The Voice of Pod

In 2005, Cliff Ravenscraft felt a calling. To answer it, he turned himself into the Podcast Answer Man, sharing the quotidian details of his life— passionately, one episode at a time—and teaching others how to do the same.

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But in fact, this man is a veritable podcasting sensei. Over the years, Family from the Heart has evolved into what Ravenscraft calls an “audio reality show about our family.” The format is loose and casual, to say the least. He smiles when I ask about his preshow preparations. “Sometimes when we hit the record button we have no idea what we’re going to say,” he says.

Ravenscraft streams the show live on the Internet for a handful of devoted listeners. Just before the scheduled 10 a.m. start time, his cohost—his wife, Stephanie—bounds down the stairs. Taking a seat across from him and his laptop, she straps a pair of headphones over the slouchy knit black-and-white Rasta cap holding her long chestnut hair. Stephanie prefers to wing it, so her husband rarely bothers to clue her in to the topics he plans to cover. At the stroke of 10, he launches right in. The conversation veers all over the place: books, movies, television, religion, procrastination habits, Christmas decorations. Cliff and Stephanie clearly delight in each other’s company, and their chemistry keeps the show lively, even when they get into some pretty mundane things.

“You know those little decorative pillows you can hang from a door knob?” Stephanie asks.

Crickets.

“Well, you will know because I bought one,” she says. At this, he cracks up.

About halfway through the roughly one-hour show, he and Stephanie begin to work without a net. Despite plenty of digressions, they have already covered all the discussion topics on Ravenscraft’s list (the movie Big Hero 6, the TV show Arrow, my presence as a rare studio guest, a planned trip to Colorado the following week, and “I’m not wearing that gaudy orange,” a quotation from their 15-year-old daughter Meagan), and now they have time to fill. If they’re worried, they don’t show it. Off the cuff, he mentions a parenting class called Growing Kids God’s Way that he and Stephanie took when their three children were very young. The couple then spends most of the rest of the show talking about the program, describing it as “brainwashing.”

“You know how many people we are probably offending?” Stephanie asks.

“We make a habit out of offending people,” he answers.

When their hour is up, Ravenscraft is pleased. “That was fun,” he says. “That was a good episode.” He writes some program notes, gives the show a title (“Growing Kids Our Way”), and uploads the file to the Internet—no editing, all imperfections intact, like a piece of outsider art or a Neil Young album. It’s all part of The Podmaster’s governing ethos: “I want to hear something different than what radio offers. I want something that’s more authentic, more transparent.”

That formula, Ravenscraft says, can turn just about anyone into a podcasting big shot. After all, it worked for him.

 

In the world of podcasting, Cliff Ravenscraft is a bona fide pioneer. He launched his first podcast in 2005 about the network series Lost shortly after the original Apple iPod gave birth to the audio format. Three years later, he quit his day job selling insurance to podcast full time. Over the past decade, he’s created about 30 programs, recording more than 3,000 episodes and covering such topics as religion, social media, Grey’s Anatomy, The Hunger Games trilogy, and the advantages of having a virtual assistant.

Illustration by Army of Trolls- Folio Art
Illustration by Army of Trolls- Folio Art

The accumulated experience has made him an authority. His flagship show, Podcast Answer Man, a podcast about podcasting, is consistently ranked among the top business programs on iTunes. Its popularity has made him an in-demand conference speaker as well as a busy consultant, teacher, even equipment salesman. Since 2011, more than 400 wannabe podcasters—including doctors, nurses, band moms, nuns, fitness nuts, and financial planners—have taken his online course, Podcasting A to Z. Many have since gone on to become successful digital communicators in their own right. In early December, 11 of his disciples (both A to Z alumni and consulting clients) were among the top 50 business podcasts on iTunes. “In the podcast community, if you ask who’s the best teacher, I would say 90 percent of the time they’re going to say Cliff,” says Dan Mattson, a former A to Z student. “He just really knows what he’s doing.”

Ray Edwards echoes those comments. Though he never took Ravenscraft’s class, Edwards considers him “hands down” the premier authority in the business. Edwards was inspired in part to start The Ray Edwards Podcast—which offers advice for small business owners—after listening to Podcast Answer Man. Since Edwards launched his program in 2012, listeners have downloaded it more than 270,000 times, he says, and it’s regularly ranked among the top business programs on iTunes. Edwards, a former radio broadcaster and executive, says listeners are drawn to Ravenscraft’s enthusiasm and likability. “In the radio business, I had to identify personalities who I thought could do well, who would appeal to a broad audience and would catch on,” Edwards says. “Cliff has that kind of charisma.”

It’s taken a while for this method of digital information dissemination to take off. After languishing as a kind of social media has-been, podcasting is enjoying renewed popularity. As smart phones and Bluetooth-enabled cars make downloading and listening easier and more convenient, interest appears to be rising. Apple surpassed 1 billion podcast subscriptions in July 2013, while Edison Research estimated in April 2014 that nearly 40 million Americans listened to a podcast in the previous month, a 25 percent increase from the previous year. The format also is spawning breakout stars. Comedian Marc Maron resuscitated his career through his podcast WTF, and Serial, a multi-episode true-crime narrative show from This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, reached 5 million downloads faster than any other podcast in iTunes history at the end of last year.

The surge has focused attention on podcasting as a viable business model. In September, Alex Blumberg launched a very meta series called StartUp that follows his transition from a public radio broadcaster to a podcasting entrepreneur. Blumberg envisions his business, Gimlet, as the Internet audio programming equivalent of HBO, AMC, or other traditional entertainment networks. “All the listening is going to shift from the broadcast tower to the smart phone,” he told Fast Company in September.

While a moneymaking podcasting enterprise remains a novel idea—podcasts are traditionally free—Ravenscraft proves it can be done, even without celebrity status and a boatload of venture capital. In 2013, his business earned a gross profit of nearly $400,000, with more than half of that accounting for his gross personal income, according to financial documents he posts on his website; last fall he projected a similar revenue total for 2014. The success enabled Ravenscraft and his family to move into a new $362,000 home on the north side of Hebron, Kentucky, last summer. Ravenscraft had the house built with his business in mind. The 1,200-square-foot lower level—about the same size as his old home—includes his studio, a full bathroom, space to host live events, and a spare bedroom for visits from his podcasting friends from all over the world. Winnie Van de Broeck, a friend from Hasselt, Belgium, who met the Ravenscrafts through their Lost podcast, stayed in the guest room over Thanksgiving.

Still, Ravenscraft listens to podcasting get-rich-quick schemes with trepidation. The best podcasts, he says, are works of passion and obsession. When Ravenscraft left his $87,000-per-year job, he never expected to earn as much as he did selling insurance. “What I have found is the people who approach podcasting not for the main purpose of generating income are the ones who are actually creating the most profitable podcasts,” he says.

Ravenscraft describes podcasting as a “calling.” A spiritual pilgrim his entire life, he found the grace, inspiration, and satisfaction in podcasting he never could in church. Sitting in his studio in the fall, he dumps the contents of a large yellow envelope onto a table. Out spill dozens of handwritten postcards and letters, including one from a woman who planned to commit suicide until she heard an episode of Family from the Heart. “This is why I podcast,” he says.

Crucially, his passion isn’t podcasting per se. It’s what he can do with podcasting: Improve lives through fellowship, shared passions, and honest talk. Which is why he keeps searching for an even better way to spread his message.

In 1997, Ravenscraft reluctantly took a job with his family’s insurance agency in Hebron. He accepted the offer from his mother and stepfather with a stipulation: If he ever received an opportunity to do full-time ministry, he would take it.

Ravenscraft didn’t grow up in a religious household, but spirituality always intrigued him. In elementary school, he attended church services, Sunday schools, and vacation bible camps on his own, hopping on whatever church van would roll through his neighborhood in Erlanger. He became a devoted evangelical Christian. After dropping out of Northern Kentucky University, he took several online Nazarene Bible College courses and was named an associate pastor of a church in Cold Spring, where he performed weddings and gave sermons.

He bounced around several other Kentucky congregations after that, but none provided the spiritual sustenance he craved. He and his wife ended up rejecting traditional church all together (though not their faith) after reading the book So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman. The book confirmed long-simmering doubts in Ravenscraft’s mind. He realized the petty rules, regulations, and commitments tied to participating in a congregation were distracting him from what God really wanted him to do.

A techie all his life, Ravenscraft was an early Internet devotee. He started a blog in 1996, using it primarily as a forum to discuss his faith, and became an enthusiastic consumer of the first wave of podcasts, particularly Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech. A huge fan of the TV show Lost, he followed several podcasts devoted to the program, including The Transmission, hosted by Ryan and Jen Ozawa of Hawaii.

In 2005, Ravenscraft left a voicemail with the Ozawas talking about one of his pet Lost theories (way too complicated to discuss here), and the Ozawas played the message on their show. It was good enough—that is to say, passionate enough—that Ryan Ozawa encouraged him to start his own podcast. “Well, my ego did not need to be stroked too much,” Ravenscraft says. He bought a pair of headphones and a microphone from Best Buy, downloaded free software from the Internet, figured out how to hand-code an RSS feed, and recorded his first show in December 2005. By the third episode, he had 17,000 subscribers.

The success spawned other podcasts. He covered his personal journey in a show called My Crazy Life (he still produces it under the more professional-sounding title Pursuing a Balanced Life) and created several entertainment-focused programs, often with his wife as cohost. As more people sought him out for his know-how and technical expertise, he started Podcast Answer Man.

Ravenscraft’s reach, and his effect on listeners, is global. Anne-Sophie Reinhardt discovered Ravenscraft in 2007 during a low point in her life. Twenty years old, depressed, suffering from anorexia, she was spending most of her time in bed, watching TV. The year before, she had attempted suicide.
Reinhardt is German and lives in a small village on the border with France called Hohberg. While searching the Internet, she stumbled on the Ravenscrafts’ podcast about Grey’s Anatomy. “They were a real normal couple who bickered but at the same time really loved each other,” Reinhardt says. “That really spoke to me.”

Listening to them hour after hour through ear buds—a more intimate experience than reading a blog or watching a TV show—the Ravenscrafts became like members of Reinhardt’s own family. Eventually she struck up an e-mail correspondence with them. “I started to walk again, get out of the house, get out of my room, and stop being so scared of people,” she says. She visited the Ravenscrafts in Kentucky—with her sister in 2009 and again a year later, when she joined about 20 other people from all over the world at a Lost season premiere viewing party hosted by the Ravenscrafts. With Cliff’s help, she started podcasting about her recovery from anorexia, and for the past two years, she’s worked as a life coach. “I don’t think I would do what I do now had I not found them,” she says.

It was that kind of experience that convinced Ravenscraft to quit his day job. He’d always figured the call of ministry would beat the call of selling insurance one day, and that’s what podcasting was to him: a new kind of ministry. In late 2007, Ravenscraft anxiously approached his stepfather, convinced he would try to talk him out of his decision. Instead, his stepfather told him, “I’ve been waiting for months for you to come and tell me this.”

Ravenscraft struggled at first. During his first year, he made just $11,000 in net personal income. He lived frugally—he and his wife didn’t have any debt—but he still pulled $14,000 out of an IRA to give his family a financial cushion. He was working 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. He’d spend 15 to 20 hours a week recording podcasts alone—a voice crying out in the digital wilderness. To mark the end of his first year of full-time podcasting, Ravenscraft did a 24-hour podcast marathon. He experienced stomach pains about 18 hours into it. When the marathon ended, the discomfort got worse. He went to the hospital, where doctors removed a gallstone lodged in his cystic duct. He thinks the stress of that first year probably caused the condition.

Ravenscraft’s business model has evolved over time. In the early days, he relied more on revenue generated from his podcasting—sponsorships, contributions from listeners, and commissions received from affiliate marketing. Today, he has new revenue streams—live events, public-speaking fees, and most important of all his Podcasting A to Z course, for which he charges $2,000 per student for each four-week session. In 2013, A to Z generated more than $200,000 in revenue.

It’s a steep price for an online class—especially considering Ravenscraft offers no in-person interaction. He teaches the class through video tutorials, online discussions, and a weekly group coaching call, providing technical information and suggesting ways to generate revenue, build community, and identify a target audience. Still, Liran Hirschkorn, a New York City insurance salesman with a podcast called Books in Review, says the class is worth it. “You really learn how to produce a podcast the right way,” says Hirschkorn, who took Ravenscraft’s course in September.

But what is the “right way”? Good audio quality and a strong niche audience are key ingredients, Ravenscraft says. However, his most important advice is more philosophical. He encourages his followers to “influence people in a positive way.” Shane Whaley, a New York-based VP of sales for a travel website who developed a yen for podcasting about nutrition, describes Ravenscraft as a patient, accessible, and caring teacher. When he took the A to Z course in 2013, no questions were too stupid or silly. “Cliff really puts his heart and soul into it,” says Whaley, who now cohosts something called JuicingRadio. “This isn’t a guy just doing this thing to make money.”

Passion must fuel podcasters, Ravenscraft tells his students. If they’re not passionate about a subject, they’ll lose interest—and so will their listeners. That’s why most podcasts die after two or three episodes. Which is probably a good thing. “Nine out of 10 podcasts out there are absolutely horrible,” Ravenscraft says.

When Dan Mattson took the class in 2011, Ravenscraft steered him away from his original plan to create a podcast about either small business or personal finance. Instead, Mattson, who lives in Stanwood, Washington, ended up launching a program about the obscure topic of wooden boats, his abiding obsession. Today, after more than 150 episodes of Hooked on Wooden Boats, his podcast has developed a devoted audience. It’s been downloaded more than 130,000 times, he says, and Mattson is known among wooden boat enthusiasts all over the world as “Wooden Boat Dan.”

“I’m not quite as well known as Oprah, but, you know, maybe someday,” he says with a laugh.

 

Like Family From the Heart, Podcast Answer Man has changed since its early days. It’s evolved from a nuts-and-bolts technical program into a freewheeling forum for Ravenscraft to discuss his personal journey and his ideas about business, life, and podcasting.

Ravenscraft recorded a doozy of an episode in late October titled “What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?” In it, he described how he believed his life was at a crossroads. Every month, he said, he receives up to 100 e-mails from admirers talking about how inspiring they find his message. At the risk of sounding arrogant, he wondered aloud if something bigger than podcasting might await him. He imagined standing on a stage in a stadium before 100,000 people. He talked about the possibility of an Internet TV show on YouTube with 10 million subscribers. Maybe his search for the ideal ministry isn’t over yet. “I’m afraid to actually dream those dreams because they’re so freaking huge and scary,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel almost called to something that big.”

He encouraged his listeners to give him feedback. “What is it that you’ve seen in me?” he asked.

A week later, Ravenscraft sits in his studio, getting ready to record the next episode of Podcast Answer Man. This program will continue the discussion from the previous week. He titles the new episode “Are Podcasters Narcissists?” He laughs as he tries to type the sentence. “I can’t be a narcissist if I can’t even spell it,” he says. Following the late October show, a listener made a comment that really struck a nerve. “Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition in which people have an excessive sense of self-importance,” the person wrote on the Podcast Answer Man website. “Lay off the Kool-Aid.” Ravenscraft wrote a lengthy response on his website, but he also decided to devote most of his next episode to the comment.

Ravenscraft starts the show with a discussion of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder. He concludes he doesn’t have the condition, but surely such a lengthy self-indulgent monologue confirms at least some narcissistic tendencies. As it turns out, Ravenscraft doesn’t completely reject the label. He says self-importance is essential in life and in podcasting. “If you don’t have any sense of self-importance, I think you should stop hitting the record button,” he says. He’s happy to talk about his achievements to inspire others. “I don’t believe I am God’s gift to you,” he says with a laugh. “But I do believe I’m here for a purpose, and I believe that purpose is important.” He concludes by encouraging his listeners to “be a little bit more narcissistic.”

Then he reads another response he received after the previous show. This one was much different. Its author, a Catholic monk in Scotland, described Ravenscraft as “the most integral person he listens to” and offered some advice.

“What to do?” the monk wrote. “Well, there are a million ideas. But my overwhelming idea is this, why do you have to have a subject? Your gift is talking and therefore why not just be Cliff Ravenscraft? That’s enough.”

Originally published in the February 2015 issue.

Illustration by Army of Trolls– Folio Art

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