Issue 232,  published October 29, 2019

How to Spend a Crowdfunder

The British podcast sitcom Wooden Overcoats has racked up plenty of plaudits since its first series was released in 2015, including a Best of iTunes slot and a British Podcast Award. Its creators were relatively early into the now-booming fiction podcast scene, but the show still stands out — especially in the UK — because of its high production standards, its ambitious scope and cast size, and its extremely loyal fanbase.

Throughout its run, the team has been pretty successful in leveraging that loyal fanbase to keep the show going, running a crowdfunding campaign to finance each new series. On October 15, it was announced that the fourth series will be the show’s last, and that the crowdfunding campaign for it will cover ten episodes rather than the usual eight. The campaign met both the £15,000 ($19,250) initial target and the £17,000 ($21,817) stretch goal by the halfway point of the fundraising period, and it appears that fans are still donating so they can receive a bonus Halloween special.

But I wondered: what happens once a campaign like this meets its targets? How, exactly, does the money materially translate into a series? In search of answers, I jumped on the phone with Liz Campbell, production manager for Wooden Overcoats, late last week to find out how the budget for such a show is constructed.

Campbell explained that the overriding motive behind Wooden Overcoats’ crowdfunding campaigns is to pay everybody involved fairly for their work. “The reason we do a series-by-series funding model, as opposed to a Patreon or something like that, is because we made the decision fairly early on to only make more episodes if we could fairly pay everybody for their time,” she explained.

She went on to say: “For season one, there was a bit of money around for the studio and things like that, but people largely participated on a volunteer basis, which was I think fine for the purposes of getting a show off the ground.” But to continue beyond that, the seven members of the production team felt they had to be able to pay their contributors; otherwise, they simply wouldn’t do the show.

Campbell joined the team before the second season, as they prepared to begin the crowdfunding campaign. A fun bit of biography here: Campbell is a criminal barrister by profession, but shared a flat with some of the Wooden Overcoats team at the time, and was happy to take part in the production process, having done some student theatre while at university.

The firm commitment to paying everybody governs how the team sets crowdfunding targets as well as the season’s overall budget. For this final season, Campbell explained that they needed about £25,000 ($32,000) for production, and that they currently have about £10,000 ($12,800) in the bank from live show ticket sales, merchandise, and sponsorships. As such, the campaign implemented an initial target of £15,000 to make up the budget gap.

Since there will be ten episodes in this final run, she estimates the cost for each installment to be around £2,500 (~$3200) — a figure that includes a percentage of the various running costs that apply across the whole series and beyond, like web hosting and marketing. An estimated eighty percent of that number is made up of “human costs,” i.e. pay for actors, writers, editors, musicians, the composer, production support, photographers and videographers. The rest goes on studio costs, hosting, food, company costs, renting rooms, printing and so on. Almost everybody gets paid on a half or day rate, apart from the writers who are usually paid per script.

I must admit: I was a little surprised by this breakdown, because I had assumed that studio costs would account for a significantly greater slice of the budget than what’s listed here. But Campbell says that, although studio costs have risen during the time she’s been working on the series (probably as more recording establishments in London get wise to the fact that podcasting is professionalising), paying the 50+ people who work on the series has always been the biggest cost factor.

“We have an average actor-per-episode count of about ten. We have an orchestra. We have a composer… so we budget up it all out carefully,” she said. Wooden Overcoats Ltd, the incorporated entity housing the show, has seven members who also get paid for their work — though Campbell said that they often go above and beyond what they bill for the show. (Those seven members have their own day jobs as well). At the moment, this podcast is the only thing that the company makes, so the accrued money gets invested in that direction.

Wooden Overcoats’ large headcount is one of the more striking things about the show, if you were to check it out. There’s very little doubling up of actors of different characters, it’s fully performed by an ensemble cast rather than being narration-led, and there’s original music throughout that is recorded live by the orchestra (complete with church organ). Campbell says that head writer David K. Barnes has always been free to take the story in any direction he chooses, regardless of financial constraints, but that the writers’ room has been pretty good at balancing the costs of a character-heavy episode with a smaller one later in the series.

Because almost all audio drama in Britain was made by the BBC until fairly recently, Campbell said that it’s been challenging to work out what fair market rates for an independent podcast drama are. “Back when I was trying to make a budget for season two, really the only points of reference were BBC radio recordings. And those figures are exceptionally high and they’re also just not particularly applicable. They deal with a regional buyout rebroadcast and all the things that don’t really apply to us,” she said.

She added: “Realistically, as an independent production, we’ve no chance of following a BBC kind of funding level. So we’re trying to forge our own path. It’s important to us to try and pay people a little bit better every year, which we have managed to do.”

While there aren’t many big ensemble cast podcasts following in Wooden Overcoats’ footsteps at the moment, I have seen, first-hand, how their robust approach has impacted the fiction podcast scene in the UK. At the PodUK convention back in February, I attended an audio fiction panel, on which pretty much every speaker credited the Overcoats team with showing them what was possible for an independent show. I imagine that, even after the show ends following this season, it will most certainly live on as a sterling model for aspiring UK fiction podcasters, keen to find a way to make their shows financially sustainable.