It’s impossible to know which company launched the first branded podcast, but one of the earliest well known examples was GE’s The Message. Produced in collaboration with Panoply, The Message was a science fiction documentary that generated millions of downloads and a rabid fanbase.
Ever since GE’s runaway success with the medium, other major brands have waded into the podcast waters, with large companies like Walmart and Goldman Sachs launching their own shows in recent years.
But what makes a branded podcast good? How do you avoid making it sound like just another ad? And how does a successful podcast help a company’s bottom line?
To answer these questions, I interviewed Rachael King, founder of the podcast consulting company Pod People. She recently helped produce podcasts for companies like Samsung and Medium, and we talked about the rise in demand for the services she offers and how one develops the skillset needed to become a podcast consultant.
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 Rachael, thanks for joining us.
Rachael King: Hello Simon, thanks so much for having me.
So you have a lot of competition with other Rachael Kings who are media figures. I was googling your name and came across a former Wall Street Journal reporter who now works at YouTube. And another Rachael King is a New Zealand novelist. But out of all of them, you’re the one most likely to become a media mogul.
We’ll see about that. I used to be in PR. So I would pitch the Rachael Kings sometimes. We were at one point adding each other on Twitter and joking that we needed to start a club.
It’d be awesome if you all started a company together.
Right. What would we call it though?
The Three Kings.
So you now run a podcast consulting company, and when I looked at your LinkedIn profile I was expecting to see a background in public radio. But you don’t have a broadcast background. How did you get started with podcasts?
I have been a huge fan of storytelling for many years. That’s my background, is in communications and helping companies tell their story in an interesting way. In a way that people are actually going to care about. I’ve been obsessed with podcasts for a really long time and last year I decided to make the leap from pitching company stories to reporters to helping companies tell their story in the form of audio storytelling, in the form of podcasts. Similar to when I started out in social media marketing back when we both knew each other in DC, some 10 years ago, it started out where people were using social media and then it became a form of content marketing for brands. I see that same thing happening with podcasts. I wanted to jump in and be on the forefront of it.
Conversely I think there are a lot of companies who do want to get into this game and they just don’t know how to go about it. So I decided to create a community, we have a couple hundred freelance audio creators. They’re sound engineers and producers and hosts and sound designers. Everybody who works to make a beautiful audio production. And a company can come to us and say we want to make a podcast, we have an idea, we don’t have an idea, we have no idea what it should cost, I’ll help them figure out all that high level stuff and put together that perfect team from the Pod People community who has that skillset to make that show.
So you’re almost like a recruiter/project manager than an audio producer yourself
Well I do executive produce the projects that Pod People makes. We’ve done one for Medium that launched a few weeks ago and one for Samsung, which is why we got connected. But yeah, it’s like a hybrid production company and this sort of talent agency for all these freelance folks. Sort of like a freelancers’ union that finds the creative people so they can focus on what they’re good at, which is making the thing.
The reason that a lot of podcast consultants and audio producers come from public radio is because that’s where you learn that kind of nitty gritty — cutting tape, sound design, and all that kind of stuff. How did you cut your teeth with that?
I’ve had my own hobby podcast for the last three, maybe four, years, called the SHEPOD. It’s nothing I would send to a client as a sort of look at what I can do, it’s very bare bones. I do the editing on that, and that’s sort of how I got into the creation process and the production process. As I built this community of independent freelancers, I lean on them really heavily for their expertise, of course, and their skills. But I also have a deputy in each of our major cities, New York, LA, and San Francisco, and hopefully DC soon as well, where they’re sort of my go-to person to put together my proposals and estimates and that sort of thing for clients.
I interviewed someone else who runs a podcast consulting company a few months ago, but they’re mainly the talky type podcasts that they produce for associations and stuff like that. Having listened to some of the podcasts your company has produced, especially the one from Medium, you guys are doing a higher level of production. And there’s definitely a difference between the people who can offer up, we’ll help you create a Q&A type podcast versus those who can create something more analogous to This American Life. I know some brands when they approach these podcast consultants, they always start out with I want to do This American Life and then they have to be talked down once they learn what the actual prices are to produce something of that high level.
I totally agree with that. The nice thing is the producers and the other audio professionals who are in the Pod People community, a lot of them do work on Radiolab and This American Life and Freakonomics and Gimlet shows, so they are at that level of quality, which is nice. But because I don’t have the overhead of being a brick and mortar and needing studios, we’re more on that flexible schedule where you can scale up teams as we need them, you can rent studio space. So we’re able to keep costs in that middle tier where you can still make something really special, but it’s not going to cost as much as it might from the larger names you’ve heard. And I personally specialize in branded content, because that’s my background, helping companies tell their story in an interesting way. But we also have a lot of projects that come into Pod People, and the budget is smaller than something we would take on ourselves, in which case I will refer it out to one of our producers and just take a finders fee for connecting them to the perfect person, sort of playing matchmaker. Because we do have this large community of folks all across the country.
And what’s that market look like? These folks who are in your spreadsheets. Are these people who working at traditional broadcasts and this is their side hustle? Because we’re seeing this explosion in podcasts right now and these companies are finally getting venture capital money, and they’re aggressively hiring. But obviously public radio isn’t producing enough people with these skillsets so some of them are desperate. Are these freelancers you’re working with? What’s the market right now? Is it a buyer’s market, a seller’s market for these type of people who have these skillsets? What’s that like right now?
I think right now it would be a great market for an independent producer. But the problem is getting is getting connected to the projects. And that’s the problem I’m trying to solve. I would say about two thirds of the people in the community are fully independent. They may have regular, ongoing projects, but they are contractors on all of them. Whereas maybe one third has a day job and will do projects on the side. And I’m keeping track of that because it’s constantly changing. So every month I’ll check in with the folks and say what’s your bandwidth look like for July, what’s it look like for August, so I know already who’s going to be available when a project comes in. And who’s currently looking for work versus who’s in South Africa working on a project for the next several months.
I think there’s more than enough work, and it’s growing exponentially, and we’re getting ot the point where companies are ready to pay substantial real money. It’s a ton of work, and they’re starting to realize that. And I think the problem right now is just the connection between the producers and the projects. So that’s what I’m trying to solve.
What’s the demand on the brand side? Are companies just beating down your door right now? Right around the time of Serial, I talked to the first agency that I’d ever come across that specialized in podcast consulting, and they were a little bit too ahead of their time and they ended up shutting down. But I get the sense that now, a few years after Serial, we’re hitting very strong demand where a lot of brands are looking to launch their own podcasts.
I agree with you 100%. I think right after Serial it was a little too new, at least for brands. What it did, which is super cool, is inspire a lot of the existing private networks to get more experimental with their original content, or their investigative content. Obviously we see an explosion in the number of shows and the quality of shows. We launched in January 2018, and I think that was the best possible time to launch and the way to position ourselves.
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Just based on the most recent research, the industry only produced $300 million, which is just a tiny pin drop compared to radio. So everybody is assuming we’re at the very beginning of this hockey stick growth.
We are, but if you look at the growth, year over year, of advertising spend, and not only the number of dollars, but the stickiness. Podcast listeners are the best possible audience and customers you can have. Because they’re so loyal and they really listen, and they actually will go to casper.com and type in that promo code if they’re in the market for a mattress. It really does work for a lot of different types of advertising business models. We’re definitely at just the beginning of it. A lot of it is super manual, a lot of it is like borderline analog. Since my background is in startups and technology, I’m very much looking forward to all these new companies coming in and trying to solve problems with discovery and invent new ways that advertising can work. I think that’s going to be really exciting over the next couple years.
They’re all these agencies launching right now. There’s Pineapple Street Media. There’s Gimlet. There’s Pacific Content. Pacific Content is 100% consultancy. And then you have Gimlet which is producing their own high end podcasts that are just under their own brands. And then they have a creative studio agency. And then you have Pineapple, where they’re producing some at cost, versus others that are more profitable. Where do you see your mix wanting to be? Do you have any ambitions to build a podcast network? Or is this purely just a consultancy? What’s the scalability of that?
Because it’s such early days, the nice thing is, I guess they’re competitors in a way. I’m a middle class tier. I’m not in the same cost tier as them because I don’t have studio space, and don’t have all that overhead. So I think it is different in that way. But the other thing is I’m very friendly with people at most those networks. Because it is such early days, it’s very collaborative instead of competitive. Which is something I love about this industry.
I think there are enough networks. And there are enough networks that focus on different niches and different types of shows. What I’d really love to do is be the source of work that is focused on that matchmaking part of it, putting the right person in the right gig. And getting them so they don’t have to spend time out hunting for clients and negotiating and drumming up business. Sort of all those things I’m really good at. My dream is that is the part of the business that takes off more because that’s the way I can be more supportive of this ecosystem. Like even if Gimlet needs someone, they can come to us, we can find the right producer that they need for a show. And that way we’re all sort of working together. Us taking on a few branded projects — that’s not scalable, we can only do so many. It’s a lot of fun, and working on something like Medium is absolutely a passion project, and generates income. I think the matchmaking piece of the business is much more interesting and more needed.
So you’re in LA. There’s this new trend that’s happening where Hollywood is launching either their own spin-off podcasts like the Wolverine podcasts that Marvel did, or what we’re seeing even more of, companion podcasts. Netflix just launched a podcast to go along with their documentary shows. ESPN launched a 30 for 30 podcast. Are you involved in any Hollywood discussions about how do we create this parallel universe of podcasts to go along with television entertainment?
Yeah. We’ve been talking to Fox about helping them to create a scripted show that would be a companion to one of their movie franchises. Unfortunately I can’t say more than that, but it would be super cool. And there’s a lot of that happening here. And a lot of the scripted stuff — I think scripted has a long way to go. I think there’s definitely been some cool stuff put out there, but not a ton of it. So I’d love to see more of that. And I think LA is probably the town to do it. I’d love to get involved in it, and so would a lot of my producers.
What’s the epicenter of the podcast world? Is it New York?
I would say New York is the biggest. It certainly is for radio. New York is the epicenter of radio world. So a lot of the audio is there. But Pacific Content is in Vancouver. Wondery’s here. Earwolf is here. There’s a ton of really great networks here in Los Angeles as well. I’m hoping to help grow the West Coast. I don’t think it’s far behind. In radio, there’s a large gap, I think. But in podcasts specifically, I don’t think there’s such a huge need in New York.
Tell me how a typical client engagement goes. From them approaching you, what kind of expectations do clients come with? What’s your approach to help them develop a show?
The nice thing is they come with almost zero expectations, because they’ve never done this before. For the most part. The company’s clients I’ve spoken with, about 90% of them don’t know where to begin with a podcast. Which is great. Because I can make sure they’re getting the right information, versus them coming with preconceived notion of we’re going to pay someone $200 an episode. You can do that, but it’s not going to be anything special.
So when they come to me, I’ve had this conversation a million times, I’m ready to figure out, ok, what kind of show do you want to make. Here’s the kind of team you’d need for that. And the sort of budget if you want to do it right. Here are ways you can cut costs. Here’s a way to make the show better and what that would cost. Give them all the options. And with most clients will get to a point where I’m drawing up proposals for the show and I’ll give them a few different versions of what it could look like. And the budget that corresponds with that. And they can choose which one they want to do. And I think the nice thing about our model is there are a lot of companies that aren’t ready to invest the hundreds of thousands of dollars to do a really high level production. And we can figure out a sort of middle of the road where it’s like, OK, we’ve got tens of thousands of dollars, here’s what we can do with that. It can still be something special. Because we’ve got a perfect team that has the right expertise and the flexibility of not having overhead. And so here’s what that can look like. Here’s what we can do with a team of three people versus five people versus seven people.
And how much of the engagement is in person? You have to find local people to come to them versus what we’re doing now, recording remotely. What’s that dynamic like?
It’s really different for each project. With Medium’s Playback, the authors and the hosts are all over. One of our hosts is in Los Angeles and the other is in New York, and they alternate episodes. And then the authors can be anywhere. We’ve had Seattle, we’ve had San Francisco, we’ve had New York, we’ve had somewhere in North Dakota. That is a different process where every single episode we’re like ok, which areas do we need studio in and how do we coordinate all of that. Meanwhile the client themselves is located in San Francisco, so my producer is there, but I’ll fly up once a month for in person meetings. And the rest we’re doing via Slack and phone calls.
Whereas Samsung, we set up a recording studio in their office in Mountain View where they can do their interviews. And their guests will usually be there, sometimes it is done remote, and then we’re figuring that out. But in general most of the voiceovers and interviews are being done in their office. So we have our producer go into the office to oversee the recordings and direct everything there. It’s really different based on the project and whether there are remote locations or if we need studios. All that can change depending on the show.
How do you find hosts for the clients? Are you on the hunt for someone in their organization who’s charismatic, or are you looking to find outside celebrity/journalists who might have broadcast experience?
That really depends on the show. With Samsung, it’s a conversation about the future of technology, and each episode explores a different sector of that, whether it’s VR or AI or smart cities or blockchain. Their head of content, Ryan Lawler, who is like a veteran tech journalist, he’s really got that subject matter expertise. And he’s been interviewing people for years. It’s interesting, because he’s never done it on mic before. He’s really good at it, but it’s just been a different experience. And he’s a delight and it’s been a really fun project.
And then Medium is a different kind of thing where we’re having these renowned authors like Roxane Gay and Baratunde Thurston who are reading their pieces. For that, it makes more sense to have a more experienced host. Each one of them is well known within the podcast world and are each journalists in their own right. We’re choosing each episode who should be the host based on who has the more appropriate background.
Podcast listenership is known for not being able to grow quickly. It’s just not optimized for virality. Do you have to reorient your clients toward longterm thinking? One of the most steadfast true things they say about growing a podcast audience is that you have to keep just producing episode after episode and just be fine with that slow, linear growth. You come from the content marketing world where if you create a video, and if it’s really creative, it can go viral, or you can put a heavy ad spend behind it. But there’s not that kind of virality with podcasts. How do you set expectations around that for clients?
I think all of that is true, especially if you don’t have a name brand or a host who’s well known within the podcast world. I have certainly managed those expectations. There are things that you can do to help it move along. Obviously publishing great episodes consistently is the most important thing you can do. But I also have, within the community, I have three or four people who specialize in podcast marketing. If a client comes on board and wants to employ their services, whether it’s just to come up with a strategy and they can do it themselves, or for us to execute it for them, we can also help out with that. And, we’ve made a really long list of 100 different things you can do to promote your show in the beginning and throughout.
All of those things really do help a lot. But it is a slower grind, but when you get a podcast listeners, they’re so loyal, they’re so dedicated, and they’re letting you talk into their ear for 30 minutes, as opposed to seeing a tweet or an Instagram for a couple seconds and then you disappear from their thought. Whereas if I listen to an entire interview with someone from a company that I was maybe interested in, I’m going to definitely think more highly of them. It’s a different thing because you’re listening to them more directly, you kind of believe what they’re saying. As opposed to just reading an article that was an interview with someone. You don’t know if they really said it that way or sometimes you can’t get the sense whether they’re being authentic. But you absolutely can with a podcast. It feels like you’re just sitting down and having coffee with someone.
One of the most effective ways of growing listenership is getting mentioned on other podcasts and I’m seeing a lot of podcasts buying ads on other podcasts, but also doing these swap recommendation things. Do you have to get your clients to set aside budget not just for the production of the podcast but also advertising and marketing?
I certainly try to. It’s the number one thing you can do short of being featured in the iTunes store. In terms of things you have control over, it’s absolutely the most effective, and I do highly recommend not only that they, but also set aside, yes, money to purchase sponsored ads and stuff like that, but also time, because it takes a lot of time to negotiate cross promotions if they don’t have a budget. You either can spend time, or you spend money. And if you don’t have money, you can dedicate time to trying to find similar podcasts and offering to promote each other, whether it’s on the podcast itself or an email swap, lots of different avenues. But yeah, I absolutely encourage people to focus on that as one of their most important strategies.
You mentioned the Samsung and the Medium podcasts. I listened to both. I enjoyed the Medium podcast, it reminds me of the Modern Love podcast. Medium is investing in podcasting, especially as they try to grow their paid membership. What were your discussions with them and what are the goals of the podcast?
Ev Williams, the founder, he started an audio related company. He’s been interested in audio for a long time. When I met with the Medium guys, who are my favorite people of all time, and they were telling me what they were thinking. The reason they had this idea was because they had created, in the Medium app, there’s this section that has a little headphone, and when you click on that, it takes you to author voices, which is where they have people reading their pieces out loud. And there’s no production, there’s no sound design. It’s just people reading their pieces. But the author voices one, where people were reading their own pieces, were the ones they were seeing crazy engagement with, so that’s why they decided to do this kind of show format where it’s the author reading their piece. And then we’re putting production behind it, music, sound design, and then having this Q&A with our really thoughtful host, which is getting the story behind the story. They had seen the data of the author voices doing so well within the app and that’s why they decided to invest so heavily in it. And I suspect we’ll see more from them in terms of other shows as well.
How many episodes are you producing?
The first season is 10 episodes, and then we’ll go from there.
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