Aaron Mahnke’s Success as an Independent Podcaster

 

If you only know one podcast by name, there’s a good chance its This American Life’s true crime series Serial. The immense success of Serial’s first season in 2015 marked podcasts’ move out of the shadow of obscurity and into the cultural mainstream. Some of the more savvy radio outlets, like NPR and the BBC, have used their already vast resources to launch dozens of podcasts, which are some of the most popular out there. Concurrently new podcast networks, formed for the specific purpose of making podcasts, like Gimlet Media and Nerdist Industries have taken their own large portion of the market share.

Podcasting is an expensive and time consuming venture, consequently the shared resources and reliable advertising base of a big media company or a podcast network can make it much easier to focus on producing good content. With that said, most networks take a certain percentage of a podcaster’s add revenues (sometimes up to 50%), which can be unattractive to those who podcast as a full time job. One such podcaster who aimed to keep his operation independent of major networks is Aaron Mahnke: the writer, producer, and host of the hit podcast Lore.

Aaron Mahnke was formerly a freelance graphic designer who wrote supernatural thrillers in his spare time. As a base for his fictional writing Mahnke would conduct vast amounts of research about historical events and folklore from the New England area. He started writing short essays based on the excess historical research that he collected for his books and on a whim recorded those essays into what would become the Lore podcast. Mahnke launched Lore in March of 2015 and, as soon as five months later, was making enough ad revenues to quit being a graphic designer and become a full time podcaster.

 

In Mahnke’s words:

Lore is an award-winning, critically-acclaimed podcast about true life scary stories. Each episode examines a new dark tale from history, and presents it in a style that’s been compared to a campfire experience. No interviews or round-table discussions here; Lore is a spoken word narrative podcast that’s designed to entertain.”

As Mahnke indicated, despite being independently produced, Lore has seen a tremendous amount of commercial success. According to its website Lore has, “over 6,800 5-star reviews on Apple Podcasts and an average of 6-million monthly listens.” It has also won both the iTunes “Best of 2015” & “Best of 2016“Awards and was the winner of the “Best History Podcast 2016” award given by Podcast Academy. In addition, Lore is being adapted into an Amazon Prime TV series and a three part book series.

Mahnke’s immense success raises the question: how has an independent podcast achieved this level of notoriety? A part of the answer is the service Patreon, which is essentially a crowdfunding platform. Patreon provides creators with a direct revenue stream from their respective audiences. Subscribing fans (or patrons) can pay a subscription fee and receive exclusive content from the creator; the more a patron pays the more exclusive content they have access to.

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According to Mahnke, the revenues he is making from Patreon are helping him pay the routine costs of being an independent podcaster as well as the extra costs of running a web site, traveling for live shows, etc. Although Mahnke’s Patreon page is an important revenue source for Lore, he makes it clear that the show makes money from a combination of different revenue streams. These include: live shows, selling merchandise, and most importantly ad sales. The balanced combination of these various revenue streams is what’s allowed Lore to remain independent.

The success of an independent podcast like Lore, with the help of a crowdfunding platform like Patreon, is a clear example of the democratization of the creative economy argued by Nicco Mele in his book The End of Big. Mele discusses how the digital age is breaking up big firms and rendering the business models of the 20th century obsolete. Large podcast networks like Gimlet Media have merged these old business models with the fairly new medium of podcasting, in that it is a VC backed startup that is profit driven. The fact that Mahnke has kept Lore completely independent of podcast networks makes it a clear example of the creative ventures that Mele predicts will become ubiquitous.

Can Mahnke sustain Lore as an independent venture? We’ll have to wait and see.

 

 

 

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