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Marshall Poe

Marshall Poe

· Time to read: ~7 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Marshall Poe, Ph.D., is a historian and the editor of the New Books Network, an online collection of podcast interviews with a wide range of non-fiction authors. — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

MP: When I founded the New Books Network in 2007, I was a historian, a professor at a university, and I had the bright idea that people would like to hear professors and other scholars and researchers talk about their books. So I started to interview professors about their books, and I did one a week. And that continues to be the mission of the New Books Network today. We’re a public education project, full stop. We don’t do anything else.

We have published 24,000 interviews - about 24,000 books - and depending on the whim of Apple and Spotify, we do between one and 1.5 million downloads a month.

JC: You wrote an article that was published this week talking about the boom bust cycle in podcasting. And you reckon we’re in a bust right now, right?

MP: Yes. What I say in that article is that we’ve seen this cycle before.

In 1995, suddenly everybody could have a web page and everybody did. Of course, it was technically a little bit difficult, but it was much cheaper than buying a printing press and printing your whatever it is you were going to produce in your basement and then you could put a lot of text up online and people could see it. And this reduction in priced caused a huge influx of content creators. People tried, obviously, to monetize this with visual ads, which were thought to be a way to riches. It turns out they were not, because of the flood of content.

Then, there were blogs, and everyone had a blog. Suddenly there were millions of blogs and people tried to monetise these things again, probably using visual ads. This did not turn out well either, because there was a flood of content. Really this is just supply and demand: there was too much supply and not enough demand.

And the next iteration of this was video with YouTube, same cycle. People saw that they could produce video very cheaply. It used to be the case that only film studios and TV studios could produce video content. Suddenly you can produce video content and distribute it to everyone in the world. Same cycle. People try to monetize it, and it turns out it’s very difficult to monetize, at least to monetize that scale.

And then we come to podcasting. It used to be the case that radio stations could do this. So to do it, you needed to own a radio station. I don’t know about you, James, but I don’t own a radio station. They sound rather expensive. But in my office in the university I could create an audio product that would be distributed to anyone, anywhere, all the time.

And I could do it very cheaply. Of course, I wasn’t the only person that saw this, and over the course of five or six years, we went from, I don’t know, tens of thousands of podcasts to today. I think there are something like 2 million active podcasts. And again, people try to monetize these things. For the first eight years of the New Books Network, I made no money at all on it.

I quit my job as a professor to do it, hoping that someday somebody would figure out a way to monetize this thing. And we tried all of the monetization strategies pretty much everyone tried. The transformation of the industry really started when companies like Megaphone found a way to insert ads programmatically. Today, 90% of our revenue comes from programmatic advertising.

In each of these cases, what was discovered was, is that it’s very hard to make a hit. You’ve got to get really lucky.

All of these podcast production companies said, well, I think we can make a hit. I don’t think this was wise.

JC: There have been articles recently from Mia Lobel who used to work at Pushkin Industries. She left the company, and she’s recently posted a blog post saying that the people who are ultimately making the decisions are not the people who know how to make shows, which is a good point. And similarly, Lydia Polgreen, who used to be Managing Director of Gimlet Media, says that Spotify are mad for canceling both Heavyweight and Stolen, which is quite the criticism.

MP: Yes, I was astounded by that. I have great sympathy for the content creators. You might produce a really great podcast, like Heavyweight might just be fantastic, but there are many, many instances of movies and recording artists that never managed to make a hit.

JC: I suppose it’s both never “making a hit”, but also it just doesn’t make enough money.

MP: That’s exactly what I mean when I say “hit”. In other words, it covers its costs and more because at the end of the day, these companies have a head count and they have to pay everybody’s salary. And so you have to make your money back. And the question is how to best do that. And it really becomes a question of, I guess you might say, quality versus popularity.

And it’s a it’s a tough bargain that everybody, I would say in the arts faces. Of course, you want to make the best show possible. You want to make the best artistic creation you possibly can. But there are constraints. You can’t spend all the money in the world because you don’t have all the money in the world. You can’t cover everything because everything isn’t popular.

JC: In your piece, you looked back at history, and you gave three ways to have a good year in 2024. People who read Podcast Business Journal are making a living out of podcasting, so these three ways are pretty good to review. The first point you made was to join a winning team.

MP: If you have a podcast, you can be part of a network. There are a lot of successful podcast networks with large pools of impressions. I wouldn’t try to be independent anymore. It’s it’s we’ve kind of passed that stage.

JC: The second point that you were making was to become leaner. What do you mean by leaner? Keeping your production costs as low as possible?

MP: If you’re an always-on podcast, like we are, our production costs are extremely low because they’re simple interview podcasts. Now we can do that because what we offer is just an interview with the author about the book. These are not narrative podcasts. They do not require a lot of editing. The production values are therefore extremely low, so producing a podcast like that can be economically viable if you get the numbers that you need.

Now, if you do produce a narrative podcast or a serial podcast, and in other words, not an always-on podcast, then it’s much more difficult. But you have to do what you can to get production costs lower.

I remember in the early days I was talking to people at NPR, and they were explaining how they produce shows and they were talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars being invested in a six episode series. And I just thought this was amazing. I just wondered how in the world you’re ever going to get that money back.

I certainly understand that it’s all about tradeoffs. We make a lot of them here. The less money you invest in your podcast, it might be the case that it won’t be as good. But you make some sacrifices simply in order to get the product out, to get people to listen and to make enough money to do it again. That’s what we aim for here at the New Books Network. We we don’t pay ourselves a lot and we’re all about sustainability.

JC: Your third point was, as you said earlier: “get really lucky”.

MP: Yes. I’m always reminded of a friend of mine said: you might not win the lottery, but somebody always does. A lot of things need to need to align. Getting lucky is really important too.

JC: Thank you for your time, and we look forward to speaking to you again.

MP: Thanks very much. And thanks for all your good work and support for all of us.

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