Australians are making podcasts about climate change and Bigfoot — and they’re earning thousands of dollars in subscriptions every month

Supplied: A Rational Fear / Boonta Vista
  • A cohort of Australian podcasters are eschewing an advertising-supported model in favour of seeking direct funding from their audiences through subscription platforms like Patreon.
  • Independent podcasters are earning thousands of dollars a month for producing exclusive content for their paying listeners, as well as other perks like access to online communities and input into the shows.
  • While the upfront costs of podcasting are low, producing, distributing the podcasts and building an audience is time and labour-intensive. But subscription-funded podcasters are able to monetise a smaller number of fans to pay for the cost of producing high-quality content for their specific audience.
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Andrew Law remembers feeling flattered the first time he and his fellow podcasters received subscription money for their work.

“We were all like ‘wow, we all get fifty bucks’,” he said. “It felt very nice and validating.”

Law is one of the hosts of Boonta Vista, an Australian podcast that started covering just politics but has evolved over its three year-run to become a more conversational show about current affairs, odd stories, internet culture and Bigfoot.

The podcast itself is entirely supported through subscriptions. More than 1200 people pay on average US$4.81 a month, netting the team more than US$6,000 a month for the show.

Podcasts have become an increasingly popular form of entertainment over the past few years. In 2019, 1.6 million Australians said they’d downloaded a podcast in the last 4 years, up from a million the year before.

And while many of the top spots in Australian podcast charts are filled by ad-supported shows from major podcast studios or media outlets, a number of independent podcasts have also emerged.

These podcasts are often supported through subscription platforms like Patreon, US-based platform that allows user to charge a fee to access their content. Founded in 2013, Patreon has become a popular way for a variety of creative industries to crowdfund content, including art, video and podcasts.

In return for a few dollars a month, podcast Patreon subscribers often get access to additional shows (most offer some free content and put some behind the paywall) as well as other perks like access to online communities like Discord chat channels, exclusive Q&A sessions and more.

But Law says their team has found that people aren’t generally motivated by the rewards at different payment tiers. Earlier on in the show’s run, they offered a variety of perks, but soon pared it back because of the work required. After scaling down, they found that subscribers were still happy to pay.

“Now we just do a free episode and a subscriber episode every week, which translates to 8 hours of content a month. Most people looked at this and said yes, they were were happy to pay $5 a month,” he said.

“Rather than incentivising more and more to sign on at rates for more exclusive content, it works better to reliably produce content and keep the tiers at that flat level.”

Dan Ilic has had a similar experience running A Rational Fear, an award-winning comedy podcast and live show. He’s run crowdfunding campaigns in the past offering physical goods and other perks for donations, but doesn’t do it anymore.

“I’m a firm believer that people don’t care about the benefits they get, they don’t want physical things. For my Patreon subscribers, I offer first listens to interviews, discounts for live shows. I offer a monthly AMA [Ask Me Anything, like a Q&A session] but no one’s asked for it so I guess they don’t care,” he said.

Instead, Ilic said, his fans are motivated by what their subscriptions could pay for. On the podcast’s Patreon page, he lists what he’ll be able to do with the show if he reaches certain money goals.

“When we hit $10,000 [per month] we’ll not only be able to make a podcast a week, but also a video sketch a week too,” he writes.

Ilic is only partially supported by Patreon revenue, instead earning most of his income from a fellowship. He only launched a Patreon for A Rational Fear this year, nearly a decade into the podcast’s run.

He makes about US$1300 a month from Patreon, ranging from a single subscriber who pays $500 a month to a number of others who pay just $1 a month, which he says just about covers costs for the podcast as it is.

He said that the podcast’s funding model shapes the kind of content he makes.

“I listen to suggestions that my Patreon supporters give. A lot of them will say I’m being too Sydney or Melbourne-focused. I did a whole show about Tasmania because a Tasmanian gave me $100, we did a whole show with Tasmanian comics,” he said.

Both Boonta Vista and A Rational Fear offer their supporters access to their own Discord channels, which are online chat rooms curated by the teams behind the shows.

“We do have a little Discord server that’s turned into a community of likeminded people. Some of them hang out in real life, do meet ups, political organising through there. And there are even people who don’t listen to the podcast who subscribe for access,” Law said.

“It’s a thriving little place with Patreon supporters suggesting who we could talk to, suggestions for joke headlines, a whole channel for sketch idea. It’s not just Patreon people, we’ve got some comedy riff raff in there too,” Ilic said.

There are a lot of different skills and resources needed to run a successful podcast. While the initial capital outlay can be quite small — Law jokes that the show is just four people with computers and microphones — there’s a lot that needs to be done around the margins.

Producing the podcast itself involves booking guests, technical setup, editing and distribution. Costs include website hosting and domain costs, podcast hosting, voicemail fees, a podcast recording service, and Patreon’s fees (currently 5% of every ‘pledge’).

Most of all, Law said, it takes time. Law works full time and has a young family on top of his podcast duties. Juggling a lot of the backend of the podcast along with all his other commitments took its toll.

“I was feeling burnt out. So we began discussing what the threshold would be for [co-host] Ben to replace his income from other jobs with this work. Once we hit that, we were happy for him to take a larger share of the income in return for doing the lion’s share of the work,” he said.

While neither show are near the top international podcasts in earning — the top Patreon user from any category is an international podcast called True Crime Obsessed which is estimated to earn somewhere between US$100,000 – US$300,000 a month by Patreon analytics site Grapheon — both have found smaller, dedicated audiences who directly support them to produce regular, high quality content.

And neither team are planning to switch to a advertising supported model any time soon. Ilic said he dabbled with ads inserted by Australian podcasting company Whooshkaa, but found it wasn’t worth their time.

“After 13 weeks, we’d made like 200 bucks flogging Stan subscriptions,” he said.

Law said they’d never used ads — they were approached by one company who wanted them to run advertisements that were mostly for the advertising company itself — but they’d never thought seriously about it because a lot of the show’s content “wouldn’t gel with being advertising supported.”

Ilic said ultimately there’s more money in creating a direct relationship with people who are willing to open their wallet to support their show and its d’être: climate change activism.

“My podcast is very small listenership, about 3000 people an episode. And they want to support the content. They think A Rational Fear should exist,” he said.