Not Enough People Listen to Thinking Religion (or Why I Despise Facebook)


With the mass hysteria around the Serial podcast at the end of 2014 and the continued excellence of other NPR shows such as This American Life or RadioLab, it’s no surprise that the press and media were eager to claim a “return of the podcast” early in 2015.

Podcasts are nothing new and have been delivering content to folks like me for over a decade since they were first implemented by Dave Winer and Adam Curry. Podcasts have, for better and for worse, always been seen as something of a geeky pursuit. They were never difficult to actually make or listen to, but it just felt as if the technology for mass adoption wasn’t there. We lovers and makers of podcasts sat by while the music industry was transformed first by Napster then iTunes and now streaming, and then the visual media industry was transformed by YouTube and Netflix. We watched promising companies like Ev Williams’ Odeo pivot from podcast transformer to Twitter parent company. We knew we had something good and our time would come.

However, it felt like 2015 was going to be the year of the podcast in terms of mass adoption. It makes sense… technology has finally caught up to the medium. Almost everyone has a mobile device of some sort, more often than they have computers in 2014 and beyond. Most of those mobile device owners are comfortable enough to find media and apps via Netflix or Spotify. There’s been a growing acceptance of the notion of “on demand” media consumption whether it’s House of Cards or the latest comic book on Comixology. Data rates have gotten faster and cheaper (somewhat) and people are more comfortable with downloading or streaming media rather than having it delivered passively by TV and radio. Serial was the siren song of podcasting’s new era. A time when podcasts stopped being just about tech and finally ventured into other mediums. We have Adam Corolla, after all. Surely, if you make “good stuff” and put it out there in your niche, people would find and start listening in 2014. Right?

Short answer: No.

It’s not anymore difficult to make a podcast than it is to make a blog post or even a Facebook post for those willing to trade their digital souls for even more comfort and supposed eyeballs. However, it is still difficult to find an audience for your podcast that makes you “feel” like it’s worth doing.

I have this conversation often with clients who are interested in podcasting as a form of marketing their church, product, startup idea, service etc. “Let’s do this,” I say, “but be aware that this is not going to make it onto any iTunes top charts and you’ll be lucky to have a dozen consistent listeners after a few months if you make it that long.”

That’s because it’s hard to show up week after week (if you’re doing a weekly show, which is what I’d recommend since that’s the accepted format at this point) for months at a time and record yourself talk either solo or with a group, do the post recording work of either editing but definitely uploading, posting it somewhere, and attempting getting the word out only to see that you have 11 listeners to a show four months in. Clients, like all of us, want fast results whether they say it or not. It’s human nature. It’s why we like using Facebook instead of a personal blog to post details of our lives or businesses… people “Like” us there and we get tangible feedback for our time or work or thoughts. “I am important because people listen to me!” is Facebook’s psychology 101.

Podcasting is different. There is little in the way of the gratification machine at work to tell you that you’re doing a good job, even months or perhaps years, into your show. Excellent podcasters like Dan Benjamin will tell you to show up and keep showing up. He’s right. But what about if you’re just starting out. “Is it really worth all that time, then?” my clients ask.

I should have a good answer to that question prepared given how much I hear it and that I’ve ran a podcast network called Thinking.FM since 2011. I came up with the idea in 2009 after I started podcasting in 2008. I did a 22 minute daily show for almost six months. When that show ended, it had a few thousand listeners. “I’m important because people listen to me!” I thought after doing the very hard work of not just talking about something I thought interesting for 22 minutes every day, but also the pre and post work that was required to do a daily show in 2008 (not to mention I was working from home with my newborn daughter who ended up being a frequent guest on the show inadvertently).

Podcasting is still figuring itself out and the mass majority of consumers are still figuring out the medium as well. Sure, there’s an Apple Podcasts app that comes pre-installed on all iPhones now but how many people ever tap on “Tips” or “Newstand” either?

My answer is yes, you should podcast. It is fun. It is hard. It is cost and time intensive. Eventually, it does pay off in ways not measured by Likes or retweets.

For example, my friend Thomas Whitley and I do a podcast called Thinking Religion. It’s an amazing show (I can say that because I’ve been listening to podcasts for a while and we talk about amazingly interesting things from two different perspectives). Our latest show (29th episode) was by far our best:

Prof. Thomas Whitley and Sam Harrelson attempt to bring some thoughtfulness to the topic of religion again this week with a discussion of presidential politics and religion, metaphysics in the public sphere, ISIS and the antiquities black market, and whether we can recover lost texts.

Thinking Religion: Is There An Original New Testament? | Thinking.FM


You can listen by clicking on this player. Go ahead.

After doing the show weekly for almost thirty weeks now, we’re lucky if we have a few hundred listeners. Most times, it’s much less than that.

“But Sam,” you say, “it’s a podcast by two history / religion dorks talking about God knows what for 90 minutes. Why would anybody listen to that?”

Good point if you’re looking to get huge CPM advertising deals from Ford or use your podcast to market your church or your service or your products to millions!

But that’s more than likely not realistic. Moreover, it’s not the best use of your time, money, and resources to go for that goal. Instead, think long term. Think about possible connections and implications of your recorded word and the effects they may have on someone interested in you, your group, your product, your church etc. Think about how you can make someone’s life better, give them hope, solve their problem, or make them dream.

It pays off. Trust me.

Millions of listens and huge advertising payoffs are┬ánot the intent of Thinking Religion or Thinking.FM in general. It’s also not the point of any of the podcasts I help my clients do and promote. Instead, quality means more than quantity. That’s the reason I personally despise Facebook as both a personal medium and as a marketing medium for churches and non-profits and startups… it reinforces the notion of immediacy when it comes to Likes and feedback response. It’s a Skinner box (that’s a podcast I did with my wife, Merianna) with no sense of permanence or longevity. In my practice of marketing, permanence and longevity mean everything.

That’s why I podcast. I want to plant sequoias and say that my main crop is the forest I did not plant. Go and do likewise.

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