Podcasts, I am told by those curiously American websites that pop up in your social media feeds before disappearing into the digital ether never to be seen again, are booming. ‘Booming’. That word. As if 2008 has become so far removed from us by the incessant trickle of time as to be a hazy memory. ‘Booming’, along with its partner in crime, ‘Busting’, which Gordon Brown famously claimed to have eradicated back when the global financial crisis was still known affectionately as the ‘credit crunch’, have proved to be more resilient than both Mr Brown himself and his own non-identical twin, Mr Blair. The fact of the matter is, ‘Booming’ and ‘Busting’ are economic terms. To say, then, that podcasts are ‘booming’ is to say that there is money to be had in podcasting.
I’m here to tell you why this is bullshit.
This week, I posted a tweet that gained moderate traction on Everyone’s Favourite Website™. I had just spent around four hours editing one of the two podcasts that I currently curate. ‘If,’ I quipped, ‘you ever get the chance to pay for a podcast, don’t just dismiss the idea out of hand.’ The implicit truth behind Godwin’s Law – ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1’ – is this: if you post something on social media, someone will disagree with it… and eventually invoke the Nazis. In this case, the disagreements were mercifully fascist-free. But they were there all the same: and largely in this form ‘Paying for podcasts will never become a thing while the big podcasts are free’.
By way of explanation, here’s how thing work. Podcasts generally make their money through advertising revenues. For most punters, this will work by them picking up automatic pre-, mid- and post-roll adverts through the platform that hosts their podcast. Most platforms pay advertising revenues at ‘cost per mille’ (CPM – or cost per 1,000 listeners). Last year, the average CPM for podcast advertising was £11.21 ($15) per 10-second ad, £13.46 ($18) per 30-second ad or £18.69 ($25) per 60-second ad. Let’s say that you want to earn the living wage in London – £21,216 for a 40-hour-per-week job – you would need to be hitting (in principle) a weekly listenership of around 30,000 people. That’s a figure that puts you just into the bottom half of the table for Premier League average attendances for last season.
To put that into perspective: at the peak of its powers, our main podcast was picking up around 5,000 listens per week. For a middle of the road independent podcast, that is a very respectable figure. When you take into account the fact that many people use ad blockers and switch off before the post-roll advert comes on, we would be lucky to make £40 per week. Add in the cost of equipment, the number of hours that are worked (including guests) and you’re looking at a return of around £5 per hour best case scenario. Since I began working full time, our output on the podcast has dropped. We’re now operating at a figure much closer to 40,000 listens per year. That would recoup us £538.40 total before deducting overheads. With around 10 hours of person-hours per week, that would be a 40-hour-per-week salary of £2,153.60.
Podcasts, then, are booming. And it’s easy to see why. Given that I am effectively producing content for a podcasting platform on a wage of around £1 per hour, it would appear the podcast hosts are onto a clear winner: undercut the labour market in a way that is almost impossible to be legalised against and laugh all the way to the bank.
The most delicious irony, though, is the irony of scale. ‘Ah!’ you say. ‘But this is the market logic! You want to make money from your endeavours, then you have to improve your product. Only then can you really enjoy the benefits of the advertising revenue. The market never lies.’ This, as so much capitalist dogma, is false logic. As soon as you begin pulling large numbers of listeners, you no longer operate by the built-in ad rolls of the podcasting platform and move on to run your own Live Read adverts, privately negotiated, which produce a far higher yield than the automated pre-, mid- and post-roll adverts that hoi polloi enjoy.
‘But isn’t that simply how meritocracy works?’ I hear you say. Well, yes. Supposedly. But let me tell you about a phenomenon I like to call the James Horncastlification of football podcasts. Let us suppose that you commute to work and that that commute is 30 minutes long. That gives you five hours of listening time to fill per week. Until last season, there weren’t too many options within which you could fill your weekly quota: the Guardian Football Weekly, the Football Ramble, maybe a World Football Phone-In if you’re feeling esoteric, maybe The Game podcast if you want to feel better about yourself. But then, along came Iain Macintosh who realised podcasts were ‘booming’ and no one in the football media had a fucking clue what they were doing. He promptly set up the Totally Football Show, filled it with an Avengers-style cast and monetised it properly. And within about two weeks, he had cornered the market. Almost from the outset, the Totally Football Show was picking up multiple millions of listens per month.
Totally Football Show has two episodes a week. You can also listen to the Totally Football League Show as well if you want. And Golazzo: the Totally Italian Football Show. Add this proliferation to the Usual Suspects and you have your podcast listening curated for the whole week. In fact, if you want, you could probably spend the whole week listening to podcasts in which James Horncastle appears in every one.
That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with James Horncastle. I quite like him. He pronounces Maurizio Sarri’s name quite nicely. But this Battle of the Football Podcasts, has done for the independent football podcast. Sure, you could produce an industry-standard quality podcast of quality content but why would people listen to a relative nobody versus, say, James Horncastle who was at the game last night and has friends who are ITK? The answer is: the majority of people wouldn’t. Which is why podcasts may be ‘booming’ but proponents of good quality independent podcasts will not reap any of the rewards.
Why do I tell you this? Well, not predominantly because I believe that you need to be discouraged from entering into this wilfully-re-enacted return to the feudal system, masquerading as capitalism in its purest form. If you want to make money from football podcasts, your best bet is to hope that reincarnation is a thing and that James Horncastle is the next step on your evolution towards true being. But there is also a sense in which we can rebel. Not that I’m advocating a wholesale rejection of the spread of capital in all its forms. But sometimes you can bring the system down from within. It is a real testament that the system has become so flawed that one of the most counter-cultural things you can do is pay for the content that you enjoy to consume. But that’s where we’re at.
Anyway, I’m off to go an pay for a subscription to the Athletic. One of my best friends has begun writing for them and I’d quite like to read their baseball content too. Not all heroes wear capes.
NB. A Team of John O’Sheas will continue to be free to all of our listeners and readers. But only on the proviso that you pass it on and pay for good content elsewhere.
Jon Mackenzie is the Football Editor at RealSport.
Regularly appearing on talkSPORT radio, his work has also featured in The Economist, The Blizzard, Tifo Football and on the Futbolgrad Network.
A UEFA and Premier League-accredited journalist, Jon also founded A Team of John O’Sheas podcast and hosts it every week (or so).
Follow him on Twitter @Jon_Mackenzie