I’m : a programmer, writer, podcaster, geek, and coffee enthusiast.

The Elephant In the Podcast Studio

Since last night’s post, I’ve had about a hundred people on Twitter accuse me of implicitly dismissing or denying the role of 5by5 in making our podcast popular, since two of us previously had shows on 5by5.

First, I didn’t mention 5by5 in the post because it wasn’t relevant to the point I was making: that joining a podcast network, as we know them today, no longer needs to be the dominant way to make a successful, profitable podcast. I don’t know how many times I need to repeat this, so here’s one more try.

5by5 will also be fine. Not only are they one of the few midsized networks that I think will still be around in five years, but Dan’s a smart guy, and he sees the same shifts that I’m seeing. That’s probably why he split his ad-sales operation into a standalone, non-network service.

People want to find secret drama in the end of my 5by5 show, but the truth simply isn’t that interesting. I decided to end the show for the same reasons I said at the time: it was getting repetitive and declining in quality, and I didn’t want to keep doing it until it really sucked.

When we got together and did Neutral, we set it up independently because it simply wasn’t very hard. I was already selling sponsorships for my blog, and we hosted it on Squarespace with very little effort. When we accidentally pivoted into a tech show, we kept the same setup. It wasn’t an explicit decision at the time not to join a network — the need just didn’t arise.

5by5 offered something that I needed badly in 2010: a podcasting setup where the administrative work was done for me. I prepared an outline of topics, I showed up on Skype, Dan showed up a few minutes late, and we talked through my outline for an hour. Afterward, I added the relevant links to the show notes, and then my job was done.

It might have sounded like “my” show, but it wasn’t — 5by5 owned and controlled everything about it. It was another 5by5 show, but with me as the co-host.1 I was paid a small flat fee every week, but the main value to me in doing the show was exposure. I was never told how many listeners the show had or how much money it earned.

5by5’s work has a lot of value, especially if you don’t want to do any of that work. It has even more value if Dan’s the host of your show, since then you need to do even less work, and you get the value of having a great host.

But everyone’s better off with more options to publish in a medium. If podcast networks continue to dominate the creation and distribution of good podcasts, we’ll have very few good podcasts. Networks don’t scale. And people are better off choosing their web host and ad salespeople on their merits, rather than because they’re stuck with the ones they started their show with. Today, podcasters have far more network-less options for services like these than we did in 2010.

A significant portion of my current audience came from my 5by5 show, and some portion of them certainly found the show first because it was on 5by5. But I also had an audience from here, Tumblr, and Instapaper for years before that. I don’t know how many people listened to my show because they knew me already or because they found it on 5by5, but I do know that being on a network doesn’t boost “discoverability” as much as people think it does.

Discoverability is overrated. The real way to get more listeners is to make a great, relevant show. The best content tends to be found, but it takes hard work and dedication. Each episode of ATP takes about 10–12 person-hours of work,2 and we’ve been doing it every week for the last 70 weeks. Our show is successful primarily because we put a lot of effort into it and have chosen a topic that fits our existing audience and the current podcast market well.

Having a “built-in audience” from two 5by5 shows didn’t sustain Neutral. It peaked at about 1,000 listeners — when we ended Neutral, the audience for the weeks-old ATP was already 15 times larger and skyrocketing.

Having a “built-in audience” from a 5by5 show, Tumblr, Instapaper, and didn’t sustain The Magazine. I sold it because it was cratering under my ownership and losing subscribers alarmingly quickly. I was about to shut it down, but Glenn wanted to try running it, so I sold it to him for much less than you’d probably assume.

Having a “built-in audience” from a 5by5 show, Tumblr, Instapaper, and gave Bugshot a respectable launch, but the initial spike fell to nothing, and even making it free a few months later didn’t help long-term.

Neutral simply wasn’t as good as ATP and wasn’t as relevant to the audience. The Magazine under my leadership was subjectless, unfocused, and irrelevant to most of my audience. Bugshot was only useful to a few people, and I didn’t put much time into it. All of these had the benefits of a “built-in audience” to give them an initial spike, but none succeeded because they simply weren’t good enough.

Podcast networks don’t guarantee success or profit. The best networks can sometimes give you a head start and help you get found sooner, but the quality and relevance of your show is what sustains it, not the brand name on the artwork.

5by5 certainly played a significant role in growing my audience, but it was far from the only factor.

  1. The running “It’s your show” joke isn’t entirely a joke.

    If you’ve been following me for long, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that for my future ventures, I tried independent options first. It was nothing against Dan — I just like owning what I do. ↩︎

  2. Recording needs about 2.5 hours from each of the 3 hosts, plus 3–5 hours of editing, sponsor preparation, show notes, and publishing. ↩︎