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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

I was a bit surprised by what I had heard in the pod world today.

One of its most popular personalities, Adam Carolla, started off his show saying that things weren’t going all that well financially. His business of six years, “The Adam Carolla Show,” had kind of plateaued, at least from an advertising perspective.

His solution, he said — and this sounds like a Hail Mary — is to do a “clean” podcast at least two days a week. Perhaps then he’d get advertisers of a higher caliber, “like Cadillac,” he said. He believes many top-level advertisers are afraid of blue content (not that his show is all that blue, usually).

This made me wonder: Did the podcast world make the same mistake as newspapers? Namely, they jumped onto the web with a “free” model, figuring they’d get a lot of downloads and could sell ads around the hit stats.

Newspapers — different than books — tried the “free” model, all giving away their intellectual property on the web without cost. Yes, they got hits, but they overestimated how many ads they’d be able to sell around the hits.

Two major problems emerged:

  • People largely avoid web ads; they don’t work.
  • A lot of other entities are also selling web ads, such as Google and Facebook — how can newspapers compete against them?

By the time newspapers figured out they had made a mistake, it was too late — their print edition sales had shrunk (and print ads can generate revenue, dependent on circulation), due to the lack of exclusivity of their content (the web editions scooped the print editions); and creating online “paywalls” didn’t work, because people already were used to getting content for free.

Newspapers waited too long to charge a fee for their online content, and by the time they did, prospective subscribers balked. You can’t unring a bell.

Podcasts made the same mistake. Yes, there are a couple of them that do charge a fee, but they aren’t hosted by someone of the level of Carolla or Marc Maron. Artie Lange, formerly of “The Howard Stern Show,” does an erratic podcast from his kitchen that he charges $7/month for. Anthony Cumia, who was kicked off SiriusXM’s “Opie and Anthony” for a racist tirade, also has a subscriber-based show, at $33 for six months. Both Lange and Cumia have had public breakdowns since starting their podcasts, and neither show seems to have more than a very small audience.

The thousands of other podcasts, including all the big ones, are using the free model. Apple’s iTunes, the No. 1 aggregator of the genre, won’t allow podcasters to charge a fee.

Carolla complained about the level of advertiser that podcasts get. He cited “Shari’s Berries,” where he may get 10 percent of a cut of a sale, as an example.

(Typically, such ads are read live by the podcaster, where he pretends to like the product — but who really likes mail-order, dry iced steaks?)

The problem is, these type of ads require the buyer remember a promo code, so that the podcaster can be reimbursed. Second, who knows if these companies are even reporting their sales accurately? Third, the same types of advertisers are on all podcasts — they have saturated the market, and, like web ads, people have learned to tune them out, or, in this case, fast forward.

We run similar “pay per call” ads in the print edition of our newspaper, to fill space, as needed. They result in little. If we had to rely on their income, we’d be broke in a couple of months.

Thank goodness for traditional ads — it’s why we keep the newspaper relatively clean, and why Carolla is cleaning up his show. Though is it too late?

The mistake that podcasters — and papers that opened online editions in the 1990s — made was that they did not understand how advertising works.

Ads are not effective just based on how many ear drums hear them, or eyeballs see them. Advertising works if the content of the medium works in tandem with the message in the ad. For example, we run Campus News and our advertisers are largely colleges. See? Makes sense. But our pay-per-call ads are from mail-order food companies and similar — not an exact match, thus we get pennies on the dollar from such ads.

Do podcasts have natural advertisers? Perhaps shows on specific topics, say cars, could get like-minded advertisers (Cadillac?). But there are so many niche podcasts (Carolla has one on cars and another on home repair, plus another with super-attorney Mark Geragos and another with beloved therapist Dr. Drew Pinsky) and none of them seem to have much niche advertising.

It could be a combination of two things — ad sellers don’t know how to sell these niche podcasts to compatible advertisers; and there are so many niche podcasts, they cancel each other out and no one can get a sizeable enough audience to get major advertisers.

Conversely, a general entertainment show, like “The Adam Carolla Show,” can get a bigger audience than a niche show, but isn’t focused enough on any one topic to get loyal sponsors.

The only solution — and a major podcaster has to try this: Start charging for your show.

Yes, it may be ego-bruising if someone like a Carolla goes from an average of 100,000 downloads per episode to, say, 5000, as people are ultimately cheap when it comes to paying for mass media (but they’ll spend $4 on a cup of coffee no problem).

Yet, breaking it down, 5000 people paying $7 a month is $35,000 a month! The vast majority of podcasters would be very happy with that number.

And we as consumers need to learn that we should pay for quality media, and nurture the shows we like.