Broadcasting is a privilege. To have people listen to your voice and what you present from miles or oceans away is an amazing thing that deserves respect. Whether it’s over terrestrial broadcast, pirate radio, internet streams or podcast, having another human being choose to listen to you is an honor.
As a former program director I remember how both new and veteran DJs could get disappointed when the phone didn’t ring, or didn’t ring very much. At one community station one of our most popular hosts constantly asked listeners to give him a call between every song of his three-hour old-time Country music show. In fact, so many did that he needed an assistant just to answer them. He kept track every week, and inevitably would be disappointed when he had fifty instead of the ninety-five he had the previous show.
This is utterly understandable because broadcasting is communication, and what good is communicating to nobody? Most of us want listeners, and in our culture we equate having more listeners as being more successful, and having fewer listeners as less successful… or failure.
But I think this tendency must be deconstructed. Most importantly, this is because the desire to have more listeners threatens to obscure our ability to appreciate the listeners we have. This is something I brought up on episodes 14 and 15 of the podcast, but I wanted to expand on in writing.
Is a Small Crowd Less Deserving than a Big One?
For the sake of comparison, lets consider an indie rock band on a grassroots DIY tour. In some cities the band plays small clubs to capacity crowds of 500. In other towns the band is in Knights of Columbus halls playing to a hundred or fewer. Should the band rock out harder for the crowd of 500 or the crowd of 50? Is any person in that crowd of 50 any less of a fan, and deserve less of a show than a person in that sold-out crowd?
I think most people would answer, “no.” If you’ve ever been someone in a small crowd watching a band phone it in, you’ll probably agree. And if you had the fortune of being in a tiny crowd witnessing a band give it their all for each and every fan, then you probably agree even more. That’s because you experienced the magic of the band treating you, and everyone around you as special, even if the band members were hoping to have five times as many people in the crowd. Now imagine those fans in the KoC are your listeners, maybe small in numbers but mighty in energy and dedication.
Neither Live Nor Die by the Numbers
This tendency is probably more pronounced with podcasting, because on most platforms it’s easy to know exactly how many times your show was downloaded and listened to. Whereas many community stations don’t subscribe to ratings–saving DJs from knowing exactly just how small their audience is–podcasters have to work hard not to know. So when you see numbers like 50 downloads and you know shows like This American Life get more than a half-million downloads, it can be easy to feel discouraged.
But I want to assure you that 50 downloads is great, because behind that number are fifty living and breathing human beings who specifically decided to download your show. This didn’t happen by accident. Unlike broadcast, it’s almost impossible that they stumbled upon your podcast.
Even if you have a 1,000 downloads or 100,000 downloads, what’s most important is that even one person decided to download and listen. With so many choices to spend one’s media consumption time–from television to video games, radio to streaming music–it’s a true honor that each person in your audience decided to spend that time with you.
Turning the tables, how would you feel if the host of podcast you love did nothing but complain about how he wished his audience were bigger? After a while you’d probably feel like saying, “hey, what am I? Chopped liver?” It’s like the person who obsesses over the person who left her so much that she ignores her family and other friends, risking pushing even more people away.
Know Why You’re Doing It
This isn’t to say that building an audience isn’t great or even necessary. But it’s important to know why, and for what purpose.
The reality is if you want to sell ads on your podcast, you’ll need enough downloads to attract advertisers (which, in part, means having enough reach to justify the time and effort it takes to book a campaign). If you’re crowdfunding, then the amount of money coming in tends to scale with listenership, as well.
The realities of life and making a living may require your show to have more listeners or funders than it does. If that means you can’t keep doing the show, then there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not trying to argue anyone should go into poverty or debt just to keep broadcasting or podcasting. I’m also not arguing that you shouldn’t find something else to do with your time.
However, while many podcasters and community broadcasters may wish to make a living at broadcasting, most are doing it out of love for the medium and joy of communicating. It’s in this case that I think it’s most important not to get hung up on the numbers and to appreciate every single listener.
Every Listener Counts (in Large Amounts)
Moreover, even if you want to build a bigger audience, keep in mind that it’s built one listener at a time. You’ll need to hit 50 before you can hit 100; get to 1000 before 10,000. Sure, if This American Life decides to produce another show it’ll probably rocket past those milestones in the first hour–but for the vast 99.9% of broadcasters those steps come more slowly.
Also, if you can’t value, treasure, and yes, love every one of 50 listeners, are you really going to learn to love a 1000 or 1,000,000? Or will you just be sour because there aren’t 100,000,000?
That’s why I declare: Love Every Listener!
(Here on the website that means: Love Every Reader!)
It’s a lesson I keep reminding myself about because it also helps to refresh the reason why I do this every week. I wouldn’t do it without readers and listeners, and I am so grateful that you are reading this now. That makes it all worth while.