By day, Sara Weber is a professional writer, covering technology and startups. By night, she’s the creator and author of Sara’s Podcast Newsletter, a collection of curated podcast recommendations and thoughtful takes on the on-demand audio industry with thousands of subscribers.
The newsletter, which has now been publishing for over two years, started the way many great personal projects do: in a moment of idleness. Sara, who lives in Munich but has dual U.S. and German citizenship, was visiting her dad in Ohio in 2015. It was winter and she wasn’t feeling well, and in her words, “There isn’t much to do when you’re sick and bored in Ohio, and it’s freezing outside.” She’d been listening to a lot of podcasts and friends had taken to asking her for recommendations. She sat in her bedroom and thought, why not put this in a newsletter rather than just sharing my thoughts with one person at a time?
She quickly wrote her first issue. Struggling to find a name, she turned to her favorite movie, “Almost Famous,” and plucked a memorable line from it: “Adolescence is a marketing tool.” She figured she would pick a different line from the movie for each issue. Then she posted her first issue it on Facebook and Twitter. That was it.
While just a couple of friends and family members subscribed to that first newsletter, it quickly (and to her surprise) started to gain traction. By the time she had written two or three, she had people subscribing that she didn’t know — people who worked in the podcasting industry (helped by an early mention in Nick Quah’s newsletter, Hot Pod.) She was freelancing at the time, and had the flexibility and appetite to try to put out a newsletter every week. Plus, it was fun.
Sara hadn’t listened to the radio much growing up, but became hooked on podcasts after hearing This American Life and Radiolab. “I hadn’t heard anything like them. I liked listening to fiction audiobooks as a kid, but I had never heard narrative nonfiction in audio form before. And then more and more shows started popping up.” Buzzfeed had just launched the incredibly popular Another Round, which Sara mentioned in one of her first newsletters. The space was new and fresh, and so much was happening. The more the industry expanded, and the greater the subscriber list grew, the more content she had to work through.
She loves trying new shows — whether it’s something she’s heard about on Twitter, from a pitch sent directly to her inbox, or by browsing the “New & Newsworthy” section of iTunes — but does feel some pressure to listen to things in order to keep the content fresh and new. The dilemma: How to decide what shows and episodes to include?
Sara will recommend great shows that are already well known, but she tries to avoid doing it too often, or too close together. She also tries to curate inclusively, finding shows that represent a spectrum of creators, perspectives, and stories: “I think I realized, but perhaps not on a totally conscious level, that I wanted to feature people of color, and women, and not just white guys. Especially when I started out, it felt like it was just white guys sitting in front of microphones talking for two hours. I love that the landscape has changed so much and I try to reflect that.”
At this point you might be wondering about the listening habits of an amateur podcast curator.
Like many of us, she’ll listen to new shows while doing chores, cooking or baking, or walking. “All these little nooks of time when you don’t really have something to do, I listen to podcasts.” Sara doesn’t hesitate to skip shows if she’s not hooked or just doesn’t like them, but she’ll usually stay subscribed and may try a future episode if it looks interesting (“I like to give second chances!”). There are certain people whose recommendations she will almost always try, like Andrea Silenzi (Why Oh Why), Nick Quah (Hot Pod), Julia Furlan (Buzzfeed Audio), or Bello Collective.
How many podcasts is someone with this appetite and a hobby of recommending new podcasts subscribed to? “Well, every couple of weeks I sort through and purge,” Sara told me, “but right now it’s 986. I know, it’s crazy.” (Shout out to Pocket Casts, Sara’s podcatcher of choice).
Sara actually likes that podcasts are a little hard to find; that secret thrill of uncovering something amazing she didn’t know existed. But siloed podcasts — that is, content that is only available on certain networks — concerns her. “I don’t have a problem with paying for content, but I do want all podcasts to be accessible in my podcast app, regardless of the network or publisher they’re from. I don’t want to have to check five different places, and I think that division of platforms also makes it harder to discover new shows. You may never listen to a great show on Spotify if you’re not a Spotify user and can’t access it any other way.”
While the newsletter is fundamentally the same as when she first started it — a driver for recommending great audio — a few things about it have changed. Every time Sara saw the name she’d chosen so quickly mentioned by a reader or news outlet, she’d laugh — eventually she knew it was time to change (it became Sara’s Podcast Newsletter earlier this year). The frequency also changed; once a week was eventually just too much to keep up; now it comes out every two to three weeks. “I don’t know whether I’ll do it indefinitely, but I get amazing feedback and it’s so much fun listening to all the shows. And I listen to them anyway, so why not also do the newsletter?”
Want to get in on Sara’s Podcast Newsletter? Subscribe here.