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05/08

Radio: Monetizing Fans who Love You

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It’s not all about advertising, folks. Whether you’re a podcaster, a broadcaster, or something in between, how can you extract revenue from your biggest fans, the folks who most want to give you money because they love you? That’s the question I put to David Plotz, the Editor in Chief of Slate.com and a host of one of my very favorite podcasts, the Slate Political Gabfest. Slate is launching a new initiative called Slate Plus with lots of lessons to teach. We talked about that and about Slate’s podcasting strategy.

What follows is a highly edited transcript of our chat. For the full conversation click the video below:

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David, you have a new initiative associated with your Slate podcasts, and it’s something many radio broadcasters and podcast producers can learn from. But before I get into that, Slate is not fundamentally about podcasts, it’s about editorial content online. Why podcast at all?

Well, I disagree with your premise. The podcasts are essential to our editorial product, and the reason podcasts are essential is that podcasts connect most vividly, most deeply with our audience.

It’s true that our podcast audience is a small fraction of our overall audience; in March we had about 32 million uniques, and we deliver “only” 2 1/2 million podcast downloads a month to between 200,000 and 400,000 different people. But those listeners are incredibly loyal. They spend tons of time with us. They know us personally. They are heavily invested in our success while many of the 32 million readers are just “fly-by” people.

So we want to have the largest possible audience we can for the print products, but we also want to grow that podcast audience because it’s an audience that will spend time and, hopefully, money with us as well.

Your correction is well taken because what you’re really pointing out is that the podcast is not a subsidiary thing to the larger brand called “Slate.” It’s central to the brand because the brand is, at its essence, transmedia and cross-platform.

Right. The vast majority of Slate’s revenue continues to be from advertising, but increasingly we are looking for ways for readers and listeners to directly give money to us, whether it’s buying merchandise from us or attending events we produce or, now, the new membership program called Slate Plus that we’ve just launched.

And that is what I want to talk to you about. What is Slate Plus?

Slate Plus is a membership program within Slate. It’s designed to appeal to people who are big fans of the writing or the podcasting we do. It is not a pay wall, so we’re not taking any content that currently has appeared in Slate and blocking it off. Whatever has been free on Slate remains free on Slate.

Through Slate Plus we’ve added a series of extras – extra content and extra features. So for example, in the content arena, we’re doing extra bonus segments on a bunch of our podcasts. We’re doing extra “inside dope” Slate content. For example, there was a feature that went up today on Slate Plus featuring our Supreme Court correspondent Dahlia Lithwick talking about what it’s like to actually go into the court and record. So somebody who’s an insider might really care about that. Another example: We did an internal exchange about Slate’s profanity policy where we debated whether the policy was right or not.

Also, Slate Plus members can get our podcasts ad-free now. And you won’t get any pagination on Slate – no more clicking through several pages for a single piece of editorial content. You’ll get discounts to live events, so if you wanted to attend one of our cocktail parties or one of our live Gabfests, you will get a very significant discount.

You’ll also get discounts on Slate merchandise. You’ll enjoy an improved commenting platform. And yes, you’ll even get a mug if you subscribe to an annual membership. It’s all very cheap – five dollars a month, or 50 dollars a year. And you can try it for free for two weeks.

Who is Slate Plus for?

Slate Plus appeals to several different groups of people in different ways:

1. We know there’s a group of people who love Slate and spend a lot of time with us who just want to give us money. They welcome the chance to give us money. If we never asked for it, they would never voluntarily send it, but we’re giving them the chance to show their commitment, to pay us back for the wonderful time they’ve spent with us over the years. We want to make it easy for them to do and make them feel valued and honored.

2. There’s another group of people who would join Slate Plus purely for utilitarian reasons. There’s an exchange of value: We give them a physical good in the case of the mug or these extra bonus podcast segments, and the value of those goods is more than what we’re charging for, and so these fans believe they’re getting a good deal.

3. And then there will be people who have individual motivations throughout, e.g., a segment of podcast listeners who really like the idea of some extra podcast segments or hard-core commentators on Slate who like the idea that there’s a better commenting function and they may pay for it.

At Slate we want to give people who get pleasure from us the chance to support the journalism we do and deepen their relationship with us.
We estimate we have between 250,000 and 400,000 people are really hard-core devoted Slate fans, and if we can get a significant fraction of those people to become Slate Plus members, I think it’ll be well worth it.

In fact, it’s already well worth it in the sense that the people who have signed up are appreciating the deeper commitment. We’re only a week in, but that’s my sense of it so far.

Why do you think that more brands out there with a stake in audio don’t develop their own version of Slate Plus?

It’s a very good question. I think National Public Radio has a model, and because they’re non-commercial, I think they develop their model in a certain way that has been successful for them at many local stations. Not every local station, but certainly where I live in Washington D.C., WAMU has been incredibly successful at extracting money from people.

When you have a relationship that is very personal where listeners really feel connected to you, where they really wish goodwill to you and you are able to have legitimate exchanges with each other, then I think you are in a position to ask them to help support you, even if you’re a commercial enterprise.

Some entities have that and some don’t.

There are some really great shows produced through Slate, and you guys clearly put a lot of effort into them. How come they’re not on the radio?

Well, they are on the radio, actually. Two on them are on the radio. Our Political Gabfest and our Culture Gabfest are on WNYC in New York. But they’re reaching a relatively small audience – a fraction of the numbers who listen to the podcast. And those listeners don’t have the same committed relationship to the content.

We would love to have our digital audio on the radio, but we don’t think it’s necessary. The podcasts and digital audio are successful. And they’re going to be more successful. They don’t yet have the market penetration that radio does, of course, but podcasts are growing, particularly among the higher income, higher educated cohorts that we tend to reach.

So we don’t think we need a radio presence to succeed, although if you’ve got a radio show, if you have some “in” for us, just let us know!

I wouldn’t argue being on the radio is “essential” for the reasons you indicate. However, I think that where there’s a lot of distribution there’s an appetite for great content, and where there’s great content there’s an opportunity for great distribution, and that opportunity remains available to you and the broadcasters who might carry your content.

David, thank you so much for your time today. Thanks for the Gabfest and thanks for everything you do at Slate.

Sure! And if any of your listeners and readers are here want to get the best Slate Plus discount, they can email me directly at david.plotz@slate.com and I will gladly make sure they get the premium extra discount.

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