Articles

The Pragmatist’s Guide to Podcasts and Money

By Cynthia Graber

Cynthia Graber interviews a monk

Where is the money? That’s what indie podcasters need to know — or at least consider.

In September, I co-launched “Gastropod,” a new, independent podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history. I love the subject, and I love working in audio — but I’m not venturing into this new medium simply out of love. Nicola Twilley and I need something else for our time and effort: payment.

Maybe you’ve read Fast Company’s “The surprisingly profitable rise of podcast networks,” or The Washington Post’s “Podcasts are back — and making money.”

I’m excited about those headlines, but I’m also a bit skeptical. The articles primarily focus on big-name podcasts with either large stations or media enterprises behind them or already existing audiences.

My co-host and I had neither in September, when we launched. Despite that, we’ve been fortunate to quickly develop a relatively large and enthusiastic audience, at least for two indies. But our income thus far? Zero.

So I, too, am paying close attention to the business models for podcasting. Based on my research, along with some discussions on the AIRdaily after this year’s Third Coast Conference, here are some ways I think we might make this thing work.

 

MONEY FROM THE CROWD

This seems like a natural. You have a fantastic idea for a podcast; of course people will chip in to help you make it!

The reality is not so straightforward. Kickstarter campaigns can be a means to raise money, but people with crowdfunding experience offer a number of caveats.

First, Kickstarter’s Stephanie Pereira warns that only 44 percent of campaigns get funding. Organizing a successful Kickstarter takes incredible effort and is not for the faint of heart. (For more on that, check out AIR’s webinar with Lea Thau on her successful campaigns for the “Strangers” podcast.)

More importantly, such campaigns nearly always depend on an existing fan base. People have to know who you are, or have friends who know who you are, in order to support your work.

Crowdfunding campaigns like Thau’s are likely to be more successful once the podcast already has thousands of passionate listeners — or if you’re so well known that you can attract those fans before you’ve even produced the first episode. Thau, who created “The Moth” podcast, was able to draw on that community to support her new effort.

Another example of successful crowdfunding comes from Radiotopia, which broke all existing records: more on that below.

 

ADVERTISING

This is one of the clearest ways to get money for a podcast, and there are signs that this is a viable form of support: Max Linsky at Longform told me that advertisers who understand podcasts will support them because podcasts attract committed and engaged listeners.

“It’s five times as effective as buying one website,” Mike McLaughlin, the vice president of digital media at Palisades MediaGroup, told Max Willens in Advertising Age.  “In the past, we’d buy NPR and maybe they’d throw in a podcast. Now we go and say, ‘We want five of your best podcasts, and we’ll take one of your websites as a throw-in.’”

The Earwolf comedy podcast network recently merged with The Mid Roll, an advertising company devoted exclusively to podcasts, to form Midroll Media. The new company boasts big-name clients among its 130 podcasts, including Neil Degrasse Tyson’s “StarTalk Radio.”

Listeners don’t mind hearing recommendations from hosts they trust, and they often act on what they hear. Midroll’s biggest clients are moving from early podcast-adopting brands like Squarespace, NerdWallet, MailChimp, and the shaving startup Harry’s to advertisers like GE and HBO.

But for what?

In his new podcast “StartUp” (about starting a for-profit podcasting company), Alex Blumberg emphasizes transparency, and at one point he asked the advertisers on-air how much they’re paying for a spot. The answer: $6,000. I can tell you from off-the-record conversations that most podcasts receive only a fraction of that fee.

I’m making an educated guess that “StartUp” launched with an audience that justifies that number. A month after the launch, Current reported that “StartUp” had about 120,000 SoundCloud listens per episode; when it hit nine episodes, it had 5 million iTunes downloads, according to Ad Age.

This is textbook for the “bigger (audience) is better” business model. Many podcast hosts and experts I spoke to, including Indre Viskontas at “Inquiring Minds” and Jake Shapiro at PRX, told me that there isn’t much of a return until a podcast has about 15,000 listeners per episode, or higher.

Even then, the money’s not outrageous. Say you have a weekly podcast with an audience of 2,000 listeners. If you sold two 60-second mid-show ads, Midroll estimates that you’d make between $2,340 and $3,900 per year. If you managed to bring your audience up to 20,000 listeners? $23,400 to $39,000 per year. Total. 

Plus, you have to be taken on by a firm, or find the time and skills to go after that advertising.

But “bigger is better,” while generally true, isn’t the only model for ad partnerships. Which brings us to another caveat about advertising: It works if you have a market that advertisers want to reach.

Ashley Milne-Tyte started an interesting discussion in the public media community with an essay about the challenges for most independent podcasts in finding listeners. Milne-Tyte created “The Broad Experience” podcast in 2012, and reaches about 5,000–6,000 listeners per episode. She hasn’t yet reached 10,000 per episode, but still has managed to attract advertising. The companies are interested in her audience, she told me, which is largely made up of engaged, educated, working women.

The amount she’s making from most of her advertisers cannot yet compensate her for her time. But Milne-Tyte described one partnership she formed with the Financial Times that pays her “grown-up money,” as she calls it, advertising on a few episodes at a much higher rate than her other advertisers (the exact number is confidential).

And then there’s the question of “Serial,” the monster podcast spun off of “This American Life.” The audience — 1.5 million listeners per episode, comparable to the Average Quarter Hour (AQH) listenership for “Morning Edition” — is smashing expectations of what nonbroadcast shows can do. That might convey the idea that podcasting has a lot of promise for advertising, but it also sets an incredibly high bar for success. 

 

FIND (OR CREATE) A NETWORK

Podcast networks can centralize fundraising, including advertising and crowdfunding campaigns.

Radiotopia was created by PRX with producer Roman Mars. PRX got a grant to jump-start the new network, and then held a Kickstarter campaign in October. They raised more than $620,000 and became the most-funded radio or podcasting project on Kickstarter, ever.

The money will be used to support existing shows, including Mars’ “99% Invisible” podcast and the Kitchen Sisters’ “Fugitive Waves,” among others. One “stretch goal” brought enough money to bring in four new shows, one called “The Allusionist” (by popular British podcast host Helen Zaltzman of “Answer Me This!”), which has yet to be created.

Shows on podcast networks can help each other grow by promoting their partners, and this is certainly something Radiotopia focuses on; “99% Invisible,” the largest Radiotopia show with a reported 20 million downloads in four years, has grown 135 percent since the network began and has seen two of its partner shows quadruple in size, according to the Kickstarter campaign materials.

Earwolf programs use Midroll for advertising, and Jesse Thorn told me that his Maximum Fun network provides professional fundraising and also creates merchandise for the shows.

Thorn said it’s difficult as an independent podcast to raise sufficient funding either via advertisements or donations. In his network, nearly all the 21 podcasts receive what he says works out to be an adequate hourly rate for their effort (but he wouldn’t disclose the figure). That said, most of them are comedy podcasts, with less reporting time and audio editing.

 

WORK WITH AN EXISTING ENTITY

Let’s look at this from two perspectives.

The first – and perhaps most ideal from an income standpoint — is when your podcast is supported from the get-go by an existing radio station, radio show, or organization.

A few examples: Anna Sale’s podcast “Death, Sex, and Money” was created at WNYC. She’s received full financial support for the podcast, and the podcast is advertised on WNYC broadcast shows.

The new podcast “Gravy,” about food and culture in the South, was created in house by the nonprofit Southern Foodways Alliance; it launched in mid-November and is hosted by Tina Antolini. “Dinner Party Download” was originally funded, and is supported, by Minnesota Public Radio.

Another interesting example comes from “Inquiring Minds,” a science podcast hosted by Indre Viskontas and, until recently, Chris Mooney. Viskontas and Mooney approached Mother Jones, where Mooney was working, and the magazine agreed to host their podcast.

The model works like this: Either Viskontas or Mooney writes an article to go along with each weekly episode, which is first available on Mother Jones and then on a slew of other sites through an online media network called Climate Desk. That helped the pair reach a large audience.

Mother Jones does not pay Viskontas or the producer, Adam Isaak, though Mooney was at the time already getting a salary from Mother Jones. Instead, the magazine solicits advertisements for the show and takes a cut of the profit.

The numbers for the show are decent in terms of attracting advertisers, in the realm of 15,000-20,000 per episode. But as Viskontas told me — the specific payment numbers were off the record — the money from advertising, after the Mother Jones cut, does not equal an hourly rate that she or the producer considers a sustainable salary.

 

GRANTS AND FELLOWSHIPS

“Gastropod” came about in part because of a fellowship: my co-creator Nicola Twilley and I met during the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming fellowship, and we were in business about six months after the fellowship ended.

That fellowship also paid for a reporting trip that fueled our episode “The Microbe Revolution.”  (The microbe research was first used for a narrative print story I wrote for the PBS Nova Next website and for a short radio piece that aired on “The World.”)

Nicky and I haven’t applied for any grants for “Gastropod” yet, but we’ve done preliminary research and believe there are grants that might help support us.

Many reporting grants require that you identify where your work will be published, and one strategy might be to find a print outlet for your work for the grant’s purposes, while reserving the audio for your podcast.

There might be grants to support communication about the topic you’re interested in; we’re looking at grants that support science communication or science in the public interest. There might be grants to support entrepreneurial ventures headed by your particular gender or ethnic group. We’re interested in grants for women-led journalistic enterprises.

Rose Eveleth, who founded the website Science Studio to highlight multi-media projects on the Web about science, received a startup grant from the National Association of Science Writers. (Science Studio is not a podcast, but a good example of the grant fitting the media project.)

As for where to find the money, a few databases bear investigation:

• AIR’s Media Fellowship and Grants wiki 

• The Media Impact Funders’ grants database (search for funders, not grants awarded) 

• ProFellow.com 

• Journalism Jobs’ Awards/Contests list, and Fellowships list 

The Foundation Center’s online database (requires subscription or library access)

The Grant Center for Public Media (requires partnership with a public media station)

And one thing to consider: Some grants might only be available for nonprofits. We are not a nonprofit. We may need to partner with an existing nonprofit that shares our overall goals, in which case that nonprofit would act as the fiscal agent.

Also, while such grants would be a huge help in the short term, relying on grants can’t sustain a podcast over the long haul.

 

EXIT STRATEGIES

Hillary Frank created “The Longest Shortest Time” by herself in 2010, as a podcast for parents “who want to hear … that they are not alone.” Last May, WNYC bought the podcast (along with Dan Pashman’s “The Sporkful”) as part of an investment in podcasting that included the creation of Anna Sale’s “Death, Sex and Money.”

Such an acquisition is my eventual goal too.

WNYC’s acquisition came with financial support and the ability to reach the listeners who downloaded 135 million programs from the station last year, and thus grow the audience. WNYC also attracts underwriters (the NPR version of advertisers) for the shows.

Slate already has a host of popular podcasts, and Andy Bowers, the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts, told me they might be expanding, although he didn’t say whether this would involve creating content in-house or acquiring existing shows.

There’s also a fine line between a larger media group buying your podcast brand, or buying your talent and name recognition. Take Mike Pesca.

Slate brought NPR veteran Pesca on as a brand and created “The Gist” podcast around him. Pesca told me that Slate offered him the opportunity to host the type of daily show that he wanted to create, one with attitude, despite the fact that his knew he’d have a smaller listenership than the automatic, huge audience that accompanies broadcast NPR shows. For him, that was a pretty appealing “acquisition.”

 

MY TAKEAWAY

It’s an exciting time. There’s evidence that audiences are hungry for quality content, and that there are pathways to becoming financially viable — but they all come with caveats.

It’s incredibly difficult to make any early money, unless you’re creating a new show while already working at an existing program, station, magazine, or institution.

The ability to make money depends at least in part on your ability to attract an audience (along with, of course, producing high-quality content). And if you’re an independent, then you have to first find ways to reach that audience.

The likelihood is that it’ll take a combination of strategies to earn money by podcasting, and that each person or team will have to find his or her own way.

I love our podcast, and we’re committed to working for free for a while as we grow our audience. But we won’t be able to keep this up forever if we can’t also make a living.

 

• Cynthia Graber is an award-winning radio producer and print reporter who, for more than 15 years, has covered science, tech, food, agriculture, and any other stories that catch her interest. Her work has been featured in Fast Company, BBC Future, Slate, The Boston Globe, “Studio 360,” PRI’s “The World,” “Living on Earth,” and many others, and she’s a regular contributor to the podcast “Scientific American’s 60-Second Science.” She was a 20122013 Knight Fellow at MIT. She has been part of AIR’s network of producers since 2006.