Issue 192,  published January 22, 2019

Forever35 Takes Care of Itself

I’ve been listening to Forever35, a podcast with the self-stated subject of “the things we do to take care of ourselves,” since it launched in January 2018. The podcast sees Los Angeles-based writers Doree Shafrir and Kate Spencer staging a relaxed, conversational show discussing various aspects of “self-care.” Within their context, the commonly-deployed buzzword is broadly defined, touching topics that range from skincare products to book recommendations to political action. They choose their guests with this broad framework in mind, and to that end, they’ve talked to doctors, astrologers, authors, chefs and many others in their first year.

The show grew quickly in its first year, bringing in around 4 million downloads off slightly over ninety installments. (Forever35’s publishing structure is a mix of full episodes, which run over an hour, and mini-episodes, which run between 20-30 minutes.) It also boasts an unusually large and vocal community that has developed around the podcast, which mostly resides in a Facebook group that now has over 14,000 members. (Worth noting: the group is managed by a team of around a dozen volunteer moderators, and all posts must be pre-approved before they appear.) According to a listenership survey performed last May, the podcast’s audience is almost 100 percent female-identified and 93 percent of listeners have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The podcast has remained an independent production, at least for now, and over the course of its first year, Shafrir and Spencer have built out a pretty enviable ship for themselves. In December, the show released its fifty-second full episode, titled “How The Pod Sausage Is Made,”  which featured the duo discussing their decisions around independence, production and advertising. The show is hosted on Art19 and uses the platform’s dynamic injection system, but Shafrir runs the advertising side of things herself. (They also mentioned how their desire to be transparent about the show’s business side was inspired by Call Your Girlfriend’s similar “Businesswoman Special” from April 2017.)

Last week, I reached out to dig a little deeper into their perceptions on the state of their business. They tell me that the podcast has vastly exceeded their expectations, and that it had sponsors right from the very first episode. Although neither of them had worked in podcast advertising prior to this launch, Shafrir was roughly familiar with the process due to a previous podcast project, Matt & Doree’s Eggcellent Adventure, a show she made with her husband about IVF. (Advertising for that podcast is sold by Midroll). She puts Forever35’s early success in landing sponsors partly down to her having some sort of podcast track record.

“The first person who approached us was a woman who worked at tripping.com,” Shafrir told me. “We launched the Forever35 instagram a few weeks before we actually launched the podcast, and she messaged us there to say, ‘Hey, I don’t know if you guys thought about sponsorships but we’d love to be a launch sponsor.’” Prior to that message, Shafrir and Spencer had expected at least six months of audience-building work before they would ready to find any sponsorship opportunities.

It also helps that there’s a really clear fit between the subject of their show and the kind of products sold by typical podcast advertisers, with recipe kits, vitamin subscription services and mattress brands now among their sponsors. Health food store Thrive Market was an early advertiser, along with small independent skincare brands like the Texas spa chain milk + honey.

A lot of those sponsorship opportunities came about through word of mouth as the show grew its listenership. “People who worked for [these independent companies] would listen and become fans of the podcast and want to advertise on the show,” said Shafrir. And because many of its sponsors are consumer goods companies, the team also uses clearly disclosed affiliate links on their website as another source of revenue.

Running a podcast advertising operation on your own isn’t easy, of course. Shafrir notes that one of the drawbacks of operating independently is not being able to get a good sense of market comparisons to help with setting ad rates. “I have no idea if I was low balling us or what in the beginning, but we did raise our rates pretty quickly,” she said. Spencer added: “I think it was connected to the increase in listeners.” They didn’t want to disclose what this rate was, but they did say that they didn’t get any pushback to the higher asking price.

Shafrir and Spencer didn’t set out to turn Forever35 into an independent business. The way they tell it, that was just something that happened along the way. “When we started the podcast, it wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to sell all of our ads and do all of this stuff.’ That wasn’t really part of our initial thinking. Once it started happening, we just thought we might as well just continue doing this,” Shafrir said. So far her journalism career had been entirely in editorial, but she was now excited to learn how her work could make money.

“It gives you a kind of power, I think,” she added.

They are, however, planning on either signing on with a network or getting some other help with advertising in the next few months. “I’m going have a baby in April… it’s getting to be just a lot of work that I don’t have the bandwidth to do anymore,” Shafrir said. As well as this support, Spencer said that audience growth and cross promotion are two big reasons why they are considering this move. “I think it would be a helpful tool to be a part of a podcasting family,  especially because of advertising on other podcasts that might have an audience that doesn’t know us yet but would like what we’re offering,” she said.

Forever35 did get some early approaches from networks, the hosts told me, but they weren’t convinced that anything was the right fit at that time. Plus, some of the meetings they had didn’t feel very good. “Sometimes we would have conversations with networks and they clearly hadn’t listened to our show — they couldn’t be bothered to take an hour out of their day for a show geared to women,” Shafrir said. “That was just interesting. We felt like there was a bit of a patronising tone. We were definitely lowballed by networks early on in a way that felt sort of gross.”

Now that the show is more established, these conversations have become more productive, Spencer said. “We have had conversations with people who totally get it and are so supportive and on board and understand our show and our audience and what we’re doing.”

With new family commitments on the horizon and an increasing workload, they’re ready to swap independence for more support and a bigger team around them. Both Shafrir and Spencer found it difficult to estimate exactly how many hours a week they work on the podcast, but neither has another full time job and they said they do some work on it almost every day. They are both working on other projects, but Forever35 has become their main focus.

With four million downloads in their first year, the podcast is in a prime position for expansion. Two big areas they have yet to explore — merchandise and live shows — are on the cards for 2019, as well as working out how to be flexible with parental leave and other writing work. Theirs might not have been a typical podcasting success story, but Shafrir and Spencer (along with editor Samee Junio) have shown how a rapidly-growing independent show can bring in revenue all by itself.