Podcasts Are Awesome But Are They A Business? Hot Pod’s Nick Quah Tells Me Some Stuff.

I love podcasts. Not just as a consumer but from a societal perspective because there’s so much about the medium which reminds me of other formats (text, video, music) where technology has played a significant role in helping creators explore their talents, build audience and make money. Nick Quah is a smart dude when it comes to podcasts and his newsletter is one of the places I turn for conversation about “non music audio.” Here are Five Questions with Nick about podcast present and future. 

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Hunter Walk: Can you give folks a little bit of background about how you got involved in podcasts and what you’re doing now?

Nick Quah: Man, where do I start?

I launched Hot Pod back in November 2014 which, if you recall, was around the time Serial’s first season was just about to go truly bananas. Back then, I was a bored kid itching to do something interesting — still am — and I started the newsletter off a few things: (1) I had been firmly in love with the medium for a few years by that point, (2) I began seeing some writing about podcasts that felt insubstantial, and (3) I’m generally interested seeing and thinking about things through the lens of business, structure, and all that kind of stuff. So Hot Pod, as a side project, was a product of those things, and to be honest, nothing’s really changed from that starting position.

To be concise with what happened after: the newsletter kept growing, and I kept working at it, and soon enough it just took over my life. I kept publishing the newsletter while I moved through other jobs (including a stint at an actual podcasting company, Panoply), and eventually, about a year ago, I started reckoning with the fact that I was spending more time working on the newsletter than investing sweat into my actual job. Figured it wasn’t fair to my employers, so I decided it’s best to go ahead and try to make this an actual low-overhead micro-business.

Thankfully, it’s worked out so far. I have a solid number of paying subscribers that gives my work a good financial foundation, and I’ve used that platform to add some other interesting projects on top: writing podcast reviews for Vulture, developing a print project with a friend, some research, considering more live events. It also really helps that the industry continues to be really interesting to me, and it’s consistently given me a lot of things to process and write about. I’m not… quite sure how things will shake out in the long run, and I do find myself itching to work with a team again, maybe in a non-media industry, but for now, this is where I am.

HW: Why are so many podcasts too long? Or more seriously, how do you think “podcast length” gets decided and will better analytics have an impact on format length?

NQ: Heh. Well, to address the initial semi-facetious question: whether we’re talking about a podcast or a magazine or a movie, things often feel too long when there’s an absence of sufficient editorial discipline to tamp down things like self-indulgence, amateurism, and the chaos of process. I put it that way because I feel like my own newsletter suffers from those things all the time, and I think it’s perfectly applicable to what you’re describing with podcasts there.

Anyway, more seriously: the way I see it, podcasts should be as long as they need to be in order to do what they want to do. Often times, when we talk about podcast length, I think there’s a tendency to be sort of overly structural about things… like we’re operating within a universe where there’s a golden length to be discovered and excavated through the power of data or something. But really, it all comes down to what the show is trying to do. For example, The New York Times’ The Daily has a really specific vision for how it fits into people’s lives—as a taut capsule experience for the morning commute, basically a morning vitamin that you down and go—and so the team there has really stuck to a user-first design strategy of being short and accessible, but impactful enough to make a lasting impression. But their success isn’t necessarily transferable to other projects, y’know? I’m often very happy when Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman or Bill Simmons decide to go extra long with their podcasts, because they’re doing very different things: instead of designing a tight experience, they’re doing the work of creating really enjoyable experiential spaces that I want to wrap myself in like a blanket for hours and hours and hours.  

So I don’t quite see better analytics as establishing any direct impact on podcast length per se. Rather, what I’ll be watching for is how they impact the nature of the editorial choices being made. Some folks will gravitate more towards playing to the analytics, deploying various tricks to raise complete rates or push audiences to listen as far as they can go. Others will flip that relationship and use the analytics to improve their ability to achieve their specific goals — be it tell a longer story or fiercely serve the commuter. In a way, and to be clichéd about it, you could say that better data lets people be more of what they are: artists, opportunists, grifters, business people, whatever.

One other thing, and it’s just a rough sense: I generally think better analytics is a good thing editorially—despite whatever impacts it might yield for the advertising market—because it, like, brings a democratizing effect to craft intelligence. And so, and I’m just spitballing, I think it’s possible that we’ll see the proliferation of more “good” stuff. But I also have a sense that will come to the detriment of “great” stuff. I’m still thinking through this, and I’m looking a lot at what’s happening over in television for lessons here.

HW: Today’s podcast business model is largely ad support, platform sponsorship or audience patronage. Do you expect we’ll see more “consumer pays” models—whether it’s at the show/series level or a “Hulu for Podcasts” play?

NQ: Good question. As a rule of thumb, and after living through the Cubs winning last year (and, not to mention, that particular presidential election cycle), I try not to make a habit of thinking that a certain thing can’t happen. Which is to say, yeah, sure, of course we might see more paid models, some of which might even work. It’s not a question of whether it’s possible—because anything is possible—but it’s about the how, right?

But to put money down on the question: there could well be a paid on-demand audio service model, but I suspect it should look less like Netflix in 2017 and more like HBO in the 70s. Solve one unsexy mass consumer problem really, really well—I don’t know, highlight the really strong parts of the long-tail or fill-in a very specific underserved but well-hungered niche—and then work upward. As it stands, building a pay-walled podcast service and trying to compete on a quality level doesn’t strike me as a good strategy; you can’t account for the serendipitous great shit that’s going to pop up over the open ecosystem.

Could there be successful pay models for individual shows? Sure. Though, the actual structure of the model should depend on the show.

HW: What’s your sense of how the large media companies (NBCUniversal, Time Warner, Viacom, etc) are thinking about podcasts?

NQ: I have no idea. Big companies (and institutions) are so… opaque to me. It’s like asking what the Borg is thinking. That’s on me, though: I don’t have enough experience or formal training to think like corporations do. (Maybe I should go to business school.) Hell, I don’t understand why a company like Time Inc. is considering changing its name, or whatever.

But from my experience reporting for Hot Pod, my sense is that it’s all toes in the water. Podcasting is growing really quickly, sure, but right now it’s still peanuts compared to other sexier markets—VR, AR, China, blah blah blah— that are on the shopping menu for those corporations, and so I see limited incentive to either build a meaningful play or go for an acquisition at this point in time. I don’t know, maybe when the industry as a whole breaks half a billion. That’s not to say there hasn’t been activity, of course: EW Scripps did acquire Midroll, after all, and that seems to be working out.

HW: What should I be listening to right now?

NQ: I actually really love the first act of 36 Questions, Two-Up Productions’ follow-up to Limetown, which is a podcast musical. Get yourself some My Dad Wrote a Porno. Get on Dissect. And I’m really digging Tyler Cowen’s interviews. The dude is a machine.

Thanks Nick! Follow him on Twitter at @nwquah and sub to his Hot Pod newsletter.