Lessons in getting an indie podcast off the ground

There are millions of ways for a podcast to be successful. For Kaitlin Prest — creative director of The Heart — success is making work she is passionate about and having support in doing that. She shares 10 things that turned a passion project into a funded indie podcast.
(Jen Ng / Ted Roeder)
Dear reader,

My name is Kaitlin Prest. If we haven't met before, you can discover some of my most intimate and personal life details by checking out The Heart.

Like this piece about an uncomfortable kiss that probably never should have happened.

On The Heart you'll find personal stories from all kinds of people baring their souls about the most exciting and most terrifying parts of being human.

Like this piece by Mitra Kaboli, about being haunted by a man who broke her heart.

The podcast began as a broadcast radio show called Audio Smut on CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal. That was in 2008. Over the years a rotating cast of women, queers and trans folks worked for free to make the show month by month.

2012: Late night Audio Smut work session in the bedroom studio with Mitra Kaboli (left) and Meg Bell. Note comforter on chair for blanket fort recording purposes.
As volunteers came and went, I found myself unable to move on in the way that most people move on from their 'college radio show'. I moved to New York City for love (the relationship depicted in the above piece), and as my relationship fell apart I realized I had inadvertently moved to indie radio heaven. I propositioned Mitra Kaboli to leave Montreal, and join me in New York to try to turn Audio Smut into a 'real public radio show'.

Our explicit content was never destined for the radio waves. After being rejected time and time again, podcasting gave us the freedom to say f--k you to the broadcast stations. But that didn't mean we were getting paid.

After six years of making the show on the side of odd jobs we joined PRX's Radiotopia, a podcast network of some of the best sound driven storytelling podcasts out there. The Heart was born. A passion project turned into a real job, and somewhere in heaven, an angel got its wings.

The episode Welcome to The Heart explains all of this in a much more aurally pleasurable way.

There are millions of ways for a podcast to be successful. For us, success is making work we are passionate about and having financial and administrative support in doing that. These are some things that helped us achieve that goal.


1. Developing a strong brand

I believe that every strong piece of culture creates an utterly complete alternate universe. At The Heart, we spent a ridiculous amount of time imagining what the rules of our universe would be. I wrote it all down in a huge document; content, form, style, aesthetic. This was for internal use, but we also wrote a one liner, or 'elevator pitch' to describe the ethos of the show on Twitter/Facebook/in elevators, and a longer blurb to with a more detailed description of what we were about.​
A photograph of the variations on our logo, as depicted on our business cards. Designed by Jen Ng.

1b. I know it's audio, but think about your image

We work with an incredible designer named Jen Ng who makes everything we do look the way the show sounds when it's presented online. Jen and I spend afternoons in coffee shops creating inspiration boards and thinking about titling conventions. We commissioned an illustrator (Jenn Custard-Jarosz) to design our logo.
The Wedding performance. (Ted Roeder)
When we have performances, we always design the space so that it feels like you are walking into an episode of the show. We always work with the same incredibly talented photographer, Ted Roeder. These are ways we try to make the universe of The Heart feel consistent and complete.

2. Structure (Deadlines! And all the tricks you must play on yourself to stick to them)

In the absence of a station, a boss and a broadcast clock, The Heart had to create and enforce a production schedule. Firstly, to make sure anything got finished. Secondly, because an audience wants and needs consistency. Whether you decide to be weekly, monthly, or seasonal, a production plan is important. How long you want to spend making an episode? How many internal deadlines should go before the final release deadline? After you figure that out, you must find someone to hold you accountable. Which brings me to #3.

3. A team (Don't do it alone!)

Samara Breger, Kaitlin Prest and Mitra Kaboli of The Heart.
It is a fallacy that audio producers can make a show alone. Especially if you are an independent working in your bedroom, it becomes all too easy to blow your own deadlines, or get lost in sounds and stories that are only fun for you. At minimum, a podcaster needs an editor. In an ideal world, you have a small group of people who work with you on the show and bring different skills to the table.

4. A creative community

Find audio producers or artists you admire and respect who live in your city. Become friends with them. Hang out with them all the time and talk shop together. Share work with each other. Everything I ever needed to know, I was able to find out through my creative community. Save up to go to radio festivals and meet your ilk: Deep Wireless, Third Coast, Hearsay, Megapolis.

5. A greater purpose

Kaitlin recording music in The Heart's 'magic recording booth' (aka: a closet with comforters hammered into the walls and ceiling).
Self promotion is hard, because it feels narcissistic. Promoting, pitching and singing the praises of The Heart was very easy to do because I was pitching a bigger idea than "my super cool podcast." I was pitching sex education. I was pitching normalized representations of queer and trans folks. I was pitching an innovative approach to sound design and storytelling. Identifying the broader significance of the show helped me explain to people why it mattered, and helped me have blind faith in it myself.

6. Good sound

Please. For the love of radio. Do not wake up one morning and decide you know how to make a podcast if you do not know anything about audio. Audio is a craft. It is an art. It must be respected. Worshipped. Cherished. Learn basic audio engineering. Or ask an indie musician if they want to be your engineer. Reaper is an amazing editing software that is user friendly and cheap. Putting your mic close to your mouth when you record makes us want to listen to you. But practice is the only way you will learn.

7. An audience

Doing really good creative work helps in getting an audience, it really really does.

Movies In Your Head is a radio play we spent over a year working on. We worked with composer and sound designer Shani Aviram, which brought the audio quality to another plane. This piece promoted itself. Our audience grew 8k in the months after we released it.

But making great work is often not quite enough. It's known podcast wisdom that appearing on bigger shows/podcasts is the secret to growing your audience. Countless shows got their start by producing a version of an episode for This American Life and having Ira Glass promote the podcast. He's called 'the podfather'. The Heart produced a piece for NPR's Snap Judgment. Our audience grew 10k in a couple of weeks. Having an audience is really important for pitching your podcast to networks, because your audience numbers are what creates revenue.

8. Money (Be dedicated to finding a way to pay yourself)

Figuring out a funding model is the challenge all artists face. These are sources of cash I know of within the podcasting universe:

  1. a) A company that wants a podcast - many arts institutions, magazines and businesses are interested in having a podcast of their own, and hiring you to make it for them. Find one that's in alignment with your interests, and pitch!
  2. b) Sponsorship/advertising - podcast sponsorship operates on CPM (cost per thousand) downloads/episode. The industry standard is a $20 CPM. So once you have a few thousand regular listeners, you can start pursuing businesses to sponsor you!
  3. c) A network - see below.

9. A network (A home)

Radiotopia is our network home!
Joining Radiotopia was a game changer for us. Networks help you with funding, distribution, promotion and generally raising the value of your work. There are tons of networks you can pitch your work to:
  1. a) Podcast networks - Radiotopia, Buzzfeed, Earwolf, Gimlet, Panoply, MaxFun, and aCast are some recently born podcast networks.
  2. b) Media networks - big media companies are beginning to flock into podcasting, Vice, Rolling Stone, MTV, Amazon. They're looking for content producers who know their way around audio.
  3. c) Radio networks - many public radio networks and stations are starting their own podcast departments. Not sure if the CBC is starting a podcasting program, but now is a great time to pitch them on the idea! [Editor's note: Here's how to pitch a radio program or podcast to CBC.] 

10. Perseverance (If the door is locked, climb the fence and go in through the window)

Ultimately, audience, funding and networks should be tools you use to make incredible audio. But there will always be obstacles to making great work. The balance of being profitable to making something truly surprising is always the artist's struggle. It's your job to use whatever resources you have at your disposal to make something that moves people. However you do it, know that great work will go a long way. You can do it.


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