Case in point: Matt Chittim, host of The Rambling Runner podcast, for (and about) dedicated runners who are working hard to get better while balancing running with the rest of their lives. Matt started out with a handful of listeners; he was thrilled the first time he hit 1,000 downloads a month. Today the podcast averages over 100,000 downloads a month, and The Rambling Runner ranks in the top 200 sports podcasts on Apple Podcasts.
So how has, as Matt puts it, a "not so talented individual earned a modicum of success in this industry?"
Let's find out.
A lot of people start a podcast without a compelling "Why?" What's your "why?"
The one thread through all my jobs is travel. I think I was the first person to subscribe to Audible. (Laughs.)
A few years ago I was working at Providence College in the Major Gifts office. I was really good friends with the marketing communication dept. head and I badgered them to do a podcast. They had a built-in audience of 50,000 alumni. They said sure, we'll do it... but you have to be the host.
I have no training. They closest I came was calling four women's college basketball games years before because they needed someone.
So I started doing a weekly podcast interviewing faculty members, student alums, etc.
Which gave you some experience, but...
You're right. I loved doing it, but it was for them. It wasn't mine.
Then Anchor developed an app that lets you record phone-to-phone without special equipment or post-production skills, and I thought, "I can do this on my own, just press 'publish'... that's super easy. I can do that."
But I needed a topic. I love running podcasts, but there were very few of them -- so I decided to make it about amateur runners and amateur running. Everyone has a story. I decided to see where it took me.
So on July 11, 2017, I did my first interview with Shawanna White, the Olympic Trials-qualifying marathoner. I followed her on Instagram and thought she was fascinating. She's super-fast, super energetic... she's the kind of person you want to be around.
I had done enough interviews by then to know that having a guest with genuine personality makes the podcast better.
Was it hard to get guests at first?
Yes and no. The Providence College podcast PC podcast gave me some built-in credibility, which I could use even though my podcast was starting from zero.
But I stayed pretty close to zero for quite a while. It took five months to get to over 1,000 downloads in a month. And that was cumulative. (Laughs.)
After all, I was just Joe Shmoe runner. That felt like a huge success.
So how did you grow your audience?
What doesn't work is hoping people will listen. Simply trying to make the podcast as good as possible is not enough. You can't just hope quality will ensure that people will find you.
What I decided to do is do the Gary V thing for four hours a day on nights and weekends, working to connect the podcast with different people in the running community.
Of course that's a long process. And it doesn't scale very well. But if you work it.... For example. Say I released a podcast on a Monday. I would share it on Instagram and so would the guest. I wouldn't get a lot of comments... but the guest might get comments on their feed... so I would look at their friends, see who commented on the podcast, and try to piggy-back.
Say Shawanna White has a really good friend who comments to her, "Hey, you did a really good job on the show!" I might see if they want to be a guest; after all, I don't need to introduce the podcast to them. They're one of 10 people who know what it is. (Laughs.)
I used that method to springboard it one by one. It's a long tail approach: Get interesting people, engage with their followers... and patiently try to build an audience.
Was there a moment when everything started to click?
A key was the California International marathon. It's held the first weekend in December every year, it's like a national championship for men and women... kind of like the Boston Marathon of the west coast. I decided to do all my programming for four weeks about the event. I interviewed a number of people ahead of it, a number of them afterwards... some guests had significant social media followings but others were "just" fascinating runners I really wanted to talk to.
I got a bunch of guests that really propelled the show. It focused on a major race runners know about, many of whom have an emotional investment in it and couldn't wait to talk about it...
And you also upped your professional game.
Also in mid-December I a professional graphic and moved to two episodes per week.
It was a confluence of things: Better guests, more popular guests, better graphics, better production quality, more frequency and more shareable content... and maybe I was getting better as a host (laughs)... that's when it really started moving.
And the flagpole keeps moving.
And now you've landed some very cool guests.
That's a slow build as well, but if you stay with it...
Take Matt Fitzgerald. I got to know him 3 years ago. I saw on social media that he was going to do a long run in Rhode Island the next morning. I emailed him and said, "I love all your books and would love to run with you."
He emails back, "Matt, I'm running 20 miles tomorrow."
I said, "Great. So am I!" And my wife looks over my shoulder and says, "Matt, you haven't run 20 miles once this year. Your longest run was a half-marathon."
But I thought, "I'm going to make this work. I was like Jesse Itzler talking my way into a successful moment. And it turned out I ran shockingly well... and two years later I got him on the podcast.
That connection lets me talk to Nick Symmonds. He announced he was going to retire after the Oregon Marathon and I was the first interview he did the next day.
If you keep working, random things will happen to help you the momentum going. While it can be a grind -- I do the interviews after my kids go to bed -- you just have to keep going.
Say I am thinking about starting a podcast. What advice would you give me?
One, it's really important to pick a topic you enjoy. Building an audience will be a grind, and if you don't enjoy it you won't keep going through all those inevitably tough moments. Of course that's good advice for any endeavor.
Two, make sure it's something you enjoy... but also something that doesn't quite exist in the marketplace. In my case, I didn't feel there were any podcasts that focused on amateur running stories. I didn't want to be just another person trying to interview Kara Goucher.
The third is patience. No one listened to my show for five months. You can't let it get you down. And you can't be a slave to stats. I got a kick out of the conversations, I loved the conversations, I got to talk to people I would have enjoyed talking to regardless of whether I was recoding.... The conversations weren't work. They were something I wanted to do.
Four, you want your podcast to be popular, you have to market it. You have to put in that work, too. Your podcast won't be popular because you want it to be or because you sponsor one post on Facebook or Instagram. My marketing philosophy was Gary V: People won't care about you unless you care about them.
And that leads me to the last point, one I know you believe in: Focus on the process. If it becomes popular, great. If you get sponsors, if you get partners... that's all the better.
For me, I like talking to the people I get to talk to. Everything else is gravy. It's a hobby I enjoy, one people seem to like.
If I can keep improving, that's great. I'm focused on that -- not the destination.