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.”
For many therapists, getting established is a gradual process. Five years ago, when Macpherson first floated the idea for his show, he was wrestling with his self-confidence as a budding therapist. His two-hour drives to and from his post-doc internship were plagued by worry about whether he was really helping his clients at all. What am I doing? he wondered. I don’t know what I’m doing. Why aren’t my clients listening to me? What am I doing wrong?
Sometimes on these drives, he’d listen to podcasts about entrepreneurs creating the kinds of lives they’d always dreamed of—making good money, inspiring other people. Eventually, he had a lightbulb moment. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I had a master therapist sitting with me in the passenger seat? Or the next best thing? At the time, there weren’t many podcasts on trauma available. Those that did exist were technical, not focused on what he really thought would help him help his clients. So Macpherson got to work, cobbling together his podcast while finishing his degree.
He set up shop in his apartment, purchased some cheap recording equipment, drew up a shortlist of guests—a combination of well-known and lesser-known trauma therapists he admired—and practiced honing his voice as a host. A December 2016 podcast begins with a whooshing sound, followed by drums. A violin swells, mimicking the style of a CNN breaking news story. “Passion. Dedication. And Inspiration,” a deep voice calls out. “If you’re ready to hear inspiring interviews with amazing trauma therapists, This. Is. It. Right here, right now. With your host, Guy Macpherson.” The podcast closes with a short guitar riff and the sound of a small explosion.
In 2018, Macpherson put his clinical work on hold to devote himself entirely to producing the podcast, and with a new, more mature sound, it shows. Today, nearly 100 episodes later, the tone is considerably different. Episodes open with soft piano music. There are no drums, and no guitar solos—just Macpherson, in a hushed voice, telling his story before he introduces his latest guest. “Welcome to The Trauma Therapist Podcast,” he begins. “My name is Guy Macpherson. My mission is to raise awareness of trauma and to help support and inspire new trauma workers through this podcast. Thanks so much for joining me today. Here we go.” Podcasting “is my life now,” Macpherson says. “I’m creating a platform to inspire people who may be new to the field—just like I was not too long ago, struggling with my own work.”
But it’s not just clinicians who get inspired; podcasting therapists report that their shows not only demystify therapy for potential clients, but build trust even before treatment begins, and get results much faster once it does. “I’ve had a few clients who found me through my podcast,” says Laura Reagan, a licensed clinical social worker in Maryland, who hosts The Therapy Chat Podcast. “They tell me things like, ‘I feel like I already know how you work because I’ve heard your show and have a sense of who you are.’” With the therapeutic alliance strong from the start, she says these clients often feel comfortable working a little deeper early on in treatment.
Hearing someone’s voice, tone, and inflection is deeply personal, Reagan explains. It creates an intimacy between the speaker and listener that’s harder to replicate through media like photos, articles, and blogs. Like Macpherson and Boykin, she says drawing on personal experiences, rather than just doing psychoeducation or deferring to guests, adds to her reputation as a professional who’s both relatable and capable. And it’s paid off. Today, Reagan’s podcast has an average of 55,000 downloads per month, and more than a million downloads from more than 160 countries.
Reagan adds that her podcast sometimes serves as an adjunct to therapy, which clients can use to accelerate treatment by getting more information about managing their symptoms and hearing about therapeutic strategies. The listen-whenever-wherever convenience of podcasts also means that clients can learn at their own pace, or when they feel emotionally prepared to process information. “I’d never be able to go into as much depth in a therapy session as I do in my podcast,” Reagan explains. “If I did, the whole session would be taken up by me talking. Or if my client is too activated in session, the timing might just not be right for me to do psychoeducation. Podcasting gives me options I didn’t have before.”
To some, podcasts are simply a sign of the times—“the Netflix of audio media,” Boykin says—but ethical obligations still apply, particularly preserving client confidentiality. Discussing actual scenarios and takeaways from your work, so long as identifying details aren’t disclosed, is not only safe territory when it comes to podcasting, but particularly appealing to audiences. After all, potential clients “are looking for something that’s going to show them how therapy with you is going to directly impact their experience,” Boykin says. “Case studies give them real-life examples that will resonate with them.” But both she and Reagan stress the importance of leaning general when discussing cases. For instance, talk about how trauma survivors generally respond to yoga therapy based on your encounters with them, rather than fixating too much on case details.
That said, podcasting is, for many therapists, an exciting, mostly unexplored frontier, with a rich payoff for those with the patience to see it through the early stages. “It’s an extremely vulnerable thing to do, releasing your voice to the world,” Reagan says. “But once I started, I knew I wanted to keep at it. I knew I was making a difference. You can read a lot about what makes a podcast successful, but I’m not following any kind of formula. I’m just doing what feels right.”
Chris Lyford is the assistant editor at Psychotherapy Networker.
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