There's No Use Crying over a Podcast

This week, I pinch-hit to write an issue of a favorite email newsletter, Hot Pod by Nick Quah. I discovered it a few months ago, and it is like ambrosia to those like me who want more insight into the broad podcast "industry," especially the parts I don't know in public radio. Nick just got a new job and was going to take this week off, so I offered to write an issue, which you can read here.

For the issue, I decided to interview Matthew Amster-Burton and Molly Wizenberg, who co-host the weekly podcast Spilled Milk. They're fellow Seattleites, and Matthew consulted me for advice on equipment and editing before starting the show, and I gave him what little wisdom I had at that point. Now I often consult him, instead.

I gave them a jingle on a day they were recording three episodes of the show to talk about how the podcast fits into their workflow and careers as food and book writers. Spilled Milk has thousands of listeners, not tens of thousands, and it's carved out a good space for Molly and Matthew.

Nick included a few choice quotes from the interview in his newsletter. Here's a longer, edited and reduced transcript of the full interview. But you can listen to the whole thing below or download a file.

Glenn: Tell me a little bit about Spilled Milk, which, as we record this, has about 167 episodes posted.

Matthew: We started the show in January 2010, so it's a little bit over five years old now. We are a weekly comedy show about food.

Molly: In the beginning we, I at least thought we needed to be serious and very informative. And then we discovered that the shows that worked best and made us happiest were the ones where we just made each other laugh a lot. Now we meet up every couple weeks, tape a few episodes, and try to make each other laugh while eating good food, and talking about some of the stuff we like to eat.

Matthew: Sometimes it's good food, sometimes it is the most unspeakable junk food.

Molly: That's true.

Matthew: If someone comes to our show wanting to be educated about some food subject, they are definitely going to go away disappointed.

Glenn: I think you guys, a little bit like me — we're more typical of that bulk in the middle for podcasts.

Matthew: I know all about bulk in the middle, Glenn.

Glenn: That's your next week's show. But Maximum Fun and Gimlet — there are a lot of networks now that have started up that either start with somebody extremely well known who is coming to a podcast, or through dint of hard effort, built a really broad base and built something up, like Marc Maron. Most people are like us: we don't have a big media brand behind us. We're bringing an audience with us. How did you build the audience you have? How did you cultivate the audience for the show?

Molly: It's been very organic. It took Matthew and I awhile to ever realize if the show was going to work.

Matthew: We picked up some upfront because Molly has a well-known blog, Orangette, that has a lot of regular readers. Maybe one or two thousand people checked us out because she first mentioned us there. Then we were promoted pretty well by iTunes a few weeks into the show. And that picked up another few thousand listeners. Then it's built pretty slowly and steadily, mostly through word of mouth.

Glenn: You're taking an audience you've already found and either taking it and bringing it with you to the podcast or using the podcast to bring an audience to another venture. I think that has happened to both of you. Molly, you've got two books out [both New York Times bestsellers], and Matthew, Hungry Monkey.

Matthew: I've been surprised. There's certainly a lot of overlap between the podcast audience and people who read our blogs, read our books, but it is a smaller overlap than I anticipated. I thought it would be almost 100%, but there are a lot of people who listen to the show who never read anything that we write. They're comedy fans, rather than food people, and I think that's great.

Molly: That is the part of the listenership I am most proud of.

Glenn: You've tried a lot of different models as you've gone. The traditional podcast model is some kind of advertising/sponsorship overlap. Then you also—you're selling things, not always directly. Matthew, you've had books you self-publish that people can buy and the money goes right in your pocket. But it's hard to build up the momentum where advertisers come back to you again and again unless you have something in that 100,000s of range. Especially for shows in the low 10,000s, it's very hard to generate the response an advertiser wants for the kind of money that's worth it to collect in the first place. You're trying different things: you've got memberships and you're also trying live shows.

Matthew: We've done Squarespace ads and we enjoy doing Squarespace ads, and we've done a few other advertisers here and there. It's not a major source of income for us.

Molly: I've been really pleasantly surprised by how well the donation or subscription model has worked, it's something that I have often wondered if it would work for blogs as well, because it has worked so well for podcasting. But I'm not sure. I think people experience audio content in a different way. There has long been a tradition of donating money to audio stuff you like.

Matthew: There's that public-radio model behind it, and there's a sense that you're listening to a good, regular podcast, it is like you're sitting around with friends, and you feel like you're part of their conversation. It's not a big step from there to saying, "Oh, I feel enough part of this to that I'm willing to kick in five or ten dollars a month to keep this going."

Molly: And it's made a huge difference for us. For the first four years, we did it totally out of pocket. We do all our recording in Matthew's apartment. He bought all of the equipment. And I have to say as your co-host, Matthew, I'm very glad that you're not paying for all of this out of pocket anymore.

Matthew: Yeah, me, too! As your co-host, I agree!

Glenn: The quality you have to meet as a podcaster really went up a few years ago. It used to be okay to do something that was, not like it was low quality, but when fewer people were listening [people] would cope with more because they were listening really intently, and now we're all at a public-radio level. You don't have to edit your shows as tightly as public radio. We can have the talkie shows: a lot of shows are casual talking, kind of like talk radio. But the sound quality — if you have a show that doesn't sound pretty crisp, it stands out in the pack now.

Matthew: Oh, absolutely. That's a good thing. I really wish there was more documentation for new podcasters on how to get a basic setup without spending $1,000. [Note: See the next section!] And how to get good sound quality from episode 1. It seems like everyone is stuck bumbling through it themselves, and I don't really know why that is.

Glenn: What are you bringing to your members? Why do people donate?

Molly: We just today recorded a bonus episode. We do twice-a-year bonus episodes for our subscribers, and at any point when somebody becomes a subscriber, they get access to the back library of bonus episodes. We do a newsletter that Matthew writes, always very witty. We also send a handwritten thank-you postcard. And people who subscribe at the Magnum Bonum Sustainer Level, which is $10 per month, they receive a Spilled Milk tote bag or mug or T-shirt.

Matthew: When we do the pledge drive message, which we do twice a year, just one episode each time, we really try to put the focus on, yes, we're giving you some stuff in exchange for your pledge, but like with NPR, the real reason to do it is because you want to be part of this, you want to sustain this. It'll feel good just to give us your money. It sounds absurd, but as a donor to podcasts myself, it's totally true.

Glenn: Money is always a tricky topic and I hate to ask anybody how much you make. But how much do you make? [all laugh] What part of your living or where does this fit into, now that you have some revenue streams — is it a significant part or it helps us cover the cost and the time, but this is really something we do out of love, and it gives us a bigger reach to what you're doing?

Matthew: Let's put it this way. Having subscription revenue enabled us to go from biweekly to weekly, and we were able to do that because we were able to hire a producer, Abby, who works about 10 hours a month for us, editing audio and doing social media. We can come in, do a show, and most of the rest of it is taken care of for us. That certainly requires hundreds of dollars in revenue a month.

Molly: I think of this as something that I do because I love it, and it is my favorite part of my many jobs. The little bit of money that drops into my bank account every now and then from it is really wonderful, but it's not why I do it.