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The Anatomy of an Independent Podcast Network

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July 5, 2016 —

The Anatomy of An Independent Podcast Network. I’ve always been aware of Relay FM, the two year old podcast outfit that churns out shows often marked with vaguely mysterious titles (“Isometric,” “Cortex”) and spiffy, flat cover art. But it has always existed at the edges of my attention, and I’ll be the first to say that the reason for this is completely indefensible. Relay FM is a network that largely (but not completely) revolves around the delights and concerns of developers and tech enthusiasts, and while this firmly places the network within a long tradition of such programming in the medium’s history (making it an essential primary source for any attempt to document the space), I had subtly cultivated the idea in my head that the network is inaccessible to me. That I lacked sufficient vocabulary to meaningfully engage with Relay FM’s material in order to form an opinion. And so, for a long time, I abstained from doing so.

Again, indefensible. Even if Relay FM’s shows were inaccessible to me, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t engage with it. So I did, and after spending several hours sifting through various podcasts on the network, I can safely say that, with some exceptions, this is totally a thing that was made for someone else. And perhaps that’s totally the point; Relay FM is very much a niche, independent media business. A thing that some people made for communities of their own kind, a thing that’s less concerned with a certain aggressive idea of scale — though, yes, scale would be nice — than it is with a particular sense to build a place for dense spaces.

I can damn well engage with that, and so here we are.

Myke Hurley, a UK-based podcaster who runs the network with  his Tennessee-based friend Stephen Hackett, was kind enough to answer my questions on how things work. I’m going to lay it out across a few chunks.

Structure. The network currently supports 21 active shows, a portfolio that’s made up of a hairy, eclectic mix of podcasts that go deep on various technology and tech-adjacent topics. There’s a show about independent app development (“Under the Radar”), there’s one about something called mobile productivity (“Canvas”), there’s another about design (“Presentable”), and even one that celebrates people who face inequalities in their respective industries (“Less Than or Equal”). But there are a few shows that stray from the technology focus but nonetheless carries the network’s overall geeky ethos, like the stationery enthusiast pod “The Pen Addicts” (which claims Slate’s June Thomas as a huge fan).

“We like to think of ourselves as a collection of shows for creative curious and obsessive people,” Hurley noted. “All of our shows are made by people that have a real love for the thing they are talking about.”

All the podcasts on the network tend to follow the same conversational format that has driven the medium’s structural associations with the early days of blogging. Indeed, when I have previously talked about the podcast-as-extension-of-blogging side of the equation, this is pretty much the apotheosis of what I had in mind — a bunch of people sitting around and talking, more or less preserving the original torch held by Odeo, that thing that would later become Twitter.

This all makes it somewhat unsurprising, then, that among Relay FM’s extensive list of hosts and contributors — which includes Mashable’s Christina Warren, notable indie game developer Brianna Wu, and former MacWorld editor Jason Snell — you’d also find Marco Arment and Federico Viticci, two of the stronger voices that have pushed back against the sense that the space is industrializing in a way that would hurt its openness.

Scale and Monetization. Hurley tells me that the business is sustainable, and that the company is “growing quite nicely.” The network is reportedly approaching 2 million downloads a month across all shows, a scale that’s been able to pull in enough advertising revenue to support both Hurley and Hackett, both of which now work full-time on Relay FM. (The network is hosted on Libsyn, so presumably the download numbers follow the standards of that platform, if you’re looking for a point of reference.) Hurley declined to provide specific revenue numbers (understandably, but hey, thought I’d ask, y’know?). All shows utilize host-read ads.

“Both Stephen and myself manage the actual relationships, both with individual advertisers and also with advertising agencies,” he explained when I asked him about the ad sales process. “As it stands we have no dedicated sales person, and we don’t have any plans for that either.”

Although Hurley is based in the UK and both founders equally split duties, the company is incorporated in Tennessee. At this point in time, 60% of the network’s audience are from the US, which means that Hurley sees more interest coming in from American advertisers.

“I have companies from outside the US contact me, and if they are a company that delivers software products or web services, we can work with them easily,” he tells me. “[But] when it comes to physical products it can be trickier. If a company can only ship to a local market, it gets harder for them to commit to a budget, when a smaller percentage of our audience base is in the location they want to sell to.”

Hurley expects that the US will remain Relay FM’s biggest market. “But for shows that have larger audiences in other countries, I totally see a world in which more local advertisement will come forward,” he told me. “I don’t need to tell you that podcasting is seeing another boom, but this time it does feel like the tide is shifting on the money side also.”

View of the Future. I was curious about Hurley’s take on the recent developments in the space — the entrance of bigger companies with deeper pockets, the consolidations and acquisitions, the push for more data — given his position as an independent, whose feasts and famines are often dictated by the whims of much larger entities.

“It’s interesting to see how many platforms are appearing right now,” he replied. “We currently work with a selection of the big players, and we are keeping an eye on what’s working and what isn’t. My background in podcasting comes from the ‘indie tech show’ scene, so I am much more focused on the idea of keeping podcasting open, and centered around the RSS feed that can be played in any player. Our audiences like the choice of the apps they want, and there remains a vibrant community of people building apps and tools for that space. As more companies pop up that are trying to own the distribution, it’s going to be interesting to see where things lie.”

(Related reading on this point: The “Third Way” section on Ben Thompson’s recent column, “The Future of Podcasting.”)

Hurley doesn’t believe that the ecosystem will progress to a point where it would support a wide variety of different distribution platforms operating in some sort of equilibrium, as that would be deeply inefficient for podcast producers. I’d agree with that; not only would they have have to constantly manage an overwhelming number of vendors, they would also have to put up with the thousands of paper-cuts imposed by the various terms that go into working with each vendor.

“Honestly, I do not see a world where we have something akin to YouTube,” Hurley concludes. “I think many people will try to do that, but I think the ship has sailed on that one.

I had originally intended for this item to be an extension of the brief look I carried out last week on the state of podcast businesses in the UK. That write-up was the thing that drove Hurley to reach out to me in the first place: to let me know that there was another person in that part of the world that was making a living from podcasting.

But over the course of writing this out, it became apparent to me that Relay FM was a much better case study of another deeply interesting dimension of the podcast ecosystem: the archetypal independent network model that those who argue for podcasts as an extension of the open web are trying to protect — and, to extrapolate from that, the very kind of business that those advocates fear is being threatened by the expansionary sensibilities of some professionalizing podcast companies.

Another related reading: I’m just going to throw Josh Benton’s “Podcasting in 2015 feels a lot like blogging circa 2004” here once again, which really has become absolutely seminal.

And the New York Times’ New Executive Producer For Audio isLisa Tobin! She will head to The Gray Lady from Boston public radio station WBUR, where she most recently served as a senior producer. Tobin’s rap sheet at the station reflects quite a remarkable fit for the kind of work that the Times would likely pursue, with a resume that includes work on “Finish Line,” the amazing collaboration with the Boston Globe covering the trial of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; “Dear Sugar Radio,” the podcast adaptation of the popular Cheryl Strayed advice column; and of course, “Modern Love,” the other adaptation of a wildly popular column — this one belonging to the Times itself, indicating a prior relationship between Tobin and the company.

Tobin’s hire comes a little over four months since the Times announced that it was building out a new in-house audio team as part of a hard push into the medium. Here’s a quick look at the Times’ stated strategy, courtesy of a memo that was circulated back in March by EVP for Product and Technology Kinsey Wilson and senior editor Sam Dolnick:

The plan is to pursue a two-fold strategy: to launch a handful of shows with outside partners which, like Modern Love, have a strong prospect of quickly attracting a wide audience; and then use those shows as a platform from which we can build audience for shows produced within The Times that are as integral to our coverage as our live events and visual journalism efforts.

Aside from WBUR on “Modern Love,” that list of outside partners also includes Pineapple Street Media, the new audio agency formed by former BuzzFeed Director of Audio Jenna Weiss-Berman and Longform.org co-founder Max Linsky.

Tobin will report to Samantha Henig, who serves as the unit’s editorial director. The in-house team includes Kelly Alfieri, executive director of special editorial projects; Diantha Parker, editor and senior audio producer; Pedro Rosado, an audio producer; and Catrin Einhorn, another audio producer. Adam Davidson, host of Gimlet’s “Surprisingly Awesome” and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is reportedly serving as an adviser.

One quick thing before moving on. As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m pretty bullish on the manner in which the Times is doubling down on audio — that is, by focusing on developing reasonably-staffed, highly-produced shows in-house and augmenting those projects with expertise brought in through smart partnerships. That’s undoubtedly going to help the company stand out in an increasingly dense field of media organizations currently dabbling in podcasts. And man, that field has become absolutely bonkers.

(A sample list: BuzzFeed, The New Yorker, CNN, The Ringer, ESPN, The Economist, Vox Media, MTV, CBS, Bloomberg News, Politico, Mic, The Wall Street Journal, Time Inc., New York Magazine, Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, The Dallas Morning News, Atlanta Constitution-Journal, The Washington Post, Esquire, Outdoor Magazine, Runner’s World… and so on. Oy.)

I’m excited to see what comes out of it.

Open Audio Weekend. The New York Public Library and The Moth teamed up at the end of June to produce a hackathon where participants were nudged to “make audio accessible for the public good.” The event is an extension of something called “Together We Listen,” an ongoing crowdsourcing effort that specifically focuses on making it easier to build searchable archives for large quantities of spoken audio files.

Here are three projects that stood out to me:

  • Crowdscribe. “A Chrome extension prototype for public requesting and gathering transcriptions.” There’s a cottage industry for freelance project-based transcribing, so this project might encounter some resistance.

  • Instaburns. “An experiment in auto-generating common terms and their frequency from transcripts in order to explore the relationship of terms within and across audio files.” In other words, auto-tagging.

  • Storynode. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see all the locations mentioned in an oral history on a map?” Detour would love this.

You can find them, and all the other projects, on the hackathon’s Github page.

Australia Gets Another Pod Conference. The radio arm of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is putting together a podcast-focused conference called OzPod. This will be the second relatively high-profile Australian conference for the year, after the more independent and creative process-minded Audiocraft that took place back in March. It will take place in Sydney at the end of September, and is set to cover the more grittier topics of distribution, marketing, revenue, and so on.

“Podcasting is growing enormously in Australia, but we felt the lack of a nation-wide industry conversation about its potential and future,” Louise Alley, a spokesperson for the ABC, told me over email last week. “We wanted to bring together radio networks, tech companies, independent podcasters and start-ups to share ideas, opportunities and best practice as we enter the new golden age of audio.

ABC Radio is the largest podcast publisher in the country, reporting about 135 million overall downloads and streams in 2015. According to Alley, it has currently clocked in 64.6 million download and streams since the beginning of the year.

Quick note at this point: I’m scheduled to do the international keynote for the conference, which means I’m due to get on a plane for about 20 hours in the very near future. And I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I’m terrified of flying. Time to stock up on meds. Oh boy.

Bites:

  • New York Public Radio announced a string of additions to its board of trustees last week, including: artist, producer, and entrepreneur Questlove; tech investor David Tisch; and entertainment lawyer Marc Chaplin. The organization also announced that Billie Tisch, a longtime member of the board, has been elected to its Honorary Board. (Variety)

  • NPR CEO Jarl Mohn: “Great local journalism mixed with our national and international journalism – you don’t go to a podcast for that. We think that’s the way to compete for the future.” (LA Times)

  • “The Week” is the latest in a long line of magazines dipping their toes in podcasts — and they’re betting on shorter formats. (The Week)

  • Been thinking a lot about the recent Nieman Lab post that ran with the headline “Sure, people like online video, but that doesn’t mean they want to watch your hard news videos” and how much that, well, may well apply to every other media format — including, and perhaps especially, audio. (Nieman Lab)