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Can freelances make money from podcasting?

Christopher Phin during the Zoom meeting

Christopher Phin brought practical and pithy advice to the meeting.

“The way people think about making money from a podcast is through ads. But for most of us, it's the first thing to dismiss. Unless you're getting tens of thousands of downloads per episode, the revenue you generate from ads is... rubbish.

"Sponsorship makes much more sense."

Those attending the April NUJ London Freelance Branch meeting may have expected a glossy overview of the podcasting industry from our invited speaker. Instead, creative director and podcast executive producer Christopher Phin treated members to arguably the best 40 minutes you will ever hear about creating successful podcasts that pay.

Starting out as a journalist on MacUser magazine at Dennis Publishing, Phin went on to become editor-in-chief of computer titles at Future. Following a stint as associate lecturer at the London College of Communication, he was enticed up to Dundee to redevelop and modernise magazines at DC Thomson.

During a brief period in 2019 working under the dreaded guise of "special projects", he persuaded DC Thomson's events chief executive to let him set up a podcasting operation from scratch. Within a couple of years, it had developed from what Phin calls a "skunkworks-type thing" into a professional group that launched multiple award-winning podcasts and generating significant revenue.

Now free to do his own thing, thanks to DC Thomson's latest round of redundancies, Phin is effectively freelance, jobbing as a creative consultant as well as doing work for Message Heard, a podcast production company in London. It seemed the perfect moment to grab him for one evening to speak to LFB about how freelance journalists might earn some money from podcasting.

So what was that about advertising revenue being "rubbish"?

Dynamically inserted ads for podcasts, such as through AdWords, work like most programmatic display ads in that they are inserted automatically into relevant podcast feeds based on subject-matching, keywords and so on. But the rewards are tiny: even a reasonably popular podcast, accord to Phin, might expect to earn only £4 or £5 per thousand impressions. Consider a brand such as the New Statesman, he said: it is downloaded roughly 50,000 times a week. "They'll get a decent paycheck at the end of the year but it's still not retirement money."

The problem is that ads favour the biggest and most popular podcasts disproportionately. Phin quoted a notorious statistic in the podcasting industry: the "magic number 39". If your podcast episode is downloaded more than 39 times in the first week of it going live, it actually qualifies as among the top 50 per cent of all podcasts throughout the world. Yes, really.

But to get into the top 25 per cent or higher is exponentially more challenging. And only those that are at the very top are able to pull in good money from ads – the kind of podcasts that get turned into Netflix shows.

If you are making a small industry show or talking to a smaller audience, Phin reckoned you would earn "tens of pounds" at best. Ads simply won't generate the revenue you want.

Sponsorship, on the other hand, harks back to the traditional idea of quality over quantity. Sponsors prefer a better-defined audience, and they understand the value of specialised and B2B content.

Phin gave the example of one of his DC Thomson podcasts, Out Loud, which his team produced for the oil, gas and renewables organisation Energy Voice. Highly specialised, it saw only 200 to 300 downloads per episode and yet managed to generate significant revenue. "I think it did about £0.5m in the first year, £1m in the second, and it was only growing. And that was through sponsorships."

He noted how magazine and newspaper publishers tend to use podcasting less as a revenue stream in itself than to draw subscribers into the fold.

"Podcasts are good for reaching out to a new audience, particularly a younger audience than is traditionally spoken to by legacy media... It's incredibly intimate medium; you can generate a very close relationship with an audience... You are genuinely turning fans into friends and bring them along the journey with you. And that's an audience that's valuable to an advertiser."

On this note, Phin suggested that podcasters could learn something from crowdfunding. It's not enough to put out the begging cap and say "please support us": people want to feel actively involved and establish a connection. He mentioned a podcast called Apologies which gives shout-outs to listeners who get in touch and gives priority to its Patreon supporters when choosing which questions get put to guests.

"The other key learning there is that people want to get more of the same, not something different," said Phin. Observing how a lot of podcasters offer branded rewards as part of their crowdfunding efforts, he stressed that people don't want stuff such as stickers: they want more of the podcast, such as special episodes and extended cuts.

Another way to make podcasting pay is to make it a live ticketed event. He gave Deborah Frances-White's The Guilty Feminist comedy podcast as an example. It is usually recorded in front of a paying audience. "Converting a floating audience into one willing to pay £20 when they come into the NEC can be quite challenging. But with podcasting, you are always building a very tight and engaged and passionate audience of friends."

Three people around a table

Christopher Phin demonstrating a cheap cardioid microphone

Christopher recommended several mics at different price levels.

As well as talking about money-making opportunities, Phin answered questions about themes and formats, and dealt out tips regarding production hardware and software for those just getting set up.

  • "There is no killer format," he said, admitting that three people around a table talking about something for 40 minutes is one of the simplest formats that anyone can do. But, to add contrast, he described one of his DC Thomson podcasts, Walk to Wellbeing, which involved getting a celebrity to record themselves while going for a walk on their own. "There is absolutely no rule about what makes a successful thing and what doesn't."
  • Are there any subject areas that haven't already been touched by podcasts? "Finding the thing that matters to you, or indeed to an audience that you've identified, is going to be key... Finding that alchemy between under-served subjects and astonishing personalities, allied to a good treatment is the way to go about it."
  • Is there any potential freelance podcast work for voice-actors? Not really, said Phin. There have been instances of a struggling podcast being turned around by hiring a professional broadcaster to host it, but the UK podcasting industry does not generally hire voice actors.
  • Always provide a transcript for your podcast, he advised – not just for SEO reasons but also for accessibility reasons. Machine transcription services such as Otter are getting much better, and all you have to do is check through and edit the result.
  • How long should you persist with a podcast before you can determine whether it's working? Commit to a year, said Phin.
  • Which is the better platform to be on for a live show – YouTube Live or Facebook Live? "Doing a live show is very different from doing a podcast... But the answer is YouTube. It is an enormous "discovery vector", even for standard audio-only podcasts."
  • What kit do I need? Deftly switching between multiple cameras and computer screens, Phin recommended some cardioid microphones at different price levels and showed off his RØDECaster Pro II podcast production deck for mixing multiple simultaneous audio inputs. And Chris says that, yes, you need to record each person on a separate track.
  • And what software? Phin demonstrated the application he uses for editing and producing the final podcasts (Adobe Audition) but stressed that there is no shame in using a simpler, cheaper alternative. There was some discussion about the pros and cons of free audio editing software Audacity. Chris won't use it because of its "destructive edits"; one you snip some words out they're gone forever from that audio file.

To see these recommendations and hear more tips, examples and anecdotes from Christopher Phin's complete talk, watch it on replay here (as they say these days) on the LFB YouTube channel.