4 Harsh Truths Of Starting Your Own Podcast
As a bearded white man approaching my thirties, I recently reached the point in my biological lifecycle where I started a podcast. Like the caterpillar spinning his cocoon, I did not understand the change overtaking me – I simply obeyed the whispers in the night that made me buy a bunch of audio equipment.
Actually, it was more like I found myself with a lot of free time during the COVID lockdown after losing my day job and being unable to engage in my pre-COVID hobby of coughing in people's faces. So read on to discover what I've learned from doing a podcast. I hope both non-podcasters and podcasters alike glean some Aesop's Fables-esque lesson from all of my terrible choices.
Appreciate Your Subject Matter (Or Go Insane)
This will probably make a lot more sense if I give you some context on the podcast itself. Oh, does it also mean I have an opportunity to shamelessly promote myself? Gracious me, what a crazy coincidence!
So the podcast is called Bad Movies for Bad People. I record it with my close friends Ed Lipinski and, when he's not busy filming Jackass 4, Zach Holmes (better known as Zackass). The podcast itself is what might generously be called "longform," but most people call it "meandering and self-indulgent." We wanted to make a podcast about movies -- you know, really breaking new ground -- so the format we settled on was the most alienating one possible. (You can give us a listen on any major platform and YouTube.)
And there's something I've learned while watching dozens of obscure and poorly received movies, both recreationally and for the podcast -- if you're going to create something about something else, it's infinitely more interesting to come from a place of love. I'm not the kind of person who wants to hear other people spout invective about something they didn't like for hours. It's boring to me. If you gave me a choice between watching a fifteen minute YouTube video called something like WHY STAR WARS SUCKS ACTUALLY (EPIC GAMER RANT!) or having a pack of ring-tailed lemurs attack my ball sack, I'd be Googling "lemur-borne illness (scrotal)."
If a movie is acted almost entirely by nonprofessionals and literal untalented children and paced like it was written by someone whose literature background begins and ends with the label on the bottle of zoo animal muscle relaxants they shotgunned before writing the script, I'll still like it if it has something to say. Because I basically just described Billy Jack, a movie that I happened to love.
Pretty much everything about Billy Jack is objectively terrible with the exception of some really sick hapkido, which is what most people remember about the movie even though it makes up maybe about thirty seconds of the final product. Billy Jack is a martial arts film in the same sense that Debbie Does Dallas is a cheerleading movie. Billy Jack is, by volume, mostly hippies trying to take down The Man with the power of amateur improv and that's not even a riff.
But you know what? Billy Jack absolutely burns with purpose. The writer, director, and star (all the same guy) knew exactly what he wanted to say. Tom Laughlin made exactly the movie he wanted because he had something that needed saying, and he didn't let anything like "studio notes" or "marketability" or "knowledge of his own limitations as an artist" stop him. Tom Laughlin was a film gangster, and he also accidentally revolutionized the film industry and created the first blockbuster in the process.
A long time ago, when I was in college, one of my professors heard me say I "hated" a movie and gave me some advice that changed my life. He told me to never hate a movie; that every movie is somebody's favorite movie, so you should try to see in it what they do. If nothing else, the execution may be flawed but the director wanted to say something badly enough that they were willing to go through the grueling hell process of making a movie. After all, life is short and when we die, best-case scenario, we become ghosts and only get to watch static and unlit 8mm films of a forest at night, so isn't it better to try and enjoy as much as you can?
The key word there is "try." We are but mortal men. There is occasionally a movie so intractably bad that we have nothing good to say about it. And I defended Howard the Duck, goddammit!
I've learned from the podcast that there is one thing I absolutely cannot forgive in a film, and that is cynicism. If a movie is simply made to make money and doesn't believe in anything, I cannot abide. Yes, yes, I know, film is both an artistic medium and a financial endeavor, I am aware. We're not watching Kenneth Anger: for the most part, we're watching films that enjoyed a wide release, so there's always an expectation that these films were intended to make money. The Wizard is a two-hour commercial for a Nintendo peripheral that lets you kinda-sorta play Rad Racer by flopping your hand at your TV like it's covered in wasps ... but there's still some good stuff in there about brotherly love, you know? But sometimes, despite our best efforts, we can't find anything good to say about a movie. And those are some of our most popular episodes.
Generally, we try to talk about movies that are lesser known, or old, or had limited releases in the US, or all three. We stay away from bad-on-purpose movies and don't usually talk about films that are famous for being bad. But when we break those rules, those episodes do some of the best numbers -- even when I don't think they're our best work.
We usually don't do movies that came out in the last twenty years, but we made an exception for Money Plane. It's the film that boldly asks the question "What if there was money ... on a plane?" Money Plane came out in 2020 and enjoyed something of a cultural moment as a so-bad-it's-good movie that we all experienced collectively during lockdown. It, to date, fluctuates between our second- and third-most popular episode.
Our episode on Howard the Duck is number one, probably because the film is infamous for being bad and people thought we were going to tear it to pieces—which we kind of did, although as I said, if not for the baffling sexual tension, it would be remembered as a fun third-tier '80s film. Honestly, its greatest sin was being the first Marvel movie and not being a huge success, because the MCU happening in the '80s would have been hilarious. John Travolta getting yoked to play Captain America. Matthew Broderick with a weird swimmer's bod making vulnerable puppydog eyes at Molly Ringwald as Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson, respectively. Chevy Chase losing the studio tens of millions of dollars because he wouldn't film the second half of the movie unless, in his words, ‘The Hulk CAN and WOULD use racial epithets in casual conversation!'
People like it when we absolutely shit on a movie. What I'm about to say here will explain everything about the Internet: negativity sells. Impassioned defenses and analysis? Not so much. I can feel the siren song of negativity hovering over us. We could have a lot more people listening to us if we gave in to the Dark Side.
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And You Never Know Who's Listening
For all the high-minded reasoning behind why we try to avoid hate-casting and stick to older movies, there's a more practical reason, too. See, in addition to trying to break into the film and TV industry as a writer, I am also a coward and a hypocrite. Because in the industry there is a strong culture of never, ever speaking ill of another's work publicly. It's considered a major faux pas.
Generously, this is to present a united front of artists in an era when it's trivially easy for trolls to find your personal email and send you hate mail or write slurs on your windows in feces. I mean, I occasionally get hate mail, and I am roughly as famous as a small-town dog mayor.
Less generously, the reason why there's such a taboo against expressing even minor criticism is because artists -- myself very much included! -- are sensitive by nature. You don't get to a place where you can reflect professionally on the human condition without being empathetic, which also means being hurt when someone doesn't like what you've spent hundreds of hours creating.
Being a professional TV or film writer means you're firmly upper-middle class AT LEAST and have your hands on the reins of American culture (and, to an extent, culture worldwide). Writers get paid to tell stories. To me, that's already having won at life -- is it really necessary for everyone in the world to love your work unconditionally, too?
Usually I don't get jobs for the usual reasons: my personality, my work ethic, my insistence on cooking balut in the shared microwave (if you're a showrunner reading this: that's hyperbole and hire me). Hopefully I've never podcasted myself out of a job. I say this because I've learned that no matter how safe you think you are in your obscurity, these things have a way of finding the ears of their creators.
Let me give you an example. The only other time besides Money Plane we've broken our twenty-year rule was for a movie called Beckman. Beckman is a John Wick knockoff made for the Christian film market. If adapting a hyperviolent action movie by putting a thin veneer of Christ-ness on it sounds insane to you, you're right! Needless to say, we tore into Beckman. We were ... not kind. And then, one fine day on our YouTube page, we saw this:
This made me feel terrible. Maybe it doesn't make sense not to want to hurt somebody's feeling even if you think their art capitalizes on the rightwing Christian persecution complex and has borderline fascist undertones. Maybe I just feel like a kid who got caught with his hand in the cookie jar. I'm showing you this to demonstrate you never know who's going to read what you write or hear what you say online. I'm not too worried about this hurting my prospects in the film industry at large since the Christian film subset is a fairly insular beast. And since I wrote Beckman up there, I'm assuming the director's Google Alert is going off, so he's probably here with us now.
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Oh My God, This Is So Much Work, Holy Crap
Podcasting takes up so much time. Like, way more than I thought. I could probably save time by just uploading the raw audio of us talking, dusting my hands off, and calling it a day, but unfortunately for me, I take pride in what I do. I actually want the finished product to appear halfway professional, so, like learning to play the daxophone and raising a child, podcasting is a gigantic time sink with virtually no payoff.
So if you're thinking of starting a podcast yourself, I would advise you to do something more productive with your time like learning Dothraki or testing homemade hang gliders. Allow me to break down the work involved with making a single episode.
To start with, we have to find a movie we want to talk about. This is generally the easy part. We have an extensive list of possibilities that we update frequently.
Okay, so that's not too hard. Then we have to actually watch the movie, which is anywhere between one and three hours. I take notes during the movie of the major plot points and anything I want to draw attention to. After that I do some deep-dive research on the movie and write down anything worth mentioning. Then I collate all that into a cohesive list and order it in a way that makes sense, plus writing down my own thoughts about the movie. So that's all told another hour of work, not counting the time it takes me to cry in the shower.
So that's all the prep work done! Next comes the actual recording process. We're pretty loquacious, so this can take anywhere between three and five hours -- possibly more if we're having a guest on digitally and there's internet connection issues, which there ALWAYS are. So after the episode is in the can comes the editing process, which is a whole new bag of nightmares. If you've never edited audio, just know that I would generously compare it to doing brain surgery using only Play-Doh sculpting tools.
I have to go through the whole 3+ hour episode (usually by shrinking the time down to 35% to speed up the process), balance the levels, make sure we're not peaking, bring down anything that's too loud, bring up anything that's too quiet, cut out any pauses that are too long, cut out anything that's unclear or confusing or redundant, try to make those cuts seem natural, add in any audio samples or sound effects we want, try to cut out burps or sneezes or coughs or particularly obtrusive meows from my cat …
… add in the intro/outro music (which I performed, mixed, and recorded myself), briefly consider relapsing, and then the audio editing is done! And the thing that really sucks about audio editing is this: nobody except other audio editors listens to something and goes "Hot damn, that's some fine audio editing!" You're not making your product better; you're just making it less bad.
So that means we're done now, right? The episode is done? You poor, sad, non-podcasting chump. Of course it isn't done. Next I Photoshop up a little art asset to promote the episode and to use as a thumbnail on the various streaming services. This usually doesn't take me too long, but sometimes I get way too into it, like with this one I did for Roaring Fire, also known as Hoero! Tekken:
So after all that, I get my Don Draper on by writing copy -- the copy is a brief description of the episode and anything our guests want us to promote, plus all the tags for YouTube -- then I use the art asset as a static background and render out the podcast as video for our YouTube channel, stopping only to google "sex wizard viable career path?" Then, at long last, it's over. The grueling marathon is done ... for two weeks, when we'll do it all again.
Except even when it's done, it's not done. We still manage the podcast's social media account, monitor listens so we know what is and isn't working, think about advertising, talk about SEO, and a million other little things. So we must be getting paid pretty well to do all this work, right? Well, I don't want to brag, but:
We've been doing the podcast for about a year now. Between the upfront costs of audio equipment and the hosting services we use, we've actually lost money on this (to say nothing of the hours spent on it that could have been spent doing something that pays better, like being a centenary-only birthday clown). Podcasts are a bubble. Part of their appeal -- that they have a relatively low barrier of entry -- is also what makes it so difficult to make money from it. It's a huge field, so it's really difficult to stand out.
Clearly, we do this because we're insane. And because we're having fun and we love movies or whatever. The real lesson here is that it's fun to be creative with your friends. It can be a great outlet. There's nobody to tell you you're doing it wrong or give you notes or ask you if you still might go to med school, mom. You're accountable to no one and nothing except your own creative vision. As someone who sometimes works in Hollywood, that's incredibly refreshing.
But, to quote Joe Pug, if you're in it for the windfalls, don't be surprised when your will to fight wavers and eventually dies. Maybe there's something kind of defiant and beautiful in making something with absolutely no value to capital, and continuing to spend hours on it despite that.
So, with all that being said, we are currently accepting sponsors!
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed or be a writer's assistant in your room! Of course, he is also on the podcast Bad Movies for Bad People, the world's FIRST and ONLY comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!). He is on Twitter.