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Does Podcasting Lack A Middle Class?
It seems that today podcasting is filled with a few upper class millionaires and a lot of strivers, with not much in-between them.
Welcome to Dispatch #25 of The Audio Insurgent.
Hello and welcome back–did you miss me? Sorry I took a longer break between dispatches than expected. There are more than 150 folks who have signed up since last dispatch. I usually don’t take breaks this long, FYI. We’ve been abnormally busy—launching three shows in a month (more on that in the next dispatch).
Recently I was speaking at a conference of GMs and CEOs of public radio stations and organizations. I only talked about podcasting briefly, but for the day and a half before my talk, it seemed like every other sentence contained a reference to their organization’s efforts in podcasting (with the other sentences mostly focused on DEI issues and action).
So during my talk I asked the 200+ public radio leaders how many of them produced and distributed at least one podcast.
Every hand shot in the air.
Then I asked how many of them had one podcast in their podcast portfolio that, by itself, was consistently downloaded at least 50,000 times per month.
About eight hands went up.
Then I asked how many of them had one podcast in their podcast portfolio that, by itself, was consistently downloaded at least 200,000 times per month.
Only one hand went up.
Why are those numbers important? The average CPM ad rate in podcasting is about $23.16 per thousand downloads. To qualify for buys at even that average rate, you generally need to have a podcast that’s downloaded 50,000 times per month. Public radio sees podcasting as a critical part of its future, yet today only eight stations in the country are capable of hitting that rate on their own.
The 200,000 number? That is the number of monthly downloads it takes to cover the production costs of making a podcast with a full time staff of…one. Podcasting has been around for more than 18 years, and public radio has been considered leaders in its development and growth. Yet of the 200+ stations in the room, exactly one of them had figured out in all that time how to produce a show that was self-sustaining for a staff of one.
(To be fair, WNYC was not in the room at that moment and they easily would have been another station able to hit that mark on several of their podcasts.)
I certainly don’t offer this to beat up on public radio stations. They aren’t the fastest-moving group, but they do have a long track record of getting themselves out of worse pickles than an ineffective approach to podcasting.
I offer it as an example that even among a group that is widely assumed to be ripe for podcast success, few are actually succeeding. (You can watch the whole talk here, cued to the part I just mentioned.)
And how do I define a minimum standard for success? It isn’t a high bar. It is simply being about to break even.
Thus brings me to the one item I have for today.
The elephant in the room with so, so many of my daily conversations about podcasting: podcasting lacks a true middle class. It is filled with a small number of ridiculously successful creators–and a lot of strivers. Like 99.99% of independent podcast creators are struggling to grow and striving. Sure, there are a small group of creators and small companies who manage to eke out a decent revenue stream, but aren’t buying yachts and llama farms with all their excess profits. Also worth noting, I’m talking about independent podcasters here—those working for themselves as contractors and entrepreneurs (yet there are also plenty of hourly/salary employees in podcasting that struggle too). Even the very few “middle class” indie podcasters are a teeny tiny group compared to the professional or aspiring-professional independent creator community. And even they will say that their pathway to paying the rent solely with podcast income was more a matter of luck than strategy or a clear pathway for other creators to follow.
And no one wants to acknowledge this directly.
I mean, look at the narrative around podcasting. It's a $2 billion dollar industry that will double in the next two years! Big acquisition deals! Minting millionaire creators! These are the “wine and roses” days where success is everywhere.
And like many other aspects of our economy, when you are a striver, the pathway to breaking through to that perceived level of success is really hard and feels even harder. In truth, for most aspiring podcast creators, the odds are lottery-like.
We’ll start with an example that caught my eye a number of months ago–and then look at some of the causes and effects.
[TODAY’S THING: DOES PODCASTING LACK A MIDDLE CLASS?]
Cat Jaffee spent the last few days before the 2018 opening of House of Pod sewing covers for acoustic paneling. There is no shortage of sound panel manufacturers, and Cat looked everywhere. They built House of Pod, a combination office, co-working space, and recording studio all centered around podcasting, in a building (with the amazing and ominous name of the “Olympic Auditorium”) that was constructed in 1889. The ceilings were sixteen feet high. They had to do a lot of customization to make the studio sound exactly right.
“I hadn’t been that impressed with what was available and we needed really specific sizes,” Cat says. “So we hand constructed them.”
Every panel. By hand. Same with the lighting system. The same with everything. Nothing available quite fit their needs–so they engineered a solution on their own.
“You couldn’t just get away with something that was crappy if you wanted to be taken seriously,” she said.
The space was deeply thought-through and meticulously planned out. One veteran producer walked into the finished space and proclaimed, “Man, you can just feel that this is an act of love.”
Cat had started out with a dream: let’s build a podcast-themed community space where people can learn, collaborate, and work together. They wanted to help people launch shows. They wanted to make shows themselves and draw their community in to help make them. They wanted to be a hub for podcasting that wasn’t in a coastal city. And in 2018, Cat just got to work making it real.
A few things swung their way early. House of Pod was entirely community funded, having landed an early project that was enough to fund a production and put a deposit on a space in downtown Denver. The perfect space opened up (though the cavernous Olympic Auditorium space it would require some modifications that they could largely do themselves). They had more than 50 people sign up as paying members to use the work space and studio. They provided salary and benefits to their small team of employees. A stream of national productions booked and used the space, too. Eventually they started winning awards for some of their productions–and members started winning awards for work created there, too.
Everything was coming together and worked out exactly as Cat had dreamed.
Then the pandemic happened.
Then Cat was diagnosed with cancer.
Then work (and income) started to dry up.
I found out about House of Pod’s situation via an item in PodNews in October of last year, headlined “In an email, the award-winning House of Pod has announced that it may be closing.” It continued, “The podcast company has no additional funded projects lined up for 2022; and is seeking an investor, a large production contract, or advice on how to survive.”
That read as kinda dire. To be honest, even though they had a pretty cool set-up and had put out a number of podcasts, I only knew of House of Pod vaguely, as my friend Nadia Bolz-Weber recorded her podcast there.
Over the next day or two, a few people mentioned the PodNews item in conversation, and all their takes had a gossipy, scuttlebuttish vibe to them about failure and flaming out.
Then I did something that no one I spoke with did, I clicked through the link to read the actual email from Cat.
It started with:
“Over the past four years, I’ve written challenging newsletters.
Dear friends, I have cancer. Dear friends, we’re closing our physical space due to COVID.
Today, the opening line of this newsletter is: Dear friends, we might be shutting down, for good.
And somehow, it feels the most surreal.”
The email links to a longer Medium post which details (in incredibly clear and specific detail) the highs and lows of House of Pod and its place in the podcast ecosystem.
Then I did something that even fewer did: I called Cat to talk about it.
“I think why I felt comfortable coming out so publicly and openly about our situation is because I do think what we created was a bit of an anomaly, and it was one that I to make sure was recognized for what it tried to do,” Cat said.
Towards the end of the original iteration of House of Pod space, even while dealing with things like cancer and a pandemic, Cat felt things had shifted in the broader podcast industry.
“I went to pitch new show ideas and new iterations, and it was explained to me that things they would have greenlighted previously, now there wasn’t the same room for projects to develop over time,” she said. “I think many of these networks and bigger production houses have an idea of what they think audiences want and [the networks] want to bank on the things that are more guaranteed. And it’s harder to take risks in that environment.”
She was pitching shows and no longer getting them placed and green lit. Almost as suddenly as everything came together in the beginning, it just as suddenly seemed to be coming apart.
“There are three categories of people,” Cat said, describing the reactions she got to the closure email. “There are people who are envious or confused about how we ever even got this far. And those people loved to speak out and let me know. They’d remark that I don't have a background with public radio and I didn’t go to journalism school. And I think that has always irked some. They were like, ‘Who do you think you are starting a production company and having a brick and mortar space? Like what training did you get? What qualifies you to do this?’”
When I heard this, I told Cat: “The person with a megaphone is the first person to tell you how important that megaphone is.”
“The second group of people were those who were fans,” she said. “You’re a casualty of the pandemic in their minds. It’s not just us. It’s like all third spaces.”
The third, albeit small group, were those who reached out to offer help and ideas.
“There was such an enormous temptation to close House of Pod down and just say, ‘Hey, we’ve had a good run’ and buy everybody drinks,” she continued. “And I think one of the more fretful challenges for me has been coming out and saying, ‘We made something great and now we’re facing challenges and I'm going to have to pivot this. Like, can you help me?’”
While we were talking, we started to talk about that even in these salad days of podcasting, for many people we know, even covering things like fair wages, providing benefits, and basic operating expenses can be a challenge.
“I don't really think there’s a middle-class of podcasting,” she said. “Like there are people who are scrapping it together, DIY, and then there are people who have investment funding and they’re kind of up here. And if you are trying to make it across that bridge, it has to be very quick, if you are stuck here in the middle for a while, it’s hard.”
Which begs the question if there really is a systemic way for most podcasters to make it across that bridge.
Part of the low barrier to entry in podcasting means there will be lots of washing out.
It’s kinda like starting a band. You are passionate about playing music and find a group of people that you have enough in common with to start up a group. You play, and immediately it is an incredible euphoric rush of fun. But then, for 99.9999% of bands, it gets less and less fun, until you eventually quit. There is almost no barrier to entry for starting a band–you don’t even really need to know how to play an instrument. But, like podcasting, just because it is easy to start, doesn’t mean it will be equally easy to succeed.
But with all the attention on podcasting, we’ve created some cognitive dissonance between our passion to podcast and the terrible odds of success. That creates a lot of strivers–just starting out and hoping to be recognized.
But, unlike music, where it is difficult but not impossible to have a respectable professional career in the middle of the industry (session musicians, teachers, bands on cruise ships, niche genres, etc), there is almost no pathway, outside of dumb luck, for podcast strivers to reach any kind of sustainable level.
But let’s look a step beyond the millions of passionate entrants into podcasting to the professional level. It is very, very hard for a little independent company to be sustainable. And we aren’t talking about the masses of garage-band-like passionates who start podcasting on a dream and a prayer. We are talking about full-time professionals, often offered fees, deal terms, or other arrangements by networks, distributors, and publishers who can definitely afford to pay better, but force creators into bad situations from the jump. And it’s even harder for a little company to become a big company. It does happen, but it is such a rarity that you can’t even define a clear trajectory.
Yet, in spite of this, we seem to have only one acceptable pathway for podcast venture success: “get big, sell, and make millions.” Why should you accept a below minimum wage fee with no benefits or back-end participation in the project? Because it will help build your reputation, which will lead to bigger projects, and then drive up the value of your company.
I’ve heard that argument given to many, many people–and, frankly, it’s bullshit.
Yet creators continue to accept these deals because of the dream of glory.
Apparently, that’s the only acceptable success narrative.
So, why am I writing about all this, eight months later? (Hey, I told you this newsletter/dispatch would never be a space for breaking news). Well, because I think that as we batten down the hatches in advance of some recession-like activity that will probably impact podcasting to some degree, we need to say some of these quiet things out loud.
Podcasting not only lacks a middle class between the massive success stories and the struggles of its strivers, but we need to understand there are other narratives about our industry other than “start a podcast company, sell to a bigger podcast company, and make millions of dollars.” Companies and individuals will go out of business. Some of the most blingy and blitzy moves in podcasting will fail to take hold. Some things will work out, and others won’t. In short, podcasting will be just like everything else in the world.
The reason this is important to discuss is that almost everyone in podcasting has been singularly obsessed with the “sell and make millions” narrative–even people who haven’t or don’t have any reason to assume that a big pay-out should/might/will be coming their way any day now. With that allegiance to only one possible outcome…with those blinders on, we fail to take notice of the lessons we can learn in other narratives. Lessons that could help us grow, inspire us, or show us alternatives that we hadn’t thought of ourselves are lost, because we don't accept them as anything other than “failure.”
As Cat said, “The only narratives people want to play out are that your work is only good if it charts or gets reviewed–and that only matters if other industry people notice that.”
“Vulnerability is something that just doesn’t exist in the podcast space,” Cat said. “People do not like to admit they make mistakes or that things didn’t work out as they wanted to. Plus, I think that there’s such a difference when men stand up and say, vulnerably, ‘This didn’t necessarily work for us. We’re going to go a different direction.’ And people go, ‘Oh, that's so vulnerable.’ I do think when you have a woman who says the same thing, it’s like ‘Oh, she’s a bad business woman. She’s so emotional.’”
With the coming economic whatever-is-going-to-happen, there will be difficult outcomes and difficult stories. Just like the early days of the pandemic, some people will survive and thrive, others won’t. Hopefully we can be more open to learning from them and using what we gain from their experience to forge some other pathways for ourselves and others.
So…what happened with Cat and House of Pod? It’s days as a “third space” are over as she predicted when we first spoke last fall. She now subleases the space to another podcasting company. The bespoke studio is still in use. House of Pod still exists as a production company, with a stated focus on creating podcasts “at the crossroads of science and social justice.” You should check them out. They are doing great work. They are hiring some more people. She has some good stories to tell.
And how is Cat herself? “Tired, motivated, recording a lot of tape in the field, honing in on my mission, and figuring new things out every day.”
Okay, that’s it for this dispatch, too.
I have two more ideas for dispatches waiting for me to publish this one, so it won’t be too long in-between.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.