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Burned Out

Alongside all the recent news of big acquisitions and new launches, I’ve become aware of another theme bubbling away. Plenty of podcasters are talking about experiencing burnout, or something close to it. Again and again, in private conversations with people who make audio, I’ve heard the same view expressed: there’s all this money being thrown around and podcasting’s never been so hot, so why am I still working 70+ hours a week and unable to afford any help?

I decided to dig into this a bit further, since it’s a nuanced topic that people experience differently depending on their individual situations. And although I’ve been having more conversations about it recently, it’s by no means a new phenomenon. Among many instances: Podcasters Roundtable just put an episode out about this a few days ago, and Helen Zaltzman and Eleanor McDowall talked about it at the Audiocraft festival in Sydney in 2018. It’s discussed in this recent book about podcasting, and Megan Tan has described her decision to stop making her first-person show Millennial in this context too.

Plenty has also been written about burnout recently in relation to all industries, but I’m interested in exploring whether there’s something peculiar to podcasting that means people working in audio are more likely to experience it. Over the past few days, I’ve been speaking to a number of producers, some independent, some employed by networks or broadcasters of varying sizes, to try and get a glimpse of what podcast burnout feels like in 2019.

For Sophie Harper, producer of Not By Accident — a personal podcast that documents her decision to become a single mother and then her life with her daughter — it was a long time building. “I began my podcast in early 2017, naively believing what I was reading: that if I made something good and released it on a regular schedule, I would gradually build an audience, find advertisers and make enough to live off,” she told me over email.

“I had success, got media attention, saw my download numbers explode, partnered with a network and started running ads. Once I had advertisers I felt real pressure to meet the agreed schedule. I’d get sick, or my daughter would, and I’d be forced to keep working around the clock regardless. I was doing the whole thing alone. I listened to the credits of other shows and thought: they don’t know how lucky they are. Once the ad revenue started coming in, I realised it was only really enough to cover the time I’d spent making the ads.”

Burnout is usually defined as a period of mental and physical exhaustion, triggered by sustained stress and anxiety. For Harper, this came in the form of “the pressure, real or imagined, to keep putting out episodes on schedule for ever and ever”. The ongoing, serialised nature of podcasts came up a lot as I was talking to podcasters who had experienced burnout — I’d go as far as saying that it’s a major contributing factor for a lot of people. Helen Zaltzman, who makes The Allusionist with Radiotopia, told me over Skype that working release deadline to deadline can really get to her.

“I tend to take January and July off in order to avoid total breakdown. Usually by November of each year I’m just kind of crawling to the finish line and looking forward to the point where I don’t have to release stuff,” she said. “But in those times I’m still working — they’re times to catch up and bag interviews for the next few months and generate ideas.” In July 2018 Zaltzman was ill and had to be in hospital for weeks, so her planned hiatus from releasing episodes couldn’t be used to do behind-the-scenes work as she had hoped. “I didn’t really get ahead on interviews and ideas and stuff because I was somewhat incapacitated and I’m still feeling the effects of that now, eight months later,” she explained.

Aside from the constant pressure to release — which isn’t such an issue for authors or filmmakers or musicians of a similar level, who can often put out a piece without the expectation that another of equivalent quality will follow a week later — another facet of podcasting that seems conducive to burnout is that narrative of supposed accessibility that I’ve written about before. It is theoretically possible to make a very high quality podcast completely by yourself, but that fact can also lead to unrealistic expectations and difficulties. Tamar Avishai, producer and host of The Lonely Palette podcast, articulated this dichotomy in her email to me:

“The reality [is] that if I’m not making this podcast, it’s not being made. There isn’t a single piece of the process that I could realistically outsource and still feel like the show is in my voice, and my voice is a crucial piece of it, in more ways than one. In some ways, it’s enormously liberating and self-actualizing to be the boss, when you don’t have any kind of editorial board assuring you it’s not crap or helping to guide you away from crap, you’re your own judge, jury, and executioner. And that kind of stress can be extraordinarily corrosive.”

On top of the pressure of constant releases and solo working (both classic contributors to feelings of burnout that podcasting so perfectly provides), everyone I spoke to wanted to stress how lucky they felt, despite everything, that they had been able to gain a foothold in the audio space at all. A producer from the UK, who preferred to remain anonymous, described how even at the worst point, they were reluctant to reveal the difficulties: “All I thought about was audio/podcasts. I was working quite a high-pressured day job and taking annual leave to do my audio and other projects, so I was never getting a proper break. All of my weekends were spent working and I kept telling myself ‘this is your own doing, you asked for all of this’ so felt I couldn’t really complain.”

Zaltzman echoed this, citing it as one way she keeps the burnout at bay. “I’m aware through all of this how lucky I am to have the existence that I have and I always remember that as well. When things are kind of troubling to me, I still realize that it’s a very jammy thing to get to do.”

Taking breaks (if possible when needing to keep revenue coming in) was also a popular coping strategy many mentioned, as was working on short-run series rather than committing to constant publication. Harper also urged would-be solo podcasters to be ambitious and work towards what they really need to make their show, rather than suffering in silence. “Try for a production deal,” she said. “Do it with a budget, a production team, a marketing budget, and a salary.”

I’ve really only scratched the surface of this subject here — the more I explore it, the more podcasting, with its apparent level playing field between big budget productions and independent side hustlers, seems so perfectly designed to produce a boom in burnout. I’ll be writing more about this soon, and in the meantime if you have experiences or thoughts to share on this subject, you can find my email address here.