Max Cutler grew up in a radio household loving audio content. His dad, Ron Cutler, was a radio producer. “Seeing him work had a huge impact on me and what I’m doing,” says Max. He says even though podcasting is different than radio, a lot of the production is similar.
So in 2016 he concluded there should highly produced podcasts delivered weekly that delved into research, stories, and were entertaining. Parcast was launched. “I thought there was a lot of great public radio shows, comedy shows, but a lot of the same formats and concepts. There was nothing on the weekly side.” The show Unsolved Murders was released in June of 2016 and from there Parcast continued to grow having just released its 16th show called Extraterrestrial. Max says Parcast will pump out 40 shows by the end of 2019 and he believes it’s not only an exciting time for Parcast but the podcast space as a whole.
Since its founding in 2016, Parcast Network has totaled over 80 million downloads.
PBJ: What is your background?
Max: I have always loved audio content. I loved audio books. I grew up in a radio household and that spawned my love for audio. My dad was a radio producer, seeing him work had a huge impact on me and what I am doing. Even though podcasting is different than radio a lot of the production is similar. I thought in 2016 as a podcast fan why wasn’t there any high-end produced podcasts weekly that delved into research, stories, and was entertaining. I thought there was a lot of great public radio shows, comedy shows, but a lot of the same formats and concepts. There was nothing on the weekly side. I launched Unsolved Murders in June of 2016 and then from there we now have our 16th release with Extraterrestrial. We’re going to go to 40 shows by the end of this year. It is not only an exciting time for Parcast but the podcast space as a whole.
PBJ: How is Parcast different from other networks?
Max: We own all of our content. That is crucial. We do everything in-house. We have a production team in-house. We do not rep other podcasts. We do not make deals on sales for other podcasts. We want to own all the IPs. That gives us a lot of flexibility in how we control the sound, how we build a brand. I believe Parcast is one of a few, if not the only, brand network in the podcast space. All of our shows have the same sound, but themes. We are all-scripted, well-researched, and on the darker side of things…mystery. That allows us to get critical mass from day one. We don’t do sales. I made the strategic decision not to raise money. I wanted to do it my way and go with my gut. My passion lies in creating content and not in the sales side. In order to build Parcast we partnered with some amazing partners on sales. We started off with Midroll, now I guess they branded as Stitcher, handling a lot of podcast sales. They really gave us the sales expertise to grow my company. In September, we switched to Endeavor audio which has been a great partnership for us as well.
PBJ: Producing high-end podcasts is not cheap, how are you able to do that?
Max: It is not especially when you are doing 52 a year. We are not going to be a Gimlet or Wondrey doing 13 episodes and taking time off. We are a volume play — that is the only way to really make money and be in our business model. You need to make a lot of episodes because it is more inventory. We have been very lucky to have sales partners who believe in our product. We have the download numbers. Like in Hollywood, traditionally once you have the reputation of download numbers you are able to go out to the market and demand some guarantee against sales. We are able to do that. We have never cancelled a show. Our shows have always been profitable so there has not been a need to cancel a show.
PBJ: What in your opinion is the correct number of ad’s in a 30-minute program?
Max: It is different for a 30-minute versus a 60-minute. It also depends on the format of the show. In general, I would say two midroles; so one break in a 30-minute, doing two back-to-back 60-second spots. If you are doing a 60, I would say you can take two breaks, but they should only be doing three spots at the most. The second break should only be a 60-second. At the end of the day, the audience comes first. Right now we don’t want to go down the radio path of having tons of ads back to back, it does not do good for the messaging. Also, right now we do not have the technology to do that. What works for DR is the host-read ads. The podcast space is dependent on direct response advertisers. When that starts to change, which has already started, then we can do a lot of these pre-recorded spots for brands. Brands want to control the messaging a lot more than having a host make it their own. It will be specifically great for Parcast because our content is evergreen, an episode today is going to be relevant 10 years from now. We have huge numbers on our back catalog. For us to be able to successfully monetize, that is going to be an exciting proposition.
PBJ: You hear high numbers for how many podcasts are out there. What in your opinion makes a great podcast?
Max: I think there is only about 1,000-3000 of the 600,000 or more podcasts that are competitive, which means releasing on a weekly or monthly schedule. To me, what makes a great podcast is all about production value. What I think the podcast space has done a good job of recently with more money and expertise coming in is allowing people to realize you can’t just go in front of a mic and talk. It is rare to find a natural talent. You have to do your preparation. You cannot just look at a Wikipedia page for research. You need to think about the entire story. For Parcast, specifically, what my biggest frustration was, in a lot of true-crime podcasts I would be listening and they would get huge numbers. I would be looking at the Wikipedia page and they are literally going through it. I could not believe or understand how the podcast was getting huge numbers by just going through a Wikipedia page. It occurred to me that people love this type of content but there is not high-quality production there. For Parcast it became clear: How do we build in research? Well, we have a research team. How do we build a story and not just present it from a Wikipedia page to keep people entertained? So we went with the model of having a lot of writers to bring these stories to life. For Parcast to stand out it was clear that my barrier to entry was not going to be just doing talk shows, but actually having the high-end production and do it weekly. If not, as you mentioned, wit 600K or 900K podcasts, how do you stand out, especially if you do not have $5-6 million of VC money to spend on marketing. The reason Parcast has stood out is 100% our production value. What we do in attempting to bring these stories to life from the writing side, the sound design side, has been very special and is rooted in our DNA.
PBJ: How do you come up with an idea for a new show?
Max: The biggest thing is we have to look at mainstream formats and what people are obsessed with. We do not look much in the podcast space, we look at trends both online, TV, but specifically on social media. What are people clicking on, obsessed with? If you notice our title Serial Killers etc., these are things people are obsessed with. They are ideas we can do 2-500 episodes on. We do not want to do a show that is so niche we can only do 52 episodes or one year. We very much like syndication. In our model, we want to do 150 episodes because that gives us a three-year lifespan. Our content is expensive but if you can figure a way to get to 100 episodes you will have a nice margin by the end, and that is important to us.
PBJ:Why are you excited about the last … of shows you just released?
Max: We just this week released Extraterrestrial — it is our biggest release to date from the download perspective. It came out on Tuesday. Mythology came out in December that is currently our biggest show we released out of the last five. We are starting to see that people are excited about content that is not necessarily true crime. There are a lot things out there that have not been touched. There might be 500K podcasts but there is a lot of similar content and no one is touching these mainstream ideas yet. The fact that Parcast has the ability to be one of the first movers to cover this content scale is really exciting for us. Obviously, we also released Mind’s Eye, our first fiction show that did extremely well and we will be releasing more fiction shows later this year. That proved Parcast DNA is the scripted network out there both fiction and nonfiction. The ability to look at stories as we go out and grow this year will be exciting as well as doing different kinds of content. We finally hit critical mass on our shows that we can potentially have some bigger swings later this year.
PBJ: Why do you think podcasts have caught on in the last few years and are getting more mainstream press and awareness?
Max: There are many. One is accessibility and discoverability has become better. If you do not know what a podcast is, why are you going to download an app to listen. What has happened is you have a big show in “Serial” in 1203 and since then we have had more serious production and more money coming in. Since 2016, you have had serious money come into the space that caused innovation both on the tech side which has been incredibly important to us from an analytic standpoint. What has been holding the podcast space back, and still is, is sales. The idea of selling brand advertisers on the idea that people are engaged. We did not know who our audience was. Now with a lot of new analytics and ad technology insertion we are able to target. From the business side it is picking up; a lot of advertisers are saying “Oh we will now buy podcasts.” What that means is traditional media companies see us as a value add, whether you are iHeart, who has all these radio stations and now you are able to buy how stuff works and you can do a value add to sales, which is huge for them. It gives How Stuff Works this huge capital to produce shows to scale. What you are seeing is great content. Hollywood is obsessed with the idea of proof of content or concept, and what better proof of concept than a podcast? In many cases it costs less for these production companies and they can potentially make money on it. Audio when done correctly is the most visual form of any media. You do not need all this CGI, you have it all right there in front of you. What Hollywood loves about this is these executives can actually paint their own picture, so when they walk into a room it is already sold for them. A combination of all those factors has helped. Also, podcasts available in your car, Apple watch, etc. It is the next form of audio. Now with smart speakers becoming more relevant, that will be the next frontier for podcasts or audio programming.
PBJ: Any chance one of your shows becomes a TV show?
Max: Yes, there is a good chance.
PBJ: Which one?
Max: I cannot say right now but there are three we are really excited about right now.
PBJ: What advice do you have for other podcasters thinking about getting in or doing it now and wonder if this is the right thing?
Max: It is getting harder. You have to be different. It is okay to have a niche audience because a lot of brands like that. You have to be different. You cannot just do a talk show. You have to figure what is the show doing, how is it informing people, what is your DNA. Too many independent podcasters give up after six or less episodes. The truth is, podcasting is not viral for a lot of the reasons I mentioned about technology and discoverability. In order for you to really succeed you have to make a commitment, which to me is at least eight weeks of one show a week. If you do not you have not given the show a chance. Even if you have a huge marketing budget, I would argue that, as Parcast shows, because they are weekly we care about the first six months, we don’t’ care about the first two weeks. We grow these over time. Independent podcasters hear a show and think, “I can do what that guy is doing,” and they try to mimic, which you should do your own way and stay with it. Do not give up too early.
PBJ: Did you say earlier you did not raise money?
Max: Correct. Myself and my dad are the only ones who put in an initial investment.
PBJ: Anything else you want our readers to know about Parcast?
Max: We are really excited to be part of the podcast community. This year is going to be the year we are releasing a minimum of close to 40 shows done weekly, which is exciting. This is going to be a huge year.