Independent companies like Prologue Projects, Campside Media and Rococo Punch try different strategies in a market roiled by Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
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Last August, Leon Neyfakh had a decision to make. Prologue Projects, his podcast production company, was working on the fifth season of “Fiasco,” a narrative nonfiction show about American scandals in living memory. Earlier seasons of the show had won acclaim for their immersive re-interrogations of twisty political conflicts — Bush v. Gore, Iran Contra, Boston school desegregation — and Neyfakh felt confident in the idea for the new season, which would follow the early years of the AIDS crisis. What he didn’t yet know was how he would pay for it.
Luminary, the subscription podcast platform that funded and exclusively distributed the first four seasons of “Fiasco,” had chosen not to renew that deal, handing the fifth season back to Neyfakh.
In one sense, this put him in a privileged position. As big tech companies like Amazon, Spotify, Apple and SiriusXM have spent billions in recent years acquiring or developing podcasts, independent companies like Prologue have found a booming market for their work.
But sharing the field with such dominant actors can be complicated, the owners of several small companies said. Even if one isn’t swallowed by a bigger fish, the competition for advertisers — critical sources of revenue for many independent podcasters — has intensified as the platforms leverage advanced technology and user bases in the tens or hundreds of millions. Additionally, the sheer volume of new podcasts (Spotify alone now has nearly four million, up from 500,000 in 2019) has made it increasingly challenging to attract and keep audiences.
Many small businesses are trying new tactics to stay afloat, including courting investors, crowdfunding on platforms like Patreon and partnering with the behemoths.
“Getting into this ring is not for the meek and mild,” said Jessica Alpert, co-founder of the podcast production company Rococo Punch. “You always have to be willing to hustle.”
For the fifth season of “Fiasco,” one option for Neyfakh was to seek a similar deal to the one he’d had with Luminary. In exchange for a fee that would help to pay salaries and cover the show’s production costs, which several producers said range from $250,000 to $500,000 for a narrative documentary series, a distributor would make the show exclusive to its users. Neyfakh had received just such an offer from Audible, the Amazon-owned subscription audiobooks company that now makes dozens of original podcasts.
“They have a lot of historical and journalistic content that’s similar to us and millions of motivated listeners,” Neyfakh said.
Another option was to release Season 5 at no cost and try to recoup the investment by selling ads. This would allow Prologue to make the show available on all platforms and retain full control of its copyrights.
Neyfakh liked the idea of making “Fiasco” accessible to the broadest possible audience. (Some critics argue that podcasts contained in “walled gardens” — accessible only to users of a particular platform, like Audible or Spotify — aren’t really podcasts at all.) His first podcast, “Slow Burn,” had been released via open distribution in 2017 and became a big hit; later this year, Julia Roberts and Sean Penn will star in a TV series based on the first season.
“It’s harder to get exposure for a show that’s behind a paywall,” Neyfakh said.
But making “Slow Burn” available free for listeners had come at a price. Neyfakh said he and the show’s only other full-time producer during its first two seasons, Andrew Parsons (now Neyfakh’s co-founder at Prologue), regularly pulled all-nighters and worked weekends. He said the show’s publisher, the Slate Group, told him that Slow Burn wasn’t earning enough from advertising to pay for more staff.
A representative for Slate declined to comment on staffing decisions or share revenue figures for “Slow Burn,” but said the show has doubled its budget and ad revenue since it started. Marshall Williams, chief executive of Ad Results Media, an ad sales agency that works with podcast companies, said it’s common for highly produced podcasts to struggle to monetize in their early seasons.
“If you’re spending $500,000 to make a show that doesn’t have a very large built-in audience, you’re not going to be making any money at first,” Williams said, estimating that such a show, given a 10-episode season, might need more than 600,000 downloads per episode to break even through advertising alone. “Getting to that level takes time and discipline.”
To scale more quickly, the founders of the podcast production company Campside Media have turned to Hollywood for backing. Campside, responsible for hit shows like “Chameleon: Hollywood Con Queen” and “Suspect,” was founded in 2019 by three veteran magazine journalists — Josh Dean, Vanessa Grigoriadis and Matthew Shaer — and the film producer and screenwriter Adam Hoff.
The company received an initial minority investment, reportedly in the low seven figures, from the film and television studio Sister, co-founded by Elisabeth Murdoch. It hopes to make money in part by licensing its shows to Hollywood and sharing in any profits if movies or TV shows get made.
“For us, the killer idea was taking the world’s best narrative nonfiction journalism and empowering the journalists to transfer those stories to audio,” Grigoriadis said.
So far, Campside says it has licensed seven podcasts for adaptation, including “Hooked,” about an opioid addict who became a serial bank robber, currently being developed for Apple TV+, and “The Bering,” about a fishing boat disaster, which was acquired by Sister. This year, the company is working on 14 new podcasts, most of which were presold to distribution partners, and has plans to expand into producing film documentaries.
“We want to work at the highest level, so we went where we could get the highest budgets that the industry commands,” Hoff said.
Jessica Alpert, of Rococo Punch, said she and her co-founder, John Perotti, worked for years doing contract work for other media companies, including PBS and LAist, to save enough capital to start their first original series.
The series, last year’s “The Turning: The Sisters Who Left,” about a strict religious order founded by Mother Teresa, cost more than $500,000 in production and marketing. Alpert and Perotti offset some of that expense by selling nonexclusive distribution rights to iHeartMedia. To make more shows like it, they are now trying to raise $1.1 million in investment, turning to backers in sectors like retail and consumer technology.
“It can be extremely uncomfortable to be in that seat,” said Alpert, who said she took an online course on how to talk to angel investors. “But I’m all about discomfort if it’s in the direction of growth.”
Rococo has eight full-time employees and plans to release eight or nine original shows this year, including a second season of “The Turning” and a first-person documentary series about a summer in Provincetown, Mass., that Alpert called “‘The Real World’ meets ‘This American Life.’” The main challenge for the company, Perotti said, is hiring enough staff to keep up with the bottomless demand for product.
“In every pitch meeting that we have now, people are asking us if we can make things multiple seasons, or keep them potentially running year-round,” he said. “Everyone just wants more and more and more.”
At Prologue, Neyfakh weighed the potential difficulties of producing an ad-supported fifth season of “Fiasco” against the relative ease of pivoting the show to Audible. In the end, he chose Audible. The new season will premiere on March 24 as an Audible exclusive.
“The numbers we would have had to hit to make our money back just seemed extremely optimistic,” Neyfakh said. “I didn’t want to wake up every morning worrying about whether I’d have to do layoffs, or scale back.”
In addition to the “Fiasco” deal, which covers the next four seasons of the show, Prologue has granted Audible first bidding rights on any new podcasts the company develops in the future. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Neyfakh said the money has allowed him to hire new staff — Prologue currently has 13 full-time employees, up from six in 2020 — and move into a bright new loft in Brooklyn with a custom-built recording studio.
During a visit last month, the place still had the glossy, quarter-furnished look of a show unit, with barren white walls and rows of empty workstations offset by a pair of vibrant vintage rugs procured by Neyfakh’s wife. Four other employees sat with their laptops in a common area, working on one or another of the half-dozen podcasts either currently running or in development. Two — the comedy series “Celebrity Book Club” and the Supreme Court show “5-4” — are supported in part by contributors on Patreon.
In a conference room, Neyfakh spoke with a mix of awe and pride about his company’s growth (he says it’s profitable) and his dreams for the future: Music? Audio plays? A marketing department? He has no plans to sell any time soon, he said, but acknowledged that continued growth would require certain trade-offs.
“People bad mouth ‘walled gardens’ and paid subscriptions, but I bet they’re the same people who say they support fair pay and want to reduce burnout,” he said. “This is the way that I’ve found to achieve that.”