Should I make an in-house Podcast?
Everything learned in making ‘The Intern’, the betaworks podcast.
With 2016 coming to a pretty depressing close I was looking back at the year and trying to think of some bright spots. Producing our podcast, ‘The Intern’, was definitely one of them. We wrestled with the idea of doing an in-house podcast for some time but eventually we pushed the button.
If you are considering doing the same, hopefully some of these points will be helpful for you.
1. Why do a Podcast?
For any creative endeavor I always ask myself why I am doing it. Sometimes, truthfully, the answer is, ‘because it would be cool’. This tends to happen more when it’s on someone else’s dime.
I think most advertising creatives think of ideas in this order:
- Is this cool?
- 2. Can I get the client to pay for it?
- Would it sort of work for the client?
No harm in that scam as long as the end product does the job. However, when you are doing something in-house, you’re only scamming yourself.
So why did I want to make a podcast about betaworks?
There are two stories. The official story is that our thesis of ‘betas work’ is all about making things. We had invested in the podcasting space, through a very early seed round in Gimlet in 2014, (pre Start Up) and we were looking at other audio companies such as Anchor, which we have also since invested in. (We will continue this focus with Voice Camp; an accelerator for companies in the Voice Interface space.)
We believe one of the best ways to understand a space is to actually make something real, a beta, in that space.
The unofficial story is that I got a rude awakening at Social Media Week in early 2015. Betaworks had two panels that year. The first one was a panel featuring ‘The Hackers in Residence’ — a program that had previously created Giphy, Dots, Poncho and Blend. All these companies were doing well, Giphy had just announced a $17m round of funding, Two Dots was a no.1 game.
I thought we were hot.
The main stage at Social Media Week is pretty vast. There were five of us on the panel, including Alex Chung, founder and CEO of GIPHY. Let’s just say that we outnumbered the genuine paying guests for that panel. Probably Alex would sell out any conference now, having since been on the front cover of various magazines and Giphy being valued at $600m, so perhaps we were just a little ahead of our time.
But one thing was clear; we may have been hot inside our own little bubble but outside was a different story.
The other panel I put together was betaworks partner and Digg CEO, Andrew McLaughlin (now at Medium) in conversation with Alex Blumberg, CEO of Gimlet. This panel was in the same vast auditorium but was sold out. Standing room only. Podcasts were hot.
One member of the audience told Alex that he had been producing his own podcast with some success and asked what would be a good number of listeners. Alex said about 10,000 — because at that number advertisers would start to be interested.
So, I walked back to the office with a new goal. Produce a podcast that gets over 10,000 listeners and raises awareness of what we do outside of the bubble.
2. What’s the Story?
Once you have the why, you need the what. I was working with betaworks partner and Poncho CEO, Sam Mandel on a few projects at the time and together we came up with the idea of following an intern as they try to make it in New York and the somewhat cliche #StartUpLife.
Start-ups were, and still are, a topic of fascination so we thought it might be interesting to find someone who knew nothing of that world or New York and give them an internship at betaworks. In a somewhat meta twist the internship consisted of making the podcast, which we called The Intern.
We did not want to make the story about betaworks as such. That seemed too obvious. We saw betaworks more as a character, along with the city and various start-up companies. Three areas of interest that we hoped would appeal to a much broader audience.
In other words, if you want your podcast to be successful don’t be all about you.
3. Who the hell is going to make this thing?
We were always going to make the podcast in-house. Even though we had no experience and no equipment the process was the process. You may want to hire an outside company to make your podcast but for us the value is in the doing.
We knew we wanted a woman to be the main character. One lead was Allie, our receptionist who I knew was a great writer. But she quit before we got started, only to return later on to be lead writer an Poncho. I did a test with Anne, a friend of a friend, who while being a great writer and presenter did not have the audio production experience needed to pull this off.
This person had to write, host, produce and edit the show. They had to be able to do everything.
Enter stage right, Allison Behringer. I had previously asked Alex Blumberg what he thought of The Intern as an idea. He told me he liked it. (Hopefully not just because I was an investor). I had originally, naively, conceived of it as being a weekly show based in real time. Alex rightly said that would be impossible as it was an insane amount of work to produce a weekly podcast.
Ok, I said, but where do I find someone who will do that insane work as an intern? He told me to contact the Salt Journalism Institute up in Maine.
I sent an email to the school outlining the idea for the show. You have to move to New York and be an intern at a tech company and produce their in-house podcast. Allison replied pretty quickly. We chatted and I asked her to make a little demo. I honestly didn’t know what I was looking for. I’d made a few radio ads before but never a podcast.
As a creative director all you are ever hoping for is for someone to surprise you. To make you feel, ‘ok, there’s something to this’. Allison’s demo had that. It was a simple story about frying an egg. I can still hear the audio clip of the oil and egg sizzling. It was real. So, Allison was in.
4. What’s your budget?
There’s an old saying, ‘Pay peanuts, get monkeys’. I remember doing an internship (we called them placements) for the ad agency DMB&B in London in 1996.
I earned 25 pounds a week.
Not an hour, not a day.
I think it was that low because it was possibly illegal to pay nothing. I stayed there for 6 months on that ‘wage’ until I found my first real job at another agency. Obviously there was, and still is, a supply and demand issue here. More people want to be advertising creatives than there are jobs, by a huge factor. So you take what you can get. However, I think it’s unproductive long term. I don’t think it’s helpful for creative people to come to work and feel like they are being exploited. They don’t do their best work.
So, our budget was $50k for one full-time person, which is good for an intern. The most popular episode of the show is where Allison feels like she is starting to be exploited and asks for a raise. It’s incredibly uncomfortable for everyone involved. I still can’t listen to it.
Often with in-house projects you underestimate the budget or you get so deep into it that you end up overspending. We had a budget and we stuck to it.
5. Who will have editorial control?
Should we have aired the episode about money? I can see it both ways. On the one hand we look like dicks because we do have money and had said that we would evaluate her salary as things progressed, and they were progressing well. But on the other hand we were in the middle of the season and wanted to revisit the issue once the first season was finished. No spoilers, you’ll have to listen to see how it was resolved.
This transparency and openness was one of the reasons the show was becoming a success. Our belief is that the more open we are about our products the better they become. We want people to see under the hood, it makes us better.
I think a more conservative boss than John Borthwick would have not let Episode 5 go out. Or at least would have told me to take it down. As with most betaworks things we tend to post things first and then ask for feedback. John listened to the first two episodes before giving the project the green light.
I didn’t really tell him that we had made those two test episodes, so that was a gamble. Had he not liked them there would have been no show and I would have wasted time and money. But after those two first shows I posted new episodes with very few other people hearing them. Allison was finding her voice and was working with Kaitlin a talented part-time editor, so things were cooking.
If you want to create something interesting it won’t please everyone. So when thinking about editorial control be strong, be confident, too many cooks really do spoil the broth.
6. What does success look like?
Set yourself real goals. Often the goals for internal projects get wishy washy. We were clear that we wanted at least 10,000 listens per show and evidence that people outside of the Tech / VC bubble were engaging with the show.
It was clear after Episode 2 that people really liked the show. Steve Wilson (Apple Podcasting Tsar) contacted us. He wanted to feature us on the apple page — see above. I think the brilliant design that Dom Butchello did for the show throughout was a huge help here. But what was really great was that ‘normal’ people were becoming fans.
For the first episode it took us about three weeks to get 10,000 listeners and then it just got quicker and quicker. By around Episode 4 the day a show was released we would get around 3000 listens a day. Overall we have had over 220,000 listens, and that number keeps rising. I know this no where near something like a Gimlet or NPR show but this was Allison on her own.
We did no marketing (we had no money) this was pure organic word of mouth growth.
We started get great reviews in some of the podcasting press and at one point we were beating Serial on Product Hunt (although you can’t get much more bubble than that).
Soon Blue Apron contacted us about sponsoring the show. Alex Blumberg was right, get a decent audience and the sponsors will take notice. So Allison got some free meals and we started doing bespoke ads for Blue Apron, recorded in her apartment with her roommate Avery. She took a 50% cut of any revenue we made from the ads. I liked the idea that this thing we had started as an experiment, a beta, was now legitimate.
If an internal project can go one to become a revenue making project then that’s pretty cool. That was how Basecamp started.
7. Can you handle the drama?
When I was running a digital ad agency in London our chairman, John Bartle, told us never to let any TV cameras in the agency. His reason being that however cool we think we are it never comes across that way to normal people. We look like pretentious idiots. He was right (he always was).
TV crews just want drama. So this is one of the inherent tensions in doing any content in-house about your organization. How do you create something interesting, with drama, without creating unnecessary drama? The salary episode skated that line. And the episode about inequality in the tech world got close too. I think we just about pulled it off. I’m fascinated to see how the Apple reality show Planet of the Apps plays out early next year.
After the end of season one we were planning for Season 2. Our idea was to follow our first accelerator program, Botcamp. The thinking being that Allison would follow the companies as they went through the highs and lows of ten-week program, culminating in a demo day and, hopefully, a round of funding. As we geared up for that John and the Botcamp organizing team decided this was going to be a distraction and that we didn’t need the drama. At the time I was disappointed but it was the right decision.
The show existed to help the company, the company did not exist to help the show.
8. Knowing when to quit.
So Episode 8 was the final episode. We had covered a lot of really interesting territory. We asked where VC capital actually comes from. We looked at gaming and YouTube influencers. We talked about uncomfortable subjects like salaries and equality. Hundreds of thousands of new people understood what betaworks did.
I learned a lot, like how right Alex Blumberg was about the amount of work required to make a show, or how to sell ad space in a podcast. But most of all it was a great experience working with Allison — who will go on to do amazing things — creating something from scratch, and watching people truly engage with it.
The show was a little burst of happiness in an otherwise depressing year. So, if you’re thinking of doing an in-house podcast, have a think about all the points above but honestly if you think it’s going to make you happy, just fucking do it anyway.
Happy Holidays. Here’s to a better 2017.