House of Pod Might Be Closing… But Things Can Still Change
Right as I post this note, I’m queuing up a newsletter to go out to thousands of friends who have supported me and my company House of Pod.
Over the past four years, I’ve written challenging newsletters.
Dear friends, I have cancer. Dear friends, we’re closing our physical space due to COVID.
Today, the opening line of this newsletter is: Dear friends, we might be shutting down, for good.
And somehow, it feels the most surreal.
It’s surreal, because we’ve made it. We’ve won awards. We’ve landed respectable clients. Maintained caring partnerships. Sustained a supportive and talented community of hundreds of producers. We’ve met payroll — every — two — weeks without coming up short, even once. We’ve offered full-time employment with benefits in an industry built for contractors. We’ve run a non-profit offering podcast incubators to elevate historically marginalized voices in media. And we’ve proved that spaces like ours, brick-and-mortar hubs centered on community, story, and art, are still critical in a WFH world.
We’ve weathered significant events and emerged tired, but eager to produce. We’re burnt out, but we still have fuel for stories.
And yet here I am. Writing to you that House of Pod might close by the end of the year. Why?
Some of it is explained in this video (It was recorded quickly. For part of it, I’m in a bathtub. And for part of it, you can hear my partner breathing behind the camera. It’s not polished, because the news and the ask are all in real time and space.): https://youtu.be/ZTvgltjLDI0
If you’re reading this, it’s because you want the details. Maybe also a little bit of science. Possibly some balloons. And poetry. So that’s what I’m offering. Here’s the extended version of a big announcement that I’m struggling to make.
How Productions Are Funded
This is how most of the shows that you love get funded and made:
- An individual starts a podcast as a hobby. The podcast accrues a significant audience (think, 100k+ dedicated regular listeners, or more). The podcast sells ads (at $30/1,000 listeners, the podcast is making $300/episode). It has an active Patreon account. And shwag. It does live shows. Eventually, as the podcast has more dedicated fans, the hosts and the team make enough to quit other jobs and make a salary. As it grows and grows in popularity, a network may acquire it (which means the show did really, really well).
- A network funds their own show. A network launches their own original content through approaching “thought-leaders” with a unique perspective to host a show they believe will attract audiences. Or they develop something in-house with their existing team. Or a producer approaches a network (networks are like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Audible, TED Collective). The producer brings a well-researched, well-reported, mostly baked show, and often makes contact through a podcast agent (yes, we now have those). More and more, companies like to see about 80% of the work completed prior to acquiring or rejecting an idea. When they decide to go forward with the work, the platform usually requires exclusivity. In sum, the producer or small production company must initially front all of the costs to make the production. And the process itself can take years.
- A celebrity or influencer starts a podcast with a network. Famous people are signed quickly because they have an existing audience they can move to the platform. Audience = ad sales, quality of content or audio appears to be a non-consideration.
- A production company is hired to produce an idea. Maybe because a company would like a corporate podcast, or an individual has a compelling story to tell, or a media outlet can save costs by outsourcing to a production company rather than building a podcasting unit in-house, independent production companies or contractors are hired to produce shows.
- An investor signs on a production company to start a network. Many if not most of the big-time podcast networks have an investor, backing their content and their team in hopes that the resulting cohort of shows take-off in popularity, sell ads, and recoup costs.
What Does House of Pod Do?
Until now, House of Pod has been entirely self-funded, and we’ve tried strategy #4, the one where you make other people’s shows. It’s been a dance, because the content we’ve cared about frequently does not come with a sizable budget. So we’ve maintained a steady stream of sometimes two, sometimes ten podcasts, which we produce all at once with our salaried staff. In doing this, we have barely covered our costs, which average $20K each month. To offset the times a client can’t cover all that they’ve requested, we’ve applied for grants. And we’ve always produced the best quality content possible, in hopes that it would open doors to bigger production opportunities.
This past year, three developments happened.
- We made some incredible things. Guardians of the River became the second most popular nature podcast of all time, and topped the Apple science chart as one of the most popular science podcasts on the planet. It was proof to me and proof to my team that we are capable of more than small productions. Not only can we make complicated and well-produced journalistic content, we love working on big things.
- I promised my team I would raise salaries. I’ve believed in salaried roles from the beginning, because I think that creative folks deserve the same job-stability and credit scores that other industries have. I also think people who work together often learn how to trust, be agile, and take risks with each other, and that makes for better shows.
- I started turning away smaller clients, pitching original content, and pursuing networks. We also invested even more in our own community, as with our show From the Margins to the Center which spotlights women of color producers in Colorado.
In the process of pursuing bigger shows and leaning into our own pitches, we took a risk. And we learned that if we want to sell original content, we need to invest money and years of development which we don’t have. Now, as we are wrapping up our final clients of 2021, we have none left in our pipeline.
How Does House of Pod Fund Itself?
Our House of Pod community space has remained as affordable as possible. Regardless of upgrades, improvements, or inflation, we kept monthly membership at $100 for members and their team to record and work from the space. With an average of 25 members, we barely cover our overhead costs of $2,500 of rent and utilities. And our staff are paid from productions’ budgets.
In short, it’s all in math. I have enough to cover payroll through the end of the year. After 2021, I will transition my team to contractor roles. And then I will close the House of Pod space, because offering tours, and tech support, and serving the community takes more time and resources than a volunteer or a work-for-trade position could cover. People need fair salaries. And if House of Pod cannot offer those in its current iteration, then it’s not a place I can work at either.
So what can we still do? We could land:
- A big production. Something in the realm of six figures that can cover a year’s worth of work for 3–5 individuals. We have plenty of ideas we believe could be successful that we’re happy to recommend and jump on for any interested party.
- An investor. We’re looking for an individual who can help take this ground-work to the next level, so we can upgrade our systems and equipment, and roll out a network of compelling, original shows.
- A strong referral. Do you have a story idea that has to be told? One that may have exclusive access to a critical character or a clutch piece of information? Do you know of an organization in search of a production partner? Or an individual interested in investing. Talk to me.
That’s where this extended newsletter ends. Unless of course, you want to learn more about hot air balloons and fluid dynamics. If so, here we go.
Let’s Talk About Hot Air Balloons
It starts with the Archimedes Principle, conceived in 246 BCE. Apparently that was the fateful year when philosopher Archimedes ran through the streets yelling “Eureka!” Then, it was indecipherable screams that people turned into a word. Now Eureka has a definition, meaning “I’ve got it.”
So the legend goes, Archimedes was naked because he was in a bathtub trying to prove whether or not the King’s crown was made of gold. Archimedes couldn’t weigh the crown, because even if the crown weighed as much as a bar of gold, that didn’t mean that it was actually gold. The goldsmith could have filled the crown with a blend of metals and coated it, making it seem like it was 100% gold. Weight wasn’t enough. The world needed a way to measure density. And that meant understanding volume.
As Archimedes was pondering this, he happened to be bathing. Upon entering his bathtub with his own body, he watched water splash over the sides. That’s when he realized that the amount of water, or air, that is displaced by an item doesn’t indicate something’s weight, but the distribution of that weight. Also known as density.
Archimedes measured how much water was displaced by the crown when he put it in a bathtub. And then, he repeated this action with a bar of gold and a bar of silver of the same weight as the crown. The crown and the bar of silver, each displaced more water than the gold, proving that the crown was not pure gold, but a mixed metal.
All of this also explains how hot air balloons work. Density doesn’t just determine whether a crown is pure gold or not. If an object is denser than the substances around it, it will sink. And if it is lighter, it will float.
Great. Let’s Actually Talk About Hot Air Balloons
On to hot air balloons. Hot air balloons use the Archimedes Principle to rise and fall, warming the air inside the balloon makes it less dense than the cold air around it and the balloon goes up. If the warmed air starts to cool, it can go down.
But how do balloons turn, and dodge power lines, and avoid tree tops? To change direction requires wind currents, which are moving unseen every which way around us. For example traveling south could mean rising to a higher elevation where the wind pushes that way. And traveling north might mean going lower, where the winds push in a different direction.
A balloon is a bright and beautiful indicator of greater forces we cannot see; bound in the air by the Archimedes principle, a pilot, and a few tanks of liquid propane. Although the balloon may be the thing that draws in your eye, it can only move across the land because of everything else happening around it.
At this time, House of Pod is a hot air balloon. We’ve been heating our air, investing our heart and soul into productions, overhauling our marketing and branding, and believing in our skilled staff in order to catch the highest winds. It takes resources to go up, and we gave the balloon all that we had. If those winds we were hoping to catch aren’t there, we will drop down to lower elevations, let the air cool, try to find a current to ride and stay afloat. This means closing our community space. Laying-off our team. And hovering as long as we can until another production comes our way, lifting us up once more.
We want so badly to catch these winds, the low ones, and even more so, the high ones. To continue flying bright and bold on this journey that has left our hands calloused and our hearts wanting. And we would also be remiss if we didn’t recognize how much each of you have been part of the forces who have carried us every which way. It’s been quite a ride.
To all the great gusts.
With love and respect,