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Podcast Survivor: A Diversity of Podcasts Demands a Diversity of Models

Remember three weeks ago, when I reported on the Mule Radio podcast network downsizing? In that post I also argued that podcast networks are still relevant, largely responding to a short blog post by podcaster and app developer Marco Arment, who concluded, “The glory days of podcast networks are behind us.”

Afterwards, online discussion on the issue seemed to die down (not as a result of my post). I thought, that was that.

The Kerfuffle Resumes

But, apparently, that was not that. In the interim Arment fielded a lot of questions and arguments about his statement. So this Sunday he expanded on his position with a post titled, “Podcast networks are the wrong model.” His position is clear and reasonable enough–he says that there are enough good hosting and ad services, along with recording tools available such that a podcaster does not necessarily need the services of a podcast network. And, for a very specific segment of podcasts and podcasters, I think his assertion holds water. I’m less convinced that it applies to all podcasts. But more on that in a moment.

Arment’s Sunday post touched off enough more debate on Twitter and other blogs that he weighed in again on Monday to address “The Elephant in the Podcast Studio.” In that post he responds to arguments that his ability to have a financially sustainable independent podcast–The Accidental Tech Podcast–is based upon the success he first built as the host of a show with the 5by5 network. Arment says that his first podcast after leaving 5by5, Neutral, was actually not a success, and that ATP has performed better because it happens to be a better show. He writes,

Having a “built-in audience” from two 5by5 shows didn’t sustain Neutral. It peaked at about 1,000 listeners — when we ended Neutral, the audience for the weeks-old ATP was already 15 times larger and skyrocketing.

This all serves his primary argument, which is that having a successful podcast with a sizable listenership that is financially sustainable is mostly due to making a good podcast. Podcast networks, he contends, don’t help much or add much value if a show is already good.

As I wrote before, I fully support independent podcasting, and agree that the available tools and services are more than sufficient for someone to go it alone. Where I depart is with the argument that good content necessarily will be discovered and supported.

This is a kind of reasoning that is all to prevalent in tech and media circles, that easily justifies success and provides a ready excuse for failure, without having to examine other factors that may have to do with economics or privilege. Criticizing this reasoning does not mean I’m criticizing Arment’s podcasting success, or saying that is either unearned or undeserved. Rather, his show’s relative success, like the success of many media ventures, is idiosyncratic, and much less generalizable than he argues. This isn’t because Arment has a ready fan base or is otherwise special. It’s because there are too many other aspects, besides the quality of the show, that he hasn’t taken account of.

Not All Podcasts Are The Same

Arment’s argument is applicable in much more specific circumstances than he acknowledges. He’s not arguing against podcast networks per se, so much as saying that if you have the will and expertise to launch a good podcast on your own, then many networks offer very little more.

I don’t find much fault with that argument. But the reality is that not every potential podcast host has the “10–12 person-hours” that he estimates go into his podcast each week. In fact, I would say that estimate is on the low side compared to what many other podcasters might need to invest. Arment and his co-hosts are experienced, tech-savvy podcasters who are likely more efficient than someone new to the field.

It’s also important to note the kind of podcast Arment does. It’s essentially a 60 – 90 minute chat show between two or more hosts and guests, with minimal editing. While it takes skill and practice to do this consistently well, this is amongst the easiest kinds of audio programs to produce. Podcasters who want to create a magazine program like Bulleye, do more structured storytelling like This American Life, have more sophisticated productions like 99% Invisible, or have a wider variety of guest interviews like Nerdist or WTF will require more time, effort and support. 10–12 person-hours an episode will not cut it.

That’s where the resources of a network can really make a difference for a producer.

A network may be of limited utility to a podcast featuring two or three guys chatting around a table, or on Skype. But the need for additional support grows when you want to experiment with the medium, and produce programming that might take 40 or 80 man-hours to produce.

Other Responses

One of the more thoughtful and thorough responses to Arment’s two posts comes from podcaster, writer and publisher Glenn Fleishman. He wrote a relatively long piece trying to tease out many of the assumptions and trajectories embedded in this debate. After weighing the pros and cons, he concludes that there are benefits from being on a podcast network, but that the best model is one where there is “loose affiliation and general independence (a federation of anarchies) rather than from strong affiliation and lack of ownership.” Fleishman does speak from experience, as his own excellent podcast, The New Disruptors, has been affiliated with two different networks, and is now independent again.

But, again, I think that Fleishman is still viewing things from the standpoint of someone who has the time, expertise and assistance to do or coordinate most of the heavy lifting himself, even though his show featured different guests every week. As he acknowledges, the only real outside help he needs is with selling ads, though he does some of that himself, too. I don’t think Fleishman’s proposed model is wrong. It’s just that I don’t think it’s sufficient for all of podcasting.

Earwolf founder Jeff Ullrich weighed in to support networks like the one he started, as well as ad networks, which don’t generally provide production or promotional support. Most Earwolf shows are produced at the company’s own studios, facilitated by house engineers. Hosts are responsible for showing up prepared and booking their guests. Earwolf staff take care of the rest, from editing, publishing and hosting, to promotion and arranging advertisers.

Jeff says the argument for this model is based on the premise that a podcast host has better things to do. He goes on to explain,

“Some people mow their own lawn, others hire a landscaper. Some people buy used home exercise equipment off of Craigslist, others hire personal trainers. Some people make their own dinner, others go to a restaurant. It’s about opportunity cost. All of us are capable of doing things ourselves, including podcasting. That does not mean we should. Or want to.”

Now, it’s important to make it clear that I work for Midroll, and Jeff is the one who hired me. But I don’t support podcast networks because I work for one. I work for one because I think there is value in podcast networks. That said, I agree with Jeff. This model is valuable for podcasters who don’t have the time or inclination to assemble all the tools themselves. He’s not arguing this is the best model, only that it is a model that works.

May a Million Models Bloom

Moreover, the Earwolf model is not the only model, either. PRX’s Radiotopia is trying to support and promote innovative storytelling in podcasting by providing a wide array of assistance and training in things like production, fundraising and promotion. It’s a network that is attempting to both incubate new shows and equip producers with the skills and resources to grow them. Radiotopia provides real material help, alongside the benefits of being on a roster of well-respected shows under a recognizable brand.

As podcasting evolves, so will podcast networks. Some of the best networks will provide financial, technical and creative assistance to new podcasters to help them launch shows that would be more difficult to create and sustain on their own. I hope that there will be other networks will be able to provide the kind of “loose affiliation” support that Fleishman speaks of, helping independently viable podcasts benefit from ties to other similar shows.

PRX Executive Director Jake Shapiro calls Radiotopia an “indie label” for podcasting, acting as both a curator and supporter. I like that analogy especially because there is not just one model of indie label. Some indie labels provide a full slate of services to bands, from recording and promotion to merchandise and touring, like small versions of major labels. Others, like the renowned Dischord label, are more hands off, helping bands records and distribute records, but leaving artist free to manage other aspects of their careers.

As the podcasting medium progresses I hope that some new network models emerge, too.

I concluded my post three weeks ago by saying, “A diverse podcasting ecosystem will be healthiest.” I still think that’s the case.

It’s great that a podcaster who wants to go DIY has more tools available to her than ever before. It’s also great when a podcaster with an idea bigger than she can pull off on her own might find support from a network. Sustainable podcasting is not only about promotion and ads, any more than sustainable filmmaking is only about having cameras and theaters.

Networked and unaffiliated, may a billion podcasts bloom.


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One Response to Podcast Survivor: A Diversity of Podcasts Demands a Diversity of Models

  1. Dan R Morris June 29, 2014 at 8:29 pm #

    I think a network always brings value. BUt as in all things, the question is does the network value and the things podcaster need match? Having a relatively new podcast (The Amplify Podcast), I’ve looked into the kinds of networks we use on the blog and on YouTube. I’ve found many, but none that provide the value I need.

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