Why we launched our first venture-funded podcast during a pandemic.
Written by Stacey Book
We raised a venture round for our company and launched our first podcast. A travel show. In the middle of a pandemic.
My co-founders and I have been planning and building our podcast company, Frequency Machine, for nearly two years. The three of us have been friends for a long time. We started out working in the film and television industry in Los Angeles together.
Then for a while we all produced immersive, city-based audio tours for an app called Detour. The experience with Detour was phenomenal — it taught us about how to tell stories for the ear and gave us some valuable insight about the kinds of stories people are looking for when they travel.
After leaving Detour (it was bought and shuttered) we decided audio was where we wanted to stay, so we founded Frequency Machine: a company dedicated to producing travel podcasts and premium long-form narratives — podcasts that feel like TV shows, and come with that same level of quality storytelling. The trouble is, those shows are expensive. They take time, experienced producers, talented sound designers, and a whole lot of effort — not quite as much as making a TV show, but a helluva lot more resources than we could afford while also raising kids in Los Angeles!
NOW, WE HAD TO RAISE MONEY
We felt we had a couple of options — one was “work for hire” — a model we were familiar with from selling TV shows, where the network buys an idea and pays you to make it. We sold one of those first (it’ll be released this summer on Audible), and while this is useful for cash flow, we won’t own this idea — we’ll make it and it’ll go out into the world, and that will be that. The other option was to raise investment capital. (Notoriously hard.) For a content start up. (Even harder.) In a relatively unproven medium.
(Let’s just say, the odds weren’t in our favor.)
But we felt strongly that we could make original podcasts that people would be excited to listen to — and we wanted to own what we created.
We DID raise the money we needed — how we did it is mostly a story for another blog. I will tell you what we included in our pitch deck that I wouldn’t anymore.
- Audio is intimate. (Everyone knows.)
- Podcast IP is a prime target for Hollywood adaptation. (Yep. Everyone knows.)
- Podcast demographics favor millennials. (Not actually the most important metric — more on this in another blog soon.)
WHAT WE DID FIRST
With our new cash we set out to develop a travel show that was different from everything else out there in “travel”. We wanted a show that took you somewhere and told you an amazing story, but didn’t give you a list of the 25 biggest tourist attractions, or tell you how to spend your airline miles. There are plenty of places you can go to get that and most of them are more efficient than listening to a podcast. What a podcast can do is give you a little bit of the excitement that comes from taking a trip, seeing a new place, learning about new people — and connecting to them. Connection. That was the word we kept coming back to. Travel has the ability to make us better people, to suffuse us with empathy and understanding, to leave us with the feeling that we are all truly more alike than different — but that the differences are fascinating.
What we ended up with, was a show called Passport. Every week, a different city, a new amazing story. We called up a couple of guys we had worked with on Detour. They live in Barcelona. Neil Innes and Andrés Bartos are best friends, incredibly talented writers, and beautiful storytellers. The “best friends” part was important because we wanted them to host the show, and half the battle with casting a fantastic host duo is finding two people whose relationship dynamic is funny, and loving, and something you want to spend time listening to. (See also: PJ and Alex from Gimlet’s Reply All) We asked them to come on board and make this show with us. And luckily, they agreed. We only had to get them a little drunk.
HOW WE DECIDED WHAT THE SHOW IS NOT
We spent several months with Neil and Andrés developing the format and producing the first several episodes. What was a Passport episode? And importantly, what was it not? Very specifically for us, Passport would not be a travelogue. There are wonderful travelogues out there, but that wasn’t for us. We wanted to be clear that every episode had a very specific story to tell, with a defined arc — a beginning, middle and end. This wasn’t the easiest thing to crack.
In the end, the show, we think, is magical. By January of 2020 we had exactly the series we had set out to make when we first founded the company. You can listen and decide for yourself, of course. We partnered with ACAST to distribute and sell ads and we set a release date: April 7th, 2020.
WELL, WE ALL KNOW WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
Travel, across the entire globe, came to a standstill. All of a sudden we had a fantastic travel show that we were about to launch right into the maelstrom of the most catastrophic public health crisis in 100 years. Hooooooooooly sh*t.
We watched the news pour in through March as the situation got steadily worse. Our production team in Spain went on lock down. The cops nearly arrested Neil in the street one night (thankfully he had gone out to get a bottle of wine, and that’s a forgivable offense in Barcelona). “Travel” became a four letter word, synonymous with danger.
We decided we couldn’t send Passport out into the world yet. So we pulled the launch date and postponed it for at least a month. This had dramatic implications. We had KPIs and forecasts built around this date. Never mind the bottoming out of the advertising market which was what our revenue model was based on. Also, the three of us founders were basically broke. There was, for sure, a lot more tequila, chocolate, and carbohydrates consumed during this month by everyone here!
THE TURNING POINT
As we neared our new release date of May 5th we had a lot of anxiety around whether or not to premier the show. There was still virtually zero travel happening, but there was something else happening — from all our individual pods of isolation, all over the world, a desire was bubbling up — a desire to connect with other people. A desire to thwart the virus, and the 24-hour-COVID-news cycle, and the idea that social distancing meant cutting ourselves off from each other. And at Frequency Machine my partners and I realized that we had unwittingly created the perfect show for right now.
DON’T BE TONE-DEAF
We did make a couple of adjustments. A friend of mine, who has strategized for some of the biggest names in Hollywood, gave me some advice, “there have been a lot of tone-deaf PR moves lately, be careful”. I think it’s an important lesson for anyone creating content: always be aware of the time you’re living in, and the cultural reality that your audience is experiencing. Everyone will have a different perspective, based on their own unique experience, and you have to create space for that. This is especially true with podcasts where the magic comes from the intimate relationship with the listener.
So we added an honest explanation for why we feel this is the right time to launch Passport, a show that is ostensibly about something no one can take part in. And Neil wrote and produced an absolutely gorgeous episode about this moment in time, a collection of love stories from around the world — it’s called Love in the Time of Corona.
On May 5th we launched the first episode of our first series, into the middle of a global pandemic. If it’s successful, it might say something about a world beginning to plan for a time when the COVID nightmare no longer compresses our movement and our imaginations. It also might mark an alternative strategy for travel focused VCs and marketers, one where actual travel isn’t a necessary part of the equation. As they say, stay tuned.