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Podcast Survivor: Mule Radio Downsizes, but Podcast Networks Are Still Needed

Late last week Mule Radio Syndicate head Mike Monteiro announced, with a short piece at Medium, that the podcasting network is downsizing. As Monteiro explains, the network was a “side project” outgrowth of his main business, Mule Design Studio. However,

“As Mule Radio grew it needed more of our resources. We needed to sell ads, take care of our hosts, find new shows, gather payments from sponsors, negotiate deals for hosting, pay hosts, file W–2s. In short, what started as fun became a business, and I was already running a business. Therefore, I couldn’t provide this business the level of attention needed to run at the level of quality I wanted it to run.”

He adds that this decision was also precipitated by the departure of one of Mule’s most popular podacasts, John Gruber’s “The Talk Show,” to become independent. (As an aside,“The Talk Show” started out at the 5by5 network in July 2010, and then departed for Mule in May 2012, sparking some degree of online debate about the reasons why.)

Mule will continue producing four podcasts that are hosted by Mule Design employees. Monteiro says that in this new stage, “we will go back to doing it for fun. We will not sell sponsorships.”

As both an observer of the podcasting world, and an employee of another network, I found the decision to downsize a little curious. It seemed like quite a bit of effort had been expended to grow the Mule Radio Syndicate over the last couple of years, adding some great shows like “Destination DIY” and “The Broad Experience,” that might benefit from the additional exposure that comes from being on a network. However, I can also understand how a project can grow large enough to be a distraction, without being sufficiently successful to merit spinning off into its own entity.

Podcaster and app developer Marco Arment briefly commented on Mule’s announcement, saying that “it increasingly makes sense for people to go independent. The glory days of podcast networks are behind us.” He compares them to blog networks, which he implies are no longer particularly necessary.

Although I don’t think Arment is entirely incorrect, I do also disagree with his conclusion. Obviously, as someone who works for a podcasting company, I do have skin in this game. But the question of the utility of podcast networks is more complex than this binary.

In a foot note Arment says that “Great shows usually get discovered.” I mostly agree with that point. One of the things that I love about podcasting is that the barrier to entry is very low, and that the field is not yet dominated by the same media conglomerates that dominate broadcast, and much online media. At the same time, the process of getting discovered is not simple, and being great is not necessarily sufficient.

Being discovered requires good networking, good promotion and a bit of luck, along with being great. This is an area where a podcast network can help. Of course, just as dozens of new network TV shows are cancelled every year, being on a network is also no guarantee of gaining audience. But I do think it can provide a boost.

It’s also not necessarily enough just to have your podcast discovered.

Not all podcast networks do the same thing. Some are more like loose affiliations, while others take a more active role in production, promotion, development and monetization. There are some things, like monetization, that really do benefit from aggregation; a network can sell ads for dozens of shows more efficiently than one show can sell its own ads.

Now, this may not be a concern for all shows. Not every podcast wants to run ads. Some podcasts have strong, focused niches that attract enough advertisers or funders without too much additional work. Many podcasters are satisfied with whatever amount of money they’re able to make on their own. This is as true for podcasting as it has been for music, publishing and, yes, blogging.

However, other podcasters find that time spent in ad sales takes away from the time available to make a great podcast. Kind of like a great record label, some podcast networks have their own fan base, such that listeners will want to check out any new show added to the network. And there are podcasts that exist only because the network provides the production resources to busy, in-demand hosts.

In the end, I don’t think Mule’s downsizing is a sign that podcast networks are going away. Just like blog networks they will change. You see, blog networks do still exist. Whether they’re big consolidated ventures like Gawker Media or the looser combination of The Awl Network of blogs, these networks give the individual sites and bloggers increased exposure through cross-promotion, and a little more money by aggregating ad sales.

But I do agree that blog networks are just one aspect of the overall ecosystem, and are by no means required for an individual blog to succeed.

I do have one last point in the blog comparison. One big reason why blog networks are perhaps less necessary than a decade ago is because the tools for publishing blogs and supporting them financially have become more flexible, powerful and available. There are plenty of ad networks, from the ubiquitous Ad Words to more curated networks like Federated Media, as well as lots of donation and subscription systems, too.

These tools are making their way into podcasting, as well. Plenty of independent podcasts work with ad networks while otherwise retaining full control over their productions.

As a podcast enthusiast I am not happy to see Mule downsize, and I hope that the shows leavening the network are able to keep up production. For a little more background on Mule’s history, see a blog post by my colleague Lex Friedman.

I am still sanguine about the future of podcasting. There will be independent podcasts, and there will be podcast networks. I hope there will be more experimentation with what a podcast network can be. I also look forward to more bold independent podcast ventures that push the boundaries and assumptions about what a podcast has to be.

A diverse podcasting ecosystem will be healthiest.

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