October 22, 2012
Entrepreneurship diaries #10
From the 'Am I crazy?' edition: earlier today I was part of a panel at CUNY Journalism School called 'Pimp Your Podcast' (yes). The other panelists were NPR's Adam Davidson of Planet Money fame (and much other fame - Adam has produced tons of great pieces for both NPR and Marketplace, including many from Iraq), Mia Lobel, senior producer of the Distillations podcast, which tells stories about chemistry and makes them interesting for lay people, and Jim Colgan of SoundCloud. I originally met Jim when he was at WNYC, where he worked for ten years.
Adam believes public radio is gradually going kaput and is amazed more public radio bosses 'aren't freaking out' about the fact that public radio listenership is tailing off. As this piece in Current points out, the latest figures illustrate the problem. Most people under a certain age (30, 35?) don't own radios and get any audio they hear from an app or stream it online. When I asked one of my Columbia Journalism School classes this summer if anyone owned a radio, not one hand went up. Planet Money is hugely successful, with hundreds of thousands of downloads - I can't recall if this is per week or per month, but either way it's impressive. Adam pointed out, though, that without the sizeable NPR budget devoted to the show he's not sure the podcast (and NPR has told them they should not refer to it as a 'podcast' any more) could work for its creators, monetarily speaking. That's the big question here - if audio is all going online, how the heck is anyone going to make money from it? Kickstarter campaigns are all very well but they do not provide a sustainable funding model. As I've said elsewhere, Jesse Thorn of Bullseye brings in $300,000 to $400,000 a year from listener donations, which seems pretty impressive to me. But he has a family of podcasts in his stable and has worked very hard to build his brand. At the Third Coast conference earlier this month he described his journey as tough.
Mia's podcast is funded by the Chemical Heritage Foundation so I was interested to hear her talk about how lucky she feels to be paid to do what she does and mention in response to a question that the Foundation does not interfere editorially with her stories. That's something many journalists would worry about if working for a foundation or company that has its own agenda. Mia says in her case, it's not an issue. I'm a big fan of SoundCloud, which hosts my podcast, so was intrigued to hear Jim talking about new ways in which it intends to work with sound in the future, and about the SoundCloud fellowship. Public radio journalists and podcasters Amy Costello (Tiny Spark) and Andrea Seabrook (Decode DC) are both wrapping up SoundCloud fellowships at the moment.
At the end of the day, where are we going? Hearing Adam speak, I felt rather depressed. The idea of actually being able to earn a real living from The Broad Experience - even down the road - once more seemed crazy. That said, my podcast requires nothing like the resources of Planet Money. Still, I require money to live on the planet. I am currently juggling The Broad Experience with actual paying work, which means I can't give it the attention it deserves. Which, in turn, means it isn't getting the marketing input it needs, among other things. So I come back to a question that haunts me fairly often: am I completely mad to be devoting myself to a project that may never earn me anything approaching a living? Can I somehow make it pay? If not, should I continue to produce a show on a topic I believe is of the utmost importance, not to mention interest, even if I do so infrequently? Answers on a postcard please.