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May 7, 2019, 10:51 a.m.

Planting seeds: The new Podfund wants to invest in early-stage podcasts

Plus: Luminary fixes its link issue, an NPR snafu blows up your podcast app, and how a British soccer show went indie.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 208, published May 7, 2019.

Luminary cleans up its show notes links situation. As has been widely reported, Luminary was until very recently removing links from the show notes of podcast episodes displayed in its apps. The broad reason given for this was “security,” a pronouncement which raised eyebrows across the podcast industry, especially since other apps (including Apple Podcasts) manage to display podcasters’ links without difficulty. The links issue was problematic because sponsor and affiliate links are often a big part of how podcasts monetize; removing them didn’t exactly help burnish the company’s credentials as a neutral podcatcher at a time when there were also question marks over its caching practices.

But according to Luminary chief strategy officer Joe Purzycki, the removal of links has now ceased. Clickable links will shortly be rolled out into Luminary’s iOS and Android apps, and will be available “via copy and paste” on their web player, with a better solution to follow. Another commonly reported issue will also be addressed by this update, he said, with a fix to show’s author metadata so that the correct creator is credited for each podcast. (They were previously displaying a show’s owner rather than its author tag.) There’s further technical information in his post here.

Note the link on “here.”

Purzycki’s tone is also notable. It’s apologetic and, apparently, humble. “We now fully understand the ramifications of those decisions and we apologize for our short-sightedness,” he writes. “We hope these fixes make it clear that we want to listen to the podcasting community as we continue to grow and develop our platform…We want to continue to listen, iterate, and improve.”

It’s a marked shift from the company’s earlier communication style, although it remains to be seen whether it will help them mend broken fences. There’s an argument that the listening and learning should have started a long time ago.

Seed investing, but for podcasts. A new startup called Podfund has launched with a plan to “invest in creators that are poised for growth.” Interestingly enough, Podfund is headed up by Jake Shapiro, the CEO of RadioPublic, and the startup is positioning itself as “a strategic partner” of Shapiro’s podcast platform. The fund will operate on a for-profit basis — a reminder that RadioPublic is also a for-profit entity in the form of a public benefit corporation — but it intends to work on “creator-friendly terms,” allowing the podcasters that receive funding to retain complete ownership of their shows and the right to distribute as they choose. (Those terms, by the way, are available to read in full on the Podfund website.)

To start off, it has raised $2.3 million in seed funding.

The fund has apparently been operating for a while no under the radar, having already made investments in Malcolm Gladwell and Jacob Weisberg’s Pushkin Industries, Middle-East based company Kerning Cultures, Jake Brennan’s Disgraceland, and Erica Mandy’s The Newsworthy. Applications are now open to the wider industry, and investments will generally range from $25,000 to $50,000, though larger amounts and/or equity arrangements are possible if appropriate.

In exchange for this initial investment, Podfund will take between 7 and 15 percent of the creator’s revenue for between three and five years, “depending on current traction, revenue, and projected growth.” Initial selections for funding are likely to be from U.S.-based creators, but the intention is to open the fund up to international applications once the financial logistics have been worked out.

The aim, Shapiro told me yesterday, was to address the “common pain points” that creators with growing shows experience when trying to level up — to add another option in between raising venture capital or solo bootstrapping. “There aren’t that many sources of this kind of aligned support,” he said. “Usually, you would face a tradeoff or a steep hill to either join one of the very small number of networks or have some deal with a platform, where there are significant tradeoffs in terms of your independence or what you’re giving away for that kind of investment.”

There’s definitely a need there — I’ve been covering these economic pain points for podcasters extensively in a recurring column for this newsletter over the past few weeks, and it’s been a general theme for Hot Pod as long as it’s been around — but I can’t help feeling wary of the idea that importing venture-style funding into actual podcast creation is the solution these problems, even if it does come without some of the more aggressive terms around ownership. No doubt the funding will be a boon to the creators selected, but it does feel like the fund (as with all investments of this kind) will still be in the business of picking winners and losers, helping some to bypass those pain points rather than shifting the system to eradicate them altogether.

Another aspect that Podfund hopes to offer to the creators it selects is a peer group. Nicola Korzenko, who serves as the startup’s general manager, said that they want to build a community for those “who don’t feel connected properly to the podcast ecosystem, because they don’t come from public radio, they aren’t friends with fancy producers or the inner circle, whatever that is…We’re hoping that this helps a generation of podcasters make it work and give them the fulfillment and careers that they’re hoping to build.”

Korzenko says this as a newcomer to podcasting herself, having joined Podfund from Amazon Prime Video, with previous stints at the talent agency CAA and early-stage VC fund Lerer Hippeau.

This combination of financial + administrative + community support makes Podfund sound a bit like a podcast network, albeit one with non-acquisitive terms for its shows. Which is to say, it sounds a lot like PRX’s Radiotopia. The major difference with Podfund, Shapiro emphasized, was that this was about developing businesses, rather than just shows. “It’s not for everybody — it’s for the ones who have this certain ambition around creating a sustainable business where the podcast is the cornerstone of that business,” he said. “I think it’s a really critical distinction to say that we’re investing in the creator and their business, not just a show.”

Although Podfund will function as a separate company, it does exist in the wider orbit of PRX, since Shapiro is a co-founder and former CEO there, and current PRX CEO Kerri Hoffman is a board member of RadioPublic. Shapiro will remain CEO at RadioPublic as well as at Podfund, by the way — the two are closely linked, he said, but “this isn’t designed to be a single vertically integrated company,” which I think we can take to mean that RadioPublic remains a podcatcher and distributor of podcasts rather than also a publisher. [Nick’s note: Or should we say…a PLATISHER??]

Close co-operation allows the different companies to approach the same mission — getting more newcomers into podcasting — in different ways, according to Shapiro. “We’ve been both intentional and opportunistic about where the different pieces of the family play off of each other and differentiate where need be,” he said, going on to add that Podfund participants could also either come from or graduate to other parts of that ecosystem, like the Google Podcasts creator program.

That said, Podfund says it’s interested in creators with shows at an earlier stage than would usually be of interested to a network like Radiotopia. Essentially, they’re interested in the Roman Mars of the 2020s, not the 2010s. Shapiro and Korzenko said that Podfund doesn’t have an editorial line, and they won’t be singling out a particular genre or style of podcast to back. They’re agnostic about the kind of businesses they want to back too, they say — everything from solo shops to multi-show mini-networks is welcome.

But these PRX-adjacent organizations all have their roots in the public radio system, its culture, and its structures, and as such it’s difficult to see Podfund taking a radical step away from that background and funding an outfit that makes a really well-made conservative talk show, say, or a narrative show that willfully breaks or derides all the usual storytelling rules associated with this area of the industry.

But who knows, maybe they can surprise us.

NPR’s feed jumble, and its implications. On April 30, NPR made a change to its web server caching configuration that caused the same RSS to be served across all of its feed URLs. The end result of this, as they described in a statement they published on the matter, was a distribution sequence that “caused podcast apps to act as if all of our podcasts had changed their titles and added hundreds of new episodes,” and users who have enabled automatic downloads on their apps woke up to find their devices flooded with dozens of new episodes and notifications. Yikes!

The problem was quickly sorted out at the source, but the change took some time to filter through to all the various apps listeners were using to access the affected feeds. “We’re incredibly sorry for the inconvenience,” NPR said.

It’s an unfortunate fumble, but one that was swiftly resolved and apologized for. However, since there’s been so much discussion recently of the open (or indeed now sometimes closed) nature of podcast feeds, I felt this might be worth a deeper think-through. Third-party apps and podcatchers pull whatever data is served to them by the feeds that they index, and that’s how users receive episodes, metadata, and notifications. When a major provider like NPR has a problem like this, how does that affect a third-party/non-Apple podcast app that has no way of fixing the issue — but which, from a user’s perspective, is the point of contact with the bug?

Leah Culver, co-founder and CTO for the podcast app Breaker, told me that the glitch was a big deal for them. “There’s an assumption in the open podcast ecosystem that big publishers will return reliable feeds,” she said over email. “We spent most of the evening fixing up our users’ subscriptions and sending apology emails and tweets.” This is worth remembering, I think — even though it was NPR’s technical problem, it was third-party apps like Breaker that found themselves delivering at least some of the customer support around it.

Given the way podcasting currently works, i.e. largely via openly distributed feeds, apps like Breaker have no way of safeguarding against a problem like this. “There’s not much apps can do except trust that publishers are doing the right thing and potentially remove the feed URL from the platform if something goes wrong,” Culver added. “Currently, the vast majority of feeds function properly and apps are able to correctly display podcast and episode information. It’s fairly rare that major issues such as the one with NPR happen.”

Since the launch of Luminary, the conversation about where feeds are indexed, how their content is monetized, and who takes what share of any resulting responsibility has kicked up several gears. It’s worth noting that although unplanned hiccups like this are by no means the same thing, all of this now happens in what feels like a heightened and more febrile atmosphere.

On pay scales (in the U.K., at least). The results of a pay survey among U.K. audio producers have been published; a summary of the findings can be viewed now on the U.K. Audio Network’s resources page. (UKAN, in case you’re not familiar, is the main U.K. audio email listserv started by Lily Ames to “promote transparency, industry growth and community building,” and which just celebrated its 1,000th member.) I understand that more detailed numbers could be released in the future, but for now, we have average day rates, broken down by the respondents’ years of experience in the audio industry and whether the work in question was editorial or branded.

For those not familiar with the current USD-GBP exchange rate, that puts the average day rate for a producer on a non-branded project somewhere just over $250. There’s already been some discussion of the results on the listserv, and a suggestion that that might be on the high side for those not working in radio or radio-connected podcasts, or for big publishers like Spotify or Audible. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the London-based production company Falling Tree and who together with Ames and Heidi Pett helped to organize the survey, addressed this on the thread, saying:

At a glance there’s a really wide spread of day rates in the survey (with big gaps sometimes between people with seemingly the same level of experience, doing the same type of work, for a similar outlet). With greater transparency, the hope would be to push for better (fairer) industry standards and to give a bit of back up to freelancers negotiating budgets with some of the other outlets mentioned.

So more detail to come, I hope. The organizers were also keen to stress that this is just supposed to be a snapshot of producers’ experiences rather than a fixed rate card — but regardless, it’s good to see greater transparency around pay.

Making money, part 3. This week, I’m wrapping up — for now, anyway — my multipart look into the different ways podcasters make money from their shows with this profile on Muddy Knees, which largely tells the story of how a group of creators who first built an audience at a publication they did not own fared after they started their own outfit. (You can catch up on the first two parts of this series here and here.)

It was the source of many a “transfer window surprise” gag, back in the summer of 2017, when three of the people behind The Guardian’s popular Football Weekly podcast — host James Richardson, producer Ben Green, and contributor Iain Macintosh — announced they were going solo. Football Weekly had been running in some form or other since 2006 and had a sizable audience that drove over 100,000 downloads an episode.

The trio had departed to form their own company, Muddy Knees Media, with which they hit the ground running with their first podcast: The Totally Football Show, hosted by Richardson.

“We had a three-year plan,” Macintosh, now the company’s chief executive, told me recently. “We really did. We ripped it up after about 20 minutes after we started, though, because we had such an incredible reaction to the start of The Totally Football Show that we had to accelerate…We realized that we had this massive audience.”

A few later, they launched a second podcast, The Totally Football League Show, which Macintosh said is his particular labor of love. “I’m a Southend United fan, and they’re terrible and no one ever talks about them, so we had a show for people like me who supported terrible football teams.” Sponsorship deals were quick to follow — three within the span of 45 minutes one day, he says — and, just like that, they had two podcasts that were above the breakeven point. Golazzo, a podcast that draws on Richardson’s deep knowledge of Italian football was then launched, as was another podcast specifically on Scottish football.

The numbers spoke for themselves very early on. The Totally Football Show has done over 50 million downloads in under two years, Macintosh says, and they measure the rest of their shows “in the hundreds of thousands” a month. It’s a far cry for his initial estimate of 20,000 an episode when they were just getting started. “I think we did 20,000 in the first 10 minutes,” he said. I know just anecdotally from my own circle of friends that fans of the Guardian Football Weekly were torn about whether to follow Richardson & Co. to their new show or stick with the original. (“It was like a schism!” one said.) But it seems like plenty did go with them, or at least listen to both.

I am aware that this is the second football-based British podcast startup that I’ve profiled this year. Football (or soccer, if you really must) is a massive deal here, financially, culturally, historically. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, either, that two of the few successful independent podcast outfits that exist in the U.K. are based on following the sport. Football fandom is big business, and makes total sense that football podcasters should be able to carve out a decent living for themselves within the wider football media sphere.

However, Muddy Knees isn’t just a football podcasting company. Macintosh — who had to quit all his other work as a football journalist to manage the company full time six months in — said that they knew early on that they wanted to expand into other areas. “We knew that we couldn’t just be making more football shows, people have only got so much time in their lives,” he said. “What we wanted to do was see what we could do now that we were in an environment where we have broadcast-quality studios, access to great talent, and a growing reputation.”

From their base in London’s Soho area, Muddy Knees started making branded content and partnering with other broadcasters. They made The Bradley Wiggins Show about cycling for broadcaster Eurosport, and they have plenty more partnerships lined up for the next 12 months, Macintosh says. They also provide studio space and production help for hire.

“So I guess right now the business is in three parts: We have the football network, we have the branded content, and then we have that third part that I always want to keep whatever happens, which is that I want the great people who work here to have fun and be creative and have ideas and do things,” Macintosh said. “So we will always have a department for going ‘you know what, let’s do a podcast about this, let’s just go for it just see what happens.'”

But he is still mindful of the risks involved in total independence, of course. Muddy Knees’ podcasts are all ad-supported because Macintosh wants everything to be free and openly available to listeners. Some sales are handled through Audioboom and some through their own team. “We are not backed by a high-net-worth individual. This business was started on my life savings, and I’m a journalist, so you can imagine it really wasn’t very much to draw on, and we have to take our shots very carefully,” he said. Ultimately, though, he thinks that the quality of what they make will always be attractive to sponsors.

“I think we’re dealing with a very sophisticated audience who understand the difference between a podcast which is essentially a Yeti mic plugged into a MacBook and broadcast-quality studios with experienced producers and top, knowledgeable talent. The latter brings a fee. These things do have to be paid for at some point,” he said.

As long as football keeps generating stories, though — and Macintosh believes that every game, every goal does that — Muddy Knees will have something to say.

Making money, coda. When we published the second part of this series, where I talked about the monetization options open to small podcasts using my own experiences as a case study, I received a really fascinating response from Tim Romero, a Tokyo-based entrepreneur and podcaster.

Romero brought up the subject of advertising and sponsorship — which I had dismissed as an option for my own show since I felt that I didn’t have either the time or the skills to devote to it on a scale that would actually prove profitable for me. He told me about his experiences with his Disrupting Japan podcast, which he described as “a small niche podcast with about 3,500 listeners.” After going all out on finding sponsors, he managed to earn around $8,000 a month from this show, which is an awful lot more than I was envisaging as a possibility. (For context, it’s a business-focused podcast, which I think does make a difference, but still.)

Tim eventually decided to shut down the commercial side of his show in order to pursue other projects, but he did direct me to a recent episode he made where he laid out his monetization process and why he made the decision to scale it down. This was the part that I found particularly interesting:

Disrupting Japan had become financially successful, but I was spending 70 percent of my time finding and working with sponsors and only 30 percent of my time creating the podcast. And then it hit me. “God help me. I’m running a media company.”

Tim’s experience backs up my theory that it is absolutely possible for a small, solo podcaster to make a living from their show — if they’re willing to find more time for the business than the audio. Anyway, if anyone else has perspectives on this, I’d love to hear from you.

Tracking [by Nicholas Quah]

  • The upcoming daily news podcast from The Wall Street Journal and Gimlet Media have found its hosts: Kate Linebaugh, the Journal’s deputy U.S. news editor, and Ryan Knutson, a former Journal telco reporter. Andrew Sussman also joins from PRI’s The World to serve as executive producer.
  • Pacific Content, the Vancouver branded podcast studio, has been acquired by the Canadian media conglomerate Rogers Media. The exact terms of the deal have not been disclosed.
  • PodCon — the podcast conference/convention founded by VidCon’s Hank Green, Night Vale’s Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, Travis and Justin McElroy, and directed by VidCon’s Monica Gasper — has come to an end, and will not be returning for a third iteration. Green published a Medium post outlining the reasons as to why, and I highly, highly recommend the read, not least because I can relate so very intensely.
  • Shoutout to Mike Pesca, whose daily show The Gist celebrates its fifth year this month, and who penned a piece for The Washington Post arguing for podcasting’s importance in this moment in time.

Release notes [by Nicholas Quah]

  • Slow Burn announced details of its third season last week, with a broad launch timeline of “later this year.” It will be hosted by Joel Anderson, most recently a senior writer at ESPN, and it will be about the murders of Biggie and Tupac. I spoke to Slate’s Gabriel Roth about the move for Vulture.
  • Bill Clinton will soon have a podcast of his own, too.
  • Shouts to Mad Chat, a new show by the author Sandy Allen that seeks to “unpack what our pop culture is telling us about madness and mental health.”
  • WNYC writes in to tell me about an upcoming event at the organization’s Greene Space: Latinos Out Loud, a podcast in the ReVolver network, is celebrating its 100th episode with a live show that’ll feature Lin-Manuel Miranda along with his father, the public affairs leader Luis A. Miranda Jr. The live show will be on May 13, more details here.
POSTED     May 7, 2019, 10:51 a.m.
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