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Vox Media Acquires Epic Magazine

This one came in overnight: for the uninitiated, Epic is the… I guess they call themselves a “content studio,” but it’s more specifically a firm that sources and produces long-form stories that can eventually be spun out as adapted properties for print, television and film. (One such notable project: Argo, later turned into a Ben Affleck Oscar vehicle.) They also do branded content work, via Epic Digital. The company was founded in 2013 by the journalists Josh Davis and Joshuah Bearman, though I feel like I’ve been following this company for much longer than that…

Anyway, why is this relevant to pods? According to the press email I got: “Vox Media will now move into scripted while tapping Epic’s team to continue doing what they’re best at — hunting down dynamic stories, bringing them to life via the written word and expanding them through podcasts, premium documentaries and TV.” Emphasis mine.

Mailchimp’s Changing Relationship

Here’s a joke that folks persist making in my general direction: “Once Mailchimp stops advertising, will the podcast industry just collapse?” (In fact, I heard it just last week! Alas, my eyes, they have lost all motor function required to roll.) The snark is, for the most part, a testament to the skepticism that continues to pervade the podcast business, built on the increasingly wobbly assumption that the market is only supported by a handful of players.

On my more generous days, though, I prefer to focus more on how it expresses Mailchimp’s storied stature as an early podcast advertiser. The Atlanta-based email newsletter giant was part of the generation of DR advertisers — see also: Squarespace and Stamps.com, among others — that bought into the space early and heavily, reaping tremendous value to the point of becoming somewhat synonymous with podcasting itself. (I’ll skip the Mailkimp anecdote, you probably know that one already.)

But here’s the thing: Mailchimp has already been scaling down its podcast buys for quite some time now. “It’s definitely not a core part of our evergreen mix as it used to be,” Mark DiCristina, Mailchimp’s Senior Director of Brand Marketing, told me. “We were really successful with podcast advertising, but obviously the industry grew and matured like crazy… it’s become much more expensive to have the kind of impact we’ve had in a way that’s scalable at all.”

Which is why they’re shifting gears a bit as they return to the fold. Yesterday, the newsletter giant rolled out an original podcast of their own, an interview series called Going Through It, and from what I’m told, it’s the first of many more to come.

Hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Ann Friedman and produced by Pineapple Street, Going Through It features interviews with notable women discussing pivotal moments in their lives, careers, and relationships; decision points, as it were, about whether to quit or keep going. The interviewee list includes Hillary Clinton, the writer Rebecca Traister, chef and author Samin Nosrat (who’s having such a moment right now!), the investor and activist Ellen Pao, and recent congressional contender Audri Scott Williams. The entire podcast dropped yesterday.

Going Through It is the first of further Mailchimp editorial efforts to come. Mailchimp’s media adventures draw some inspiration from Red Bull’s now well-cited brand marketing exploits, in that it’s seeking to create media experiences that can stand alone and generate positive halo effects back unto the brand itself. It’s the assumption of the studio model, where the company itself is going out to develop what they perceive to be fully editorial projects and directly compete in the attention marketplace. (Personally, I tend to see these efforts having some considerable distinction from “branded content” as we conventionally think of it, though the adjudication of such differences tends to lie with tone, comport, and execution. That hair-splitting might mean nothing to you, but it does to some, so I thought I’d mention it.) At this writing, DiCristina’s team is exploring the possibility of producing short-form, episodic video as well. “We’re not trying to Netflix or Hulu or anything… our audience is pretty busy, so we’re thinking about more snackable things that people can chew on in between things,” said DiCristina.

Anyway, like I said, Mailchimp has a few other original podcast projects in the pipeline. We’ll learn more about them in the days to come, but for now, I wanted to know if Mailchimp will go back to buying more podcast ads straight-up again. The answer, it seems, is probably, to some extent.

“We take a very different approach than most advertisers in that we see ourselves more of a patron — we’re more like, ‘Let’s find some shows we really believe in that’s aligned with our target audience, and let’s really work with them and help grow,’” said DiCristina. “Podcasting is a much different space now than when we started supporting shows in 2010… it’s just a much larger market now, and there’s less opportunity to do stuff like that.”

Podcasting will remain a some part of their marketing mix, sure, particularly when it comes to seasonal campaigns. (Also worth noting: they’ll be taking out podcast ads to promote their original podcasts.) It’s just that the company’s relationship with podcasting will increasingly be more as a studio and a creator.

“We definitely have been pretty quiet in the podcast world for a couple of years,” said DiCristina. “And I hope that Mailchimp becomes synonymous with podcasts again, but in a different way.”

Tracking: April 16, 2019

IP slingin’. Here’s something that will excite the pop culturati: Deadline reported last week that Hulu has ordered a limited series based on ABC’s Theranos podcast “The Dropout,” and it will star Kate McKinnon as Elizabeth Holmes.

If you, like me, can’t get enough of Theranos scam content (scamtent?), you probably know that there’s already a Theranos film in development by Adam McKay based on Bad Blood, the definitive nonfiction book by WSJ’s John Carreyrou, who broke the story. If you, like me, were wondering how IP stuff works in this scenario where multiple projects are being developed on the same real-world event, a veteran of the process explained to me: IP-selling is based on the generated media product — in this case ABC’s The Dropout and Carreyrou’s Bad Blood, packaged and sold as two separate competing properties.

You might ask, then: are there any IP protections, in general, for journalists who break a story? Alas, doesn’t seem like it.

Tracking

  • ICYMI: 9to5Mac’s Guilherme Rambo confirmed the iOS developer Steve Troughton-Smith’s indication that Apple is, indeed, planning to break up iTunes and spin out standalone Music, Podcasts, and TV apps for desktop in the next macOS update. Also, the books app is getting a redesign. Also also, on a separate note: Apple Podcasts now supports web playback, along with a few other listening UX tweaks in the desktop experience.
  • The Peabody Award nominees were announced last week, and among the picks in the Radio/Podcast category were: APM Report’s In The Dark S2, NYT’s Caliphate and The Daily, MSNBC’s Bag Man, Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, and Michigan Radio’s Believed. Notably, all of the picks were non-fiction narrative pieces. Winners will be announced on May 18.
  • From Billboard: “Amazon in Talks to Launch Ad-Supported Music Offering.”
  • Enjoyed this mini-profile of Joanna Robinson, one of my favourite culture writers, in SF Chronicle’s Datebook.
  • Looks like Crooked Media is looking to make a daily news podcast, and they’re on the hunt for a host. I dunno; isn’t Pod Save America near-daily anyway?
  • Transgenesis, a new sci-fi drama podcast from iHeartRadio that was due to start releasing episodes on April 15, has postponed release and is returning to work on the show some more after trans activists and allies on social media called out its central premise (which is concerned with hybrid humans and aquatic monsters known as “transgens” and “cisgens”) as transphobic.
  • Oh boy. From The Verge: “Eight months after YouTube banned Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist returned to YouTube to sit down with Logan Paul for a two-hour episode of his podcast Impaulsive… This marked the second time in a month that Jones was allowed to appear on a popular YouTube personality’s channel, following a four-hour appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in February.”

Release Notes

  • Looks like The Atlantic is starting to work on a new limited-run narrative podcast project, their first. It will be reported and hosted by Vann R. Newkirk, executive produced by Katherine Wells, and it’s set to examine the aftermath and response to Hurricane Katrina. Oh, and I hear they’re on the hunt for a full-time producer to work on it.
  • Some news from Stable Genius Productions, the shop started by WNYC alums Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant: their show with Radiotopia, ZigZag, dropped its fourth season last week and they’re bringing back Note to Self behind the Luminary paywall in partnership with WNYC Studios.
  • Bloomberg News’ series on the gender pay gap, The Pay Check, returned for a second season last week, focusing its attention on how motherhood impacts the gap.
  • Everybody, truly, has a true crime podcast now, including Dr. Phil. That show is called Analysis of Murder by Dr. Phil, it’s developed in partnership with Stitcher, and it drops on April 25. Oh, and that’s separate from the more generalized podcast he’s doing, called Phil in the Blanks.

 

Notes on the Snap Nation Intergalactic Star Command

Snap Judgment has come a long way since winning PRX’s Public Radio Talent Quest in 2007. A creature of both analog and digital these days, the show currently hits over 1.4 million people on its weekly broadcast and brings in over 2 million podcast downloads every month. It is a staple of public radio station programming mixes across the country, and remains one of its more ear-catching offerings: fun, pulsing, distinctly alive.

The Oakland-based production has also consistently been one of the more innovative teams in public radio. It’s the kind of shop that pursued in a multi-platform approach way back in 2010 — you know, long before it was cool — when it launched a simultaneous mix of live shows and television piloting to accompany its core weekly programming. It’s also the kind of place that fosters the future, with an alumni body that includes Roman Mars, Stephanie Foo, and Julia Dewitt.

Snap continues to tinker even as it gets older, and we see that in recent weeks with the launch of a new Patreon account: Snap Nation, a membership program that offers Snap super-fans a look behind the scenes. In their configuration, supporters can choose from three membership tiers: $5 a month (dubbed the “Snap Passport”), $18 a month (“Snap Nation Ambassador”), and a high jump up to $101 a month (the appropriately labelled “Snap Nation Intergalactic Star Command”) with commensurate benefits like sneak peeks, bonus content, and ringtones to reward them for their patronage.

Glynn Washington, the show’s host and co-executive producer, tells me that they’re being patient with this move. “We are taking our time to slow walk the campaign, and leverage the relationship we have developed over years of storytelling,” he said.

Patreon may be a new platform for Snap Judgment, but listener support is most definitely not. Direct listener support has long made up a good chunk of the production’s revenue mix, which is further complemented by podcast advertising and public radio carriage fees. (For those curious: those carriage fees currently takes up less than a third of the show’s funding these days.)

This is obvious, but I should say it nonetheless: Snap Nation is far from the only podcast Patreon effort out there, and it’s definitely not among the first. You have, of course, the Chapo Trap Houses and the Crime Junkieses and the Sam Harrises (though, now distinctly not on Patreon) and The Anfield Wraps of the world, and it’s also worth noting that Patreon itself has recently put some effort into formalizing its podcast community. Furthermore, Snap’s Patreon push comes during a time where interest in direct support and membership across the podcast industry is on the up and up, driven in part by an anxiety over whatever might happen with the advertising market following the deepening encroachment of platforms.

But Snap Nation is very much part of a piece with Snap Judgment’s general taste for operational diversification. I’ve already mentioned the live shows and early television piloting stuff, but you should also be reminded of their efforts with Spooked, the spin-off podcast fueled by the premise of their Halloween specials. Spooked was originally released out in the open podcast ecosystem, distributed by WNYC Studios, where it contended for advertising dollars, and soon, it will release its latest season behind the Luminary paywall, which brings to the production a whole other revenue stream. They’re also working on a wide raft of new projects, with plans to launch between two to five new podcasts by the end of this year alone.

I asked Washington for his thoughts on how things have changed over the past ten years, and how all the recent changes in the podcast industry has made him feel. “[These days] it’s easier to create projects when you no longer have to explain what a podcast — but it’s harder to break through the noise,” he replied.

He added: “I feel that everything has changed, and nothing at all has changed. Every single episode still starts with a blank canvas, and I still have absolutely no idea how we are going to fill it. The big difference, is that we have a team, and the team is made of magic.”

 

Making Money: Part II

Today I’m continuing my multi-part look at the different ways podcasters make money from their shows. You can catch up on the first part of the series, an interview with the creator of The Bright Sessions and now-Luminary creator Lauren Shippen, here. This time, I’m looking at the options open to independent podcasters making their first steps towards monetisation.

I have a personal interest in this, you see, because I’ve just been through this process myself. I’ve been making podcasts professionally for about five years now, though until recently they were always on behalf of a big organisation. Last autumn, I felt pretty burned out, rendered unmotivated to continue producing audio I had little creative control over.

My solution to this was to start my own independent podcast. (Let’s not talk about how little sense it makes to combat burnout by doing more… uh, unpaid work). Partly, I just wanted to experiment and make all my own decisions. But I also had a secondary motivation: as well as producing, a big part of my job is doing exactly this, writing about the podcast industry and how people experience it. I wanted to know what it was like to make a small-scale podcast all by myself, and see how that contrasted with what I’d found when doing it from within existing media companies and with a budget provided by someone else at my disposal.

I gave myself a time budget of six months. That’s how long I would make my own thing without any expectation that it would bring in any money, and consider the experience valuable in its own right. After that, I’d have to stop or find a way for the show to pay its way. And so, my podcast Shedunnit launched in October 2018. (I love classic detective fiction, hence the topic and the name). It went as well as I could have hoped, in the sense that it found some listeners, got some nice reviews (and an award nomination!), and gave me back a feeling of creative interest in my work more generally.

Now, in mid-April 2019, I’m right up against my self-imposed six-month deadline. I don’t really want to stop making the podcast, because it’s mostly a lot of fun and I’ve loved connecting with other mystery fans from around the world. But I also can’t afford to make such a time-intensive show for free. (I estimate that each episode takes me about 30 hours to do, from research to interviews to cutting tape to editing to scoring to mixing to publicity.)

I don’t think this is by any means an unusual situation to be in, which is why I wanted to document this moment in case it’s instructive for anyone else. What are the monetisation options open to an independent podcaster with a show that’s reached somewhere between 5,000-10,000 downloads an episode? Let’s take a look.

Advertising and sponsorships. This is the obvious place to start. The podcast industry largely runs on advertising, after all. However, my podcast has far too few listeners to be in the running for the kind of ads that would come anywhere near to paying me to make it. There are two main third-party platforms where I’m based in the UK which I could get to monetise my show in this way — Acast and Audioboom — yet the conventional wisdom is that 10,000+ downloads per episode, if not more, is a requirement to make a proper go of it.

In addition, both of these companies would take a substantial cut of any revenue they did bringing in, meaning that I’d probably need to more than double my audience before I could start making a meaningful amount of money this way. I could let them inject pre-recorded ad spots into my episodes while I wait for more listeners to show up, but this would bring me such a tiny amount of money in return that I don’t think it’s worth disrupting the show for. For the same reasons of scale, my podcast isn’t an attractive potential addition to any networks that organise sponsorships across multiple shows, even if I was interested in giving up total independence in my quest for monetisation.

My final option in this area is to go out and find sponsors myself among smaller brands or creators who might be interested in my niche (but extremely engaged) audience. This is certainly something I could explore — I could research independent Etsy sellers, say, who make a product that might fit with my podcast, and contact enough of them that I eventually generate some sponsorship leads.

Essentially, I could become my own business manager. But this doesn’t appeal to me at all as a solution in this instance, although it may work for some. Partly this is because I don’t have any skills or experience in this area, and partly because I feel like by awarding myself another role I’d be more than doubling the amount of time I spend on the podcast. I could probably bring in enough this way to cover the time I spend finding and working with the sponsors, but I’d still be making the podcast itself for free. Which leads me on to the major problem with my next potential monetisation route.

Crowdfunding. When I’ve sought advice from other independent podcasters about this situation, this is the solution that comes up most often. “Just do a Patreon!,” people say cheerfully, surprised when I pull a sceptical face. For many, it seems like seeking financial support directly from listeners is the way out of this “big but not big enough” band of audience size. That’s totally valid, but it’s also an option that contains a lot of hidden work.

For those who produce seasonally, Kickstarter can be a good option, allowing a single crowdfunding push to create a budget for a whole run of episodes, but that’s not how I make my podcast. For regularly publishing podcasts, Patreon is the platform of choice, since it allows a podcaster to accept either monthly or per episode contributions at a variety of levels and in return for various rewards.

It’s this latter aspect, mostly, that gives me pause about Patreon. (I’m also not wild in general about third party systems that take a cut of your revenue as their main revenue stream, but that’s probably a bigger question for another time.) I could certainly set up a page, set tiers and promise rewards — bonus podcast episodes, extra access to the host and merchandise are the most common rewards that I see independent podcasters offering.

Yet by my calculations, this has the same issue as finding my own sponsors. The time it would take me to create and/or dispatch such rewards would be paid for by the Patreon money, but the  podcast itself would still be happening for free. I’d also be completely exposed to any future changes that Patreon choose to make in their technology or pricing (as we saw back in March, the company is now experimenting with different ways of charging creators). If the company pivots or disappears, so would all my future income.

An additional issue for me, which may not be the case for other shows at this level, is that around 40 percent of respondents in a recent audience survey I did for my podcast had never even heard of Patreon. Judging by the answers to the demographic questions, I have a sizeable number of older listeners for whom mine is the first podcast they’ve tried, and I really didn’t want to make my primary monetisation option something that such a substantial slice of my audience was unfamiliar with.

Additional products. A lot of podcasts of a similar size to mine act as lead generation tools for their creators’ other business interests. That might be anything from selling books to an online therapy service to a brick-and-mortar store; the point is that the podcast isn’t fully monetised because it acts as a funnel towards other paying work. And that’s a really good way of getting around the problems I’ve highlighted above, because it means that the work done on the podcast itself is paid for without the need to add on other products or labour beyond a “hey, did you know I have an ebook” or “come to my pop up” shout out. It doesn’t work for me though, sadly, because I don’t have a mystery novel-related business empire I’m shilling for. (Yet, give me time.)

I would put merch in this category of monetisation too, because when it’s done right, selling T-shirts, mugs, pin badges and all the other usual podcast swag is a lot of work. Designing and sourcing good and ethical products, managing a supply chain, distributing and shipping the items — it’s a whole job unto itself, and it’s not one that I’m equipped to do by myself. I’ve always been very inspired by the Call Your Girlfriend podcast team in this regard, who didn’t start offering merch until their business could support hiring someone to be in charge of it, in recognition of that fact that it a) requires a whole different set of skills to making a podcast and b) it’s a ton of work that should be properly compensated, whoever ends up doing it.

Live shows. This one once again combines the two major themes that we’ve seen so far: selling tickets for live tapings, or connected events could be a good revenue stream for my podcast. Yet I’m not an events marketer by profession, nor do I have the time to become my own agent and booker. I think I could muddle through and just about compensate myself for the time I spend organising and doing the show, but I’d still be backstage trying to edit a new episode of the podcast itself last minute, and that work would still be happening for free.

Conclusions. If this reads like a long list of me saying no to things, that’s because, ewll, it is. I’m lucky to be in a position where I get to think about this stuff out loud, but as I’ve been deliberating among all my various options, it has felt like quite a negative process. Attracting thousands of regular listeners to a podcast in its first six months of existence feels like something that should have some value attached to it, and yet every avenue I’ve considered seems to require me to do extra work that I’ll get paid for, while the podcast itself (ie the thing people actually want and listen to) remains something I have to do for free. That doesn’t feel right to me somehow, and I hope it’s something that’s going to change as the podcast industry continues to develop. Perhaps smaller brands will get into buying sponsorships on small to medium sized shows, or a new layer of semi-professional collectives will spring up who can band together on this to reduce the overheads of merchandise and so on. But whatever it is, it’s not here yet.

So I’ve decided to go old school. I thought back to the time I’ve felt most passionately engaged with something that someone was doing for free, and realised that it was when I was at secondary school and some of my friends were in a band I really loved. They did play some paying gigs, but our town wasn’t large and they were teenagers who couldn’t travel far to venues. They also needed money in order to buy new guitar strings and recording sessions. It was 2003 and all their loyal fans had dial-up modems at home, though, so they started an online listening club. I was a proud founding member, and I spent hours a day on the forum talking to fellow fans and discussing the unheard session recordings that the club got access to.

I realised that’s the kind of experience I want for my podcast — that the people who are really passionate about it can choose to pay to keep it going, and in return they get a space to love it and feel part of it. The podcast is all about books, so what I’m creating is a book club. I’m using Memberful to run the payment side of this, Discourse to run the forum and WordPress to deliver the website where it all lives (if you’re interested, you can see what I’ve set up here). I might still dabble in advertising, merchandise or events in the future, who knows, but my primary revenue stream will be firmly connected to the actual podcast that I make, and it will live on a platform that I’m in control of. For me, that’s the best that I can do.

 

Luminary’s April Launch: Things to Note

The paid audio content app, which has raised $100 million in venture capital pre-launch, announced last week that it will officially roll out to the public on April 23. This marks a slight change to the timeline originally announced in the startup’s shiny New York Times unveiling, which noted that the platform was “set to arrive by June.” The app will be available for download in the US, Canada, UK and Australia.

At launch, paying Luminary subscribers will have access to 24 out of the 40-plus exclusive podcasts currently planned for the service. That starting slate includes a mix of new projects — from folks like Adam Davidson, Topic Studios, Lauren Shippen, Guy Raz, Karamo Brown, Pushkin Industries, and The Ringer — and existing podcasts like Love+Radio, Roads and Kingdoms’ The Trip, and Wondery’s Hollywood and Crime that are moving behind the paywall full-time. Some of those existing properties will continue to be available on other podcast platforms until the end of May. You can find the full launch list here.

Some operating details to refresh your memory:

  • The service is slate to cost $8 a month for its exclusive roster.
  • The exclusive Luminary shows will provide an ad-free experience.
  • The platform will also be usable as a standard podcast app. Which is to say, it can be used to consume podcasts from the wider open ecosystem. Presumably, the free stuff will not be an ad-free experience, because that would probably trigger a legal SNAFU.

Here’s the big idea: venture-backed and polarizing, Luminary is set to test the question of whether people will pay for podcast-style audio content at scale. I say “podcast-style audio content” in all its convoluted glory, partly because of the conceptual and practical controversies surrounding the service — should audio content staged behind a paywall still be called podcasts? Is that a cynical co-opting of a term? What’s with the aggressive anti-advertising messaging? — but mostly because consumers have already proven that they will pay for on-demand audio content at scale, as with the case of context-specific services like Audible (audiobooks) and Headspace (meditation exercises). With Luminary, the specific question is whether folks will shell out cash for general and entertainment audio programming, which is a vaguely similar question of whether people will pay for general web #content in the age of the Internet.

As I’ve argued before, the fundamental question with Luminary is whether it can beat an entire universe of free alternatives by financing sufficiently buzzy projects and/or convincing users that they’ll have an easier time finding good podcast-style programming on its closed platform than on the sprawling, chaotic open ecosystem. Also, they’d have to keep beating the open universe consistently and perpetually, because it’s one thing for a listener to pay eight bucks to binge on, say, Leon Neyfakh’s upcoming project, but it’s a whole other thing altogether for that person like the other stuff enough to continue paying eight bucks over a longer timeline.

Much of this, obviously, will come down to programming and marketing achievements over time. (On the latter, I’ve been hearing word from readers about ad spots appearing all over place: on Facebook, on host-read midrolls on various podcasts, on the side of a bus in downtown LA.) The stage is set; let’s see how much programming and marketing success $100 million can buy you.

On a related note… From the great Sara Fischer over at Axios: “The Athletic, a subscription-based digital sports media company, is launching a multi-million dollar podcasting business. Over 20 exclusive, ad-free podcasts will debut behind the company’s subscription paywall on its app and website on Tuesday. The podcasts will be produced in-house by a team of 12 new hires.” We already saw hints of this when The Big Lead reported last month that The Athletic was acquiring the Count The Dings podcast network.

Two things to note: (1) the way to read this is as a move to deepen the value of a subscription to The Athletic; and (2) as a subscriber, I’m curious to see how the listening user experience works within the context of the app. And as always, this is an appropriate time to raise the question of whether the use of the word “podcasts” is relevant within a paywalled context…

Anyway, we’re staying on the Luminary thread, but shifting gears a bit. This week, Caroline is kicking off a series on various different experiences and realities of making money in podcasting, and the first story involves a look at an independent creator who is developing a show with Luminary.

Apple Check-In: April 9, 2019

I’d shove these deep in the back of my brain if I were you, ‘cuz it’ll probably come into play sometime soon:

(1) Apple Music has reportedly overtaken Spotify in paid US subscribers. Citing “people familiar with the matter,” the Wall Street Journal reported: “Apple Music had more than 28 million subscribers in the U.S. as of February, compared with Spotify’s 26 million, the people said. Neither service publicly breaks out regional subscriber counts, and those figures include only paying users, excluding those in trial offerings that the companies can count in their public subscriber disclosures.”

Why does this matter? I recommend checking out the dude Peter Kafka’s analysis over at Recode: “If Apple wants to sell services, Apple can be very good at selling services” … with ramifications for the company’s gaming, news, and video services. And, of course, all the potential services that comes after that. *cough* *cough*

(2) There’s a theory floating about, originated by an iOS developer named Steve Troughton-Smith, that Apple has plans to break up iTunes and spin out Music, Podcasts, and Books as separate desktop apps. This is the relevant Twitter thread, and here’s an accompanying Cult of Mac write-up with some additional context.

Looming Giants and Narrative Control

You might have heard that iHeartMedia, the bankruptcy-fighting broadcast radio giant and podcast upstart, is preparing for a possible IPO in a bid to raise funds to continue paying off its debts. The New York Times report on the matter kicked off with this big lede: “Is there room for radio in the age of Spotify?”

Of course, the answer is probably no, not by itself. Which is why, sorting through iHeartMedia’s S-1 filing, you’ll find increased emphasis on emerging arms within the organization’s audio advertising business, including and perhaps especially podcasting. Indeed, in the document, the company aggressively positions itself as the market leader in “commercial podcasting” — a category utilized to make itself distinct from public radio organizations like NPR, which at this point in time delivers a slightly bigger unique US audiences (and slightly lower global audiences) with vastly smaller portfolio of shows.

Here are a few key lines from the document that helps us grasp the story iHeartMedia is trying to tell:

  • “We are the number one commercial podcast publisher in America — and we are almost three times the size of the next largest commercial podcaster as measured by downloads, according to Podtrac.”
  • “We believe that podcasting is to talk what streaming is to music and is the next strategic audio platform. Our podcasting platform will allow us to capture incremental revenue as well as extend station brands, personalities and events onto a new platform — ultimately extending and deepening our consumer relationships and our opportunities for additional advertising revenue.”
  • “iHeart is distinguished among podcast publishers by our unique ability to both promote and air our podcasts on broadcast radio, and combine podcast advertising with broadcast advertising to give additional power to advertising messages.”
Long-time readers probably know the qualifiers I’m about to recite: that Podtrac is an incomplete ranker though nonetheless a popular ingredient when it comes to public narrative creation, that the ability of broadcast radio messaging to drive new podcast audiences remains theoretical and unproven, that there’s an element of smashing a round peg into a square hole at the heart of all this.

But iHeartMedia’s narrative creation is not what I’d like to focus on today. Instead, I’d like to highlight a probable future which comes in the form of this question: how will iHeartMedia’s increasing participation in podcast advertising — which will likely involve, in large part, the leveraging of its own existing relationships and broadcast advertising assets in sales packages — impact the broader conventions, expectations, and conduct of how podcast advertising is currently sold? To phrase the question more simply: how will iHeartMedia change the story of podcast advertising?

The relevant chunk in the S-1: “By adding other high CPM platforms into our mix, as well as providing unique and differentiated solutions for advertisers, we believe that we have the potential to see a CPM uplift. Although our primary focus is revenue, we also aim to maximize the value of our inventory. Moreover, we are continuing to develop platforms (including podcasts) that independently garner superior CPMs.”

I wouldn’t only look at iHeartMedia on this notion. The other probable major change agent in podcast advertising conduct is, well, Spotify, which is angling to drive a sizable chunk of podcast listening in the future — and is backed by some data that suggests it will probably do so. (See Infinite Dial 2019, slide 52.) Here’s the big question: if and when Spotify crosses a certain threshold in driving overall podcast listening, to what extent will it command the conventions, expectations, and conduct of all podcast advertising? Assuming, of course, that they flip on an in-platform advertising switch, which, I mean, come on.

Anyway, all of this is to say: the rest of the advertising-driven podcast ecosystem would probably want to get its ducks in order around metrics, standardization, and ad verification sometime soon if they’d like to collectively maintain control their own advertising narrative.

The MaxFunDrive, Holding Steady

Maximum Fun’s annual membership drive had a bit of a bumpy start this year, with website issues that gummed up potential contributions during its first two days. As it turns out, technical hiccups like these can happen to anybody — even Maximum Fun, the Los Angeles-based podcast collective led by Jesse Thorn, which has been doing these MaxFunDrives for over a decade.

That didn’t seem to matter much in the end, though. The 2019 MaxFunDrive, which concluded last week, still went on to beat its public goal of 25,000 new and upgrading members with a final tally of over 28,500. That’s new and upgrading members, by the way, which expands and deepens the organization’s supporting member base. For reference, membership support makes up somewhere around 70% of Maximum Fun’s overall revenues, up from about 60% back in 2017.

“[28,500] is a similar number to the last year’s drive, and I think it indicates that the accelerating growth we once went through is leveling out,” Bikram Chatterji, Maximum Fun’s managing director, told me. Specifically, the 2018 MaxFunDrive brought in 28,360 new and upgrading members, beating a primary goal of 25,000. “I think we’re all fine with that leveling out… Intuitively, we understand that you can’t keep having accelerating growth year after year. You just have growth,” he said.

Sure, it’s possible to perceive this year’s tally as a modest achievement, particularly when compared against the over-performance of the drive from 2017. That year, the organization implemented a significantly lower goal of 10,000 new and upgrading members, and ultimately more than doubled the target with a final tally of 24,181.

But perhaps another way to read the situation is to interpret a sense of consistency. Between 2017 and 2019, these MaxFunDrive campaigns routinely brought in more than 24,000 new and upgrading members. All this, it should be noted, despite a broader industry context that’s seen, on the one hand, an influx of more well-resourced, well-connected, and aggressively-spending podcast competitors, and on the other, a parallel rise in media companies newly hitting subscription and membership business models hard, which theoretically leads to a natural increase in competition for direct-support dollars. That there was no significant dip in this year’s membership drive conversion, then, feels like an achievement in and of itself.

Some of that support strength, Chatterji observed, might have to do a rising overt awareness among its audience communities about the harsh realities of the modern creative economy. “There was definitely a slightly different flavor to the reception this year,” he said. “That’s possibly as a function of some high-profile cases, certainly in podcasting but also across the media industry, in which creators were treated as disposable.”

He added: “I think there’s a growing recognition among our audience — and maybe this applies to only 15% who are, like, really into podcast economics and the media business, who knows — that it is important to directly support the creators themselves because if creators don’t have that direct relationship they can become commoditized.”

It also helped, perhaps, that the team sought to be direct and transparent in as much of their messaging as possible. You can see examples of that here, here, and here.

With another effective MaxFunDrive behind them, the team is getting ready for an eventful year ahead. For one thing, there are plans to revamp Maximum Fun’s underlying technology and web presence. “In some ways, it’s a back-office operational thing, but there is a strategic aspect to this: how do we create a central online access point for Maximum Fun to help our various podcast communities find us, and find each other?” said Chatterji. The organization is also planning to move offices soon, shifting from a small loft-space near LA’s Koreatown to larger digs in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

On the programming side, Chatterji indicated that there’s some desire to pause a beat following a particularly active launch run. Over the past few years, Maximum Fun has debuted more than a few new podcasts — like Bubble, Who Shot Ya?, Switchblade Sisters, and The Art of Process with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo — and brought in some key existing shows, like Mission to Zyxx (formerly with Audioboom) and Dr. Gameshow (formerly with Earwolf). “We’ve had an exciting two years, but I feel like now’s a good time for us to focus on making sure our shows are reaching a good audience and fully realizing their value in the marketplace,” he said.

That requires, in Chatterji’s mind, an approach that’s substantially different from a lot of other podcast companies. He lays it out as follows:

I’d like to talk more about how the problem is structured in the industry. The approach that’s often adopted is something along the lines of, “Let’s launch a bunch of stuff and see what hits — either we have a runaway success, or we’ll roll up shop and try again.” It’s a top-down corporate way of thinking, with built-in failures rates and stuff like that.

You run things differently, and you think about things differently, when it’s a bottom-up, creator-driven organization. Because in that structure, you’re asking people to work on things that they really believe in and hope will succeed. You’re not thinking, “Let’s take these ten shots, and hopefully three of them will pay for the budget.” You’re thinking, “Let’s take three shots, make them the best we can, and push each of them to succeed in ways that are specific to them.”

Tracking: April 9, 2019

Release Notes

  • Night Vale Present’s I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats returned for a second season last week.
  • Vox Media is launching a new culture podcast called Primetime, which will “dig into the hidden history of television.” It will be fronted by its critic-at-large Todd VanDerWerff on April 14.
  • KCRW’s Lost Notes — described as “an anthology of some of the greatest music stories never truly told” — will return for a second season on April 25 with a new host: the music journalist and author Jessica Hopper.
  • WaitWhat, the podcast startup which raised a $4.3 million Series A round in February, has a new collaboration with Quartz, called Should This Exist?

Send me your show notes, y’all.