Listen to the audio version of this essay here!
What kind of egotistical asshole runs a solo podcast?!
Loads. Naval Ravikant has one. Peter Thiel has one. James Beshara has one. Scott Hanselman's has been running for 15 years. Lex Fridman and Joe Rogan became global celebrities just broadcasting 3 hour long conversations with anyone they wish. (Yeah it seems to be all dudes... let me know if you have other examples)
And, as of this year.... me.
The defining characteristic of a Personal Podcast to me is that it is primarily driven by the interests of one person exploring their intellectual curiosity under their own name.
I've increasingly come to like the idea, so on January 15th I started what I've come to call my own "mixtape".
My format is simple: Short audio clips from others on weekdays, long form content from me on weekends. Inspired by Ryan Holiday, NFX, The Daily and Techmeme. It's been slowly growing to a small listenership, mostly because I have no idea how the hell to market a podcast. This will be my 100th episode, and I think I have fuel in the tank for 100 more.
I thought I should offer some reflections on the occasion of my first 100 episodes. As @visakanv is fond of saying, "do 100 thing" is a key bar towards experimenting and building competence in something.
I'm not great at this yet. But I'm better than I was before. And at the end of the day, isn't that all we can ask for ourselves?
Infinite Game: the benefit of a personal podcast not being tied to a company or professional topic is that your name is the one thing that is going to last with you for the rest of your life.
- I'll grant that it's possible, ideal even, to have your name tied to one topic for the rest of your life, like Rob Walling, but it is very rare.
- The personal focus limits your reach, but ensures longevity. Having a personal podcast trains you to play Infinite Games by playing a game you cannot win, since the only goal is to keep going.
- Personal podcasting is a great low stakes way to practice being a Part Time Creator, as a means to lock down the time management and productivity tactics to run your own media operation.
Hot Medium: Audio is a much "hotter" medium than text, as Alex Danco has pointed out.
- It affords a lot more room for expression: in the same time it takes for someone to read your work, you can convey and evoke vocal emotion, include audio snippets, and even play music to your listeners (Music is the highest TAM market, period). Voice creates a visceral connection straight into your eardrums, and the rise of truly wireless earbuds like Airpods have only increased this power.
- Even it's constraints are nice: most of us spend all day staring at computer screens, so an audio-only format can be welcome respite during exercise and commutes.
- The power of audio is why, despite being extremely widely read already, both Ben Thompson and Packy McCormick invest time to read out audio versions of their essays every week.
Independence: Podcasting is one of the few truly decentralized mediums (although Spotify is doing its best to ruin it). If you can host MP3 files:
- You cannot be deplatformed whether by errant algorithm or arbitrary decision.
- You can run a podcast that will likely outlast any podcasting platform.
Completionism: For a huge % of the population, podcasts are the only RSS feed where they regularly have 100% completion rate.
- Not everyone will subscribe to your personal podcast, but those who do are far more likely to consume your content than even newsletter subscribers (where a 50% open rate is considered excellent)
Superfans: You give an extra opportunity for people who want "more where that came from" to do just that.
- This includes stripping out audio of the video interviews and talks you do, which can be helpful even just for discovery (in other words, even if the visual component is important, it can help your fans learn about content they want to watch)
- You can guard against bitrot and increase discovery by rehosting your own appearances on other podcasts (like my YouTube interviews or my Second Brain Workshops) on your own feed (instead of requiring your superfans to go find your appearances through an index on your site or just following you closely on social)
Scheduling and Creative Control: You don't rely on anyone else and don't need anyone's permission to change formats, take a break, or decide on content mix
- I started my own podcast because of 3 consecutive weeks of scheduling difficulties with my podcast cohost Randall. To be clear, they were all my fault, but just the inflexibility of having to work with someone else's schedule (for a non-work project) proved very difficult to sustain.
- I can throw in music or personal essays or angel investment chats or anything else I feel like anytime I want, as long as I think it'd make for something I myself would want to listen to in future.
As a side benefit, podcasting counts as excellent speaking practice - If you know you have a problem with your ums and ah's, there's nothing better to feel the pain than spending hours editing them out to motivate you to fix that.
I think of my mixtape as a new format that I don't see anywhere else. Of course, mixtapes themselves are as old as recorded audio, but they died off in the age of professional podcasting.
- Giving Value. My formula of short weekday + long weekend is a blend of Corey Quinn's AWS podcast and Peter Thiel's "recycled talks". I think this is the right blend of "jab jab jab, right hook": Giving value on a regular basis, and only infrequently asking for something self serving (my listener's time to listen to my voice drone on).
- Curation. The weekday episodes clip extensively from other podcasts I listen to. I often get asked about IP rights of doing this, since it is so rarely done — I am mostly relying on fair use law and asking for forgiveness rather than permission. For what it's worth, every time I've publicly tweeted about an episode clip like with Lynn Jurich or Shaan Puri, it's received retweets and even thanks from the people involved in the podcast. As for my listeners, I hope it helps them discover podcasts they haven't heard before, and zoom in to the specific timestamp that I deem most valuable.
- Brevity. The shortcast format is another innovation - most weekday episodes are edited to under 10 minutes as much as possible. This is part creative constraint, part keen calculation: Everyone else puts out 30, 60, 120, and 180 minute episodes, so I stand out when I drop something that ends in 3 minutes and delivers that single hit you think about for months. It feels like a much smaller ask for hopefully great value.
I've had my own struggles with the high frequency format as well.
- Audio Editing: I've gotten a lot better at putting episodes together with Audacity and Descript, but it is still a massive time sink and often takes 2-5x longer to produce than the final output.
- Discoverability: Audio just doesn't show up for SEO. This can be mediated by smart titling and including transcripts, but it will just never rank as highly as a standalone blogpost. But perhaps more concerning for ROI on my time, my efforts will never scale through algorithmic recommendations. I have to put in extra effort mentioning it on Twitter or email, and it mostly doesn't do very well due to the platform incongruity.
- Analytics: While I can track downloads, I don't actually know if anyone is even listening on the other side. So I do rely on people giving me positive encouragement via email, Discord, or Twitter like this or this or this.
- Depth: Depressingly, most people don't read the descriptions of podcasts. I love giving further details for people to go down the same path I did, but people can't click on a link in my spoken word.
- Commentary: People respond to podcasts even less than they read the descriptions, because the medium itself doesn't have an inbuilt feedback layer. I could include my email or a feedback form in every episode, but even then the response rate is super low. And it is many-to-one, rather than many-to-many, where feedback is encouraged because people can see that other people are giving feedback, and that I am responsive to it.
For these reasons, I am thinking about branching out or tweaking the format yet again, to involve YouTube. YouTube has a lot of these downsides mitigated, and the audio can still be stripped out and republished as an audio podcast. However, one downside is amplified: the need to edit video over audio, with correspondingly higher wait times and longer publish cycle.
Subscribe to my mixtape already to experience it yourself, and let me know if you're inspired to start your own!