In defense of podcasts (even if they don’t make money) 

In defense of podcasts (even if they don’t make money) 

“Big time commitment, little gain.” Boston Globe editor Marty Baron accidentally provided the podcasting world with its unofficial maxim last December, when The New York Times announced the cancellation of several of its podcasts. The Globe, like the Times, experimented with podcasting during the iPod boom and decided it wasn’t worth the effort. But the Times wasn’t abandoning ship altogether; it planned to keep three of its podcasts, Book Review, Front Page, and Science Times. Make that two: Front Page posted its final episode last Friday.

Last month, A.V. Club writer Steve Heisler warned about a possible comedy-podcast overload, but the opposite is happening in the media world. The Washington Post at one point had more than half a dozen podcasts, all of which stopped broadcasting two or three years ago. The Los Angeles Times’ podcasts went dark around the same time. Ditto the ones for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Neither daily paper in Chicago produces podcasts. Even non-print companies like CNN and Fox News have scaled back their podcasts, or offered “video podcasts” that are simply episodes of their shows (like MSNBC). 

Why? As Steve noted, podcasts are incredibly difficult to monetize. They attract a small, niche audience—people have to be relatively computer-literate just to find them—and some people just like to stick to music on their iPods, thanks. In the nation’s cash-strapped newsrooms, producing podcasts—in Front Page’s case, one that posted five days a week—eats up too much time and resources. That’s a discussion we have at The A.V. Club pretty regularly about our own podcast, Reasonable Discussions. In the podcasting world, 50,000 or 100,000 plays may be great, but that’s a drop in the traffic bucket if you’re The New York Times.

If podcasts don’t generate much traffic, they typically generate even less advertising revenue. (You kind of need one for the other.) Audible.com, whose sponsor reads are ubiquitous in the podcasting world, offers a program that pays podcasts $15 per referral they generate for the site’s 30-day free trial. Companies like Earwolf Media have also opted into an Amazon program that pays when people use a special Earwolf link while shopping on the site. Both of those options, though, need an audience to make much of a dent.

So to summarize: big-time commitment, little gain. But, nearly a decade into the podcasting era, maybe it’s time to redefine “gain.” Because if real success only lies in Adam Carolla-style numbers—59 million unique downloads of his daily podcast between 2009 and 2011, a Guinness World Record—then failure is inevitable for everyone else. 

To use an analogy that made more sense before the music industry imploded, Carolla has major-label-blockbuster numbers. Keeping it era-appropriate, that’s like ’N Sync’s No Strings Attached selling 2.4 million copies when it came out in March 2000. But also released that month was Alkaline Trio’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire, via a small independent punk label called Asian Man Records. It maybe sold 1/100th of what No Strings Attached sold (and certainly not in its first week), but through constant touring and a steady stream of good albums, the Trio became one of the most successful bands in the punk underground, making a comfortable living even though its sales would never be in the same universe as a group like ’N Sync’s. 

It took years for the Trio to reach that level of success, though, and in a crowded media landscape, time is the rarest commodity. The Savage Lovecast—one of my favorite podcasts—gets about 160,000 unique downloads every week, according to its producer, Nancy Hartunian. Even though Dan Savage was, excuse the retch-inducing business-speak here, an “established brand,” thanks to his popular newspaper column, those kinds of numbers didn’t come quickly.

“We have been doing the show for over five years, and let it slow-cook for a long time before it became profitable,” Hartunian says. The Lovecast isn’t “tremendously” profitable, she adds, and of course the subject matter tends to scare off advertisers. “I think most podcasts are a labor of love, or at least start out that way.”

Comedy Bang Bang certainly started that way, back when it was just a weekly L.A. standup show called Comedy Death-Ray. It eventually became a radio show on Indie 103.1, then moved to Earwolf Media, the company founded by Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman and partner Jeff Ullrich. Earwolf now produces more than a dozen podcasts, with Comedy Bang Bang as its flagship and most downloaded series. The stakes for the network remain pretty high, with Ullrich and Aukerman paying out of pocket to move to a new studio last year. But even then, success goes beyond downloads and ad revenue.

“That’s a very small part of the decision, actually,” Ullrich says. “A lot of it has to do with how many listeners it has, whether it’s critically well received, how rabid fans are, what the growth rate is—that’s a big part of it.”

And it’s the main reason listeners won’t hear another season of Earwolf Challenge, a sort of reality competition in which podcasters competed for a spot on the Earwolf network. The show had anemic growth—starting at 4,000 downloads and ending at 6,000 over the course of two months. That’s too low to attract advertisers, the show didn’t really warrant merchandise, and it required a lot of time to assemble. “Honestly, to me it was shocking with how many big names we had as guests doing master classes on not just podcasts, but how to create anything,” Ullrich says. “There’s an example of something we tried that we thought was really interesting, was really different, and had a clear value proposition for listeners.”

But had the numbers been a little higher—say, 8,000 at the end—the situation may have been different. It’s also worth noting that even if a podcast isn’t especially lucrative, it can lead to other opportunities. Comedy Bang Bang has been adapted for a TV show debuting on IFC June 8. IFC got especially meta with Maron, debuting this fall, in which WTF’s Marc Maron plays a fictionalized version of himself, a guy who records a popular podcast in his garage. Discovery’s popular Stuff You Should Know podcast recently shot a pilot that should air this fall as well.

It goes beyond TV. The Nerdist podcast is currently touring theaters around the country. Comedy podcasts like Doug Loves Movies, WTF, Uhh Yeah Dude, Walking The Room, and Never Not Funny have found success with live events, and SXSW is attracting more and more of them every year. Doug Benson can play Doug Loves Movies’ Leonard Maltin Game at his standup gigs, and no one complains—in fact, they request it. In the case of filmmaker Kevin Smith, podcasting opened up a whole new path: “I had no idea, but that would become the fucking center of everything I’m doing now,” Smith said at a SXSW panel this year, adding that podcasting “gave me the strength to walk away” from the movie business. (Smith’s network now houses a couple dozen podcasts.)

Smith owes all his podcasting success to the deeply personal connection he has to his podcast, and that seems to be a common denominator among successful ones, along with the patience to let them build slowly. Having a strong personal connection is especially common among the comedy podcasts that get so much of Podmass’ attention, but it also applies to others like Stuff You Should Know (unimaginable without hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant) or the several podcasts built around financial guru Dave Ramsey. And maybe that’s what’s missing from podcasts produced by major media outlets like The New York Times. Podcasting is a personal pursuit—its success starts there, and sometimes goes no further than that.