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Follow-up to the Openness Litmus Test

Leg-ups on marketing and distribution, budgets being cost + time*salary, and genre splits.

Looks like yesterday column struck a chord — and/or a nerve — with a good number of readers! I’m still sorting through the replies, but a couple of notes and points that the discussion has kicked off in my head:

  • The most prominent and compelling idea revolves around how Missing Richard Simmons isn’t exactly a good example of a “small team with a very modest budget.” Many readers pointed not only to the fact that Pineapple Street Media and First Look Media likely commanded spending power considerably greater than your standard bootstrapped independent outfit, they also have advantages in other non-monetary forms: perhaps most importantly, the ability to get the attention of key marketing and distribution partners.* I think this is absolutely spot-on, and I should have made explicit what I only intimated in yesterday’s piece: my original analysis, particularly that core comparison, is almost completely a failure.
  • A bunch of other indie shows were suggested as better examples, and many of the names given were of podcasts that have been around for several years. Those suggestions further clarified the nature of my question. My original phrasing the litmus test was: “can a small team with a very modest budget but gobs of talent still ride the current podcast infrastructure and go toe-to-toe with a bigger and more established publisher in terms of accruing a meaningful audience or pushing the culture?” When I was formulating that, I was specifically thinking about new projects that wanted to break in the current state of the podcast market, which some have begun to describe as “saturated” and others fear that its original competitive nature has been fundamentally altered due to the professionalization and industrialization of the past few years. Based on that framework, I’m afraid I can’t think seem to think of any possible examples going back to the beginning of 2018.
  • All of this has got me thinking more about how we evaluate budgets or the cost of a production. It occurs to me — and perhaps this was obvious to everyone else and I’m just a dolt, which is likely — that the way you’d think about the “cost” of a podcast production at this point is both the dollar amount of getting everything going but also the sheer amount of time it takes to get everything done, the sliding dollar cost of which tracks alongside the salary or project rate being paid to the producer and/or talent. That time-salary/rate variable is probably a lot trickier, and more slippery, when it comes to limited-series documentary and nonfiction work, because the stories there end when at a pace that’s largely out of your control.
  • This, in turn, raises the question of another fault lines along which inequalities in podcast accessibility can manifest themselves: according to genre.

Anyway, just something I was thinking about sorting through the replies.

* In the initial write-up of this item, I referenced Apple as a theoretical marketing and distribution partner. Of course, in reality, Apple did not serve as a marketing partner for Missing Richard Simmons — long-time observers of the space might remember the suspicions that this might have had something to do with First Look and Pineapple opting to collaborate with Stitcher on a windowing plan. My evocation of Apple was purely to flesh out the theory: companies like First Look and Pineapple generally have more capacity to grab the attention of marketing and distribution partners in a way that smaller teams with smaller budgets and track records are not able to. In the specific case of Missing Richard Simmons, this had another expression: that collaboration with Stitcher.