Fast. Cheap. Good...Pick Two.
The startup mantra applies beautifully to podcasting but one of your two choices should always be “good.”
Welcome to Dispatch #18 of The Audio Insurgent.
Man, I completely lack the ability to tell which of these dispatches will resonate with people. For the last dispatch, “Five Pieces of Advice for Those Interested in Podcasting,” I thought of that as more of a toss off. I mean, it was basically the transcript of a six-minute talk, which I improvised. Yet it has been, by far, the biggest post I’ve done since starting this (maybe that’s telling me something about some of these big, long thought pieces).
So welcome to all those who are new--more than 300 sign-ups came after that last dispatch. Just to set expectations--the newsletter is free. I certainly hope it is good (I try my best). But it isn’t fast--I put them out when I feel like it. Could be a couple days in between; could be a few weeks. The priority is “good” and “cheap”--because you can’t have all three. Which brings me to our main topic today...
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: FAST. CHEAP. GOOD. PICK TWO.] There are a lot of ways of working and behaviors in startup culture that I feel are just cop outs for poor thinking and lack of clarity (“move fast and break things” is a perfect example). But there is one nugget you often hear in that world that not only rings true, but cleanly applies to the wild west of podcasting as well:
“Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick Two.”
The basic idea is that if you pick two, the third option will be the opposite. Pick “fast” and “good,” then it won’t be cheap. “Cheap” and “fast” won’t be good. “Good” and “cheap” won’t be fast.
Even though startup bros love to chant this, it has been around since at least the 1950s. Sometimes it is called an “iron triangle” (though a lot of very different things get referred to as “iron triangles”), which balances between time, resources, and scope. Same difference.
This constraint model applies really well to podcasting. Run through the podcasts you’ve made or know well--and you won’t find an exception. Whenever we discuss it for podcasting, we often say that you have those three options. You pick two, but in podcasting, one of the choices needs to be “good.”
I use this model a lot when I discuss potential projects with clients, who often start off expecting all three. It isn’t possible, I tell them. And if they don’t accept that, I ask them to cite an example. They can’t. Now, compared to the budgets of other media, “cheap” is relative. You can produce a good podcast series for the same amount as a spec pilot script would cost in Hollywood. Yet, the truth still holds.
Many conversations about new podcasts start with something like, “I want something that sounds like This American Life but I have $150k for 10 episodes and need it in 12 weeks.”
“I want to set up an interview show like WTF but it needs to be a hit when it launches.”
“We don’t know what we want to make, but we want a podcast. We have money, can you make one for us?”
People often look at Throughline, This American Life, Serial, or the many versions of Radiolab as their aspirations for narrative podcasts. Those shows are certainly good (check). But in order to come out regularly, it takes an astounding amount of resources. Good and fast, but not cheap.
The romantic origin of WTF is that Marc Maron set up in his garage, using the free GarageBand software that came on his Mac and a few mics that Jesse Thorn picked up for him. But it also took awhile for it to become a sustainable hit. Good and cheap, but not fast.
“Good and cheap” applies to many podcasts with humbler origins. Lacking any real resources, a couple friends made the podcast on their own and grew it over time. Good and cheap, but it took them forever to make it into something.
Earlier I said that we, at Magnificent Noise, always require “good” to be part of the calculus on new projects. We do that because so, so many companies that are rushing into podcasting don’t really think about “good”--they want fast and cheap. They think that success will come by laying down a huge number of bets. Something will pay off. Perhaps it will become a hit show. Perhaps they will sell derivative rights. Just be a factory and play the odds. And this just isn’t a lot of new podcasting startups. I even see the emphasis on “fast and cheap” in non-profit public radio and state broadcasters, too. Not being “good” isn’t inherently bad, but I often counsel people to think about their brand. If, in other spaces, their brand is known for being good--why, suddenly, is that tossed out the window in pursuit of podcasting?
I admit that there are a small number of companies that do fast and cheap well, but they tend to have a laser-like vision for who their audience is, the type of project they make well, and systematize that work. Their content may not be very good, but it still serves a need. A number of those companies have even been sold over the past few years for big dollars. But the other 99.99% of “fast and cheap” creators don’t succeed, then scratch their head and wonder why.
But I do believe that success comes from focusing on “good”--and then balancing the choice between fast and cheap based on the reality you have in front of you. And there are a number of potential definitions of “good”--and, frankly, most of them work. “Good” grows brands. “Good” creates long-term value. “Good” expands what’s possible in the medium and brings new people to podcasting.
And most importantly, “good” is exciting and fun.
[TODAY’S OTHER THING: HYPER-COMPETITION IN ADVERTISING.] We’ve been doing a series of episodes on Bubble Trouble over the past few months on the concept of hyper-competition in different sectors (when quantity goes up, quality goes down). And the episodes are just fascinating. So far we’ve looked at an overview of what hyper-competition is and a look at hyper-competition in podcasting (with Podnews’s James Cridland).
The latest is a conversation between our hosts Will Page and Richard Kramer, along with Mike Follett of Lumen Research focused on advertising. Mike drops a series of mind bombs that the podcasters can take a lot from, including this nugget: “The people with the megaphones have the greatest interest in saying megaphones are important.”
Okay, that’s it for this dispatch, too.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.