Issue 304,  published May 4, 2021

Podcasting and “The Creator Economy”

The words are often ambiguous in what it actually encompasses, though it typically retains a specificity in connotation: “creator,” “influencer,” “social media star.” A distinctly modern and digitally derived celebrity, mostly on the younger side, always emergent from the ever-evolving frontier of new media. Whatever the terminology, one thing’s for certain: This class of digital-first creator is a steadily growing force, and these creators are increasingly present in all possible media contexts.

Podcasting is no exception, obviously, as the Apple Podcasts charts, the Spotify discovery rails, or the curation pages of any third-party podcast app would easily tell you. The podcast universe is increasingly rich with shows from such digital-first talents coming in from worlds as varied as YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, or, hey, let’s toss reality television in there, too.

To get a better sense of this in-flow — the incentives, the trend line, the approach, and so on — I reached out to Stephen Perlstein, the VP of Podcasts at Studio71. The Hollywood Reporter probably has one of the better descriptions of Studio71 out there in a recent piece about leadership changes at the entity: Part of Red Arrow Studios, it’s “one of the last companies standing from an era when YouTube multi-channel networks ruled the digital landscape.” These days, the company is owned by the German conglomerate ProSiebenSat.1 Media, and its podcast division operates a fairly wide portfolio of audio shows led by celebrity and digital-creator types, including Waveform with YouTube tech star Marques Brownlee, The Bald and the Beautiful with drag queens Trixie Mattel and Katya Zamo, and Worst Firsts with Brittany Furlan.

Here’s our chat from last month, condensed and edited for flow:

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Hot Pod: How would you describe Studio71 and what you do within it?

Stephen Perlstein: So, Studio71 is a big media company with fingers in a lot of pies: television, digital, OTT, and so on. But our podcast work is pretty simply focused, and I try to keep it that way.

We focus on working with great digital creators — which is a broad, encompassing term — to help them make a podcast and expand their business around that. Sometimes that means we assist on the production side, and sometimes that means we help on the ad-sales side, which is a big part of it.

HP: How do the creators you work with generally view podcasting?

Perlstein: Some creators tend to think of it as a way to expand their business and to connect with their audiences a little bit more. There’s also a sense it’s more stable: You’re not necessarily responding to platform algorithms like YouTube or Instagram or whatever. If you’ve spent any time in the influencer space, you know they spend a lot of time talking about the algorithm. I think they like to be free of it and forge deeper connections with their audiences in a way that’s genuine and authentic, while making money at the same time. Our job is to support them however we can.

HP: Tell me more about that relationship with algorithms. Do they view podcasting as not being similarly tied to the whims of platforms?

Perlstein: Some of them definitely recognize that the YouTube algorithm can be a finicky beast and that, relatively speaking, a podcast subscriber or follower has a more direct connection that doesn’t waver in the same way.

I can’t speak for every creator, but I’ve definitely heard rumblings along those ideas. But it’s also just the reality that a lot of top creators have to do certain things on YouTube — whatever that means — to stay relevant. That’s not always the case with podcasts. Obviously, it helps to have a big guest or a surprising, fun episode, but you don’t have to worry about losing 50% of your audience video over video in the same way.

HP: So, my interpretation of YouTube or TikTok life is that it works a little bit like a slot machine. To some extent, you’re pulling the lever with every video or clip and hoping things work out. Am I off base?

Perlstein: Well, we tend to work with people for whom it’s more like poker and who are playing a game that works really, really well for them.

At a certain level, yes, there’s a slot machine aspect to something like YouTube where you’re hoping to hit the right search terms, titles, thumbnails, trending topic, whatever. There’s a natural variation in the way some of these video platforms drive engagement versus the way podcasts drive engagement, which has a stability that’s nice.

HP: From your experience helping digital creators build podcast businesses over the years, what has the trend line been like around interest among creators and podcasting? Has there been a gradual increase, or has interest exploded within the past year in particular?

Perlstein: I do think there’s been an acceleration, particularly since the beginning of COVID. Not only among digital creators, but also among traditional celebrities — anybody who’s in a position to think, “Well, I can’t do the same things that I did before. What about podcasts?” Especially in May or June of last year, we found ourselves in a situation where we see, like, 10 new opportunities in front of us at any given point and have to figure out which one to pick up.

That said, there’s always been a steady flow of interest from people in the “creator economy,” if you will, who are big and visible and attract strong followings and who looked at the podcast space and see it as a possible leg on the stool of their business, for lack of a better metaphor.

HP: So, when you’re looking at those 10 opportunities in front of you, how do you make choices in terms of what to pursue?

Perlstein: First of all, we have a pretty broad range of things we get into, and we work with a wide range of creators. People like Trixie Mattel, Marques Brownlee, and LaurDIY, who’s got her HBO Max show and does crafts and also talks about relationships, among other things.

It’s hard, because whenever people ask me that question, they’re often thinking in terms of genre or audience. In some ways, when I have conversations around pitches and development, I’m less interested in that and more interested in creators who are genuinely excited about the format, who believe that they’re ready to chat with an audience for an hour every week, and who are naturally prolific about what they want to talk about.

From a business perspective, yes, we look at audiences and followings, but mostly we look at how to help them convert them. I think we at Studio71 are pretty adept at targeting social strategies to take sizable followings and convert them into podcast listeners. In some ways, it can be easy, but it’s also fraught in other ways. It’s such a different medium than YouTube or Instagram, because it involves engaging with a lot of people who have never heard a podcast before.

HP: Can you tell me a little more about those social strategies?

Perlstein: I don’t want to give away too much of the secret sauce, but I’ll just say the podcast space often discounts how hard the journey can be for someone to become a dedicated listener. The notion of how to even listen and engage with advertising… that’s all comparatively new and different from the YouTube space.

One thing our friends at Apple and Spotify talk about a lot is how they don’t love it when you say, “Subscribe to my podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.” I think that’s a totally fair criticism, because if you’re a person who hasn’t listened to a podcast before, you might go, “Okay, wherever I listen to podcasts. What does that mean?” They get lost in that journey, and that’s a real friction point. So we try to do a number of things to mitigate that friction.

At our company, we regularly do deep dives where the 17 or 18 of us as a podcast team go through a show and ask, “What’s the deal with this podcast? What’s working on it, and how do we do this more and better?” We’d spend an hour dissecting everything we can from the social media posts, maybe find that somehow someone got the wrong link and posted it out there, and clearly confused the audience, and then we help them adapt to that.

HP: I imagine many creators who approach you tend to already have major operations on other platforms or contexts. How do you deal with creators that may treat their podcast as being a side project or a cash grab?

Perlstein: I don’t worry about our creators treating podcasts like a side project. It comes down to our process of signing podcasts: We try to vet for that, for a lack of a better way to put it.

We’re aware of the notable stories that see networks or companies throw money at famous people thinking that will somehow get them enthusiastic and drive an audience and make a good podcast. And some of those stories result in massive failures.

We try not to follow that approach. I say this a lot when we onboard new team members at Studio71: Our job is to help creators expand their business and build it up. If we’re not doing that within the podcast context, we need to reassess what we’re doing and try to do a better job and offer more to our creators.

And of course, sometimes, podcasts don’t work. Not everything works. It’s tough to say that as a person who runs a network and, obviously, as someone who wants everything to work. But not all of them do. What’s great then is that these people are often quite successful somewhere else, and so maybe this podcast, this idea, this moment, perhaps it isn’t quite right just yet. We’ll stop the show, find a graceful way to end it, and maybe come back another time with a different format or whatever. We just try to be a good partner, both for the successes and those less successful.

HP: How do you think about advertising?

Perlstein: Our approach is about figuring out how we can partner creators with brands that make sense for them, and in that process, helping those brands grow. We try to be strategic about it, and we try to be helping make clear packages around our podcasts that we can sell effectively. We can be very turnkey, and we can be very fast, which is important, because sometimes advertisers in the podcast space will be like, “We need to get something up on Monday — can you do it?” And it’s great to be able to say yes to that and provide a really good solution for the brand. Overall, they’ve been really receptive.

We also play around with simultaneous releases for some of our podcasts on YouTube. Not all of them, maybe 60% or 70%. For those podcasts, there are video elements, and something we’ve found is that advertisers are seeing those video spots as potentially, in some cases, being more effective than just the straight audio release, which was surprising to me.

I think I kind of knew that to a certain point. Video versions of a podcast tend to be devalued, or at least are made to feel a little less valuable to brands. And we’re working really hard to realize value there, to maybe show it can be as good, if not potentially better, as a product for advertisers.

HP: Let’s look forward a little bit. There’s some amount of stuff on the way, between the United States — and eventually, the world — opening back up and everything that’s happening with the podcast platforms. What do you think we’re going to see in the years to come?

Perlstein: So, I don’t try to prognosticate very much, because I just don’t know.

Podcasting has changed a lot, and it keeps on changing. What I like, and I hope keeps on building up, is the free and open nature of the medium. As often as there is hand wringing about platforms taking over the space and paywalls for every podcast and all that stuff, I don’t think that fits into the spirit of podcasting and what audiences, or at least a sizable portion of audiences, really like about it.

I think there will still be more free and open things that aren’t tied to platforms, where you can still go directly to people’s ears. I also think there’s going to be interesting ways that creators are looking to connect with audiences within their own sort of “walled gardens,” enabled by stuff like premium feeds where engaged fans can have their own self-selected gardens in the moments they really want it.

I don’t really know where it’s all going, but we will be championing the free and open side, for sure.

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Again, Perlstein is Studio71’s VP of Podcasts.

I run this thing.