How Tim Ferriss Became the ‘Oprah of Audio’—Behind the Podcast With 70M-Plus Downloads

Tim Ferriss explains how he’s become the Oprah of Audio.

Tim Ferriss explains how he’s become the “Oprah of Audio.” (Photo: Tim Ferriss/Flickr)

In publishing circles, something called the “Tim Ferriss Effect” has been known for some time. The concept refers to the power of a single author and his blog to drive the sales—in some cases in the tens of thousands—for books he chooses to recommend to his army of fans. I, myself, happen to have been a beneficiary of this effect on a number of occasions. In fact, I felt it before I was even an author. A simple article I wrote on Tim’s site in 2009 prompted the first inquiry I ever received from a book publisher.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the decline of what most people used to refer to as “blogs.” Most companies have shut down their blogs, some popular bloggers have closed up shop. But somehow, the Tim Ferriss Effect not only still exists—it’s become something bigger than I think anyone could have imagined.

I’m not an impartial observer of this phenomenon. Tim is someone I have worked with and a friend (he’s even published my books—one of which he turned into a runaway hit that changed my life and another one on the way soon). Even so, I’ve been continually shocked with his ability to predict trends and master new technologies. Many of us have friends that start podcasts—not very often do those shows turn around and do 70 million downloads. Plenty of us agree to appear on our friends’ podcasts—what’s unusual is recording the episode and then getting emails from NFL coaches, A-list actors and multi-platinum music titans because they “heard you on the podcast recently.” As one of the first guests on The Tim Ferriss Show, it’s been strange and humbling to watch myself get utterly eclipsed by every subsequent guest over the last two years—from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Sophia Amoruso to Jamie Foxx—and listen to each one, riveted, just like every other fan.

It’s like being friends with Oprah from when she had a small morning show in Chicago. And that’s really what Tim’s podcast has become. He’s the Oprah of Audio. Is there a more fitting moniker for someone whose show can sell 50,000 copies of a book or drive a product out of stock at Whole Foods nationwide? I don’t think so.

Which is why I wanted to interview Tim to get him to explain how exactly the hell this all happened. How does one create one of the biggest podcasts in the world with essentially no advertising or promotion? How does one expertly interview huge stars, introverted authors and enigmatic artists with compelling ease? How does one build a potential $2-4M a year business—as he recently described it in an article—but decide not to fully monetize it because he doesn’t want to exploit his fans?

I had so many questions and thankfully, he had plenty of answers.

Why are you excited about podcasts? Are they the future of media?

I love podcasting because it’s a mass-audience format that offers 100 percent creative control with low production cost. My last few books and TV show were created alongside a lot of committees and corporate complexity, which exhausted me. This is a return to basics—focus on content, period. No internal debates, no design by consensus, none of that. The CPMs ($20-80 CPM) and rewards for experimenting have also never been greater.  

Politics-ridden publisher models are antiquated and reflect an old paradigm of pushing content via distribution oligopolies (e.g. the first 20 feet of a retailer effectively being owned by Coca-Cola, Simon & Schuster, etc.). I know startups that have had to sell to larger companies simply to increase distribution footprint. In podcasting, it’s totally different: you pull people into your content. The quality attracts audience, SEO, and more audience; this is a sharp contrast  to distribution forcing audiences to consume only a handful of options (e.g. old network TV).

Starting around 2008, I began experiencing the power of podcasts as a guest. People like Joe Rogan, Marc Maron, and Chris Hardwick (Nerdist) produced ripple effects that blew my mind.  This inspired me to try it myself on the other side of the table.

I think podcasting—or audio more broadly—is one element in the future of media. Unlike video or print, audio is a natural secondary activity. Audio can be consumed while you commute, cook, exercise, walk the dog, etc. The more smart phones and broadband blanket the globe, the more powerful audio will become.

Last but not least, good long-form content will be around forever, so it’s part of the future.  Despite the masses of people trying to emulate BuzzFeed, and despite the chorus of “long-form content is dead” or “long-form content can’t be monetized,” I see exactly the opposite. The Kindle has made it possible for people to impulsively buy two to 10 times the number of books they did in 2000. My techie friends in SF and NYC binge watch hour-long TV series on Netflix more than ever.

Long-form content isn’t dead; it’s simply uncrowded and neglected. I double down when formats are out of favor.

You’ve said you started your show as a six episode experiment with Kevin Rose, but clearly it’s grown into something much bigger than that. What do you see it becoming now that you’re on the verge of hitting 100M downloads?

I’d like it to become a clearinghouse for thought leaders who want to go deep, or set the record straight, or leave an interview they’d want their kids to remember them by. Sadly, two-minute TV interviews and other sound-bite media just don’t allow smart people to be smart.

I want to showcase intelligence and record a legacy-worthy interview. In brief, this is the response that I’d love every guest to have:

For guest selection, I’ll continue to mix super celebrities (e.g. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Foxx, Edward Norton) with world-class experts who don’t normally do interviews (e.g. Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin, master interviewer Cal Fussman, tech investor/founder Naval Ravikant).

From an audience perspective, I’d like The Tim Ferriss Show to become the default “second activity” for many tens of millions. I want a few months of listening to my podcast during commutes, cooking, dog walking, etc. to trump a full-time year at any MBA program in the country.

One of things that I think has driven quality in the podcast market is that they’re listened to by subscribers. Most blog posts are competing on social media for attention, whereas podcast episodes are about delivering value to loyal listeners. You seem to have doubled down on podcasts as well as on email as a way to communicate with your army of fans, why was that? How has it worked?

E-mail and the podcast are my two highest priorities at the moment, and they work in tandem.  Let’s touch on e-mail first.

Unlike, say, Facebook or Twitter, I own this communication directly and it’s less subject to the whims of algorithm changes (e.g. “Oops! Now you only reach 20 percent of your audience.”). Some people insist that email is dead for younger generations, and they’re right… until those young people get jobs. E-mail will stick around for a while, despite our attempts to kill it. It’s still the most reliable broadcast delivery mechanism.

The podcast, much like e-mail, is a free subscription. Although people can choose to listen a la carte, the subscription is most desireable.

At the risk of stating the obvious: subscribers subscribe to things as a habit. I use the podcast to promote my newsletter (specifically, 5-Bullet Friday) and I use email to increase the podcast listenership. The goal is subscription in both cases, but I’m not adding a new behavior. This has a much lower CPA than shotgunning on Twitter, for instance.

This pairing of email and podcast has been a revelation. The podcast is already typically a top-25 podcast on iTunes overall, and I expect to double its size in the next six to 12 months.  Having a fast-growing alternate subscription (5-Bullet Friday) is critical to this. It’s 100% necessary but not sufficient. PR, paid acquisition, and many other elements round out the execution. Some (e.g. paid acquisition) are directly useful for audience growth, whereas others (e.g. PR features in name-brand outlets) is a powerful indirect contributor that makes high-profile guest recruitment easier.

At the same time, something that folks like Gretchen Rubin and others have pointed out, it’s hard for a one hour audio file in iTunes to go viral or get shared the way a blog post can. How have you managed to promote and grow your show so quickly given that reality?

Longer shows can absolutely go viral. We just need to define terms and ask a few additional questions. It’s easy to chase “viral” without stopping to ask: What is the goal? What are we measuring? Why do those metrics matter?

For instance—What communities/demographics/psychographics are you targeting, and what is the measurable objective? For me, it’ll be specific for each episode or post. Hypothetically: I want evergreen content that will hit 1,000,000 downloads by X date, spread like wildfire in the spec-ops communities (because I have future goals involving that world), and continue to get at least 100,000 downloads a week for 3 months. I can look at historical data and reverse engineer an outcome like this.

If you’re chasing the phantom of “favorites” or “shares,” etc., it might impress a boss who loves vanity metrics, but I personally track fan acquisition in new verticals, predictable revenue (MRR) growth, and a few other things that move needles I care about.

The virality profile—or kinetics of contagion—are different for long-form content than for a 60-second YouTube video or 300-word “11 reasons your dog hates you”-type list. As with real viruses like influenza and ebola, the onset, duration, means of transmission, persistence, etc. vary widely.

For long-form examples, look at Serial, or even my episodes with relative non-celebs (compared to, say, Edward Norton) like Seth Godin and Derek Sivers. These shows take longer to initially spread, as they rely on 90- to 180-minute content versus 30 seconds or name recognition, but they have far greater permanence than the shorter content, in my experience.

Spread can be increased by creating assets like extensive show notes with links, highlighting short audio sections via Overcast for rushed people (see “If you only have a few minutes…” here), and crafting related blog posts that link to multiple episodes (e.g. The Unusual Books That Shaped Billionaires, Mega-Bestselling Authors, and Other Prodigies). I have perhaps a dozen more tricks that enhance “transmission” of long-form viruses.

Keep in mind that I’ve tried very short content. My “how to peel hard-boiled eggs without peeling them” YouTube video has 7M+ views, and it’s far less valuable to me than a good, in-depth podcast with even 500,000 listens. The former is a drive-by viewing; you’re one more shout in the noise.  The latter can turn casual listeners into long-term listeners and devotees. I can’t out BuzzFeed BuzzFeed, and that would be the wrong goal for me.

Mass “virality” is overrated for a minimalist outfit like mine. Would you rather have 100,000 people in the US, selected at random, consume your content once and know your name, or the entire audience at TED and Davos listen to your podcast at least once a month? I’ll take the latter every time.

When in doubt, read Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” and niche down. If you want to be widely known later, focus narrowly first.

Even though episodes might have trouble spreading, some of these bigger shows like yours have the power to send an immense amount of traffic or interest to a guest or a product. What’s been the most powerful example of that on your show? Have you seen the “Tim Ferriss Effect” work in audio as well as it has on your blog?

It’s exceeded all expectations. I didn’t expect audio to be as powerful as it is. Text, after all, has plenty of direct links. And no one will listen to a 2-3-hour podcast, right? Well, let’s consider some history.

The “Tim Ferriss Effect” from the blog (it can outsell CNN TV spotlights, major op-eds, etc.) took a long time to establish, perhaps 4-5 years.

The podcast hit the “sell out” impact in less than 12 months. Just a few example that come to mind: It has helped launch a book to #1 New York Times bestseller (e.g. SEAL Jocko Willink episode), it can outsell full-page features and ads in the NYT or Esquire (e.g. sponsor Mizzen+Main), it can take used book prices to nearly $1,000 on Amazon (e.g. billionaire Chris Sacca episode), and—my fave hilarious example—my episode with Dom D’Agostino sold out Wild Planet sardines in Whole Foods around the country (one typical tweet). This is fun for guests, too. One A-list actor told me the impact matched a big studio movie launch. Eric Weinstein, a well-known Silicon Valley mathematician-investor, mentioned his favorite movie was Kung-Fu Panda in our conversation, and the writer reached out to him that same week on Twitter. It’s wild.

My theory is that more media—and busy people, in general—listen to the podcast as a second activity (e.g. during commutes) than would consume my usual five- to 20-page blog posts. It’s a blast to see text pieces in the NYT and WSJ that mention the podcast and its guests, or to get contacted by CNN after an episode on psychedelic research, which turned (in that case) into a huge nationwide TV segment, which then helped me fuel research at Johns Hopkins.

As a follower of your site, I notice you tend to write less now. You’ve done short episodes that I imagine in the past would have been blog posts. Do you think podcasts are a replacement for blogs?

No, I think they’re complementary. Either can lead to the other. These days, I’m writing fewer posts but ensuring they’re comprehensive (e.g. my “startup vacation” post, podcast business post), which gives them evergreen staying power. I’m focusing on audio largely because I’m enjoying it and fans are asking for more.

One of the things that struck me after appearing on your show was the people I heard from. It wasn’t so much the quantity—though it was a lot—but much more the quality. I heard from NFL coaches, managers for some of the world’s biggest bands, authors, even people I know really well but didn’t peg as podcast listeners talked to me about it. The only similar experience for me was when I did a big NPR show. Is it just that smart people listen to podcasts?

This happens to nearly every guest, and there could be a few explanations.

First, both NPR and I take our time. I don’t dumb things down, and I go as long and as deep as necessary to uncover good stories and tactics listeners can use. Smart content, which I try and create, attracts smart people.

Second, at least 50% of the celebs, power brokers, and experts who’ve appeared on the podcast were regular listeners of the podcast first. In other words, the type of people who appear on The Tim Ferriss Show also listen to it…just multiplied thousands of times over.  

That begs the question—why? It was partly luck and partly by design. The 4-Hour Workweek first became popular among tech startup founders and investors in Silicon Valley and NYC, and they were the tipping point, sending it to #1 NY Times and keeping it on the NYT business bestseller list for more than 4 years straight, unbroken. These readers were also kind enough to rebroadcast my work into every imaginable industry and subculture. Subsequently, I realized this could be done deliberately in different worlds to create an interwoven network of thought leaders. If The 4-Hour Workweek immersed me primarily into the business and travel worlds, then the content of The 4-Hour Body spread me into the highest levels of sports, nutrition, and military (as they obsess over training). The 4-Hour Chef did the same for culinary, but also for media and publishing due to the buzz and controversy surrounding Amazon Publishing, the launch of which was announced in the NYT with the acquisition of my book.

This combination of good luck and planning has led me to the most incredible audience I’ve ever been exposed to. I learn 10x more from them each week than I put out.

Marc Maron and Simmons have both had Obama on. Who is your dream guest for the show? You’ve had some amazing ones, obviously, but if you could get anyone on the show, who would it be?

This one is easy—Oprah.

I’ve followed her since high school, and she’s been a force for good for decades. She’s stayed that course, even when it’s been incredibly difficult. Not many people can walk that walk when their feet are to the fire.

To have tea with her and really connect would be a dream come true.

I’m not in a rush to pitch her, and I’m happy to let the universe decide timing, but it could happen. I’ve been fortunate to interview some wonderful people who know her, including Jamie Foxx, Tony Robbins, and others.

If you had to give one piece of advice to someone asking themselves: “Should I start a podcast?” what would it be?

Do it, but commit to doing SIX episodes.

Even if they’re short and you never publish them, this volume is enough to learn lessons that transfer elsewhere else. It’s a minimalist experiment for improving overall thinking: improving your ability to ask questions, fixing verbal tics (e.g. “ummm” “ahhhh”), getting better at listening without interrupting, learning to sit with silence until someone else continues, etc. Even if your format isn’t interviewing, perhaps like Hardcore History (my fave), you’ll improve your ability to craft good narratives, tell stories, and be a better human. We are hardwired to be story-telling and question-asking machines; you might as well be good at it.

One to two episodes isn’t enough to hit the hockey stick in the learning curve, so commit to six.  

Just be forewarned: you’ll likely hate listening to yourself. I was mortified. I’m very insecure about my own voice, but over a few episodes, you learn to curse, exhale, smile, and say “What the hell…let’s try it again.” This is what we want—by facing your own rough edges, you polish them or eventually accept them.

Rule No. 1: Relax. No one’s going to die. Just get a little better each time.

Rule No. 2: Keep it simple. This applies to format, gear, editing, everything. Constantly ask yourself “What would this look like if it were easy?”

Rule No. 3: Be yourself—weirdness, warts, and all. In podcasting, this is a huge competitive advantage… and a huge relief. Have fun with it.

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for The New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.

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How Tim Ferriss Became the ‘Oprah of Audio’—Behind the Podcast With 70M-Plus Downloads