What Problem Are You Solving...And Whose Problem Is It?

Focusing on the needs of the audience, not you, is critical to podcast success.

Welcome to Issue #4 of The Audio Insurgent

It is a snowy day here in the northeast, hope you are warm and healthy and ready to go.

So today I have one big thing, a few random things I’ve been reading, and one operational thing: Part 2 in my look at creating production budgets. 

Whenever I hear someone use the term “pod” to describe a podcast or a podcast episode, I usually stop listening at that point. Such as, “Have you listened to the new pod from Crooked Media?” or “Armchair Expert dropped a new pod last night and it’s one of their best ever.” I tune them out because when I hear that term I no longer think the person saying “pod” will have much to offer. It’s like taking style advice from someone wearing parachute pants and cowboy boots. If you do this, I’m sorry, but please stop (saying “pod,” I mean--if you are into parachute pants, please, you be you). 

A number of people conjoin “pod” with another word for the name of their service or business. That’s fine. But “pod” on its own, no, no, no.

“Podcasting” is a rough enough word as it is, no need to make it worse.

My dislike stems from my general dislike for jargon. Whenever I speak to more than one person, I deliberately try to avoid all jargon, acronyms, abbreviations, and the like. It takes longer to say things, but that also isn’t a bad thing. The reason? Because if people are being honest, they’d admit that they often don’t know what these things mean--or they have different interpretations or understandings. Here’s an example: many companies in podcasting are concerned with SAC (Subscriber Acquisition Cost). Does everyone, in every meeting really understand what “SAC” means? What goes into determining it? What factors influence it to go up or down? Or even whether up or down is good or bad? (Hint: they don’t, but don’t want to admit it.) 

Everyone just nods their heads. When you use actual words with clear meaning, you avoid a lot of misunderstandings.  

That’s why whenever I’m discussing podcast strategy, for a company or with a group of creators, I often focus on a short list of questions that are hard to answer using vague or jargon-laden language.

Which brings me to this.

[ONE BIG THING: WHAT PROBLEM ARE YOU SOLVING?] For about the past year and change, my favorite question to start off a podcast brainstorm is “What problem are you solving?”

Most companies and creators get completely stumped by this. They are all excited about producing a podcast--they may even already know what it's about, who the host is, and some episode ideas.

But when you ask them “What problem are you solving?”--they struggle. Then they give an answer. Then I often spend the following few minutes explaining why the answer they gave almost certainly signals the pending doom of their podcast.

Let me back up a bit...

When I was just starting in radio, I read a few books by technologist and media theorist Neil Postman. He has been dead for some time, and was most prolific during the 1970s to 1990s. At the time, many people read his ideas as rather pessimistic and curmudgeonly, though I think it’s fairer to say he was a “critic” in the classic sense and far from a technology cheerleader. I point that out simply because when you look at his work today, it is shocking how much of the media culture we experience today was part of his vision forty years ago. In his final book, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century, he wrote a multi-question test for the efficacy of new technologies. Postman offered a six-question test, but when applying it to new ideas in podcasting, I reduce it to three. They are:

  • “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” 

  • “Whose problem is it?”

  • “What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?”

When I ask this of potential podcasters or companies interested in podcasting, I always start with that first question, shortened to “What problem are you solving?” Yet it is often the answer to the middle question that is really critical.

The middle question matters because the answer they give almost certainly implies whether the problem they are solving is theirs or a problem of their future audience. And in all things podcasting, the shows, apps, projects, ideas, and initiatives that win are those that solve problems for listeners.

Many initial answers to “What problem are you solving?” I hear are:

  • “Finding a new way to share our work.”

  • “Others in our industry have a podcast and we need one too.”

  • “Add our voice to the conversation on this topic.”

  • “To find new revenue opportunities for our company.”

Those answers show you are using the new podcast to solve your problems. And I don’t care what the idea is, how great your host is, or whatever, when you are producing to solve your problems, your podcast is guaranteed to fail.

The same principle applies to new solutions for monetization, discovery, or other elements of the podcast user experience. Too many are trying to solve industry-focused problems, not a listener-focused problem. Too many solutions in podcasting are designed to make things easier for creators, or for advertisers, or for networks and distributors. They hinge on needing listeners to change their behavior...with no clear benefit to the listener for doing so.

So important it is worth repeating: In all things podcasting, the shows, apps, projects, ideas, and initiatives that win are those that solve problems for listeners.

So...what are listener problems? Here are some examples:

  • “I want to connect to others with whom I share an interest.”

  • “I’m bored.”

  • “I want to learn something new.”

  • “I don’t hear things that speak to me.”

  • “I don’t understand this story.”

  • “Everything sounds the same.”

  • “I feel alone.”

  • “I want something that comes out more regularly than other things I like.”

  • “I want to be amazed.”

There are undoubtedly thousands more, if not an infinite number. When you solve them, you create surprise and delight. And when you achieve that, listeners become your biggest evangelists. They just can’t shut up about the amazing thing you’ve done. And that is a contagion. They start telling everyone to listen.

The obvious solution when you find a project is positioned to solve your problem? Find a way to turn it around. Often, with some surprisingly minor, yet critical, adjustments, ideas can solve a listener problem. If not, then it is probably best to move on to a different idea.

[A FEW RANDOM THINGS I’VE BEEN READING] I was very impressed to read this take on the state of podcasting in 2021 by Justin Jackson (of Transistor.fm). To be succinct: Yes, he is completely right.

I’ve also been reading the book Everybody Has a Podcast (Except You) by the three guys (actual brothers) who host My Brother, My Brother and Me. The book is really fun and the advice is very solid. I’ve been quoting them a few times this past week (they are much funnier than me). In case you are wondering, “Why is a guy who wrote a book about podcasting reading someone else’s book about podcasting?” It’s for the same reason Neil Peart routinely took drum lessons his entire career: you can always learn something from others, find inspiration and insights in their wisdom, and find new ways to improve.

[BIG OPERATIONAL THING: HOW TO CREATE A PRODUCTION BUDGET, PART 2] Judging by the feedback I got from the last edition of The Audio Insurgent, this series is really resonating with you. That’s great.

If you didn’t read the first part, about staff costs, it is at the bottom of Issue #3. This time we’ll look at other considerations in creating a budget. Next time, I’ll share a budget template you are welcome to use yourself.

So, as mentioned before, most of the costs in most production budgets are people costs. Once you have figured out those costs, how do you figure what else you’ll need.

And the best part, it doesn’t start with math or numbers! 

It starts by asking yourself (and your collaborators) nine questions. The answers to each will provide you with an idea of the other items that should be contained in your budget. Let’s run through them.

  • Do you need to pay for any rights? Everyone loves to claim “Fair Use” for using clips from news reports, movies, and other copyrighted material. Many are disappointed to learn that for most situations, Fair Use doesn’t waive the need to receive permission and pay a licensing fee. Three main reasons for this: (a) most podcasts do not satisfy the legal standards for Fair Use, (b) thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it’s hard for digital projects to claim Fair Use, and (c) Fair Use is only a U.S. concept and doesn’t protect you internationally. Plus, Fair Use is only a defense after someone sues you--it cannot prevent a lawsuit. So, after all that, you need to build into your budget the cost of licensing any other media you need to use. Costs vary wildly, but we always build in $500 per piece of licensed material per minute and hope that covers it.

  • Do you need more help beyond your core team? These are freelancers who may work on a component of your project, but not be engaged throughout. These people usually charge you a per episode or day rate. Examples of this are a fact checker, a script editor, a sound designer, or a stringer for remote recordings. If you are looking to understand the rates for each, I’d suggest the AIR Rate Guides

  • Will you need to travel? I know this isn’t a concern right now, but once the world starts to spin again, a fair amount of remote work will again require a reporter or producer to travel. There are a couple mini-questions to ask to help figure out what your needs are:

    • How many trips will you need to take within 100 miles of home? How many days for each?

    • How many domestic trips that will require air travel? How many days for each?

    • How many international trips? How many days for each?

From there, you can figure out costs. A 100-mile car trip will reimburse to around $50, a domestic air ticket should be budgeted at $500 (an international one at $1500), $200 a night for hotel, and a per diem of $55 per person per day for food and $40 per person per day for transportation. 

  • Will you need to rent studio time? How many interviews and host tracking hours will you need (and remember some recordings may require more than one studio). Budget for 125% of that amount at a rate of $200 per hour (some will be more, others less).

  • How will you acquire scoring and music elements? This is one of the most elastic elements of a budget. And frankly, there is no correlation between what you pay and the quality of what you have. There are numerous sources for license-free music (often requiring that you shout-out to the composer), production music that you license on a per show basis, and creative people who will compose bespoke scoring and music for your exact need. Prices fluctuate so much, but smart research will find affordable options. You can make your dollars go even farther by combining different sources. For production budgeting, we usually factor in $150 per episode for licensed music, and $4,000 for a custom score library (containing a number of related custom pieces that can be mixed and matched).

  • How will you safeguard yourself and your team? I’m always surprised by the number of podcasters who have never heard of production insurance, which is a media producer’s version of E & O Insurance (“E & O” meaning “Errors and Omissions”). It is a foundational element in TV and movie production, and many of the major networks require it for podcasters, too. It protects you and your team from liability in case you are sued or inadvertently violate someone else’s copyright, and a number of other things. We generally expect that it will cost 1-2% of a production budget (depending on the type of production and number of episodes) with a minimum of $2,000 per year. The insurance will also require that you pay an attorney to review your work (that isn’t produced live), so factor in another $350 per episode, unless you have a distributor willing to pick up that cost or review it in-house.

  • Will you have any miscellaneous costs? Transcription, translation, equipment costs, catering, access to news archives or databases, hosting and ad server costs, and other things you may need to produce your project that will come out of your pocket if you don’t acknowledge and plan for the expenses up front.

  • Will you need help getting the word out? I know the network you are working with thinks they will provide marketing support, but they are probably lying. Or their idea of proper marketing support will probably be less than your idea of proper marketing support. It wouldn’t hurt to build in another 10% of your budget to hire someone to help.

  • Do I owe anyone fees or a commission? If you use an agent or a lawyer to help you secure or negotiate your contract for the project? Then you should build those costs in. A lot of networks will balk at paying your legal fees or an agent’s commission, but never have a clear answer when you ask how you are supposed to pay them otherwise. If you don’t build these into your budget, you are paying out of your pocket. Budget them as 10-15% of your total budget and call them “Professional Services.”

If you are working with a distributor or network, it's good to run through these questions BEFORE you create your budget, as they may have a way to cover some of these costs (an in-house fact-checker or they have a subscription to a production music library, for example). Whenever I walk a producer through building a budget, the almost universal reaction is “Wow, all this really adds to the costs.” I have two reactions when I hear this. First, have you ever seen a television or movie production budget? If not, let’s just say your fully fleshed-out podcast budget is still super cheap. And second, if you think factoring in all these costs makes the price too high, then you are likely underestimating the value of you and your idea. If something is too prohibitive to produce (and many ideas are), that’s one thing. But if you are pricing something down in order to sell it, and in a way that increases your risk and work for less money, then you are making a terrible mistake.

In the next newsletter, I’ll share a template you can use to take the costs above, as well as the people costs we discussed last time, and put them into a spreadsheet (that I’ll provide) to come up with a number that you can stand behind.

That’s it for now. Again, if you enjoy this, please let me know.

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Make great things. I’ll be listening.