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What If Podcast Success Is All About Patience?
In my quest to understand why some things work and some things don’t, I wonder if one of the biggest success factors is just being patient. Today, three different thoughts related to this.
Welcome to Dispatch #41 of The Audio Insurgent. There are over a hundred new people since last time, welcome.
Last week a reporter from the LA Times called me for a piece he was working on about Tucker Carlson. He wondered if it made sense for Tucker Carlson to start a podcast. My response touched on a few things covered here in The Audio Insurgent with great frequency (such as not thinking singularly about product and platform, instead building ecosystems and experiences that transcend).
First, I told him that I wasn’t really interested in giving Tucker Carlson any advice, but it made absolutely no sense for Tucker Carlson to look at podcasting. The writer was very curious about this, noting that Tucker had an audience of 3.5 million people, the largest in cable news, and other former Fox personalities, with smaller audiences, have launched podcasts in the past.
But I reminded him that Tucker only had about 450k listeners “in the demo,” meaning the target advertising demographic of 25-54 year-olds. I think it is pretty safe to assume Tucker didn’t have all that many viewers under the age of 24, so that means that six out of seven of his viewers were over the age of 55. Those are not podcast listeners and are unlikely to become podcast listeners just to hear Tucker.
Recently, Edison Research put out some great work showing that Baby Boomers are a tremendous opportunity for podcasting–but don’t listen very much yet. According to this work, if Tucker wanted to be a ground breaker and had the patience to build an audience, he could be incredibly successful over time. However, when I think of Tucker Carlson, “patience” isn’t the first word that comes to mind. And since my mother reads every dispatch of The Audio Insurgent, I will not share the actual first words I think of when Tucker comes to mind.
Patience. Patience is a very important word for podcasting
I spend a lot of time deconstructing things to understand what works, and why, and what doesn’t work, and why. I get a lot of inspiration from what I observe. Watching this current chapter in podcasting’s evolution has me thinking about a number of factors–and the latest is patience, which we’ll discuss today.
On to it…
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: PATIENCE] The maturation of podcasting into a modern media form has been really fun to watch and be part of. But there are some gross parts too.
As podcasting has taken its place in the media landscape next to movies, TV, and books, and a number of executives who previously worked in movies, TV, and books now run podcast companies, podcasting has picked up a number of bad habits from these other media forms. Central to them all is the need for instant hits.
This starts with the agent-shopped celebrity podcast concepts that come with such a high price tag that the shows need to generate a ton of revenue, from the jump, to justify the expense, but it goes beyond that too. It appears today that any podcast coming from a company or network needs to generate buzz and downloads quickly in order to avoid being bulldozed over by the company’s next launch, let alone dealing with the 1,000 other podcasts that come out on the same day. It is pretty brutal.
Another catalyst for the compulsion for instant hits is the money pouring into podcasting. Money flowing into podcasting is a good thing, isn’t it? Sure. That shows that others still see the potential for growth. However, that money comes with expectations–and the larger the investments, the more immediate the need to see a return on that investment. Investors are not going to pour a great sum of money into content unless there is a clear pathway for seeing that money come back to them with a sizable return. Understandably, investors can be impatient, thus putting pressure on those they invest in, and create a need to limit risk and focus on projects that will establish themselves quickly and crank out downloads, buzz, and cash.
In this recessionary cycle in podcasting, I’ve heard many creators bemoan that companies have gotten too conservative, avoid any risk, and are only interested in celebrity/influencer-led projects. Some companies flat out refuse to look at narrative projects any more. Or, if they are willing to take a risk, they beat the budget down to the point that it's almost impossible to make anything interesting with such limited time, staff, and resources. When you consider patience, or the lack of it, this explains almost all of this.
A sizable narrative project can often take 9-12 months to produce. That means any investment made won’t see a single dollar for a year–and in the highest risk category in podcasting. A faster-to-market project like a chat show can prove itself faster, but doing even a handful of those can together end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each project may be reasonably priced, but investors are also interested in scale–so it is important to think that the total investment is pretty big.
Almost every time I chat with others who do podcast consulting or development work, we often swap stories about outsized client expectations. It’s pretty typical to ask a client about “comps”--podcasts that can be used as a comparison to what they aspire for their podcast to be like. I often remind them that there is a rule at Magnificent Noise that we can’t use Serial or The Joe Rogan Experience as an example or comp for anything, because they are such outliers. Clients will often say that they want their podcast to be like Radiolab, This American Life, WTF with Marc Maron, How I Built This, The Tim Ferris Show, and so on. And what ties all these shows together? Years of patience by those who developed them (which was often the creators themselves) to build them into something exceptional.
Every once in a while, a new podcast comes out and is an unqualified and immediate hit, with staying power and a lot of long-term potential. Again, that happens “every once in a while”...in an industry that puts out 1,000 new podcasts every day.
There are those who lack patience and are happy to pay someone else for their patience. When you see podcasts being bought or brought into exclusive agreements, this represents when the acquiring company doesn’t want to go through all the time and misfires it takes to end up with hit franchises, so they buy a show that someone else was patient enough to develop. Sometimes this works out great. Other times, the purchase just creates crushing pressure on the creators.
Most podcast franchises take patience. They require vision, for sure, but also the time to stress test their ideas, build their talent, and really understand what’s possible. Even those with brilliant ideas can’t get every detail right. It takes trial and error. It takes experimentation. It takes a willingness to get things wrong. It takes a culture that can analyze their work with clarity and honesty. It takes…patience.
Can this happen by osmosis instead? Sure, it does. But 99.99999% of the time, it doesn’t.
I want to make clear that being patient doesn’t mean having no plan. In fact, in many ways that is even worse. We’ve seen many examples in the past few years of companies and executives that are spread so thin that they don’t have any capacity to chart a course, even when investing huge sums of money. It’s just all ships full steam ahead, all the time. Eventually someone will land somewhere…probably.
When I’m asked for my opinion on a company or investment, I tend to look at the company’s patience to build long-term success. Is their vision compelling, but also is their plan realistic and grounded–and do they have the patience to see it through?
The alternative is to build lots of smaller successes (and there are companies whose strategy is to churn out hundreds of “okay” podcasts), but those who will survive, thrive, and return on investment are those that have a vision and plan to build franchises with lasting value.
There are many who have come into podcasting over the past few years thinking it was easy. The returns would be quick and huge, and that even the most modest efforts would be rewarded. The good news is that soon enough all those people will be gone.
[TODAY’S OTHER THING: FAREWELL, INVISIBILIA] A lot of people have asked me recently about the NPR layoffs that were announced a few weeks ago, and, frankly, there really isn’t much to say outside of it is really sad and sucks. A lot of incredibly, incredibly talented people lost their jobs last week and a number of shows, with millions of listeners, have ceased production.
One of the affected shows is one that is dear to my heart, Invisibilia. Alix Spiegel first came to me to share some of the stories they were working on back in 2013, thinking to call the show that would contain them “The Dark Room.” Along with her co-host Lulu Miller and their editor, Anne Gundenkauf, we spent more than a year plotting, defining, refining, and showing the patience to make Invisibilia into what we all knew in our hearts it could be. At the time, and despite a lot of success in podcasting at the time, there was not a lot of support for what we were doing inside of NPR. NPR had just had (another) leadership change and (another) round of layoffs. It sounds strange to say, but Anne and I got a lot of pressure to let it go. Some criticized the investment of two reporters and a lot of support time into this project that didn’t even have a name (unknown to most, “Invisibilia” was selected as a name just about 12 weeks before launch, after a loooong process of figuring out what it should be called). My passion for helping make Invisibilia real was less about making a great show than it was driven by my interest in creating a “win” for NPR during a tough period–something for NPR to be proud of and demonstrate (internally and externally) what NPR’s potential could be in the digital era. We wanted to create something that only NPR could make.
I am really proud of what we did back then–it was, and still is, the largest program launch in NPR history. It’s first season aired on 255 radio stations, right out of the box, was downloaded more than 10 million times in its first month, and finally unseated Serial as the #1 podcast on the charts. It was a thrilling juggernaut.
I’m also really proud of the show it grew into over the years. The talent that passed through that show was staggering and the stories it shared are equally unparalleled. But most importantly, as well as an editorial conceit, Invisibilia was a new way to create and produce inside of NPR, and I’m really grateful that it had seven amazing years to show what was possible.
This past Friday, there was a Zoom farewell for everyone who had worked on the show over the years. There were 104 people invited and more than 50 came. It was emotional and celebratory and an honor to witness. The most impactful thing to me was seeing all the faces that I never saw or met before who worked on the show in the years since I left NPR. It was amazing to see the show THEY made it into while still holding on to the ethos that made it unique in the first place.
I often say that even good things need to come to an end, and the best things are those that you don’t want to end, even though they should. Patience is really important to success, but so is letting go.
All hail, Invisibilia. In a sea of millions of podcasts, there was only one of you.
Okay, that’s it for today.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.