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Making Money: Part II

Today I’m continuing my multi-part look at the different ways podcasters make money from their shows. You can catch up on the first part of the series, an interview with the creator of The Bright Sessions and now-Luminary creator Lauren Shippen, here. This time, I’m looking at the options open to independent podcasters making their first steps towards monetisation.

I have a personal interest in this, you see, because I’ve just been through this process myself. I’ve been making podcasts professionally for about five years now, though until recently they were always on behalf of a big organisation. Last autumn, I felt pretty burned out, rendered unmotivated to continue producing audio I had little creative control over.

My solution to this was to start my own independent podcast. (Let’s not talk about how little sense it makes to combat burnout by doing more… uh, unpaid work). Partly, I just wanted to experiment and make all my own decisions. But I also had a secondary motivation: as well as producing, a big part of my job is doing exactly this, writing about the podcast industry and how people experience it. I wanted to know what it was like to make a small-scale podcast all by myself, and see how that contrasted with what I’d found when doing it from within existing media companies and with a budget provided by someone else at my disposal.

I gave myself a time budget of six months. That’s how long I would make my own thing without any expectation that it would bring in any money, and consider the experience valuable in its own right. After that, I’d have to stop or find a way for the show to pay its way. And so, my podcast Shedunnit launched in October 2018. (I love classic detective fiction, hence the topic and the name). It went as well as I could have hoped, in the sense that it found some listeners, got some nice reviews (and an award nomination!), and gave me back a feeling of creative interest in my work more generally.

Now, in mid-April 2019, I’m right up against my self-imposed six-month deadline. I don’t really want to stop making the podcast, because it’s mostly a lot of fun and I’ve loved connecting with other mystery fans from around the world. But I also can’t afford to make such a time-intensive show for free. (I estimate that each episode takes me about 30 hours to do, from research to interviews to cutting tape to editing to scoring to mixing to publicity.)

I don’t think this is by any means an unusual situation to be in, which is why I wanted to document this moment in case it’s instructive for anyone else. What are the monetisation options open to an independent podcaster with a show that’s reached somewhere between 5,000-10,000 downloads an episode? Let’s take a look.

Advertising and sponsorships. This is the obvious place to start. The podcast industry largely runs on advertising, after all. However, my podcast has far too few listeners to be in the running for the kind of ads that would come anywhere near to paying me to make it. There are two main third-party platforms where I’m based in the UK which I could get to monetise my show in this way — Acast and Audioboom — yet the conventional wisdom is that 10,000+ downloads per episode, if not more, is a requirement to make a proper go of it.

In addition, both of these companies would take a substantial cut of any revenue they did bringing in, meaning that I’d probably need to more than double my audience before I could start making a meaningful amount of money this way. I could let them inject pre-recorded ad spots into my episodes while I wait for more listeners to show up, but this would bring me such a tiny amount of money in return that I don’t think it’s worth disrupting the show for. For the same reasons of scale, my podcast isn’t an attractive potential addition to any networks that organise sponsorships across multiple shows, even if I was interested in giving up total independence in my quest for monetisation.

My final option in this area is to go out and find sponsors myself among smaller brands or creators who might be interested in my niche (but extremely engaged) audience. This is certainly something I could explore — I could research independent Etsy sellers, say, who make a product that might fit with my podcast, and contact enough of them that I eventually generate some sponsorship leads.

Essentially, I could become my own business manager. But this doesn’t appeal to me at all as a solution in this instance, although it may work for some. Partly this is because I don’t have any skills or experience in this area, and partly because I feel like by awarding myself another role I’d be more than doubling the amount of time I spend on the podcast. I could probably bring in enough this way to cover the time I spend finding and working with the sponsors, but I’d still be making the podcast itself for free. Which leads me on to the major problem with my next potential monetisation route.

Crowdfunding. When I’ve sought advice from other independent podcasters about this situation, this is the solution that comes up most often. “Just do a Patreon!,” people say cheerfully, surprised when I pull a sceptical face. For many, it seems like seeking financial support directly from listeners is the way out of this “big but not big enough” band of audience size. That’s totally valid, but it’s also an option that contains a lot of hidden work.

For those who produce seasonally, Kickstarter can be a good option, allowing a single crowdfunding push to create a budget for a whole run of episodes, but that’s not how I make my podcast. For regularly publishing podcasts, Patreon is the platform of choice, since it allows a podcaster to accept either monthly or per episode contributions at a variety of levels and in return for various rewards.

It’s this latter aspect, mostly, that gives me pause about Patreon. (I’m also not wild in general about third party systems that take a cut of your revenue as their main revenue stream, but that’s probably a bigger question for another time.) I could certainly set up a page, set tiers and promise rewards — bonus podcast episodes, extra access to the host and merchandise are the most common rewards that I see independent podcasters offering.

Yet by my calculations, this has the same issue as finding my own sponsors. The time it would take me to create and/or dispatch such rewards would be paid for by the Patreon money, but the  podcast itself would still be happening for free. I’d also be completely exposed to any future changes that Patreon choose to make in their technology or pricing (as we saw back in March, the company is now experimenting with different ways of charging creators). If the company pivots or disappears, so would all my future income.

An additional issue for me, which may not be the case for other shows at this level, is that around 40 percent of respondents in a recent audience survey I did for my podcast had never even heard of Patreon. Judging by the answers to the demographic questions, I have a sizeable number of older listeners for whom mine is the first podcast they’ve tried, and I really didn’t want to make my primary monetisation option something that such a substantial slice of my audience was unfamiliar with.

Additional products. A lot of podcasts of a similar size to mine act as lead generation tools for their creators’ other business interests. That might be anything from selling books to an online therapy service to a brick-and-mortar store; the point is that the podcast isn’t fully monetised because it acts as a funnel towards other paying work. And that’s a really good way of getting around the problems I’ve highlighted above, because it means that the work done on the podcast itself is paid for without the need to add on other products or labour beyond a “hey, did you know I have an ebook” or “come to my pop up” shout out. It doesn’t work for me though, sadly, because I don’t have a mystery novel-related business empire I’m shilling for. (Yet, give me time.)

I would put merch in this category of monetisation too, because when it’s done right, selling T-shirts, mugs, pin badges and all the other usual podcast swag is a lot of work. Designing and sourcing good and ethical products, managing a supply chain, distributing and shipping the items — it’s a whole job unto itself, and it’s not one that I’m equipped to do by myself. I’ve always been very inspired by the Call Your Girlfriend podcast team in this regard, who didn’t start offering merch until their business could support hiring someone to be in charge of it, in recognition of that fact that it a) requires a whole different set of skills to making a podcast and b) it’s a ton of work that should be properly compensated, whoever ends up doing it.

Live shows. This one once again combines the two major themes that we’ve seen so far: selling tickets for live tapings, or connected events could be a good revenue stream for my podcast. Yet I’m not an events marketer by profession, nor do I have the time to become my own agent and booker. I think I could muddle through and just about compensate myself for the time I spend organising and doing the show, but I’d still be backstage trying to edit a new episode of the podcast itself last minute, and that work would still be happening for free.

Conclusions. If this reads like a long list of me saying no to things, that’s because, ewll, it is. I’m lucky to be in a position where I get to think about this stuff out loud, but as I’ve been deliberating among all my various options, it has felt like quite a negative process. Attracting thousands of regular listeners to a podcast in its first six months of existence feels like something that should have some value attached to it, and yet every avenue I’ve considered seems to require me to do extra work that I’ll get paid for, while the podcast itself (ie the thing people actually want and listen to) remains something I have to do for free. That doesn’t feel right to me somehow, and I hope it’s something that’s going to change as the podcast industry continues to develop. Perhaps smaller brands will get into buying sponsorships on small to medium sized shows, or a new layer of semi-professional collectives will spring up who can band together on this to reduce the overheads of merchandise and so on. But whatever it is, it’s not here yet.

So I’ve decided to go old school. I thought back to the time I’ve felt most passionately engaged with something that someone was doing for free, and realised that it was when I was at secondary school and some of my friends were in a band I really loved. They did play some paying gigs, but our town wasn’t large and they were teenagers who couldn’t travel far to venues. They also needed money in order to buy new guitar strings and recording sessions. It was 2003 and all their loyal fans had dial-up modems at home, though, so they started an online listening club. I was a proud founding member, and I spent hours a day on the forum talking to fellow fans and discussing the unheard session recordings that the club got access to.

I realised that’s the kind of experience I want for my podcast — that the people who are really passionate about it can choose to pay to keep it going, and in return they get a space to love it and feel part of it. The podcast is all about books, so what I’m creating is a book club. I’m using Memberful to run the payment side of this, Discourse to run the forum and WordPress to deliver the website where it all lives (if you’re interested, you can see what I’ve set up here). I might still dabble in advertising, merchandise or events in the future, who knows, but my primary revenue stream will be firmly connected to the actual podcast that I make, and it will live on a platform that I’m in control of. For me, that’s the best that I can do.