Feature article from the November 2009 AIRblast

Podcasting: Nice work if you can get it

By Sally Herships

As recently as a year ago, podcasting appeared to be a burgeoning cottage industry for ambitious independents. Their services were sought after by The New Yorker, The Economist, the Poetry Foundation, and other organizations that were getting into the podcasting business. Then came the economic crash. Sally Herships looks at how these start-up enterprises and their entrepreneurial producers are faring in the recession.

Podcasting will save the world. It will feed hungry children, do the dishes, and even floss your teeth. Radio shows will attract vast numbers of new listeners, penetrating deep into new audiences. Development staffers will dance in the streets, and independent producers will never again lie awake at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering how to make a living. In iTunes town, the streets are paved with gold.

That was then, this is now.

Just over a year ago, I was thrilled to be working for Curtis Fox, producing a podcast for Parents magazine. It was great part-time work: It was a lot of fun, the pay was among the best I'd seen as a freelancer — about 20 grand for the year — and I could work from home. One Sunday night in September, an e-mail popped up from one of my editors at Marketplace around 11 p.m. Could I, by any chance, hit the streets on Monday morning to collect tape outside Lehman Brothers? Please let them know. Thanks.

The next morning, the world exploded. Workers left Lehman's with their spider plants and Rolodexes in cardboard boxes. Smokers huddled in dispirited groups in corners. Soon after, I went on contract at Marketplace, joining a task force covering the banking crisis. As I went from interview to interview, up and down in elevators, from one luxurious conference room to the next, it soon became clear that while no one seemed to know exactly what was going to happen, everyone — even the traditionally cocky, pinstripe-wearing banking types — was anxious. Off mic, they'd tell me, "I've never seen things this bad." As the Wall Street giants toppled, the waves of repercussions hit public radio. Weekend America and Day to Day were canceled. Reporters were laid off. And although I was working more than full time, the freelancer part of me began to feel glum. What would happen when my contract at Marketplace was up? A short while before all the chaos had broken out, Parents magazine had mysteriously put their podcast on hold, and those checks had been making up a good chunk of my income. Podcasting had been looking good, but I wasn't so sure any longer.

In case you didn't know, from the standpoint of craft, producing a podcast is not any different than producing radio. A podcast is audio or video (more about this later) released episodically (and this too) that listeners can subscribe to and download via the Web. But unlike a traditional download where you have do all the heavy clicking and download work yourself, whenever a new podcast episode is released, the files will be downloaded for you automatically. Sign up for a podcast, sync up your iPod or Microsoft Zune, and you can take that sound with you. It's like a portable radio station where you're the program director. Turn the dial to awesome 101.

AIR member Curtis Fox is a hired gun (no, not that kind) in Brooklyn and — with podcast production credits under his belt for the Poetry Foundation and The New Yorker — arguably the most successful independent podcast producer working today. He's never had to pitch new clients; they've always come to him. And if that doesn't make you gnaw your knuckles with jealousy, this might: Fox's business has been holding its own. On the other hand, his contracts are long-term, and he may feel the effects of the recession when they come up for renewal.

But it's not just Curtis. Other podcasters and AIR members Richard Paul and Jesse Thorn both told me that business right now is just swell — in fact, more than. In 2007, Paul changed the signature on his e-mail from "documentary and fundraising production" to "documentary and professional podcasting." Kind of like hanging out a new sign over the door: "We used to make buggy whips and now we make steering wheels." What he's doing for a living has changed, and the recession hasn't slowed him down one bit. Thirty percent of his income now comes from podcasting. The American Classic Podcast series he produces for the Kennedy Center is coming up on its quarter-millionth download on iTunes.

Over at The Sound of Young America, business is also booming. The show includes interviews with personalities from the art and entertainment worlds, and it's touted as being "about things that are awesome." Looking through the lens of podcasting, it is. When he started, Thorn was volunteering his time. But after getting some distribution on PRI a few years ago and some consistent underwriting, the show is now both a podcast and it's aired on 28 pub radio stations around the country. Thorn told me that while he wouldn't say podcasting has fulfilled the hopes people had for it back in 2004, he's still looking at 25–50 percent growth in downloads every year. And that translates into significant dollar signs. During their last pledge drive, their revenue base — listeners signing up to make regular donations — doubled.

Since all three of these producers seem to be swimming strong during a time when many of us are just trying to doggy-paddle out of the deep end, I asked them to share their thoughts on what constitutes a successful business model for podcasting. One disclaimer first. There isn't really an agreed-upon metric for this. The numbers are a little squishy. Who's listening? When and where? Once something has been downloaded, it's hard to know what happens next. So, it's tricky to figure out what exactly constitutes success, but here goes.

Number one: Have a dedicated audience

As Richard Paul told me, "If you don't have a dedicated audience, you might as well be yelling the content out the window because that's how many people you're going to reach." All three of these producers make podcasts that come with built-in listeners. For the 'cast he produces for the Folger Shakespeare Library, Paul knows subscribers to their magazine will follow links to listen. Curtis Fox produces for heavy-hitting periodicals with interested subscribers. And Jesse Thorn kicked off his podcast, The Sound of Young America, as a radio show at UC Santa Cruz. Try building your own dedicated audience from scratch and you'll quickly find out that it's a second full-time job.

Number Two: Is it filling a need?

For his second client, the Kennedy Center, Paul aims the 'cast at middle school teachers looking for technology to use in their classrooms. That kind of specific targeted need propelled his series on the music of the Arab World to the "new and notable" list on iTunes' home page for K–12. Jesse Thorn told me the focus has to be something people really care about. After all, you're asking people to choose you over someone they trust, like or Curtis Fox's New Yorker podcasts. And don't forget the dozens upon dozens of other media competitors out there on radio or TV.

Number Three: Numbers One and Two aren't enough

This past year, Jesse Thorn held MaxFunCon, a conference where you could take classes in cooking, crafting, and cocktails. Only a few hundred people came, but that's all Thorn needed. Tickets were $590, and the reason that people were willing to pay, Thorn says, was because of strength of their relationship with the brand. The ticket buyers were listeners, fans of his shows. It's the big "C" — Consistency. If you promise a weekly podcast then stick to it. If people like it they'll come back for more and more and more. But the show most go on, and you may have to sacrifice a teeny tiny bit of production quality in order to keep it going.

So great. Now you know. Despite the recession, doing business is possible, and you've heard some great tips. Alas, it's not that simple. There's a problem lurking around the corner. Curtis Fox told me that although podcasting, with its targeted audiences, is a perfect advertising medium, advertisers are leery because the content is so hard to track. Once a podcast has been downloaded, advertisers have no way of knowing if listeners ever hear their ads. In the meantime, they're focusing on Internet video.

Brendan Greeley is a former radio producer turned multimedia editor at The Economist Group. He currently produces about twelve podcasts for them, half of them video and half audio. Most are weekly, some are every few days, and others are less-frequent specials. Greeley's been hoping to increase the number of podcasts from The Economist, but no luck yet. "We have a real problem because we do really well on iTunes, consistently in the top ten, but commercially it [podcasting] is just not important." So instead, he has to go make video. That's not necessarily video podcasts — just plain ol' video, compressed and posted in short, Web-friendly segments online.

What Greeley keeps hearing from advertisers again and again is the same thing Curtis Fox hears — that audio does not matter on the Web. Greeley says, "My wife is tired of me saying I just don't know how to make money in audio." He explains that the most popular podcasts, like This American Life or Wait Wait … Don't Tell Me, are making money — but not through podcasting. Their audio is already produced for radio, so it's easy for them to repost their files, lickety-split, with almost no extra cost. Audio, he says, is still seen as a sort of stepchild to video, "sort of video-lite." Greeley wishes he had a better story to tell audio producers. The Economist is committed to making audio. After all, they hired him, not a video producer. But video is still an easier sell for advertisers and listeners.

Both Fox and Greeley say for podcasts to take on video, better content tracking information will have to quickly become available for advertisers, and podcasts themselves will have to become more accessible. Greeley says, "People aren't interested in clicking play on the Web and listening to the whole thing. They want the info more accessible." And Fox adds, "It's still a marginal medium. … It's growing dramatically, but if it doesn't adapt to the world of streaming and simpler interface without constantly clicking buttons" — digging through iTunes, subscribing, downloading, adapting in the car —"it won't ever hit the real big time."

There is one bright point though. Audio, any kind of audio — a podcast or a one-off click-and-play segment posted on a Web page — is much less expensive than video. And so Greeley has been able to come up with one cost-effective solution that he can convince his bosses to pay for: the audio slideshow. It's a relatively cheap model, and it takes more time to show up with a film camera and a crew than to have a reporter and a photographer."

While working on this story, I didn't just talk with the big shops and shows. I wanted to check in with people like me — independent producers. In Philadelphia, producer Stasia DeMarco says one private podcast client has helped pay her mortgage in the big city. And in Chicago, Dan Epstein is podcasting for the Art Institute. Both producers would love to do more work, but Epstein says clients are pretty hard to come by.

My contract with Marketplace ended way back in December of '08. Since then, I've been pretty busy freelancing for Marketplace, NPR, and Studio 360. And like so many of us in pub radio, I'd love to increase my bottom line. But while we now know podcasting is nice work, if you can get it, will it last? Should I sign up for a Flash class? Buy a video camera? What's the takeaway here? Predicting the future of podcasting seems about as easy as advertisers on podcasts trying to figure out if anyone's listening to their ads. But Jesse Thorn may have the best answer. If you think of radio or podcasting as a religion, Thorn says, then he's a media agnostic. He blogs, he tweets, and when I called him with a follow-up question for this story, he was about to head into a recording session — for a video.

Until the technology issues get streamlined, till advertisers can easily and quickly find out who's listening to their ads, and when listeners can lazily tap a button on their iPhones to tune in to their latest 'cast, I'll be branching out — covering my bases. Work does seem steady for those who have it, and I'm definitely hoping to round up some new podcast clients of my own. But I'm not putting all my eggs in one basket. Instead, I'll be picking up a camera (still or video) and yes, signing up for that Flash class. (I'm writing this article aren't I?) But don't get me wrong, I'll still be faithful. And those of you who worship in the church of Podcasting and Public Radio, please don't excommunicate me if I show up one day in an online video.

The best I can come up with is an old jazz standard: "It's nice work if you can get it, but if you can get it, won't you tell me how?"

Sally Herships is an independent producer based in New York. Among others, she's produced stories for Marketplace, Studio 360, and NPR, in addition to putting in lots of hours working at Radio Lab. Sally spent a big chunk of last year chasing parents and strollers around her neighborhood playground while producing the Parents magazine podcast for Curtis Fox Productions.

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