“You Should Do A Podcast”
It’s a common refrain, but audio storytelling isn’t as easy it seems—as even successful podcasters like the purveyors of “Disgraceland” can attest.
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“I’ve got a great idea for you,” so many acquaintances have told me in recent years. “You should do a podcast!”
It’s well-intentioned remark, but—unless it’s coming from someone who works at a place like Spotify—it’s also a deeply annoying one. There’s an implication that podcasting hasn’t actually occurred to me, that it’s both easy to do and light on the schedule. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s sort of like telling someone they should go write a book or record an album.
I wanted to give readers a sense of what it takes to get a successful podcast off the ground besides talent and luck (partly for their enlightenment, partly so I can have something to send people when they give me unsolicited career advice). So I called up Brady Sadler, cofounder of Double Elvis, the company behind “Disgraceland,” the world’s most-downloaded music-related podcast.
“Everyone thinks they can make one,” Sadler explains. “But you need all these other ingredients, too.”
The story of Sadler and his business partner, Jake Brennan, offers a window into just what it takes to launch a podcast—and a podcast network. The critical part that most people don’t understand: now that the industry has matured, it’s almost impossible to sell an idea alone without doing much of the hard work first (unless you are super-famous).
A musician himself, Brennan dreamed up “Disgraceland” about five years ago. He aimed to create a string of 30-minute episodes focusing on salacious questions like: “Did Jerry Lee Lewis get away with murdering his fifth wife?” And “How did Sid Vicious and Sam Cooke really die?”
Rather than spend years pitching his idea around, or waiting until he had a sizable audience, Brennan dove in face-first. He did everything himself in his Boston basement, from conceiving and developing the idea to all the recording and editing. He also did the audio engineering, the packaging, even the original music that accompanied the podcast.
“You know the whole idea of the minimum viable product?” says Sadler. “Jake did not go for the minimum viable product. Jake went for ‘This is gonna be fully formed, I’m gonna hit you with this tight, thoughtful, beautiful, compelling brand.’ … He put a lot of effort into making sure that that was case.”
“Disgraceland” launched in February 2018 and, remarkably, within two days had ascended to No. 7 on Apple’s podcast charts. A deal with Midroll to sell ads against the series meant immediate monetization. That led to an instant cash infusion when “Disgraceland” earned a spot on the Apple Podcasts Best of 2018 list, ultimately propelling the series to millions of downloads.
That same year, Brennan teamed up with Sadler, who’d just left a job as a marketing executive, to create Double Elvis as a music-focused podcast company. The early success of “Disgraceland” helped them land financing in the form of a small check from Podfund, the first outfit dedicated to backing creator-led studios and podcasters (via checks ranging from $25,000 to $150,000).
Sadler and Brennan were fortunate to have an early hit on their hands with “Disgraceland.” But even a viral project can’t run itself. Its growing popularity meant more pressure to make each successive season just as compelling as the last on the creative side. That included not only the podcast itself, but elements like show art and music.
On the business side, a growing following had to be nurtured with marketing and promotion, ads and editorial, as well as a social media push both organic and paid. Sadler and Brennan eventually struck a deal with iHeart and started launched new music-themed podcasts: “Badlands” and “About A Girl” and “27 Club,” to name a few.
The hits keep coming: last year Double Elvis signed an exclusive deal with Amazon, and now Sadler and Brennan are working on licensing the intellectual property behind their podcasts for film and television.
“Jake early on was smart and controlled 100% of the IP for ‘Disgraceland,’” says Sadler. “This gives us a lot of opportunity and is really exciting when you think about the compounding nature of a 100-episode catalog. That is evergreen.”
“Disgraceland” is indeed evergreen. But for every podcast that makes it big after months—or even years—of toiling away on spec, countless others never generate more than a smattering of downloads.
This is not to say people shouldn’t follow their dreams in the podcast space. Rather, it’s an acknowledgment, and a reminder, that a vast amount of invisible hard work goes into any podcast, successful or not.
As for me, I’m lucky that Editor Nick happens to be a professional sound engineer with numerous podcasting credits (most recently on the top fiction podcast “American Hostage”). Will we ever team up and do a podcast? Let’s just say it’s been suggested.
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Author’s note: An earlier draft of this story mis-identified the founder of Double Elvis as Casey Sadler. The cofounder of Double Elvis is, of course, Brady Sadler. Casey Sadler is a baseball player. Apologies for the brain fart.