They call this the golden age of audio. How did it happen? What’s in store for podcasts—and how can producers and public radio stations be part of the movement? PRX CEO Jake Shapiro and Erik Diehn, Midroll Media‘s VP of Business Development, sit down on the PRX couch and talk radio (listen right here or read the transcript below).
Jake Shapiro: Hi. It’s Jake here at PRX, and we’re very excited to have a guest in our offices, Erik Diehn, who most recently was at WNYC and, as of I think three or so weeks ago, has taken the plunge to join Midroll. So we’re gonna riff for a couple minutes on podcasting.
Erik Diehn: Sounds Good. Yes, it’s Midroll Media technically speaking, which is the parent company of the Midroll business which is the ad sales business, and Earwolf, which is the consumer-facing comedy podcast network and brand. We brought you shows like Comedy Bang Bang, How Did This Get Made, Who Charted?, Analyze Phish, The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project, and we have probably another dozen, half-dozen shows in the pipeline.
JS: Earwolf has a couple dozen shows, and then Midroll represents something like over a hundred different podcasts?
ED: Yeah, I think the total number of podcasts at this point is probably 120, 130.
JS: Part of what I wanted to just have a quick conversation about is podcasting itself, because we’re in this ripe moment.
In the minutes before walking in here to chat, we had American Public Media just launching its new podcast network, which I gather Midroll is representing on the sponsorship sales side. We were just excited here in the office because Bill McKibben at The Dish just wrote a rave review of Radiotopia—he’s talking about the golden age of audio, and of course Radiotopia being PRX’s podcast network we launched earlier this year.
So it seems like this convergent moment, a revival, in a way, because podcasting kind of leapt out of the blogging world right around the time PRX was getting started, but it feels like there was this arc where podcasting emerged, there was all this hype and hope, and then it kind of stalled out for a long time.
ED: It was always about to blow up. Next year, it was gonna be big, for a long time.
JS: I feel like you would probably agree with me, but I’d like to hear what you think about it. What do you think of podcasting, and why are we in this moment?
ED: Yeah, I think the reason it didn’t ever get larger than it was back then is for a couple reasons. First is on the commercial side, when Apple just decided podcasting was going to be free. That doomed it, in a way, to being an advertiser-driven business, at least in the initial run. Doom is probably the wrong word, because I think there’s been a lot of good to come out of that decision. It’s become something people can find now much more easily than things that are tucked away behind some monolithic paywall.
But the other reason for its late-blooming success was, I think, just the technology. As everyone knows it’s much easier on a smartphone to get to a podcast. The interface has shifted form this complicated one, where you have to download onto your iTunes and then sync it up. Well, you’ve already lost 97% of the American consumer when you have to do those steps.
Friction is the enemy of all products these days, and I think podcasts had a lot of friction for a long time. The plus side of that is the people who did come to it were really devoted fans. The intimacy of the medium, the fact that it was a really opt-in experience—versus the lean-back radio it’s just on in the car means the people who listen to podcast—those are your biggest fans.
And that’s part of what’s made Earwolf successful. A comedian can find a fan base there. They can engage them in a way they’re not necessarily gonna engage them on a Comedy Central stand-up special, and that drives all the other parts of their business. And obviously for public radio, it’s been a natural transition, because the audience is already so engaged. So I think that’s a reason public radio was early to the game and continues to be such a huge part of it.
JS: So what would be your advice for producers who are now feeling like, “Well, maybe this actually is a viable path for me, no longer waiting to get on public radio.” What’s your advice for them?
ED: That’s a good question. Scarcity is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having scarce air time means it’s really hard to get through the gatekeepers. It’s hard to get on air. Same thing with television. When there’s scarce number of channels, it’s hard to get in there—but once you do, the money starts to come in. Podcasting absolutely gets rid of all that. The barrier to entry is super, super low. You have to know how to record audio. So there’s this huge long tail of 99,000, 100,000 podcasts.
So if you’re a producer, one of the things you have to do is make something that’s good. That doesn’t guarantee it will find an audience. So actually what you really have to do is make something that 50,000-100,000 people find good.
If you put out a piece of audio content and within two to three weeks, 50,000 people download and/or stream that content, you have found an audience that can lead to some level of sustainability. That does not mean that you’re going to be a millionaire, and if you have a ten person staff, you’re not going to break even with 50,000 people listening.
But given where podcasting is today, and the growth that I personally expect over the next five years, today’s 50,000 threshold may be 250,000 a few years from now. A small show may be two to three times larger. And suddenly I think the cutoff between sustainable and not sustainable will go a little bit farther down the distribution curve.
So, you have to make something good. It helps if it’s not your only thing. If you’re a comedian and you’ve got a stand-up business and a movie business and all these other things going on, then podcasting is another angle. If you’re an audio producer, thinking about live events, thinking about ways to engage the audience in digital fora, or through other revenue streams, is super important from day one.
When I was at WNYC, what we were looking for as we looked to bring in producers for new shows—shows we sort of quasi-acquired—was real entrepreneurial, self-starter people who were just gonna do everything they could to make a show grow. And people who were also writing books on the side, and having video projects on the side. And people who have multiple streams for both their audience to consume and also to generate revenue are going to be healthier than people relying on just trying to get something on terrestrial radio.
So, first rule of podcasting, make sure it’s not your only job until probably a few years from now, when it can be. But the good news is today, it’s not a zero-dollar medium either. I don’t want to call it real money but there’s dollars coming in. Advertisers are interested, and the audience continues to show willingness to pay in some form or fashion.
JS: Anything else about frequency and length of podcasts, or other insights to gain from seeing this whole network you’re helping manage?
ED: Be consistent, and try and be regular, so the audience knows when to listen. If you put something out, and six months later, you put something else out, it’s going to be hard to build an audience. But if you do something every other week, that’s OK, as long as you do it every other week.
And then consistency in format. If the audience expects a ten-minute show, don’t suddenly go to two hours. But beyond that, I think there’s huge flexibility.
I was talking to somebody a couple weeks ago who had heard about this podcast called the 12 Hour Podcast, that is two guys who just mic themselves up and record their day, for twelve hours. And you would think, well, no one would possibly listen to that. But they know somebody’s listening because in hour nine of one of the episodes, the guys is transacting with a store clerk—because by hour two they actually forget that they’re recording—and he gives the store clerk his phone number. And he starts getting text messages, because people are listening in hour nine of this thing.
So there’s a whole lot of freedom. You’re not fitting into a broadcast clock, but you’ve gotta figure out what the audience wants, and then keep it consistent.
Now, given all that, you have to think about when people are listening. Commutes are 30-40 minutes. If you’re gonna do a produced, packaged show that people are engaging in, maybe keep it that length. On the other hand, there are people who like to have talk on at work for two hours in the background. Even some of our comedy shows can do quite well even though they’re multiple hours.
JS: Given your vantage point on the whole ecosystem that seems to be growing around podcasting, what are things that you’re excited about that you see on the horizon, and what are some things that you think remain a big challenges?
ED: I’m super excited about cars, in general. That has been such a huge place of listening for so long. I think Volvo’s releasing its first model with Carplay, which is the Apple iPod integration, where you’ve got the indash experience. Podcasts is among the seven apps you see there. And all of the sudden it becomes easier for people to listen. That’s gonna take several years to really take hold. I think the move away from cached downloaded listening to just it’s something to just I’m gonna hit play and listen—that helps all of us because it helps with content availability. It’s going to take a while for broadband to be widely penetrated for us for that to be universally true, but I think over time more and more listening will be that way.
I think general consumer awareness continues to increase. I’m excited because I keep talking to people who I wouldn’t expect to be listening to podcasts, and they say, “Oh, no, I listen to this and this and this and this.”
I really wish we had a better name. Unfortunately, we can’t just say audio, like people who make web video can. You know Netflix is, yeah, it’s movies and TV shows. “Podcast” still has that connotation. I guess we just have to embrace it, and eventually it kind of takes on a new meaning.
JS: Having now crossed the bridge from public radio out into the wide world of podcasting what’s your sense of what public radio’s opportunity or advantage or challenge is?
ED: Public radio has one of the most engaged audiences. That audience is increasingly going to shift from lean-back, linear, terrestrial streaming to on demand and digital streaming. And I think public radio needs to keep moving with the audience. The membership model’s gonna be a challenge, no question. The economics of the system are built for that terrestrial world. It’s gonna be really hard to navigate, and that’s part of what I enjoyed doing while I was there.
But I think creating that bridge between producer and audience is the critical task of public radio. And remembering that you can be a local station that produces great content for not necessarily a national audience. You can still be a producer without being a distributor. The more that stations understand their role in that ecosystem and understand that they need to start investing in content, that they need to start filling in gaps that newspapers, for example, are now creating in their disappearance—the more that happens, the healthier the system will be in the long run.
It’s not about the transmitter. It’s about the good content, the audience, and having funding models that do not depend upon content that is purely commercially viable.
JS: Thanks so much, Erik. You are our debut guest on the couch in Jake’s office. And it was awesome.
ED: Thanks for having me. I love you guys, too. And I listen.
(Radio image via Shutterstock)