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5-4 and the Pivot to Patreon

It’s been some two years and change since Leon Neyfakh left Slate to sign a Luminary deal, pop open his own production studio, and set forth to find out what greener pastures may grant him. As you would expect, he’s spent the bulk of that time being plenty busy, and when I checked in on him last week, I’d learn that his studio, Prologue Projects, seems to be evolving rather unexpectedly.

The studio continues to traffic in the sort of narrative nonfiction series you’d expect from the originating host of Slow Burn, dulcet tones and historical perspective and all. At the heart remains Fiasco, its flagship series that’s gearing to launch its latest season later this spring, on the Benghazi attacks. (As far as I can tell, it’s still a Luminary exclusive.) Then there’s The Edge, a sports series hosted by the journalist Ben Reiter that spent its debut season on the Houston Astros cheating scandal debacle. The studio was also attached to a project last fall with Cadence13 and Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions, called Whirlwind, which provided a sprawling look into U.S.-Russian political intrigue that stretches to the present day.

But beyond the limited-run documentary series stuff, Prologue has also been rounding out its portfolio with shows that adhere to more regular publishing schedules. This includes the intensely strange 365 Stories I Want To Tell You Before We Both Die from the filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, which drops tiny dispatches every day and, weirdly enough, has a lot in common with the structurally similar 365 days with mxmtoon, though, of course, the differences between the two hosts there couldn’t be more dramatic. It also includes a decidedly more straightforward comedy podcast called Celebrity Book Club with Lily Marotta and Steven Phillips-Horst, which comes out of a co-production with Headgum and has the additional challenge of going up against an assortment of other podcasts of the same name and concept, including one hosted by Chelsea Devantez and produced by Stitcher.

Anyway, all of this is to say that Prologue appears to have spent the past two and half years figuring out its angles and mixing things up when necessary, and there’s no more representative example of these dynamics than what the studio recently had to do with another one of this regularly publishing shows, 5-4, which I think also serves as an interesting window into one instance of how things are going on the mid-range ad-supported side of the podcast business these days.

Broadly speaking, 5-4 is a conversational podcast that pitches itself as a show “about how much the Supreme Court sucks,” with each episode dedicated to diving deep into a different Supreme Court case that stands out for what the show would consider its terrible legal reasoning or effects on society. It’s hosted by three progressive lawyers who maintain some level of anonymity beyond their first names — Peter, Michael, and Rhiannon — in large part due to the fact that, well, they’re practicing lawyers. The podcast launched about a year ago, making its debut with an archetypal episode about Bush v. Gore, before proceeding to bounce between a mix of foundational “terrible” cases and cases that bring the discussion close to contemporary news developments.

In the beginning, Prologue positioned 5-4 as a fairly straightforward weekly podcast that would be supported by advertising. They pitched the show around to various distributors and ultimately ended up working with Westwood One, the Cumulus Media-owned radio group that’s been working to build out a podcast business over the past few years. They forged a standard distribution deal, with Westwood One handling ad sales as well as providing promo spots over their radio stations and some of their own podcasts. As is usually the case with this type of arrangement, the deal paid out what Neyfakh described as a “modest” minimum guarantee to cover the cost of production.

5-4 went on to attract a solid following. Its core constituents, according to Neyfakh, seemed to be some mix of law school students, law professors, and civil rights lawyers. In other words, a kind of listenership that some people would consider pretty monetizable, given the presumed long-term economic status of lawyer and law-school types. By the end of last year, the podcast grew to around 40,000 to 50,000 downloads per week, with monthly downloads across the show’s entire catalogue averaging around the 200,000 mark.

For all intents and purposes, that’s a pretty respectable number for a podcast that doesn’t feature widely known names attached to the production. (In fact, as previously mentioned, there were no full names at all, save for Neyfakh, who is listed on the show as a “presenter.”) And as far as I can remember, that download volume was enough to get you a fairly decent stream of advertising interest back around say… three or four years ago.

Of course, much has changed in the past three or four years, and despite 5-4’s solid first-year showing, Neyfakh told me that the podcast wasn’t able to make reliable advertising money through their Westwood One deal. (Westwood One, by the way, declined to comment when I followed up for more details.)

This struck Neyfakh and the Prologue team as incongruous with the opportunity that 5-4 was exhibiting. Advertising interest or no, they felt a strong sense that the show was cultivating a particularly engaged community around it. There were a few metrics that suggested as much, but the one that really grabbed their attention was merchandise sales: In the first week after opening an online store, they sold a thousand orders. Surely that’s an indicator of something.

After the deal with Westwood One ended, the team briefly considered going back out to the marketplace and finding a new distribution partner. But as they surveyed the scene — ever filling up with bigger names, more shows, and greater consolidation — they felt like a show carrying 200,000 downloads per month isn’t really in a position to make serious ad dollars. And so, taking a cue from an increasing number of podcasts that find themselves in this peculiar in-between space, they shifted their efforts to Patreon.

For the Prologue team, the choice to roll with the membership platform in particular was partly informed by who was already on there. “Patreon is already home to many other lefty podcasts,” said Neyfakh. “We had a sense that a lot of the 5-4 fanbase already knew how to use it, in some cases maybe they already had their cards saved in.” They moved the show from Megaphone (where it was previously hosted under the Westwood One deal) to Acast (which recently launched a direct integration with Patreon), and constructed an offering around two tiers: one at $5 per month, which provides exclusive episodes and discounts on merchandise, and one at $10 per month, which adds on a Slack channel with the hosts, exclusive events, and even deeper discounts on merchandise. They also went in with fairly conversative expectations. “In terms of a rule of thumb, people talk about converting anywhere between 0.5% to 5% over the course of the first year,” said Neyfakh.

The payoff turned out to be near instantaneous. Within a week of launching the Patreon, the podcast converted almost 3,000 supporters at almost $200,000 in annual revenue. At this writing, almost a month after launch, the 5-4 Patreon is a hair over 3,100 subscribers, generating around $16,900 per month in revenue. That’s far from, say, Chapo Trap House’s 38,400 Patreon supporter base and $170,000 monthly revenue, but hey, it’s just the first month, and it’s a start.

5-4’s experience is an interesting one, though I’m personally wary of the extent to which we can extrapolate conclusions. For one thing, this could very well be a story about Westwood One’s effectiveness in third-party ad sales, or more likely, a story about the impact of the pandemic on advertising around a new show launch. But 5-4’s difficulties garnering advertising interest does seem to square more generally with the stories of many other similarly sized shows that I’ve been hearing a lot about lately. Shows of a certain considerable but not exorbitantly large size that could’ve gotten a response from advertisers just a few years ago now seem to be increasingly shut out of that monetization opportunity, at least in its current form — things may well change as programmatic options open up over the next few years.

After its pivot to Patreon, 5-4 is now significantly better positioned for the next stage of its life, and its experience stands as a good example of the fact that a race for scale isn’t the only way to run a shop in this business. In any case, it’s not like advertising is off the table completely. “Maybe if the show grows to a certain size, advertising could be a good option for us once again,” said Neyfakh.