Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.
Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 115, published April 11, 2017.
Maximum Funded. Maximum Fun, the L.A.-based podcast company led by radio wunderkind Jesse Thorn, recently concluded the latest edition of its aptly named MaxFunDrive, the yearly membership drive it organizes to refresh and expand its recurring support base. The network is home to a sprawling range of programming — including the well loved My Brother, My Brother and Me, Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert, and Pop Rocket — with distinctly community-oriented vibes, and the company has long used the membership support structure as its primary engine.
The campaign, which officially wrapped at the end of March, was incredibly successful: By the end of its two-week run, the network had gathered 24,181 new and upgrading members, overshadowing its initial goal of 10,000. “We were really nervous,” MaxFun’s Bikram Chatterji told me, with a touch of exhaustion, when we spoke over the phone on the Monday after the drive. Chatterji is the network’s relatively new managing director, barely seven months into the role, and he was telling me about losing for sleep for fear of missing even the initial target.
[Insert Casper mattress joke here, set laptop on fire.]
“It was the highest target we ever set for ourselves,” he said, noting that last year’s goal was a comparatively modest 5,000. (The final haul for last year was somewhere over 9,000.) When this year’s campaign kicked off in mid-March, it surpassed its initial 10,000 target within a week.It’s a significant achievement, especially when you put that number in context. Maximum Fun has six available recurring support tiers ranging from $5 a month to $200 a month, and Chatterji informed me that the network went into this year’s drive with around 20,000 active supporting members. “So within that 24,181, there was obviously a mix of both new members and longer-term members who upgraded,” he explained. “Both of these cohorts are really important to us.” For a quick comparison, Radiotopia — which uses a similar member support structure, though it only shifted to a recurring support model in 2015 — closed its 2016 drive with over 6,200 new supporters, and it went into that campaign with slightly over 12,500 active recurring donors. (According to my number crunching, anyway. My writeup on that campaign can be found here.)
How all of those new, upgrading, and existing MaxFun members translate into the network’s actual revenue picture depends on how you figure the distribution across its various support tiers, and you’re going to have to guess on that: Understandably, Chatterji declined to share the specific breakdown. But he was kind enough to oblige when I asked about the broader picture, and how the revenue is typically used within the business.
I’m told that membership funds accounted for about 70 percent of the company’s revenue in 2016 — that proportion is expected to hold — with the rest being made up of advertising revenue and money from a distribution deal with NPR that revolves around Bullseye, Thorn’s interview show. “We also do a tiny bit of consulting,” Chatterji added. Almost three-quarters of the money raised from the membership drive goes directly to the shows; when a new membership is confirmed, listeners are asked to name the shows they listen to, and that impacts the proportion of the money that goes to those programs. “Doing that creates a real sense of connection between the shows and the listeners,” Chatterji explains. “It also allows us to offer potential shows a very clear value proposition in working with us.” The rest of the funding gets distributed across administration costs, show development, and general office maintenance.
So that’s the broad shape of Maximum Fun’s business, and one could argue that MaxFun’s achievements with this year’s drive further solidify the value of the membership model for network proprietors that may be anxious over the erraticisms of the advertising business. But it should be noted that MaxFun’s current picture is the product of almost a decade’s worth of work building out a community of fans and getting the company to this point; indeed, this edition of the MaxFunDrive is the latest in a very long line that goes back to 2008. It should also be noted that a membership model is, intuitively speaking, probably better suited for some kinds of shows and listener communities compared to others — which is all to say, MaxFun’s real achievement here is having built out a company on the strength of a model that directly channels the spirit of the enterprise.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Chatterji replied, when I asked if the MaxFun structure is replicable. “I think the evolution of this model is so organic…So much of it from the start has been about Jesse, his vision, his way of doing things, and the community that he’s built around himself.”
Pea-pod. The list of finalists for the 2017 Peabody Awards — which recognize works of broadcasting and the web in service of the public — is out, and the radio/podcast category sports some really interesting entries, including the kids podcast The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel, Marlo Mack’s wonderful How To Be A Girl, APM Reports’ In The Dark, The Heart’s devastating Silent Evidence Series, and interestingly, Homecoming, Gimlet’s experimental fiction project. The full list can be found here, and congrats to all.
Meanwhile, at BuzzFeed. The digital media giant — octopus? — launched a new podcast last week, and it’s a timely one. It’s called Newsfeed with BuzzFeed Ben, an interview show hosted by editor-in-chief Ben Smith that sets its sights on the increasingly perturbing nexus of politics, media, and technology. The inaugural episode features former Obama strategist David Axelrod, and it doubles as the second part of the same conversation that began in last week’s episode of Axelrod’s own interview podcast, The Axe Files, which had featured Smith as the guest. If all these newsy interview podcasts feel like they make up some crowded, conjoined expanded comic book universe, I totally feel you.
And so does Recode’s Peter Kafka, apparently, who wrote up the new BuzzFeed podcast. His piece, by the way, contains a pretty juicy data point for observers: BuzzFeed’s podcasts reportedly generated 9 million downloads in 2016, a good chunk of which was apparently driven by Another Round. For reference, the company had five active podcasts throughout the year, and though I can’t find any good numbers on Another Round’s download performance — aside from a Forbes 40 Under 40 item published in early 2016 honoring cohost Heben Nigatu that places monthly listener numbers at a vague “hundreds of thousands” — the overall number doesn’t strike me as particularly surprising. (Here’s the link to that 40 Under 40 item; beware the usual Forbes ad-avalanche.)
Kafka’s writeup also notes that No One Knows Anything, the company’s politics podcast (which I first wrote about last May), is being rebooted with new talent behind the mic: The show will now be hosted by Kate Nocera, BuzzFeed’s Washington bureau chief, and senior writer Charlie Warzel. No One Knows anything was originally anchored by Evan McMorris-Santoro, who left the company last August to join the Vice News Tonight team.
At the Times, a Podcast Club. Last Wednesday, The New York Times published a fascinating interactive titled “9 Podcast Episodes Worth Discussing,” which served as a tiny door into a much broader enterprise: a digital listening club, one that’s being largely conducted over a moderated Facebook group where new podcast episodes of concern are posted every Monday for members to discuss in long, threaded comments sections. It’s open to the public, and at this writing, the group is fast approaching 10,000 members.
Samantha Henig, the Times’ editorial director for audio, tells me that the club isn’t part of any broader New York Times Facebook group strategy; rather, it’s an extension of something that had organically formed within the organization. “When we first announced that we were starting an audio team at The New York Times” — that was last March, by the way — “pretty much everyone I ran into at work started gushing to me about how excited they were and how much they love podcasts,” Henig told me. Some, she said, had even been running their own personal podcast clubs, and so she figured, what if they made a company-wide version of that?
“My main goal was to harness all that energy and enthusiasm in the building around podcasts, and get a bunch of smart and engaged people in a room together,” she said. “And, selfishly, I thought it would help me and our growing audio team be smarter about our own programming if we’re in regular discussion about what’s working best or falling flat in other shows.”
And so they did. The club eventually drew a varied mix of attendees from throughout the organization, from reporters to developers to data analysts to whatever you call those people working in business development, and Henig describes a wide age range — she notes a higher representation of young folks than what one might usually expect from the Times, while also singling out Ben Weiser, “a Metro reporter who has been one of the most loyal and enthusiastic members but is very much not a millennial” — as well as a variety in taste.
When I asked about the decision to bring the club out into the wild, Henig said: “The Podcast Club has always felt like a very special thing, in part because it scratches an itch that no doubt exists beyond the office. There are lots of people listening to podcasts and eager to discuss what they’re in the middle of or to hear recommendations for what to try next. So [executive producer of audio] Lisa Tobin and I have been thinking for a while about how to go bigger with it.”
Weekend at Bernie’s. You might have heard over the weekend that Bernie Sanders, the senator from Vermont, rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic candidacy in the 2016 presidential campaign, and Larry David muse, now has a podcast.
At the moment, the Bernie Sanders Show’s podcast feed appears to be nothing more than an additional distribution point for the interviews that the senator originally recorded as Facebook Live videos — and that shows in the sound quality, as the available episodes are pretty rough listens. (Though, aside from the near inaudible first episode with Rev. William Barber, it’s not all that different from the quality you’d find off the podcast feeds repackaging cable news broadcasts.) All of that sound quality stuff doesn’t seem to have affected listeners and Sanders supporters one bit, though: The podcast zipped up the iTunes charts, riding the algorithm that largely privileges novel interaction, where it peaked at the No. 2 spot over the weekend, just under S-Town.
There are a myriad of potential threads baked into this. With the podcast’s high chart performance, this might well be a story that reflects on the ideological spread of podcasts as a digital medium and how it can be interpreted as tending to lean somewhat liberal. I’ve written a little bit about this in the past, mostly from the publisher’s side, but the performance of the Bernie feed seems to tell us something about the demand side — or, perhaps more likely, something about the digital savviness of Sanders supporters. In any case, this narrative thread also gestures toward a potential story about the theoretical opportunity podcasts provide political communication: This is a thread whose current history is marked by Hillary Clinton’s Pineapple Street–produced campaign podcast With Her, whose prehistory can be traced back to Senator John Edwards setting up his own podcast in 2005 (with assistance from LibSyn evangelist Rob Walch, no less), and whose various related development includes deputy DNC chairman Keith Ellison’s revival of his own issues podcast and a couple of Democratic legislators in Missouri trying to push a progressive agenda in a red state. Indeed, there are enough nuggets here to suggest the makings of a possible trend or operational opportunity — but then again, it’s just as likely that all of this simply makes for a protracted digital curiosity. We shall see what the future brings to this.
A quick note on live podcasts. Bloomberg published a piece last Friday on the live podcast events business. The article contains some interesting nuggets — Slate’s Steve Lickteig tells the reporters that the company’s live podcast shows “make money” — but it frames the phenomenon as something in its early, budding, perhaps yet-to-be-proven phase. Notably, the article glosses over Welcome to Night Vale’s machinations in this arena, which is unfortunate. As Night Vale co-creator Joseph Fink told me a few weeks ago, live shows have long driven a good deal of the team’s business; the shows sell 50,000 to 60,000 tickets a year.
The Night Vale team is currently in its fourth year of touring globally, and its latest production, All Hail, will be hitting cities across North America this spring.
Public Radio updates. A couple stories here:
The podcast’s second season debuts today, and it features several significant changes. To begin with, the scope is now expanded from the personal to focus on other people’s stories, this time focusing on the tale of a woman as she returns home from prison after years of incarceration for accidentally killing her husband. This type of scope-shifting isn’t entirely unprecedented among podcasts; it echoes the trajectory of Millennial, which pointedly widened its viewpoint after being picked up by Radiotopia, and perhaps more directly, of Gimlet’s StartUp, which broke from its original season’s personal narrative to build future seasons around other companies. First Day Back’s sophomore effort also sports the trappings of support from a much larger company: Abecassis is no longer producing the story by herself, but collaborating with Marc Georges, a Scripps producer, and Dave Shaw, an executive producer at the company. There are now launch sponsors too: Audible and ZipRecruiter.With corporate trappings, though, come some corporate interests. It’s worth noting that the show is now being positioned as a Stitcher production as opposed to a Scripps production, which was how it was framed to me when I initially wrote about the pickup. Between this and Missing Richard Simmons, which listed Stitcher as a co-producer, it would seem that Midroll is steadily working to fashion Stitcher out as its own editorial brand. This might raise some eyebrows given that Stitcher, which was acquired by Scripps and rolled into the Midroll brand early last summer, is primarily known in the marketplace as a podcast listening app, and Midroll has been looking to build a premium subscription business off the platform. Something’s going on here, and it’s worth keeping an eye on Stitcher.
Anyway, for now, we’re talking about Abecassis’ experience shifting gears. So I sent her a couple of questions:
I had never intended to keep telling my own story and it had a natural “end point” — it didn’t make sense to stretch it beyond that. And the whole point of the first season was about getting back to film and TV! But when the series connected with people, I started thinking about doing more podcasting. And deciding to use the idea of a first day back as a framework to tell other stories got me super excited. I made a list of possible ideas — first day back from the army, from a sports injury, from gender reassignment surgery…All I knew what that I wanted the first one I did to be completely different from Season 1.
Structuring a six-part serialized story is a beast. (I bow down to the S-Town producers; I don’t even know how they did what they did.) When we started working on this story, we were really taken with this big WTF moment, that our main character did this horrible thing and she claimed to have no memory of having done it. We also wanted to be honest with our listeners that this isn’t your typical whodunnit crime story. She did it. There’s no question about that. What makes it a First Day Back story is what her life is like after and how she tries to come back from it. But there are a lot of challenges: the story still has to build, the sequence of events has to have a context, the themes have to weave in and out, and listeners need to feel invested in this woman’s story knowing she did something terrible…Marc and I have worked and reworked the whole thing so many different ways. We followed her for over a year, so as you can imagine, there were twists and turns through the course of documenting her story.
First Day Back, despite its Stitcher branding, is available on all platforms.