The rise of independent podcasting, explained by someone who lived it.
My podcasting story is similar to most, in the sense that it is mostly…unique. A lot of people start different podcasts of various shapes and sizes, usually with similar goals in mind. But they’re all working within the same ecosystem of a burgeoning, on-demand streaming platform that has taken over traditional radio in the last decade.
These days, everyone seems to have a podcast, or they at least want to start one. Celebrities have podcasts. Corporations have podcasts. Even characters from fictional movies have podcasts.
Recently, The New York Times did an entire story on whether or not we’ve reached “Peak Podcast,” whatever that means:
Like the blogs of yore, podcasts — with their combination of sleek high tech and cozy, retro low — are today’s de rigueur medium, seemingly adopted by every entrepreneur, freelancer, self-proclaimed marketing guru and even corporation. (Who doesn’t want branded content by Home Depot and Goldman Sachs piped into their ears on the morning commute?) There are now upward of 700,000 podcasts, according to the podcast production and hosting service Blubrry, with between 2,000 and 3,000 new shows launching each month.
For context, there were approximately 270,000 podcasts available just four years ago. In short time, podcasting has developed into a mainstream pastime, and one that is still seeing new adoption overseas. How did this happen, and so quickly?
The answer depends on the type of podcast you’re curious about. I can’t speak much about podcasts owned by corporations, or shows that exist on major networks. Their machinations are removed from my own experience. But I can speak to the phenomenon of seemingly ordinary people gathering around a microphone and reaching an audience far larger than they anticipated.
In other words, I can probably best explain the rise of podcasting by sharing my own story with the medium, and how it’s changed and grown over the years. Six years, to be exact.
Professionally Unprofessional Beginnings
I started my first podcast in 2013. I was 23 at the time, and I had only ever subscribed to one podcast before then: The Relevant Podcast, a show about pop culture and Christianity that happened to be among the first generation of podcasts to come out in the mid-2000s, back when podcasts were considered on-demand downloads for existing radio shows (and, later, I would become a longtime contributor to Relevant Magazine, so…circle of life?)
Needless to say, I entered the podcasting world as a true amateur, not just blissfully unaware of the time, work, and effort needed to make a successful podcast, but also ignorant of what had already worked (and failed) before I came around. My main point of reference for broadcasting had been a few college courses and years of listening to NPR. I’ll wait for you to finish cringing.
The podcast I began in late 2013 was for my former employer, Thriveworks, a counseling organization based out of Virginia. I was their PR specialist, and one day I pitched the idea of a podcast to the head of marketing. He liked the idea. So I pitched the podcast to the CEO. He loved the idea — and he would later revive the podcast years later, long after I moved to California.
On top of being a PR specialist for Thriveworks, I was also in charge of the company blog. To me, podcasting was just another form of content marketing, a way for me to help boost traffic for the company website while also doing decent work that would look good for the brand. I spent weeks researching the nuts and bolts of launching a podcast, which wasn’t nearly as easy in 2013 as it is in 2019…if you wanted your show to appear on iTunes, that is.
Eventually, I figured it out. I purchased a decent microphone. I figured out how to record a Skype call. And I began creating a pipeline of content ideas that the head of marketing would approve. I had a simple vision for the show: interview high-profile book authors with something new to promote and tie the subject of their book to an interesting facet of mental health and psychology.
One of the first guests I ever interviewed was Liza Donnelly, a cartoonist for The New Yorker who at the time had released a book titled Women on Men. The episode was a big success in terms of site traffic (I still have no idea how the analytics turned out in terms of podcast downloads), but my time with the Thriveworks Podcast would come to an abrupt end in early 2014, when I was let go from the company.
I became unemployed in January, 2014. But by February, I had accepted a job offer in California that wouldn’t begin until June. To pass the time, I started writing. A lot. I wrote for anyone who would pay me, and as it happens, “anyone” turned out to be the entertainment industry (oh, how times have changed). I fell in with a young generation of new and inexperienced writers, most of us tied to the now-defunct Moviepilot (later, Movie Pilot).
When you spend all your days talking to fellow writers about movies, you begin to wonder if you should start hitting the record button. I didn’t have a “podcasting itch” before Thriveworks, but I certainly did by the spring of 2014. I realized then that I had tapped into a form of content production I found more fulfilling and long-lasting than any other, even writing. Without fully understanding why, I had fallen in love with podcasting…after failing at it.
By May of 2014, I had another podcast in the making. Two film writers who covered superhero movies with me on Moviepilot were set to join: Evan Lee and Reid Jones. We did a few practice episodes to find our bearings that May, but before we could officially launch, my sabbatical ended. My plane had finally landed in California.
I moved to California in the summer of 2014 for a shiny new job, but I didn’t know anyone who lived there. Zero friends. Zero understanding of the area (I had only been there once, and that was for the interview). So I spent most of my nights acclimating to my new environment and eventually fine-tuning the details for a podcast we started calling Agents of FILM, a name proposed by Reid Jones.
Unfortunately, Reid had to drop out, leaving room for a replacement third chair. Evan and I turned to Maria Garcia, another Moviepilot writer who happened to have her own YouTube channel. The first episode of Agents of FILM came out in September 2014, and it’s actually still available to find online. I’m listening to it now and…oh god…oh god, no…it’s quite honestly painful to hear, so I won’t even link to it. But you can certainly use your imagination.
We published three episodes on YouTube, and they were both extremely rough productions. The sound wasn’t quite right, and we just had no idea what we were doing. Evan dropped out of the show by Episode 3, so then it was just me and Maria. At this point, we needed to either rethink the idea of the show or consider giving up.
We ended up rethinking everything. The podcast became Now Conspiring, an extension of this blog’s former identity. And to be honest, I have no idea where you can even find the first few episodes. The earliest one available (I think) is on this site, where we talk about “the worst Star Wars movie.” By this point, we were sort of on to something. It was a topical movie review podcast for younger millennials and GenZ, which would be the basis of my podcasting “life” moving forward.
Now Conspiring wasn’t exactly an instant success. We used a feed burner to publish the podcast episodes, so I couldn’t track downloads or long-term subscriber counts. Our only useful barometer for gauging growth was through audience engagement: comments, emails, and social media interactions.
By the start of 2015, we had our third cohost: Adonis Gonzalez (another Moviepilot writer, of course). Our team of three was consistent for quite a while until May, when my ex-girlfriend, Kayla Savage, moved to California and became a regular fixture. Soon after, Michael Overhulse, a new friend of mine in the area, came on most weeks. The show became a rotation of four or five guests, which was…unwieldy to say the least. But the podcast started to grow in popularity, mainly because we had found a hook. Podcast listeners in 2015 truly loved listening to friends chit chat wildly about pop culture.
The conceit of the show constantly mutated into different forms. We talked about a movie or two in every episode, but we spent more time engaging in idle conversation and reading comments from listeners. We’d even have “game show” segments where we play around with movie trivia. This direction was a short-term gain and a long-term loss, because episodes would become instantly dated and irrelevant within months. But our audience liked our rapport and wanted to join in on the fun. Some commenters became prolific on their own, writing in weekly paragraphs of fun and interesting reactions to the most recent episodes, which sparked the beginning of Now Conspiring‘s most successful run of episodes. It started when we began inviting commenters onto the actual show.
In January of 2016, Sam Noland went from commenter to Now Conspirer. He had semi-anonymously been writing comments about his love of Tarantino films for months, and with The Hateful Eight hitting theaters, we just knew we had to get him on the show. This started a trend of us bringing on commenters, like Jenny Pan and Bridget Serdock (another Moviepilot writer.)
Sam, Jenny, and Bridget became regular cohosts of Now Conspiring in 2016, with some episodes including up to six or seven people on a single Skype call. We hit our peak late into the year when one of our episodes hit the Top 200 of TV&Film podcasts on iTunes. We were getting so many comments a week, we didn’t have time to address them all. I still have no idea how many downloads we were actually getting, but I wouldn’t have cared if the count had been far lower than it felt. We had an engaged audience and a wonderful panel. Nothing could go wrong.
So, I left the show.
Where There’s a Will
In the summer of 2016, I told the Now Conspiring crew that I wanted to do biweekly episodes that were a little more focused than the main show. We’d still have our full-panel episodes, but I wanted to start including one-on-one conversations to get back to our roots. I did this for a while, but eventually, we slipped back into the normal routine. But during this process, I became acquainted with Will Ashton.
Will and I followed each other on Twitter, but to this day I have no idea when or how we initially became aware of each other. I spotted an article from him on my timeline, I read it, and I reached out about him coming onto the show to talk about the big movie of the week. We hit it off, and Will started guesting on Now Conspiring occasionally. I should say at this point that to some in the Now Conspiring universe, Will Ashton’s nickname is “Yoko.”
By the end of 2016, I had made my decision. I called a podfamily meeting and explained that I was ready to move on from Now Conspiring and leave it in the hands of Maria, Sam, Adonis, Bridget, and Jenny. I told them I wanted to start a new podcast with Will that was a bit more streamlined. Now Conspiring was fun and exciting, but it wasn’t a podcast with a mission beyond being fun and exciting. I wanted to start fresh with something new.
I know they were disappointed by this, but Maria stepped up and took over as the main host. Now Conspiring continued for another year, and it was eventually renamed Part-Time Characters. The final episode came out in the summer of 2018, as Maria and everyone else decided to move on to other projects.
We Got This
I pitched the idea of a new movie-related podcast to Will Ashton at the tail end of 2016, with a plan to launch the first episode by February or March of 2017, depending on how quickly we could settle on the details. We used Now Conspiring as a testing ground for the show’s structure and format, plus we practiced our chemistry a bit and tested the audio.
We needed a name, and we needed a platform. At this point, I had relied on my personal blog to publish podcasts, but I wanted this new one to be bigger and more connected to the greater film industry. I had this sense that simply launching a podcast independently would be shouting into the wind, because who would even find out about it?
So I started pitching various websites about partnering with our to-be-named show. And it was during this process that I realized how badly the show needed a hook. Starting a movie review podcast in a saturated market without a hook would be a fool’s errand, but after some brainstorming, Will and I landed on a conceit that felt right.
Will suggested we call the show Cinemaholics, and we framed the show’s mission around providing film lovers a community where they can discuss the latest films without the baggage of “film critic” or “fanboy/fangirl” attached to their name. In our world, anyone could be a cinemaholic. It was simple. Basic. We love watching a lot of movies, and we’re here to help you decide which ones you should seek out.
There were plenty of review shows, but our mission would be to watch everything, or as much as possible. That way, anyone could tune in on the off chance a movie they’re actually interested in gets brought up. The podcast name and idea was eventually approved by We Got This Covered, and we became their official podcast for about a year and a half.
The Two or Three and Only
In February 2017, Cinemaholics was born. But the podcast of those early days never stopped changing and (hopefully) getting better. We brought on a third chair, Maveryke Hines, to help with sound and be our casual moviegoer voice. We started doing interviews, bringing on guests more often, and the format of the show changed more often than the movies themselves, I’d argue.
And this is how a podcast survives. Not by giving up after six weeks because a problem arises or your download counts have stalled. Lack of change is the death of most creative endeavors, and podcasting is no exception. There is value to consistency, of course, and reckless change can perhaps delay an inevitable “podfade,” or when a podcast slowly phases out of production. But a fear to adapt or make the right choices, even when they’re hard, is the greatest risk of all to anyone’s pursuit of success in this young, but potent medium.
Cinemaholics didn’t come from nothing. It came from a series of prototypes, all of them building upon each other’s successes and failures. Like with books, the first one you do will likely be embarrassingly bad. It comes with the territory. But the podcasting itch isn’t something that easily fades. It simply comes and goes, often in new forms.
After some time with We Got This Covered, I told Will that we needed to make the show independent, at least temporarily. Our brand and their brand had started to go in different directions, and fortunately, Will trusted my judgement and supported the risky decision to do the show on our own.
We figured that eventually, we’d partner with another website that would fit our brand (and we’d fit theirs). Instead, we grew to like Cinemaholics as its own, independent community. We created a website just for the podcast, brought on some writers and contributors (including Sam Noland) to develop extra content, and the show still exists today as one of the few projects I regard with absolute pride.
And yet I still have no idea what “Peak Podcast” means. I shudder to think that someone who could make a podcast 1000x more successful than anything I’ve done might shy away from even trying because of this attitude becoming more persistent. But I don’t worry too much. The podcasting itch is a lot stronger than a provocative headline.
The above post is a recollection of many stories I could possibly be misremembering. Please take a lot of it with a grain of salt, because I have a feeling many of the other people involved remember them quite differently. This post is also open to any and all fact checks as needed.