Asking listeners for money

A disproportionate amount of podcast coverage, I feel, focuses on shows that are big enough to be fully supported by advertising revenue. We read a lot about the Dirty Johns and Atlanta Monsters of this world, which rack up millions of downloads and ad impressions. At the other end of the spectrum are people just making podcasts for their own pleasure, or to share with a small group of friends or fellow enthusiasts, with no intention of ever monetising their audio.

But what about all the shows in between, which could be attracting anything from 1,500 to 40,000 plus downloads per episode? It depends a bit on the subject of your podcast and where you are in the world, but if it falls somewhere in that range, chances are advertising alone will not bring in enough money to support you or your show. Where do you turn instead?

For a long time now, the answer has been “your listeners”. The means might be as informal as pointing people towards a Paypal donation link, or as complicated as an involved Patreon setup with a number of reward tiers, but it all comes down to the same transaction: the podcaster asks their listeners for money, and the listeners pay up to help the show they enjoy continue production. On the surface, it seems like a simple system, which doesn’t require the extra work or resources that an advertising model often requires.

However, there are lots of hidden complications. For starters, your listeners might not want to pay you what you need to keep podcasting. Or they might be prepared to part with their cash, but only in return for rewards that will take you a long time to create and send (thereby increasing the amount of work you have to do to secure the funding). Or your crowdfunding platform might suddenly announce that it is arbitrarily increasing the fees it takes from creators, cutting into your revenue (hey, Patreon in 2017).

If you do manage to run a successful crowdfunding income model for your podcast, up until recently you didn’t have many technology options for how you would run it. Kickstarter was good if you wanted to fundraise for a single lump sum at a time. (Wooden Overcoats is a podcast that has used this very successfully, I think, raising money each year to make a new series. The US network Radiotopia also used it to great effect when starting out).

Patreon, which allows you to charge supporters on a recurring basis, either per month or per episode, is also popular with a lot of independent podcasters. But for a long time, it’s been pretty much the only way of running an income stream like this, unless you felt able to build your own membership platform from scratch into your podcast’s website. I think this is why Patreon caused such a fuss late last year when they briefly put up their fees — they didn’t have enough competitors to seriously consider the effect it might have on their users.

Also, Patreon isn’t specifically designed to accommodate podcasters, although they have added a few useful features for audio more recently such as the ability to generate a private early-access RSS feed for paying supporters. Just in the last couple of weeks, though, we’ve seen that change, with podcast hosts Anchor and Breaker both introducing podcaster-specific membership programmes within their existing audio technology platforms.

When it comes to third party platforms in podcasting, I think the more competition there is, the more likely podcasters are to get a better service. I hope these launches are an indication that companies are beginning to see shows that aren’t quite able to monetise fully with ads as an opportunity for growth, and that more services targeting this group are on the way. It helps us all if we can say no to the adverts every now and again.