Reluctantly Incorporating. Often, the way I know that something is worth thinking about in relation to the podcast industry is because a lot of people ask me the same question. Podcasters from different places and backgrounds and with diverse goals and skill levels, but united by a common query. One of these has cropped up in the last few months, and it is this: do I have to launch a company?
What these questioners mean by this, I think, is that it can feel difficult to be just a person in the podcast industry these days, especially as more and more celebrities and legacy publishers spin off podcast related businesses (just this week: Will Ferrell and Shondaland, surely there are many more to come). As an individual, launching a company for your work can (beyond any financial benefits relevant in your territory) sometimes feel like the only way to attract more funding, ink better deals with monetisation operations, and be taken seriously as a “brand”.
I think this is coming up more at the moment because the opportunities for such companies seem to be expanding, whether it’s via seed investment startups like Podfund or BBC commissioning call outs, which tend to be open only to “registered suppliers” rather than just individuals with good ideas.
I received a few responses to my piece earlier this week about Tink, the newly-launched publicity agency seeking to better connect podcasts and book publishers, that chimed with this also. Why, several of my correspondents wanted to know, did this have to be a new company? Why can’t the role of “podcast publicist” just be a job for an individual within an existing organisation?
I think there’s a few possible answers to this, but the main one that intrigues me is the way that podcasting has grown out of or in part adopted a tech-based entrepreneurship model. I can’t speak to the specific motivations behind any one business, but we’re all aware of how many new podcast-adjacent companies are constantly being launched to serve some perceived niche in the industry.
There’s a ‘go in hard, get rich quick’ vibe to some of these launches that I think has nothing to do with audio per se, but everything to do with a kind of business culture common in the world right now. This connects with something else I wrote about a while ago too, which is the constant desire expressed by audio makers in the UK for someone to fill the role of “podcast broker” for them — ie someone who would handle the business side of things, while allowing the creative partner to get on with being creative.
Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with launching a company, if that’s what you want to do and it seems the best vehicle to serve your ideas. We live in a capitalist society! But I think where this tech/business side of podcasting rubs up against the creativity required to actually make good content, there’s an inevitable friction. People who just want to make good audio — and who are otherwise uninterested or unsuited to running a business — are feeling like this ‘get rich quick with just a laptop at a co-working space’ culture applies to them too, and that unless they can launch a successful company as well as make good shows, they’re never going to be able to get their work the attention it merits.
What is the mechanism for this new generation of audio makers — by which I mean people who have entered professional life since the arrival of commercial podcasting, and haven’t switched over from another existing media type — and do they have to become entrepreneurs to succeed? I don’t know the answer to this yet, but I’m doing my best to find out.
Super Saturday. In case you aren’t constantly reading the latest ridiculous news updates from the UK, you might not know that tomorrow is supposedly the crunch day for Brexit, as MPs will sit at Westminster on the weekend for the first time since the Falklands War to vote on a possible exit deal from the EU.
The government has finally got round to encouraging the creative industries to prepare for whatever it is that might happen, and AudioUK (the trade body that represents production companies) is running an event to try and make sense of it all. I’ve also seen a call out from them for producers for a quickturnaround podcast series that will deliver this information to the wider industry; watch out for that, I guess.
Structure everything. Unsurprisingly, I love a “how this gets made” explainer, and I’m also a regular listener of the NYT pop culture pod Still Processing, so this piece really hit the spot for me. The larger point that I think is worth taking away from it, though, is how much time and effort has to go into structuring something that in the final show is meant to sound like a loosely flowing conversation.
For this show (which usually clocks in at around 45 minutes) there’s a twice weekly production meeting as well as a constant discussion of ideas via text and slack. Producer Neena Pathak then synthesises all of that material into an outline, which the hosts use to structure their conversation as they record. Days, even weeks of thought and hard work on paper to make something that sounds easy on tape.
Anyone who has tried to make a show along these lines will know this already, but I’m not sure that everyone else realises quite how intense or skilled a process this is. There are lots of stubborn myths about podcasting — the “anyone can have a hit show using just a smartphone in their bedroom!” one is a biggie — but the one that suggests conversational podcasts are easier or quicker to make, and therefore less prestigious than so-called narrative ones, is one that I would happily see sink without a trace.