It’s The New Dial: Popular Podcast Proprietors Talk About Talk

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Photo by Matt Graves.

Self-publishing has never been easier, thanks to the Internet. Anybody with access to a computer can publish — and, unlike the fanzines of old, just about anybody can theoretically find you. The strangest, most odd-ball things can prove stunningly popular.

Much as the Internet has democratized text-based publishing, it’s done the same for content traditionally associated with the radio format — i.e., music and, most especially, talk shows. Podcasts permeate the Internet as downloadable sound files and have changed audio entertainment forever. Niche topics that would never play on a 50,000-watt station are covered regularly. New shows pop up every day, some by corporate interests with a marketing angle, but most by passionate fans with nothing more than a dream of sharing their opinions and a little bit of specialized equipment.

Take a microphone, a digital recorder of some type, and rudimentary editing software and “poof” . . . you can create a podcast. Of course, as with anything, quality varies drastically. And the better podcasts tend to have better equipment.

Professional entertainers are also getting in on the act, in some way showing that an individual is not as beholden to his corporate masters as in the past. Adam Carolla, a veteran television and radio funnyman, was shoved off the radio by CBS last February. By the following Monday, he was podcasting, and enough fans followed that he was instantly in the iTunes top 10. Of course, top-podcast stardom doesn’t pay what even fair-to-middling terrestrial radio does. While undoubtedly he was earning significantly less (if anything) via podcasting, Carolla leveraged the Internet show’s popularity to get in bed with CBS on a slightly different deal — a podcast centric one, as reported Wednesday.

He may be one of the few that can turn mp3 files into income. Not many people have successfully monetized these shows. Which is, by and large, why they remain the province of dedicated fans or those who can use the shows to help achieve other goals.

It’s the passion and niche angles that really establish podcasts as the fanzines of the new millennium. I may have guessed in my youth that I’d get through commutes listening to comedy-focused talk shows. Perhaps even a show dedicated to cover tunes. But never until I heard them did I imagine listening to shows focused on solely on gadgets, or that there’d be dozens of talk shows discussing comic books.

I spoke with four of the people behind the Web’s most popular podcasts, who offered their perspectives on where podcasting’s been, where it’s going, and the role it plays in their lives.

Signal To Noise Ratio: Standing Out in a Crowd

Patrick Melton performs stand-up comedy, but if you’re not from Florida and you know his name, it’s a good bet you’ve listened to Nobody Like Onions (“NLO” for short). Today, NLO has a rabid fan base, a thriving Web community, and a “Super Alpha Bonus Club” membership that offers extra content to paying members. There’s an online store with a host of show-related products: some readily appreciated by the general public, many with inside jokes for fans, and all slick, professional, and high quality.

None of it is what you’d call “politically correct.” And it’s definitely not for everyone. But, even from the beginning, Melton knew there was potential for his brand of humor to take off in the then-burgeoning medium.

NLO launched in June 2005, when, according to Melton, “No one was doing more edgy, politically incorrect stuff,” with one of the few exceptions being Distorted View (warning: also very adult).

“Honestly, when I started it, it was just for fun,” he says. “I listened to a lot of podcasts that were out at the time and knew I could produce a better, more entertaining product that would fill a then-vacant category.”

He was right. As a performer, Melton took to this online stage readily, and started to build his audience. It also complemented his standup comedy in two important ways. It’s helped his writing, as he is constantly addressing new topics. Also, he says, “the vast reach of the show has helped bring me more attention as a standup than I would have without it.”

Melton was prescient in jumping in when he did; the overcrowding of free audio podcasts that happened in the years since makes it increasingly harder for a show to stand out. Chicago-based Christopher Neseman is a firm believer that one of the keys to Around Comics’ ongoing success was that it launched in early 2006.

He, alongside co-hosts Brion “Sal” Salazar and Tom Katers, all comic book fans, created the kind of show they wanted to listen to. Evidently, plenty of others did too, because it’s still going strong. His initial goal was to double AC’s audience every year.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of doing just that,” he says. “If I ever see growth stop, or a decrease in listeners I’ll know that something isn’t working. That hasn’t happened yet.”

Neseman jokes that his best advice in building a popular podcast is to “get in a time machine and go back to 2005.”

He points out that there are more than 200 podcasts covering the niche subject of comic books alone.

“It can be done today,” he told Osmosis-Online, “but it’s a thousand times more difficult now than it was for the early adopters.”

Peter Rojas of GDGT, which produces a podcast, seems to agree.

“There’s plenty of free stuff out there, so it can be hard for any particular podcast to stand out,” he says. Rojas, however, has something in common with Adam Carolla in the sense that he, at least in part, started out with a built-in audience earned from his work as a technology journalist.

Rojas’ first podcasting efforts were on behalf of popular technology blog Engadget, which he co-founded. He is still podcasting with co-host Ryan Block, but now on behalf of their new venture. GDGT.com officially launched in July 2009; it basically uses social-networking features to spotlight devices and stimulate gadget-related discussion. The GDGT Podcast preceded the site’s launch by nearly a year, keeping Rojas, Block, and their takes on gadget news in the public eye. Now that the site is fully functional (and massively popular), Rojas told Osmosis-Online that the show serves as “a good calling card for the site,” and helps support it.

“But there are people who enjoy the podcast and don’t use the site and people who love the site and don’t care for the podcast,” he says. “So ultimately I just try to do a podcast that I enjoy.”

Brian Ibbott’s show, Coverville, is the longest running among those we’re spotlighting. He echoes Neseman’s sentiments on starting the podcast, saying that “Coverville started out as a way to do the radio show I’ve always wanted to hear.” Launched on Sept. 28, 2004, in a sense Coverville had Neseman’s “early adopter” principle working for him. But in a greater sense being a pioneer was an extreme challenge.

For one thing, even though Coverville almost exclusively plays cover songs, its format is very much like a traditional FM music radio show — so Ibbott’s competition, more than niche-based talk shows, was the traditional, entrenched media. An even more daunting aspect was taking on the tricky subject of music replay rights for podcasts, something Ibbott tackled head on and helped to pave the way for.

All of this from a guy who admits he had little experience behind the mic aside from about two years as a wedding DJ. It was his passion for the subject that prompted him to create Coverville.

“My background is more of a fan of music and radio in the ’70s and ’80s than anything professional,” he says. “But I think that growing up listening to a lot of radio actually give me a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.”

Ibbott calls himself “a horrible self-promoter,” and partially attributes his current fan base to the idea that the “audience will find you” if you have a good product. But he’s hardly sitting on his hands. Listeners have shown loyalty, and with their participation, Ibbott continues to evolve the show, saying “I want to find ways to build it into more of a community and grow it that way.”

At 611 episodes as of today (“The Beyonce/Destiny’s Child Cover Story”), Ibbott’s doing just that.

Podcasting as a Business

Like Melton’s NLO, Coverville offers a premium subscription, called “Citizenship.” Coverville has also garnered advertisers and show sponsors. These are the trappings of a business, which certainly bode well for Coverville’s continued viability. We asked Ibbott if dealing with the business side of the show has encroached his enthusiasm for the subject.

“If anything, it’s enhanced it,” he responded. “I have a great listener base for the regular show, and then an inner circle of listeners that like the show enough to help support it. Coverville is like having a party with a house full of friends, and everyone’s talking about music and the songs that are playing, and the Citizenship is like the smaller group of folks that stay behind when most of the guests have gone to go through your record collection and listen to the really choice cuts.”

Neseman takes a bleak — but realistic — point of view when talking about the viability of podcasting as a business, at least so far as his subject area is concerned. Putting on his prognosticator hat, Neseman believes that “one, maybe two shows will emerge as actual businesses.”

“It’s a very small niche audience of listeners that a lot of shows are competing for,” he explains. “One factor in making a show a career is that single-host podcasts are a harder sell than group podcasts. John Siuntres [ed. note: of Word Balloon] has created a nice niche for himself as the premier podcast interview show for comics creators, but John is a unique case. The other top 4-6 shows are ensemble casts, and if you look at cutting the pie up between cast members, you run out of pie very quickly.”

Melton concurs that professional, full-time podcasting is exceedingly rare.

“I would have to say that podcasting itself is not a viable career, except for the very few talented people who can produce a consistent product and build up a very large fan base,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate.”

The state of the economy affects both the audience size and the earning power of a show as well.

“The entertainment is free, but we’re also a review and recommendation show, so people are listening for opinions on how to spend their money,” says Neseman. “I’ve seen steady growth from before the economic crisis, and it has stayed pretty steady.

“The sponsor side of things has slowed. We have great sponsors, but podcasts are new, and new equals ‘risky’ to prospective advertisers. It’s not a good climate for risky ventures for most companies, no matter how small.”

The recessionary economic environment hasn’t touched the town of Coverville.

“It’s almost like the show exists in this bubble, away from politics, away from economic trouble,” Ibbott says.

NLO’s fans are similarly dedicated.

“Our fans do a great job at supporting us,” says Melton. “They’re really great. We’ve been lucky, I guess. I try to help people realize that $10 here or there isn’t going to make a big difference in their life, either way.”

Out From Behind The Computer: Live Events

Melton uses NLO-generated resources to grow the show — revenue goes to things like new products, live standup shows, and listener meet-ups (“NLOL“).

“This year we’ve gone to Houston, and have scheduled trips for NYC, London and Paris,” Melton says, “which wouldn’t be possible without sponsorships and listener support.”

Indeed, events tied to or grown out of popular podcasts continue to proliferate.

In early August, GDGT hosted a fan event in San Francisco. Rojas and Block were able to secure new and upcoming tech for fans to demo, including Microsoft’s upcoming Zune HD. They are having a similar event for East Coast fans in New York City on Oct. 1.

One of Ibbott’s most difficult Coverville-related challenges to date was a concert he organized in Las Vegas that took place August 2008, with acts that included Internet sensation Jonathan Coulton and Richard Cheese, and Chance & the Choir.

“I had everything all organized and prepared to the point that I was going to break even, and then the original venue went bankrupt. I had already paid the bands and started promoting the event, so I had to find another venue. And fortunately, Bally’s was able to give me a room, but there were costs with Bally’s that I wouldn’t have had with the original venue.”

Even though he took a financial hit from the mishaps, Ibbott still maintains that “it was a total blast, and I’d love to do another one of those in a few years.”

“Such an amazing time, and I have to admit, I really enjoyed the work that happened in the months leading up to the show,” he recalls. “Even when the venue dropped out beneath me, I liked working under the pressure of finding another location and getting all that worked out. I kind of like the adrenaline of having my back against the wall, and finding a solution.”

Neseman and co. were able to leverage their years of interacting with creators, listeners and publishers into producing a comic convention in their home city of Chicago. Known as the Windy City Comicon, the event’s inaugural year was 2008, and this year’s show is this coming Saturday, Sept. 19, from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Center on Halsted. The group of guests is extremely impressive to those of us interested in comics fandom, and the scheduled exhibitors may well represent “best shopping day of the year” for comics and art fans, as proclaimed on the show’s Web site.

“Just like Around Comics was a podcast we created because it was a show we wanted to listen to, Windy City is the convention we want to go to,” Neseman says.

Fatigue Factor

Stretching creative and business muscles to put on events or trips may change things up and keep it exciting. But the continual high-quality performances and steady schedule that have kept certain podcasters at the top of their game undoubtedly contributes to fatigue.

“It’s very easy to get burnt out and feel alone doing this sometimes,” says Melton. “I try to take about two breaks a year, for a couple weeks or so, to keep myself sane.”

He maintains that doing podcast is enjoyable, for the most part. “But it is more work than people who are just casual listeners could ever realize,” he reveals.

“It’s just a great feeling to have fans and be appreciated,” Melton adds. “The fans are the best part. The fans are also the worst part. I get a lot of bitchy hate mail. It goes with the territory.”

Rojas enjoys “being able to just talk about what you’re passionate about and not have to fit it into little soundbites like when you’re on TV.”

His greatest difficulty is in finding the time to record the show.

“A couple of hours each week doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but we’re so busy with the site itself that it can be very tough,” he says.

Around Comics has gone through a few iterations, changing to a magazine-style show for a while at one point and taking a long hiatus at another point before settling in to its current form. Neseman hosts a rotating panel of guests that usually includes original co-founder Katers, sometimes includes original co-founder Salizar, and is always rounded out with creators, retailers, or interesting fans.

“Make sure you’re having fun,” advises Neseman. “If you are, [the podcast is] successful.”

He also appreciates the chance to do good for the comics industry and fans.

“Helping people become aware of books they should check out and hearing about people gaining a better appreciation of comics of all genres is awesome.”

Ibbott indicates he’s not at all plagued by fatigue.

“I’m enjoying this so much, and can’t imagine not doing it!” he says. “It’s all about the listeners and the music; hearing from someone in some far off country that just discovered the show and really likes it, or hearing yet another cover of Umbrella that still manages to pull something new out of the song. I love that.”

Bonus Tracts

Both Neseman and Ibbott have taken to doing second podcasts. Under the Coverville banner, Ibbott has launched “Musically Challenged,” a music trivia show. While he sees potential in the new venture in getting sponsorships, he’s more jazzed by the prospect of audience interacting and giving away prizes.

Neseman’s other podcast, 11 O’Clock Comics, is a once-a-week, Skype-enabled four-man panel discussion. It can dance from book reviews to industry discussions to art critique to stream-of-consciousness suppositions. But this always-entertaining show has been going strong for more than 18 months.

Melton’s not doing a second, concurrent podcast to NLO, which already comes out about three times per week. That, along with the bonus content he provides for paid subscribers (videos and more), he has enough to keep extremely busy. He does have thoughts of transitioning his on-air talent into other media, though.

“I’d love to do satellite radio and have some more tools/people/opportunities at my disposal,” he indicated. “I think if I could break in to satellite radio that would cause me to stop doing the podcast for the most part. I would encourage fans to listen there.”

The Future

Ibbott is a little down on the term “podcaster,” saying that it has “an air of hobbyist to it,” and he’d prefer that consumers think of Coverville as a “syndicated-style radio show.”

Hairsplitting terminology aside, podcasting isn’t going anywhere. Ibbott points to the freedom that podcasting allows as the best thing about doing it. He offers “not having to have a playlist dictated to me by a corporation, being able to set my own hours, and to find the best way to grow the show, however I want,” as prime examples.

His next goal is to parlay Coverville’s success into a music lable that would serve, Ibbott says, as “a way for me to get a bunch of great independent artists together to produce an excellent cover album.”

“I’m starting it out right now with a Spinal Tap tribute album, and hopefully it’s something I can get out by the end of the year.”

Neseman says that Around Comics “has developed a life of its own.”

“Every time I try to put it in a box it climbs out and becomes something different,” he says.

Melton gives a hint as to why.

“In this business and the business of Internet marketing in general, I think it’s dangerous to plan out too far ahead,” he says. “It’s changing so rapidly, I like to be able to change with it. Four years ago no one knew what Twitter was. Now it’s everywhere. You just plan out six months or so, and hope your plans are relevant by the time they go in to action. I don’t plan on going anywhere, though.”

As Neseman says, podcasts “are an amazing way for the average Joe to have a voice.”

“There are a lot of average Joes who have above-average things to say, and podcasts should always be a way to do that,” he surmises. “In the end, the good independent shows will remain and have an audience, and that’s a very good thing.”

Worth a Listen

It may not be a shock that many podcasters are podcast listeners as well. While Patrick Melton told us that he does not tend to do so (“I don’t even listen to my own, really”), we have more than enough recommendations to get you started.

Brian Ibbott points to: The Bitterest Pill, The Hollywood Podcast, Jawbone Radio, Five Hundy By Midnight, Shifted Sound, CNET’s Buzz Out Loud, “pretty much everything that Scott Johnson is doing [ExtraLife Radio, The Instance, Appslappy, FourCast]; and, of late, The Totally Rad Show, and The Official Lost Podcast.

Christopher Neseman enjoys: iFanboy, Word Balloon, Tom vs. The Flash (produced by his AC co-host, Tom Katers), Radio Lab, and “other NPR programs when I miss them on terrestrial radio.”

Peter Rojas listens to: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, WNYC’s Radio Lab, This American Life, and In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg.

 

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