At 57, Guy Macpherson has a keen sense of how being bullied as a child shaped his life, and he’s not afraid to share. “It began when I was in fourth grade,” he says. “It really negatively impacted my relationships, my self-esteem, my belief system, and my ability to trust my gut.” For nearly 40 minutes, he talks about growing up with an unsupportive father, dropping out of school, going on a Native American vision quest, and taking a slow but steady path to developing a sense of self-worth.
Macpherson’s recollection is candid and raw, the sense of meaning he’s gleaned from a tough childhood fully on display. And it would make for a gold mine of therapeutic material. But Macpherson isn’t a client; he’s a former therapist turned podcaster. And his audience—most of whom he’ll never meet face to face—numbers in the tens of thousands.
Macpherson is telling his story in a recent episode of The Trauma Therapist, a weekly podcast he created in 2015. To date, he’s recorded more than 300 episodes, which have garnered more than one million downloads and an average of 50,000 downloads per month. He’s interviewed some of the trauma field’s biggest names on his show, including Bessel van der Kolk, Gabor Maté, and Janina Fisher. But Macpherson readily admits he’s no superstar. Even though he makes little money from the venture, he still gets a kick out of seeing his listenership tick up incrementally. And his early episodes, unpolished and recorded before he found his footing as a podcaster, “were awful,” he admits. So what’s the secret to his success?
Over the last 15 years, podcasting has experienced a meteoric rise as a means of educating, entertaining, and marketing. Podcasts first appeared in a rudimentary form in 2003, their path cleared by intrepid but controversial 1990s-era music-sharing services like Napster, which helped popularize the concept of free digital audio hubs. Buoyed by powerhouses like Apple’s iTunes a few years later, their popularity has climbed steadily, largely attributable to the ubiquity of smartphones and the fact that podcasts cost nothing to purchase and little to produce. Discounting any bells and whistles—logos, voiceovers, jingles, or music, for instance—making a podcast can be as easy as finding a quiet spot to use a handheld digital recorder or your smartphone’s recording app. From there, you simply upload the recording to a hosting platform like iTunes, and wait.
The numbers speak for themselves. In 2008, iTunes hosted nearly 10,000 podcasts. Today, it features more than 500,000, including content in more than 100 languages. Approximately 44 percent of Americans have listened to a podcast, according to a 2017 study from Edison Research. And almost 42 million Americans above age 12 now listen to podcasts on a weekly basis, according to a 2017 survey by The Economist. The podcast phenomenon may be more than a decade old, but it shows no sign of slowing down. In 2017, Entrepreneur reported that almost 65 percent of podcast consumers started listening in the last three years.
But launching a successful mental health podcast takes more than just being in the right place at the right time. For many therapists, it’s an exercise in old-fashioned branding. Well-established leaders in the fields of wellness and self-help may have a leg up on the average Joe—bestselling author and couples therapist Esther Perel, holistic health expert Andrew Weil, mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, and self-help guru Tony Robbins all have top-rated podcasts—but media experts say there’s a piece of the podcast pie for everyone, regardless of a host’s clinical specialty. A search on iTunes reveals a smattering of mental health podcasts that range from informative to comical to inspirational, with names like The Virtual Couch, The Anxiety Guru Show, Breakup Recovery Podcast, The Emotional Badass, Therapist Uncensored Podcast, and Two Psychologists Four Beers (its tagline: “Two psychologists drink at least four beers while discussing news and controversies in science, academia, and beyond”).
“Podcasts are a great way for therapists to establish a more personal persona,” says Esther Boykin, a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Washington, DC, who also teaches a course at Virginia Tech on branding and marketing your practice. “They don’t just showcase your expertise, but also the unique and personal way you deliver it.” As she sees it, most mental health podcasters have at least one of two main goals—to generate more conversation around a particular subject, or to market themselves and their practice.
Those with the first goal generally feel they have important knowledge to impart, Boykin says. “If some listeners happen to become clients, that’s great, but that’s not the priority. Their aim is to establish credibility and be known for the podcast’s content.” For the second group, however, the podcast serves as an audition of sorts, a chance for potential clients to get to know therapists and assess how they work. Some podcasts, like Boykin’s With That Being Said, “a take on life, love, and everything in between,” as she calls it, is a combination of the two, “a gray area between my personal and professional persona.”
Regardless of their aim, Boykin says that the most successful mental health podcasts have several things in common. First, it helps to specialize. “You’ve got to come up with your shtick,” Boykin says. She tells the therapists she instructs to ask themselves what’s special about their podcast. “There are hundreds of anxiety podcasts, hundreds of trauma podcasts,” she explains. “What are you bringing to the table that’s different? Is it your personality? Your interviewees? Do you offer a new clinical tip every week? Maybe you’re going to tie in pop culture. Finding the special hook that makes your show unique is going to help you build a particular audience.”
Second, good podcast hosts are warm, engaging, and act naturally—something she says a surprising number of podcasting therapists struggle to do for 20 or 30 minutes at a time, as comfortable as they may be talking in session. For those who do struggle, Boykin recommends getting feedback from friends and colleagues before launching the podcast. “In therapy, the first couple of sessions are where the client is trying to figure out things like, Do I really like this person? Do I really know them? Could I see myself working with them?” In podcasting, she continues, making a good first impression is equally important if you want returning customers.
Last, podcasters need to have a consistent publishing schedule. Have several recordings ready in the wings in case you need to take a week off, Boykin advises. Once you gain a following, people will come to expect the next episodes. Having a polished website, active social media accounts, and other means of attracting listeners isn’t always necessary, Boykin adds. “If you want to sound like Frasier Crane, then you’re probably going to want a good editor. But sometimes a quiet space and practice time to find your footing is all you really need.”
Chris Lyford is the assistant editor at Psychotherapy Networker.
This blog is excerpted from "The Podcast Boom," by Chris Lyford. The full version is available in the November/December 2018 issue, A New Generation of Clients: Is Therapy Keeping Pace?
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