As I write this, unconfirmed reports are circulating that Podango, a podcasting network, will soon turn out its lights, lock its doors and shut down. If true, this is certainly bad news for Lee, Doug, and other members of the company -- and it's particularly grim for entertainers who relied on Podango's services. These creators will soon scramble to find new online homes for the content they've hosted at Podango. This is a painful process. It's also a shame. I'm convinced New Media entertainment and distribution via social media is the way to economically and viably build a body of work that can help propel creators toward more mainstream (or at the very least, more profitable) opportunities. It's also a helluva way to build an audience, make a crapload of awesome friends, and network with like-minded artists and businessfolk.
Now, I'm just one guy doing this podcasting thing -- and while I've been in the game for about three years, my opinions of podcast networks haven't changed much since I started. Which is why I've never joined one.
Nearly all podcast networks use the collective clout of their shows (and those shows' audiences) to attract advertisers. Advertisers, in turn, help fund these companies' operations. Lucky podcasters can benefit by receiving some of that revenue. Based on anecdotal and personal experience, you have to be a pretty lucky podcaster indeed to make decent cash from advert deals.
Thankfully, we're well past the "quit your day job" crapmeme that was buzzing in the 'sphere back in 2005. I highly doubt folks entering the podcast space these days believe they'll make a living wage from their passion project. This is a good thing: eyes are wide open, expectations are managed. (Sadly, this lack-o-living-wage standard can be said for artistic endeavors well beyond New Media. Just ask a novelist.)
Still, podcast networks need high audience numbers to attract advertisers. To do that, networks provide podcasters with incentives such as free file hosting -- Podango and other networks do this -- and the chance at scoring some revshare. Shows also become available through the network's portal site, which might generate trickle traffic to the podcast itself.
There can be trade-offs in such arrangements, in which the creator may not control the ultimate fate of his property. I won't dive into those trade-offs here; that dead horse has been flogged into Elmer's Glue. But the timeliest issue is the one that Podango's podcasters may soon be facing. They're now migrating their media files (and perhaps more) because they've been let down by the network. This is because the monetization scheme for podcast networks doesn't work.
Perhaps it's just not working now. Perhaps it never will. But one thing the graves of many a dead podcast network indicate is that pooling disparate entertainers with little-to-no common audiences doesn't seem to appeal to mainstream advertisers. Headlining podcasters carry the lion's share of audience ears (and eyes) at these networks, and are the ones most likely to benefit from advertising revshare. That's fine and fair, but the dozens or hundreds of other programs continue to add expense for the network (via hosting, bandwidth and possibly promotion costs). And speaking personally as a now self-employed victim of the current shithole economy, let me assure you: There's only so much money in the VC coffers. The ad-supported model takes a lonnng time to take off, particularly in the New Media and mobile spaces.
To be clear: I'm not critiquing the hard work of Lee, Doug and the Podango crew specifically here. The ad-supported network model may need more time to bloom, as more advertisers "get" New Media. But in the meantime, it appears that the only viable monetization and/or promotion option for podcasters is to join a network. And if the current network model doesn't work, then these entertainers' careers are trapped in a zero-profit scenario.
Or are they?
I've been an indie since February 2006 because I see a lot of "giving" going on in these networks, and not a lot of "getting." Free hosting? Bah. Reliable hosting costs are preposterously low-priced; I host my media files at Libsyn, receive unmetered bandwidth and a robust stats engine for $10/month -- a steal. Trickle traffic from a network-branded portal site? I've always wondered how effective this is, particularly when said portal may have hundreds (or more likely, thousands) of other shows in its stable. That's a lot of noise for my signal to cut through.
Further, a driven indie creator can birddog and acquire advertisers on his own if he wishes. (The profits for these ad deals would likely be larger, since no network exists to take a cut.) And even the densest podcaster understands the wisdom of networking within the community. You create and release promos, you craft cameo opportunities in your programming, etc.
And if you're in this for the money (or would like to see some cash for your efforts), and advertisers still aren't interested? Don't pack up your shit, and don't go network. Go freemium. Merchandise your property. I'll likely do both next year, and gun for advertisers, too.
Freemium and merchandising represent the greatest untapped potential of podcasting and New Media, and very few entertainers -- including myself -- are taking advantage of it. But the ones who are doing it, and doing it well, are podcasters you've heard of: Ask A Ninja, Keith and the Girl, Scott Sigler, Gary Vaynerchuk, etc.
Social media maven Chris Brogan recently blogged about this topic, stating, "Podcasting as we all thought it might be in 2006 is gone." Brogan, a co-founder of Podcamp, is right about that. The space is evolving, and the most-successful podcasters are evolving right along with it. "In the end, want to make money with podcasting?" he asks in the post. "Figure out how to make money not on the media itself, but on what the media represents. Simple, and yet elusive."
This is why freemium, merchandising and -- if you're really lucky -- licensing models are the very best way to earn money in this space. Podcasting is an extremely resonant way to create a connection with an audience. (Is it the power of the human voice? A nigh-mystical bond between author and audience, much like the kind radio DJs have with their listeners? That's a topic for another post.) It's a fluid, remarkable way to communicate to -- and receive communication from -- people. It resonates. It engages. It's powerful and personal. If you're creating killer content, your audience will want to reward you for your hard work.
By creating merchandise (behold the diverse, creative and cool products offered by Ask A Ninja and Keith and the Girl), podcasters can provide a "tangible" way for fans to support (and evangelize!) their work. By offering a freemium model -- in which free content is available to all, but superfans can pay for premium content, and are exposed to exclusive offers/contests/etc. -- podcasters can monetarily benefit, and fans get the royal treatment.
And if you can snag an advertiser's interest? So much the better.
And if you can snag the interest of a mainstream content distributor (such as a publisher or a production company)? Fuckin'-A, brother ... you're living the dream. Pimp those products in your podcast. Your people helped get you those deals; they'll be happy to support your mainstream endeavors.
I believe the future of successful New Media monetization hinges not on the macro, but the micro. By remaining in absolute control of your content (and where/how it's hosted online), making your listeners the stars, and offering them interesting and fun ways to opt-in and support your creative efforts, you'll likely make more money -- and deliver more delight to your fans and yourself in the process -- than if you mindlessly shake your ass for Audible or GoToMyPC or WhatTheHellEver.com in a dozen-dozen of your podcast recordings.
Cater to your people. Feed them the best entertainment you can create. They'll reward you.
You don't need a network to do that.