Go, Indie, Go. Will Networked Podcasts Get You There?

Feature article from the January 2014 AIRblast

There's been a lot of chatter among public radio producers lately about the potential for podcast networks as a revenue stream. To get some clarity, we sent producer Jillian Weinberger out to scour the terrain. She discovered that while podcast networks offer one new option in an ever-shifting menu of distribution methods as is often the case, it's up to the producers to find the time, ingenuity, and scratch to get their work off the ground.

Podcasters: read on for tips from some of the field's sharpest pros about what to think about when you're negotiating.

"The great podcast grab of 2013" — that's how Julie Shapiro characterizes the spate of podcast networks that suddenly seem to be "mining the talent out there."

Podcast listening is at an all-time high. In May, the Pew Research Center found that more than one in four American Internet users now regularly download and listen to podcasts.

But as listeners transition from traditional radio to app-based or on-demand listening, does that translate to more income for producers? I set out to discover whether podcast networks might put more money into makers' pockets — and found that prospects are still hazy.

What is clear is that podcasting is not, for most independent producers, a license to quit their day jobs. As the former artistic director of Third Coast, Shapiro had a birds-eye view on this "ever-widening world" when she wrote about the uneven gender dynamics of podcasting for Transom last February. She described the economics in stark terms: "Unless born of already-existing media outlets … most start-up podcasts bring in very little (if any) money, yet demand super-human efforts to be produced regularly."

There is a "strength in numbers" theory behind podcast networks: that bundling podcasts will relieve some of the operational burden on producers. Broadly speaking, a podcast network is an entity that supports programs from the business end — securing underwriters and advertisers, acting as a fiscal sponsor to secure grant funding, building distribution apps, and helping with promotion — allowing producers to focus on content.

I spoke with three of the leading aggregators of public media podcasts to learn more about prospects in this sector: Bullseye, the Mule Radio Syndicate, and the soon-to-launch Radiotopia.

These aren't the only companies pursuing podcasters. But while apps such as Stitcher or Swell focus on volume by contracting with networks such as American Public Media (APM) and National Public Radio to stream both programs and podcasts, podcast networks serve a more curatorial role. They contract directly with specific producers, often assembling a suite of shows that share a topic or ethos in order to appeal to a targeted audience.

The commercial market for tech-focused podcasts is booming, notes Jonathan Kizer in a December piece on the AppStorm blog, "2013: The Year of Podcasts," with networks such as TWiT and 5by5 attracting wired listeners. Humor has also proven lucrative. An August profile in Entrepreneur traces the rise of the Nerdist Podcast Network, which comprises 26 original programs that average 5.8 million downloads per month and attract a highly desirable demographic for advertisers.

Now, more networks focused on public media content are emerging. In one model, they find audiences and advertisers for producers incubated in a noncommercial radio context. In another model, they seek foundation dollars for podcasts by public media producers that have potential to draw ads or buyers online.

The Rise of Public Radio Podcast Networks

Maximum Fun

Jesse Thorn is a public media podcast network pioneer. The host of Bullseye, an hour-long, weekly public radio show focused on pop culture, he began his network, MaximumFun.org, back in 2006. He had just signed with Public Radio International (PRI) to distributeBullseye (then known as The Sound of Young America) and discovered what many podcast producers now know well, and what independent producers have known for years: simply selling content to stations hardly pays the bills. "I figured out that even if the show's carriage went according to [PRI's] predictions, I would end up earning a gross of $25,000," he says. "So I figured I'd better come up with other ways to make money."

Today, while National Public Radio distributes Bullseye, Thorn himself owns and operates Maximum Fun, now home to 16 different podcasts, including Judge John Hodgman (produced by comedian John Hodgman) and My Brother, My Brother and Me (produced by real-life brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy). He says that most Maximum Fun listeners find the show through word of mouth, iTunes, or social media.

The terms of each podcast's contract vary, but Thorn describes the agreements as "essentially what I thought I would want if I was an independent podcaster." Maximum Fun producers own their content. "Between donations and other income, a number of our shows make at least enough money to cover one person's full-time expenses," says Thorn. The podcasts serve as one revenue stream among many; a number of Maximum Fun producers perform stand-up comedy, or find other ways to support their creative work.

While Maximum Fun relies on sponsors, the bulk of the network's funding comes from listeners. Maximum Fun's two full-time development employees run the network's annual pledge drives, complete with public radio-style thank-you gifts and social media campaigns. The 2013 drive brought in 1,470 new donors.

Mule Radio Syndicate

Mule Radio Syndicate, a podcast network that, like Maximum Fun, straddles a line between commercial and public media, grew out of an eponymous design firm. Mule began its foray into public radio by distributing DecodeDC, a podcast hosted by former NPR Congressional correspondent Andrea Seabrook. While Seabrook has since sold her podcast to Scripps, her former producer, Lina Misitzis, joined Mule as Managing Director last fall.

What started as a "side project," explains Misitzis, "just accidentally worked, and sponsors started calling in" to ask about opportunities. Since its start with DecodeDC, Mule has signed contracts with several podcasts from AIR's network producers, including Here Be Monsters (hosted by Jeff Emtman), Audio Smut (produced by Kaitlin Prest and Mitra Kaboli), The Broad Experience (produced and hosted by Ashley Milne-Tyte), Everything Sounds (produced by Craig Shank and George Drake Jr.), as well as MuckRock (hosted by Bradley Campbell and Michael Morisy).

While Misitzis would not provide hard numbers, she noted that Mule depends on sponsor and listener support, though it leans more heavily on the former. Sponsors can purchase a package of ads, and the funding is distributed among the shows on the basis of each show's overall listenership. Misitzis also has sponsors who purchase ad time for particular shows; these podcast producers are in turn given a bigger percentage than they would receive through the standard package deal. Misitzis says that Mule also plans to apply for grants for some of its podcasts this year.

Radiotopia

Two public media veterans, Jake Shapiro, CEO of Public Radio Exchange, and Roman Mars, host of PRX Remix and 99% Invisible, plan to launch the podcast network Radiotopia in early February. Shapiro and Mars have secured foundation funding and are in talks with a handful of podcast producers. Because the network has yet to formally launch, they declined to name the foundation involved or the podcasters on board.

Mars developed 99% Invisible as a side project at KALW and at the behest of the San Francisco-based American Institute of Architects. Mars signed with PRX as a distributor in early 2012, when he launched the first two successful Kickstarter campaigns. Mars hoped to raise $42,000 in his first campaign, and finished with more than $170,477. The second campaign began with a goal of $150,000 and raised $375,193. The goal of Radiotopia, he explains, is to "use some of the lessons from my Kickstarter to help create a new business model so that people can do good work and find an audience."

Mars points to another public radio show as key to his success: Radiolab, which featured Mars on an episode in December 2011. "As much as people like to cast my show as a success as a podcast made outside of the normal structures," Mars said, "the reason why people found it and liked it is because a more traditional radio show listened to it."

Editor's note: We saw this dynamic again recently with Snap Judgment, which rocketed to the top of the U.S. iTunes chart two days after being promoted on This American Life.

PRX plans to provide a revenue guarantee for the podcast producers they select, though Shapiro did not specify an amount. They aim to build station-like infrastructure for Radiotopia producers, "from straight-up technical audio distribution, to sponsorship and sales representation, to invoicing and payment management, to being the fiscal agent for any philanthropic or donation sources of revenue, [and] advising and strategizing about Kickstarter campaigns," Shapiro says. The network will cross-promote the podcasts featured on the platform and through the PRX Remix stream and website.

Bargaining Tips for Producers

While happy to discuss business models in the abstract, these networks declined to provide specific contract details — in part because a number of contracts are still being negotiated.

Regardless, for independent podcast producers like Julie Sabatier, creator and host of Destination DIY, the infrastructure promised by such networks is appealing. "It's worth it to give up whatever percentage I might be giving up to a podcast network if they're going to go out and knock on doors for me," she says.

Like Mars, Sabatier began developing Destination DIY as a side project while working at a radio station. The show began airing on Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) in 2010, but OPB does not support it financially. Sabatier owns the show, and she's found it difficult to market the hour-long program to stations. However, over the past year, several networks approached Sabatier about distributing a shorter-form podcast. For her, the main attraction is being able to retain the rights to the show while surrendering the "business" end of podcasting.

"I don't really feel like I have anything to lose," she explains. "If no sponsors are interested, fine, then I won't count on any revenue from this podcast network … I've lost nothing."

Mars agrees. "The whole idea is that you do your own work, you partner with people who make the financial stuff kind of simpler, and if it does really well, then you're the one who profits from it," he says. "I don't see any downside in that respect."

These producers are forging the way for others looking to strike out on their own. Podcasting represents a small but potentially growing subset of independent makers' work. AIR's 2013 Producer Report indicates just 5 percent consider podcasting their primary outlet, up from 3 percent in 2012. However, 29 percent of AIR's producers rank podcasting as the top skill they're working to cultivate, up from 22 percent in 2011 and 2012.

Sabatier, Mars, and Thorn all offered tips to help other independents looking to contract with networks:

Consider your peers: Sabatier advised that producers look carefully at the other shows already on the network. "I wanted to be on a network where shows that I admire and look up to were already signed on," she says.

Read the fine print: Thorn urged producers to carefully consider their contracts. "I personally believe really strongly in making sure that artists control their own work, own their own work," he explained. Mars agreed: "The most important thing is own all your work."

What's your exit? "You don't want to be in a position where you're yesterday's news with this company and you don't have anything you can do about it because you're locked into this contract," Thorn says.

Think about what they're selling: The sponsors themselves deserve careful consideration. "You want to know whether you have veto power," Sabatier says. How will your listeners feel about new sponsors?

Make it easy for listeners to follow your trail: Finally, Sabatier urged producers to think about the listeners' experience and how it might change with a network. If most listeners currently download your podcast from iTunes or your website, will the network continue feeding the program through those platforms? Or will your existing listeners have to find the podcast all over again?

A Chance to Forge New Formats

Whether or not podcasts pay the bills, they offer open space for radio producers at all skill levels to experiment with creative approaches.

In a November Wall Street Journal piece titled "So Many Podcasts, So Little Profit," WNYC producer-by-day Jody Avirgan compares the hustle of producing his twice-monthly independent podcast, Ask Roulette, to "the economics of a band."

"You are saving money to do more of what you love in the future," he told reporter Jo Piazza, "instead of making a living off of that thing right now."

APM COO and Chief Content Officer Dave Kansas says that APM is now exploring new models and partnerships for its own podcasts, which include Dinner Party Download (produced by Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnan), Wits (produced by Larissa Anderson, hosted by John Moe), and Brains On! (produced by Molly Bloom, Marc Sanchez, and Sanden Totten). Kansas finds the business model of podcast networks encouraging. The fact that networks are "happening organically," he says, is a sign of "the strength of the economic possibilities."

Dinner Party Download, like a number of APM's podcasts, began as a side project. "It started off as something that Brendan and Rico were making at night," says Peter Clowney, Director of Arts and Ideas Programming at APM. After hearing a few episodes, Clowney wanted APM on board. Gagliano reduced his hours at Marketplace and Newman went part-time at the Public Insight Network so they could spend the rest of their time developing the podcast. Dinner Party Download launched as an hour-long show in September 2012.

"Podcasts can be made very expensively or they can be made very inexpensively," Kansas says. "What's working best right now are podcasts that are not so expensive, that rely on creative talent."

Jillian Weinberger is a freelance writer and an associate producer with The Takeaway. You can find her on Twitter: @jbweinberger.