woman recording a podcast on a microphone

The 21st-century audience doesn’t like words and verbosity, they said. Video is the new, supreme master of content, they said. Well, podcasts have had their say on the matter. As of June 2019, there were over 750,000 podcasts in the world, with over 30 million episodes (more amazing stats here). What’s even more important, podcast listeners are typically very loyal and – affluent. Which means that they are likely – and willing – to support their favorites. And that’s the most basic answer to the question of how do podcasts make money.

There are thousands of successful podcasters who have made it their full-time job. Some of them even got to the six-figure milestone. But the hard truth is, nobody has ever managed to do it with less than a few dozens of podcast episodes. If you are looking for a quick way to earn thousands of dollars, podcasting probably won’t be an answer to your prayers.

Make It a Really Good Show

Naturally, this is far easier said than done. But, if it’s any consolation, once you manage this, you’ll have done most of the job.

So what does it mean, a good podcast? And how to make people download it, devour it, and spread the word to their like-minded souls?

The niche, topic and presentation style are paramount. Even the most exploited topics can be presented in a unique angle – either humorous, or highly informative, or dynamic in some other way. Choose your guests carefully and commit to developing a highly personal, intimate tone, so that they are ready to open up. A good podcast hits that sweet spot that lies somewhere between educating and entertaining your audience. Like I said above, podcast audience is difficult to win, but very loyal in comparison to other types of followers.

Don’t neglect technical requirements either. You will need a decent mic, headphones and software. Luckily, you don’t have to go wild with those – a starter mic and headphones don’t have to cost over $50 each. As for software, there are both free and cheap options – Audacity is completely free, while Zencastr will start charging you only if you have more than two guests and/or record over eight hours per month.

Finally, you should submit your podcast to some of the global podcasting directories such as Spotify, SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and dozens of others. However, you should also make your own website as a basis, with an adequate WordPress theme for podcasting. In time, you can even turn it into a membership site as another way of monetization.

Monetization Options

The first logical step would be to turn to the so-called CPM (“cost per mille”) advertising model, where advertisers will pay you a certain amount of money per 1,000 downloads.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a very viable option, for two main reasons:

  • If you get $20 per 1,000 downloads (which is the median rate), it would take months or even years to start making, well, $100 per month. And that’s hardly enough to get you going.
  • Loyal audience is your most important asset, and you shouldn’t trade them for peanuts. Many of them would be willing to give you a few bucks every month directly, which is definitely more than the nickel-and-dime you would earn from ads. 

Instead of advertising, you could resort to affiliate marketing. If you mention certain products, you can link out to them from your website. It’s not nearly as pushing as ads, since your visitors can choose (or not) to buy them through your links, without it directly affecting their user experience. Naturally, all of these products would have to be something you personally vouch for.

Another way would be to devise your own product (e.g. online course) and sell it to those followers who want more of what you have to offer. Whether you intended it or not, you’re a specialist in the eyes (or ears) of your audience. Depending on your niche, you could even offer them consultation services, tiered into several subscription levels. Or sell branded t-shirts, mugs and other goods to your evangelists.

The good news here is that you can combine several of these methods into a viable income. But there’s also some bad news: in all likelihood, it will take years to be able to branch out like that.

Leverage the Crowd Power

Jump over to Patreon and search for “Podcasts”. My first search returned over ten pages of results, with the project called Last Podcast on the Left collecting over $55,000 every month, from more than 11,000 patrons! As you can see, Patreon is structured as a sort of membership website, where visitors can access tons of tiered premium content if they pledge a designated amount of cash every month.

Chances are you won’t be able to make it this big. But let’s look at it this way: with as “little” as a couple thousand bucks, you will be able to quit your day job and turn to podcasting full time!

Alas, even that is impossible if you don’t commit an extraordinary number of hours.

However you choose to monetize your podcast, it’s insanely important to build and maintain a strong social media presence. And you won’t be surprised to hear that the main social channel for podcast promotion is Twitter. It just offers the right ecosystem for verbal types of people who appreciate wit and like to engage in thought-provoking debates.

podcast recording studio

Pro Tip

Even if you don’t make it on your own after a few months or a year, you will have developed some pretty rare skills. You may be able to get some freelancing gigs in sound editing or postproduction. There are many podcast creators who outsource these tasks to other people. So, you will be able to capitalize on your podcasting skills, one way or another.

How Do Podcasts Make Money and How Long Does It Take – A Small Case Study

Remember the case of Last Podcast on the Left that we mentioned above? Well, right now they are only second on Patreon in terms of earnings. Graphtreon is showing us that the most successful podcast on Patreon is Chapo Trap House, with whopping $146,704 per month! They have three times as many patrons as Last Podcast on the Left. Both of these podcasts have been running for well over 1,000 days.

But not everything is about longevity, as some other examples show. Believe it or not, some podcasters have managed to reach over $1,000 in monthly donations, in less than half a month!

podcast earnings list

So I gave one of them (“Well There’s Your Problem Podcast”) an in-depth look and here’s what I found.

They launched their first episode on YouTube in September this year, when they didn’t even have an official name. It took them only two months to accrue over 10,000 subscribers and launch their project on Patreon. Is this success only due to the topic of “engineering disasters and systemic failures”?

Not really – or rather, not exclusively. I tracked the guys down on Twitter, and here’s what I saw.

Two of the three hosts have a following of over 19k respectively, as well as their own pages on Patreon. Plus, one of them is a relatively experienced podcaster with TrashFuture, a show that collects over $5,000 per month.

So, these guys have been doing it for quite some time, busting the myth about quick and sweet success with podcasting.

Conclusion & Key Takeaway

Successful podcasting boils down to four main factors:

  • The niche – how saturated it is, how many great podcasts are already there
  • Unique angle – even the most competitive topic can shine if you do it from an entirely new perspective
  • Persistence – not giving up after an episode – or ten
  • Social media presence – it’s your main channel for promotion, especially Twitter.