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The Growing Podcast Consulting Scene

illustration by aude white, who has a hangover

In 2011, Jeremy Helton, then a freelance audio producer, hired an accountant to help him file his taxes. “I think one of the first things he said to me was, ‘I don’t understand how you’ve survived; you’ve made so little money!’” he told me earlier this month.

To be fair, this didn’t come as a total shock. Over the years, producing audio for StoryCorps and forming an audio collective had brought Helton fulfillment and recognition, but little money. “After that appointment with the accountant, I decided that, while I loved spoken-word audio, I needed to find work that was a little more financially stable.”

After reaching out to his old employer, StoryCorps, and offering to do “any job that people didn’t want, literally the most tedious and egregious work possible,” he landed a six-month contract to organize a launch event for one of StoryCorps’s oral-history initiatives. Later that year, he joined the organization’s marketing team full time.

While Helton emphasized that he made the transition towards a marketing role for financial reasons, he insists that even at that early stage, he felt invigorated by the challenge. He was good at the work and, crucially, he enjoyed it. “It didn’t feel like I was having to sell my soul and do marketing when I’d rather be making a radio show,” said Helton. “It felt like a good change; I was excited about it.”

His success at StoryCorps led to a VP of marketing position at Audioboom, and in 2018, he made the decision to start his own podcast-marketing consultancy. “I had a hunch that there was a need for that kind of service,” said Helton. “But rather than just go on my gut, I asked people like Ben Riskin, Dane Cardiel, Nate Tobey, Rachael King and Sarah Geis” — some of his peers — “if they thought there was a pain point in the industry that services like mine could alleviate. I got a lot of insights and confirmation from those chats, and that gave me the confidence to get started.”

The consulting business took off pretty quickly. When he launched his consultancy in 2018, he had just two clients. This year, he’s worked with nearly 30 — and that’s just since January. (In June, Helton accepted an in-house position as Ten Percent Happier’s Director of Podcast Marketing, though he continues to run his consulting business on the side.) This volume of demand may sound high, but it squares with what I’ve been hearing from other people working as podcast consultants in the industry: There’s more work than they can handle, and they need help.

“We’re all stressed out because there aren’t very many of us doing this,” said Lauren Passell, who runs independent marketing-and-PR company Tink Media. “Somebody asked me about competition once, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, no. I need someone to come in and steal my clients. Like, go ahead!’”

The outsized level of demand has even translated into some burnout. Marketer Cindy Okereke told me that during acute moments of overload, connecting with fellow consultants on Zooms or Slack channels has helped keep her sane. During informal meetups, the group shares referrals, brainstorms ideas for clients, and lets off steam. “We’ll be like, ‘I’m so tired. I’m exhausted. I haven’t had a vacation since I opened this thing.’” In June, Okereke closed her independent marketing consultancy to accept a position with former client Strong Black Lead, a Netflix production, as its manager of editorial and publishing. She continues to work as a consulting producer for Therapy for Black Girls, another former client.

I’d like to take a beat here to acknowledge that there’s a bit of stigma around the term “podcast consultant,” historically speaking. For many, the term conjures up the image of unsolicited emails from a supposed podcast expert promising to “double your downloads in two weeks” or “get your show punching above its weight on the Apple charts.” These dubious proposals have become so ubiquitous that some have lampooned the strategy, while others have dug into how these services actually work. Against that context, I felt compelled to ask this seemingly new generation of podcast consultants how possible clients should distinguish between these two types.

“Any podcaster who gets a direct message out of the blue with promises of 100,000 downloads in a week should proceed with caution, if at all,” said Helton, who told me he never guarantees download numbers. Rather, he stressed that he customizes a plan for each client, which is based on their specific resources, content, and time constraints. “I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ marketing plan for podcasts,” he added.

Helton also warned that getting cold outreach can be a red flag in and of itself. At this point, the vast majority of his clients come to him as a result of personal recommendations from trusted friends.

Across the board, the podcast consultants I spoke with say they endeavor to deliver a high level of service: heavy on personal attention, light on outlandish promises. This approach appears to be working, as most are able to charge a premium for their work and pull in six figures per year. (Given my past experience as a publicist and marketer in a high-growth sector, I would imagine the financial upside for people who specialize in audio marketing will go up and up… and up.)

So, who is qualified to do this work? Helton recalled that his background and experience in audio helped him land clients, right out of the gate. As a former producer, he had developed a network of trusted contacts in a business often driven by word-of-mouth recommendations. He also understood the work that went into production, which gave him added credibility.

Similarly, industry veteran Rekha Murthy told me that the experience and Rolodex she gained from years “in the trenches with production” at NPR and later, in a series of director-level roles at PRX, gave her the confidence to know that it wouldn’t be hard to find independent work. Today, her clients include podcasts from Critical Frequency, WBUR in Boston, American Public Media, and many others. She’s also the lead curriculum designer for the Spotify Sound Up podcast training and is considered a founding member of its team, despite technically employed as a contractor. (When I asked why she didn’t stay the production course at NPR, she said, “I felt respected, but there just weren’t enough opportunities for people who were early in their career to advance. I wanted variety and opportunity.”)

On the other hand, Okereke, an English and creative writing major who started her career in book publishing PR, is proof that there’s room in audio marketing for people who bring experience from an entirely different field. “I didn’t come through traditional channels, but I can craft a story, identify themes, and build out an editorial calendar.” Her love of writing and storytelling is also an asset.

“This industry is still finding itself,” she continued. “There are a lot of creative ways to work in audio.”

Towards the end of working on this piece, I checked back in with Helton and asked him to reflect back on the earlier stretches of his audio career, when his professional life was a lot less stable and gainful than it is now. Does he have any regrets? “Luckily for me, finding stability didn’t require that I leave audio,” he said. “It just meant embracing a different role.”