Accountability As A Service (AAAS): The Only Future For Freelance Podcast Editors
I worked for a Motorola subcontractor for a while, I was part of the 900mHz rebanding that happened in the late 2000s (if you’re keen, you can read more about that here). We traveled across the entire country installing new towers, running cable, and coverage testing the new system — mostly for Emergency Operation Centers. I mention it because it is probably the largest scale project I have ever been a part of, and it illustrates how fast an industry can move when something important needs to be done.
The rebanding of the entire United States, which included every non-FAA 800mHz radio system in all 50 states — every fire station and police station from podunk nowheresville to New York City — took less than 10-years. The government oversaw a massive project that took less than 10-years to replace or augment every communication tower and piece of municipal radio equipment in America.
By contrast, I’m fairly certain it has taken 100 years to finish widening I-95 in Florida.
When a change becomes necessary, deployment and implementation of the solutions which facilitate that change can be fast — and those who aren’t prepared for it, or ahead of the curve, can be steamrolled by progress overnight.
Illustrative Example: The Freelance Web Designer
I’ve always done more than one thing at a time, career-wise. When I worked for the aforementioned subcontractor I also freelanced web design. I was fairly good. I knew my way around HTML, CSS, and PHP, and Wordpress was just coming into its own when I entered the scene. What a time to be alive.
At that point there were three options for building your website:
- You could use Homestead or Geocities and do it yourself, which would have been an absolutely awful idea whether your were a business or individual, but nobody really knew that yet.
- You could find a freelance designer on Craigslist (or wherever) and hope they weren’t full of shit and could actually build you a good website before suddenly disappearing with your money and being terminally unavailable 6-months later when you needed an update. Or…
- You could hire an expensive firm.
Eventually, let’s say around 2008, it was widely accepted that Homestead and Geocities (and their ilk) were terrible solutions all the way around, and those types of answers had faded from the list of “reasonable options.” It was now very unlikely that anyone looking to build a website would use these drag and drop builders to do it. Wordpress was officially the new “best” way to go.
This changed the market for freelancers, and it was a bit more challenging to get work if you didn’t know Wordpress. Firms remained largely unaffected, they had the resources and talent to shift from sites built in Dreamweaver to designing PHP templates for Wordpress — in truth they were well ahead of the curve.
By 2015 (though it had been around for quite some time) Squarespace became a well-known entity and claimed part of the freelancer market by providing a very cheap solution and reasonably attractive sites that were easy to build (Wix was also part of this, as was and had been GoDaddy’s “site in a night”). Individuals looking to build websites, many of which were clever enough to have already figured out Wordpress and were already leveraging a growing number of sub-$100 pre-made templates to build their own websites, were now significantly less likely to hire freelance web designers.
By 2017, if you were a freelance web designer putting food on the table, you were either working for an agency or you were in the top 10% of the talent pool.
Automation, ease of access, and low financial barrier to entry all but killed the freelance web design world. The ones who are still around are either very good and have a strong portfolio, or they’ve become peddlers of pre-made templates that sell for $50-$100 on platforms like Envato’s ThemeForest — or they keep their labor costs down by buying those sorts of templates, customizing them, and pricing the result (a functional and customized website) instead of their time.
To this day, I get occasional requests to design a website from a contact who has some how discovered that I have this skill rotting in my basement. I charge them $800, buy a template, customize it, import their content, and call it a day. It takes me less than 10-hours and I knock it out in a weekend.
Web design is no longer a skill most individuals are willing to pay good money for. The skillset is almost entirely useless at this point because of non-skill-based solutions like Wix or Squarespace, people just want an attractive solution at the lowest cost. No one in their right mind would hire a freelance web designer to build a $10,000 e-commerce website that they could create on Shopify in a couple of days and for next to nothing.
Competent automation kills freelance markets because eventually the only people willing to pay good money are larger entities with deeper pockets and a greater commitment to marketing and brand awareness. Hiring rogue talent incurs risk, and the increasing competency of automation (or non-technical solutions) makes the value proposition of accepting that risk almost non-existent. If you’re going to hire out, if you’re going to spend good money, if you’re really that invested, you’re not looking to cut corners by hiring Jessica from UpWork.
Now let’s talk about podcast editing.
Podcast Editing is an endangered niche-career that is about to go extinct because those willing to pay a livable wage are going to expect more than editing.
Says the guy who just published a course on becoming a competent Podcast Editor and Engineer. I hear you, but I’m not saying Podcast Editing will be some sort of obsolete career, I’m saying it need to grow in scope to keep up — but we’ll get there.
99% of Podcast Editors are a band of ragamuffin freelancers with next to no actual audio engineering knowledge. We edit, EQ, and repair dialogue. That is the limit of our skillset. We are this decade’s version of self-taught Craigslist-sourced web designers. And what happened to that community is going to happen to this one — it is already happening.
My own company, The Portland Pod, charges $390 an episode for strictly editing and engineering services (and the ability to record in our studio). For clients who hire us to also help manage and promote their programs, we charge $640/episode.
Guess who my clients are? Not individuals. Corporations. And this is by necessity.
Let’s look at the podcast services landscape for the consumer side of things (and by that I mean people creating, not businesses creating):
Anchor offers an easy, low-tech way to get your podcast published. I believe if science was up to the task, and Jane Goodall was feeling spry, we could prove tomorrow that a literal monkey could figure out how to use Anchor to publish a podcast on primate mating calls. “BoNOboundaries: The Love Language of Small Apes.”
If you did not laugh at that Bonobo pun, I’m disappointed with you. And so is Sir David Attenborough.
RØDE provides affordable equipment that takes all the routing and mix-minusing confusion out of the equation and offers a plug-and-play, ready-out-of-the-box solution. Do you know how flippin’ hard it used to be to figure out how to send audio back to a remote guest on Skype without sending them back their own voice? Now you just bluetooth up your cell phone and give your guest a quick ringy-dingy and it’s all set.
Descript lets you edit audio by text and provides a transcription (of course) for like $10 a month. No need to learn how to use an audio editing program like Audacity, Audition, ProTools, CuBase, or whate have you. You just edit audio in a word processor application… are you kidding me? Who can’t figure that out?
So now, if you’ve go the time and the lack of substantial budget, you can launch a podcast for sub-$1000, edit it by text, publish it to Anchor with artwork, music, and instant monetization options, and have a pretty good podcast for a next-to-nothing startup cost and barely any overhead.
Sure, Anchor has issues. Descript is imperfect. But I want you to honestly consider what your value is in this market just five years from now — once Anchor matures a bit more, transcription AI becomes more advanced, and the market value of prosumer gear dips because the technology gets easier to replicate and patents begin to expire.
Podcast editors will no longer be offering value that can’t be gotten elsewhere for considerably cheaper and at maybe only a 10% dip in “polish”.
Your labor is worth money, but the labor of a Descript server? That’s worth pennies. You cannot compete and you will not compete. There’s no debate. If the market wants a $100 website, they’re going to get it. If they want a $10 a month robot podcast editors, they’re going to get that to. The market wins, the market always wins.
Your value will necessarily need to be alternatively derived. You have to be more than a technical solution, because a technical solution is nothing more than a sequence of tasks laid over a process framework. You can’t work faster than a robot and you can’t produce fewer mistakes than one either (not once programmers work out the bugs).
Your value cannot be in getting a task done, it has to be in more than that.
Business is the only viable market for podcast services because of why they need, and how they use, media (podcasts or otherwise).
We switched from serving independent creatives to brands & corporations because we know this is coming and we know the fundamental difference between friends in the basement making a true crime podcast and corporations in skyscrapers marketing a brand. The difference is:
Individuals want to save money.
Corporations want to save time and make money.
If the options for a business looking to podcast are:
A. Pay Dave, an employee whose responsibilities are very unlikely to be limited to podcasting, to produce a podcast in-house and manage it from end to end, undoubtedly detracting from the job for which the company pays him a salary and benefits for, so that said business can save $390-$640 per episode OR…
B. Pay The Portland Pod $390-$640 per episode to know that everything is done, that the company’s time investment is minimized, that Dave can do the job he’s actually good at, that the company doesn’t have to hire a dedicated, salaried employee with benefits and allocate some of that investment to something they really don’t understand, that they don’t have to figure out equipment purchases, that they don’t have to outfit a conference room to “sound good”, and that they have someone to make sure shit gets done well, right, and without issue…
Which do you think they’ll choose?
By contrast, if you’re an individual creator with a True Crime podcast that has 10,000 listeners and you’re earning $500 a month in Patreon support and sponsorship insertion, and the two options are.
A. Give an editor $100-$200 every week (assuming a weekly release schedule an providing for a range of pricing options), sometimes out of your own pocket and not from the money you earn from the podcast because you don’t earn that much revenue just yet, and continue to labor for no money until you have 100,000 listeners and are making $5000 a month, then give and editor $400-$800 a month, pretax, and have something like $4500 before self-employment tax, and something like $2500 after self-employment tax, which you’ll use to justify the fact that you’re still working a full-time job while putting 20+ hours into production and promotion of your podcast…
B. Do the work yourself and keep all the money.
First of all, 99.9% of the time both of these individuals are going to burn out. Most podcast creators do not have the patience, dedication, or financial liquidity to cover the costs of producing a show for 1–3years before they get anything meaningful out of it (in the sense of income) — editor or no editor. Client churn is 8–16 months for most podcast editors that I know and very few people get into podcasting with the understanding that it is a business… and if 20% of new businesses fail during their first year, imagine how many podcasters who don’t even understand that they are businesses fail.
Secondly, the largest portion of this creator population will chose option B. Of course.
If your target market is independent creatives, and your skill is Podcast Editing, you are building a career around servicing a diminishing market. You absolutely cannot survive with that strategy unless, like the freelance web designers that came before you, you are the best of the best and you hustle your butt off to compete with bigger operations with more flexibility in both their pricing and their offerings.
It is death by obsolescence; by scarcity of need.
There are much bigger forces at work here, a predictable, infinitely repeating pattern of how new industries emerge and transform as their individual mechanisms become understood by those capable of leveraging them for profit at scale.
Spotify didn’t buy Anchor because they love podcasting, and they didn’t buy Gimlet because they want to create great stories, Spotify did what it did because it is large enough, and competent enough, to take podcasting’s individual mechanisms and leverage them to generate profit at scale.
Spotify is the same as Envato. It’s the same as Adobe. It’s the same as News Corp (sorry guys). Spotify is at 10,000 feet, and it’s moving chess pieces into position so it can checkmate the medium and ride a nice revenue wave for a while — and they’ve pretty much already won the game because unless Apple makes some moves soon, Spotify will be competing against a level playing field with no one on it.
So the independent creative? They’ve got everything they need, and they’ll be increasingly unlikely to afford you or need you. And businesses? They’re not going to risk hiring a freelancer, with their limited ability to accommodate them, their lack of mature systems to ensure quality and SLAs, their lack of proper insurances… they need those things.
Accountability As A Service (AAAS)
The great thing about businesses is that they prioritize profits over almost anything else. Businesses are very rarely looking to save money, instead they’re looking to make money and save time (as I said) — so it’s rarely about the spend, and it’s almost always about the result you get for the spend and how much time you spend getting the result.
As a podcast editor who can be very easily replaced from a technical perspective, you don’t want to sell your skill — and you sure as hell don’t want to sell savings. You want to sell time and an end result.
When companies ask me how many hours go into our rate (and undoubtedly someone from accounting will always try to finagle this out of me) my answer is always the same:
“As much time as is needed to provide you with the results you expect and require.”
And I’m not bullshitting them either. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long Tom spent on editing Client A’s podcast last week. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent checking on the Facebook Ads either. I don’t know how long it took Lou to proof their audio. And I have no idea how long Jessie took to transcribe it to text, because I don’t know. Because I don’t trade time for money, I trade outcomes for money. And I sure as hell to use “productivity” as a metric to work my employees to death.
Most successful businesses are the same way, at least in that what they’re looking for isn’t a price, it’s a certain type of security, accountability, and trust. And that right there is the whole point of this article.
Businesses need someone to hold accountable for the creation of their podcasts and the delivery of their brand message.
The don’t care about anything other than it being done in a way that minimizes their involvement, accurately communicates their brand, and preforms within a certain margin of error relative to their expectations.
That’s what they want. And, with very little exception, they will pay just about anything to get it. Of course I’m not suggesting you charge companies $5K per episode, unless they’re selling a $100K/unit product and every episode sells ten units, but I am suggesting that your price should reflect your ability to generate the outcome they desire — and the value of that outcome to them.
I call this Accountability As A Service (AAAS) because while the delivered product is a measurable result, the thing you’re actually selling is a promise that you’re responsible for manifesting the that result. You’re accepting the accountability associated with success and failure. You’ve got as much skin in the game as they do, because your meal ticket is married to their success.
A symbiotic relationship between capitalism and labor, it’s a beautiful thing.
But Podcast Editors are thus far unaware of a looming threat — and what they don’t know, will kill them.
Podcasters are not Audio Engineers — not usually — they are, as I said earlier, a ragtag band of ragamuffin freelancers who hacked their way into understanding audio enough to offer editing it as a service to those who couldn’t figure it out and just wanted to create content.
Hate me all you want, that’s the history, and I’m proudly among the ranks of those ragamuffins. It’s not an insult, it’s a fact and there’s nothing wrong with it, but it has to change.
The market that’s okay hiring ragamuffins is dead or dying and the new market of corporate podcasting is just beginning to be seen cresting the horizon.
But Podcast Editors have a big problem… they lack infrastructure, they lack technical maturity, some lack business sense, and they require too much participation of their current clientele to competently offer AAAS to the business world.
But you know who doesn’t lack those things?
The entire existing professional audio industry.
The one actively seeking out a way to transition from its analog past to it’s online and on-demand future. Do you know how easy it would be for a recording studio in your town to leverage its experience and technical talent to position itself as the obvious choice to all the businesses on your Main Street looking to create a podcast for their brand?
They are already doing it. And they are already connected to industry for professional VO and ADR work. They’re already the recommendation at the top of the proverbial rolodex if when a non-media company calls a media company and asks them “Hey, where could I record a podcast?”
This is to say nothing of Radio’s (ungodly slow) pivot towards on-demand and more progressive methods of content delivery. Do you know how much talent is in that “old” industry? How much savvy and decades of experience these people have?
You’re in your basement or spare bedroom asking clients to record in their office and send you the file so you can make it sound good — then you send it back and say “good luck!”
The existing professional audio industry is as much a threat to the freelance podcast editor as agencies are to the freelance videographer. We cannot provide what they can provide, and as expectations increase, we are seen as less and less viable solutions.
You have to be more if you’re going to put food on the table as a Podcast Editor.
There are only three outcomes, and you’ll have to act quickly to realize any one of them before it’s too late, because this new market is coming and you genuinely do not have that much time to adjust.
- Become a corporate-serving podcast recording studio in your hometown and establish yourself as THE option for businesses local to you. You build, you go hyper local, you take your craft seriously, and you slowly expand additional professional offerings as you mature. This is what we did and are doing.
- You immediately take your engineering education seriously and become an Audio Engineer, a real one. Stay in the podcasting space, and begin to position yourself as an Audio Engineer that Specializes in Podcasts. If audio is where you want to make your living, you need more than experience, you need a piece of paper that says you’re an Audio Engineer (and all the knowledge that paper stands for). That way a studio like CMD (or like mine for that matter) won’t only take you seriously, they’ll hire you and pay you well.
- Become a educator, trainer, or consultant. This is another strategy we’re employing. Plenty of people out there will be looking to do podcasting well and on their own. They may not be able to afford to hire an engineer at $200 an episode, but they most certainly will be open to attending a 3-day seminar on creating good audio. If you’re in a small-business-centric area, this is something that could do very well for you. If you’re willing to travel, and if you’re willing to speak, all the better.
Soon being a freelancer in this medium is going to become a non-option for those looking to support themselves and their families, and the alternatives are, if you want to stay in this industry: Build a studio, get hired by a studio, or become a talking head.
We had a good run. Now it’s time to double-down or move on.