In today’s NY Times, David Carr writes about the success of “Serial,” a podcast from Ira Glass and his colleagues behind “This American Life,” which has become a runaway hit in terms of downloads and listeners. But Carr doesn’t address the bottom line — is it making money?
Here’s why I ask.
I’m still on KTRS every Friday and occasionally fill in for other hosts when they need a day off, but have no desire to return to doing a show five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Since leaving full-time radio, I’ve been approached by several people asking why I don’t launch a podcast. I have a home studio and the necessary equipment and could certainly come up with enough stuff to talk about — but how much can I make? The fact is that I’ve been in the radio business since 1978, and have always received a paycheck in return for my work.
After all these years, I have no interest in continuing to do any form of radio as a hobby. I do offer podcasts via this website, or via iTunes etc., but those are from the over-the-air radio shows I’ve done (and been paid for). When I did The Final Table Poker Radio Show a few years ago with Dennis Phillips, we had a lot more listeners downloading the podcasts — a million a year! — than listening to the live radio show, but as soon as the sponsorship evaporated, we couldn’t keep it going.
I also view this from the consumer side. I listen to several podcasts regularly, but I don’t pay a dime to support them. Like radio itself, I’m willing to put up with the advertising messages necessary to keep those podcasts available for free — but once they go to a pay model, I’d more than likely stop downloading them. I know several people in the radio business who, after losing their on-air jobs, tried to go the paid podcast route, but it didn’t last long.
As for the advertising in podcasts I’ve heard, much of it is made up of per-inquiry commercials, in which the host gives you a special discount code to type in on a website when you order a service, akin to “Tell them I sent you for 5% off!” That’s not some special deal the host worked out for you. It’s a metric an advertiser uses to see how many listeners are converted to purchasers (i.e. does the commercial work?). It’s the audio equivalent of click-and-buy-rates on website banner ads. I have no idea whether or not they work, but those per-inquiry commercials always sound cheap and cheesy to me, about as classy as the banner ads that expand when you don’t want them to, or automatically start up some video and audio every time you open the page. In other words, they’re more annoying than effective.
Some people who do podcasts are in it for brand extension. For example, they’re already paid to write for a news outlet (e.g. Slate, ESPN.com, the Post-Dispatch), and get to do podcasts or videos, as well, probably for no extra pay. With the company name and distribution platform already set up, they podcast away and develop an audience. But would they survive without that platform? Unlikely.
There are a few podcasts which run spots for bigger national sponsors, and those might be making money, although I don’t know how much of it filters down to the talent producing the shows. As a career-long content provider, I’ve never worked the other side of the business as a salesman who goes out and sells commercial time, and I’m not interested in doing it now.
So, that brings us back to David Carr’s unasked question: “Is it making money?” If not, how can “Serial” or any other podcast survive?