Podcasting: Who Will You Serve?

There are certain debates in new media that I’ve had so many times that I end every exchange thinking that I will never get embroiled in that particular turdfight again. The “make money fast” end of podcasting is one of those I’ve sworn off many times, just like someone who quits smoking over and over. I believe by reading through these posts and trying to refine my reflexive umbrage I’ve reached insights I haven’t ever had, so what the hell. Let’s let it rip. Please bear with me for a couple of paragraphs before I get to my insights.

First, let’s cover the history of this flare up. At PNME 2007 my buddy Michael Geoghegan presented his talk “Selling the Unique Value of Your Content: Determining What Your Show is Worth and Convey It To Advertisers, Sponsors and Investors”. That’s a mouthful, and is what Leesa Barnes refers to as the “Podcasting is Dead” talk. I like Leesa and was interviewed by her for her book but I agree with MWG that you can’t get think his talk says that if you’ve actually listened to it. I listened to it the other day, and basically it says “If you want to make a living podcasting, you have to do a lot of boring business things.” That should come as no surprise to anyone who isn’t a complete gold miner, but to create a successful podcasting business you have to do the same sorts of things you’d have to do to create a successful burrito cart – invest in infrastructure and get your act together.

Leesa also says things like “And I’ve finally figured out the #1 reason why most people claim podcasting is dead and I must share this epiphany”. That’s pretty weak, to use “most people claim …” I can’t say I’ve ever heard or read a credible person making that claim. It is by inspection obviously false if podcasting is defined as “shows being produced.” There are more now than ever. If you mean “cynical opportunists aren’t able to cash out quickly without putting much in” then sure. We have people like Mark ‘Rizzn’ Hopkins who posted his disillusion with ad networks, which prompted a response from Podcasting News and a counterthrust by Hopkins. This brought on responses by Dave Winer about how he thinks you shoudn’t burden a podcast with paying your bills and Kent Nichols about how to make Ask a Ninja a business they had to do business stuff. OK, end recap.

As I followed the links and trackbacks in this argument, my low moment was in the Podcasting News article. I just felt very tired when I read this:

Podcasters Need To Take Responsibility For Making Their Podcasts Marketable

This was in response to Hopkins’ statement:

I set about creating some concepts for a couple of podcasts for Mashable, which frankly is the easy part. I spoke to Pete about them, and he gave them tentative approval, provided I could find sponsorship for the podcast at the onset. I gave everyone a call in the business I could think of to find a suitable sponsor.

My take is not wildly dissimilar from Dave Winer’s at this point. Much like Hugh Macleod’s “Sex and Cash Theory” says, I think it is a terrible thing to make your art bear the burden of supporting you financially prematurely. Like Dave I think that both sides of this argument are wrong. The idea of podcasters “making their podcasts marketable” makes me puke in my mouth a little. I think that is the exact opposite of what podcasters need to do. It’s certainly not what I have done in my show from the start where my lack of a definable topic, format or schedule defies marketability. However, it has for every single one of my almost 220 episodes been exactly what I wanted to do every time. I’ve made money in sponsorships/advertising, but I’ve actually made more money by selling t-shirts and CDs. Get creative kids, there is more than one way to shake nickels from this medium.

Here’s where my title comes in. Traditional media may pretend to serve the audience but really the audience is the product and the customer is the advertisers. They sell their audience to the sponsors. If you enjoy their program it is a means to an end, a way to keep you around long enough to sell your ears and/or eyeballs. What I’ve always enjoyed about podcasting is that the cost of production and distribution is so low (from cheap to nothing) that it is feasible to actually serve the audience primarily. This is the stuff of my PNME talks (2005 and 2006), that there is no reason to not just go for it. You can make a show as targeted to a niche audience as you can without concern for marketability, choosing to serve the listeners rather than the sponsors. The irony is that if you do this well enough, you can actually find sponsorship but of a very specific kind. Podcasting News seems to be thinking of marketability of a general type, being sponsored by Old Navy or the US Navy. That is service to the sponsors. The Mac Geek Gab is an example of a show that is of service to the audience. They have a specific type of demographic of technically minded Mac users, and as a result they have sponsors like Bare Bones software, not the kind of company that would advertise on TV or radio. This is the way it should go in new media. Create your show and be of great service to your audience. If you serve it well enough with a good enough show, you might actually find sponsorship that way but if you don’t put the audience first, that gets less likely.

Podcasting is a medium where the pitch is irrelevant. Just do the damn show and publish it. It costs little or nothing to do that, just a little of your time. If you aren’t willing to commit the time to do it then why should anyone care enough to commit money to you? There is no better pitch than a well produced show with an existing audience. That’s what tweaked me about Hopkins’ posts, the way he treats this medium with the power dynamic of a Hollywood studio or radio syndicate. It seems like 2/3 of the people in new media are trying to rebuild the same hierarchies the other 1/3 are trying to tear down. Don’t ask for permission, don’t pitch anyone. Find your passion, speak your mind, produce your show. Cynical shit might fly but that ain’t how the smart money bets. Don’t quit your day job and force your show to pay your mortgage. Do what matters to you and don’t think about the money until you have to. Take advantage of the strengths of podcasting and be agile. You can’t out-compete big media on breadth but you can on depth. Go deep, serve your audience better than the radio or TV ever could. If you do it well enough, money will find you. If your only motivation is making money, you will do a worse show and probably make less anyway. Serve the audience and not the sponsors. Why? Because you can.

6 Replies to “Podcasting: Who Will You Serve?”

  1. “I think it is a terrible thing to make your art bear the burden of supporting you financially prematurely.”

    BINGO!!!! Great line. Thanks for writing that 🙂

  2. Always love reading your viewpoints, even when they don’t gel with mine. You’re such a contrarian and I love it!

    As for my claim, I don’t need to defend it. Having authored a book on podcasting for profit, I get emails from people who say (and I’m paraphrasing), “I almost gave up on podcasting, then I read your book and now, I see that there IS a way to make money with this thing.”

    To say that I’m not credible because I make that claim is to say that your entire blog isn’t credible because you have an opinion on various issues.

    Anyways, still luv ya 🙂

  3. Leesa, I love you too and I’m looking forward to getting a copy of the book. You did get my fax, right?

    If you think I’m saying you aren’t credible, I didn’t write it clearly enough. I’m saying two things.

    1) The vague “many people say …” is weak stuff, the crap of current bad journalism. It’s not a verifiable claim and it is not accountable. That part is on you.

    2) When people are making that claim, those people are not credible. I have yet to see anyone say “podcasting is dead” whose word I take on anything. They could be out there, I haven’t audited every statement on the subject. But “People aren’t making as much money as they’d like” is very far from “podcasting is dead.” As a medium of expression, I think it is healthier than ever.

    So, I’m not saying you aren’t credible, I’m saying the “many” saying it aren’t.

  4. You’re right. Saying “many” is weak. So, I’ve got to back up my claim with some numbers, eh? Gimme a few and I’ll come back with some stats to back up my statement.

  5. Well spoken, Dave. I think your take is dead on.

    Serving yourself and any listeners is far more important than searching for money before there’s even content. This isn’t old media…as you say, the capitalization costs are so low (zero to basically zero) that raising capital pre-distribution simply isn’t a requirement.

    And I agree that if someone is interesting, the eyes and ears will stay, and then opportunity presents itself financially, in a myriad of ways.

  6. Forget who said, “F..k art let’s dance.” What I hear you saying and I wholeheartedly agree is “F..k monetizing let’s make art or have fun…” Then perhaps one day in some cruel or kind stroke of fate maybe people will be drawn to what you do and maybe bring some dollars a long for the ride.

    You are a contrarian and an opinionated one at that, but extremely bright and articulate with an emo streak. So whatever your true chemistry the some of the parts is an interesting one and keeps me reading and listening.

    I know I speak for many when I say there are times when I feel like saying Dave, how did you know exactly what I was thinking and say it so much better than I could have? So keep working your gift my friend.

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