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Podcasters are basically begging for money, and that’s a good thing

Back in the early days of WTF With Marc Maron, before Podmass existed and podcasts were an even weirder, funkier niche than they are today, I used to make a $5 monthly donation to Marc Maron. Not only did I enjoy Maron’s podcast and anxiously await the arrival of each new episode, I also felt like the podcast served an essential psychological need, that it made me feel less alone and more connected with the world around me and Maron’s own ferocious, raging neuroses. WTF With Marc Maron made the world seem like less of a scary, terrifying place, and that alone seemed worth five bucks a month. Besides, I liked the immediacy and directness of donating money to a favorite podcaster. There’s something incredibly intimate and personal about it. There was a one-to-one element to it that was intoxicating. After Paypal took its cut, everything that I sent went to directly to Maron, for him to use however he saw fit. 

Usually we financially support the artists we love in an incredibly indirect manner. 

We spend money on CDs and DVDs and books in the hope that some of that money will trickle down to the people who created the product, without knowing how much, if any, will actually make it back to the source. We might think we’re putting money in the pockets of authors or musicians by buying their books or albums, but since the vast majority of books and major-label albums lose money, chances are good that the musician or author we’re supporting with our money will never see a single royalty check. The music industry is famously brutal. If the mega-platinum Toni Braxtons and TLCs of the world declare bankruptcy, what chance do artists much farther down the ladder of success have? 

I recently spoke with Paul Gilmartin of The Mental Illness Happy Hour, one of my favorite podcasts, for an upcoming feature we’re launching about artists and money. The difference between the way money used to flow to Gilmartin via his longtime (16 years) job as the host of TBS’ Dinner And A Movie and the way it comes to him now speaks to the symbolic and practical value of money in this strange new economy. 

When he co-hosted Dinner And A Movie, Gilmartin’s salary and livelihood were dependent upon enough people watching whatever film the show was screening that week to secure sufficient advertising and keep the series financially viable. It was a matter of ratings, demographics, ad sales, subscribers, sponsors, and countless other variables having nothing to do with Gilmartin himself. He was simply part of a large, involved commercial venture. The movie was invariably the star; he and his co-hosts simply provided the ever-shorter interstitial segments that made TBS’ umpteenth airing of Rush Hour 2 slightly different from earlier showings. 

For Gilmartin, Dinner And A Movie was just a job. Sure, he came to enjoy it and take pride in it after a while, but it was something he did for a very nice paycheck. He may have been in front of the camera on national television, but he was a cog in a machine with very little control over the show’s direction. Back when the program was on the air, Gilmartin had a great line about how there were lots of things on television, Dinner And A Movie being one of them. He wasn’t being overly self-deprecating, merely acknowledging that the show was a commercial product, not a labor of love. 

The same cannot be said of The Mental Illness Happy Hour, a podcast where Gilmartin and his guests (myself included) bare their souls and discuss the most agonizing moments of their lives in wrenching detail. This is so far from a commercial venture that Gilmartin has pondered making it a non-profit, but for now the podcast is sustained by donations from listeners. 

When donors send Gilmartin money, they’re supporting the sum of his being and his mission in life. They’re supporting his decision to focus his energy and resources into the podcast instead of hunting for better-paying gigs. Using the concrete language of commerce, they’re supporting his quest to make people who wrestle with depression and anxiety and substance abuse feel less alone. They’re investing in the hope that Gilmartin might be able to support himself financially with a podcast he feels he was put on earth to do. 

Gilmartin still has a very long way to go before that’s even a distant possibility. He has an unusually intense, emotional connection to his unusually devoted fans, yet last year he made about $7,000. But when it comes to money donated from listeners to podcasters, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. I suspect that for Gilmartin, that $7,000 means more to him than the much greater sum he made on Dinner And A Movie. 

In a previous For Our Consideration essay, my colleague Kyle Ryan trenchantly asked, “How much should business affect our considerations of art?” It was inspired in part by a heated exchange Kyle had with a pair of podcast favorites who angrily demanded that The A.V. Club stop reviewing podcasts. Their argument used the exquisitely twisted logic that since no one made money off them, podcasts should be off-limits to critics. Art created for free or for very little money—as most podcasts are at this point—shouldn’t be judged more leniently or on a curve, but as an obsessive fan of podcasting I do feel a responsibility to support the podcasting world financially in any way I can, whether that means buying bonus episodes, purchasing merchandise, or making donations. It’s somewhat similar to NPR subscribers re-upping every year for their free tote bag, but it feels more personal and urgent to donate money directly to an unemployed guy whose voice and struggle and demons I know intimately, rather than helping support a massive, expensive infrastructure that produces a lot of really great programming, like This American Life

But donations aren’t the only way podcasts are financed. If asking directly for donations via Paypal constitutes a 21st-century way of financing a new venture, then shilling for a sponsor hearkens back to the early days of both television and radio. This is inherently less direct or personal than a donation, but more direct and personal than a traditional commercial. These spiels play on the relationship the podcaster has with his audience and can be twisted and subverted and played with in fascinating and unique ways. A number of podcasters have gone interestingly meta on their sponsors. On You Made It Weird, host Pete Holmes has constructed a couple of ongoing bits around spiels for money, from pretending his engineer has suffered an endless series of strange calamities to pimping for faux videogames that exist only in his fertile imagination. As I wrote in a For Our Consideration piece on the podcast renaissance, there’s something strangely humanizing about sponsor spiels that turn veteran entertainers and broadcasters into Internet-age Willy Lomans just trying to make a sale. 

Because these spiels come out of the mouths of podcasters I like, I end up having warm feelings toward companies whose services I would never actually use. To cite some pertinent examples, I have never used popular sponsors like Audible.com, Legal Zoom, or Bonobos, but they benefit from the warm association I—and other podcast fans—feel toward their goods and services. When the Sklar brothers—masters of the sponsor spiel who in a different lifetime might have been the top-selling grill salesmen in the greater St. Louis area, five years running—tell fans to support their Sklarbro Country sponsors because their sponsors support them, it’s a bit of a sales pitch, but there’s an unmistakable element of truth and sincerity to it as well. 

Capitalism can be a complicated, inhuman institution that reduces people to numbers and messy lives to digits on a spreadsheet, but in this early stage at least, the makeshift, catch-as-catch-can financing of podcasting still feels like a wholly human endeavor. Even relative podcasting powerhouses like Nerdist and Earwolf feel like fragile entities that might crumble or atrophy unless listeners and fans keep them going with their money, loyalty, and enthusiasm. That’s another reason podcasting still feels like such an intimate, personal medium: It needs us—passionate, committed, and vocal fans who double as evangelists for the form—as much as, if not more than, we need them. 

Before I fell in love with podcasting, I might have found the prospect of an entertainer asking directly for money a little off-putting, if not downright obnoxious. Now I find it humanizing and ingratiating. It seems more honest to simply ask people who love what you do for money directly rather than transform your life’s work into a vessel for ads created by strangers to sell products people (for the most part) don’t need. At least when Marc Maron shills for Adam & Eve or Scott Aukerman elucidates the glories of Bonobos’ comfortable, stylish clothes for men, they’re filtering the sponsor content they’re obligated to deliver through their own idiosyncratic sensibilities and senses of humor. They’re making it their own. 

It’s possible that direct appeals for donations merely represent an evolutionary stage in the economic development of podcasting that we will someday pass. Twenty years from now, we may look back at the era when the top podcasters in the world regularly asked listeners to send them money as the financial training wheels necessary before podcasts could support themselves without donations or sponsors. I’m not sure that time will come, or that it should, because while it would be great if our favorite podcasters never had to ask listeners for money, some of the medium’s uniqueness and vitality would be lost if it became just another impersonal means of selling ads.