THE PODCASTING ISSUE
The week of September 13, 2015

The unfortunate truth about the podcasting industry

By Joey Keeton

The registration desk at the Podcast Movement convention looked like the midday queue for Space Mountain.

Half of the registrants’ scan codes were coming up as invalid, so they piled hopelessly into the help desk line, which snaked nearly to the entrance of the men’s bathroom some 40 yards away. Meanwhile, online registrants and attendees hoping to pick up badges at the door (for an extra $100 on the already-steep $500 ticket, mind you) eagerly awaited help at the desk, which clearly had not been set up to handle the sheer chaos that was now pummeling it from all angles.

This bedlam? This is good news.

The pandemonium at registration was a direct indicator of Podcast Movement being a colossal success; since its inaugural run in Dallas last year, the attendance numbers had more than doubled. There was clearly a market for this sort of event—a very hungry market. But how many of these attendees are actually going to make a legitimate living off their grand podcasting pipe dream? How is the industry accommodating this massive influx of participants? And, good lord, how does anyone afford a convention like this?

• • •

A woman behind me in the cartoonishly long registration line bubbled with enthusiasm for the convention. She explained to another woman she was there in her husband’s stead, to gather info for him and his videography podcast, and was also on the cusp of launching a podcast of her own. Of the five types of ticket holders at this convention, I pegged as her a Type 1: Those who were on the verge of starting a podcast, who saw the ticket price as a both an investment and as tangible proof of their commitment to their new dream, who ultimately never record anything at all, or do a measly five or six episodes, and then quit after fame doesn’t immediately knock on their door.

Type 2 attendees were those who already had podcasts (but sort of shitty ones), who constantly questioned why they weren’t more successful and saw $500 as a fair price to pay for the answer.

The Type 3s had decent podcasts and some listeners to match. They were there to a) figure out their next move, b) network their asses off, and c) social-media the shit out of their presence at the conference, so that everybody saw that they were capital-S Serious about podcasting. With at least 50 released episodes under their belts, they could almost feel that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; of the podcasters attending, they had the best odds at finding an eventual spot in the winner’s circle.

Type 4 comprised the aspiring producers, folks who already had a successful website or something in another medium and were looking to add a podcast to their personal brand, which they hoped to someday grow into an empire; these attendees were all there to at least learn the general score on the medium, but some were also on the hunt for an acquisition.

How do people make money from this, and is it possible to do so without a listener base that could fill the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium?

The last sort of ticket holder, the Type 5, was the startup guru from Silicon Valley. Many of these sorts were there as promoters, rather than attendees, with booths covered in pamphlets and free glasses and flash drives and raffles for recording equipment, but some had flown in to just dip their toes in the water and get the lay of the land. While most of the badgeholders were wondering how to make money by podcasting, these tech experts were there to ask, “How can I make money off these people who are trying to make money by podcasting?”

• • •

Paying ticket-holders weren’t the only people with financial matters on their minds: Going into Podcast Movement 2015, the thing I most wanted to know was where all the money comes from, too. How do people make money from this, and is it possible to do so without a listener base that could fill the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium? With presentations and panels called “How to Monetize Your Show Without Selling Your Soul,” “Making Podcast Sponsorship Work,” “Podcast Advertising Standards,” “There Are Only 4 (Profitable) Podcast Monetization Models… Which One Is Yours?,” and “Quit Your Day Job: Sustainable Crowdfunding for Your Podcast,” I was cautiously optimistic I’d find the answer.

My first stop was at Blog Talk Radio, a podcast hosting site with a slogan that promised “Serious Podcasting Made Simple.” Their brochure seemed promising: easy sharing to multiple hosting platforms, detailed analytic info on listening activity, a knowledgeable community of users, and online classes for improving your podcasting techniques.

One theme rang out extra loud in the brochure, though: It very heavily emphasized the importance of leaving the boring, technical crap to the folks at Blog Talk Radio, so that you could concentrate full-time on your ingenious artistry. It also used the term “monetization” quite a bit, saying “Maximize your earnings with our advanced monetization systems,” and reassuring you that you’d be keeping “full ownership, independence, and the lion’s share of your earnings.”

I asked Blog Talk Radio’s Chief Architect and General Manager Andy Toh to explain more about his company, and he happily obliged, talking for quite some time about the importance of quality storytelling and letting podcasters concentrate on the creative side of the business as much as possible. But when pressed for details on how the monetization worked, he was less forthcoming.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that,” he said. “Suffice to say, though, we’ve been able to extract pretty successfully.” Blog Talk Radio offers a free service, but anecdotal reports from the Internet seem to concur that it’s lacking, and the premium services range from $40 to $250 a month. For a service that offers mostly things that you could do on your own, if you spent a few extra minutes on your podcast (like auto-posting your episodes to places like iTunes and Facebook), why exactly was a service like this necessary?

Regardless of their overall necessity, the hosting services had the most prevalent presence on the showroom floor, and by a wide margin. There was audioBoom, Podbean, JabberCast, the Rainmaker Platform, Spreaker, and more. While there are small differences between them—payment plans, advertisements and donation options, storage space, etc.—every single one wanted to make the same thing perfectly clear: They care about quality content and your amazing brain. Each service claims to be the one that’ll allow a podcaster to concentrate on their creativity, without having to worry about things like taking five minutes to upload a new episode to iTunes.

While hosting services have been dogpiling on top of one another for quite some time now, the newest trend in technological promotion at this year’s Podcast Movement was remote interviewing services.

While hosting services have been dogpiling on top of one another for quite some time now, the newest trend in technological promotion at this year’s Podcast Movement was remote interviewing services. Three separate companies sported booths promoting such services, but they were all based around the same general concept, which is probably best explained by Ryan Nielsen from the Zencastr booth:

“It all takes place in the browser,” said Nielsen. “You set up a session, you give your guest a URL, the guest views the URL, they can interact with you in the browser, and the result of that is uploaded to Dropbox, and down to your computer.”

Basically, it wipes the floor with recording an interview via Skype or a Google Hangout. Instead of recording the conversation itself, each computer in the session is communicating directly with the service itself, which is recording a lossless audio file of both ends of the conversation. After the recording is stopped, Zencastr asks if you’d like it to mix and equalize the volume of each separate file into a single one, which is then sent to your Dropbox, along with all the separate raw files. It’s in beta right now, which means it’s free at the moment (N.B. Take advantage of that). The other two options are Ringr and Podclear, which work very similarly (though Ringr uses an app, instead).

The rest of the promotional area was a ho-hum affair: Some free books, a mass emailing service, various microphones and recording equipment, and old technology from Silicon Valley that was being dressed up like brand new, revolutionary podcasting tools.

Was I missing something?

• • •

That evening, at the Academy of Podcasters Awards afterparty, I talked to a ginger viking named Maximus Groves, the host of a daily geek culture podcast called Comcastro (which seems to fall in Type 3 territory: The website looks great, the content is steady, but the massive fanbase has yet to assemble).

I asked him about the plethora of hosting services, something I was still trying to wrap my head around. His take was that they were trying to do what iTunes does, but with their own communities. He said he doesn’t bother with hosting his podcast on one, because he didn’t feel that they offered any actual advantage over just posting your episodes to various platforms yourself.

“The thing is, 80 percent of people [use] iTunes to listen to this shit,” he said. Considering that it comes preloaded on every Apple computer and iPhone and hosts almost any title you can think of, it’s a pretty tough platform to compete with. There are a slew of other platforms you can upload your episodes to, but it’s almost a waste of time to do so at this point.

“We’re ripe. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to put this out there.”

Another attendee, Jacob James Garcia, was a perfect foil to my skepticism. He was positively bursting with joy and optimism about taking his podcast, Black and Tan, to the next level. His co-host, Aaron Cheatham, was at the convention, too; the pair split up the panels to soak up as much knowledge as possible.

Garcia and Cheatham, both longtime comedians, are at Podcast Movement as Type 2s, and Garcia knows it: They tape their episodes on a single iPhone and host the series on SoundButt (two dead giveaways of their type), but their banter, voices, and conversations are all fantastic, and they have more than 100 episodes under their belts. In other words: They’re Type 2s, but they’re doing everything right. After all, nobody just starts as a Type 3 (unless they happen to be any of the convention’s keynote speakers).

“I think we’re definitely going to shop out the podcast to more outlets,” he says of their goals for Black and Tan post-convention. “Right now, we’re looking for more platforms—not putting all of our eggs in one basket.

“We’re ripe. We’re ready to go. We’re ready to put this out there. And now we’re able to say ‘Hey, let’s pick from the tree; we have the avenues.’”

He certainly wasn’t alone in this unbridled enthusiasm by the end of the second day. Saturday had been the day for getting the attendees’ blood pumping. After Smart Passive Income’s Pat Flynn’s motivationally titled “The Real Podcasting Struggle: You vs. You” and 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars’s discussion of successful crowdfunding methods, the crowd was like a group of prospectors heading for Northern California to pan for gold.

Saturday’s panels, while no less gung-ho in spirit, were slightly less aligned when it came down to the brass tacks of advice. Here’s what I learned from floating around the panels throughout the day: You can support your podcast with ads; you should never use ads. You should utilize crowdfunding; crowdfunding might be a bad idea for your podcast. We’re currently at the ground floor of the podcasting revolution; bigger names are starting podcasts and pushing the smaller ones out of the spotlight. You should interview well, you should be interesting, and, of course, you should always be unique and set your own path.

That last bit was echoed by Aisha Tyler in her closing keynote address: Be yourself, and personally control as much of your podcast as possible. After all, this is what made her Girl on Guy podcast such a big hit. (Or maybe it was the fact that she had a singing, acting, standup, and hosting career behind her, which brought a huge fanbase to her podcast from day one, which was an advantage that nobody in the audience had? But more on that later.)

In Sunday’s opening keynote—“Deconstructing Podcasting Success: Real Life Stories of Failure Turned Into Freedom,” by John Lee Dumas of EntrepreneurOnFire—the main message was essentially “Don’t ever quit podcasting: Even if you look around and realize you’re homeless and your family has deserted you, success is just around the corner.”

Dear God, how many lives in that audience would end up in tatters from that talk?

Marc Maron followed Dumas, with an address called “Marc Maron: A Conversation With Adam Sachs of Midroll Media.” Most relevantly, he described how his introduction to podcasting was pure happenstance: He was fired from a radio show, but still allowed to use the desk for a month, and so he just started his own show. He had no idea what he was going to do with what he was recording, but everything just sort of fell into place.

Nobody wants to hear that success is impossible to see coming; they want the Plans, the Secrets, the Keys.

His story highlighted the very truth that everybody at Podcast Movement 2015 felt deep in their hearts but fought hard to ignore: There is no formula for podcasting success. WTF With Marc Maron was the result of a strange, entirely unforeseeable string of circumstances, and here he was, telling this to a thousand people who were desperately looking for some kind of blueprint for a successful podcast.

• • •

Nobody wants to hear that success is impossible to see coming; they want the Plans, the Secrets, the Keys, and this struggle to crack the code of success proves, in a way, podcasting’s strength and staying power as a medium. It’s the old Hollywood dream, that legend of a handful of people making it big, that inspires millions of people to try their luck at making it, too—and ultimately coming nowhere close. When a new industry inherits that legend, people will flock to it with promises that their advice and services will help you get there, and the prices they charge are simply Smart Investments for anybody looking to prove how serious they are at succeeding.

With the rise of podcasting conventions, endless hosting services, and services so useless that their utility needs to be explained by a sales rep multiple times, a new industry is forming below the actual podcasting one: It’s a predatory industry, and it operates on the principle that, if you charge people a lot of money for something, they’ll think it’s necessary to cement their commitment to a craft that, odds-wise, they’ll most likely never get anywhere with.

There’s a reason that everybody at Podcast Movement was so happy: They’d paid $500 for a ticket, dropped money on a hotel room, coughed up $10 a pop for cocktails… And if they’re spending that much time and money on something, there’s no way they aren’t on their way to the top of the iTunes charts—I mean, sacrifices always pay off, right? Nevermind the fact that $500 could buy a pretty great recording station for your podcast; you need to hear from experienced experts that ads are good, and also that ads are bad, oh and that you need to prepare for your interviews (who knew!), before you can even think of the equipment you’ll need, and that advice comes at a hefty price.

An audience member asked Maron the secret to conducting such great interviews. Without hesitation, he replied with one word: “Listen.” An hour later, a panel would spend 40 minutes answering that same question. Why? What more do you really need to know on the subject?

Do you think Maron got that answer from a workshop or a panel?

But since podcasting is ultimately a form of show business, the fact that a seedy, bloodsucking element runs beneath its surface, taking advantage of people looking for their big break, means that it’s indeed a very healthy industry. After all, the bloodsuckers don’t waste their time in industries where success isn’t a real possibility. It’s like any other form of entertainment: The bigger the industry becomes, the dirtier it gets. It’s just a side effect of being popular.

A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on Aug. 7, 2015.

Illustration by Max Fleishman