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April 16, 2019, 10:52 a.m.

Is Mailchimp ready to dive back into podcasts in a big way?

Plus: How independent podcasters make money, Snap Judgment expands to a new platform, and Macs are getting a separate Podcasts app.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 204, published April 16, 2019.

Vox Media acquires Epic. This one came in overnight: For the uninitiated, Epic is the…I guess they call themselves a “content studio,” but it’s more specifically a firm that sources and produces longform stories that can eventually be spun out as adapted properties for print, television, and film. (One such notable project: “Argo,” later turned into the Ben Affleck Oscar vehicle.) They also do branded content work via Epic Digital. The company was founded in 2013 by the journalists Josh Davis and Joshuah Bearman, though I feel like I’ve been following this company for much longer than that.

Anyway, why is this relevant to pods? According to the press email I got: “Vox Media will now move into scripted while tapping Epic’s team to continue doing what they’re best at — hunting down dynamic stories, bringing them to life via the written word and expanding them through podcasts, premium documentaries and TV.” Emphasis mine.

Here’s the Hollywood Reporter with the writeup.

The Podcast Consumer 2019. Been thinking: Do I really need to write up a whole in-depth thing on Edison Research’s annual podcast-specific follow-up to its Infinite Dial report, a.k.a. The Podcast Consumer 2019? Do you really need that? Look, you could just read it yourself, and I think other places have picked up the slack on this — though some are going to spin it the way they’re going to spin it — so I’m just going to raise two issues today.

First, I’ll float the reminder that, aside from demographic stuff, the findings should be read as the respondents’ interpretation of the questions and their provision of answers according to their own personal assumption frameworks. With that in mind, I think the most useful thing about these studies is the extent to which it illuminates the gap between how podcasting thinks about itself and how normal people think about podcasting, which, you know, is very probably the No. 1 gap that needs to be closed right quick.

And second, I’ll hit the five data points I think are the most important:

  • The most prominent reason folks who have never listened to a podcast give, by far: “Podcasts just aren’t for you” (75 percent).
  • Among monthly podcast consumers, only 10 percent list smart speakers as the device they most use to listen to podcasts. Which is larger than I expected, given the sandpaper experience of consuming podcasts over smart speakers.
  • 43 percent of monthly podcast consumers say they’ve tried listening via Spotify, and 35 percent say they’ve tried via Pandora. Interestingly, this is more a win for Pandora, in my mind.
  • The monthly podcast listener demographic grew a little more male over the past year, now at 54 percent up from 52 percent as listed in last year’s report. Whether this is a longer-term trend, we’ll find out next year. Also, unless I’m mistaken, I think this is the first time the report has included race/ethnicity breakdowns; the listenership is listed as 66 percent white, above the 57 percent of the general U.S. population. So, quite white indeed.
  • Astonishingly (to me, at least), 70 percent of monthly listeners say they sometimes listen to podcasts without doing anything else, which I thought only weirdos like myself do.

Also worth noting: Edison’s ~Share of Ear~ findings, which includes the data point that share of time spent listening to podcasts among Americans aged 13-plus has risen by 122 percent between 2014 and 2018. Yowza.

Okay, here’s the report again. Godspeed.

Mailchimp’s changing relationship. Here’s a joke that folks persist making in my general direction: “Once Mailchimp stops advertising, will the podcast industry just collapse?” (In fact, I heard it just last week! Alas, my eyes, they have lost all motor function required to roll.) The snark is, for the most part, a testament to the skepticism that continues to pervade the podcast business, built on the increasingly wobbly assumption that the market is only supported by a handful of players.

On my more generous days, though, I prefer to focus more on how it expresses Mailchimp’s storied stature as an early podcast advertiser. The Atlanta-based email newsletter giant was part of the generation of direct-response advertisers — see also: Squarespace and Stamps.com, among others — that bought into the space early and heavily, reaping tremendous value to the point of becoming somewhat synonymous with podcasting itself. (I’ll skip the Mailkimp anecdote, you probably know that one already.)

But here’s the thing: Mailchimp has already been scaling down its podcast buys for quite some time now. “It’s definitely not a core part of our evergreen mix as it used to be,” Mark DiCristina, Mailchimp’s senior director of brand marketing, told me. “We were really successful with podcast advertising, but obviously the industry grew and matured like crazy…it’s become much more expensive to have the kind of impact we’ve had in a way that’s scalable at all.”

Which is why they’re shifting gears a bit as they return to the fold. Yesterday, the newsletter giant rolled out an original podcast of their own, an interview series called Going Through It, and from what I’m told, it’s the first of many more to come.

Hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Ann Friedman and produced by Pineapple Street, Going Through It features interviews with notable women discussing pivotal moments in their lives, careers, and relationships — decision points, as it were, about whether to quit or keep going. The interviewee list includes Hillary Clinton, the writer Rebecca Traister, chef and author Samin Nosrat (who’s having such a moment right now!), the investor and activist Ellen Pao, and recent congressional contender Audri Scott Williams. The entire podcast dropped yesterday.

Going Through It is the first of further Mailchimp editorial efforts to come. Mailchimp’s media adventures draw some inspiration from Red Bull’s now well-cited brand marketing exploits, in that it’s seeking to create media experiences that can stand alone and generate positive halo effects back unto the brand itself. It’s the assumption of the studio model, where the company itself is going out to develop what they perceive to be fully editorial projects and directly compete in the attention marketplace. (Personally, I tend to see these efforts as considerably distinct from “branded content” as we conventionally think of it — though the adjudication of such differences tends to lie with tone, comport, and execution. That hair-splitting might mean nothing to you, but it does to some, so I thought I’d mention it.) At this writing, DiCristina’s team is exploring the possibility of producing short-form episodic video as well. “We’re not trying to Netflix or Hulu or anything,” said DiCristina. “Our audience is pretty busy, so we’re thinking about more snackable things that people can chew on in between things.”

We’ll learn more about a few other original podcast projects in the pipeline in the days to come, but for now, I wanted to know if Mailchimp plans to go back to buying more podcast ads straight-up again. The answer, it seems, is probably, to some extent.

“We take a very different approach than most advertisers in that we see ourselves more of a patron — we’re more like, ‘Let’s find some shows we really believe in that’s aligned with our target audience, and let’s really work with them and help [them] grow,'” said DiCristina. “Podcasting is a much different space now than when we started supporting shows in 2010…it’s just a much larger market now, and there’s less opportunity to do stuff like that.”

Podcasting will remain some part of their marketing mix, sure, particularly when it comes to seasonal campaigns. (Also worth noting: They’ll be taking out podcast ads to promote their original podcasts.) It’s just that the company’s relationship with podcasting will increasingly be more as a studio and a creator.

“We definitely have been pretty quiet in the podcast world for a couple of years,” said DiCristina. “And I hope that Mailchimp becomes synonymous with podcasts again, but in a different way.”

IP slingin’. Here’s something that will excite the pop culturati: Deadline reported last week that Hulu has ordered a limited series based on ABC’s Theranos podcast The Dropout, and it will star Kate McKinnon as Elizabeth Holmes.

If you, like me, can’t get enough of Theranos scam content (scamtent?), you probably know that there’s already a Theranos film in development by Adam McKay based on Bad Blood, the definitive nonfiction book by The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, who broke the story. If you, like me, were wondering how IP stuff works in this scenario where multiple projects are being developed on the same real-world event, a veteran of the process explained to me: IP-selling is based on the generated media product — in this case The Dropout and Bad Blood, packaged and sold as two separate competing properties.

You might ask, then: Are there any IP protections, in general, for journalists who break a story? Alas, doesn’t seem like it.

Got this email from WBEZ last week: “Azka is a five-year-old from Des Plaines, Illinois who has a life-threatening metabolic disorder. She loves listening to podcasts and has a dream that she would like to make her own mystery podcast. Today, Make-A-Wish Illinois made that happen. She came into WBEZ’s studios to record and produce Azka’s Mystery Podcast. Here’s a link to her episode, “The Stealer of the Diamonds,” based on a story she wrote and narrated by herself! She wants to get her podcast out there and her family has set up an email address for listener feedback.”

Notes from Snap Nation’s Intergalactic Star Command. Snap Judgment has come a long way since winning PRX’s Public Radio Talent Quest in 2007. A creature of both analog and digital these days, the show currently hits over 1.4 million people on its weekly broadcast and brings in over 2 million podcast downloads per month. It is a staple of public radio station programming mixes across the country, and remains one of its more ear-catching offerings: fun, pulsing, distinctly alive.

The Oakland-based production has also consistently been one of the more innovative teams in public radio. It’s the kind of shop that pursued a multiplatform approach way back in 2010 — you know, long before it was cool — when it launched a simultaneous mix of live shows and television piloting to accompany its core weekly programming. It’s also the kind of place that fosters the future, with an alumni body that includes Roman Mars, Stephanie Foo, and Julia Dewitt.

Snap continues to tinker even as it gets older, and we see that in recent weeks with the launch of a new Patreon account: Snap Nation, a membership program that offers Snap super-fans a look behind the scenes. In their configuration, supporters can choose from three membership tiers: $5 a month (dubbed the “Snap Passport”), $18 a month (“Snap Nation Ambassador”), and a high jump up to $101 a month (the appropriately labelled “Snap Nation Intergalactic Star Command”) with commensurate benefits like sneak peeks, bonus content, and ringtones to reward them for their patronage.

Glynn Washington, the show’s host and co-executive producer, tells me they’re being patient with this move. “We are taking our time to slow-walk the campaign and leverage the relationship we have developed over years of storytelling,” he said.

Patreon may be a new platform for Snap Judgment, but listener support is most definitely not. Direct listener support has long made up a good chunk of the production’s revenue mix, which is further complemented by podcast advertising and public radio carriage fees. (For those curious: Those carriage fees currently takes up less than a third of the show’s funding these days.)

This is obvious, but I should say it nonetheless: Snap Nation is far from the only podcast Patreon effort out there, and it’s definitely not among the first. You have, of course, your Chapo Trap Houses and Crime Junkieses and Sam Harrises (though, now distinctly not on Patreon) and Anfield Wraps of the world. And it’s also worth noting that Patreon itself has recently put some effort into formalizing its podcast community. Snap’s Patreon push also comes at a time where interest in direct support and membership across the podcast industry is on the up and up, driven in part by anxiety over whatever might happen with the advertising market following the deepening encroachment of platforms.

But Snap Nation is very much of a piece with Snap Judgment’s general taste for operational diversification. I’ve already mentioned the live shows and early television piloting stuff, but you should also be reminded of their efforts with Spooked, the spinoff podcast fueled by the premise of their Halloween specials. Spooked was originally released out in the open podcast ecosystem, distributed by WNYC Studios, where it contended for advertising dollars, and soon, it will release its latest season behind the Luminary paywall, which brings to the production a whole other revenue stream. They’re also working on a wide raft of new projects, with plans to launch between two to five new podcasts by the end of this year alone.

I asked Washington for his thoughts on how things have changed over the past decade and how all the recent changes in the industry has made him feel. These days, “it’s easier to create projects when you no longer have to explain what a podcast — but it’s harder to break through the noise,” he replied.

“I feel that everything has changed, and nothing at all has changed. Every single episode still starts with a blank canvas, and I still have absolutely no idea how we are going to fill it. The big difference is that we have a team, and the team is made of magic.”

Making money: Part 2 [by Caroline Crampton]. Today I’m continuing my multipart look at the different ways podcasters make money from their shows. You can catch up on the first part of the series, an interview with The Bright Sessions (and now Luminary) creator Lauren Shippen, here. This time, I’m looking at the options open to independent podcasters making their first steps towards monetization.

I have a personal interest in this because I’ve just been through this process myself. I’ve been making podcasts professionally for about five years now, though until recently they were always on behalf of a big organization. Last autumn, I felt pretty burned out, unmotivated to keep producing audio I had little creative control over.

My solution was to start my own independent podcast. (Let’s not talk about how little sense it makes to combat burnout by doing more unpaid work). In part, I just wanted to experiment and make all my own decisions. But I also had a secondary motivation: I write about the podcast industry, and I wanted to know what it was like to make a small-scale podcast all by myself — and to see how that contrasted with what I’d found within existing media companies and with a budget provided by someone else.

I gave myself a time budget of six months: That’s how long I would make it without any expectation of revenue and consider the experience valuable in its own right. After that, I’d have to either stop or find a way for it to pay its way. My podcast Shedunnit launched in October 2018. (I love classic detective fiction, hence the topic and the name.) It went as well as I could have hoped, in the sense that it found some listeners, got some nice reviews (and an award nomination!), and gave me back a feeling of creative interest in my work.

Now I’m right up against my self-imposed six-month deadline. I don’t really want to stop making the podcast, because it’s mostly a lot of fun and I’ve loved connecting with other mystery fans from around the world. But I also can’t afford to make such a time-intensive show for free. (I estimate that each episode takes me about 30 hours to do, from research to interviews to cutting tape to editing to scoring to mixing to publicity.)

I don’t think this is an unusual situation to be in, which is why I wanted to document this moment for others. What are the monetization options open to an independent podcaster with a show that’s reached roughly 5,000 to 10,000 downloads per episode? Let’s take a look.

Advertising and sponsorships. This is the obvious place to start — the industry largely runs on advertising, after all. But my podcast has far too few listeners to be in the running for the sort of ads that would come anywhere near to paying me to make it. There are two main third-party platforms where I’m based in the U.K. which I could get to monetize my show in this way — Acast and Audioboom — but the conventional wisdom is that 10,000 downloads per episode, if not more, is required to make a proper go of it.

Also, each of those companies would take a substantial cut of any revenue they brought in, meaning that I’d probably need to more than double my audience making a meaningful amount of money this way. I could let them inject pre-recorded spots into my episodes while I wait for more listeners to show up, but that would bring in such a tiny amount of money that I don’t think it’d be worth disrupting the show for. For those same reasons of scale, my podcast isn’t an attractive potential addition to any networks that organize sponsorships across multiple shows, even if I was interested in giving up total independence in my quest for monetization.

My final option in this area is to go out and find sponsors myself among smaller brands or creators who might be interested in my niche (but extremely engaged) audience. That’s certainly something I could explore — I could research independent Etsy sellers, say, who make a product that might fit with my podcast, and contact enough of them that I eventually generate some sponsorship leads. Essentially, I could become my own business manager.

But that doesn’t appeal to me at all, although it may work for some. Partly it’s because I don’t have any skills or experience in this area, and partly it’s because awarding myself another role would more than double the amount of time I spend on the podcast. I could probably bring in enough this way to cover the time I spend finding and working with the sponsors — but I’d still be making the podcast itself for free. Which leads me on to the major problem with my next potential monetization route.

Crowdfunding. When I’ve sought advice from other independent podcasters, this is the solution that comes up most often. “Just do a Patreon!,” people say cheerfully, surprised when I pull a skeptical face. For many, it seems like seeking financial support directly from listeners is the way out of this “big but not big enough” band of audience size. That’s totally valid, but it’s also an option that contains a lot of hidden work.

For those who produce seasonally, Kickstarter can be a good option, allowing a single crowdfunding push to create a budget for a whole run of episodes, but that’s not how I make my podcast. For regularly publishing podcasts, Patreon is the platform of choice, since it allows a podcaster to accept either monthly or per episode contributions at a variety of levels and in return for various rewards.

It’s this latter aspect, mostly, that gives me pause about Patreon. (I’m also not wild in general about third-party systems whose main revenue stream is taking a cut of your revenue stream, but that’s probably a bigger question for another time.) I could certainly set up a page, define tiers, and promise rewards — bonus podcast episodes, extra access to the host, and merchandise are the most common rewards I see.

But this has the same issue as finding my own sponsors. The time it would take me to create and/or dispatch such rewards would be paid for by the Patreon money, but the podcast itself would still be happening for free. I’d also be completely exposed to any future changes that Patreon choose to make in their technology or pricing (as we saw back in March, the company is now experimenting with different ways of charging creators). If the company pivots or disappears, so would all my future income.

An additional issue for me, which may not be the case for other shows at this level, is that around 40 percent of respondents in a recent audience survey I did for my podcast had never even heard of Patreon. Judging by the answers to the demographic questions, I have a sizeable number of older listeners for whom mine is the first podcast they’ve tried, and I really didn’t want to make my primary monetization option something that such a substantial slice of my audience was unfamiliar with.

Additional products. A lot of podcasts of a similar size to mine act as lead generation tools for their creators’ other business interests. That might be anything from selling books to an online therapy service to a brick-and-mortar store — the point is that the podcast isn’t fully monetized because it acts as a funnel towards other paying work. And that’s a really good way of getting around the problems I’ve highlighted above, because it means that the work done on the podcast itself is paid for without the need to add on other products or labor beyond a “Hey, did you know I have an ebook?” or “Come to my pop-up” shoutout. It doesn’t work for me though, sadly, because I don’t have a mystery novel-related business empire I’m shilling for. (Yet — give me time.)

I would put merch in this category of monetization too, because when it’s done right, selling t-shirts, mugs, badges, and all the other usual podcast swag is a lot of work. Designing and sourcing good and ethical products, managing a supply chain, distributing and shipping the items — it’s a whole job unto itself, and it’s not one I’m equipped to do by myself. I’ve always been very inspired by the Call Your Girlfriend podcast team in this regard, who didn’t start offering merch until their business could support hiring someone to be in charge of it, in recognition of that fact that it (a) requires a whole different set of skills to making a podcast and (b) it’s a ton of work that should be properly compensated, whoever ends up doing it.

Live shows. Selling tickets for live tapings or connected events could be a good revenue stream. But I’m not an events marketer by profession, nor do I have the time to become my own agent and booker. I think I could muddle through and just about compensate myself for the time I spend organizing and doing the show, but I’d still be backstage trying to edit a new episode of the podcast itself last minute, and that work would still be happening for free.

Conclusions. If this reads like a long list of me saying no to things, that’s because, well, it is. I’m lucky to be in a position where I get to think about this stuff out loud, but as I’ve been deliberating among all my various options, it’s felt like quite a negative process. Attracting thousands of regular listeners to a podcast in its first six months of existence feels like something that should have some value attached to it, and yet every avenue I’ve considered seems to require me to do extra work that I’ll get paid for, while the podcast itself — the thing people actually want and listen to — remains something I have to do for free. That doesn’t feel right to me somehow, and I hope it’s something that will change as the podcast industry continues to develop. Perhaps smaller brands will get into buying sponsorships on small- to medium-sized shows, or a new layer of semi-professional collectives will spring up who can band together on this to reduce the overheads on merchandise and so on. But whatever it is, it’s not here yet.

So I’ve decided to go old school. I thought back to the time I’ve felt most passionately engaged with something that someone was doing for free, and realized that it was when I was at secondary school and some of my friends were in a band I really loved. They did play some paying gigs, but our town wasn’t large and they were teenagers who couldn’t travel far to venues. They also needed money in order to buy new guitar strings and recording sessions. It was 2003 and all their loyal fans had dialup modems at home, though, so they started an online listening club. I was a proud founding member, and I spent hours a day on the forum talking to fellow fans and discussing the unheard session recordings that the club got access to.

I realized that’s the kind of experience I want for my podcast — that the people who are really passionate about it can choose to pay to keep it going, and in return, they get a space to love it and feel part of it. The podcast is all about books, so what I’m creating is a book club. I’m using Memberful to run the payment side of this, Discourse to run the forum, and WordPress to deliver the website where it all lives (if you’re interested, you can see what I’ve set up here). I might still dabble in advertising, merchandise, or events in the future — who knows? — but my primary revenue stream will be firmly connected to the actual podcast that I make, and it will live on a platform that I’m in control of. For me, that’s the best that I can do.

Tracking

  • ICYMI: 9to5Mac’s Guilherme Rambo confirmed the iOS developer Steve Troughton-Smith’s indication that Apple is indeed planning to break up iTunes and spin out standalone Music, Podcasts, and TV apps for desktop in the next macOS update. (Also, the Books app is getting a redesign.) Also also, on a separate note: Apple Podcasts now supports web playback, along with a few other listening UX tweaks in the desktop experience.
  • The Peabody Award nominees were announced last week, and among the picks in the Radio/Podcast category were: APM Reports’ In The Dark season 2, The New York Times’ Caliphate and The Daily, MSNBC’s Bag Man, Radiotopia’s Ear Hustle, and Michigan Radio’s Believed. Notably, all of the picks were nonfiction narrative pieces. Winners will be announced on May 18.
  • From Billboard: “Amazon in Talks to Launch Ad-Supported Music Offering.”
  • Enjoyed this mini-profile of Joanna Robinson, one of my favorite culture writers, in the San Francisco Chronicle’s Datebook.
  • Looks like Crooked Media is looking to make a daily news podcast, and they’re on the hunt for a host. I dunno; isn’t Pod Save America near-daily anyway?
  • Transgenesis, a new sci-fi drama podcast from iHeartRadio that was due to start releasing episodes on April 15, has postponed release and is returning to work on the show some more after trans activists and allies on social media called out its central premise (which is concerned with hybrid humans and aquatic monsters known as “transgens” and “cisgens”) as transphobic.
  • Oh boy. From The Verge: “Eight months after YouTube banned Alex Jones, the far-right conspiracy theorist returned to YouTube to sit down with Logan Paul for a two-hour episode of his podcast Impaulsive…This marked the second time in a month that Jones was allowed to appear on a popular YouTube personality’s channel, following a four-hour appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast in February.”

Release notes

  • Looks like The Atlantic is starting to work on a new limited-run narrative podcast project, their first. It will be reported and hosted by Vann R. Newkirk, executive produced by Katherine Wells, and it’s set to examine the aftermath and response to Hurricane Katrina. Oh, and I hear they’re on the hunt for a full-time producer to work on it.
  • Some news from Stable Genius Productions, the shop started by WNYC alums Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant: Their show with Radiotopia, ZigZag, dropped its fourth season last week and they’re bringing back Note to Self behind the Luminary paywall in partnership with WNYC Studios.
  • Bloomberg News’ series on the gender pay gap, The Pay Check, returned for a second season last week, focusing its attention on how motherhood impacts the gap.
  • Everybody, truly, has a true crime podcast now, even Dr. Phil. That show is called Analysis of Murder by Dr. Phil, it’s developed in partnership with Stitcher, and it drops on April 25. Oh, and that’s separate from the more generalized podcast he’s doing, called Phil in the Blanks.

Photo illustration based on photo by Tomas used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 16, 2019, 10:52 a.m.
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