Podcasting, Networks, and Audience Building

A month ago, Marco Arment made the ill-advised statement1 saying:

Podcast networks are a lot like blog networks. (Remember them?) When the medium is young and everything’s difficult, it helps to band together with a large entity to pool resources on tools, hosting, ad sales, and staffing.

He went on to talk about how these networks are not needed anymore.2 Yesterday Arment sought to clarify his position since he was (likely) getting tired of people emailing him:

Podcast networks are like record labels: they promise exposure, tools, distribution, and money. But as the medium and infrastructure mature, their services are often unnecessary, outdated, and a bad deal for publishers.

I read that post, and I’ll be honest, it didn’t sit well with me. It seemed a bit too defensive and not expounded upon properly.

Just this morning Arment followed up with a longer, and very excellent post. You should read the whole thing, but because I know a lot of you won’t, here are two relevant bits:

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.

And:

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.

A lot of the criticism Arment has taken for his position on the rather pointless debate of whether podcast networks matter, surround this notion that Arment cannot apply his data to the overall dataset because he is so ‘famous’ to begin with.

Bullshit.

Read that last quoted text from Arment, that’s all you need to know. Your popularity and fame will only get what you do noticed, it will not sustain success. That’s why we have ‘one-hit wonders’, that’s why that stupid Color app didn’t go anywhere, and that’s why unknown people are found and loved. Discoverability is based on talent, or fame, but success is based solely on talent.3

I’m coming at this from a different angle than Arment. I’ve never been popular or famous. I’ve never built anything really cool. All I’ve done is yell at people to get off my fucking lawn.4 When Shawn and I had B&B we struggled to gain more listeners each month. We didn’t really ever lose any, but we never gained a ton either.

Ditto my paywall.5

When B&B joined 5by5, nothing really changed for us, other than we got better and easier hosting, and got to chat with Dan a lot. But being a part of 5by5 — the best we could tell — didn’t significantly result in any difference to listenership. Other than helping us sell ads, because it lent legitimacy to our podcast, 5by5 didn’t change much for our podcast. And Shawn is famous.

When I was on Fusion, a quasi blog network, nothing happened for my site directly because of Fusion. When I left, nothing happened either.

When I was on the Syndicate, nothing again. (Other than still being listed as part of the network on Asymco — which gets me about 5 extra hits a month.)

Sid O’Neill, whether he wanted to or not, sums up the side urging for podcast networks well:

Getting your show on a podcast network associates you with a lot of other shows that people are already enjoying. It’s a mark of quality, and these days when everyone and their mother has a podcast, it makes it a lot more likely that someone will discover your show.

And:

Obviously ATP’s success is — in part — due to the loyal following that both John and Marco had accumulated over years of putting out fantastic podcasts.

First off all, O’Neill’s first statement would imply that everyone who listens to one 5by5 podcast has listened to at least one episode of every other show. It also implies that the average podcast listener goes to the 5by5 website to see what shows are new.

That’s a dubious argument, as I doubt most podcast listeners hear about a new show at 5by5, unless that new show is mentioned on the podcast they are listening too already. But I have no supporting evidence to back up that claim it’s just my overall sense.

As for the idea that a loyal following played a role in the success of ATP: It did, and I don’t think Arment is arguing it didn’t. But what Arment is saying is that a loyal following only helps to get people to look at what you are doing, but to keep them coming back you have to actually be good.

Better than good these days. You have to be great — even if you are Marco Arment. Actually, especially if you are Marco Arment.

I’d argue a bit with Arment about how easy everything is, but that’s mostly because getting the podcast into iTunes is a bit opaque to most people. But generally speaking there are enough tutorials out there that it’s pretty simple.

Shawn and I got going not knowing a thing about podcasting, and it took me about 3 days of playing to figure out everything (Shawn handled the iTunes end of things, I did the audio).6

In short then, Arment is right that podcast networks don’t matter much. They won’t make a shitty podcast well listened to, and they won’t elevate a good podcast anymore than where it will naturally go. Your best bet is to put in a ton of time making your podcast not suck.


  1. Ill-advised because it required more words to clarify. 

  2. Not needed to be successful that is. Important distinction. 

  3. Ok, for the most part. But certainly in podcasting unless your fame is Kanye West level of stupidity. 

  4. Side note: there was an estate sale on my block this weekend and after the fifth car parked on my lawn I turned on my sprinkler system for the rest of the sale. 

  5. Duh. 

  6. For those that are about to email me. Yes, I am starting back up a podcast again. NO, Shawn is not a part of it as we feel we don’t want to revive B&B — we prefer to preserve the memory of it. When it launches you can find it here, right now there is just a badly coded website and a dummy podcast of the smallest file size B&B we recorded. 

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Article Details

Published
by Ben Brooks
6 minutes to read.


tl;dr

A month ago, Marco Arment made the ill-advised statement1 saying: Podcast networks are a lot like blog networks. (Remember them?) When the medium is young and everything’s difficult, it helps to band together with a large entity to pool resources on tools, hosting, ad sales, and staffing. He went on to talk about how these […]