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Podcasting is booming

Podcast Survivor: The Business of Podcasting is Booming

The business of podcasting continues to attract serious coverage, which I report here each week. This week coverage comes from the Columbia Journalism Review and PBS’s MediaShift. There’s good reason for this attention: the business of podcasting is booming. This is a good thing for listeners, producers, and even stations

The CJR piece focuses exclusively on Alex Blumberg’s podcasting startup, now named Gimlet, and how he integrates the ads on his show, Startup, as short story breaks done in his own voice. As I’ve noted, this style of ad read is consistent with the dominant podcasting practice, although Blumberg puts his own unique stamp on it.

At MediaShift the business of podcasting is the topic for the most recent episode of the MediaTwits podcast. Mike Pesca, host of Slate’s The Gist, Kerri Hoffman from PRX and American University Professor Andrew Lih are the guests for a discussion that touches on the relationship between podcasting and broadcast public radio and funding models.

Speaking of funding, PRX’s Radiotopia is running a Kickstarter that has already surpassed its $250,000 goal with 23 days still left to go. It certainly doesn’t hurt that 99% Invisible producer Roman Mars–himself a veteran of wildly successful Kickstarter campaigns–is the curator and principal public face of Radiotopia. The campaign for season 4 of his show racked up 11,693 backers contributing a total of $375,193.

Nevertheless, Radiotopia garnering 6,407 backers–with weeks left to bring in more–is no mere fluke. There is serious support for the kind of story-driven podcasting Radiotopia producers like Mars are creating. That fact is also evident in Blumberg’s fundraising performance starting up Gimlet. But, really, there is strong support and growing audiences for all forms of consistent and well-produced podcasts, from patron-funded shows like Tom Meritt’s Daily Tech News Show to the ad-supported ’casts from Slate, Nerdist and Earwolf, and independent shows, such as WTF with Marc Maron.

This doesn’t mean that starting a podcast is a license to print money. What it does mean is that listenership and funding for the medium are growing hand-in-hand, across a few different of funding models.

While I am a whole-hearted supporter of podcasting as an amateur or hobby medium, it is also vitally important for there to be opportunities for talented and dedicated producers to be compensated for their efforts, and perhaps make a living.

By breaking free of the shackles of broadcast podcasting opens up opportunities for new producers, new voices and for experiments in narrative form, as well as paying the bills. The strict definitions and structural constraints of commercial and noncommercial radio as practiced don’t leave most stations or producers much leeway for raising money creatively.

One particularly critical aspect is that podcasters don’t need radio stations, which are capital-intensive enterprises, no matter their size. For most listener-supported community stations, any funding that can be allocated to producing programming is over and above the most significant burden of properly operating a transmitter and studio. And, frankly, most commercial stations don’t spend much on production either, relying primarily on syndicated programming and automated music.

The $260,000 raised so far by Radiotopia is equivalent to the annual operating budget for a mid-market community station with a few employees, a lot of volunteers, and very little money allocated to program production. With podcasting that kind of money can go very far, unburdened from maintaining a physical plant and all kinds of regulatory compliance.

What if a community station could add that extra quarter-million to its operating budget to fund program production? Even a half or a quarter of that could enable quite a bit of innovative community service.

One of podcasting’s persistent problems with its perception in the press is that even a crowd-funding blockbuster of hundreds of thousands of dollars seems pale in comparison to the tens or hundreds of millions shelled out by Silicon Valley venture capitalists, or paid out by Facebook or Yahoo to acquire companies like Whatsapp or Tumblr. What gets lost in the comparison is that many podcast ventures are finding sustainability and profitability without these kinds of massive investments or buyouts.

That’s why the increasing press coverage of the medium’s business successes is refreshing, and a positive thing for podcasting as a whole. Like it or not, the press helps to inform public perception, which, in turn, introduces more listeners, and potentially more funding. This makes for an expanding opportunity for both new and veteran producers.

I think it also creates an enormous opportunity for noncommercial radio stations. Unfortunately, the biggest barrier is not creating podcasts–that part is easy. The biggest barriers are the stations themselves, and entrenched ways of thinking and operating that sees investing resources in something like podcasting as a too-challenging adjunct to broadcasting, rather than a potentially rejuvenating chance for growth.

In the spirit of Ann Alquist’s recent post on how community radio can adapt to digital disruption, I will next address ways in which community stations can use podcasting to both serve new audiences and broaden their funding base.


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4 Responses to Podcast Survivor: The Business of Podcasting is Booming

  1. Adam TInkoff October 23, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    I would have to disagree with you based on the lack of any evidence that there’s much of an industry here. There are certainly a few exceptions as you’ve pointed out in your article on Radiotopia – but outside of the already known celebrities using this medium as an extension of their existing (and sometimes fading) careers – the vast majority of podcasters who are trying to monetize their shows are not seeing these types of results.

    Do you have any additional economic data that suggests podcasting is even a viable market segment? I’d like to see that data before declaring that there is any type of boom here.

    Thank you.

  2. Paul Riismandel October 23, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    There are medium to large sized podcast and ad networks that are all making good money for their shows, such as Earwolf/Midroll, PodcastOne, TWiT, Slate Magazine, and Maximum Fun, which together represent well over 200 shows. That’s in addition to public radio producers like PRX, WNYC, and KCRW, independent podcasts like Accidental Tech Podcast, The Talk Show and Keith and the Girl, and niche and smaller networks like The Incomparable Radio Network

    That’s hundreds of podcasts, which doesn’t even take into account many successful independent shows, or podcasts produced by much larger media companies.

    I don’t think we can use the relative success of the “vast majority of podcasters” as a standard for there being a growing, booming industry, any more than we can use the “vast majority of actors” or “vast majority of movies” to judge the entertainment industry, or “the vast majority of recording artists” to judge the music industry (even if we’re talking about the music industry at its peak in the 1990s). The majority of people or productions in these other industries do not necessarily make money, individually.

    The question is: are there successful podcasts making real money, finding sustainable streams of revenue. The answer is yes: hundreds of them.

    Does the average podcaster have a shot at bringing in revenue and making a sustainable show? Yes.

    However, the barrier to entry for podcasting is very low, and it takes a consistent investment of time and effort, plus some luck, to succeed. Just like in every other industry. But the opportunities for podcasters who stick with it and find an audience have truly exploded in the last 2 years.

    There are more podcasters making real money today than 2 years ago, while more advertisers, donors and other funders are investing in the medium every day.

  3. Bill Nowicki October 29, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    Love the article. I host Submarine Sea Stories Podcast and have over 37,000 downloads in 6 months. I have not monetized it yet, but I love doing it and it is very cheap.

    Bill Nowicki

  4. Dave Swirsky October 30, 2014 at 10:09 am #

    Agreed. Great article (and website by the way) I host The Music First Podcast every week and over the past 2.5 years have built a small but loyal worldwide listenership. Not doing it for monetary reasons. I just love sharing information with people i would’ve never connected with previously.
    Dave Swirsky

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