Issue 199,  published March 12, 2019

Responses to “Burnout”

The piece we ran about podcaster burnout in last Tuesday’s Hot Pod has given me the busiest inbox of anything I’ve done in this newsletter. I had dozens of responses, mostly from podcast producers, occasionally from podcast listeners, who had feelings about this topic. As I read and engaged with the messages, I noticed a few common themes that came up repeatedly. Since the subject clearly vibed with so many Hot Pod readers, I want to spend some time examining these recurring subjects and see what we can learn from them. I’m also now running a survey to gather more information about this, which you can fill out here — more on that later.

Broadly, the responses came into two forms. The first were written from a place of empathy: producers who got in touch to say that they recognised much of what my interviewees in the first piece had said, and to volunteer additional details from their own experiences. Most preferred not to be quoted directly, but they collectively spoke to me about sleepless nights and listless days, about feeling paralysed by the sheer amount of work before them, and about suffering in silence because it felt impossible to be open about the difficulties they were experiencing.

In relation to this last point, several said additionally that they were glad to see the issue being raised this newsletter. Greater awareness of this problem among non-producers (e.g. network execs, bosses, those in advertising) could lead to changes in how deals and schedules are structured that might help in the future, some said. Or at least empower more people to ask for what they need to avoid burnout.

Something that came up a lot among producers who had experienced burnout was this idea of feeling trapped by their own ambition or success. In particular, this line from the producer in the UK that I quoted in the original piece really seems to have spoken to people: “I kept telling myself ‘this is your own doing, you asked for all of this’ so felt I couldn’t really complain.”

This feeling was especially prevalent amongst those I spoke to who were or had started out independently, or had hustled their way into a big organisation via a less traditional route. Having worked very hard, sometimes for years, to make their dream of producing their show or shows into a full time paying gig, some then found themselves unable to admit that the conditions under which it had come true were what was causing their burnout. This came up at both ends of the scale too — both with independent producers who had just gone full time on their own projects, and much bigger shows that were scaling up and adding more staff, only for the original producer(s) to feel like they were unable to delegate and had to work harder than ever.

This is tied to something I wrote about last year, I think, when I explored the persistent notion that there are “low barriers to entry” in podcasting. (TLDR: in some basic technical ways, this is true, but in some larger structural ways, it is not true.) There is this fairytale notion that if you have a good idea and work hard at it, your hard-earned pots of gold and rainbows will be waiting for you on the other side. But what if the podcast you loved making as a side hustle is too much to handle on your own when it becomes your full time job? Feeling trapped and burned out by the very thing you’ve worked towards for years is a grim and lonely sensation.

In these cases, it’s sometimes less about the day-to-day reality of podcasting, and more about what that work and schedule shows you about yourself. Lea Thau, host and producer of the Strangers podcast, was someone who articulated this to me especially clearly. (She was also one of the few people willing to speak on the record.)

“I’ve been a workaholic my whole life, and I had worked non-stop for many years, first as the Executive & Creative Director of The Moth for 10 years (where I co-created The Moth Podcast and The Moth Radio Hour), and then I started Strangers,” she wrote in an email to me. “I pushed one boulder up a hill, and then another, and the truth is that I was stressed out and maxed out for many years before someone put it in my contract that I had to do 24 episodes [of Strangers] per year, simply from the pressure I put on myself to succeed, which was also a great way to avoid dealing with my own inner feelings and underlying emotional issues. I could blame the burnout on my contract, but in my case, my own ambition and my desire to bury my emotions in workaholism were at the root of the problem, I think.”

Thau’s situation is far from a unique one, but she is perhaps unusual in that she’s chosen to be fairly public and open about what’s she’s been through. Strangers was a founding member of Radiotopia in 2014, but in at the end of 2017, Thau left the collective with plans to resume production on Strangers independently after two months. That self-imposed deadline came and went and she still wasn’t ready. “In March of last year, I posted a weepy update I’d recorded in my backyard, simply called ‘Hi’, where I leveled with the listeners about my burnout and told them I needed more time,” she said. “That’s a year ago this month, and I’m only just now getting ready to come back.” She had over a thousand positive messages of support after this update went out, and listeners have been staying in touch over Facebook. During the hiatus, she’s done some consulting work, but used the freedom from a production schedule to “stop running, and turn around to deal with my issues instead.” Her current plan is for Strangers to return in April.

Finally, a popular topic among those who got in touch to share their own stories of burnout was strategies that can help a producer avoid it. Some of them were small but practical, such as not being afraid to rerun an old episode to create a bit of air in a busy production schedule or delegate vital tasks to helpers. One of the more unusual ideas came from Alex Kaufman of the Wintry Mix podcast, who is crowdfunding money for charity from his listeners as an incentive for him to keep going.

He explained: “As a side gig solo podcaster my new trick to dodge the burnout (that is working so far) is using the Patreon model, not to support the pod financially as I have no problem with sponsors, but to create a charitable fund. So now churning out the podcast actually does some good in my community. The more people that support on Patreon, the more funds are being raised by both sides of the podcast (me creating it and my listeners supporting it).”

One bigger strategy that came up regularly is one that speaks to a long-accepted shibboleth of podcasting: the need for consistency and regularity. For years now, it’s been the conventional wisdom that it’s easier to grow a show that puts out episodes on a set and continuous schedule, rather than publishing sporadically or in short-run seasons. Yet it’s precisely this former practice that so many cite as a major contributing factor in their burnout, because the revenue and resources they can command hasn’t kept pace with the industry’s demands in this regard.

Lea Thau was one who felt strongly about this: “I don’t believe that’s true [about regularity and frequency],” she said. “When I’ve skipped an episode in order to do something bigger/longer/better for the next one, i’ve wound up with the same number of downloads as I had in months where I posted two episodes, because the listeners and the press paid attention and appreciated when I did something big and bold.”  I feel like this is connected to Nick’s piece from last year about how to measure “success” for a short-run series — hopefully if more producers turn to this method of release, the market will find more monetisation solutions for it.

The second kind of response I got to the burnout piece surprised me; perhaps I am naive. I wasn’t expecting this to be a polarising topic, but I heard from plenty of people who said they didn’t really believe in burnout, or felt that it was a podcaster’s duty, if they have any kind of platform or audience, to push through no matter what to get their show out. Some of these, who felt happy and successful themselves, were quick to offer up their own experiences as a precise template for those who I had quoted talking about their struggles, and not always in the most good-natured way. I don’t want to give a huge amount of space to this stuff. It’s inevitable, maybe.

The aim with the survey is to back up some of these trends I’m observing from people’s individual testimonies with more data, so that I can begin to zoom in on certain areas of the industry or particular pain points where burnout is being experienced. I’d like there to be more information out in the open about this both to help those going through it, and to assist the decision makers who might have the influence to change some of the structures that are causing problems.

Please take a couple of minutes to fill it out if that’s of interest to you, and I’ll report back with the results soon.