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Success and its Complicated Measures: A Case Study

It was a personal story, and Laura Krantz didn’t want to compromise on much. “I had a certain way I wanted to tell this story and that was hugely important to me,” Krantz told me over email recently. “That was probably the most concrete goal. And I wanted people to listen to this… I wasn’t looking for fame and fortune necessarily, but I wanted to be known as someone who made something good.”

She had been sitting on the idea for about a decade: a sprawling and idiosyncratic tale about obsession, Bigfoot, and the supposedly-mythical creature’s relationship to her family tree. (As it turns out, Krantz is related to a cryptozoologist well-known in the field of Bigfoot studies. Every gene pool a lottery, y’know?) And she wanted to tell it as an audio piece, which makes sense given her experience as a veteran of the public radio system with production stints at All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Morning Edition, plus an editing gig at KPCC. She had been freelancing since 2014, when she moved to Colorado for a journalism fellowship at UC Boulder, juggling projects under the banner of Foxtopus Ink, a small multimedia company she runs with her husband, Scott Carney, in Denver.

Krantz spent 18 months working full-time on the project, doing the bulk of the work herself: research, interviews, follow-up interviews, writing, editing. For her, it was new experience on a number of fronts: first time reporting, first time behind the mic, first time working on an extensive feature. The endeavor was entirely self-financed, with the money mostly going into reporting trips — on both ends of the country — and additional production help: a producer, Kelsey Ray, to assist during those trips; an editor, Alisa Barba; and someone to do the sound mixing/design/scoring, Ramtin Arablouei. Because the project was self-financed, the budget was smaller than Krantz originally hoped, but bigger than you would think. It’s within the range of someone’s annual salary, which, by the way, was something Krantz didn’t take throughout the production period.

She launched the project, Wild Thing, in early October to some warm response. It received carousel placement on the Apple Podcast front page, and as of this morning, it’s hovering around the 70-80 mark on the Apple Charts. (A reminder, as always, that the charts are a measure of relative heat, not size.) It bagged a few media mentions from a few places: the Los Angeles Times, the Denver Post’s The Know, NPR. And I’m told that, at this writing, it has brought in almost 700,000 across seven episodes since launch.

From the outside looking in, it’s entirely reasonable to perceive Wild Thing as a mildly successful endeavor. But of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Last week, I wrote about the limited-run podcast series, its challenges as a viable standalone enterprise, and how the current makeup of the podcast business doesn’t seem particularly built to effectively support the often resource-intensive format — which, as a result, theoretically reduces the likelihood of newer talent from experimenting with it. As it turns out, the column struck a nerve: loads of readers, many independent operators, wrote in to express their own frustrations trying to develop their own limited-run series. But there was also another line of response that came in: business is a constantly-shifting math equation that favors those who own infrastructure (see: capitalism), and folks just need to deal with it. You can’t always get what you want.

Yeah well, maybe. Nevertheless, I still think it’s helpful to examine Krantz’s experience in light of the stuff I outlined last week, if only to highlight the points at which the goals of a creator directly clashes with the imperatives of the existing monetization structure. The reality of this might well be old news for some, but it could also be a useful reference for others, and perhaps it could tell us something more about the podcast business at the end of 2018.

Prior to launch, Krantz’s burdens were largely pegged to the conventional realities of the newcomer’s trade-off: without a track record, she was faced with the choice of fully shouldering the startup risk or ceding significant potential long-term value to mitigate that risk.

This was exacerbated by the fact that she couldn’t find an agency-mediated pre-launch advertising deal that made sense, and certainly not one that would efficiently and proportionally reward her if the show beats expectations. “Everyone keeps saying there’s money in podcasting, but I don’t think it’s necessarily going to the creators,” Krantz said. She had approached several advertising agencies and hosting companies, but she was only offered ad buys at low CPMs due to the fact she was considered an unknown quantity. Another aspect troubling her: in whatever deals that were offered, the ads would have to be baked in. “That seemed dumb,” she said. “There was no ability to scale.”

Krantz also couldn’t find a distribution partnership that meshed well with her goals. She received offers from some of the usual suspects, but she simply wasn’t able to sit well with some standard terms in the contracts. “Audible’s contract was especially hard,” Krantz said. “They offered a nice amount of money up front, but it would have required signing away creative control and handing over ancillary rights. This was something I just couldn’t do — I understand the value of that stuff.”

She also wanted Wild Thing to be widely heard, an outcome she felt would have been unnecessarily handicapped should the show live behind a paywall. “In retrospect, given what happened at Audible, I’m glad I made the decision I did,” she reflected. “Who knows where this project would have ended up?”

Together with Carney, her husband and business partner, Krantz then moved to strike direct advertising revenue deals on their own, with mixed results. At first, they struck up an affiliate deal with a small bicycle company in Los Angeles that was based on a CPA (cost per acquisition) conversion model instead of a CPM model. But there was a problem: it turns out consumer demand for bicycles are somewhat depressed in the winter. After a month of testing, the duo eventually went back to advertisers, but by then, the show had launched and had started generating a track record of download numbers. Armed with the additional data, they were able to secure better subsequent ad deals.

“Honestly, we’ve been picky about [the advertising process],” Krantz admitted, noting they only sought deals that involved dynamic ad insertion and advertisers they felt comfortable with. “I’m not going to try to sell people on something that I don’t think is worth it — it’s already uncomfortable enough crossing the line between editorial and advertising.”

But creators shouldn’t feel bad about being picky. It’s just that current podcast advertising conventions don’t seem built for projects like Wild Thing. “I don’t think the system is designed for limited-run podcasts,” Krantz said. “It’s aimed at podcasts with a long time-horizon… interview shows that go on indefinitely.” She feels strongly that the industry should adopt a “true” CPM model. “A true CPM model means you get paid a constant rate per download, like $40/1000, but it’s not capped at a certain amount,” she said. “This way, the advertiser doesn’t pay extra for an underperforming show and you can continue to monetize. Nothing is baked in.”

At this writing, Krantz and Carney are still working on getting it to break even on the budget, which means Wild Thing is still an investment waiting to be paid off. (Though, one should also consider all the non-monetary costs that aren’t reflected in the budget: Krantz and Carney handle all the marketing and public relations work themselves, which takes up significant time.) That being said, it’s only been two months since launch, so it’s probable that the production will at least make up the cost with the long tail. And on top of that, the experience has already opened up a fair number of additional opportunities that function as indirect returns: part-time editing gigs, paid distribution deals, preliminary discussions around possible book or television deals that may or may not pan out.

So yes, you could interpret Wild Thing as a mildly successful endeavor. It’s just that you’d have to pitch that interpretation rather broadly, with the additional caveat that the returns aren’t necessarily direct to the product itself — which, in my mind, makes for a more complicated equation if you’re trying to assess whether it’s worth doing more of these.

At one point during our email exchange, I asked if Krantz felt like the podcast was a success. Again, it’s complicated. “I wasn’t entirely sure how I would define success,” she replied. “Largely because I still don’t really understand what success is in this industry.”