DIY podcasting isn’t as cheap as you’d think

Microphone check 1, 2
 (Reuters/Paul Hackett)
Microphone check 1, 2 (Reuters/Paul Hackett)
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My name is Khe, and I’m a closet podcaster. I don’t mean “closeted” in the sense that I podcast in secret. I mean it in the sense that I podcast from an actual closet, because of its density and abundance of coats. Both provide good acoustics and a barrier between me and my two kids. Often I podcast shirtless, because tiny closets filled with coats are hot AF.

Closet podcasting is about as far as you can get from a vision of silky-voiced Ira Glass who records This American Life in a cozy studio with big leather headphones and a team of professional producers. It’s time-consuming, expensive, and lacks glamour.

Even so, thanks to commoditized technology, cheap and abundant storage, and democratized access to content, hosting a podcast has become almost a requirement for the <em>digerati</em> and it now seems like everyone has one—in addition to a blog, an email newsletter, and (eye roll) an eBook.

I’ve learned a lot by producing 30 weekly podcast episodes, each featuring an hour-long conversation. It’s been rewarding, but boy do I wish somebody had read me the fine print before I took the plunge.

So here’s to paying it forward: If you are considering starting a podcast, or just hope to appreciate what really goes into one, you’ll want to see the financial and time breakdowns of the entire endeavor. Based on my experience, here is what you can expect them to look like.

Setup costs ($414 one-time cost)

Wait, there are setup costs? Couldn’t you just slap an iPhone on a coffee table, pull up the voice recorder app, and start talking? In theory, yes, but here was my first gross underestimation: Live audio is a technical, cumbersome, and unforgiving medium. If you want a half-decent audio experience for your listeners (and trust me, even your besties have many, many high-quality options), you need to mitigate background noise, sirens, dogs, clinking jewelry, and AC vents—which is hard without some investment in specialized audio equipment. I settled for the middle of the road technology, and it still set me back more than I was expecting.

I’d anticipated buying two microphones. I hadn’t calculated the cost of microphone stands, a recorder, and a memory card (because audio files are massive). If you want to interview guests remotely, you’ll also need to buy a Skype-based software recorder.

  • 2 Microphones, $64 each
  • 2 Microphone stands, $13 each
  • Two-track recorder, $200
  • 64 GB memory card, $20
  • Skype call recorder app, $40

Pre-production (4 hours per episode)

Ok, so we’re already in the hole, but at least we get to head over to the fun part: recording the conversation. First, some prep and logistics. This stage consists primarily of researching guests, including reading their blog posts, listening to prior podcast episodes or talks, skimming any books they may have written, etc. Then there are the logistics: scheduling the interview, perhaps arranging travel so you can get the interview, and finding a quiet spot for recording.

  • Guest research, 3.5 hours
  • Scheduling logistics, 30 minutes

Recording (2.5 hours per episode)

Let’s say you record a one-hour conversation. Conservatively, you also need an hour (in total) to set up and test your equipment prior to hitting the record button and then to break down the equipment and back up all of your files after the interview. You should also plan for a 30-minute buffer period, because audio (and human guests) can be clunky and unreliable.

  • Recording, 1 hour
  • Set up/Take down, 1 hour
  • Buffer, 30 minutes

Post-production (3.5 hours per episode)

Editing (1.5 hours)

When I started my podcast, I had never even heard the term “post-production.” This is where the time and costs really start to add up. It also bears repeating: audio is a difficult medium. First, you can’t really see it. I know this sounds obvious, but trying to edit something you can’t see is extremely hard. (And sadly, transcription AIs are not really ready for prime time.) Second, you can’t copy-and-paste audio. Changes in speed, tone, and emotion make it hard to move audio around (which is why I only edit out sections). Lastly, while Apple does have a free audio editor (Garage Band), good luck learning how to use it on the fly. I made a specific trade-off by paying an audio engineer to edit each episode. My engineer is local to New York City and charges $150 per episode, but you can find one via UpWork who will do the work remotely for $50. I went with the more expensive option primarily because in my experience, it takes numerous attempts to find the right contractor through platforms such as UpWork. Also, I wanted to informally bounce editorial and distribution strategies off the engineer and figured that this was more likely via a referral (who had tried and tested experience with my genre).

Another component of post-production is recording the guest introduction, those 20-second blurbs at the start of each episode. Simple, right? Wrong. Not only do they not write themselves, but it invariably takes several attempts to make a compelling recording.

  • Sending edits to audio engineer, 1 hour
  • Recording guest intro, 30 minutes

Show notes (2 hours)

We’re still pretty far from the finish line, but you can think of the remainder of the process as the episode’s “packaging.” You’ve got to upload your episode to your podcast host (most likely Libsyn, Bluberry, or Soundcloud), write the text that will show up in the podcast apps, and then create some sort of show notes (or blog post) so that people can find and share your episode. And since you’ve done all that work, you probably will want to cross-post this text on social media.

  • Upload episode and write blurb, 30 minutes
  • Create show notes, 1 hour
  • Share and cross-post on social media, 30 minutes

Ongoing costs ($230 to $630 per month)

In addition to the per-episode editing cost, you’ll need to pay for storage services that can accommodate the size of your audio files. Generally this requires a monthly subscription to a podcast hosting service and an upgrade to your Dropbox subscription.

  • Audio engineer (assuming four episodes per month @ $50-$150/episode), $200-600
  • Podcast Hosting, $20
  • Dropbox Plus, $10

Adding it all up

In case you’ve lost count, I’ve aggregated the time and financial commitments.

  • Fixed costs (one-time): $414
  • Production costs (per episode): $50-$150
  • Variable costs (per month): $30
  • Time commitment (per episode):  10 hours

Since I’ve produced 30 episodes (over the past seven and a half months), I’ve spent $5,139 (this would have come out to $2,139 had I used an audio engineer via UpWork) and 300 hours producing my masterpiece.

I’ll spare myself the embarrassment and won’t share my actual download numbers. But they’re low, to the point that even if I were to get a sponsor, my earnings wouldn’t even come close to covering the production costs.

Is this side hustle worth it? Well, it all depends on your perspective. I’m fortunate to be in a position to absorb the costs, and I like flexing new creative muscles by learning both the technical and narrative elements of podcasting. I feel good about offering up conversations that I want to see in the world, and it’s fun to have an excuse to interview some phenomenal individuals in the process. But podcasting is not going to be the activity that launches me into the Four Hour Workweek. So for now, I’ll have to accept that my podcast is unlikely to be financially lucrative and treat it more like I treat snowboarding—as an expensive hobby.