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Nov. 27, 2018, 10:27 a.m.
Business Models

Wild Thing, I think I love you (but the ultimate sustainability of your particular advertising model remains unclear)

Bigfoot gets a podcast. Plus: the high rise of Guy Raz, The Washington Post readies its daily show, and does podcasting really have a low barrier to entry any more?

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 187, published November 27, 2018.

To the American readers: welcome back from Turkey Week. And to everyone else: welcome to just another workday. Also, fun fact: Last week marked four years of Hot Pod! That’s a full presidential term! This is officially the longest I’ve done anything. Man. Thanks for reading. Anyway, let’s get to it.

“Success” and its complicated measures. 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 made 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 full-time on the project, doing the bulk of the work herself: research, interviews, follow-up interviews, writing, editing. For her, it was a 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 Podcasts 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: 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 is 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.”

On “low barriers to entry” [by Caroline Crampton]. There was a familiar line in the intro to Time’s “Best Podcasts of 2018” list that came out last week, perhaps you’ve heard of it: “Unlike film, television, or music, there’s a low barrier to entry in the podcasting world: All you need is a microphone and someone to speak into it.”

It’s a stubbornly persistent idea — the notion that, theoretically speaking, all you’d need to make a podcast is a voice recording app on your phone and the ability to add an MP3 file to an RSS feed, podcasting is a more accessible kind of media than, say, television or radio.

This idea is widespread across podcast coverage within general interest publications over the past few years, to the point where it feels like it’s been accepted without further comment. It’s just one of those things people say about audio, like the fact that it’s an “intimate medium,” or that it needed a Serial-sized hit to take it mainstream.

Full disclosure, lest I come off too holier-than-thou: I’ve written all of these things myself in pieces more than once, without really thinking about what I actually mean by them. Which is to say, the point of this column is not to shade anyone who has ever thought or written or used those phrases. Rather, I’d like to pause and take stock of this idea that podcasting is more accessible than other types of publishing, and see if it really measures up to the audio world as we find it today.

To be frank, I do feel like there’s a grain of truth in this idea. In theory, you can use a voice memo app (or something like Anchor), record straight into a phone, edit a bit, and then upload your file to a host to distribute it as a podcast. You don’t need to know how to operate a fancy mixing desk or meet a network executive in order to get your podcast listed in the Apple Podcasts store. So in that most basic sense: Yes, the barriers to entry are low. (It’s worth remembering, though, that you can also put a video on YouTube or an essay on a blog in the same way, so even on a literal level this ease of use isn’t a unique facet of podcasting. Welcome to the internet!)

But then there’s the issue of quality. Just because you can create a podcast in this easy, did-it-on-a-whim-on-the-bus-home kind of a way doesn’t necessarily mean it will garner you any listeners. Quality speaks, and the resources that tend to engender quality are most likely to be found in the offices of the increasing number of professional podcast publishers. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t remember the last time a genuine garage-made podcast by someone with no previous connections or fame in the broader media sphere made it big.)

Whether you buy into the Serial boom or not (which remains, interestingly enough, a contested idea in some corners of podcast-land), it’s indisputably the case that more people listen to podcasts in 2018 than they did five years ago, and that general awareness of the form is higher. As a result, you could infer that listeners nowadays have more choice and are more discerning. The opportunity for a new podcaster with ambitions to one day top the charts to spend a dozen episodes learning how to use their editing software and find their voice is much diminished. To have a chance at turning a show into something successful, and by which I mean in this instance something financially and creatively sustainable, it generally has to hit its mark early on. That isn’t a low barrier, I think.

And of course the flip-side of the “all podcasts have equal chances of becoming successful” thesis is that all podcasts are competing equally for the same real estate in listeners’ smartphones. To those who made them, the difference between an NPR production and their friend’s mum’s cooking show might seem obvious, but from the consumer’s perspective, the initial choice whether or not to download them doesn’t necessarily feature such a wide chasm.

This idea of “success” is interesting to me. What do we mean by a “successful” podcast? For the plenty who make audio professionally, the conversation tends to revolve around talk of revenue and downloads in the hundreds of thousands. For those who record and edit in their spare time, it might simply be being able to cover their costs through a crowdfunding campaign, or just getting a half-hour episode out every month for their friends to hear. These two states are worlds apart, but the fact that both tend to get lumped together sometimes undermines this idea of podcasting’s accessibility.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that we kind of want to infer a rags-to-riches story from this strange little world we inhabit. We like to think that this isn’t an industry with commercial motivations and implicit biases like any other, but instead a new way of doing things. Maybe it’s analogous to the blind belief in the idea that talent is all you need to make it in Hollywood — the belief that has young people moving to L.A. and waiting tables into middle age. We like the idea that, theoretically, anyone talking to a friend into a smartphone could be about to release the next WTF with Marc Maron, even though there are a lot of practical and structural reasons why that probably isn’t the case.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting podcasting to be open to everyone — quite the reverse. The difficulty creeps in, I think, when the unquestioned assumption that there are few barriers standing between the amateur and audio superstardom leads to a lack of critique of the industry as it is. As has been written about plenty of times before, the professional arm of podcasting and radio exhibits many of the same gender, race, and class discriminations as other parts of the media. There aren’t enough points of entry, full stop, let alone for those without personal contacts already in the business or the private money to support themselves through years of internships and badly paid low-level gigs.

While the technological barriers to podcasting might remain low, I don’t think it’s the case anymore that a homegrown, amateur podcast can become a commercial success overnight, (If it ever could — I’m deeply unsure about this.) The lingering belief in this fairytale could well be holding back a more productive, concerted effort to genuinely improve access to the space. Structural change, difficult and slow as it can be, is what will really lower the barriers to achieving podcasting success.

Tracking:

  • Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a great profile on Guy Raz, the prolific podcast host [and former Nieman Fellow] with a trademark sound of inquisitiveness. The profile, written by Nellie Bowles (who, by the way, has long been excellent on the Silicon Valley beat) offers this noteworthy data point: Raz’s three podcasts for NPR (How I Built This, TED Radio Hour, and Wow in the World) are said to have “a combined monthly audience of 19.2 million downloads,” which, if matched against the Podtrac ranker’s global unique download number of above 165 million in October, means Raz is responsible for roughly 10 percent of the organization’s podcast downloads. That’s especially notable when you consider that Raz, largely a product of the NPR system, isn’t quite so exclusive to NPR any longer: Earlier this fall, Spotify launched The Rewind with Guy Raz, a music interview show.
  • ICYMI: “Earlonne Woods, Co-Host Of Ear Hustle Podcast, Gets Prison Sentence Commuted.” Here’s the NPR report on the story.
  • Just a reminder: The Washington Post will launch its own daily news podcast, Post Reports, on Monday. It will target the evening commute with a 5 p.m. ET drop time, and according to Digiday, the team is apparently estimating 1 million downloads per month to start.
  • The BBC has launched EastEnders: The Podcast, a companion to the London-based soap that has been on the air since 1985. In a break from the traditional TV companion podcast, this one will feature “breakout audio dramas closely linked to ongoing storylines” on the show and featuring the TV actors, rather than analysis or criticism. There’s a teaser up here, and the first episode goes out on November 28.
  • Bravo’s TV adaptation of Dirty John is out now, to mixed reviews. Of all the pod-to-TV takes that were pegged to the launch, I thought Alison Herman’s, over at The Ringer, was the best.
  • Don’t miss Sarah Larson’s latest review for the New Yorker website, on WBUR and The Boston Globe’s Last Seen.

Call for navel-gazing. We’re barreling to the end of the year, and there are three more Tuesday Hot Pod newsletters to go. Maybe because I’m turning 30 next year (and therefore increasingly aware of time and finality and mortality), I’m turned a little more introspective and will be spending the next few issues going back over some of the bigger stories and revisiting some trends/ideas that popped over the year.

And I’d love to hear what you think: What did you think were the biggest stories from the year? In your mind, how did 2018 work out for podcasting as a whole? For you? Let me know: nick (at) hotpodmedia (dot) com.

Photo illustration derived from the 1967 Patterson–Gimlin film allegedly showing a wild…thing.

POSTED     Nov. 27, 2018, 10:27 a.m.
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