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A Middle Market for Live Podcasts?

Live performance as a channel of growth for the U.K. podcast scene is something I’ve been tracking for a while, and the scene over here seems to have bubbled up quite a bit over the past few years. There are straightforward arguments as to why more creators would want to build the channel out: Live shows can be a really good way for podcasters to connect directly with their audience and a good source of revenue, if you can make the economics work. For me, increasing live podcast activity is also a signal of increasing awareness and saleability around podcasting. Put simply, if events beyond the London Podcast Festival and My Dad Wrote a Porno tours are doing well, it suggests gains in the breadth and depth of U.K. podcasting.

A new upcoming live podcast venture seems to speak to this. Described as a “first-of-its-kind business” by its organizers, Podcast Live will take a slate of podcasters — primarily nonfiction-oriented — to different venues around the U.K. to host interactive versions of their shows. The first event, set for April 7 in London, will feature a lineup of political podcasts from across the ideological spectrum, including the anti-Brexit Remainiacs and the right-wing Delingpod. (Sidenote: April 7 will be only a few days after the U.K. exits the E.U. on March 29 — maybe, who knows, our legislature is a hot mess right now — which could make it extra spicy.)

The venture is the product of four U.K. audio industry veterans: Phil Riley, former CEO of Chrysalis Radio and founder of Heart Radio; Michael Connole, former finance director of both Chrysalis Group and Global Radio; John Myers, former CEO of Guardian Media Group Radio; and Matt Deegan, creative director for Folder Media and co-founder of both the British Podcast Awards and the Next Radio conference.

Over email, Deegan told me the event has been in development for about six months, and that he was particularly cued into the opportunity after working on the British Podcast Awards in 2017 and 2018. “We all know that for many podcasters (especially in Europe) it isn’t yet their main job and they can’t always devote the time that they would like to,” he said. “Quite a few podcasters were doing some shows but were keen to do more, and other podcasters knew they should be doing live shows, but just didn’t have the time to organize them.”

The angle for Podcast Live, apparently, is to solve an economic problem: serving as a platform both for podcasts with experience hosting their own events but who find the upfront costs prohibitive as well as podcasts who have yet to try out live performances.

Deegan reckons the U.K.’s podcasting scene is now well populated enough to make this work either way. “I think the number of British shows that are generating more than 50,000 listens an episode seems to be growing and growing,” he said. “At this level, you really start to build a broad, geographically dispersed, engaged audience. We’re seeing podcasters do well from events, but also from things like Patreon subs and merch. They’ve built the critical mass to be able to sell out events. For smaller podcasters, we hope that by being alongside the bigger ones, it will help kickstart their own events and tours.”

The decision to design each event around a particular subject matter — in April’s case, politics — is an interesting one, which contrasts the patchwork nature of many other live programming lineups. It helps distinguish Podcast Live to some extent, speaking towards the aim of being specific in targeting audiences. “By theming days, we hope we’ll help expose their podcast to more fans of that genre,” Deegan said. “We want a Podcast Live event to be a way to meet people who have similar interests to you and also expose our audience to new content that they didn’t know about our haven’t experienced before.” Focusing on nonfiction topical podcasts also creates a point of difference, since there is already a comparatively well-established circuit for comedy and interview podcasts and some fiction shows.

Podcast Live will take a cut of all ticket sales for the days that they organize. In return, the podcasters will get the event admin handled for them, some marketing, and a decent recording of their show to use on their own feed. At the moment, the organizers aren’t being paid for their involvement. Deegan noted that they waiting for the venture to be profitable before they are compensated for their time.

The effort strikes me as part of a broader trend in the U.K. for companies that sit in the mid-range of the podcasting space — providing infrastructure to shows with a decent audience but without the huge reach to run things alone, and taking a revenue share in return. In the same way that Acast has been able to attract mid-sized shows onto its platform for monetization — because those shows aren’t yet big enough to attract the attention of big brands but their audiences may have some value to smaller advertisers — Podcast Live could fulfill a similar role for the live events market. Sure, there are always pros and cons to working with a third party rather than owning all of your own operation, and creators will have to reckon with those tradeoffs. But I think it’s encouraging to see things launching in the U.K. that seek to work with the audio space here as it is now, rather than just hanging around waiting for more listeners to show up so it looks more like the U.S.