Podcast Money Dispatch
We get it: money talk is tough. And while people in other industries might have Glassdoor reviews and plenty of sources of information to get a baseline idea of what they should be making and charging, podcasters don’t. That’s why we’re sitting down with people in different parts of the podcasting industry to talk–anonymously–about money. First up, a podcast “producer, audio engineer, sound designer, script supervisor and head scheduler” who made over $100k in 2019.
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Let’s get started. How long have you been podcasting for?
I started my first podcast in 2015, so six years ago. I started out doing it on the side of my day job, which was working in theater as an overhire technician. And then we were doing [the show] for about six months, and it started getting really popular online.
That's so fast. That's amazing.
It was pretty fast–I was surprised! I was actually in the middle of doing NaNoWriMo for that same year. Then the podcast came about, and I was like, well, I have these two things. They're both taking a lot of creative energy but one of them actually has an audience right now. So I put the novel down, and I never picked it back up.
I know you’re full-time podcasting now, in various roles–was the show’s initial popularity what made you think you could make that transition, or was there a different transitory period?
I was doing the one podcast and it was getting pretty successful. That let us network with other people who were in the same kind of genre-space. So I started making a second one, and that also had a pretty wide audience. I made them for five years. And then, through that second show, I got introduced to someone at a podcast network who then started hiring me to make their shows. That's really when I was like, “Oh, I can get paid to do this.” Plus I would get paid to do it. And that was the whole thing.
So what’s your role in the podcasting sphere?
Good question. Producer usually, audio engineer a lot, sound designer most often. I have also been a voice director and a writer, and now I'm working as a script supervisor and equipment manager. And head scheduler. Oh God.
You’re a full-stack podcaster! What’s a quick sketch of a day in your life?
Well, right now I'm in production on a show, which means we’re recording with actors. So, my day looks a lot like sending a lot of scheduling emails and trying to convince people to record audio samples of themselves in their house to send to me so that I can berate them for having bad-sounding houses. We’re been recording for like a good three hours a day. That's me on Zoom with my trusty seasoned script here, going through and making sure we get what we need. It's like a 70-person cast and we're recording everybody separately. I have to make sure we're not going to miss anything.
It sounds like there are some shows you’re working on that you have more ownership over than others. What’s that split look like?
Day by day, I tend to pick one project and work on it. In any given week I can be working on shows for six different people. I work for a number of independent clients, and a number of larger clients. Some of those clients turn from one into the other and then back again.
I own stake in about four shows that are currently in different stages of production. I also was the primary owner of a show that finished in 2018. That was our first show. So, on the shows that I own, I do a lot more work, right? I tend to be the producer. I tend to do at least a little bit of vocal direction on shows that I have a creative stake in. I do a lot of talking to people who are running the shows, and consulting with other people.
I found that when it's a larger company, I tend to be one cog in the machine. For example, I worked for [one very large player in the podcast industry] on a fairly consistent basis and for them, they read their own scripts, they record their own talent, they send me the fully edited track of the talent’s narration. And then I layer sound design and music on top of it. So that's just me sitting in Pro Tools, dragging things from the library. That client has a subscription to a music library, so I collaborate with them on what I’m looking for in that vast ocean. That for a larger client that tends to be what I do. It's handling all the post-production stuff.
I’ve found with creators that own the show, they become the person who's like, “well, what's not getting done? I'll do it.” You get a whole lot of mission drift and suddenly you’re doing social media, too.
That's absolutely true. And it's definitely something I've been talking to my therapist about. But fortunately for the show that I'm working on right now, I have two other producers and we're splitting the work, if not evenly then there's a lot of emotional support for those times when it's not even. It's been really good.
Speaking of your team, do you have set of frequent collaborators, or are you always working with new people?
I had consistent collaborators since back in my early days for that first show. I co-created that show with my best friend. It was a big, heavy period drama with hard sci-fi elements as well. It got too big for our own heads for a while, but it was never making enough money to pay people. So the agreement that worked out was kind of like, okay, well I own this show and you're working for me, and you’re doing it for free. So when we're done, I would like to help you guys make your own shows. And we have! Almost everybody in that room has gone on to make their own show, which I've been a producer on.
And not all of them are in production quite at the same time. You know, a lot of the scripts are really personal because they're independent shows. So it, it's not always a thing to crank out scripts for because you’re mining the depths of your soul. Those shows are up and running on their own, they run their own social media Um, and whatever one's ready to go, I’m there to help.
I think that idea of reciprocal labor is so nice. People are beginning to realize you need to pay the people that work for you, but for a lot of independent shows, you can't quite do that when you first start out. And this feels like an actionable way to do that.
Yeah. It was!
Okay. Let’s get down to nuts and bolts: How much money did you make from your podcasts?
Awesome. So, let's talk about this. In 2018, from podcasting work alone, I made something like $60,000 in a year. in 2019, I happened to get a sweet gig working for a HUGE media company dominating everything – print, film, TV, & podcasts. They paid premium, and I did two other shows (and doing all of the shows at once almost killed me) but I did just over a hundred thousand dollars. That was pretty cool.
Well, that was 2019 and all of the means testing for financial support from the government in 2020 and 2021 is based on my 2019 finances. It’s all based on my fluke year. So I'm like, cool. Yeah. That’s been frustrating. Let's see, last year I think I made $50k, which is still nothing to sneeze at, but, like, thanks government.
That's so messed up.
It is messed up. I don't like it. Maybe just give everyone money instead of spending $1.5 trillion on a stealth fighter that doesn’t work!
Okay, well. What does your revenue stream look like? Is it pretty diversified, or is it more dependent on one or two sweet gigs?
For the past few years, it's been a couple professionally-sponsored gigs. I don't tend to make any money off of the independent shows. We don't make no money, but it all tends to go back into the shows, usually because we try to pay our acting talent. For example, right now, we're paying everybody who shows up $25 an hour. There's 70 people, which is a lot. So, the creators don't end up seeing any money. All of the money we make goes back into the show. It’s really just about, like, not losing money on making the cool show.
And then as far as the larger shows, I maintain contacts at a couple of larger podcasts companies. They throw me work. I also have a few independent clients that are less production-heavy. I tend to do a lot of work in like the narrative and audio-fiction spaces, but I do actually have a couple of clients where it's just talking heads once every two weeks. It doesn't take a lot of time to edit, and I charge them an hourly rate, which tends to be low because I'm pretty fast. And then I just do that every week. That's kind of nice, too
So, it sounds like the money coming in from the independent shows pretty minimal. However, you’ve gotten a lot of professional attention from those shows, specifically from industry awards. Do you feel like that has helped you secure larger, sustaining gigs?
Honestly, no. No, I don't.
Oh really? Wait. Say more because that's not what I was expecting.
So, those awards–I am really glad they exist. They get somebody who only listens to one or two independent podcasts to listen to 30. And that's great. You know, the target audience of a podcast in the beginning should be people who are already listening to the same kinds of podcasts. And that's great for newer shows.
But I learned this lesson in college, and I'll tell you the story about [podcast awards] by telling you the story about this. Every year, my college did a live multi-camera award show for the school. It's a really big production.
And one year, I was up for an award for live sound, theatrical sound design, and I worked really hard that year. And like, it was really neat. And one other person had three nominations in the category and I had one. And I won, and I'm really proud of it and I felt like I really earned it. And then the next year, like in the middle of two projects, I did a favor for a friend. He was doing some weird experimental version of Faust. I was like, sure, whatever. So I used a couple of stock sound effects and the soundtrack from a video game I really liked playing at the time. I just made that transition music and I was like, okay, here you go. I'm busy. See you later. And I won the award for that, too. So that's when I learned that awards are dumb and stupid except for the day you win.
I think that's fair.
Yeah. The awards are great, but it's a popularity contest. Now I'm not trying to be pejorative about it, but it is voted on by people who know it exists. Yeah, I like it but it doesn't go that far in professional circles. I think getting those gigs was a matter of networking, which I hate because networking is the one thing you can't like advise people how to do. It was just a matter of, like, I made a friend here and I made a friend there and they told their friend about me and I met them for drinks and it turned out they worked at a gigantic media conglomerate that was getting into podcasts right then. And I really hate that, because it's not replicable
The amount of luck that has gone into the gigs I've gotten so far and being nice and being in the right place at the right time is a lot. I'm very fortunate that that happened. But as far as advising others on how to do it, I got nothing.
How much money did you spend on podcasting or invest in your shows last year?
Not a lot [last year]. I would say in a normal given year, like 2019, we had three shows launch in my independent circles and that was about $16,000.
We don't do any paid promotion. It's mostly paying talent and just maintaining our presence, like paying for our hosting fees, domain space and our automated merch service –that’s where most of our money goes. And then beyond that, I would say the biggest chunk of it yet is paying talent. Ever since we have had the ability, we try to make sure that actors don't walk away with nothing. Except there's a couple of actors that I work with that are always just like, “no, you don't have to pay me. Just put it back into the production.” Like, let me pay you!
Thinking back through how long you have been podcasting, money-wise, what was the best podcast investment that you made?
Personally, the recording booth in my house.
I have a background in acoustics and sound design for live spaces. That’s actually my background–I got into post-production by accident. I built a recording booth into my house that has a microphone. I have a big-ass Scarlett. You know, that people have a little Scarlett, the 2i2. I have the biggest one, the 18i20. So I can have up to four microphones, of people just chilling, hanging out. That gets actors in the same space and they get to react off one another, which makes the entire performance better. It's a very clean environment. People tell me that I have like magic ears or whatever, because I can listen to a person's vocal sample and within three seconds of listening to it, I can tell the exact size of a room that they're sitting in. But when it's an acoustically-treated space, you could put that in any room you want–outdoors or in space–you can do anything for that audience and put them anywhere. Investing in that booth really led into the illusions that I would make in those fictional worlds.
That's so cool. Do you know how much it cost you to build it out?
Uh, like $1500, plus the cost of a Scarlet, which was like $500, so around $2,000.
What’s your biggest podcasting money mistake?
We spent a bunch of money on stickers and then we found that that sticker company was owned by a Nazi. Yeah.
What else did we spend big money on? You know what I think our biggest money mistake was investing in people who weren't investing in us. It's been our great fortune that we've gotten to work with a lot of actors who really buy into the project and see it. They're like, “wow, this is so much quirkier than what's on TV right now. I'm so down. I'm down to tell stories.” Great. We’ve had a couple of people who were not as invested in our projects. We tried to get them invested and it just didn't really work out. They ended up leaving the project early and we ended up having to like reshuffle scripts and reshuffle the story around the person rather than letting the story drive the project, which is how we like to work. When you're doing an independent project, you need people who are going to buy in emotionally and trying to push someone to see that place when they're not going to enter that place is a waste of time.
What are your money plans for 2021? Is there anything new you're trying anything you're stopping?
Personally, my plan is to get some more clients that I can turn around quicker and that require less effort per project. I have a couple of clients that do chat podcasts right now that are just two people talking. One of them is about sports. It's like a very current events show, which I really liked. I make it a quick thing and then we put it up and then basically as soon as it's up, it's obsolete, so I don’t have to think about it anymore. I like those because I can put in like five-hour day, have the edited thing and then turn it around, and be done. If I had 10 of those on a bi-weekly basis and I just got an hourly rate to make them, then I'm making enough money to live and that would be cool. And then I could make the quirky, independent stuff that fires a lot of my emotional and creative investment on my own time.
My goal for 2021 is to separate the monetary value from the creative value, you know? Not putting my whole self into projects that, if they don't make money, I personally feel like a failure. Separating my self-esteem and my self-worth from the value that the free market has placed on the thing I've made.
So that is my money goal for 2021 is make money without putting my whole self behind everything I do. Because it's not sustainable.
Did you get any good money advice when you first started podcasting?
I will say that I'm friends with someone who's really good at finances and money and doing business stuff. And rather than a specific piece of advice, it's just like, whenever they say I just do it. Whenever they tell me something I'm like, “Oh, that, because you said it, that's probably the best advice.” When you meet a smart person, listen to them.
That's wonderful advice. Anything else you want to talk about?
I'm coming from a place of being assigned male at birth and there's a lot of privilege therein, the best advice I can give, money-wise, in podcasting, is swing high and let them negotiate down. Don't be like, “here's a modest number. I've never worked for a big company before. Maybe they'll go for this number.” Don’t be afraid that a big number will scare them off of hiring you. Recently, I negotiated high for a project and I was shocked when they just accepted the offer. I thought it was a high number and they were just like, yep, totally. And then they ended up having to come down, but they came down from a high number.That's my advice.
There are also a lot of people in podcasting who don't know what numbers to ask for. I wish I could give more concrete numbers, but I’m under NDA–but, for example, a lot of my projects, end up in the four-figure range per finished episode. Around $1500-ish.
I know people who go into the same kind of work that I do. And they're like, “I don't know, is $700 enough?” No, that's not enough. You're not gonna get paid enough for doing the work. Do not be afraid of trying for the higher number. The only thing they can say is no. And, honestly there are some places where the no means that you don't want to work there and that's okay.
Early in my career, I was working at a theater and I was working for a guy who found me when right when I moved to LA and really liked my work and gave me a bunch of jobs. But he was getting ready to leave the job. And I was like, “Whoa, you're leaving. I'm your assistant. You know, I'm in a really good position to take over that job. Could you please tell me how much they were paying you so that I can negotiate a similar price for myself.” And he said to me, “Actually, I don't feel comfortable giving that to you.” And I'm like, okay, who wins in this scenario? Who is this for? Who are you protecting you? I stopped working for him. I never looked back. I was like, “Oh, you're not actually interested in helping anyone.”
America is so weird about talking about money, about talking about how much you're paid and the only person that helps is bosses who can pay people, disparate, separate, distinct wages for the same job, because they're not talking to each other.
Interested in doing your own Podcast Money Dispatch? Drop us a line here!