Some amateur net radio shows have hit the advertising jackpot

Some amateur net radio shows have hit the advertising jackpot

Mercury News

Since they started recording their eccentric, irreverent podcast from their Midwest farmhouse, Dawn Miceli and Drew Domkus would joke about “world domination.''

They haven't quite achieved that goal yet. But their downloadable “Dawn and Drew'' show is now so popular that it's courted by big-name advertisers — despite its sometimes raunchy and profane language — and has allowed Domkus to quit his day job so he can concentrate full-time on podcasting.

“It's kind of unique when your hobby becomes your job,'' said Miceli.

Miceli and Domkus are on the vanguard of podcasters who are finding that their living-room-produced, amateur Internet radio shows can lead to both fame and fortune.

Now that some podcasters are pulling in hundreds of thousands of listeners a month, advertisers are setting their sights on the downloadable audio programs as a viable marketing channel.

That's spawning an ecosystem of companies hoping to capitalize on the emerging medium. And it's letting some podcasters begin to seriously think about quitting their day jobs.

“I think things will take a dramatic turn,'' said Ron Bloom, chief executive of San Francisco start-up PodShow, looking ahead to 2006. “There's a $32 billion war chest invested in radio advertising. Advertisers are already leaning forward and looking at alternatives.''

Bloom's optimism is understandable. He's betting big that PodShow — founded with longtime friend and famed podcasting evangelist (and former MTV VJ) Adam Curry and backed by prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalists — can build a lucrative business by pairing podcasters with advertisers.

The company has corralled a stable of 18 shows — including one by a Chicago drag queen and another produced in Scotland. And it already has advertising deals with companies such as Absolut Vodka, Logitech, EarthLink and America Online.

This week, the company will add 30 shows to its network. And soon it will launch a major marketing push to lure even more podcasters into its fold, broadening the network of shows it can sell to advertisers.

“We'll invite anyone who wants to podcast to come through the door,'' Bloom says.

Barely 2 years old, the podcasting phenomenon has quickly emerged as a key piece of the grass-roots media movement. As many as 10,000 different shows are now being produced. Listeners can subscribe to the shows with software such as Apple's iTunes and copy the MP3 audio files to their portable music players.

Mainstream media celebrities such as Rush Limbaugh and Al Franken produce some of the shows. But the vast majority are produced in dining rooms and basement home offices by a wide array of no-name amateurs.

Advertisers are taking notice.

Virginia moms Paige Heniger and Gretchen Vogelzang began “Mommycast''– a show about the joys and travails of motherhood — in March. The pair have quickly become podcasting stars, drawing hundreds of thousands of listeners a month and appearing on national news shows.

Earlier this month, the duo announced what is perhaps the most lucrative podcasting marketing deal to date — a 12-month sponsorship agreement with Dixie paper products, worth more than $100,000.

“We are trying to speak to the same moms and reach them in the same way Mommycast does,'' Erik Sjogren, senior brand manager of Dixie, told Brandweek. “We are an 85-year-brand, but we want to be contemporary and find the cutting edge.''

Unlike some podcasters who view their shows as hobbies, Heniger and Vogelzang always had bigger ambitions for Mommycast.

“What caught us by surprise has been the speed,'' Vogelzang said. “I don't think we anticipated the scope of it. What we're seeing is people starting to recognize the power of podcasting.''

So far, advertising dollars are flowing largely to the most-popular “A-list'' podcasters. Whether smaller, niche podcasters can cash in remains to be seen.

Part of PodShow's star-making strategy is to have podcasters promote each other's shows and help them build audiences — raising their appeal to advertisers. The company also works with podcasters to give their shows a more professional polish.

“There's going to be a small number of people who can do it professionally,'' said Gary Stein, an analyst with Jupiter Research who follows the advertising industry. “These are people who have something unique to say and a big audience. There are definitely going to be superstars. But there are no get-rich schemes.''

The uniqueness of podcasts — the shows are portable and their content is wildly diverse — is causing marketers to think creatively about their advertising messages. Familiar, radio-style commercials will be part of the mix. A recent Mommycast show, for example, concluded with a short recorded commercial for EarthLink.

But more creative campaigns will emerge, as well, with podcast hosts being asked to chat up certain products or promote contests that are tied to a brand or product.

Stay-at-home dad and comedian Dan Klass says promoting products on his “Bitterest Pill'' podcast is a far more palatable way to support his show than asking listeners for donations. That's what he did after he got socked with a $570 bill from his file-hosting company because the downloads of his podcast consumed so much Internet bandwidth.

“I assume they'd rather listen to me talk about a service that I genuinely support than standing there with a tin cup,'' Klass said.

There are still kinks that need to be worked out before podcast advertising can really take off, marketing professionals say.

Advertising rates for the medium are still in flux. And advertisers are increasingly wedded to demographics and audience statistics — data that's hard to come by for podcasts.

Counting downloads is doable. But it's virtually impossible to know whether a person has actually listened to a podcast.

“What we need to know is how many people have downloaded it, how many people listened to it, and how many people have listened to the ad,'' said Geoff Clendenning, managing partner of Digital Media Garage, an entertainment marketing firm. “The challenge from a large brand perspective is how do I know what I'm getting and how do I know what to pay for it.''

Clendenning sees promise in an audience measurement system being developed by digital book company Audible. And Mark McCrery just founded Podtrac, which attempts to measure podcast activity and listener demographics.

Bloom is not concerned.

“Right now, I think the advertisers understand this is a new medium, and they're growing with it,'' he said.

“Rock and Roll Geek Show'' host Michael Butler's advertising strategy has evolved considerably in the past year. The San Francisco musician's early attempts at getting compensated for his podcast involved begging Heineken for free cases of beer (in vain) in return for mentioning the product on his show.

Now his show carries ads for AOL and Hasbro Toys and Games. And Butler has quit his 20-year house painting career to work full-time for PodShow.

“All I did for 20 years was paint houses and play in a band,'' Butler said. “Now I'm doing this for living. I'm living the dream, so to speak.''

Meanwhile, Palo Alto podcaster John Furrier is demonstrating that advertising isn't the only path to financial independence for podcasters.

Furrier, who hosts the technology focused infoTalk podcast, is building a business around helping corporations integrate podcasting into their marketing plans. So far, Furrier has worked with Juniper Networks, IBM and Barracuda.

“I'm making a full-time job out of it now,'' Furrier said. “I've raised some capital and I really think it's a business opportunity. I'm trying to help people do what I did for myself.''

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