behind the news

Is this the golden age of podcasts?

Serial, Radiotopia, and Gimlet Media are leading the way in creative audience engagement
November 24, 2014

The meteoric rise of podcast phenomenon Serial has placed podcasting firmly in the center of internet chatter and media attention, at a time when the media has announced a podcast renaissance and paid increased attention to the medium over the past year.

While the show illustrates podcasts’ potential to develop deep audience engagement, some have pointed out that podcasting never really went away since it was developed about a decade ago.

“If you’ve been in the podcasting world the entire time, it feels more like growth rather than explosion,” says Paul Riismandel, co-founder of the blog Radio Survivor, and Podcasting Evangelist (that’s his official title) for podcast advertising network Midroll.

That doesn’t negate the remarkable growth of Serial’s enthusiastic audience, at least 5 million strong, which not only talks, teaches, and tweets about the podcast, but contributes their own investigations, tips, and leads, which have started finding their way into the show.

Although Serial’s audience has broken records, it  is far from the only podcast that enjoys serious listener engagement —successful podcasts often have that ability to move audiences, and they’re exploring various ways of engaging and mobilizing them, either for the sake of crowdfunding, or simply to keep audiences listening. The results of this ongoing series of experiments could be a valuable test case to the rest of the media world.

After all, profitability, Riismandel says, “has definitely increased.”

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This is good news for Serial, whose creators announced plans for a second season without being sure where the funding would come from. But the show’s ninth episode, released Thursday, revealed that a coming season will be at least partly funded by sponsors and audience donations.

Another factor that bodes well for Serialand podcasting’s—financial future is the recent crowdfunding success of podcasting network Radiotopia. Last Friday, Radiotopia broke Kickstarter records with a campaign that raised $624,412 from 21,808 backers, making it the most-funded campaign in Kickstarter’s publishing category. In comparison, the most funded project in the journalism category, the online magazine Matter, raised $140,201 from 2,566 backers.

Radiotopia has been able to add four new podcasts to its network (tip to Serial fans: one of them tells true crime stories,) and will launch a pilot development fund to support new podcast talent.

Most of the podcasts within the network will use their share of the money to produce more shows, while the show Theory of Everything is able to start a paid internship program, and 99% Invisible will give raises to staff and subsidize healthcare (That show has been through several successful Kickstarter campaigns on its own and is still in the top 20 of most funded in the publishing category.)

“Listener support is uniquely something public radio has cultivated that other media have not had,” says Jake Shapiro, CEO of PRX, Radiotopia’s parent company. And the support now moves easily to digital. “It’s on-demand, so people are actively choosing what they want to listen to, stories are delivered with a human voice and personality. The intimacy of radio is uniquely powerful and engaging,” says Shapiro. “We see that in an extraordinary outpouring of support. The number of Kickstarter backers are real testament to their engagement.” That engagement of course, is attractive to advertisers too, another key source of revenue for Radiotopia and traditional public radio, Shapiro says.

Radiotopia launched its Kickstarter campaign in October by inviting listeners to a free live event in New York City, meant as a way to connect with them while accelerating interest and attention. But, Shapiro says, the people at Radiotopia are aware that crowdfunding may not be a reliable source of revenue in the long run. “We will try to pioneer some ways to do sustained support.”

Live events are nothing new to Lea Thau, former executive director of live storytelling organization The Moth, and now host of the podcast Strangers, who throws occasional listener parties as a way to connect with audiences. Thau created a podcast of The Moth after numerous failed attempts to partner with public radio stations, and with the new, nationwide reach, support from listeners started pouring in, and stations finally got interested.

In the podcast world, then, it’s often necessary to do the hard creative work and audience building, then the money hopefully follows. But Thau still believes there are more opportunities today for new podcasters.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to partner with radio stations,” she says. “A lot of them are realizing they might become obsolete if they don’t get on board with digital and on-demand.” Part of what’s new right now, Thau says, is that many well-produced shows did not start out on public radio stations, but as podcasts.

One highly strategic podcasting project is former This American Life Producer Alex Blumberg’s new company Gimlet Media. Blumberg launched Gimlet to create a for-profit platform for high quality podcasting, and chronicles his experiences with advertisers and investors on the podcast Startup. Just over a week ago, Blumberg and co-founder Matt Lieber took to crowdfunding too, but not the Kickstarter kind. Taking advantage of the 2012 JOBS Act that allows companies to find investors among the public, Gimlet asked listeners to invest in the company as a way to raise $200,000.

In a post on Medium, and in Startup’s episode 7, Gimlet’s founders explained the details of the investment opportunity, which by law is only available to accredited investors (people who earn at least $200,000 a year), and stated:

Here’s what we are sure of: the entire focus of our company will be about figuring out creative ways of involving listeners in what we’re doing. Fundraising is only the first step.

Despite the restricted access, the $200,000 goal was reached within the week. That puts Gimlet among the first companies to have reached their equity crowdfunding target and allegedly makes it the first company in Brooklyn to have taken advantage of the JOBS Act.

Those are no small achievements for a medium that was considered out of the mainstream until relatively recently, and Blumberg believes podcasts will lead the way in creative audience engagement. “We’re all thinking about it. How do we connect with the audience in other ways. Be it live events, kickstarters, other special projects, etc.”

Serial, in turn, promised listeners that their first call for donations would also be the only one, but tiptoeing around donations may be unnecessary and outdated. Thau says she experiences a real sense of excitement around crowdfunding, and Blumberg says that he shares that sense of optimism.

“I do think that we are stuck in a very apologetic mode in public media and in all media in general. And that’s because, as a historical accident, people got used to not paying for media. But I think Kickstarter and Indiegogo and all these other crowdfunding platforms are showing, people are fine with paying for things that they love and feel passionate about,” he says. “I find it all very encouraging.”

Whether Serial will experiment with ways of mobilizing its audience beyond traditional donations remains to be seen, but in the meantime, here’s a real cliffhanger for suspense-hungry fans: How will the show’s producers raise enough money to secure another season of the popular podcast?

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.