I listen to podcasts every day on all sorts of topics, including photography. Thus, I began thinking about how you start a podcast from scratch and whether, ultimately, you can turn them into money. I asked a veteran podcaster these questions and more.
Of course, I can’t speak for everyone out there but I can certainly say that in the context of my local photography network and through all the people that I talk to around the world, it’s absolutely evident that making lucrative money from selling prints of your images or shooting exclusively in the genre that you love is pretty much impossible for many these days. The sheer competition and the availability of great images on free stock sites make it incredibly difficult to sustain yourself without looking elsewhere. Therefore, many people are branching out into different things such as photography workshops, selling e-books, setting up YouTube channels, or monetizing through platforms such as Instagram.
Another medium is podcasts. In the last 18 months or so I think that I have consumed more podcasts than anything else combined, including YouTube videos. I love to put them on while I’m driving in the car, and the great thing is I can just listen to them as I drive without having to worry about watching things carefully or taking notes as things happen on the screen, which is the case when I watch YouTube videos discussing techniques on Photoshop, for example.
Getting Started With Podcasts
But how do you get started with podcasts? What’s involved, and ultimately, can you actually monetize them the same way as you can other mediums? That’s what I wanted to find out so I got in touch with a veteran podcaster, Odell Harris. Odell currently runs the Chasing Clarity podcast, which deals with all things related to ocean imagery, and has also done podcasts on a variety of other topics over the years, including mental health. To date, his podcasts have been downloaded almost 40,000 times and his show is among the favorites for many surf photographers who shoot from the water. I wanted to dig deep on everything related to podcasts so we sat down for about an hour and he was gracious enough to answer all of my questions.
Not knowing anything at all about podcasting, I was curious how you actually got one set up as a complete beginner. The first thing that surprised me was that podcasts are not necessarily audio files only. For some reason, I had always associated podcasts with audio-only but then I realized that a number of podcasts are also videos that you can watch. Odell was quick to point out that a major reason many people work with audio files only is because of file sizes. If you’re dealing with an hour-long video then it will take a pretty heavy toll on your computer when you’re doing all the editing.
However, an obvious advantage of doing a video, as well as an audio podcast is that you can upload the video to a YouTube channel, then extract the audio and repurpose it into a podcast so you get double the potential reach. Of course, that also means double the editing work and all the time waiting for lengthy video files to render, but if you've got the hardware, the patience, and the editing software nous then Odell certainly recommends it. Nonetheless, for the sake of this article, I will be focusing mostly on podcasts as audio files only.
Software and Hosting Platforms
Like Lightroom or Photoshop with photography, there is also basic, necessary software that almost all podcasters will need to use. In terms of editing the audio files once you've made your recordings using whatever device you have, software like Audacity, Garage Band, or Sound Forge will suffice, says Odell. You’ll need to learn how to use them, but they’re all pretty straightforward and intuitive, especially if you’re familiar with video editing software. In relation to where your podcasts will actually go once you’re happy with your audio file, or where they’ll be hosted prior to distribution, the hosting platform recommended by Odell was Anchor, by Spotify.
A quick glance at the Anchor website shows you all the features and benefits and it really does seem to be a one-stop-shop for all podcasters out there. There’s a free version and a paid version, which gives you more bells and whistles. Thus, if you are serious about podcasting, then Anchor is the first type of place you should go when you’re starting off and you need a place to host your files. The great thing about sites such as Anchor, says Odell, is that they do a lot of the hard work for you, including the distribution of your podcast to all the major players such as Spotify, iTunes, and iHeartRadio. They securely host all your content for you, do all of the distribution for you, and offer you insights into analytics, which does seem like a pretty decent set of benefits.
However, before you get to the stage where you’re ready to upload your finished content, you actually have to get the content first and then edit it. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of similarities here to photography and your editing workflow. Some people might take a photo and convert it to a JPEG and upload it to social media without any editing whatsoever, while other people might spend an hour editing one image. It’s similar with podcasting.
It made me laugh talking to Odell because he’s taken a path that we are probably all familiar with. At first, he did almost no editing at all and uploaded the files pretty much untouched but as he got more experienced and started to care more about the content he was producing and putting out there, he started to take longer and longer with his edits. I have to admit, there are many podcasts I listen to where it’s rather obvious that the hosts have done absolutely no editing whatsoever. There are sounds of kids screaming in the background, dogs barking, swear words left in, or the sound quality hasn’t really been tinkered with at all. In such cases, as the listener, I just put up with it because it’s the content that I’m most interested in. But I guess as content producers, the level of care increases the further invested you become, or the higher number of listeners you might have accrued over time.
This also relates to the type of gear you use as well. As I touched on earlier, many podcasters simply record on their iPhones and upload files without touching them at all or just record Zoom conversations and do the same. However, if you are more concerned about sound quality and you want to produce a podcast that sounds more professional, you will have to buy some equipment and dip into your pockets. According to Odell, about $500 is more than enough for things like a microphone, speakers, and headphones when you’re starting off.
How Do You Reach People?
The next part of the conversation was where my newfound interest in podcasting hit a brick wall. I wanted to know how you promoted yourself once you had your podcast audio file ready and had uploaded it to a hosting platform that would take care of the distribution for you. His answer was one that I’m sure we’re all familiar with. You have to promote yourself the same way we all have to promote our own photography — through social media and sharing. Having a podcast is no different from having a photo on Instagram. Without an audience, no one sees our images. And without an audience, no one will hear your podcast.
Therefore, it’s up to you to promote yourself and promote your podcast, and just like photography, it comes down to hard work and time. There are very few shortcuts, says Odell. However, just like anything in life, quality will pay off over time because listeners will promote via their social media channels and your rankings on platforms such as Spotify will start to climb the more that people listen to you. It also helps if your podcast is on a topic that isn’t absolutely flooded. Thus, if you had any kind of belief that podcasting might be an easier way to reach a grander, wider audience, you’re sadly mistaken.
Can You Make Money Podcasting?
With that in mind, I came to the last, most salient issue. The one that related to making money. Once you’ve figured out all of the logistics and you’ve put in the time over the years to produce a podcast that has high-quality content and high-quality sound, is it possible to turn it into money? Unless you’re Joe Rogan, says Odell, the answer is "not really." You can make money by advertising products during your podcast but you need a lot of listeners and subscribers in order to attract companies. Plus the fact you have to weigh up whether you want to annoy your listeners by stopping every 10 minutes or so to promote a product. Personally, I love the podcasts that don’t go down that route, although I understand why some do. You can also use services such as Patreon, which allows subscribers or fans to donate a given amount of money that can help with ongoing costs or turning a profit. That’s a hard slog, says Odell, and does take time. Fear not, there is a caveat.
While Odell says he hasn’t really made much money directly through the podcast in terms of subscriber numbers, donations, or advertising, where he has picked up a lot of opportunities to monetize is through work associated with the guests he’s had on. Whether it’s been directly through guests themselves, through listeners of the podcast, or contacts of guests or listeners, Odell says he has picked up a solid amount of work through the people associated with his podcasts. Thus, in that sense, podcasting has been financially helpful. He says that if you present a professional podcast that is well done and your guests are heavy hitters in whatever industry they’re renowned for, then you can pick up work and opportunities on the back of the people you meet and make your podcast financially worthwhile.
Be that as it may, Odell stressed to me that you can’t go into podcasting thinking it will be a financial goldmine because it simply isn’t. 50% of podcasts fail before the seventh episode for a reason, he says. They are hard, and initially, there is absolutely no extrinsic reward whatsoever. You must be prepared for that reality and you must enter into it because you really want to do it and you must be interested in the topic that you’re covering. If you tick all those boxes and you're looking for something other than YouTube or Instagram, then podcasting could be for you.
What are your experiences with podcasts, either as a creator or consumer? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.