While it seems like every publisher, from The New York Times to Vox, is making significant investments in podcasting, one could argue that Slate was the earliest to invest in the medium. It launched the Slate Political Gabfest — a panel show with three regular hosts — all the way back in 2005.
Since then, Slate has debuted dozens of new podcasts, which collectively generate millions of downloads each month. And starting in 2009, shortly after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, it started hosting live events centered around these podcasts.
Slate has since expanded its live events business, and it now hosts sold-out shows in cities all across the U.S.
I recently sat down with Faith Smith, the executive producer for Slate Live. We discussed how her team selects which cities to tour in, how she negotiates with event venues, and what podcast fans are willing to pay in order to watch a live podcast recording.
To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.
A transcript is below.
Simon Owens: Hey Faith, thanks for joining us.
Faith Smith: Thanks for having me.
So you’re the executive producer for Slate Live. What does that entail?
Yes I am. That entails running all of the live programming we do here at Slate. We are a small team, so I’m really involved in every event we do from start to finish. We do about 25 live podcast shows a year, around the country, sometimes around the world. And we do, probably, another 25 Future Tense events, which is part of our technology vertical on Slate. So it’s a slightly different type of event. So all together we run about 50 different events around the country every year. These are public events. They’re live podcast shows, they’re conferences. Occasionally something a little lighter like a happy hour.
You’re in charge of leading the team that must deal with all the minutiae and logistics that go into putting on a live event, many of the things the average person wouldn’t even think about.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a million decisions that go into making every event. We run the minutia, the logistics, and then also the content of the events. I work with the podcast teams or the hosts or the editorial team to determine what the event is, what’s going to happen if the event should happen, where it should take place. All the decisions, from big to small, are under my purview.
So you’re saying 25 events a year. That’s about one event every two weeks. Is that on a set schedule, or is it more sporadic than that?
I wish it were spread out throughout the year. There are busy times and quieter times. I would say in August and December we don’t tend to do a lot, just because of vacations and travel. And we have really busy times. Here we are in October, and I have two to three events a week for a couple weeks in a row.
For the Slate podcasts, are all of them associated with live events? What makes you consider a particular Slate podcast a good candidate for a live event?
Not everybody who has a podcast has done a live show with me. I’m always looking to get more of our hosts, more of our podcasts, on the road and out in front of their audiences. There are such a variety of factors that go into deciding. The number one thing is that the audience loyalty has to be there, that connection, that desire to see your favorite hosts live and in person.
I do think all of our podcasts across our network have a really good relationship with their audience, so that’s there to some degree for every show we have. Another big factor is hosts’ willingness to do live shows. I’ve never really met a host who isn’t willing to do live shows. It might come down to scheduling and availability. A lot of our more popular hosts have outside jobs. So this is sort of something they do on the side. Like the Political Gabfest, our most popular show and our most popular live show — the three hosts have really big day jobs. As much as I’d love to have them on the road every week, we have our limitations. And so it comes down to availability.
Also, we don’t want to over saturate the market. We’re cognizant of where the Slate audience is and how many shows we think we can do in a given area. But I do think the audience would support us doing more. It’s often about capacity as well.
Take Political Gabfest as an example. When they’re on the road, it’s the three of them, and who else is on the road from Slate?
Their fantastic producer goes with them to all the shows. I’m usually with them or my other producer is. We’re working with the live portion and working with the venue and helping to ensure staging is all right, and all that. So it’s sort of two podcasters tag teaming on the live show, where we have the podcast producer who’s going to record the audio, who’s going to oversee the content, like they normally do. And then the live producer makes sure it’s a great experience for the live audience, ironing out wrinkles with the venue, the AV, the staging, all that stuff.
What is the strategic value of live events? I’ve seen some reporting that, at least from a ticket sales perspective, it’s break even. Is it a revenue driver? Is it a way to build a stronger connection with the audience? How do you rank the value that it brings?
It’s all of the above. None of my events are break even, because we make money on all of our shows. We have a great audience that really shows up at the box office. But we don’t only look at revenue and the bottom line to determine if an event is a success.
It’s really the best way to get to know our podcast audience. It’s a very galvanizing experience if you’re a fan to see your favorite podcasters live and in person, to meet them at a pre-show cocktail hour. I go to these shows all the time, and I still think they’re really fun and engaging. They’re the highlight of the week for me.
It’s the connection with the audience, which is key. It’s about loyalty. It’s about building on a relationship we have with them. It’s a very important factor in our Slate Plus membership drive. It’s one of the benefits you get when you sign up for Slate Plus; you get a 30 percent discount on all ticket sales. You get early access to tickets. We do occasionally do shows or gatherings only for Slate Plus members. It’s sort of all those factors together that makes us decide how to do events, when to do events, and if they’re successful.
So Slate Plus is a product where there’s a $5 a month membership program, where if someone signs up for it they get extra bonus material, extra podcast material, and they also get perks from a live programming perspective. Can you talk a little bit more about that integration? How many Slate Plus members are taking advantage of the earlybird tickets, or the Slate Plus only cocktail hours? How powerful is that in terms of integration with Slate Live?
I don’t have those exact figures in front of me. It’s something where I’d have to look into the data. It is a little bit limiting. We have Slate Plus members all over the world, but we don’t do shows in every town all over the world. Not everyone who is a Slate Plus member will be able to access this particular perk. We do try to do shows throughout the country. But the bulk of the people who are able to tap into this are or on the East Coast, the West Coast, or Chicago, where we tend to do the bulk of our shows.
I think about 10 percent of people who sign up for Slate Plus say the main reason they’re signing up is to get access to the ticket discount. We’re almost at 50,000 Slate Plus members. Some of our bigger shows where we have a lot of listeners, DC, New York, maybe San Francisco, where we have a lot of members, up to 40 percent of the tickets go to Slate Plus members.
And what about driving it the other way? You said live events help increase loyalty. Do you see any conversions going the other way, where people coming to a live show are more likely to sign up for Slate Plus?
I don’t have figures on that data.
You mentioned you can’t go into every city. Obviously cities like DC, New York, LA, they’re good for hosting events. They’re big population centers. How do you decide on whether a smaller city is worth it?
We use Megaphone to get a good sense of where our podcast listeners are. We, at Slate, have a good idea of where most of our readers are. That helps. So when we get past the top six cities, we dive into five through 20 on the list. Those tend to be the cities we want to target.
We do have a sense that we want to be hitting the middle of the country more. We did a great show in St. Louis earlier in the year. We were just in Austin. We were in Denver the year before. We have our eye on Indianapolis and Phoenix in early 2019. We kind of know the cities where we have a good pocket of listeners. They’re never going to be as big as a New York show, but I know we’ll get a turnout, I know we have a really great base of fans there.
We also have people emailing and sending requests on Twitter and Facebook saying, come to this city, come to this place. Occasionally they’ll be incredibly helpful and tell us what venue we should go to. And they’ll volunteer to help run the show or be our eyes and ears on the ground. We love that, and that’s sort of the anecdotal evidence of where we have a strong fanbase as well.
You mentioned Megaphone. I’m guessing you can get some geotagged data on where downloads are coming from. Have you ever been surprised by a particular podcast where you’re all of a sudden seeing a ton of downloads in Nashville, and that informs your strategy?
Occasionally we do swap an idea based on the numbers. We wanted to go to Seattle, and then we looked at the numbers and were like, actually, we have a lot more listeners in Portland. Which, you know, just based on the population numbers, we were a little surprised by that. So we said let’s go to Portland instead.
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We chose to go to St. Louis last week because we were looking at five cities, and we didn’t expect St. Louis to have the top number of listeners of the five cities we were looking at, but it really did. So that helped guide the decision. I don’t think we’ve had any massive surprises, like we don’t have a huge listenership in Duluth, at least not based on the data I’ve seen. But I suspect if someone were watching the data more closely week-to-week, they’d be surprised here and there.
But people listen to podcasts all over, so it would take a lot to really surprise us.
I guess you don’t do live streams? This American Life, in the past, has done a live event where they stream it to theaters. Have you guys experimented with that?
We have done a few live streams here and there, but we’ve just offered them to free for people following us on Facebook. I don’t see us going the route of booking theaters and putting on a show that streams there.
Also, that’s not really Slatey. We’re not huge entertainers. We don’t put on spectacles. We’re focused on the conversation, on journalistic interviews, great experiences. We will have musical guests from time to time. We’ll do something fun. We’ve done a show where we had improv actors elaborate on the conversation around politics. And that was really fun and interesting. But it was just a special thing we did for our audience. We don’t really have the grand ambitions to take over theaters and put on spectacles.
What can you do with a live podcast event that you can’t do with just a recording? Is your team strategizing around what you can do to offer something extra outside of just the standard recording?
It’s a conversation we’re having all the time. We’re just about to embark on our Slow Burn tour, which is about to hit five cities. And I think part of the conversation is what can we deliver for this audience that wouldn’t necessarily work for the podcast? How can we make it special?
There are some visuals and some interesting images that are going to be part of the live show that are just going to be cut out of the podcast because they don’t translate. If we have a musical guest, we’re not going to put a whole musical spot in the middle of a podcast. It would come across slightly odd. So that tends to be something special for the live audience.
Even for our most basic shows, like the Gabfest, which centers around three people talking, we always have opening and closing banter. We have moments that are just for the live audience. It’s a conversation for the hosts and them, it’s not really for the listening audience at home. We often will have guests at our live Gabfest shows, even though they’re not really guest heavy on the podcast. That just sort of makes for a different experience when you attend live.
The main thing you get when you go to the live show is that you’re part of it. You’re in the room where it happened. It’s like you’re having the conversation with your friends rather than listening in on it. So those are all the things you get at a live show that you won’t get on the podcast.
When you’re setting the pricing for tickets, what kind of pricing considerations are there? Obviously live theater can be really expensive. Do people view it as live theater? The most I’ve paid to go to a live podcast recording is something like $35. Which is definitely lower than if I want to go see Book of Mormon, or something like that. How much are you testing prices, and where do you see the limits of what people are willing to spend?
I think the price you mentioned is about our average ticket price. I think it would be unfair to try to charge somebody to attend a live podcast what you would charge to attend a theatrical performance, where you have dozens of actors and scenery and there’s a lot more involved.
Also a podcast is something you’re used to listening to for free. I think people will pay for the premium experience of attending. They will pay to see their favorite people live and be part of the energy of it. But to go from paying zero to paying $85 or $100, I think it’s a threshold that few people would be willing to cross.
We often sell out our shows, which tells me we could probably be charging more. And I’m still OK with the ticket prices we usually charge. If we have one of our very popular shows in a small theater that we know is going to go fast, we might charge a little bit more to tap into that demand. But we want our shows to be open and accessible. We want people who read Slate and listen to our podcasts be able to come. So we don’t want to make them so expensive that they’d be out of reach for a lot of people.
We do offer the premium option of a pre-show or post-show cocktail hour, where you can come. It’s not a meet and greet where you stand in line just to meet your favorite podcaster. You’re at a cocktail party with them. You’re mingling with other super fans. You’re sharing cocktail chatter with David Plotz and Emily Bazelon. Those experiences people are willing to pay a lot more for. But it’s a really special experience.
How intimate is that? How many people are able to get into the cocktail hour?
Usually around 60. We want the hosts to be able to talk to everybody, or at least have a little bit of interaction with everyone. And when we get much bigger than 60, it gets harder for everyone to do that.
How do sponsorships differ for live shows? Is that a separate thing you’re selling? Or is it basically just whatever sponsor for the podcast will get a live reading of its ad? Do you charge differently if you’re doing it at a live event?
If you hear a sponsor at a live show, they have purposefully come on board to be a partner at the live show. It’s not just a carry over from the podcast. In fact, if you go to a Slate podcast live show, you will very likely not hear a host read an ad at the show unless we specifically have a sponsor for the live show. We try to take the normal ad listening experience out of the live show unless someone has come on board as a special partner. And then it’ll be a slightly different experience than just your typical ad read. It’ll be a little more integrated. We’ll do something a little more fun and creative. We’ll pull the brand into the live experience.
Do brands value that? Is that a strong value proposition, that they get more out of it from the live show than they would get from the standard podcast?
Yeah. I think those that have made that investment and been sponsors of our live shows, they’ve seen that it’s more integrated, it’s more energetic, it’s much more fun than an in-studio ad read. I do think they see the value of that investment.
Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with the venues? What your process is for selecting venues? What are some of the things you have to take into consideration in terms of what their cut is, how many seats they have? I used to go to Pop Up Magazine religiously until they switched to a new venue that uses Ticketmaster, with its terrible service fees. I finally stopped going because it was adding an extra $20 onto the price. What are all these things you have to consider when you’re looking for a venue?
Those are really good points. I try to think about the experience from the view of the ticket purchaser and the value that they want to get, and the experience they want to have.
We do shows all over the country, so we have to work with a very wide variety of venues. I will say, I don’t use an external booker. We do all our show booking in house. And because we’re eliminating that middleman and third party, we have a little bit more control over who we work with and what it is we’re looking for. And it also doesn’t inflate our ticket prices, since we’re not giving someone else a cut.
I have an aversion to working with Ticketmaster for the same reason. I try very hard to avoid working at a venue that exclusively works with Ticketmaster, because it does add 25, 30 percent on top of the ticket, which is really crazy. So you have to significantly lower the ticket price for the people buying, or you just know you’re going to annoy your fans. And we try to avoid annoying our fans.
The number one thing we need is AV capability. When I’m reaching out to anybody, I have my AV requirements that we send them. The bulk of what we need when we host a live show is we need to be able to leave with great audio that we can share with our tens of thousands of listeners at home. That’s a huge thing on the checklist, to make sure they have the AV capability that we need.
We look at the number of seats. We want to make sure we can accommodate the right number. We don’t want to be in a large, cavernous theater with just a few hundred people, because that’s not a fun experience for anybody. We want to find the sweet spot that we can fill it. Not so small that we fill it in a week and we could have gone much bigger. That really depends on the podcast. I analyze their listenership and their numbers and past shows they’ve done when making decisions about size.
We look at their fees. We do the calculation of if they charge this much per ticket, and they have this many seats, and what we have to pay to rent the space. Or if they take a cut, what that is. It’s a pretty elaborate vetting process, and there are a lot of emails and phone calls back and forth to make sure a venue works for us. We have to do it dozens of times a year as we travel to new cities, especially when we’re starting from scratch.
In the cities we work in most often, I have some go-to venues that we know work really well. We have a good relationship with them, and so that makes it easy when I can go back to a place that we like in Brooklyn or DC or San Francisco.
Is it a competitive market from a negotiating standpoint? If you guys need a venue with a minimum of 500 seats, is there only a very small number of venues that meet that criteria?
It really depends on the city. Some cities we have a lot of options, and they’re very reasonable. It’s pretty easy to book. And some cities are really impossible. Our biggest shows are around 1,500 people, but a lot of our shows are around 500 to 700 people, and it’s really hard to find a venue that size. If you go to a small theater, it’s usually 200 or fewer. And then most big theaters are 1,000, 3,000 people. The middle range size theater is the hardest one to find. That’s a layer of complexity. Some cities have everything we need, and there are a lot of options. Some cities, I’m often surprised that they have very few options in that range. And they might be booked up six months in advance.
A lot of these podcast hosts are becoming their own kinds of celebrities. Are there any discussions of having a speakers’ bureau arm of Slate Live, where if someone wants to hire Dave Plotz to come speak at a university, that you guys are managing that? Are there any opportunities on that front?
That’s a really good idea. I’m going to capitalize on it. I don’t do that. A lot of our more famous hosts have their own speaking agents and their own networks they work with to do that. It’s not something we’ve done. I’ll occasionally work with an editor or writer who has an invitation, and talk to them about the gig or about what they want to do. But it’s not something we actively do.
Do you do any other collaborations with non-Slate podcasts or podcast festivals?
Occasionally. There are so many podcast festivals. Every year I’m deflecting a lot of invitations for our shows. We don’t tend to love sending Slate shows to podcast festivals. I don’t think it’s an amazing way to showcase Slate shows and Slate talent. It’s often a crowded space. People are running from one thing to the next. And that’s not really the experience we want the Slate experience to be. So we don’t do a ton of festivals.
We have in the past done several. And they’ve been fine. We just did a big partnership with the Texas Tribune Festival, that’s why we were in Austin. We did a whole day of podcasting in our own space that was connected to the Texas Tribune Festival they do every year. And that was a really fantastic partnership. But we were in our own area standing on our own, and we were able to attract the Slate audience, as well as work with them to overlap with the Texas Tribune audience. That was an example, I think, of a good, unique partnership that worked well for us. But just going to a lot of festivals, it doesn’t appeal to how we want to present our live shows.
How does non-podcast content differ? You mentioned Future Tense. How does your job differ when working on those kinds of projects?
Those are very different types of events. Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. All of our events are free, because of our partnership. They’re part academic, part think tank. The goal of these events is to educate the public and get people involved in conversations around emerging technology and how they’ll affect public policy and society. So the approach is very different. We’re not trying to sell tickets. We’re not looking at revenue. We’re really focused on a great conversation, which is really at the core of every event we do.
We tend to think of more of the whole year of programming, and what are the big technologies, what are the big topics and conversations that we touch on, when planning Future Tense. Whereas with a live podcast show, we do look at the year ahead and have some big strategy, but it’s not one big series we’re planning.
In terms of how many tickets you sell, do you see that it’s tracking, relatively, with the growth of podcasting in general.
I think a little bit, yes. Just speaking about Slate podcasts, as the podcast gets more downloads and more ears, that show is going to be more popular and sell out more quickly or sell out a bigger venue. But as podcasting grows and more people are listening to it, you also have more people producing live podcast shows. Slate did its first podcast show in 2009, so we’re really not following the crowd here. The space is becoming more crowded. If you’re in Chicago or New York or even DC, the novelty of a live podcast show is not what it used to be a couple years ago. So our numbers are growing year after year. I think we’re constantly trying to deliver new and more interesting live shows that connect with our audience. But the space is also getting more crowded. I don’t think that live ticket show sales are growing as fast as podcasting.
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