Show Me the Numbers: Serial's Data Transfer Costs

Serial is the most accessed podcast ever from iTunes, according to Apple. By November 18, it was downloaded and streamed 5 million times. The show claims some 1.5 million listeners per episode, of which nine have so far been produced. That would mean nearly 9 million downloads or streaming sessions (assuming people went back to listen to the whole thing) from non-iTunes sources, which seems high, but would also indicate a better distribution of means by which people obtain podcasts, which is good for all podcasters!

David Carr of the New York Times, wrote that the episodes were downloaded "at a cost of nothing," which may refer to what it costs to deliver or what listeners pay; hard to tell. But I'd like to guess at the amount. What does it cost to deliver that many episodes?

Let's take the notion for simplicity that roughly 13.5 million downloads or equivalent streams occurred evenly over three months, or 4.5 million downloads a month. Episode 9 is typical and roughly 30 megabytes (MB). That's 135 terabytes (TB) per month. (Yes, some months would be more and others less, but still good for estimating.)

Via Amazon S3, Serial would have paid $12,000 a month or $36,000 so far. Amazon charges on usage, not on a monthly basis. (It charges for storage on a monthly basis, but all the podcast files together aren't even half a gigabyte.)

But, as my information technology friends tell me, that's way too much to pay; instead, Serial is likely using a content distribution network (CDN), which is designed to take media files and feed them out a bazillion times cheaply and efficiently. Not all CDNs publish their rates, but MaxCDN does. Serial would pick the 150 TB per month plan, which runs $6,144 per month plus 4¢ a GB over 150 TB ($40 per extra TB). That would be over $18,000 so far. CacheFly has a bandwidth calculator, and reckons a bit over $3,700 per month for 135 TB, or about $11,000 so far.

If Serial has cut an excellent deal, piggybacking as one expects on This American Life's downloads, it's probably paying the least possible, and that sub-$4,000 per month figure seems accurate. But in public radio, that's the same cost as part or all of a full-time entry-level-or-above position. If the show becomes more popular, the costs go up as well, where conventional radio distribution has a very high fixed cost and none of these sorts of high variable costs for extremely popular programs.

Over time, the price of data transfer has dropped relatively quickly, but it doesn't plummet nearly as fast as hard drives or hosted storage. In 2006, Amazon charged 16¢ per GB for downstream transfer (its servers to the Internet); in 2014, it's 33% lower, or 12¢ per GB. In the same time, hard drive storage dropped from 60¢ per GB to 3¢, or a 95% drop.

Increasingly successful podcasts will need to budget serious sums that, as listenership grows and prices slowly drop, might stay constant for a while, and be a significant line item in the budget.

Future of Publishing Podcast

I've just launched a new podcast about the future of publishing (analog, digital, periodical, books, games — everything) called The Periodicalist. A lot of friends and colleagues have helped make this happen. Our first episode is "The Netflix of Ebooks," about how some startups offer subscription access to large libraries of ebooks on an all-you-can-read basis. Is this sustainable? Can publishers afford to be involved? Do readers benefit from this model? My co-host for this episode, Jane Friedman, and I discuss the ins and outs for authors, publishers, and readers.

You can listen or download below or at the site. The RSS feed to subscribe to the podcast is available, and it will be listed in iTunes shortly!

2013 in Review

Last year, inspired by Joe Kissell, I wrote a summary of the enormity of what 2012 had encompassed. It was freaking huge. Joe enumerated for years all the words, books, articles, and such like he worked on. This year, I'm inspired again by Joe: he decided to stop the extensive documentation of his year, having felt he'd proven his productivity. I'm somewhere in between: less documentation than last year, but still quite a bit to share.

In June, I bought The Magazine from Marco Arment. It's been one of the greatest things I've worked on in my life, and it's a constant joy of collaboration with contributors both before and after the purchase. We just put out Issue #33 — we produced 26 issues during 2013, and now have some subscribers who are paid up though the end of 2015. We'd better deliver.

I launched the weekly podcast The New Disruptors in December 2012. With the help first of Mule Radio, and then my brother in law, Michael, we put out 51 episodes in 2013. (We skipped a New Year's episode last year, but had one for 2014, so we'll probably hit 52.)

I've been writing for the Economist since 2005, but 2013 was probably one of my biggest years as a contributor:

  • I crossed 300 blog posts for Economist.com, most of them, but not all, for the Babbage blog.
  • I had my first cover story (cover of the American edition, and the inside Technology Quarterly section) about the sharing economy.
  • While I often have one or two TQ articles a year in the print edition, this year I not only had the three-page sharing economy article in first quarter, but a long piece on keeping probes and landers working throughout the solar system and beyond (co-written with my long-time editor and friend Tom Standage), and then a two-page look at Bitcoin's technological pressures in the fourth quarter.

I wrote fewer articles in 2013 for other publications between my devotion to The Magazine and my gig at the Economist's blogs, but I did write a few long items for Boing Boing, my home away from home:

As has been true for a few years, one of the most fun things I do during the year is be a panelist on The Incomparable, a geeky radio show developed by friend Jason Snell. This year, I wasn't able to be on as many episodes, but I did make sure to be part of two very special ones. Friend of the podcast (and now regular panelist) and playwright David Loehr wrote radio plays we performed—two of them—as The Incomparable Radio Theater of the Air! The first aired April 1 and the second over the December holidays. (Then we spent almost two hours talking about how we made the Christmas spectacular!)

David combined a true love and deep knowledge of old-timey radio theater and serials (shared by many of us in our 20s, 30s, and 40s, surprisingly, on the podcast!) with mild parody and great writing. Jason did most of the editing, with an assist from David in the latest production. Serenity Caldwell, who studied radio-play directing in college (!!), did a fabulous job directing us mostly amateur actors. I played Tesla in a sort of Doctor Who tribute/parody in both shows, and did a plummy New England stuffed shirt as a minor character in the first one. (What's that?)

After years of not traveling much, I was on the road quite a bit for both personal and professional reasons in 2013. I went to Los Angeles in January to visit Jet Propulsion Lab for the Economist story and several Babbage posts, and dropped in to watch a taping of Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions in which two contestants were people I had met during my stint on the show in 2012.

In February, I flew to D.C. to help a friend move to New York, and we wound up driving a moving truck into the biggest blizzard of the year. It was very entertaining, the roads were fine, and we had quite a story to tell. I met up with three of my oldest friends there, too, for a mini-reunion, our second. In March, I was back in New York for a quick visit with a dear friend and some meetings.

I stayed home a bit, then our family, my brother-in-law's family, and my father- and mother-in-law all went to Kauai for nearly a week! Which was great, except I was feeling a bit crummy during the trip. We came back, I saw my doctor, he ordered some tests, and I wound up getting a stent put into one of my main arteries. Turns out the radiation therapy I had had in 1998 to help cure me of Hodgkin's Disease caused some early onset of cloggage. The stent took, I feel terrific, and my heart is in great shape.

I went to the XOXO festival in September, which was another wonderful meeting of so many creative people: finding old friends and online acquaintances, and making piles of new friends. November, I flew back to New York again to record a podcast live at a conference, and then to San Francisco and Los Angeles in December for meetings, meetups, and renewals of friendship.

The year ended with a bang. I had long planned to stage a Kickstarter campaign to underwrite production of a book drawn from The Magazine's first full year in publication (October 2012 to October 2013), and we raised over $56,000 in 29 days, with over 1,000 hardcover books and even more electronic versions that we'll be shipping off in the next two months.

I finally got a Fitbit in 2013, and have been quantifying myself. I started using a treadmill that fits under my standing desk in earnest, and spend about 3 hours a day walking and the rest standing. Fitbit's stats tell me that from May to December 2013, I walked 1,025 miles (2.4 million steps), and climbed the equivalent of 2,424 stairs. I lost about 25 pounds after my heart stent was put in place, and while I've gained a few back over the holidays, I'll be pushing for 50 more off  in 2014 and into 2015 to reach a goal weight my doctors are happy with.

I made a lot of new friends in 2013. Because of the travel many "Twitter buddies" became real buddies. (I may have tweeted 50,000 times in 2013. Sorry.) I turned some people from acquaintances into some of my closest friends, and encountered and gave a lot of love, which is what it's all about. I'm hoping for a little bit less of a hectic pace in 2014, but more fulfilling work, collaboration, love, and happiness, which I wish for you all as well.

Portland, Oregon, Meetup Sept. 18th

I'm planning to have a combined New Disruptors and The Magazine meetup in Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday, September 18th, just before the XOXO festival and conference starts. I'm inviting all the Portland-area contributors to The Magazine and all my previous guests on the show who live there, too.

I'd like to make an event out of it if there's enough interest: interview some folks on stage, record a podcast from it, answer question, and find out more about the folks who listen to the podcast and read The Magazine. If you think you'd come, indicate your interest at this Facebook Event, or comment on below — or drop me a line at show@newdisrupt.org. Getting a very rough idea will let me know if it'll be a mingle-with-a-cash-bar or an event with a schedule.

Th-Th-Th-That's a Mystery Solved, Folks!

 In the style of the podcast 99% Invisible's narrative.

I was in Taos. It was 2001. We were in an adobe-style house. It had been restored to within an inch of its life. The floors were sand-set stones. The walls, stucco. The roof line had the ends of what seemed to be logs sticking out. I don't know if there were logs supporting the roof. That's the style. That's what it looks like, but the inside could have been fake. There's no way to tell.

The house had uncomfortable seating and not enough. We rented it from an acquaintance. With just five of us, we couldn't all sit down at the same time in any room or even in adjacent rooms. At night, in the room my wife and I shared, a fax machine's tones bled through the wall. The acquaintance hadn't told us she'd rented an owner's apartment to some kind of tchotchke dealers. They slammed their dresser drawers til 3 a.m. and kept us awake.

We skied during the days. We suffered from altitude sickness a little. And we watched cartoons. This was before we had kids. We watched Looney Tunes. At one point Yosemite Sam pursues Bugs Bunny through some kind of old Western town. 

And we're watching. And we realize. Wait a minute. Those backgrounds. The house they run in and out of. They're in Taos. This is the landscape around us. This is practically the house we're in.

Why is this happening in Looney Tunes?  

And we talk and we think — maybe the animators would drive out to get peyote in New Mexico from Hollywood, and they remembered the mesas and the adobe buildings and brought those back.  We have theories. We don't have answers.

But that's not the story. I thought about this for years. That's not the story at all. Now I know the story.

The story is about Maurice Noble. We know Charles M. "Chuck" Jones's name because they were large in the credits. We didn't know very much about Noble, who created the backgrounds. Until 99% Invisible, a podcast by Roman Mars, aired a story by Eric Molinsky about Noble. Noble was a transformative artist and one who obsessively researched the subjects he abstracted and caricatured for his work.

But that's not how I learned the answer. Two-thirds of the way into the story it comes out. Noble grew up in New Mexico. I had my answer. The background we saw was Noble painting his childhood. Thank you, Eric and Roman.

Listen to the episode embedded above. And subscribe to the extraordinary show 99% Invisible, which tells us the answers to questions we'd forgotten we asked. Perhaps Roman will turn your dreams into an episode, too.

Incomparable Hugo Book Club Podcast

On the latest episode of The Incomparable podcast, we talk about the five Hugo Award nominated novels from 2012. It's a mixed bag, and nothing that stands out as a novel that we'll be reading 5, 20, or 50 years from now. You can't have a Dune or a 2001 or American Gods every year. But there are great books being written, and these five don't seem like the best five of 2012.

Every contest is based on popularity, but I fear the Hugo process is way too biased towards the partisans of given authors, especially the most popular ones. You have to pay to get a ballot (which also includes free electronic copies of all the stories and novels and other material). Some people read broadly and vote on personal preferences. Others pony up $65 in order to vote for their favorites without having formed opinions of the others.

We had an enjoyable hour, however, talking about the five that were nominated, one nominated for the Nebula Awards, and several other novels. You can also listen to our off-topic and slightly insane mutterings in the After Dark segment.

What where the books, you ask?  In the order of how I liked them:

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold: I had never read any Bujold before — she has a crazy number of Vorkosigan saga books — and I quite liked this as a breezy read.

Redshirts by John Scalzi: It's a good read, but it has a central conceit and then three codas after the main plot. Scattered, enjoyable, but not the heft of a novel.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed: I like the universe this guy has created, and it's an interesting story with some well-delineated characters. But it lacks the sweep of a novel. It's a short story told at length. It also has some terrible red herrings and loose ends.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson: I am a huge "KSR" fan. I've read most of what he's written and loved it. This is so bad, I thought I had a stroke. (I wrote about my reaction to about the first half of the book and worrying something was wrong with me for The Economist .) I was bitterly disappointed by the lack of rigor in science, the terrible characters, the stupidity of the plot's resolution. This was a book of KSR's many ideas stuck together with nothing compelling. I read the second half for the podcast, and found it less awful because I had already gotten over my disappointment.

Blackout by Mira Grant: Please don't read this book.

Disrupting Newly: A Move

On August 1st, my podcast The New Disruptors will move from the Mule Radio Network over to my new company Aperiodical, which owns The Magazine. I built a modest Web site at newdisrupt.org that I'd always meant in my (yeah, right) spare time to post more items of interest to those who listen to the podcast. I'll be doing more of that in the future along with hosting the podcast files and show notes (and archives).  A new design and all the back episodes will be up there when the switchover happens. (You should be able to keep your podcast feed pointed to Mule and we'll arrange a redirect to the new feed.)

Because everyone wants to have drama around podcasts moving around or ending, I'll just briefly defuse that: Mule Radio in the form of Mike Monteiro, Jim Ray, Caleb Sexton, David McCreath, Angela Kilduff, and Benjamin Nguyen (to mention the folks I've worked directly with) have all been incredibly supportive since I pitched the show idea through fixing some truly ugly audio I've occasionally recorded to me telling them I'm moving to my own platform.

The Mule folks don't run a charity in either their design or podcasting businesses, but they have effectively pledged themselves to help enable other people's creativity while also making good use of their own. Mike's book (Design Is a Job), the lectures that he and other staff regularly give, the Let's Make Mistakes podcast,  the podcast network's overall approach — yes, there's money involved, but their motivations always seem to arise out of the generous and collaborative influence, not the need to maximize return and screw the folks involved.

I wouldn't have launched the podcast without knowing there was a good home for it; I wouldn't have kept at it this consistently without the friendly advice and support the Mule Radio folks provided, and the knowledge that the expectation was I'd produce it weekly. The community of podcasts at Mule is also great, and I've benefited from being part of that group. So: thanks, everyone! (Advertising will still be handled by Podlexing, my buddy Lex Friedman's podcast sponsorship sales network, the name of which I suggested!)

Now as to why I am cruelly abandoning them. I've devoted a big hunk of my life to The Magazine since last October, first as Marco's editor, and now as its owner. With a platform to publish in place, it makes more sense for me to build and run all my endeavors (especially managing content and building tools) under one roof. The New Disruptors and The Magazine's focus aren't identical, of course, but they are consonant with each other, and I'll be creating stronger ties as appropriate.

Also, as noted back in the sale announcement for The Magazine in late May, I have a plan to launch a podcast that will be a freestanding companion to the articles, featuring interviews both with the authors of articles and by the authors with their subjects. It will be a little bit like a public radio show with segments. Several of our regular writers have radio and podcasting background, and this will be a neat way to expand those interests. That's humming along, and I expect to announce a launch date soon. (It will be free and the plan is to produce weekly episodes, either initially or soon after its start.) 

We're exploring more audio ideas, too, as subscriber benefits and associated with the world of electronic publishing. I'll let you know as those bake and mature more fully, too.

Thanks again to Mule Radio and the gang, and I'll post more information when the new site is fully ready to go.