The Pros and Cons of Networks
“You have the capacity to self-distribute. So why do you need a distributor in the age of the digital revolution? Marketing,” said Nick Quah.141
As Quah suggests, while networks are not necessary for podcasts, they can provide significant benefits. Although each podcast network operates differently, most take care of everything business-related, from negotiating with advertisers to marketing campaigns, in exchange for a cut of the ad revenue. For an independent show, a network can (1) provide advertisers, even if the show’s individual numbers would not otherwise merit advertiser interest; (2) offer the benefit of the network’s brand identity, which can allow a show to stand out to consumers; and (3) promote the show across other shows in the network.
Hrishikesh Hirway, the creator of Song Exploder, which now belongs to Radiotopia, explained that a network helped his show overcome what is generally an independent podcast’s greatest challenge: growing an audience from zero. “Podcasting is so saturated, the pyramid is broad at the base ... I wanted to skip the hurdles of why you should take the time to listen to what I made. That head start—that was the biggest advantage,” he said.142 (For an example of a podcast that has made the leap without network support, see my case study of Lore.143)
Networks also streamline the process for advertisers. DiCristina explained:
Most advertisers interested in trying out podcast advertising, they’re not going to have a deep understanding of the industry. They won’t know immediately what are the great shows or audiences. To be able to approach a network and say, “Here’s what we want, here’s what we’re interested in selling, here’s the listener we’re looking for,” it’s really valuable to have a network or some person who can pick from a pool of shows and say, “This mix will work for you, give it a try.” It’s a much more efficient way to do it from an advertiser’s perspective.”144
Despite their potential benefits for podcasters and advertisers, networks (by nature) face two central tensions that impact their efficacy. The first is a depreciating value over the long term: Once a show gains a significant audience, and quality advertisers as a result, it becomes incentivized to go solo (so it can earn advertising revenue directly rather than giving the network a cut).
The tension goes back to one of the central concerns of podcasting: audience control. Clonner Chang justified Intelligence Squared’s decision to distribute independently thusly:
It goes from being a huge advantage to a disadvantage in the big picture because you’re not galvanizing your audience to your product. They’re still going to NPR to see this content. They’re still thinking of this as an NPR show, even though we’ve always been produced independently. So it’s about creating that recognition with our own audience. [...] That’s going to be part of the next frontier for us. Reaching this great audience that engages with our content and generates revenue for our brand.145
This American Life made headlines when it similarly decided to distribute independently and became a public benefit corporation owned and operated by Ira Glass. Seth Lind, director of operations, explained, “You get to a point when you’re at a size where you’re like, wait a second [...] these are my listeners, they’re donating to my show. They listen to my show. They don’t listen to the network!”146
The second issue with networks is the lack of transparency regarding their show acquisition process. The greatest challenge most individual shows face is growing enough of an audience to gain advertisers (hence why networks are so useful). However, the majority of podcasters struggle to earn the attention of networks and/or advertisers, burn out by channeling time and resources without returns, and then go inactive. As sociologist Josh Morgan notes in his analysis of iTunes activity, over the last decade “a typical podcast ran for six months and 12 episodes, at two episodes per month, before going inactive.”147 Moreover, although many podcasts cite discovering new voices as a major priority, few have invested heavily in finding talent from beyond the public radio world (a notable exception would be the Loud Speakers Network, which has focused on generating content by and for people of color).