Issue 200,  published March 19, 2019

Burnout Reader Survey

I’m revisiting this subject one more time, in part because it’s an important and substantially complicated topic, but also in part because it feels really meaningful to a good portion of the Hot Pod readership.

So, when I wrote my second column on burnout last week, I also directed readers to a quick survey form I put together, because I wanted a way of collecting feelings and information about this topic that allowed people to stay anonymous. Hundreds and hundreds of you took the time to fill it out, and I’d like to spend this week digging through some things that popped up from the responses. I’m grateful to everyone who decided to share, and I hope this helps raise awareness around what some people are going through as well as highlight some areas where bigger organisations can offer more support.

A necessary disclaimer: this survey is, by no means, a rigorously scientific one. The respondents are purely self-selecting, and the responses should not be taken to be a representative index of the entire podcast workforce. Rather, the primary goal is identification: to illuminate the fact that there are, indeed, lots and lots of podcast people who feel this way.

Firstly, and unsurprisingly, an overwhelming 83 percent of write-ins said that they had experienced burnout — again, a self-selecting sample, but that’s still a lot higher than I was expecting. In addition, others wrote in that they weren’t burnt out now but felt like it was on the horizon.

71 percent of respondents cited both “too much work” and “personal ambitions/standards” as burnout triggers, with 61 percent pointing to “juggling non-podcast work” and 49 percent “unrealistic release schedule.” I was surprised to see that “network/advertiser demands” wasn’t much of an issue for the majority, with only 8 percent pointing to that as a factor in their burnout experience.

This makes more sense in the context of the kind of work respondents were doing — 87 percent say they are podcast producers, and 41 percent of those work independently, so commercial considerations are most likely either not relevant at all because many aren’t monetising their podcasts at all or else it’s just not a major day-to-day factor. Only 35 percent of those who took the survey are doing work that is supported by advertisers with a further 12 percent working for public radio outlets. In addition, 51 percent of respondents said that they don’t make the majority of their income from podcasting.

I found this enlightening. I’m a reporter who often produces audio professionally and/or commercially, and so I forget sometimes that people like me only make up a small slice of podcasting as a whole. Burnout extends way beyond just those who make podcasts as a job or for money; it applies to people who started their show as a hobby, side hustle or as an add-on to an existing business, and who are finding that the medium has aspects that are pushing them into unhealthy practices or places, which perhaps wasn’t completely obvious from the outset.

A big part of burnout, it seems, is tied to release schedules. Only 30 percent of respondents are putting out work in seasons, and 49 percent are publishing an episode every week. That’s a lot of audio for anyone, and particularly those for whom podcasting isn’t their livelihood or main job. In longer interviews I’ve done around this topic (part one and part two), this is something that comes up a lot. Several people mentioned transitioning from a regular weekly release schedule to a periodic, season-based approach as a way that they’ve managed their feelings of burnout, because getting off the weekly production cycle relieved a lot of the pressure. I still think something is missing here, because monetisation options (both advertising and crowdfunding) are skewed towards regular, ongoing publication, but I would suspect that we’ll see more hobby and independent podcasters take this approach in future.

That’s my first big personal takeaway from these few weeks that I’ve spent focusing on burnout in podcasting: a lot of people are worried that the world will stop turning if they don’t release a podcast on a regular, never-ending schedule. From the work I’ve done, feeling shackled to an unrealistic publication schedule seems to be one of the biggest podcasting-specific burnout triggers. I’m guilty of this myself: when I produce shows for other people, I recommend that they work on seasons in batches and release them with gaps in between for feedback, vacations and development.

But the podcast I make independently by myself on the side of my other work comes out every other Wednesday, rain or shine, and I frequently work late into the night or on weekends to make that the case. Like a lot of people who have been around podcasting for a while now (17 percent of the respondents say they had been involved in audio for 7+ years), I understand that the way people listen to podcasts has changed since I made my first one in 2011 and that there are plenty of benefits to a non-regular release schedule, but I can’t shake the deep-seated belief that regular publication is the only way to build an audience. One for me to work on, definitely.

And then there’s this issue of personal ambitions and standards. It blows my mind that so many respondents cited their own internal sense as one of the biggest factors in their burnout, as opposed to anything external that was being imposed on them. Again, I know about this from personal experience — I’m proud of my work and I want it to live up to that, for sure. But while such feelings can be a good motivator, among other stresses they can also turn destructive. Knowing when to let things go, or when to reduce your output so you can keep the quality as you want it, is a vital skill that we should all be talking more about.

Finally, there’s the silence that largely surrounds this issue. I’ve had so many messages in the past few weeks from people who just wanted to say that they appreciated seeing it discussed in public at all. Even if someone isn’t ready to talk publicly or even anonymously about their burnout (and it’s fine if they never want to do that, of course), it’s helpful to read about the experiences of others and feel like you aren’t going through something unusual. So, final thing I’ve learned here: let’s all talk about what’s going on a bit more, whether that’s online or offline. You’re most definitely not alone.