How podcasters decide whether to join a podcast network

Jeff Umbro, founder of The Podglomerate

Panoply. Gimlet. Wondery. Nerdist. Midroll.

If you listen to a large number of podcasts, then there’s a good chance that several of them belong to a podcast network. With their scale, distribution partners, and, in some cases, venture capital funding, podcast networks possess the power to boost a podcast’s revenue and listenership.

And as the podcasting business continues to grow, more and more podcast networks are launching. It reminds me of the blogosphere circa 2006 or so. After the success of networks like Gawker and Weblogs, Inc, you started to see weekly announcements for new blog networks, and many of them didn’t survive for more than a few months. Podcasters now are encountering a similar dilemma that bloggers faced a decade ago: as your show gains respectability and audience, how do you decide when’s the right time to join a podcast network? And what are the questions you should be asking for any suitors that come your way? Because the last thing you want is to be locked into a multi-year contract with a network that isn’t delivering the benefits you thought it would.

Jeff Umbro has thought long and hard about what a podcast network can offer its members. The founder of a new network called The Podglomerate, Umbro got his career start at a book publicity firm helping publishers navigate digital and social media marketing. “I was designing Facebook pages and showing authors how to use Twitter,” he told me. “It just kept expanding from there. I started doing Reddit AMAs and Quora sessions with authors and figuring out how to get authors to write for blogs and which blogs moved the needle.”

Umbro eventually grew bored with book publicity and began to think about how his marketing skills could translate to other mediums. While he was mulling over what to do next, he launched a podcast, called Writers Who Don’t Write, with his friend Kyle Craner. The podcast, a longform interview show that brought on famous authors and journalists, slowly gained an audience, and Umbro suddenly found himself fielding inquiries from different podcast networks. “I had gotten a couple emails from random people from Maximum Fun and Wondery asking if we wanted to potentially bring the show on. And that conversation would continue until the moment they found out about our download numbers, which at the time were not that high. The numbers were respectable, and I thought they were great, but [podcast networks] are looking for podcasts that are up in the tens of thousands of downloads, multiple times over.”

This is common among the largest podcast networks. Many won’t consider accepting a show unless it has a minimum of 50,000 downloads per episode. Given that most advertisers are chasing scale and buy ads based on CPM, some networks feel it’s not worth their while to take on smaller shows.

Umbro found this approach frustrating; there were many podcasts out there, including his, that had managed to achieve a high degree of quality without meeting the 50,000 download threshold. It seemed like there may be an opportunity for a network to target these mid-tier shows. Meanwhile, he left his job at the book publicity firm and moved to California to work on a non-partisan voter registration initiative that was co-founded by Sam Altman, the CEO of the tech incubator Y Combinator. “I fell in love with startup culture,” he told me. “I drove home back to New York and really just thought about what I wanted to do when I got back. I didn’t really want to go back into publishing per se, so I decided I wanted to start something on my own, which eventually became The Podglomerate.”

Umbro cast about for shows that could join his network, listening to everything he could get his hands on and trying to home in on shows that met a certain standard. “My criteria was basically: is this something I would enjoy listening to if it was presented to me in the best possible form that I think it could be?” Eventually he started to develop relationships with several podcast hosts with whom he discussed a collaboration.

One of those podcast hosts was Laura Carlson. Carlson, a medievalist and food historian, hosts The Feast, a show about the history of food. Launched in May of 2016, The Feast gained early traction after it was featured on Podcast Playlist, a CBC show that samples and recommends podcasts. Though The Feast was created as a side project to Carlson’s academic career, it wasn’t long before she began to think about how it could evolve into something more, perhaps even a full time job. “We were trying to weigh the balance between sticking on our own, and then also realizing that there were a lot of potential benefits to finding not just a network, but the right network,” she told me.

Earlier this year, when he was still forming the concept for The Podglomerate, Umbro reached out to Carlson through her website. “What really appealed to me was that Jeff came from a promotion, marketing, and writing background himself, and also had his own podcast,” she said. More important, his pitch to her included the caveat that she’d maintain full creative control over the content of her show. “He would let us keep doing our own thing, which was really important to us,” she said.

So what was the value proposition that Umbro offered? He told me his services are three-tiered. His promotional skills are the first value-add. He would leverage the marketing strategies he’d developed while working in book publicity to help his podcasters expand their audience and network. This includes not only traditional public relations with reporters and media outlets, but also securing collaboration with other podcasters and personalities that fit within the same niche of a given podcast.

The second offering from The Podglomerate is production help. For instance, when I spoke to her, Carlson had just received a revised logo for The Feast from a graphic designer who had been recommended to her from Umbro. “We really liked our original logo,” she said. “But we liked our logo because we made it. Having someone like Jeff on hand who has the experience in promotion allows him to say, ‘hey maybe you should think about a logo that signals to the audience that you do food,’ which is something I think our original logo doesn’t do.”

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The third benefit to joining The Podglomerate is that Umbro will work to find sponsors, both for individual shows and across the entire network. He told me that he’s already begun selling ads, and he’s also recently launched two branded podcasts in which companies pay him to handle the production and promotion of the shows. The first, called 2 Girls 1 Podcast, was created in collaboration with the Daily Dot. The second, a serialized fiction show called ReMade, was developed for an app called Serial Box.

While more and more podcast networks are popping up every day, not all industry watchers are convinced they provide enough value. Marco Arment, who developed the fantastic Overcast podcast app, wrote two posts recently declaring podcast networks to be the “wrong model.” “As the medium and technology mature and hosting costs drop, being in a network becomes far less necessary and compelling, and it increasingly makes sense for people to go independent,” he wrote. “The glory days of podcast networks are behind us.”

David Kadavy, host of an entrepreneurship podcast called Love Your Work, wrote a post this year about why he decided to not join a podcast network. Though he didn’t name the network in question, he outlined the terms of the potential deal, which would have included 70 percent revenue share for ads sold by the network. But after running the math on potential revenue, reviewing the fine print (which had all kinds of requirements, including one that forced him to switch podcast hosts), and speaking to other podcasters in the network, he decided not to sign with the company.

A chief worry cited by many podcasters is whether they’ll be able to maintain creative control with their shows. Many networks merely sell advertising on shows, meaning that not only do they not tamper with the core content, but they also give the podcaster veto rights over any particular sponsor. Other networks, like Gimlet Media for instance, have complete ownership over the podcast, which means they have editing input for any show and can even cancel a podcast if it underperforms.

Kathy Doyle oversees a network that fits this model. She’s a vice president at Macmillan Publishers and runs both the Macmillan Podcast Network and the Quick and Dirty Tips Network, which I profiled last year. Doyle told me in a recent interview that the benefit of joining a network that has complete ownership over podcasts is you can get access to distribution and revenue opportunities that are hard to find elsewhere. “They reap the benefits of our relationships, our distributors, our ad broker, with the imprints within our global organization whereby we draw in authors to be guests,” she said. “We might promote their other work via social. We push our speakers bureau within the Macmillan organization to take them on as clients. Two-thirds of them at one point had book deals with us. So we look at it as a collaborative, holistic partnership.”

I brought up the idea of editorial independence and the fear that many podcasters have that a network will dictate what is or isn’t in a show. Doyle acknowledged that while yes, Macmillan does expect to have input into all its shows, it also hired these hosts precisely because they knew their subject matter better than anyone else. “They have a lot of control,” she said. “We seed them ideas, but remember we operate with true subject matter experts. These are highly qualified, highly educated professionals who are leaders in their fields who have been carefully vetted and brought on for a specific purpose here within the organization.”

If a podcaster does generate interest from networks, there are a number of questions they should ask. “I would want to look for and talk to the network about how do they currently support existing podcasts,” said Doyle. “What synergistic opportunities are there for the podcast host within that network? What kind of distribution opportunities does that podcast network employ and how are they looking to expand that distribution? And how do they go about ad sales?”

I asked Umbro, Doyle, and Carlson what advice they’d give to a podcaster who wants to join a network, and their responses all fell along a similar theme: don’t start a show with the express goal of joining a network. “Focus on making the best show you possibly can,” said Umbro. “That could mean a hundred different things. Figure out your Twitter feed. Jump into a better studio and get better sound quality. Find someone who can do a sound environment mix or something… But ultimately, my advice is to keep on making a great show and networks will find you.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com