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Making Money: Part One

Here at Hot Pod, we devote a lot of space to the ebb and flow of money in podcasting: who’s making it, how they’re doing it, what they’re spending it on, and why. Especially in this moment, as podcasting settles into a new era of acquisitions and experiments, reporting on this has necessarily focused at the top end of the industry where hundreds of millions of dollars are changing hands.

But there is, of course, entire financial ecosystems surrounding podcasts of all types, from smaller shows that are covering their costs with one-off donations from listeners to bigger independents and collectives running their own bespoke crowdfunding and advertising models. Over the next three Tuesday newsletters, I’m going to be checking in on different aspects of this wider terrain, and asking what it means in different scenarios to make a podcast a paying concern.

We begin this week with Lauren Shippen, the creator of the popular fiction podcast The Bright Sessions and now the CEO of new production company Atypical Artists. Working almost entirely in fiction podcasting, she has tested out a variety of business models, and as such, has an unusually diverse set of money-making experiences to draw from.

When Shippen started The Bright Sessions in 2015, it was a project she tried to produce with as little cost as possible. As it grew, she experimented with advertising and Patreon-support. Now, Shippen will soon launch a spin-off, The AM Archives, that will debut on 23 April as one of the initial shows behind Luminary’s exclusive paywall.

Shippen was very open about the financial realities she’d faced trying to make The Bright Sessions when we spoke last week. Throughout her time making the podcast, she still held a day job “to keep the lights on and the rent paid,” she told me. She launched the show’s Patreon account after the first season, and the money initially went on “increasing costs, like microphone improvements, increasing the bandwidth of our RSS feed and things like that.” Eventually, the show started selling ads, but that income wasn’t substantial.

She was able to start paying the actors and production team by the third season, but despite all the work she puts into the show (each episode takes her upwards of 40 hours to produce), she didn’t draw a regular wage — pulling some money only occasionally. “Usually what would happen is at the end of the season I would kind of look at our bank account and look at the next season and think like ‘OK can I give myself a little bonus for the season’ to kind of help me pay my rent, you know,” Shippen said.

By the end of the fourth season, the show had “about 1300-1400 patrons” on Patreon, which netted her about $3,000 a month. Almost all of that went straight out of the account again immediately to pay production wages and the cost of keeping the show on the air. An average episode (which is usually just “two people in a room talking,” as she described it) cost a minimum of $2,000 to make. A larger cast recording in a studio typically required $5,000. The show’s special musical episode, with which it marked its 50th installment, cost $11,000. And all of that is less what Shippen’s own time and writing would cost. Despite the popularity and success of The Bright Sessions, the production was always living hand to mouth.

This matters, I think, because there’s a perception I’ve encountered a lot in my travels around podcasting that a hit show is enough to put a podcaster, even an independent one, on a sound financial footing. The Bright Sessions is unarguably a hit: critically acclaimed, with a large and loyal fanbase, and a decently-sized crowdfunder. Shippen now has a deal to write books set in the same universe for Tor Teen, as well as that spin-off that will shortly debut on Luminary. Yet she didn’t quit her data entry job until last August.

“I was working 80 to 100 hour weeks for about three years,” she said. “I mean, I still am but at least it’s all stuff that is creative versus having to have a day job and pick up odd jobs as well.” This is partly why some of the negative reaction to her decision to work with Luminary has been a bit hurtful, she said. Some fans of The Bright Sessions have said that they feel “betrayed” that the new spin-off will live behind a paywall for the foreseeable, an idea that Shippen has answered in public several times. “The show wouldn’t get made at all” without the kind of money that Luminary could pay, she said in one response, and she echoed this when we spoke.

“Giving a lot of yourself to people and then making one decision for yourself, for your own personal life and mental health and your career growth and all that kind of stuff, and then them being like ‘oh well now now you’re a bad person because you’re not giving me the things that I want anymore in the way that I want it’. . . That lack of feeling makes you feel like you’re treated a little bit like a content machine,” she said. The budget she received to produce The AM Archives enabled her to hire new writers and actors, and double down on her commitment to represent the depth of diversity in audio fiction. None of that was possible without Luminary, she explained. “People are going to have to pay for my book,” Shippen pointed out, saying that it wasn’t so unreasonable that they should also pay for her latest audio fiction project, too.

The idea of paying for the thing vs. paying for bonus content is one that I’ve come up against a lot in my research for this series, and am going to explore more next week. Shippen, like many other independent podcasters, experienced the classic Patreon dilemma of wanting to ask listeners to support the podcast itself, but instead providing extra episodes and livestreams for which people paid. Making this additional stuff is a lot of work, and while the contributions might cover that effort, the core product — the podcast — remains something the creator has to do for free. Now, she’s part of a new model that’s asking people to pay outright for the shows they want to listen to. After years of cobbling together funding from lots of different sources, it was a great luxury, she said, to just have enough money to make exactly what she wanted to make.