On this episode of Recode Media, Peter Kafka and Nick Quah go all meta and discuss the business of podcasting while taping a podcast. They cover Quah’s widely read industry newsletter Hot Pod and talk monetization of podcasts (advertising? subscription? some other method?), distribution of podcasts and, finally, favorite podcasts.
You can read some of the highlights from the interview at the link above, or listen to it in the audio player below. We’ve also provided a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher or SoundCloud.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka. That’s me. We’re part of the Vox Media Podcast Network here at Vox Media New York headquarters with ... Nick or Nicholas?
Nick Quah: Nick is fine.
I’m here with Nick Quah. He runs Hot Pod. Hot Pod is the most-read newsletter about podcasting.
It is probably the only newsletter about podcasting. Is there more than one?
It’s the only one about the podcast industry that I know of, except for Jason Calacanis’ Inside Podcasting. I think that’s a newsletter as well.
Jason Calacanis, who’s probably listening to this. But Nick Quah is the most-read podcasting newsletter. I’ve been reading it forever, or at least a year, right? How old is the newsletter?
The newsletter is actually about three years old.
Almost three years old.
I’ve only been reading for a year because I’ve only been podcasting for a year.
That’s true. That’s true. I’ve been listening to it every day.
If you want to learn about podcasting, you read Nick’s letter. It’s free. There’s also a paid version. You can also go get it at Nieman Lab. There’s a good chance that half of you are probably podcast nerds and are already reading Nick’s newsletter. The rest of you may just be people who like this podcast. God bless you. What I thought we could do is talk a little bit about the podcasting industry, where it’s at, where it’s going. Nick, how big is the podcasting business?
Compared to every other digital media platform out there at the moment, not that big, but the story is that it’s growing, and it’s growing tremendously and it’s growing at a really fast rate. Estimates put 2017’s projections around 250 million. That’s by bridge ratings, but that’s before ...
It’s $250 million dollars in revenue all in this year?
All in this year.
That’s a mid-sized media company.
Pretty much. About mid-sized media. How much does Vox Media make?
I don’t know if we disclose that. I’ve read that BuzzFeed is on track to do 350 this year, so it’s less than a BuzzFeed.
Right. Absolutely less than BuzzFeed, but there’s also ...
Up from zero a couple years ago.
Not zero. It’s going really quickly. Last year’s number, I believe was about 107 million, so it’s more than doubled, and it’s expected to keep growing at a faster rate moving forward. There’s a study being commissioned right now by a bunch of the podcast industry executives, I believe with PWC, that’s going to bring us more insight into these numbers. I think that’s going to come out later, in summer or fall.
These are all general estimates. There’s no one officially tracking this stuff?
The numbers are estimates. There’s a range to these. It could be a much bigger number, but it could still be a small number.
When people talk about a podcast boom — sometimes they talk about a podcast bubble — someone like me scratches my head and says, “This is a boom?” This is pretty modest, right? It’s not like there’s a ton of money going into podcasting from advertisers. Are people investing tons of money into podcasting?
They’re investing ... I’m not sure I know what you mean by “tons,” but if you compare it to tech companies or big media companies, certainly not a ton, but there are investments in this space. The more prominent ones are the investments going into Gimlet Media. There’s also media companies that are multi-platformed at investing within the companies that build up podcast divisions, but in terms of stuff like podcast tech or podcast media innovation and that kind of stuff, it’s still a pretty slow clip at this point.
Has anyone tried to size up the amount of money going into podcasting? Has anyone put an estimate on that?
They’re trying right now. As I mentioned, there’s a $250 million number, that comes from ...
In terms of investment?
No. Not that I know of.
Yesterday — this will come out in a couple weeks, but yesterday I wrote about a company called FuboTV, probably you haven’t heard of it.
Is it a clothing brand?
No. No. They should probably change their name, but they’re selling over-the-top video, like movies, like Google is. They just raised $55 million because there’s the Cannes media conference that’s going on as we speak. Someone’s making these announcements. CNN has something called Great Big Story, which is just their version to do their own internal BuzzFeed. They just announced they’re putting $40 million into it. Vice just raised $450 million. This is all in a couple days’ worth of announcements. We’re at a half a billion. My sense is that when people talk about money going into podcasting, it’s in the single digit millions, if that.
It certainly feels that way compared to all those developments that you talked about, which sound large, a little frothy, very, very extravagant. That’s definitely not the case in podcasting at this point in time. That’s largely because the narrative for the industry is very, very young. There’s still a relatively low level of trust between the category and advertisers and investors, but it’s also worth remembering that the sort of moments that we’re in right now, it’s about two or three years old, and so it takes a while, I would imagine, for more trust to be developed in this space, such that they would actually be incentivized to dedicate more money into it.
Let’s back up and talk about the moment, talk about how we got here. If you’re a real podcast nerd, you’ll know that this is the second or third wave of podcasting, right? Originally, this goes back to the iPod, the pre iPhone era. That’s why it’s called podcasting. Adam Curry, who was a VJ at MTV, was somehow attached to the concept of podcasting. You can go back and find Businessweek articles about “Podcasting is here.”
I also found that Wikipedia is actually a pretty good primer if you just want to get a bearing on the industry.
You can do all that, but it sort of came and went, and there were a handful of people who were into podcasts and I was one of them, but most people never really heard about it. In the last couple of years, it is now ... Everyone I know has a podcast. Everyone I work with has a podcast or aspires to have a podcast, but beyond this nerd group that I’m in, regular people have heard about podcasting. What happened to bring to more mainstream?
There are two inflection points or two parts to the initial inflection point about 2014. Some would allocate the reason for why we’re seeing this moment to when Apple decided to include the podcast app by default with iOS, and that happened sort of early.
You got an iPhone. You got a podcasting app whether or not you wanted one.
It dramatically reduced the friction between people hearing about podcasts and trying it out.
What’s this thing on my phone? It’s a podcast. What happens if I push the button?
Free stuff. Right, basically. I think that’s attracted a lot of people, if you just put a television in everybody’s homes, by default, I’m sure the number of television viewership just goes up, right? The other sort of big component is Serial. That first season of Serial, the phenomenon that broke out from this category, a quirky experiment by the team from This American Life, and it turned out to be just a cultural phenomenon.
The true-crime story. Why do you think Serial hit the way it hit?
I think you have this sort of baseline of general interest that Americans and the world seem to have for true crime in general, and you combine it with a very, very interesting and well-produced experience, and you add to that the very, very high quality reporting and narration by Sarah Koenig and her team. I think this is a perfect storm of a really thoughtful media product within a true-crime space. That kind of tickles your salacious interests in the back of your head, but also validates it, like, “Oh, this is high-class, high-prestige kind of stuff."
It was happening in real time or close to real time, so you could follow along with the murder mystery and you could weigh in on it and eventually it sort of ...
Also, just going to add that the Serial team probably does not like being referred to as being a true ... that the first season is a true-crime show. I think they very much see it as a piece of long-form reporting.
That’s fine, but it’s my show, so I can call it a true-crime show. The reality is, like you said, there’s always been interest in true crime and there’s the tawdrier versions of it, watching court TV.
Or like three-fourths of the HBO documentary portfolio is true crime, right?
Yeah, or most of the network news shows are true-crime stories, so you could not like being true crime, but people like true crime, or “Making of a Murderer,” the Netflix show, taps into something, but it became this thing that people were telling people about because there’s no ... We could talk about this, too, but there’s really no avenue to find out about podcasts except having someone tell you about it or reading about it.
That was sort of my feeling when the first season of Serial is happening, that sort of, “Why isn’t there a Hot Pod?” I was working another job at the time and there was this ...
You started doing this full-time because of Serial?
It wasn’t full-time. I started Hot Pod as sort of a fun side job on weekends.
Because of Serial, though?
Because of Serial. I’d been listening to podcasts for a long time and had been a big fan of the medium. When the season was hitting its peak, I think probably that sixth or seventh episode, I just noticed a bunch of reporting around podcasts and Serial in specific, and I was sort of unsatisfied with what I was reading because I just felt like I wasn’t really understanding or hearing what I understood about the space. I just decided to put together a tiny letter for funsies and it kind of grew from there.
Who got your letter initially, when you were starting this newsletter?
I just sent it to a bunch of friends. I was working at Business Insider at the time, and so like it’s helpful to have people in that newsroom sort of like be, “Oh, one of my colleagues writing this thing,” and it sort of slowly grew week by week, and then I started noticing WNYC email addresses in the signup form and then it sort of went from there.
Here, I want to get into that a little later. I want to go back to the basics of podcasting. Serial, true crime or reported long-form journalism, whatever we want to call it, hits. Since then, we’ve seen a lot of folks, including the folks at Serial, try to replicate that. Podcasting numbers we’ll get to in a second, but that seems to have been a one-off, and in terms of that success, that sort of national phenomenon, everyone’s talking about it. Again, it’s sort of that stunt of doing it in near real time. The Serial team themselves tried to do it with much less success the second time out.
Is the podcasting boom really the Serial boom and it’s just about one show or do you think this thing has legs and ... We know it has legs. That’s a dumb question. We’re doing it. I’m sitting here in a podcast studio. But is a lot of attention really based on the success of one or two shows and then sort of a lower-level success, I’m not going to put myself in that group, that other people are going to enjoy, but that was a one-time sort of spike?
Obviously, you can take this for what you will, given the source that you’re talking to right now, but I honestly don’t think it’s necessarily the Serial boom. Every media category is going to be defined by its sustainability and the sort of year-over-year growth internally and whether it can master the fundamentals of itself and whether it can expand its audiences organically without really, really big swings, necessarily. But it is also going to be defined in the public and in the culture by the big hits that it produces.
I think at this point in time, the big hits associated with podcasting is Serial, but it is also, oddly enough, something like Missing Richard Simmons that came out a couple months ago and things like the Bodega Boys, which is kind of breaking out through a multi-platform ...
Bodega Boys is new to me. What is that?
It’s interesting you haven’t heard it. It’s a podcast that features Kid Mero and Desus Nice.
Oh. Yeah. I thought it was called Mero and Desus. I didn’t realize they were called the Bodega Boys.
They have a podcast called Bodega Boys. They’ve been podcasting as part of a general output.
They’re on Viceland.
Yeah. They have their own late-night show going on. It’s hits like that. It’s hits in pockets that we don’t quite talk about because it depends on where you’re looking at when you’re asking for, “What is the leading narrative of a media category?” Where are you hearing the buzz from? Where are you hearing the consumption from? I think from where we sit, from where I sit, it’s mostly been led by this sort of Serial public radio originated high-quality, high-narrative programming.
Right. Yeah, I want to talk about that because Serial came out of This American Life. This American Life, it’s not an NPR show.
No. It’s its own standalone company.
It’s an NPR audience, right? It is a blue state/urban audience.
We would assume, but obviously the measurement stuff you don’t know.
You don’t know, but that’s who it is aimed at and that sort of conversation. And yes, you can listen to this in the middle of South Dakota or any other red part of the country, but the assumption is you listen to the advertisers and sort of the cultural references, it’s aimed at a blue audience and a particular sort of version of that. Do you think that podcasting remains sort of stratified in the demography for a while or does it branch out?
I think it’s probably going to stratify within demography for a bit, especially ...
Why is that? Like you said, this is something that’s on your iPhone. By the way, it’s not iPhone specific, obviously. Anyone can listen to it. It’s on-demand audio. There’s no difference between this and listening to the radio where you’re hitting a button to hear what you want. Why wouldn’t this be widely distributed?
I feel like there’s an argument both in terms of the distribution side but also in terms of just a content creation side. I think arguably just based on surveying the Apple podcast charts, which itself is a very limiting representation of what podcasts are out there. The bulk of podcasting, that’s sort of trending at the highest percentage at the highest level, they tend to skew blue-state, left-leaning. The sort of, quote-unquote “educated, high-techy” crowd. Obviously, it’s sort of not a good idea to put all these stereotypes or these sort of generalizations on it.
Go ahead! Generalize!
Yeah. I’m just the kind of person who qualifies everything to death, and there is relatively little right-leaning, red-state, working-class programming that’s sort of popping within the medium. I think the nature of what popping means is also something, but it tells us a little bit about what the medium’s audiences are at this point in time.
There’s some logic to it, where if you like NPR, if you like This American Life, you’re predisposed to like Serial, and if you like Serial, you’re going to like these other shows that are made for you. So if you’re not in that feedback loop ... I don’t know if I’m using the metaphor correctly. Maybe you don’t get looped into it, but radio, talk radio leans very heavily to the right. There’s no reason that you shouldn’t see right-leaning radio stuff migrate to podcast. I think that has been happening, and Bill O’Reilly says he’s going to do a podcast. It seems like it wouldn’t take much to make this sort of broader in scope.
Right. The thesis is that podcasting offers an on-demand version of radio programming that people can access through their phones whenever they want. Theoretically, that would apply to any and all types of programming, right?
Right now this is white wine and brie.
By the way, I don’t really like either of those things.
I’m partial to brie. It raises a really larger interesting question.
... I am judging your brie, but go on.
I think there’s something to be said or something to be talked about with regards to the kinds of people who adopt technologies earlier. If we want to be very, very sort of broad about it, those generalizations, they tend to be ...
People who like pornography is people who adopt technology, right? Isn’t that the standard cliché?
That is also one avenue.
Pornography leads us into the new tech.
It has pushed its way into many things, yes. There’s a larger conversation here about the kinds of people who choose to buy iPhones early on, who choose to check out technology that’s a bit foreign, to try out content mediums that’s a little bit hard to understand and internalize. You could make suggestions about the demographics of those kinds of people, I would imagine.
All right. Well, let’s do some more labeling and stereotyping, but first, let’s hear some fine advertisements. Let’s hear this for free. We’ll be right back with Nick Quah.
I’m back here with Nick Quah, who’s just shoveling some brie into his mouth.
Nick, we were talking about a lot of things about the podcasting world. You don’t really need to do this over radio reset, right? Because there’s someone just listening to this?
They could always scroll back if they wanted to, yeah.
We just heard from an advertiser. Our advertisers rock. This is an ad-driven medium. Whatever revenue we’re seeing is coming from advertising. Most of the ads are what we call direct response ads. We say, “Put in ‘Peter’ or ‘Recode’ or ‘Recode Media’ so we know that you heard us,” and that’s been that way for a couple of years now, right? Why is direct-response advertising the main kind of advertising we see in podcasting?
I think the story here is that it’s pegged to two things. One is the sort of measurement issue that we were alluding to earlier on in this conversation, that podcasting is still, at this point in time, summer 2017, defined by the download.
Just explain what that means for people who don’t know ...
If you wanted to understand how successful your episode is or how many people are listening, the closest proxy you have for it is how many times was your episode downloaded.
That’s the main metric that you get if you’re a podcast creator. You get it from Apple and maybe from a company that works with Apple. There’s specific podcast apps that will give you more information, right?
That’s right. Stitcher to some extent, Spotify to some extent.
The majority of podcast listening happens on the Apple podcast app, and Apple up until this point just says, “This many people have downloaded your show.” Not played your show. Just downloaded.
Just downloaded, and that is basically a black box that scares away a lot of advertisers that really are accustomed to a higher degree of measurement in metrics right now. It’s sort of more specificity into whether their ads are being served, are people actually hearing the copy that they’re writing?
On the internet you can see with great specificity, especially through platforms like Facebook, but also just sort of traditional internet advertising now allows you to really zero in and say, “This kind of person, maybe even this specific person, looked at this thing. We know this person went to Zappos,” and you can now chase them across the web and keep showing them that same pair of shoes.
A little creepy and a lot on selling, but that is just the state of digital advertising today.
For great specificity, everyone who does web publishing has access to something called Sharp Beat, which shows you second to second how many people are looking at your article, how long they’re reading it for. It keeps a super depressing number. Where those people are coming from, how they got to your site. Really, really precise stuff. In podcasting, it’s just basically a shrug.
Yeah, it’s the equivalent of like, “I sent out a magazine today.” You don’t actually know if people looked at Page 4.
It may just be in their mailbox.
That’s absolutely right.
It may just be sitting on the coffee table.
Right, or in the back bin somewhere. That is an issue for podcasting if it wants to be classed as a digital product and be accepted within the larger pool of buys. For a long time, the only advertisers that had another way of figuring out whether their podcast ad spends were working were direct response advertisers because they’re driven, in part, by whether to convert off promo codes.
You go to mackweldon.com, put in the promo code, Recode.
Mack Weldon knows that you got there because you listened to me telling you to go there.
You should get a bit more money for this additional spot.
I will say, what’s super cool is that Colin, who we referenced earlier, at the end of the year went to their office and he showed me a pie chart that showed what Recode listeners buy. Because I talk about socks all the time, you guys buy socks, which is awesome, and he showed me the general Mack Weldon referral distribution, and they don’t buy as many socks. They buy underwear. Most people talk about underwear.
Yeah. There is our little proof point that advertising works.
Do you know what color in general that Recode listeners tend to ...?
No. I would assume it’s many and varied. I’m sure it contains multitudes. Anyway, so that works to some extent. It’s crude, but it works.
Right, but then there’s also the followup narrative here, which is that direct-response marketers, they have seen that this works for them. This category has stood out for a great many advertisers in that category. They keep coming back, and that’s how the industry has been able to grow steadily year over year, even before the sort of moment in podcasting.
If you’re selling socks, if you are selling subscriptions to things, something where you could type in a code and go buy a thing, seems like podcast advertising works fairly well for that. The small market can grow. What it won’t do is help you buy a Toyota.
Well, we don’t know?
We don’t know that yet.
Theoretically, it could.
You’re not going to go to the Toyota dealership and say, “Hey, Recode Media sent me.” Maybe you would.
Depends, but you would have to communicate more with those dealerships.
Right. By the way, that’s brand advertising, and brand advertising has yet to really make its way to the web, as phenomenally successful as Facebook is. Facebook owns the internet advertising world. It owns the part that Google doesn’t own. Both of those are very much direct response. Google, you literally say, “I want to go look at this thing,” and it gives you a response. In Facebook, most of the advertising you see on there is to actually go buy socks or go buy shoes on Zappos.
Facebook would like Toyota to advertise. They’re not advertising at the scale they want. I guess the positive version of this for the podcast guys is there’s a lot of room to grow, just working with Facebook and Google, and the downside is you’re not going to get the Toyotas to come in.
GE, there’s a handful of people who are experimenting.
There’s a handful and they’re testing on a bunch of things, but ...
Because they can’t tell that someone listened to this ad, they’re less likely to advertise.
Right. That’s one way to frame it. Another way to frame it is that Facebook and Google are just winning in scale, right? They’re just winning in the ability to bring in volume of these interactions and clicks and buys and so on and so forth. There’s less of an argument, and correct me if I’m wrong, that Facebook and Google are able to develop some sort of relationship between the listener and those brands, those DR brands.
I think that one of the narratives the podcast industry can sort of prove at this point — or strongly suggest — is that we’re a little better into developing something like brand loyalty or raising the coolness of a certain brand among a certain kind of audience.
We’re so cool. We’re super cool.
Look at you and me. We’re awesome.
I’m actually wearing Mack Weldon socks.
If you guys could see us, you’d say, “Those are two cool dudes wearing headphones and talking into microphones.”
By the way, this lack of data that we’re talking about, that we’re talking about in advertising, this is a problem for me, the podcast maker. I make episodes that are 30 minutes to 50 minutes long. I don’t know how long anyone’s listened to these things for. Maybe they were listening for five minutes. Maybe I should make five-minute podcasts. Maybe they’re listening all the way through and I should make hour-and-a-half long podcasts. I have no data.
That could be a good or bad thing, depending on who you are, right? I think you had John Gruber on not too long ago and he talked about how that’s a sort of more interesting experience for him as a critic.
It was a year ago, yeah.
Oh my God.
All right. I must be listening to the back end pretty deeply, but yeah, on the one hand, you have an argument of certain creators being like, “I really want to optimize for the metrics when I’m creating stuff. I want to know more,” but then there’s people who are a little bit more sort of jump off a cliff creatively oriented like myself.
Just to tease this out again — and people who’ve worked in web publishing, I think, are particularly attuned to this. If you’re used to being graded by how many clicks you have, being paid by how many clicks you have, working for a publisher that’s really trying to spend a lot of time trying to optimize the content that their hundreds of employees are creating, same thing for video. Same thing for TV, for that matter, or radio. You’re well aware of what being measured can do to you. It can make you sort of create stuff based for that measurement metric. There’s a bad version of that where you’re just ...
Pumping up for the numbers. That’s right.
You’re pumping up the numbers, or you’ve seen this if you just watch “The Wire.”
You know how that works. I get that you don’t want to do that, but to literally have no idea other than little sort of word of mouth when people come up and say, “I like your podcast.” That’s great, but I don’t know anything else beyond that. It seems hard to believe that even the great John Gruber wouldn’t want to know how people are actually processing what he makes.
Right. I think you give fire to a person, they would probably want to use it at some point. They’re just like, “No, my life might be a little bit better without fire,” and if you look at a larger scale, things that might not actually lead to something like firearms. There is a temptation there for sure, but I think if I can better this over the long term, it’s coming and it’s a thing that’s good that the entire community has to deal with.
Right, so my metaphor is it’s kind of fun to fumble around in the dark.
Again, if you’ve been making web stuff for a long time, in the very old days when blogging was just something that people did as a hobby, no one cared about the stuff, now there’s a lot of businesses built on it, so you can’t be cavalier about it. Here, we’re going to get some sort of ...
By the way, if you make a play, you get to gauge how the audience responds to watch in real time. You get to see if anyone shows up to your play or not, so the idea that there’s some sort of artistic purity in having zero idea how your stuff is being received just seems kind of silly.
Well, it depends on who you’re asking, but I personally think it is a little bit silly. I think it’s really important to remember that what we’re trying to optimize for as a community and an industry, if we’re optimizing for producers or podcast publishers to get more money and to get paid better, to get full-time jobs ...
There’s that. Also, by the way, look, if your argument is, “I’m creating my art and I do not care how anyone else receives it,” you can do that. That’s making a painting and hanging it up, but that’s a pretty small number of people. Most people would like to know whether or not people are responding to their work.
That’s right. It would be nice to get paid, to be fed by the things that I produce. That would be a pleasure.
This is a big wind-up to saying, to getting to the point we talked about recently. I’ve written about this. Apple has said recently, “Hey, we’re going to give you some data about how your podcasts are performing.”
This was surprising to a lot of people, myself included, because Apple up to this point had shown zero interest in providing this data. What do you think changed?
Well, just the preface that there’s a huge community and ecosystem of blogs that cover Apple, and it’s really hard to determine motivation on that gargantuan company, but I think there are a couple stories here. One is this notion, this idea that Apple is beginning to see podcasting as an interesting part of their portfolio within the iTunes ecosystem or whatever you want to call it now, and there is some argumentation that there is an interesting pickup and just general interest in other sort of platforms trying to move into that space, and so it behooves them to sort of bring that ...
“Hey, this thing you’ve had for a decade but haven’t really paid attention to, turns out maybe there’s a there there, and instead of ignoring it for a couple more years, let’s spend some time on it.”
Let’s do a little bit or something ...
Before Spotify comes and takes it from us.
Right. That’s one way to sort of try to figure out motivation here. The other we’re looking at is just looking at it like half empty, half full, and that is the half-empty version, which is they just wanted to modernize the podcasts section of their larger media ecosystem because ... I think Ben Thompson made a really good argument about this, how even if they tried to step in and monetize the space, it would be peanuts compared to the other components of the business. There is relatively little incentive to put too much investment in that right now unless they really want to own it.
Yeah, and their podcast team is literally a handful of people. They could all fit in the room that we’re in, I believe, and yeah, the rule of thumb that someone told me years ago, and so maybe it’s changed by now, was that Apple doesn’t take anything seriously unless it’s at least a billion dollars of your business. As we discussed, it’s not close to a billion dollars a year even if Apple had all the revenue.
Right. Maybe in like three years.
Maybe. They’re not aiming to build billion dollar businesses, right? They want to build businesses that are billions of dollars a year.
For them to lean heavily into any of this seems un-Apple-y.
It probably doesn’t take a lot of their effort to provide these basic analytics.
Yeah, and I think that’s basically what we’re seeing. We’re not actually seeing a doubling down or a commitment to the space long term, but it is like, “Yeah, we want to keep you guys creating more in this space,” because it keeps listeners or Apple users more engaged with the ecosystem and they can be around in other parts as well.
This change kicks in in the fall sometime?
Yes, with the iOS 11 update.
What do you think happens once Apple starts telling people, “Hey, turns out this many people actually listen to your podcast. Turns out most people only listen to the first 10 minutes of your podcast”? What do you think happens then?
I can cut this into a bunch of layers, I think. From just a business perspective that’s going to be a lot of podcasts, just realizing that they didn’t have audiences as big as they did, and there’s going to be a smaller percentage of podcasts that realize that they have a very, very engaged audience space, and it was as big if not slightly less than what they thought it was. We’re really going to see a shakeout and resizing and re-conceptualization of how do you measure for the success of a show?
By the way, the data is going to be still confined to the podcast owner, right? Apple’s not going to podcast this stuff. It’s not like a Nielsen rating where everyone’s going to be able to see this.
Yeah. I don’t think it’s going to be like an API or anything as well. Fundamentally, things like market sizing, revenue in general will still have to go through the traditional routes of trying to figure that out.
Someone called me up the other day and said, “How can you tell ...” It was a publicist. Said, “How can you tell how big someone’s podcast is?” We’re working to get that number.
Right. You ask them.
Yeah. You ask them and they’ll lie. And by the way, even if they’re telling the truth, they don’t know for the reasons we just discussed. They don’t know how big their audience actually is.
Right. That’s my move all the time. One of the big things I try and get people to cough out more download numbers, and so I know that’s probably going to be an overestimation or something of a lie, but you just want to qualify that and kind of, “This is why blah, blah, blah,” and then you just figure out maybe it’s 70 percent, 60 percent if you’re lucky about that.
There’s going to be a little bit of a shakeout, or it turns out that everyone’s numbers go down 30 percent or 50 percent.
That’s what happens, yeah.
Does that stop the industry? Does it slow it down? Or just everyone sort of bumps along and says, “All right, we’re resetting,” and take everyone’s podcast numbers and drop them in half?
I think there’s a general belief that this is good in the long run because it introduces an additional level of accountability and therefore trust with publishers in this space. The bad news is that there’s going to be an entire class of podcasters that will just sort of be phased out of being eligible for advertising. They’re just not going to be big enough or interesting enough ...
Why is that?
Because they’re going to realize that the numbers they’re reporting are a little lower and the companies that buy and sell advertising as middlemen like Midroll or something like that would-
Or Digital Media, which sells ads for this podcast.
Or Digital Media, exactly.
We just discussed at length about how most of the ads are direct-response ads. If Mack Weldon is getting people to buy socks through these ads, so they wouldn’t care whether I have two people listening or four people listening, right?
Right, but they know that ...
I’m sorry, 20,000 or 40,000. Two hundred thousand or four hundred thousand.
They go further down in a relationship with a show, right? They will have to say, “Yes, I want to try out the show first.”
It’s not going to be on someone’s radar.
Exactly, or it might have been in a bundle or might have been considered by a middleman like Digital Media or Midroll, but now it’s like, “Yeah, we have better, more accurate numbers about everybody else, and we’re going to leave you on the site for now,” and that’s going to disincentivize a certain generation or class of smaller publishers. That could be bad, it could be good, depending on who you’re talking to. I think people who remember the blogging web 2.0 era is going to have a little bit of trauma from this or just memory of this, but I think on the whole that’s good because advertisers need to provide a value, and if a small podcast isn’t really providing value or isn’t interesting enough for an advertiser, that shouldn’t be how the business model works for that show.
We spent a long time talking about advertising. A lot of the media world right now is newly interested or re-interested in subscriptions, getting consumers to pay for things. It’s great business for the cable guys or has been up until now. Some of the traditional web publishers are newly interested in this. This is the New York Times. This has been very successful in getting people to pay for digital subscriptions. What about podcasting as something you pay for? How about paying for Serial? What about paying Recode Media?
I would say that non-advertising-based revenue strategies doesn’t just mean direct paying supporters membership. There are other forms, like live events and merchandising and other ways to sort of check the value. But with the specific question of, “Will there be a universe or a future in which there are podcasts that people pay for?” I think that’s definitely going to be the case. It requires a lot more focus and investment on the part of those publishers to sort of build out those relationships.
The problem with a lot of these podcasts now is that a lot of their consumers and their audiences are accustomed to getting it for free. How do you sort of push them down that funnel? I think that’s the question for every other media company, but the fact of the matter is that you’ve gotta try, if you don’t think the advertising shakeout’s gonna — if you don’t think you’re gonna survive it, if you really are in the business of making stuff out of love or creative or whyever you make a small podcast, you’ll find a way.
If you really are into the business of making stuff out of love or creative or why ever you make a small podcast, you’d find a way, but as it pertains to larger companies, can there be a, say, gimlet-sized company that’s able to derive a meaningful membership revenue share? I think that’s a much bigger question.
What is a reasonable amount for someone to pay for an episode of Serial?
For an episode of Serial?
Or the equivalent kind of show?
Pricing is an art. Pricing is context. It really depends on where we are at that point in time.
That’s a good dodge. This show is still free, which means it’s brought to you by fine advertisers like this one.
I’m back here with Nick Quah, who just compared me to Bill Simmons. That was so sweet, Nick. Thanks. I want to talk about how you got into this business. We’ve talked about business the whole time. We’re talking about the business of podcasting, but you run a newsletter full time?
Is that paying your rent?
Yeah. The newsletter is one of the many things that I do to pay the rent.
Okay, so the newsletter is not your full-time job?
It’s the biggest portion of my revenue, and it is my full-time job, but there’s a lot of stuff I also take on that falls on the side of it.
You’re hustling, is what you’re saying.
Yeah. I also write for Vulture once in a while. I do some research in local podcasts and the media ecosystems. I do stuff that’s interesting to me at this point, which is the luxury of having this business built out.
You mentioned earlier you started Hot Pod when you had a full-time job at Business Insider. What were you doing there?
I was on the Business Insider intelligence team back in the ...
What does that mean?
It’s like their paid research arm.
You’re helping them make paid research?
Yeah. I was at the very beginning of that.
You’re like 5 years old, right? This is the beginning of your career?
No, I’m 27, and at the time I was 24, 23, maybe.
You thought, “On top of this, I want to make this newsletter. It’s a free newsletter.” At what point did that free newsletter become something that generated enough revenue that you could stop working at Business Insider?
Well, it never actually generated revenue until a year ago when I decided to go full time with it. For the longest time, for most of Hot Pod’s existence, it was a side project. I was working at Business Insider and I wrote Hot Pod on the weekends. Then with BuzzFeed and I wrote Hot Pod on the weekends, so I figured, “Maybe I should try this podcast industry thing out,” but I held a job at Panoply for a couple of months.
You actually went into the industry.
Yeah, on the quote, unquote “audience development” sort of job title. Up until this day, I left with a lot more questions than I had when I started.
Panoply is one of the big podcast studios/distributors.
Creators of Slate Political Gabfest, one of the well-known podcasts and ... It’s kind of a sister company to Sleep. Yeah.
Right. At some point, a year ago, you go to make Hot Pod. I don’t pay for Hot Pod, it comes into my inbox for free. I swear to God, if there’s an ad in there, I haven’t seen it.
Oh, there are classifieds.
There is? Okay. Where are the ads on this?
The heading in the middle.
In the middle?
Yeah. It’s designed in such a way that if you really wanted to find another person to freelance produce for you or whatever ...
It’s an industry classified. I’m looking for an engineer ...
That’s right. I see it as a service product as opposed to an ad product, yeah.
How many subscribers?
The free one is a little over 11,000 now.
You walked the walk. You actually gave me a number.
Said you weren’t able to give numbers, and you gave me a number. Good for you. I assumed you were going to dodge.
On the train here I was kind of running arguments for and against disclosing it, but I don’t really have much to lose.
It’s literally everyone who’s in the podcasting industry is reading it, so there’s 11,000 people.
My understanding is that a lot more people read it on Nieman Lab, and I don’t look at those numbers because I just want to focus on ...
Neiman Lab, this is the ...
The Harvard blog.
I bet it’s not a lot more people.
Well, it’s the black box, right?
Then there’s a paid version of this as well, right?
Yeah. People pay $7 a month or $84 a year to get additional newsletters. It’s just a little bit more bloggy, a little bit more rumoresque.
Just more content.
A little more, yeah. Initially I treated it in such a way that copying from the public radio model, like “If you want to support this, pay seven bucks a months,” or whatever, and then I just got more interested in the model that’s being tested as Stratechery and Timmerman reports, which are two one-person paid newsletters ...
What was the second one?
The Timmerman Report. He focuses on biotech mostly.
That’s why I’m not reading it. Okay, so Ben Thompson. He was at our Code Media conference in February. He has built — he won’t give out numbers, but presumably a very big business for one person, selling a $10-a-month subscription to his analysis. Is that your goal?
No. I don’t think that’s my goal at this point in time. My goal is mostly to keep Hot Pod self-sustaining and frees me up to do other projects. Just a lot of things I want to try out, and Hot Pod is, while super fun, definitely my full-time job at this point. I don’t quite see it growing to a gargantuan scale.
Because the industry is not that big or because you can’t charge people 10 bucks a month for it or ...?
I would say no to both those things. I think that’s a sort of thesis here that the podcast industry will definitely grow, and as it grows, Hot Pod will grow with it, even the paid sections of it, but it’s mostly just because I’m in my late 20s, I’m kind of dicking around. I just like checking out things that’s interesting to me.
You’re “preserving optionality” is the banking word for it.
Yeah. Right now I live New Haven. I want to live in Idaho, Montana for a while.
living in New Haven, Connecticut?
That’s a commute. Thanks for coming down.
Yeah. No, I needed to take some meetings.
We’re in Wall Street. We’re in the bottom of Manhattan right here.
Yeah. I feel I’m in the thick of the liberal elite, but then again, I live in Connecticut, which is also ...
We’re still in the blue states.
I do really think it’s interesting that you can make a living or most of a living as a sole proprietor of a free product that you type up on your computer and distribute once a week.
That’s pretty amazing.
I try not to think too much about it. Then I’ll just get really anxious and scared, but I’ve sort of been a long student of the Web 2.0 era. That the dream that came out of that era of, like, you can be a blogger and it could sort of be a thing that you do for a living. I feel like I wasn’t aware or conscious of that moment or participatory in the technology industry at the time. I just feel like I’m reading the Anil Dashes and Rafat Alis of how they figured it out. I can probably try to figure out my own way here in 2017.
It’s cool to fumble around, right?
It’s unnerving. Insurance is definitely something I worry about, but ...
If you’re listening to this and you can hook Nick up with it ... What kind of insurance do you need?
Just something that’s basic. I think that’s fine.
Health insurance. Hit him up.
Yeah. I’m watching all these AHCA things very closely.
The way people find out about a podcast is people tell them about podcast, right? There’s a lot of effort spent trying to create better podcasts, discovery, and there’s apps that are going to help you discover podcasts, uniformly negative on all of those since people are going to do the majority of their listening on a podcast app. Do you think I’m right? Do you think that any of these alternate discovery methods that we hear people talking about are going to take off?
This sort of playlist thing, this sharable audio thing ...
A million versions of it.
Right. I think at this point in time, the channels that still work and are the strongest are other people, word of mouth, other people’s podcasts, which has been proven to tremendously drive audiences.
The logic there is if you’re listening to a podcast, that means you like a podcast.
Exactly. You’re a qualified audience.
You’re someone who likes the idea.
Right? These Apple charts and Apple featured page, even though I’ve been hearing some argumentation that it turns up and decreasing over time, which makes sense.
You mean if you get featured by Apple on their podcast, there’s a bump, but the more podcasts that are created, the more stuff that Apple shows, the less likely that it is to have a bigger bump. It makes sense. We saw that with the App Store. If you got featured in the App Store at one point you could literally become a millionaire, and now that’s much less likely.
Yeah. That was, I think, the sort of argumentation, but there are other efforts being made. There’s this push for social audio, which I’m personally kind of skeptical about because it doesn’t seem like it’s a right fit for this sort of very lean-in, deep-dive ...
Tease that out a little bit.
There’s an idea that if you could just create snippets of podcasts and then tweet it out or run it over Facebook, that ends up sort of burning the funnel of the number of people. We’ll encounter them and try to check it out ...
Right. The same way that Facebook can drive giant audiences to read stuff, to watch videos even if they’re being auto-played.
Even if they’re 40 seconds or you’re not actually watching them. They’re just ...
Right. Facebook and other big platforms, but really Facebook can drive these big audiences, can drive people to sample your stuff. I think it’s actually one of the fears people talk about when they talk about measurement, to go back to that conversation, is people are going to game it for Facebook, but it seems like ...
That’s going to happen no matter what, right?
It seems like what you’re saying is audio is impervious to this because you can’t ... This is my theory. You can’t make someone listen to something.
That’s right. You kind of have to choose it. Well, radio is the big sort of situation with people sort of need to listen to something.
Yeah, that’s because you’re in a car and someone else is controlling the radio.
You’re basically held hostage in a lot of ways, and that’s why the ad experiences on broadcast is almost universally bad.
The whole point of podcasting, it’s on demand. You can choose to listen to it.
Digital, to some extent, is somewhere in between you having a choice and saying yes and you not having a choice of whatever experience that you’re having at a point, and I think audio ... I don’t really know how it fits into that sort of ecosystem.
It’s frustrating if you’re a publisher because you can’t shove your stuff in front of people and get them to sample it. It’s great if you’re a listener because you can’t have someone forcing you to listen to a podcast.
The way I think about it is ... I’m trying to figure out how do new TV shows or how do new Netflix shows market themselves? There’s an entire infrastructure there and a sort of playbook and strategy that’s just not being used right now by podcasts, likely because of budget reasons. Most movies, most of their budget goes into marketing, like a good chunk of it, and that drives people into a theater because that’s an experience that you choose. I believe that some of those tactics can be incorporated in podcasting, but we’re just not ...
Right. You watch “Making a Murderer” because you heard someone talking about it. Your friend told you you should watch it. Maybe you heard Jimmy Fallon, who had the cast of “Stranger Things” on.
Or you read about it in the Times or a magazine or something.
Right, but you had to go to the Netflix app and hit play and then decide if you wanted to watch that show.
Right. You have to engage in the act of advertising, as the advertiser wants to use podcasts to [reach you].
That was a long windup to me getting to ask you, Nick Quah, give us your favorite podcast you want us to listen to today. Midsummer. Late June. Early July.
Midsummer. I think, obviously, there’s a trifecta of offerings right now that if you’re new to podcasts or you haven’t heard them, you should definitely listen to them.
You’re an hour into this podcast, so you listen to stuff.
You’d probably like this.
If you’re an hour into this podcast, what should you listen to next?
Obviously, have a listen to S-Town, Missing Richard Simmons, and this sort of latest Gimlet documentary called Mogul.
Which is from the This American Life and Serial people.
Richard Simmons and then the last one was ...
Which is sort of a documentary about Chris Lighty, a hip-hop music mogul. It’s good.
Give me an out-of-left-field one.
Out of left field, definitely try out, I think, 74 Seconds, which is the latest podcast by Minnesota Public Radio. It follows the Philando Castile trial and it’s a really interesting execution on trial reporting in radio and audio formats.
It’s not 74 seconds long?
No, 74 seconds describes the incident. It’s a very gorgeously produced podcast about a very, very dark thing, and it’s probably one of the most humane things that I’ve heard, and I feel like I’m seeing a little bit of the future of how journalism can be conducted through the podcast form. It kind of breaks down after the fifth or sixth episode when it does the day-by-day trial stuff, but I’ve been following that case pretty closely on my own terms, and so that has been a really interesting thing to think about.
I would also go to pitch for something called Who? Weekly, which I think might be recommended ...
Yeah, it’s basically a compendium to B- and C- and D-list celebrities in America. I really enjoy reading People magazine.
All right. I think that’s kind of up my alley.
Yeah. You should ...
I was just going to see whether or not we should do some “Where Are They Now?” about the “Real World” cast of 15 years ago.
I used to think American celebrities were a really interesting thing. I don’t know where you come down, whether Shaquille O’Neal is an A-list or B-list celebrity these days, but ...
Definitely B, right?
You’d be surprised.
Shaq, if you want to come on the air, that’s fine, if you’re ...
He has a podcast.
I’m sure he does. Everyone has a podcast.
It’s all right.
Everyone who’s listening to this has a podcast.
Which is why we had you on.
Oh, very cool.
Thanks, Nick. Thanks for coming.
Of course. It was really fun.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.