How much money do podcasts actually make?

Podcaster taking notes while recording an episode

Even if you’re making a podcast for the pure love of the craft, there’s probably a part of you that hopes to make at least some money in the process. Maybe you’re just hoping to offset the cost of setting up a studio, or maybe you want to create new revenue streams for your budding business. Perhaps you’re one of the few, the proud, who dreams of quitting your day job and getting paid to talk about your passion — or at very least, turning that passion into a steady side hustle.

Typically, a content creator can monetize a podcast in a few ways: through affiliate marketing and sponsorships and selling premium content and merchandise. The more popular a podcast becomes, the more opportunities you’ll have for making money, such as creating online courses or selling tickets to live shows.

The fact is that It takes time, effort, and dedication to start earning any money from a podcast — let alone big money — and most shows won’t make any at all. But it can be done. Just look at Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, the famous podcasters behind My Favorite Murder. The duo launched their dark-comedy true-crime series in 2016, and by 2020 the show was amassing 35 million downloads per month. In 2019, the duo made an estimated $15 million.

The key to their financial success? Making a show good enough to get all those downloads.

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Why downloads matter in podcasting

In the world of podcasting, downloads are an important metric for measuring success. Potential sponsors look at your per-episode or per-month downloads to get an idea of the size of your listener base — or rather, how many people they can reach by advertising with you. Most sponsors will want you to have an audience size large enough to get at least 5,000 downloads per month (sometimes even 10,000) before they consider working with you.

Once you enter into a sponsorship, those downloads still matter. Typically, sponsorship rates are charged per thousand listeners, or CPM (cost per thousand; the “M” stands for “mille,” meaning “thousand” in Latin). A podcast that averages 5,000 downloads per episode and charges $18 CPM, the industry-standard rate as of 2022, for a 30-second ad will earn $90 in ad revenue for one episode that runs a single ad. The larger your audience, the more of a return you’ll see, and if you amass a particularly large listenership in an in-demand market segment, you can start charging a higher rate for ads.

The key to making money from podcasting is to cultivate a large and loyal audience. Before you worry about monetizing, focus on making a great podcast: find your niche, strike the right tone for the content, then put effort into growing your audience. Once you have a steadily increasing listener base that loves your content, you’ll find it’s easier than you thought to earn an income from podcasting.

The most common ways to monetize a podcast

There is no right way to go about monetizing a podcast, but people tend to follow a similar path. Think of the following list as a ladder that you can climb as you grow your audience. You don’t have to limit yourself to one rung at a time, but you’ll need a solid level of recognition to pursue some of the options towards the end. If you’re serious about earning an income from your podcast, you’ll eventually want to have a few different methods running in parallel.

Affiliate income

The quickest and most approachable method of monetizing your podcast is to join an affiliate program (like Descript’s affiliate program). This enables you to earn a commission on products or services sold by a brand or marketplace by using special codes or affiliate links that you can post in the show notes or on your website. When you mention the product or service you want to promote within your podcast, you can direct listeners to use your affiliate link and thereby give you a cut of their purchase. While there are plenty of affiliate programs, and they usually pay out immediately, the return is often small and can be unreliable.

Sponsorships

One of the most popular ways to earn podcast revenue is through sponsorships. Once you hit a certain audience threshold, brands will pay to run ads in your podcast episode. Many podcast hosting platforms offer sponsorship marketplaces that make it easy for you to connect with brands, and smart podcasters seek out sponsors with products that are relevant to their content. Podcast advertising can be lucrative, and the best podcast ad actually adds value to your content — rather than simply interrupting it.

Crowdfunding and donations

Once you have an established group of loyal listeners, you can start soliciting donations. Some podcasts launch crowdfunding campaigns to pay for a new season, others will include a call for donations at the beginning or end of their episodes, usually directing listeners to a donation button on a show website.

Premium content

Many podcasters turn to platforms like Patreon to gather donation-based income in return for premium content like early access or additional interviews. On Patreon, your audience members can pledge a small fee on a regular basis (say, $5 per month, or $1 per episode) to access extra content. This model is great for niche podcasts with small but dedicated audiences. You can also offer premium content for a price through a newsletter or on your website.

Banner ads

As your podcast becomes more established, you’ll find yourself creating more ways to interact with your audience, many of which can be monetized. If you’ve launched a website or started an email list, you can sell banner ads in both spaces, which will diversify your ad revenue. You could also offer a video version of your podcast on YouTube, which offers another potential income stream via pre-roll ads or on-page ads while also helping you reach a new audience. Of course, once you get into the business of maintaining websites, social media accounts, and newsletters, the amount of time and energy you’ll expend on your podcast will be much higher than it was initially, so you’ll have to decide if the extra work is worth the investment.

Online courses

It takes even more work to create an online course than it does to create most premium content for a paying audience, but once you finish a course — be it a class, a deep-dive into a particular topic, or an in-depth tutorial — it becomes passive income. You can make money off that course for months or years down the line without lifting another finger. While your audience may pay a few dollars for an extra interview or a mini-episode, you can charge hundreds for a quality online course.

Coaching and consulting

Eventually, as your podcast and audience become well-established, you’ll develop a reputation as an expert. You’ll then have the option to start coaching or consulting on topics within your field. This kind of monetization is anything but passive and can take time away from creating your podcast, but it’s also very lucrative.

Live events

With enough expertise, you can seek out speaking engagements at conferences or organize ticketed live events for your listener base. The compensation here varies. When you first start attending speaking events, you may only earn a few free drink tickets, but eventually, you might just net six-figure payouts.

Final thoughts: The podcast forecast

The best reason to start a podcast will always be because you enjoy sharing a passion with the world. But as the number of people listening to podcasts continues to trend upwards, there are an increasing number of opportunities to build a unique audience and make some money while you do it.

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