Podcasting is an art form.
Just like any art form, there’s the trope of the “starving artist”; the person who isn’t able to make a living out of what they love but does it anyway because they can’t imagine a life without it. Maybe they have to work a job or two on the side, but they always find time for their hobbies. They dream of making it big but are content living the life they live.
A stereotype of podcast hosts is that they are the millennial starving artists.
If you love podcasting, you might be happy to fit the description. That being said, as far as hobbies go, podcasting is an extremely time consuming one. It takes up so much time and energy, and if you pour yourself into a podcast to have it fall on deaf ears, it’s easy to lose motivation.
However, you need to remember that even successful artists struggle to make a living off their art. Some of the most revered musicians, for example, never got the hang of the business side of things and have had to live a humble life disproportionate to their level of fame. You could have the best podcast and still struggle to monetize. That’s the pain of being a podcast host.
So, here’s the sad truth: it no small feat to make money podcasting.
Of course, you’ll never know if you can do it until you make a full-send. Before you can even dream of sky-scraping income reports, you need to find the part of you that is content doing for free and let that part push you to a point where you can make enough money to sustain yourself.
There are plenty of ways to monetize your podcast. You can start a Patreon or Kickstarter, take on advertisers or sponsors, go on tour, sell merch…nothing is off the table. In fact, podcast listeners tend to be a fairly wealthy cohort, so they have the money to spend on things they love. It’s up to you to know how to take it.
There are a lot of ways to tap into monetization. For ideas on how to make money from podcasting, I wrote an article about that.
However, this is a little different. If you’re yet to make it in podcasting, you’re probably balancing dreams of going on tour and making millions with fears about what will happen when you’ve hit rock bottom after giving everything you can. Heck, even successful podcasts might call for a side-hustle.
I’m here to ground you and show you just how good it can get, how far you can fall and what’s considered “normal” for a career podcaster. While you’ll probably fall somewhere on the spectrum, it’s good to know the realities of people who have been through it before so you can manage your expectations.
Most Of the Time, It’s Tough
It’s probably no surprise that your ability to make a living off your podcast has a lot to do with your downloads per podcast episode.
Of course, it’s unfair to measure yourself against such broad metrics, but here’s a figure you can take home: if you get more than 136 downloads per podcast, you’re in the 50th percentile. That means you’re pretty much average.
Now, 136 downloads isn’t a large podcast audience. It’s certainly not enough to make a living off of podcasting. Even if you’re getting up to 1,000 downloads, which would put you above 80% of podcasts, you’ll still make a modest amount of money.
Of course, growing your podcast audience to 1,000 is no small feat. It means you run a moderately successful podcast and have quite an impressive amount of people who find value in the takes you’re giving.
It’s a far cry from the worst-case scenario, which is getting little to no traction and having to accept that your podcast will only ever be a hobby, making a net loss when you account for equipment costs. You’ll probably experience some degree of this if you’re starting from scratch.
To start, the obvious source of income is what you’d get from podcast advertising. Sadly, podcast sponsorships usually give you money on a cost-per-thousand (CPM) model, so if you have less than a thousand downloads per podcast episode, podcast sponsorship isn’t really an option since CPM rates are usually pretty low.
There are ways to work around the annoying bar set by CPM. Keep in mind incentives for listeners to donate go up if you offer exclusive content. You can make a commission off products you push and ask for listener donations from your most generous listeners, but even then you’ll probably just over $100 a month, considering some people interact with the links you send them too and 2% of your listeners give $5 a month.
Both conditions are reasonable expectations for a podcast of this size, but they’re not a given and they’re bound to be inconsistent.
Basically, if you’re getting 1,000 downloads per podcast episode, you’re still only making just enough money to cover equipment costs and basically “break-even”.
Successful Podcasting Is a Gateway to Other Sources of Income
Let’s say you get up 10,000 downloads per podcast episode.
Congratulations! You’re now in the upper echelon of popular podcasts. Your Amazon affiliate programs and listener donations could extend beyond $1000 a month at this point. You could also rake in around $2000 in ad revenue.
$3000 a month is just about sustainable as a full-time job. The income you make from podcasting alone is enough to put you above the poverty level, although you’ll be making around the same as someone from New York working 9 to 5 on minimum wage.
You can certainly justify it as a side-hustle, but to get to this level, you’ll probably need to be putting in full-time hours…and this is if you have a very successful podcast.
That being said, DO NOT GET DISCOURAGED!
Most podcasters don’t make the bulk of their money from podcasting alone. As you win more listeners, you’ll start turning heads outside of the podcasting world, opening the doors to other streams of income.
You could make money from speaking engagements, a market where there’s always demand. You could offer consulting services on your area of expertise, and considering you have reached the point where people are starting to recognize you for your insight, that’s more than possible.
Remember to keep looking for freelance opportunities outside of podcasting once you benefit from the high profile of a podcaster. That’s how you make a living off your art.
The Best Case Scenario: Taking Your Audience With You
One thing you need to consider is that the richest podcasters probably didn’t make their fortune from podcasting alone.
Many celebrities pivot into podcasting at a point in their careers where it makes sense. Shane Dawson was a Youtuber, Joe Rogan was a UFC commentator before he started the Joe Rogan Experience, Marc Maron was a stand-up comedian…the list goes on.
A huge amount of successful podcasters had audiences before they even went into podcasting. They took the fame they had earned up until that point and transformed their followers into committed listeners.
Most of the “richest” podcasters exist in this cohort, so we won’t focus on them.
However, there is a lesson to be learned here. It’s telling that many podcasters did something else to gain an audience instead of diving head-first into the cluttered, saturated world of podcasting. If you’re not a celebrity, influencer or someone with an audience yet, it might be wise to focus your energy on becoming one instead of dropping everything and starting a podcast.
Of course, you can’t just flip a switch and become a celebrity. However, you’re probably following a career path at the moment, and letting that go to start a podcast unrelated to the expertise you display in your career is a very risky move.
Simply put: you probably already have a network, use it! If you’re a writer, get a Twitter account and garner an online following so that people trust your voice. Once you have that trust, it’s a lot easier to convince people to listen to your podcast.
For example, I work a job that has given me the privilege to gain some sort of recognition on the topics of SEO, brand building, business, and social media. People know me for it, and their attention served as a launchpad for me to start my own podcast.
People won’t want to listen to an hour of your voice if they think if you as a “nobody”.
Case In Point: Leo Laporte of This Week In Tech
The highest-grossing podcast is This Week in Tech. If you don’t know what it is, it’s a roundtable discussion and debate podcast about technology news and products. It is hosted by Leo Laporte and rakes in $50,000 and 500,000 downloads per episode.
Leo Laporte now has a net worth of $5 million.
Spoiler alert: he definitely didn’t rely on passive income.
But how did he get into podcasting? His career started 14 years before This Week in Tech was even conceived. He worked on numerous technology-related radio programs since 1991, getting his big break as the host of The Screen Savers, a TV show that aired from 1998 to 2005.
In fact, This Week in Tech is just a continuation of The Screen Savers, which switched its format in 2005, when Laporte recorded a conversation he had at the Macworld Expo. He published this recording online, named it “episode 0” and launched the new podcast. The rest is history.
TLDR: Laport was already hosting TV shows, speaking at expos and garnering acclaim as a trusted voice in tech before he decided to make a podcast about it.
As you can see, Laporte is no different than the celebrity podcasters we mentioned before. While he is most known for his podcast these days, he garnered an audience and became a voice on the topic far before he went into podcasting.
The More You Branch Out, The More You’ll Make
In conclusion, the best-case scenario for most podcasters comes when they take advantage of an audience that already existed, one that already trusted their takes.
Even podcasters who manage to make it off podcasting alone make a bulk of their money from external sources, opportunities that might have stemmed from their podcast, but are ultimately unrelated.
Making it as a podcaster and nothing else can be a tough game to play. The best results will come when you establish yourself in a more traditional way, growing your brand outside of podcasting before you put all your eggs in one basket.