Overcoming "Imposter Syndrome" in Podcasting
“Impostor syndrome” is a term that was coined in a 1978 psychological study of “high-achieving” women who were unused to being able to access their ambitions.
Since that study, there have been countless studies of impostor syndrome in other demographics: in the 1990s, this was applied to teens, and in the 2000s, this was applied to people of color.
It’s only recently been applied to conversations about creators and artists, but that form of discussion has been brought out of academic research and into culture reporting more and more as digital media platforms have become not just popularized, but taken seriously. A platform that’s seen a good deal of discussion around impostor syndrome is, of course, podcasting.
What makes podcasting so susceptible to its creators feeling like they’re just faking their way through creation or success? Unfortunately, the medium is the perfect storm for impostor syndrome.
Barrier of entry
Podcasting has a debatably low barrier to entry (though, it should always be noted that this barrier isn’t nonexistent, especially depending on your access to podcast equipment and other resources), meaning there are less hoops to jump through than other mediums to get your work published and available to your audience. This is usually beneficial; it’s why most of us podcast to begin with, versus writing a book or making a TV show. Podcasting is relatively easy to get into, making it a comparatively democratic medium.
The problem is that when there are fewer hoops to jump through to publish your work, there’s less you can point to as evidence that you’ve proven yourself. Podcasters don’t have to get approval from editors, publishers, or executives--which means there’s seldom someone to validate your work up front. You have to wait on listener reviews to come in, and when those do get posted, it’s easy to write off their positive opinions as less substantial, to feel like they don’t really prove your worth.
Because most people can make a podcast, it can be easier to tell yourself you don’t know what you’re doing than those who have had to prove themselves through traditional publication structures.
At Podcast Movement 2018, I attended a session about networks with panelists who represented some of the larger networks in the industry. It was clear that most of the attendees were there to see if they might be able to pitch their show to one of the networks. When one of the panelists said that her network doesn’t entertain pitches for podcasts that don’t get at least 50k downloads per episode within its first 30 days, the air left the room.
There is a massive disparity between the stats for indie podcasts and “big” networked podcasts might just seem harmful for indie podcasters, but that’s not always the case. As much as indie podcasters see their comparatively small numbers and think they aren’t a “real” podcaster, creators of famous podcasts often feel as though they don’t deserve the listenership they have. Podcasters from both sides of the stratum feel impostor syndrome when thinking about their numbers, but pointed in the opposite direction.
Podcasting’s discoverability problem means that the big shows grow bigger faster while indie shows often plateau for months at a time. Because of the disparity in numbers, anyone can look at their numbers and feel like they’re doing something wrong, that they’re not supposed to be here.
Podcasts as a “hobby”
While the percentage of people who listen to podcasts is growing, the number still isn’t even close to the percentage of people who engage with other forms of entertainment. Only about 50% of Americans have listened to podcasts—an increase over previous years, but still a small number. Most entertainment magazines and websites don’t report on podcasts like they do other mediums. This is especially true for creators in the fiction, or “audio drama,” sphere: fiction in podcasting has only recently been discussed when talking about podcasts overall.
Because podcasts are still considered niche, many podcasters feel like they don’t “deserve” to take their craft more seriously than a hobby. Podcasters often talk about not pitching their show for sponsorships or making a Patreon because they feel they don’t “deserve” monetization for their work.
When podcasts aren’t discussed like art, it’s hard to convince a podcaster that they’re an artist—but because most podcasters think podcasts are (or, at least, can be) art, this thought becomes a tangled mess of impostor syndrome. “My podcast isn’t art, and I’m not an artist,” podcasters tend to think, “but podcasts are an art form, which means I’m not a real podcaster.”
The secret about real podcasters
I have spoken with podcasters who get tens of thousands of downloads an episode and think of themselves as impostors. I have spoken to indie podcasters who hustle, read podcasting news, and edit meticulously, and think they are impostors. I have spoken to people who have made a podcast but still insist that they aren’t a “real” podcaster, even if they can’t give me a criteria on what a “real” podcaster is or does.
Here’s the secret about what a real podcaster is: a real podcaster is someone who has made a podcast.
If you have made a podcast, if you have made a single podcast episode, you are a real podcaster. That is literally all a “real” podcaster is. You belong in this medium.
You deserve to be here.
And you are just as real a podcaster as everyone else in the industry is, even when it feels like you’re not.
Wil Williams is a podcast critic and journalist based in Phoenix, Arizona. She is one of the founders of Hug House Productions.