subscribe) to the podcast and write a review (in iTunes). As of today, I have 342 reviews and a full five-star rating. The average podcast has less than 50 reviews. (In fact, if you find this article valuable to you I would greatly appreciate it if you would rate and review my show. Click HERE to do so. Thank you!)
- Once your “New and Noteworthy” time has expired, it is vital to appear near the top of the “What’s Hot” section. By releasing my show on a consistent basis, I have helped my listeners to create a ritual or routine. They know they will have a new episode every Sunday and Wednesday night at 7:00 EST. I have not wavered from this release schedule since the first eight weeks of my show (when I released three times per week).
What equipment do you use to record?
There are several key pieces of equipment:
- I have two computers: a MacBook Pro and an iMac. I have found that Macs work best for audio/visual, and I simply enjoy using them. (The picture at the top of this post is what my setup looks like)
- My microphone is a Rode Podcaster, which was recommended to me by my friend Jason Zook. I decided early on to invest in a high quality microphone, and I’m very glad that I did. Great audio is important. I want my show to sound pleasant and enjoyable, and a having a great microphone is key. A more cost effective (& great) option is an Audio Technica ATR 2100.
- I use Skype to speak with my guests, and I record the conversations using ECAMM Call Recorder. It’s very simple and does the job well.
- I record the introductions and sponsor reads using a program called Audacity – again, very easy to use. I share those intros and the episode with my (great) editor via Google Drive, and he puts everything together with the intro music. I then tag the episodes using ID3 Editor. Once that’s completed, I upload the final episode to Libsyn (my podcast host) and Libsyn shoots the episode to all of the directories (iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, etc.). Quick note on editing – We very rarely edit any aspect of the episode. I personally am not a fan of interview style shows where there is heavy editing involved. Let your listeners truly get to know you (the good, bad, and ugly). I receive a lot of mail (I read them all) from listeners who say, “I really feel like I know you.” That’s because they do! My actions on my podcast reflect quite accurately my everyday life interactions.
How much time do you spend on the podcast?
I spend part of every single day working on my show doing any number of the following tasks:
- Searching for intriguing guests and researching them online
- Writing cold emails
- Scheduling interview times
- Preparing to record: Researching my guests (reading their books, watching TED Talks, reading articles published about them)
- Recording the episode via Skype
- Recording the introductions and sponsor reads
- Uploading the raw recordings to my editor via Google Drive
- Writing thank-you notes
- Writing show notes
- Tagging a finished episode using ID3 Editor
- Publishing the episodes via Libsyn
In total, I spend 15 to 20 hours per week—or 9 to 12 percent of my time—working on The Learning Leader Show. There are some weeks where I’ll record 4 or more episodes and others were I won’t record at all. It depends on schedules. Most of the leaders I speak with are very busy. Also, if I have travel in the near future, I plan weeks (or months) in advance to get well ahead of it so that I never feel pressure to take on a marginal guest just to fulfill my own “2 per week” quota of episodes.
What are your marketing strategies?
I ask each guest to share their episode via their social channels, though I make it extremely clear that I’m not requiring that. I usually say, “If you’d like to share it with your tribe, here is a link. And if you don’t, that is completely cool, too.” I also make it very easy on them to share by writing a tweet that they can copy and paste into Twitter. Many of them appreciate this. This makes their time investment (in sharing) less than one minute. Make it easy for them to share.
I’ve found that if your guest has enjoyed their time and felt that you prepared well, they will be more than willing and eager to share it with their tribe of fans.
Again, the key here is being incredibly prepared for the conversation. Be curious, ask thoughtful and unique questions, and be a great listener. The best questions are never scripted (in my opinion); they are follow ups on an interesting point your guest has made. When I was speaking with Cal Newport (one of my favorite episodes), in the spur of the moment I asked him, “What do you do while standing in line at Chipotle?” I have never asked anyone this question, and I certainly did not plan to ask this to Cal, but it worked based on his answer to my previous question. Study the best interviewers in the world. They all are great listeners and ask incredible follow up questions.
As others have said before me, “The best marketing is a great product.” While I certainly promote my show via all social media channels, the most popular episodes get shared because they are really good. Focus on creating great content and it will market itself.
Do you make money from the podcast?
Yes, I do, both directly and indirectly:
- Directly: I’ve been fortunate to partner with two fantastic companies who have sponsored episodes of the show. Mizzen and Main was my first sponsor. Mott and Bow was the second. Both of those relationships started with me having their respective CEO’s on my podcast as guests. I reached out to them initially because I loved their products and wanted to learn from the guys who created them. From there the relationships evolved to where I offered them sponsorship on a number of episodes. (If you’re interested in advertising on my show, contact me HERE)
- Indirectly: I am now regularly asked to speak at events because of the podcast’s growing popularity. I didn’t intend for public speaking to become a part of my life, but I have now embraced it to the point where I have created a speaker reel to actively seek more gigs. I love doing it.
On the topic of monetization, here is a great quote from Tim Ferriss:
“Revenue opportunities often present themselves if you focus on creating something you’d pay for yourself. If you can easily sell it to 10 friends and do some basic market research on top of that, the odds improve. The recipe is straightforward — Study the craft like it’s your job, make yourself smile, don’t rush, don’t whore yourself, test a lot of wacky ideas, and think laterally. If you want to increase your income 10x instead of 10%, the best opportunities are often seemingly out of left field.”
What do you want to do long term?
My goal has always been to impact others. I’m a believer that creating and curating fantastic content will lead to incredible moments. My philosophy is constantly validated with emails from listeners who have been positively influenced by the show. Receiving those notes is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my life. I’m incredibly proud of the impact we are making.
Key Points of Success
- Be you. I’ve become a better interviewer over time by listening to other great interviewers (Brian Koppelman, Anderson Cooper, Andrew Warner, Howard Stern, Charlie Rose etc.), but I simply learn from them. I do not try to emulate them. You’ll learn a lot about yourself after listening to hundreds of your conversations with other highly intelligent leaders.
- Understand what you are good at. Understand where you need to improve. Self-awareness is critical. Seek help from others. Deliberate practice only works when you receive feedback from a mentor/coach.
- Do not lose sight of the top priority: producing quality content. To this end, I only seek out the most interesting guests. My show has only grown because of the value it brings listeners.
- Take measured risks. I am not afraid to try something new if I believe it will improve the product.
- Put the guest (and yourself) at ease. I tell every interviewee that each conversation should feel like a great lunch between two people becoming friends. Spend time prior to recording building a natural rapport. Find uncommon commonalities between you and the guest. It will help them open up quickly.
- You must commit. The average new podcast lasts only 7 episodes. Realize you will hit “The Dip” once the initial excitement wears off – which is normal. I committed to 30 episodes prior to launching, and then I reassessed. I believe you should commit to at least 10 weeks of podcasting prior to making a decision on whether to keep going.
I am optimistic more people will want to create and launch their own podcast, and I am hopeful my advice and testimony inspires some readers to begin that undertaking. But I want to be clear on this point: Be sure you are invested in your podcast’s success and you must love the process. Making a podcast is hard. Browse through several random podcasts on iTunes. The difference between the great few and all the rest becomes immediately evident. If you do not love what you are doing, you will have a hard time bridging that gap.