Everyone Has A Podcast, But Very Few Have The Formula For Success

Today’s column will sound like it’s written for the executives in the audience, and to a certain extent, it is. It’s definitely about the business challenges they face as the sports-media industry becomes increasingly digital.

But honestly, I’m not going to say anything that these executives and programmers haven’t heard before. In fact, they’ve probably been told this by someone with more sway in this industry than I’ll ever possess, so while it’s possible something in my delivery or synopsis may convince them of something, I’m not all that hopeful.

The audience I’m hoping to reach here is the talent and the production staff. The creative people. My people.

The folks who make the content that these executives and programmers then monetize, and if you’re anything like I was, you don’t spend all that much time trying to figure out how they make money off your content. That’s their job. It’s how I felt about the business side of the newspapers I worked at for 14 years and the advertising department of the sports-talk radio station in Seattle where I was a host for the past eight.

My job was to make content that would attract and retain an audience. My performance was measured primarily on the size of this audience. This is because I was working in mature industries where the advertising rates were established and predictable. My bosses knew how many people needed to be reading my stories or listening to my show to be a good business proposition. To put it in mathematical terms, the audience size was the variable in the equation and while we may quibble over the accuracy of the ratings and the methodology of their measurement, I think we all accept the underlying premise I’ve described.

Except, this arrangement changes when a traditional media operation becomes increasingly digital. It changes because audience size is no longer the only variable. In fact, it’s often not the most important variable in a digital media environment. It’s this fact that is causing most of the tension we currently feel in the industry not to mention a big part of the reason you’re being pushed to do so many different things in your job right now.

To help envision this, think of your traditional sports-media company as a person straddling a fault line, one foot on either side of a growing divide. One side represents the traditional medium whether it’s print, radio or television. On this side, the ad rates are established and predictable. Let’s call this side Revenue A.

The other foot is planted in the digital realm where the distinctions between print, radio and television are less and less important. The ad rates? Well, those are being figured out on the fly and are impossible to predict. Let’s call this Revenue B.

We know a couple of things for sure about Revenue A.

  1. It’s currently carrying the bulk of our weight, providing upward of 75 percent of the money
  2. It’s not only shrinking, but the fault line is shaking enough you’re kind of worried Revenue A is going to crumble entirely.

We know a couple of things for sure about Revenue B:

  1. It can’t come close to supporting the current organization. Honestly, it can’t support half the current organization. We’re just using it for balance right now
  2. It is growing.

The business plan is pretty obvious, right? Grow Revenue B at a pace that either meets or exceeds the erosion of Revenue A.

Hell, Revenue B is already growing so let’s get some fertilizer, some hoses, and you might even be able to talk yourself into the idea that Revenue B may become bigger than Revenue A ever was.

What I just described is not a business solution, though. It is a hope and a naive one at that. This is not a prediction, but an observation of another advertising-based industry that underwent a similar transition: Newspapers.

This was a mature industry with established and predictable ad rates and where the content creators — the reporters, columnists and photographers — were measured on their ability to attract an audience. And as newspapers became digital news operations, distributing their content online or via apps, they hoped their digital advertising — their Revenue B — would equal or maybe even outweigh the traditional advertising budget by the time Revenue A dried up.

Except that Revenue B turned out to be somewhere between 10 to 15 percent of what Revenue A was. Now, some of this was specific to the newspaper industry. For decades, classified ads constituted the most expensive advertising real estate in the paper. Craigslist provided an alternative that wasn’t just digital but free. But it was more than that, too.

When a newspaper sold display advertising, it was competing against other print publications whether it was the other newspaper in town, the free weekly, or maybe even a national or state-wide publication.

When a newspaper sold digital advertising for its Web content? It was competing against all of those publications plus Web-only publications that were springing up, not to mention Facebook and Google. Competition drove the prices down to the point that any newspaper businessman who’s alive will tell you that digital advertising is inherently cheaper than print advertising.

Retaining audience wasn’t the issue. In fact, the content that newspapers produced was being distributed more widely than ever before and being consumed at a greater frequency. If you used the traditional metrics of circulation, the content creators were excelling. The problem is that was no longer the only variable. In fact, it wasn’t even close to being the most important variable.

I’m going to stop the comparison here not because there’s nothing to be learned from how newspapers tried — and in many cases failed — to monetize their digital content. There is, and I’ll do that in future columns. I’m not seeking to present a doomsday prediction for the sports-talk radio or broadcast television industries either. There’s a lot of this story that remains undecided.

The point I want to make is that for years, content creators have been evaluated on their ability to attract and retain an audience. This can create the expectation that if we continue to do exactly what we’ve done at the level we’ve done it, things will turn out fine.

That’s a hope, though. That’s not a business plan, and unless you want to trust your job to the ability of your bosses to navigate this transition, you need to be evaluating way more than just your ability to attract and retain an audience. You need to be looking at how your employer monetizes a digital audience and comparing that to how others are monetizing that digital audience.

Hopefully, the executives and programmers reading this will find the right answers, but in case they don’t, you absolutely need to be aware of the questions that are facing this industry.

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