As podcasts expand, funding competition toughens


Lou Foglia

Nancy Updike, a founding producer of podcast giant “This American Life,” spoke at the conclusion of the Third Coast International Audio Festival on Nov. 9 to a crowd of about 200 podcasters and radio professionals.

By Copy Chief

For a radio conference, there was a lot of extraneous noise Nov. 9 in the meeting rooms at the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza, 350 W. Mart Center Drive, during the Third Coast International Audio Festival. The nametags were twice the size of normal conference wear, which makes sense after a moment—in radio, few people know each other by sight.

Radio has a long history in Chicago. Because of the city’s central location, broadcasts from Chicago could reach virtually any corner of the country, making its radio stations some of the most widely heard in the country. Radio use has declined since the invention of TV, but the Internet has broadened the audience again. 

Third Coast is a nonprofit association for radio professionals and programs, organizing events such as the TCIAF and broadcasting “Re:Sound,” a weekly podcast that highlights various individuals in the industry.

The festival, which takes place every other fall in downtown Chicago, hosts a series of talks for radio industry professionals. However, the crowd is not the traditional 20th-century image. In place of the suit-and-tie radio broadcasters, the attendees are mostly young, semi-casually dressed men and women wearing badges from small independent podcasts.

In a short speech at the conclusion of the festival, Nancy Updike, a founding producer of podcast giant “This American Life,” addressed the attendees and shared a few tips based on her experiences. She admitted she was nervous—the radio industry has boomed in the past decade, she told the more than 200 people in the crowd. She played multiple segments of different radio and TV shows that intrigued her, including sound bytes from “Inside Amy Schumer” and Marc Maron’s comedy podcast “WTF.”

“There are definitely times when I hear something or see something and think, ‘I love that idea or that move, and I want to try to do that or put that in my brain as something to try,’” Updike said. “More often, it’s a little bit like … plankton, and I’m not really doing anything at that moment other than feeding. Things that I like, I pursue.”

Radio has shifted tacks from its 1940s identity of primary newsgathering to more feature-angled storytelling, as shown in programs such as “Love + Radio,” which focuses on individuals and tells their stories without any narrator, and “Serial,” a new podcast that tells the story of a single murder case from 1999 throughout the course of a whole season. “Serial” has dominated the podcast chart since its launch Oct.3.

Podcasters are also slowly discovering ways to make a living. A Kickstarter for independent radio collective Radiotopia that ended Nov. 14 raised more than $620,412 from 21,808 backers, more than double its goal of $250,000. 

Roman Mars, the host of Radiotopia podcast “99 Percent Invisible,” emceed the Third Coast Award Ceremony after gaining visibility for his successful fundraising campaigns and popular shows. The festival also confers awards to outstanding programs with funding from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation, a nonprofit that supports investigative reporting projects and other ventures.

However, not all podcasters think the atmosphere is exactly fair. Luis Antonio Perez, a host of local program Vocalo and a senior business & entrepreneurship major at Columbia, addressed the  disparity in funding during the Q-and-A session with Updike following her speech. During the last TCIAF, “This American Life” host and executive producer Ira Glass gave a speech highlighting how successful “99 Percent Invisible” was in achieving its funding goals in its first Kickstarter campaign, which Perez said frustrated him.

“[Glass said], ‘Look how much money he made!’ and I said, ‘Of course he did—that’s your friend, bro! You featured him on your show—of course he made money, man,’” Perez said during the Q-and-A. “Don’t just tell me to run out there and find some money. Co-sign with me.”

Perez said he has nothing against podcast wonders such as “This American Life”—which has Chicago roots and, despite being produced in New York City, is distributed by Chicago station WBEZ—but the support needs to be more widespread.

“From my perspective, there’s a proof of concept that has to happen first,” Perez said. “You need to build an audience. Everything that’s great gets built. When it comes to podcasts, there’s no model for that yet.”

In response to Perez’s comments, Updike said the podcast sphere is still developing and there is no trick to the system or nepotism in funding. 

Podcasting itself dates back to the 1980s, but the ease of distribution and decreased cost of production has given it an extra kick in the Internet age. The audience has broadened even further with the increased use of streaming to smartphones through the native iPhone podcast app and other independent apps such as Stitcher.

Natacha Ruck, a senior producer and project administrator with The Stanford Storytelling Project, a podcast sponsored by Stanford University in California, said the booming market will contract at some point.

“The way I see it, there’s always a moment in any medium’s history where there’s this explosion,” Ruck said. “At some point, the technology makes it so that everyone can do the stuff, and then everyone does the stuff and there’s this plethora of creativity and everyone is trying to reinvent the medium.”