FUNNY SOUNDS | Dave Shumka and Graham Clark, two Vancouver-based standup comedians, on the set of Stop Podcasting Yourself
After a rocky start nearly a decade ago, the podcasting industry is finally coming into its own. And–surprise, surprise–some podcasters have even found a way to make money
When Dave Shumka and Graham Clark decided to start dabbling in podcasting back in 2008, the medium seemed an unlikely candidate for mainstream appeal. Just a few years earlier, the new digital audio product had been met by an initial surge of excitement–with former MTV VJ Adam Curry launching what’s thought to be the first podcast in 2004 and everyone from British comedian Ricky Gervais to science journal Nature following suit. But the craze didn’t last: a cumbersome download process severely limited listenership, mostly to technophiles savvy enough to download MP3s on their desktops and patient enough to sync them to actual iPods. By 2011, stagnant audiences and weak revenue led traditional media outlets, including the New York Times and Boston Globe, to largely abandon their online audio efforts.
But that didn’t matter to Shumka and Clark, a couple of Vancouver-based standup comedians who saw opportunity in the ability to bypass traditional gatekeepers and produce and distribute their own brand of funny. “I knew so many comedians who would go on stage and tell these short jokes, but hanging out backstage, people were way funnier,” recalls Shumka, who at the time was freelancing as a video editor for companies that produced reality TV. “I had listened to other podcasts with a similar format to ours, with guests I’d never heard of, and it made me think: ‘You don’t need to be super famous. I know a bunch of guys, and women, who are so funny, and I think I can make it.’”
After a little technical trial and error—Shumka admits they likely rubbed their beards on the microphones in the first few episodes—Stop Podcasting Yourself was born. The 90-minute weekly episodes featuring stream-of-consciousness banter between the hosts and their comedian guests quickly found a following among family, friends and a dedicated subculture of podcast fans still lurking in certain corners of the Internet. By 2011, Stop Podcasting Yourself was picked up by the Maximum Fun Network, a U.S.-based family of podcasts that runs on listener support. With regular funding by the network, the show now pays for itself and even leaves a little left over for its creators.
While Internet outliers in 2008, Shumka, 35, and Clark, 36, are now veterans of a field undergoing a renaissance. The rise of smartphones as personal entertainment portals and the automation of the download process through apps seem to have solved podcasting’s audience issue. According to Edison Research, more than one third of Americans had listened to a podcast by 2015—up from 11 per cent in 2006—while nearly 20 per cent of Americans have listened to a podcast in the last month. And the 10 per cent, or roughly 31 million Americans, who count as weekly podcast listeners are voracious—consuming an average of six episodes per week. Canadian statistics are not available (neither Apple nor the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will reveal their download numbers), but the shifting focus of Canada’s national broadcaster suggests a similar trajectory north of the border. CBC now offers more than 100 of its traditional radio programs as podcasts and is pouring resources into developing digital audio content, producing four original podcasts in the last year alone. Meanwhile, shows like Serial—a spinoff from WBEZ Chicago’s popular This American Life that has garnered over 80 million downloads since its 2014 launch—and WTF With Marc Maron, which featured a 2015 sit-down interview with U.S. President Barack Obama, are proof of podcasting’s potential reach.
The promise of that reach—and the hope that, this time around, podcasting will prove a profitable endeavour—has a growing number of B.C.’s creative types flocking to the field. But to succeed, you first need to stand out from the crowd of offerings on iTunes, Stitcher and the dozens of other “podcatchers” (podcast apps) available through Google Play.
Kyle Gest cleared that hurdle right out of the gate. When the 29-year-old film graduate from Capilano University launched his slice-of-life non-fiction storytelling podcast The Lapse in February 2014, it was featured on the front page of iTunes Canada’s New and Noteworthy list. The mention was a major boon, boosting listenership for new episodes from hundreds to tens of thousands almost overnight. But, as many digital content producers have discovered, translating audience numbers into income is a challenge. Initially Gest, a former technical writer, tried the old-meets-new advertising model that has become a hallmark of the medium. In a nod to the earliest days of radio, podcast hosts frequently interrupt their programs in order to urge listeners to sign up for the services of a company, such as Amazon’s audio book wing Audible.com (a big podcast advertiser). When listeners sign up using the show’s promo code, creators get a commission—in Gest’s case it was $15. Or rather, it would have been. As it was, none of his listeners signed up for Audible; furthermore, having ads on the show thwarted his concurrent efforts at crowdfunding. Says Gest: “The perception of necessity wasn’t there.”
Eventually, he dumped the ads in favour of appealing directly to listeners to support the show through Patreon, a crowdfunding site where people pledge ongoing monthly contributions to fund specific creative projects. Now in its third year, The Lapse—which releases new episodes every month or so—takes in about US$1,200 a month in gross revenue, says Gest. Half comes from listeners’ contributions via Patreon and half from spinoff sources, such as licensing episodes for play on traditional radio. It’s a meagre living, but Gest insists he makes it work by sharing the rent on his West End Vancouver apartment with his partner and using free resources to produce the show, such as the Vancouver Public Library’s Inspiration Lab, which has recording studios open to the public. For now, he plans to stay the course: “The next goal is a living wage. I hope to hit that in the next year as I get more listeners.” Failing that, he sees a fall-back plan in the growing number of companies looking to hire people with audio chops as they too get in on the podcasting space.
At Pacific Content’s offices in Vancouver’s Railtown, disassembled furniture sits against an exposed brick wall next to a brand-new recording studio dubbed “the whisper room.” The company hasn’t quite settled into the new digs it acquired after a recent hiring spate that grew its staff from two to 10. Established in 2014 by former CBC producers Jennifer Ouano and Steve Pratt, Pacific Content creates original “branded” podcasts for clients such as e-commerce platform Shopify and online business communication tool Slack. The founders are adamant they are not producing infomercials for the Internet age, rather, they’re making engaging content on par with the best podcasts out there. “It’s still great storytelling,” says Ouano, who stresses the importance of avoiding a hard sell. “It’s not about the product; it’s about the brand’s values.”
SELLING STORIES | Steve Pratt and Jennifer Ouano from Pacific Content create podcasts for clients including e-commerce platform Shopify and online business communication tool Slack
For companies looking to engage their target market in a new way, podcasts pose an opportunity to build brand loyalty by offering something fun, informative and free for listeners. Pacific Content’s podcast for Slack, The Slack Variety Pack, centres on work and work culture with content that ranges from light-hearted explorations of “the office shorts guy” to in-depth interviews with Ted Talk sensation and best-selling author Brene Brown. The Shopify podcast, TGIM, meanwhile, aims to appeal to entrepreneurs with thoughtful interviews with prominent business leaders. Both brands and listeners appear to be responding. Since launching in May 2015, The Slack Variety Pack has garnered four million plays and regularly appears in iTunes’ Top 50 business podcasts, while Pacific Content has added two new client-funded podcasts to its roster this year: Office Hacks, a quirky weekly take on office ingenuity for digital sign-in platform Envoy, and Upgraded, a monthly exploration of the education system for education technology company Hobsons.
With shows paid for up front by clients, Pratt says he believes the model is not only profitable but also able to offer a rich experience for everyone involved. Listeners aren’t interrupted by irritating ads, clients get better value, “and as a content creator, you have a business model where you can create high-quality material without having to appeal to everybody on earth so you can recoup your money with ads.”
Creating high-quality content geared for niche audiences is also the strategy at Glacier Media Group, where Barry Link is heading up a fledgling podcasting network. Facing a uncertain future for print media, the company, which owns 67 community newspapers across Canada, including 22 in B.C., is looking to podcasting as a tool to grow audiences, attract advertisers and maybe even secure a future for local journalism. “It just seems to be a natural step for us as print storytellers to go into an audio form,” says Link, who stepped down as editor of the Vancouver Courier last year to head up the effort. So far, Glacier’s Press Play Network has eight shows, ranging from Link’s own The Practical Geek, aimed at Canadian technology consumers, to Stream Queens, a chatty review of Internet TV options hosted by three reporters from the Burnaby Now and New Westminster Record. While other podcasts are gunning for international audiences, Glacier is focused on filling a void for regional voices and hoping that regional advertisers will follow. “We see it as an audience extension for our advertisers,” says Tim Shoults, Glacier’s vice-president of content and audience development. The company is beginning to experiment with monetization schemes, which could include a sponsorship model, but Shoults says the focus for now remains on developing audiences. And that, he acknowledges, could take some time: “There’s no one holding a calendar over our heads.”
Playing the long game seems to be paying off for Shumka and Clark. While still not a full-time living eight years on, the show—with tens of thousands of listeners tuning in each week and countless more exploring the archive of more than 400 episodes—has brought them considerable profile. Since 2012, Stop Podcasting Yourself has won three Canadian Comedy Awards and hosted some big name guests, including Al Madrigal from The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Brent Butt from Corner Gas. Meanwhile both Shumka and Clark have parlayed podcasting success into other work: Shumka is an occasional producer and host at CBC Radio 3, while Clark is a regular on CBC’s comedy show The Debaters. And with plans for a new music-themed podcast in the works, plus a few “nuggets” of other ideas, the pair is optimistic that early adopter status will position them to eventually give up the side gigs entirely.
“We’ve been doing it for eight years,” says Shumka. “I don’t think it’s ridiculous for us to want to have this be our career.”