Guest post: If you want an independent media start supporting it

As Mumbrella reported earlier this week, The Podcast Network, headed by Cameron Reilly, is facing a funding crisis. Here Reilly – who presents G’Day World, Australia’s first podcast – argues for the importance of an independent media in a rapidly changing landscape.

I hope by now most of you have already read Clay Shirky’s brilliant recent post Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, where he points out that “when reality is labelled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry”. For too long, many people in the media industry had the arrogance to believe they were invulnerable to the onslaught of online media.

cameron-reilly1For years I have debated Australian journalists and newspaper editors trying to explain that the writing was on the wall  – not because of a technology shift but because of an economic shift enabled by technology. In every debate, I was told “we’re going to be here forever”.

I trust that with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer moving 100% online this week; with Leonard Downie, VP at Large at The Washington Post, saying the business models of media “are beyond broken, it’s completely shattered … newspaper companies as we know them are going to disappear,”; and with lay-offs happening across the industry in Australia, what was unthinkable a few years ago is becoming accepted as a reality today.

The question we should all be asking now is “What happens next?”

For the last four years I have been exploring the answer to that question by trying to build an  independent, online media company, The Podcast Network.

Unlike other online start-ups, where one funding source may be as good as another, the source of a content company’s funding is extremely important if they want to stay independent of the corporate agendas which many of us believe tainted the objectivity of print, radio and television media for the last 40 years.

The options for funding an independent content business are the usual list:

  1. Take external funding – ties you to the agenda of the investors, which usually involves making as much money as possible, as quickly as possible, and who cares if you have any integrity left at the end of it? It’s all about money. Get ready to cover celebrity gossip and please don’t say anything that might upset the corporate agenda.
  2.  Sell advertising – ties you to the agenda of the corporate advertisers, IF you can even get the ad agencies to bother working with you in the first place. Podcast advertising? What’s that? As the Sales Director of one large agency told me recently “audio advertising is radio as far as my clients are concerned and I’m not interested in changing their minds”.
  3. Get subscribers to pay for content – possible if you are Ricky Gervais, almost impossible for everyone else, at least until you’ve established a decent brand, and even then still difficult when so much content out there is free. 
  4.  Finance the business through indirect sources of income – this is where you sell your ‘professional services’ to corporate clients during the day, then use the income to pay for servers and IT teams in India, and produce media during the evening which challenges the corporate agenda of the clients who are paying you during the day.
  5. Fund it through your own private means – unless you have a rich daddy, you do what I did in 2005 i.e. sell your house, your share portfolio and invest everything you’ve got into trying to change the world.

By bankrolling TPN myself for the first few years, I managed to build a small but solid audience of half a million monthly listeners, giving us the reach of most radio stations in Sydney or Melbourne and yet we’ve never been able to generate enough revenue organically to put the business on a stable platform for future growth.

A site handling that much traffic (not just serving up web pages but delivering up 10 terabytes of media files, millions of them, every month) takes infrastructure and people who know how to run and maintain the infrastructure, which all cost ever-increasing amounts of money. If you don’t have enough of a revenue stream or funding to throw enough money at such things, eventually growth has to slow down due to limitations in your technical infrastructure. TPN has had a number of technical challenges over the last couple of years which have severely limited our ability to increase the number of shows we have on the network, which, in turn, limits the size of the audience we can reach, which limits our advertising options.

If having an independent media is important to us, how will we fund it in the future?

As the old media continues to fall over, will marketers and advertising agencies start to work more closely with the new media and, if they do, will the new media be able to avoid compromising the independence of their content?

Is it possible that we might end up funding independent media through a mechanism similar to the ABC? Might the government take 1% of the $800 million a year we give to a centralised entity and instead create a fund to support a hundred or more independent new media sites?

Will we, as an audience, recognise the value of a healthy independent media and willingly pay an annual subscription to our favourite indy content sites?

Or will the people who produce independent media have to continue to do it unpaid, in their spare time, giving it the limited attention they can spare after working a full day at the office?

The only thing I know for sure is that the old model is broken. And whenever old models break, it’s anybody’s game and nothing should be unthinkable.


Cameron Reilly is CEO of The Podcast Network. Details of his appeal to pay the company’s server bill can be found on his blog.


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