Podcasters look out at the landscape of millions of listeners tuning in every week beaming their favorite shows into their ear and they are baffled as to why that scale has not converted to dollars and cents for producers. In an attempt to reap from their scores of listeners, producers and hosts regularly chide that “if their flock just gave a little bit of money each, their operations would run stress-free and fully loaded.. It’s a mentality that has become extremely common to the medium and dangerously stifles the future of podcasting.
As content producers, we like to believe that our work has value, and by and large the world of podcasts has tremendous value. Anyone who has listened to Radiotopia’s “99% Invisible” or tuned into the amazing cult shows like “The Worst Idea of All Time,” know the immense power that podcasts provide to listeners. Podcasts especially have created some of the most intimate storytelling and editorial journalism that our culture has seen in years. The field is charged and growing. Despite all this, many audio content creators fail to see the blunt truth that we may not be so entitled to expect bucks to be kicked in.
Thinking Like Public Radio
Public radio has been and continues to be the gold standard in podcasting, hands down. From production to distribution, the programing emanating out of PRX, APM, and NPR are wholly unparalleled. Currently, out of the top ten podcasts on the iTunes and Stitcher charts, eight are produced by public radio (nine if you want to chalk Sara Koenig’s Serial as part of public radio bubble). It should be noted, however, that every day public radio is challenged as more and more newcomers join the audio world (see networks like Gimlet, Panoply, and Goat Rodeo etc).
Public radio’s success for the podcasting business has been a double edged sword. Despite its continued content domination, public broadcasting’s “old world” way of thinking towards support and branding has held podcasting back tremendously. Previously reliable listener revenue streams, an aversion to branding and advertising, and top heavy management structures, have all kept public radio and podcasting woefully undermonetized. Its flaws have entrenched themselves into the podcasting landscape since its inception, and none have been more damaging than the “kick in a buck” mentality.
We can’t blame public radio though. The “kick in a buck” model has worked for generations. From the Baby Boomers to the carseat NPR generation after, listeners have reliably kicked in the dollars to fund unique, original programing (especially amidst a sea of shock jock morning zoo DJs and mindless repeating billboard stations). That model may have worked for the days of 10 channel terrestrial radio, but that world has been dying for almost a decade now.
The World As We Know it
At any given moment, the average media consumer is drowning in amazing content. When someone turns on their television or opens their laptop, the amount intriguing, unique, and enthralling content is so ubiquitous that the question is not “how do I find good content” but instead “where do I start?”. Psychologists have even begun studying the phenomenon of choice paralysis. Companies are spending millions trying to find ways to make their amazing content shine brighter than someone else’s amazing content. Even more leveling is the fact that good content is no longer is competing in the mediums they inhabit. Movies aren’t just competing at the box office anymore. TV shows aren’t just in competition with Youtube. Social media platforms aren’t just duking it out on the internet. Bruce Springsteen was wrong, there’s a million channels now and they’re all amazing.
A Case Study
For context, let’s look at the music industry over the last 12 years. The Napster generation has proclaimed that buying music is something we don’t believe in anymore. Sharing, ripping, illegally downloading, and streaming is the new norm and no one sane is arguing otherwise. In the thick of the culture war, we had scores of industry veterans arguing the impending implosion of the music industry: how it would destroy the decades old infrastructure built to support music creators. For years now, the dam has been broken. It’s clear the landscape has drastically changed, but the world we now live in has made the artist’s avenues to success so much straighter. The aperture for exposure so much wider. 15 years ago, checking out a new band was a $15 bet we made to ourselves. Listeners relied on a handful of gatekeepers: magazines, DJs, and trusted music experts to push us toward new artists and scenes. It was just too expensive to take a chance on a band you knew nothing about.
But now we regularly take that chance every day through our open-source share culture, and the result has been outstanding. We don’t need to take the $15 dollar bet anymore. We vet our tastes on Spotify and see our favorites live for $25 bucks a pop. We post their singles on Facebook and remix them on YouTube. We buy their posters and merch. We follow our artists on twitter and share them to our hundreds of followers in an instant. Music is not what we are paying for anymore. We are paying for the community and culture, and we’re doing it more willingly now more than ever. Why has vinyl made its comeback with millennials? Why has the average music listener’s catalog of favorite bands exploded exponentially? The evolution of the music industry is the roadmap for podcasting and the podcasting community needs to understand this. When the content becomes free, a product’s value comes from its community and engagement.
What it means
The rise of podcasting has grown backwards to the music industry, or in other words, free to premium instead of premium to free. For audiences, the new normal is that content comes first and the support comes after. It all boils down to the fundamental question: “What about your content makes me want to wear it on my chest?” It’s not good enough to just make great podcasts, just like it’s not good enough to just make great music. For the aspiring musician, playing street shows and releasing low-fi bandcamp albums while building a following is how success is forged. For the aspiring podcasters, cultivating a community and tastemaking is how content grows. To build that community, entertainers must provide their listeners value beyond an RSS feed. For some podcasters, it means joining into a shared network brand. For others, it means live episodes or interactive newsletters. For others, it means accompanying editorial blog posts and giveaways. For everyone, it means less thinking globally and more thinking parochially about your audience.
Successful shows like “How Did This Get Made”and “SlashFilmcast” have cracked the essence of their following and found ways to give listeners more than just a weekly podcast. HDTGM drives scores of people to live shows and facebook pages to be apart of the shared “so bad it’s good” experience, while Slashfilm moves their discussions off the podcasts and onto bigger platforms like Twitter. The gains are tangible for both. Building an audience that matters more than your download numbers is the secret sauce podcasting is poised to dominate. Figure how to be where your audience lives and go there, be authentic, be relevant, and give them more value than the runtime of your podcast. That is ecosystem we should be fostering.
Ads are a four letter word
Underwriting and branded advertisement will have to play a bigger role with smaller scales and with deeper integration (as they already have in 2015). This changing relationship has many from the world of public media squeamish. In the eyes of public radio producers, the concept of brands “getting in bed” with advertisers has traditionally been viewed as insidious and corrupting, but arguably a necessary evil. That line of thinking may have made sense in a world of Springsteen’s 57 channels, but now we live in a world where Taco Bell has an opinion on whether that dress is blue or white (It’s blue by the way. Don’t be insane). It means a fundamental distinction as to what advertisement means to both consumers and content creators. Brands and companies are struggling to find audiences, just as as podcasters are struggling to find ways to monetize. Our social networks have become entangled with brands and content, and pandora cannot be put back in its box. The new ethical responsibility of podcasters and producers is no longer to separate from promotion and content, but instead to curate partnerships with only those companies and brands that share the values and culture of their content. Soon, authentic partnered advertising will beget the feigned host read ad, and the results will be disruptive. Does your audience really care about stamps? It’s something we all will have balance in the new landscape.
In the desolate, Mad Max-ian world of creative support that I’ve just described, it’s easy to see this environment as capitulating creative freedom to droves of corporate overlords and swearing off any infrastructure for listener based funding, but that is not the case. Of course creatives being funded by their audience directly is a great thing, but there needs to exist an understanding of what and why support is being given. Listeners aren’t giving financial backing because the content is worth that much, they are giving because they support the creatives and community that the content has created. The industry needs to do a better job g those individuals more than just the warm fuzzy feeling from giving. Public Radio donors, myself included, are philosophical givers. We give because of what public radio represents, not because we want to buy Terry Gross better microphones. Find out what the tote bag is for your community, build it, and those philosophical givers will not only grow in size, but also in depth.
I am not saying that “kick in a buck” doesn’t work right now. It does, and a podcast asking for donations isn’t inherently wrong. Patreon and other platforms have made it easier for the most dedicated fans to support their artists and we should encourage more platforms like it. Radiotopia, We Have Concerns, This American Life, Serial, and the growing lists of shows funded through listener support proves that there are listeners willing to spend dollars to support the podcasts they love. However, relying on a “kick in a buck” ethos is the wrong model, the wrong mentality, and it’s wrong to your listeners. We need to view kicking in a buck as an ancillary effect of the value we give listeners. Kickstarter and Indiegogo will not create the ecosystem podcasting needs. Underwriting, advertising, and audience engagement will. Now more than ever, brands are opening to podcasts to reach their customers, and we need to stop pretending like that is a bad thing. Networks are being built every day to cover the space between content and distribution. Innovators are creating better, more collaborative, revenue streams, and are finding the formula to make an ecosystem where podcasting can be medium we all want for it to be. Podcasters need to take a step back and look at the broader world of content, and give up on the idea of “kick in a buck” alone as a viable business model. That battle won’t be won forever. The value of content will continue to approach the floor Listeners don’t need to change their ethos — listeners need podcasters to innovate. As creators of great content, we need to connect the gap between a listening audience and the engaged audience, and expecting dollars where cents are owed will not build that bridge. Listeners don’t need to “kick in a buck,” podcasters need to earn the dollar.