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The MaxFunDrive, Holding Steady

Maximum Fun’s annual membership drive had a bit of a bumpy start this year, with website issues that gummed up potential contributions during its first two days. As it turns out, technical hiccups like these can happen to anybody — even Maximum Fun, the Los Angeles-based podcast collective led by Jesse Thorn, which has been doing these MaxFunDrives for over a decade.

That didn’t seem to matter much in the end, though. The 2019 MaxFunDrive, which concluded last week, still went on to beat its public goal of 25,000 new and upgrading members with a final tally of over 28,500. That’s new and upgrading members, by the way, which expands and deepens the organization’s supporting member base. For reference, membership support makes up somewhere around 70% of Maximum Fun’s overall revenues, up from about 60% back in 2017.

“[28,500] is a similar number to the last year’s drive, and I think it indicates that the accelerating growth we once went through is leveling out,” Bikram Chatterji, Maximum Fun’s managing director, told me. Specifically, the 2018 MaxFunDrive brought in 28,360 new and upgrading members, beating a primary goal of 25,000. “I think we’re all fine with that leveling out… Intuitively, we understand that you can’t keep having accelerating growth year after year. You just have growth,” he said.

Sure, it’s possible to perceive this year’s tally as a modest achievement, particularly when compared against the over-performance of the drive from 2017. That year, the organization implemented a significantly lower goal of 10,000 new and upgrading members, and ultimately more than doubled the target with a final tally of 24,181.

But perhaps another way to read the situation is to interpret a sense of consistency. Between 2017 and 2019, these MaxFunDrive campaigns routinely brought in more than 24,000 new and upgrading members. All this, it should be noted, despite a broader industry context that’s seen, on the one hand, an influx of more well-resourced, well-connected, and aggressively-spending podcast competitors, and on the other, a parallel rise in media companies newly hitting subscription and membership business models hard, which theoretically leads to a natural increase in competition for direct-support dollars. That there was no significant dip in this year’s membership drive conversion, then, feels like an achievement in and of itself.

Some of that support strength, Chatterji observed, might have to do a rising overt awareness among its audience communities about the harsh realities of the modern creative economy. “There was definitely a slightly different flavor to the reception this year,” he said. “That’s possibly as a function of some high-profile cases, certainly in podcasting but also across the media industry, in which creators were treated as disposable.”

He added: “I think there’s a growing recognition among our audience — and maybe this applies to only 15% who are, like, really into podcast economics and the media business, who knows — that it is important to directly support the creators themselves because if creators don’t have that direct relationship they can become commoditized.”

It also helped, perhaps, that the team sought to be direct and transparent in as much of their messaging as possible. You can see examples of that here, here, and here.

With another effective MaxFunDrive behind them, the team is getting ready for an eventful year ahead. For one thing, there are plans to revamp Maximum Fun’s underlying technology and web presence. “In some ways, it’s a back-office operational thing, but there is a strategic aspect to this: how do we create a central online access point for Maximum Fun to help our various podcast communities find us, and find each other?” said Chatterji. The organization is also planning to move offices soon, shifting from a small loft-space near LA’s Koreatown to larger digs in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

On the programming side, Chatterji indicated that there’s some desire to pause a beat following a particularly active launch run. Over the past few years, Maximum Fun has debuted more than a few new podcasts — like Bubble, Who Shot Ya?, Switchblade Sisters, and The Art of Process with Aimee Mann and Ted Leo — and brought in some key existing shows, like Mission to Zyxx (formerly with Audioboom) and Dr. Gameshow (formerly with Earwolf). “We’ve had an exciting two years, but I feel like now’s a good time for us to focus on making sure our shows are reaching a good audience and fully realizing their value in the marketplace,” he said.

That requires, in Chatterji’s mind, an approach that’s substantially different from a lot of other podcast companies. He lays it out as follows:

I’d like to talk more about how the problem is structured in the industry. The approach that’s often adopted is something along the lines of, “Let’s launch a bunch of stuff and see what hits — either we have a runaway success, or we’ll roll up shop and try again.” It’s a top-down corporate way of thinking, with built-in failures rates and stuff like that.

You run things differently, and you think about things differently, when it’s a bottom-up, creator-driven organization. Because in that structure, you’re asking people to work on things that they really believe in and hope will succeed. You’re not thinking, “Let’s take these ten shots, and hopefully three of them will pay for the budget.” You’re thinking, “Let’s take three shots, make them the best we can, and push each of them to succeed in ways that are specific to them.”