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This piece appears in the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Click here to see the cover.
Podcasts have been compared to television in the 1940s, and for good reason: The medium is entering uncharted territory but has the potential to rival terrestrial radio.
During the past two years, while the radio industry has obsessed over formats and a flawed ratings system that often fails to accurately gauge audience numbers or demographics, podcasts of the comedic variety have flourished. Adam Carolla and Marc Maron lead the pack, following the pioneering path cleared by Kevin Smith, Ricky Gervais and Jimmy Pardo.
The numbers tell the story: Carolla, who bid farewell to 15 markets when his syndicated CBS Radio morning show was canceled in 2009, has amassed an audience 10 times as big with his daily podcast. The Adam Carolla Show has logged more than 50 million downloads in a year; Maron’s twice-weekly WTF is at 20 million and counting. Both are offered for free, while archived episodes (like Maron’s intense 2010 interview with Robin Williams) cost $1.99 at iTunes (no money changes hands between the programs and Apple, but server space is the responsibility of show producers and can get pricey at about $10,000 a month). Cash starts flowing when listenership hits certain benchmarks and advertisers come calling, which, according to Carolla, they have — big time.
“A lot of it is performance-based, and our audience performs,” says Carolla, the former Man Show and Loveline host who spent about $125,000 of his own money in the podcast’s nascent days and whose advertisers include ProFlowers.com and Nissan. “It’s more accurate than radio, where there’s so much BS about cumes, time spent listening, people filling out Arbitron diaries with golf pencils. … With podcasts, you can tell how many shows have been listened to, down to the click. That’s better for the sponsors and for us.”
The beauty of the podcast is its simplicity: Anyone can purchase a microphone and mixer, and the cost is nominal compared to a traditional radio program. “With an investment of $700 to $1,000, you can make a show,” says Maron, whose podcast regularly charts in the iTunes Top 10 and charges $1,000 to $15,000 per sponsor. The comedian conducts interviews from the garage of his Los Angeles home, but he’s rarely there these days as demand for his stand-up shows (which often double as podcast-recording opportunities) has jumped by 50 percent. “I’m now performing in rooms,” cracks Maron. “When I started WTF, I was a marginal character who couldn’t get booked — a respected but acquired taste, not a seller of tickets. Now, I can sell pretty good.”
“As a singular business, a podcast might not be profitable, but if you look at other revenue streams that can grow from it, it definitely is,” says Judi Brown-Marmel, partner at Levity Entertainment Group, which manages such comedians as Jim Breuer and Hal Sparks. “Who it serves best are the people that don’t fit a traditional broadcast model. Like, if George Carlin were 22 today, what would he be doing? Probably a podcast.”
Beyond the spoken word, the ripple effect can bring revenue from merchandising, book deals (Carolla’s New York Times best-seller In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks was released in 2010, and Maron is working on his first book for Spiegel & Grau), iPhone apps (after Apple and Google take 10 percent, revenue is split 50-50 with the developer) and sales of comedy albums. Maron, in an ironic twist after being told in 2009 to ride out his contract at the now defunct Air America, has returned to terrestrial radio through NPR, which pays to air edited versions of WTF. Currently, 13 public radio affiliates carry the PRX version.
Of course, not all podcasts are created equal. Greg Proops, who hosts cult favorite The Smartest Man in the World, says what he makes from his Proopscast “is not even gas money. I do it because a couple hundred thousand people will hear me, which is more than all my gigs combined.” Maron says his initial goal was to “make an honest buck” and pay his mortgage. And now? “I’m making a living because I’ve been able to book more work, but it’s still just me and a guy in my garage.”
In contrast, Carolla also works from his garage — “He’s got a bunker!” mocks Maron — but he employs 18 people, from “$10-an-hour guys” to those “making six figures.” “It’s a business,” says Carolla. “Madison Avenue and corporate America are already involved. I don’t know how to define success, but I can tell you that 18 months ago, companies like Nissan or LegalZoom didn’t exist in our podcast world. Now they’re in it in a big way, and other companies are coming on board.”
The Hollywood Reporter: What were your expectations going into the podcast world, financially or otherwise?
Marc Maron: We didn’t know. I knew it was a new form. I knew I was broke. I work hard at whatever I do and hope something pays off one way or another — I’m odd like that. But I didn’t have any expectations. We started with an NPR model, where if you donate this amount of money, I’ll send you some stuff and got pretty good support right out of the gate — around 400 to 500 people paying $10 a month. It enough to get us a monthly nut and cover my expenses. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to say, “Let’s keep doing this.” What we’ve had to learn over time is that we’ve got a small business on our hands and it’s been very exciting.
Adam Carolla: I didn’t have any expectations, financially. I’ve been around long enough to know that in this business, it’s about just getting up and doing something. Money-wise, sometimes it follows, sometimes it doesn’t. You can’t approach this business going, “I’m only getting out of bed for the stuff you pay me for” because you don’t know where the freebies will lead. You don’t get paid to meet with Martin Scorsese, but it’d be a good idea to take that meeting. It’s not, like, “Well, if he swings by the ATM, maybe we can talk. You want me to come to his office? What’s gas to the west side? Tell him that’ll be another 12 dollars.”
Greg Proops: I’ve watched it explode around me. I had no idea when I started doing it that it was going to be the funnest thing I’ve ever done and no idea that I would get more attention for it than anything I’ve done in the last ten years.It’s gone from something obscure to something that gets for me a couple hundred thousand hits a month and now people are starting to know it when I go places and actually care about it.
THR: Why are podcast listeners so loyal? What is it about the experience that keeps them coming back for more?
Proops: Here’s my theory: people who are devoted comedy fans, and I don’t just mean people who watch Conan and the like, but fans that follow comedy have turned to podcasts in the millions and are devoted to it. Where in my generation, we would listen to the radio and watch TV, the young generation of 20 or 30-somethings don’t care at all about the radio or TV. Everything comes to them through their phone, iPad or computer. You deliver it straight to people on their listening devices and they listen to it in their car, at work, when they’re doing the dishes. People say to me, “I wish your podcasts was three hours because my commute is three hours. It’s a personal thing that is just for them. Like this conversation we’re having and we’re talking into each others ears — it’s that intimate. I think people feel it’s directed straight to them. Not at a corporate focus group. These days, when you watch TV or watch a movie, you can smell the committee meeting and people in their 20s can tell when they’re being marketed to because they grew up with it… When I started, I was doing it twice a month and people were, like, “How come there’s not more? Why is it so sporadic?” Apparently, in podcast world, it has to come out all the bloody time, so I’ve had to up it over the last year.
Carolla: I think it’s the one-on-one. We live in a society where everything’s coming at you so fast and everything’s so big and there’s a crawl on the bottom of every screen and there’s a crawl on top of the crawl and blah blah blah. And this is a chance to slow it down, go long form and really settle in. You put the earbuds in and you take your dog for a walk and you get a long form conversation in this world that of sound bites and pre-interviews and everything’s overproduced. You get back to some guy sitting on a porch smoking a pipe in a rocking chair spinning the yarn. Everything’s sped up, we want a respite from that.
Maron: Look at Howard Stern, look at [NPR Fresh Air’s] Teri Gross, the medium is more versatile than radio now, where you decide what you want to listen to and when it. People can listen in their car, in their cubicle, at the gym. I get emails from all around the world. I’ve got soldiers in combat listening. I’ve got Americans abroad. They can listen wherever and however they want but I would say 99 percent of the time they’re listening to it in solitary. You’re in their head. You’re talking directly to them. Their relationship with you is very personal. It’s the nature of this medium. Then when people come to my shows and they’re waiting in line to meet me or take a picture or buy a t-shirt or a CD, I know they have an honest and candid relationship because of the type of radio I’m doing. And I respect that. I also realize that I don’t know them at all, and they know me very well, so I try to make myself as available as possible.
THR: What impact has the podcast had on your stand-up shows or other ancillary activities?
Maron: Before, I would do radio for a year and it would take me out of the loop. Now I’m booked out. I’d estimate ticket sales are up 50%. I’ve been gone almost every weekend. It’s made a difference. And when I do stand up, I’ve got hundreds of new fans who know me from the podcast, so they are literally going to their first comedy show. They’re nervous for me — they’ve never seen me do this! It’s been very heartwarming. People come to my shows and bring me presents, they make me pictures, some people make donations… there’s a gratitude to it. I’m also writing a book and because of the podcast, I’ve been able to book more work.
Proops: It’s the new way to globally disseminate your comedy all over the world and still not receive physical renumeration. But artistically, it’s unbelievably rewarding for me. And as far as connecting to the crowd, I don’t think I’ve ever connected to the crowd as much as I am now. It’s even more creative than standup for me because I don’t have to hit a home run every minute-and-a-half. Because the standup audience doesn’t really want to hear you formulate your thoughts for 35 minutes, it doesn’t have to be funny every bloody minute — it can be heartfelt and sincere. It’s not always a joke.
THR: It seems podcasts are often born out of canceled terrestrial radio shows. Does succeeding in this medium have anything to do with vindication, as if to prove a point?
Maron: It’s a weird thing. It’s sort of bittersweet. When I got involved with Air America, I’d never done radio before. What I went through there, as horribleas it was as an organization and how they treated me, I would not have learned how to own a radio mic. It’s proven to be an invaluable craft and talent that I would not have… So there’s not too much sour grapes. There is a bit, sure. There is something very exciting about thinking, “We don’t need radio anymore.” With radio, you work your ass off. You sacrifice your life to be mistreated. It’s certainly a deep wound and it does feel a little healed. Also, despite whatever egos are involved in this world and however we may feel about each other personally, this is a very supportive community. I’m not innately a team player in you know. I’m a fairly self-involved person but I can’t begin to tell you how supportive people have been and how we all do each other’s shows. It’s a special thing.
Carolla: I got fired, but I was able to live my dream, which was getting paid to go home for the rest of the year. I remember hearing about these deals back in the day — Opie and Anthony would get fired and they’d have three years on their contract. Three years! I always told Jimmy [Kimmel] that’s my dream. When I worked construction and some guy fell off a ladder and busted his pelvis and was going to get 500 bucks a week for the next five years to stay home, that was hitting the lottery. To me, that’s number one. Number two: it’s business. I wasn’t fired, really, they just flipped the station and dumped the whole format, but even if they did, it’s still a business decision. They think they can do better doing something else and that’s their prerogative. They’re trying to make money. It’s like going into a restaurant and the guy charges you 40 bucks for steak, then you order a baked potato, and that’s eight bucks and you get livid. He’s trying to make money. Nothing personal. Is a baked potato worth eight bucks? No. Is he trying to make money? Yes. Does he give a shit about you? No. It’s that kind of narcissism that this town is dripping with. “I’m taking it personally,” or “I’ll show them!” I don’t have an ounce of that. What am I going to show them anyway? Like they give a shit. And who’s them? You know what I mean?