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Dear Indie Podcasters: It doesn't matter how many listeners your podcast gets.

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

It was my third week of term at radio school, and to be honest, I (like the whole class) was feeling pretty deflated. Mainly because, up until that point, the syllabus hadn't really been what we were expecting.

I mean, it was a Commercial Radio course! Surely that was a whirlwind of cheesy stunts, celebrity interviews, and the hottest hits from the 80s, 90s, and today, right? But no. Rather than interviewing celebrities, mucking around in the studios, and learning just the right amount of emphasis on the "aaaa" in "COLD HARD CAAAAAAASH!" (those lessons came later in the year), we were sitting in a fifth-floor classroom on a windy March evening as the many, many escalators in Swinburne University's old Business and Arts building droned away in the background. Learning about ratings.

Cume. TSL. Cost per Mille. Audience Share. Ten-plus. All ways to describe how many pairs of ears were listening to your radio show, and more importantly how much you and your workmates were going to get paid for them. It was those numbers, we were told over a graph-heavy PowerPoint presentation, were the most important things to learn and understand if we were going to walk into a radio-station job.

And look, with a room full of (mostly) postgrad Arts students, that many numbers at once was always going to be a bit of a stretch. But as we came to understand over the weeks that followed, those ratings numbers would form the basis of not just our careers in radio but our life decisions if we decided to try and surf the waves of a professional radio career.

You see, people in the radio industry would read those numbers and make Big Decisions. Big Decisions from advertisers whether or not they wanted to spend their advertising budget with you or with your competitor. And Big Decisions from your employer on where you might be able to go next. Good numbers means a Breakfast Show in Sydney. Bad numbers means you're stuck hosting Trivia Night at the Oodnadatta Pub. For a classroom full of students training for a job that could take you almost anywhere in the country in pursuit of work, the prospect of having such Big Decisions as "do I (and my significant other) get to live in the city or do I/we have to move to the middle of nowhere" dependent on a single number in a Nielsen survey was sobering to say the least.

Even more confronting was learning how they arrived at those numbers in the first place. You might be familiar with the relatively high-tech 'people meter' hooked into the sample audience's TVs that determined the TV ratings. But for radio? Oh no no. Our teachers went on to tell us that the high tech equipment for radio surveys was... a diary and a set of stickers.

In that diary, each day was divided up into 15-minute segments, and if the person in question listened to a particular station for seven-and-a-half of those fifteen minutes, then they were to put that particular radio station's sticker in that box. And therefore (you'd assume) that this person listened to the ads in that that particular segment, the advertiser would be happy, and enough stickers in enough boxes means the radio host gets to keep their job.

Now you don't have to be an expert in the scientific method to see that comes with some... shortcomings. What if you're in a shop for 15 minutes, browsing, and the radio's on but you didn't hear what station it was tuned to? What if you listened to the radio for that period but turned down the ads? Or you were in the car with a friend and they got to pick the radio station but you still listened to the ads- would you put their sticker in the box? And what if you forget to stick your sticker? Considering that some very Big Decisions were made thanks to those ratings numbers, it was ludicrous: the single only redeeming feature of that particular data-gathering method was that it was the best we had at the time.

What's all this got to do with podcast listening figures?

Well, like a radio survey, podcast listening figures can be a little bit... nebulous.

I've long since left commercial radio (for a multitude of reasons), but in my time in the podcast industry I've seen it's fashionable to pile onto just how unreliable the podcast audience data-gathering methods are. Much like a radio show, once a podcast leaves the server it's hard to track where it ends up (For a great article on the challenges of measuring podcast listenership, try Jimmy and the magic pizza shop to put it in more delicious and relatable terms). And for an advertising world now spoilt by the relative certainty of social media analytics, answering "Ehh, it depends" to the question "So how many people listen to your show?" will often get an indie podcaster laughed off their prospective advertiser's Zoom meeting. So I can understand independent podcasters' and podcast advertisers' frustrations when they say it's hard to both understand, and rely on, podcast listening figures.

But even so, it's been fascinating to see the differing standards in which podcasting is held compared to radio. Especially these days, podcasting's rudimentary audience tracking and IAB 2.0 standards make the old radio surveys look positively quaint in comparison. So you'll forgive me, then, when I roll my eyes a little bit after podcasters, podcasting for business or for fun, ask me "Is this number of downloads any good?", or worse express their frustration that they "JUST DON'T KNOW HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE LISTENING!".

"For goodness sake," I wail. "You don't even run any ads! Radio stations have been making bigger decisions with less reliable data for years! And you've only got 200 downloads, how much accuracy do you NEED?!"

But after I calm down a little bit, apologise, and pick the pieces of broken pint glass off the pub floor, I do empathise with the poor person podcasting for business trying to decide if the whole shemozzle is worth their time. And for those chasing advertisers, I even get it from an advertiser's perspective, too: after I left the radio industry I moved into corporate comms where I was one of those dastardly folks making Big Decisions on what to do with an advertising budget, and we used that audience data as a basis for making a lot of our advertising decisions. So yes, to an indie podcaster wanting a slice of that pie, or even just for curiosity's sake, from the outside it looks like your listener figures are important.

But to be perfectly transparent, here...

(*whispers*) We didn't base all our advertising budget decisions on those numbers!

There, I said it!

In fact, to be honest, a fairly decent chunk was decided based on:

  • Who my boss told me to use, either because "this is the guy we use", because they'd had lunch with the sales rep recently, or because we absolutely HAD to buy (TV/ radio/roadside advertising/etc) for very deep-seated, very superstitious reasons otherwise the campaign would fail.

  • How much of a smarmy dick we thought (or didn't think) the sales guy/gal was.

  • And maybe even (heaven forbid) who fit our brand the best.

So if you take that idea, that audience numbers are only part of the story for an advertiser, and combine it with the facts that...

  • Any podcaster with less than 1000 listens a month stands to make two-fifths of stuff-all out of any advertiser looking for heaps of reach. Head of Podcasts at Nova Entertainment, Rachel Corbett, actually ran the numbers with ad data from US agency Midroll. So likely you aren't going to be making it rich on pure listener numbers for a while (if at all) anyway,

  • Podcast reach numbers have heaps of drawbacks, aren't easily comparable, are easily manipulated, easily misleading, and small in comparison with other media. (This article by James Cridland at Podnews should be your bible when it comes to understanding podcast numbers),

  • Podcast charts (like Apple's Top 100) are also extremely easily manipulated (like here and here) and tend to favour new subscribers, rather than number of listens, and

  • Audience numbers tell you nothing about how engaged your audience are, or tell you that rather than watch a 3-minute YouTube video your audience member decided to listen to you for 45 minutes instead...

... and it means that really, for the average independent podcaster those audience numbers you care so much about are nowhere near as important as you think. Maybe it's so important to you because you heard about people like me who would have lived and died by those survey numbers (had they got into a market that did surveys.... my radio career was short!). That's fine, if not probably completely irrelevant for your podcast! Maybe it's just because you need something extrinsic to base your production or advertising decisions on, and that's fine too, lots of zeroes do look good on paper. But I think it's distracting you!

What should we pay attention to instead?

Whilst I think that listener numbers can be important to the right folks, most people at all different stages in their podcasting journey shouldn't pay much attention to them for anything other than interest's sake. After all, most podcasts I come across actually don't have the end goal of amassing huge amounts of listeners, and your podcast can be plenty successful with just a modest listenership.

Instead, concentrate on doing the things that make your podcast more effective at whatever you created it to do, rather than just making your audience bigger. You can do this by:

  • Remembering the reason why you started in the first place: If you started your podcast for sales leads, maybe judge your podcast for the sales leads it generates instead? Or networking opportunities, then how many people have you networked with? Or, if you (inconceivably) started your podcast for fun, maybe ask yourself how much fun you're having?! Looking at listener numbers is irrelevant if it isn't getting you closer to your goal, so if you weren't caring about listener numbers when you started, why are you now?

  • Create good content, listen to listener feedback, and encourage engagement. This one should go without saying. Make content that people want to listen to, first and foremost, and then ask your listeners how to make it better. If you're not asking your audience to connect with you, you're missing out on heaps of information that's way more useful than just an audience number. Do they send you lots of compliments? Do they suggest things to improve? Act on them! Not only that, engaging your audience regularly in dialogue shows advertisers that your audience is active, and willing to listen, so if you're chasing advertisers and can show them some good social media engagement numbers, too, it will all help.

  • Improve your home-ground advantage. A small audience that's really engaged is way more cost-effective to an advertiser than a big one that isn't, so concentrate on becoming an authority in your chosen community. If you're podcasting in a niche, go and find advertisers interested in marketing to your niche, not just the ones that want to sell mail-order mattresses.

So don't worry about podcast audience numbers just yet!

As with what you tell your nine-year-old's soccer team, focus on sticking to the gameplan and the scoreboard will tend to take care of itself. And remember, as an indie podcaster, you have the luxury of having a bad couple of months without being forced to move to the outback. So be brave, try new things, and try not to take notice of the numbers!


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