Issue 296,  published March 9, 2021

Class is in Session

Last week, I wrote about Chelsea Ursin, who entered the audio scene to find its taxonomy not only unintuitive but unintelligible. Her experience underlines how that lack of categorical specificity poses a problem for potential listeners, whose lack of familiarity with the medium could benefit from some clearer signage.

This week, another story in a similar vein: signaling when a podcast will ask something of you.

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What jumped out at me in the email I received from Jenni Gritters, co-host of The Writers’ Co-op, when reaching out to her for this piece was this one line: “We’re basically a school.”

That self-description is really interesting to me. Indeed, the show that Gritters created and hosts with fellow journalist Wudan Yan can’t be described easily, though their website attempts it with “audio career handbook.” Yes, it’s a series of interviews with freelance writers meant to elucidate their work for listeners by giving explicit tips — and talking, even more explicitly, about money — but that’s just the start of it, just like formally delivered lessons are just a slice of a semester-long curriculum.

The setup of the The Writers’ Co-op show, and everything that lies beyond it, came out of a simple assessment of demand. In 2019, Gritters wrote a blog post about making six figures during her first year of freelancing as a writer and editor, which drew considerable attention from fellow (and would-be) freelancers. Yan had a similar experience: She had written about tracking and pursuing late payments, which also got her a lot of attention.

Gritters recalled getting inquiries from people poking around for free advice — you know, the ones that go, “Can I pick your brain?”

Both Gritters and Yan were interested in helping, but they weren’t certain about the best way to go about doing it. More blog posts? Long threads on Twitter? At any rate, Yan was certain the approach wouldn’t be “giving ad-hoc advice one on one,” as that wouldn’t be terribly scalable for two freelancers who needed to stay on top of their own work (and, in Gritters’ case, take care of a newborn).

That’s when they started thinking about using the podcast format. They figured that, on top of podcasts generally being free, that format could also provide an intimate experience that felt slightly more tailored to writers, since the basis of the show was basically attending to the same kinds of questions that Gritters and Yan had gotten accustomed to receiving in their inboxes.

“This just seemed like the right place to offer free advice,” Gritters says.

But they knew, intimately, that there was much more to excelling as a freelancer than hearing other people’s stories of doing so; one had to strengthen particular muscles, though, if the pair had wanted to continue spending unpaid time coaching others through career decisions, they could’ve kept reiterating the kinds of things they’d already written. So the duo behind The Writers’ Co-op sought to provide offerings beyond just the podcast, and to help finance all that work, they applied for and received several grants. They also turned to the Patreon model, which they attached to the podcast as an organic way to ask for something in return.

This is where “audio career handbook” starts to make sense: The Writers’ Co-op podcast is part of what Gritters describes as a “learning company,” one that just happens to contain a podcast as a core component. The episodes are the lessons; the Patreon offerings are the coursework.

When you subscribe to The Writers’ Co-op on Patreon, you don’t just get bonus episodes — depending on the tier, you get group coaching, worksheets, and email templates for requesting late fees. For those intrigued but not able or willing to commit to a monthly cost, there are now also “à la carte” e-courses.

As it stands, the swapping and sharing of knowledge that happens out in the open on the show is already an enormous resource; I’ve personally listened to every episode. According to Gritters and Yan’s Patreon page, and similar to the goals of editor Tim Herrera’s advice-sharing project, Freelancing with Tim (which has alluded to Gritters and Yan’s work on several occasions), “the take-aways from each episode are meant to give aspiring and current freelancers tools they can use immediately.” Similarly, I’d argue that you’d learn a fair amount from showing up to a regular lecture, even if you didn’t commit to sharpening your skills after hours; that’s the appeal of many podcasts in general, right?

As noted, the Patreon model allows individual people to opt in to compensate the team behind The Writers’ Co-op in exchange for tools they believe will be useful in their work. Freelancers at large comprise about one third of the global workforce, but the percentage gets noticeably smaller as you look at just writers, then just writers who are TWC listeners, then just listeners who subscribe to their Patreon.

The relatively tiny listenership therefore makes sponsors nearly impossible to secure, Gritters says. But since people who choose to listen to the show and explore the options beyond it are after something beyond Gritters’ and Yan’s one-off essays, it’s made having sponsors all but unnecessary: Even though The Writers’ Co-op has only about 250 paying members (monthly membership options start as low as $3), these members — including those who pay upwards of $120 — contribute a cumulative $2,500 a month. It’s actually more lucrative, says Gritters, for them to offer products and services than it is to sell ads, so they just… don’t.

“We weren’t trying to replicate other people’s models,” she says. “We dreamed this up out of our own brains.”

And what they dreamt was something akin to the titular co-op model. “When I think about a co-op, I think there’s so much learning from each other,” Yan says. Both she and Gritters have been freelancing for years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t, too, have things to learn (“there’s so much interesting stuff in here,” you can hear Yan say in response to an interview Gritters did with one of their guests); further, what’s almost certainly true is that listeners can learn not only from The Writers’ Co-op’s guests but from one another, in real time — just as teachers and classmates could learn from you, a student, in a traditional classroom — and to this end, tucked away among member resources is also a Slack channel, which allows information to flow more than one way.

“When we describe The Writers’ Co-op, it’s complicated now; we can’t just say it’s a podcast,” Gritters laughs. “I say it’s a membership program — or a collaborative community.”

And so Gritters and Yan continue to respond to new needs, including those of people who can’t (or who have chosen not to) pay into their model. In fact, each episode in the podcast’s third season will be a recording of an actual coaching session one of the hosts conducted.

Until then, they will keep offering a kind of homework to their members: reviewing contractual red flags, making a business plan — take your pick. And, in that spirit, I have some homework for you: to think deeply, once again, about all that a “podcast” can be.

Aria has been reporting since 2015, making audio since 2016. She’s moved between the two worlds, but here, she’s in both.