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Oct. 2, 2015, 9:57 a.m.
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The Chicago Podcast Cooperative wants to let independent audio thrive in the Windy City

Created by Cards Against Humanity, the network wants to connect local podcasts to local advertisers and make it a little easier for creative people to stay in town.

If not for Cards Against Humanity’s new inhouse studio, the Chicago Podcast Cooperative may never have been born. The card game company, known for providing some of the more terrifying ways to bond with other humans, had outgrown its old offices and renovated a 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood in 2014.

It’s a space designed for growth, with more room for the company as it considers new projects, but also coworking spaces, a “Moroccan room,” a theater, and, yes, a podcasting studio. All the luxuries of a young startup, but with amenities designed to help the next maker build a project of their own. “We felt in terms of being part of an independent arts scene and independent creative scene it would be important,” said Max Temkin, cofounder of Cards Against Humanity.

And that includes podcasts. The studio allowed Cards Against Humanity to record its own programs, but they clearly wouldn’t need the space every hour of the day. Temkin had an idea to reach out to local podcast producers: “The quality [of shows] is really good and we saw an opportunity with people making more niche shows with a small audience not in a position to connect with sponsors,” Temkin said. And the Chicago Podcast Cooperative was born.

That was this past winter; today the cooperative has 30 shows that it supports through a local sponsorship network. With the growing popularity of podcasts, there’s no shortage of the networks popping up to locate, promote, and distribute shows. But the cooperative is somewhat unique in its narrower focus on the 312 area code.

More than just a studio resource and connector of talent, the cooperative also sells advertising across its collection of shows, bringing together local podcasts and local businesses. The model is a simple one, as described on the cooperative’s website:

Here’s how it works. Sponsors pay into the cooperative each month to form a fund. Podcasts sign up to read a 140-character pre-roll ad. We pay podcasts a flat $50 per episode. Pretty simple.

Getting into the business of podcasts and creating an advertising network is no small task. But Temkin said Cards Against Humanity was in a perfect position because it was familiar with local producers and other Chicago businesses: “We found ourselves in the position of being a good matchmaker,” he said.

Claire Friedman, an experience manager at Cards Against Humanity who oversees the cooperative, said the local focus is a benefit for both podcast producers and sponsors who might otherwise fly under the radar. The expansion in podcasts has created more competition for listeners and advertisers, which can be tough for shows that are relatively young or small in audience. “With podcasting, the barrier for entry is so low that the barrier can be ‘I can’t pay hosting fees’ or ‘I can’t afford a microphone nicer than my computer,'” Friedman said.

The cooperative can give shows a slight edge through access to a professional studio and consistent, if small, ad support. Temkin said it made sense to go out to a small collection of businesses to see if there was support for local podcast sponsorships. Companies like Basecamp, Field Notes, and Iron Galaxy are among those who’ve signed up, with each spending around $500 in advertising across the network, according to Temkin. All money goes directly into the shows; the cooperative does not take a cut.

Temkin said the short distance between the sponsor and producer, and the influence of the Chicago community, can make for a stronger message and connection to audiences.

Elizabeth Cambridge, host of Random Conversations with Elizabeth, said the backing of the cooperative is important for audio producers just starting out and can provide some confidence. “It’s nice,” said Cambridge, “while doing my dream, to support someone else’s dream, and their local business. That’s a nice thing.”

Cambridge works at a real estate brokerage for her day job, but said she’s wanted to see if she could host and produce her own podcast. “Growing up, I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. And life didn’t go that way,” Cambridge says with a laugh.

As an independent podcast producer, Cambridge says her instinct is to use Google to troubleshoot any problems she encounters. But as a part of the cooperative she says she looks forward to tapping others in the network for advice and expertise.

Arnie Niekamp works at a game company, but has done improv in Chicago for a number of years. While he’s dabbled in podcasts before, he wanted to create a show that would be fun showcase for him and other performers. “I just had an idea I wanted to do a slightly weird kind of show,” said Niekamp, creator of Hello from the Magic Tavern. “It seems like new shows need to do something weird or high concept to get any kind of attention.”

The show, as the name suggests, takes place at a tavern in a magical land — in this case called Foon, accessed through a dimensional portal in the parking lot of a Chicagoland Burger King — and features a number of guests, all played by local improv performers Niekamp knows. “My podcast purports to be in a magical land and everything is not real, so doing traditional sponsorships would be pretty tough,” he says.

Niekamp admits $50 an episode isn’t a lot of money, though it can help cover some of the costs of the show. But Niekamp said advertising is a kind of signifier in this case. “It was great for us to have a sponsor for that first episode,” he said. “It felt like it gave us an air of legitimacy to some extent. Especially when we didn’t know if anyone was going to be listening.”

The show has steadily grown an audience and has been featured in places like BuzzFeed and The AV Club. This year Niekamp and the cast also did a live show at the XOXO Festival.

As the show continues to grow, that could mean new opportunities for revenue to support the show. Niekamp said he hopes the cooperative will continue to expand and look for additional ways to support shows.

For now, Friedman said the plan is to keep the cooperative relatively small and locally focused as they figure out what the future looks like. While they’ve received requests from shows outside Illinois, the goal has been to help local business support local shows, she said. “We want to keep it just for the people in Chicago.”

Temkin said they see it as a way to support the creative scene in the city, especially comedians looking to improve their visibility. Podcasts can be a great showcase for someone working in improv and provide a lasting space for people to discover talent without having to make a show at a club like Second City.

“It’s tough to have a breakout hit and when you do, you may move away to New York or L.A.,” he said. “Small things like this we can do to make it easier to make a living as an artists in Chicago and stay here are important.”

Photo of the Chicago skyline by Jamie McCaffrey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 2, 2015, 9:57 a.m.
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