Chris Gale


Podcast Networks Are Probably The Wrong Answer to a Question You Don’t Even Get to Ask

I listen to a lot of podcasts. Looking at my podcast client, the interminable Apple Podcasts app (please Overcast, save me from the hell that is the Apple Podcasts app), I’m embarrassed that the number is actually around 40. Those are the ones I subscribe to, and I try to make a habit of unsubscribing to ones that I let too many episodes pile up. So I’m a big fan of podcasts. I mention this to try and establish my bonafides, even though the rest of this post is about making podcasts, which is something that I’ve only participated in second-hand, and very briefly when I helped my girlfriend set up her own podcast (which I think she recorded a total of four episodes).

Recently, Marco Arment (both creator of podcasts and the previously-mentioned Overcast podcast client) has written several posts (are they called posts? I can’t get myself to call them blog entries), about the tradeoffs of being part of a podcast network versus going at it on your own. As with much of what Marco writes, I think he provides good advice. He certainly knows more about hosting a podcast than I do. He also has the contrasting experience of having had a podcast on a network, Build and Analyze (which was hosted on 5by5), and self-hosting Neutral and the currently running Accidental Tech Podcast.

As a means of disclosure, I’m a big fan of all of them (so much so that I even ordered a bunch of their shirts, and am unable to tell the difference between the first batch and the second “replacement” batch).

His argument basically boils down to comparing hosting a podcast to hosting a blog, and that much like how over time it made increasingly less sense to be part of a “blog network”, the same is true for podcasts. Basically that you should own your own engines of production. I’m amenable to this argument, because on the surface it makes sense. What bothered me slightly after his first piece (and was made more apparent during his followup), was that it seems like he’s positing a false dilemma.

The choice he presents, between being part of a podcasting network and doing it yourself (which really means doing your own hosting and getting your own sponsorships) implies that those are actually choices that a newly-launched podcast has to entertain. Maybe he means something different by “podcast network” than I do. That might explain it. While there are certainly a group of podcast aggregator-type companies (that all seem like the GoDaddy of podcasting), I don’t think that’s what most people think of when they think of podcast networks.

I think of places like Earwolf, 5by5, MuleRadio, Feral Audio, All Things Comedy, Nerdist, etc. Those are the podcast networks which host the bulk of the podcasts that I listen to. To my knowlege, none of those are open to just any old person who wants to have them host their podcast. So it’s a bit weird to have that presented as even being a viable option for the majority of podcasters.

He mentioned on Twitter, after posting the article, that Neutral (his first self-published show) had 1,000 listeners after 12 weeks (compared to ATP, which had 30,000). He was using that as a rebuttal to the argument that some have had that says “Of course you’d recommend that, because you already have a built-in audience”. His point was that if that were the case, Neutral would have had a lot more than 1,000 listeners. I actually think this disproves his point though, because 99.9% of all podcasts will never have even 1,000 listeners.

The fact that he considers 1,000 listeners to be a failure (which compared to ATP, that’s understandable, even discounting the fact that Neutral was a car show, and not a general technology show), is why I think his argument about whether or not to chose to be part of a podcast network is sort of like when Gwyneth Paltrow posits in her newsletter whether you should gather your own Himalayan bath salt directly from the mountains or purchase it from her bath salt guy for $500 a jar. Basically, that it’s a decision that isn’t applicable to the overwhelming majority of people who are launching podcasts.

I also have a hard time believing that had Neutral launched on 5by5, that it wouldn’t have had a markedly greater listenership than 1,000. They’d have been collecting a smaller percentage of the sponsorship sales, so I have no idea if it would have been financially advantageous (it’s entirely possible that a larger percentage of money from 1,000 listeners would have been greater than a smaller percentage from some multiple of that, and I also have no idea what 5by5’s listener numbers are), but that doesn’t seem to invalidate the idea that being part of a podcast network is a boon to your subscribership.

Ultimately, if your podcast is successful enough that you even have to decide between getting your own sponsors (for the record, even the generous Squarespace folks aren’t going to sponsor your 10 subscriber podcast) or accepting an offer from a podcast network, you are already in the rarified air of podcast success. So really, I think I actually agree with his advice, even if I don’t think it’s applicable to the vast majority of people who are going to be making a podcast.

Instead of blog networks, maybe podcast networks are more analogous to cloud hosting, where it doesn’t make sense at the low end (because it’s cheaper to just spin up some VPS’s), or the high end (where you have enough infrastructure needs that it’s cheaper to host your own boxes), but there is some middle level where the benefits of reach outweigh having to pay out a larger percentage of your ad revenues.

So if you’re deciding to start a podcast, set up your own hosting, and realize that the odds are very good that you’re never going to acquire enough subscribers to either worry about ads or being asked to join a network. It’s sort of like starting a startup, in that the majority of which will fail. That’s not to say that it’s a lottery, as that implies everyone’s chances of success are equal, and with creative endeavors, that’s not the case. I would argue that my idea for a “Big Trouble in Little China” themed podcast (Big Podcast in Little China? The Pork Chop Expresscast?) is actually much more likely to bring me riches and internet fame than your early Bauhaus furniture podcast (although I’d totally subscribe to it.).

And as to the bath salts question, just buy them from the guy; the base of the Himalayas is riddled with the bones of would-be explorers who tried to do it themselves. Also, just flying to Nepal will cost you more than $500.