Building out a physical space associated with a podcast business used to be a really good idea. For one thing, it offers an alternative revenue stream — through studio rentals and in-person events, among other things — that could check against the growing but volatile advertising revenue pool. It’s also a really good fit for any podcast operation built on a sense of community. Having a physical space for listeners to routinely gather can really strengthen that relationship between publisher and fan, expanding the notion of how that community can be served.
Or at least, it was a good idea, until, you know, the pandemic. Four of the biggest hit sectors by lockdowns and stay at home orders around the world have been live entertainment, hospitality, in person retail, and office space providers, and these also happen to be four of the ways in which podcasters were incorporating brick and mortar spaces into their business models. Events, cafés, merch shops and co-working spaces are all popular additions for networks and collectives, as are recording studios, of course. Whether these were of long standing or just recently opened, come early March this year, they all took a hit.
Now that it’s been about half a year since the lockdowns began in earnest, I wanted to check in with some of these businesses and find out how they were faring. In the UK podcasting scene, one of the more high profile stories in this area recently concerned Great Big Owl, an independent podcast network with an office and studio space in central London.
Joel Morris, a co-founder at Great Big Owl, recently tweeted that the company is now in a contractual bind with regards to their premises. He told me that the venture’s business model and whole way of working had been upended overnight. “We used to go in every day to an office, people would hire that office from us, so we had a business income from letting people use our facilities. And every day was processing recordings, giving them to people, welcoming people in, arranging people, setting up microphones and things,” he said. “Then overnight it disappeared and the office space we were hiring became an albatross around our neck because there’s no way of getting out the contract.”
The studio and office space are too small to make it possible to reopen with social distancing measures in place, and the company is locked into a contract until June 2021, Morris explained. Their landlord offered to move them to larger premises where they could open safely, but that would mean paying a higher rent and Great Big Owl is “a shoestring operation”.
The studio has suddenly gone from being the company’s biggest asset to being their biggest headache. “It’s just draining thousands of pounds a month out of the company at a time when not only can we not hire it out to other people, we can’t make podcasts of the quality we used to make using those facilities and also the advertising money has fallen through the floor,” Morris said.
Things were slightly more hopeful with Alan Bennett, who runs the HeadStuff network and The Podcast Studios in Dublin. The space, which comprises several studios, events spaces, offices and a café, was closed completely for three months, although the team were working on remote recordings and editing from home. Since Ireland has reopened somewhat in the last couple of months, they have been able to repurpose their largest room into a COVID-safe recording space for four people, each with two metres space between them, as well as having solo clients in to record voice overs or host webinars.
One of the biggest challenges, though, has been just communicating that it is possible to use the space safely when plenty of companies are still keeping their workforces completely at home. “We’re doing all the regulations, we’ve got hand sanitiser and two metres separated out, and we’ve got fresh air coming in and all those kinds of things. But if they’re not coming into town, we’re not gonna get them in the door,” Bennett said.
Although his company has stayed afloat remotely via their editing and consulting services, they are also now shifting their model somewhat to account for the restrictions on using their space. The HeadStuff network has previously worked with advertising and some Patreon-style crowdfunding for individual shows, but in the next few weeks they will launch a bespoke membership system that will allow listeners to pay €5 and pick up to three shows from the network that will share their contribution. The network will take a €2 cut for their production and running costs, and then the nominated shows will share the rest. “We’re hoping that this will help big and small podcasts [on the network],” Bennett said. “People might support one or two podcasts this month, and then next month when they’ve discovered one of the smaller shows, they might shift their support there too.”
Christopher Plant, founder of the RADIOKISMET podcasting space in Philadelphia, told me that the recording and events facility had grown naturally out of the needs of his co-working clients. It’s really ramped up recently: “I have two of my own podcasts, and then we produced probably fifteen other new podcasts in the last nine months,” he said. With the onset of the pandemic, the co-working side of his business naturally took a hit — “we’re probably operating at 25 percent revenues right now, which isn’t great” — and he’s now looking to move more towards content production in the future than purely trying to rent space.
They have four shows launching this autumn, some of which are monetised and some of which are outreach or part of a larger offering. The idea, Plant said, was to move more towards a “social club meets chamber of commerce meets incubator meets workspace and really build more heavily on the social component behind this.”
The overriding theme in every conversation I’ve had about this was how people are evolving their models like this, fast. These businesses can’t wait around to see what happens in the next few months and hope that recording in studio or attending in person events switches back to being the norm after months on Zoom — they need to get revenue coming in again now. Diversifying, it turns out, whether that’s via remote content production, direct listener support, or a bigger advertising push, matters more than ever.