Kevin Smith believes he knows a boom when he sees one. The first boom he experienced came during the 1990s, when his breakthrough directorial debut, “Clerks,” rode a wave of successful independent films. But now he’s put his helmer days behind him to take part in what he’s sure has the makings of another boom: podcasting.
“It’s just like the indie scene all over again,” said Smith, who has built a mini-media empire over the past five years under the label Smodcast. “There was a DIY sensibility that allowed people like me to make movies. Podcasting is the same thing, and you don’t have to spend nearly as much money as you did in film.”
It’s been about a decade since Internet users first encountered the podcast, which is a recurring program — typically audio, but some video, too — that automatically downloads to devices. But because the technology hasn’t been nearly as pervasive as other self-published content phenomena from blogs to social media, its boom status has long been a question mark.
But as Smith can attest, the podcast has become a fixture in one particular genre: comedy, which accounts for about a quarter of the Top 100 podcast episodes listed on the technology’s most popular clearinghouse, iTunes (most of the rest on the list are repurposed from TV or radio). While for most comedians it’s little more than a self-promotional hobby, the podcast has also become the cornerstone of sophisticated digital ventures to a tier of talent intent on building a content business on their own terms.
As relatively recent comedy history indicates, digital platforms can be leveraged by enterprising talent in ways that can grab significant auds either in lieu of traditional distribution channels or to maximize profits in those channels. Think of how Dane Cook harnessed MySpace to whip up a fan base sizable enough to routinely sell out arenas. Or how Will Ferrell fronted Funny Or Die, a website that has emerged as a viable brand in its own right while promoting his films and other projects. More recently, comics including Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan have gone direct to consumers online with standup specials that reaped healthy returns.
Podcasts can be thought of as a free, ad-supported episodic version of what Louis C.K. did, though their format is generally less like a standup performance and more the type that puts the talent in the role of a talk-show host. Think of it as VOD radio, though podcasts have a global reach and are free of FCC strictures, which makes them a haven for comics who prefer to talk uncensored in a way impossible in the increasingly homogenized world of terrestrial radio.
Smith has been a pioneer via Smodcast, as has Marc Maron whose “WTF” program continues to be a top performer. Names more familiar from TV or film, including Adam Carolla, Joe Rogan and Jay Mohr, have expanded their audiences online. While an individual star can build a podcast brand around himself, others are the anchors of broader ventures, the way Chris Hardwick godfathers Nerdist, which features a content mix dedicated to all things geek.
“We think of ourselves as a genre brand,” says Peter Levin, CEO of Nerdist Industries. “If there’s a pop-culture spectrum, the Kardashians and ‘Jersey Shore’ are at one end, and we’re the polar opposite.”
Whether rooted in celebrity or genre, the most popular podcasts have been expanding into stables of podcasts, not unlike how MTV evolved from a single channel to an entire cable portfolio at Viacom. They can also be the foundation of cross-promotional media plays encompassing social media, blogs, newsletters and Web series, not to mention the more conventional aspects of the comedy business where money is still to be made offline, including the standup circuit, merchandise and TV.
Take Carolla, who somehow balances five 90-minute podcasts per week that average about 350,000 downloads per episode with regular standup work, two bestselling books, a gig as a contributor on Fox News Channel and even pitchman of his own line of sangria: He sold $200,000 of Mangria in its first six weeks.
“Podcasting has had a tremendous impact on his career,” says Mike August, CFO of Carolla’s digital empire, ACE Broadcasting. Fans of Carolla’s online shows not only pay to see him do standup, but they even buy tickets to his “live podcasts” recording sessions.
The old comedy ecosystem required paying dues on the standup circuit, which led to playing bigger rooms, which led to a cable special and then — if you’re really lucky — anywhere from a supporting role on a primetime series to Ferrell-sized stardom toplining movies. But a half-decent podcast can do anything from supplementing the income of comics subsisting on two-drink-minimum tickets to getting noticed by Hollywood, like Maron, who parlayed “WTF” into his own upcoming IFC series.
Which isn’t to say a podcast is now a required tool for comics aiming to succeed at either end of this spectrum. “If Dave Chappelle decides he wants to perform at Joe’s Comedy Barn two hours before the show starts, it will be sold out regardless,” said Barry Katz, who used to manage Chappelle but now counts Mohr among his many clients. “For certain artists, podcasts mean nothing.”
But for every Chappelle, there are about 20 lesser-known comics who look to established podcasts to get exposure; Leno and Letterman are no longer the only game in town in that regard. And the promotional reach achieved even from mounting a podcast of their own has a built-in advantage over the geographic constraints that come with hitting the road one club at a time.