The Most Important Question To Ask Yourself About Your Podcast

Whenever I start a new podcast project or work with a new client, I like to start off by asking a question. That question is:

Why Are You Making A Podcast?

It’s a super simple — if not a bit obvious — question. But the process of clarifying your why is one of the most important tools in a podcaster’s tool belt, for two big reasons:

  1. Making a podcast tends to require a great deal of time, effort, and energy. Contemplating the why question forces you to slow down for a second and really think about your reasons for doing this. It’s a gut check before you commit for real.
  2. The why question is a jumping off point for developing a strategy for executing your podcast. Once you know your why, you’re better able to make sense of your objectives. You can start thinking about planning, instituting systems, identifying success metrics, and more.

So now that I’ve listed the reasons to figure out your why, let’s look at…

What People Say When I Ask Them Their Why

I’ve had tons of conversations with podcasters about why they want to make a show. Some of the most common answers are:

  • Generating revenue.
  • Acquiring listeners.
  • Improving podcasting skills.
  • Getting hired at a podcast company.
  • Extending a brand into a new channel.
  • Obtaining a partnership with a podcast network.
  • Finally getting that one idea out into the world.
  • Having fun.
  • A million other responses.

These objectives aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive (for example, acquiring listeners is a pretty darn good way to generate revenue), and oftentimes people list several of these bullets as their why. So to really make sure that you’re hammering down on your why, you have to…

Separate Your Needs From Your Wants

Needs are the absolute requirements for making your podcast. Wants are the things that would be nice to have, but aren’t required.

Separating your needs from your wants is essential to navigating the challenges you’ll be facing as you make your show.

When you’re inevitably faced with difficult decisions, you can point back to your needs as the big driving force behind your show. That tends to make it easier to make those decisions, both large and small.

Lemme explain using an example of my own.

Case Study: “The Decision”

Last year, I released a show called “The Decision”. The tagline was: “The podcast where people try to convince me to finally abandon The Knicks, and become a fan of their favorite team.”

I thought it was a cute conceit. I ran it by a few friends, and they were stoked about it. So it passed the smell test.

I’d also just come off of a two-year period where I hadn’t released anything podcast-wise, and felt pretty stir crazy. I needed to release something. And I also happened to have some free time.

So, everything seemed to line up. I decided to go for it.

The Problem

The problem was that I wanted to make at least 30 episodes of the show (one for each NBA team), and it was only three weeks before the season was supposed to start.

My background is as an overly precious producer of deeply reported, sound-rich pieces. Naturally, I yearned to make an amazing show that could live up to all of my standards.

How could I do that if I needed to make at least 30 episodes of a show in just three weeks?

This is where the why question came back in for me.

The Exercise

I sat down with a pen and a piece of paper. (You can use a computer or whatever floats your boat.)

I drew a line down the middle of the paper. In the left column, I wrote “needs”. In the right column, I wrote “wants.” I set a five minute timer, and started writing.

In the wants column, I had a few things: Get lots of listeners, make money, book cool guests, make a great sounding show, and have fun.

In the needs column, I had only one thing: Put this project into the world by any means necessary.

Defining And Achieving Success

That exercise gave me my success metric. Literally, just finishing. That was my single most important goal. Just. Finish.

It’d be nice to make money or cultivate a large audience or get a Sarah Larson feature story in the New Yorker. But those were all just wants. Not needs.

So I focused on the tasks that would get me to my ultimate need of just releasing the thing.

For example, I didn’t need to make a beautiful sounding show, so I cheated. I listened back to my raw interview just once, on 1.5x speed, and only made cuts when I noticed blatant errors or super boring sections. I also cheated in the mix by using a bunch of compression.

The result was a product that was far from precious and sound rich. I made a ton of mistakes. And it sounded sort of bad.

But it didn’t matter. I had to serve my why. I had to get the podcast out.

Some Other Examples Of How I Prioritized My Need Over My Wants:

  • I worked to come up with a formulaic structure for the show, instead of being precious with how I structured my episodes.
  • I went after cool guests, but oftentimes abandoned them very quickly to book someone who I knew would be solid and who was available”, instead of spending time going back and forth with celebrity guests or waiting for my favorite people to say yes to my booking requests.
  • I promoted the show in only three industry listservs and my personal social media, instead of doing a larger marketing campaign.
  • I decided that I didn’t even want to think about making money during the production run, instead of developing a monetization plan.

My Success

In the end, my show was a massive success. I didn’t make oodles of money or get a massive audience or make something beautiful sounding. But I ended up releasing 35 episodes before the season started.

I did it. That was success for me.

To Wrap It Up…

If you end up trying the why method, please send me snaps of your brainstorms and/or reports from your experiments! Would love to see what y’all come up with.

Alex Kapelman