The year was 2014, and the problem was one I described as the “Genius Glut.”
Simply stated, on TV and in the nascent streaming platforms, there was far too much great work to sample (and an order of magnitude more of decidedly not-great work) for more than a handful of programs to ever attract the audiences necessary to have financial sustainability, much less cultural resonance.
I gave a pass to Netflix, whose long tail is subsidized by its mega-hits, but basically I was envisioning thin gruel or abject doom for most everyone else.
The chilling phrase that stays with me was “unseen by human eyes.”
There are no magic beans -- there is no alchemy that can change the laws of economics.
Accordingly, this magnificent Golden Age of programming is being financed by speculators and the last inhabitants of a dying star ... namely, the cable and broadcast infrastructure, which survives increasingly on monthly cable bills the public is decreasingly willing to pay. It's a supernova, exploding blindingly in its last moments.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
At the time, this was just an academic observation in my sometimes role as media ecologist. I had no inkling that in seven years I would be a poster child for the long tail.
Bully Pulpit, my Substack podcast via BooksmartStudios.org, is in competition with 48 million episodes of 2 million podcasts.
We started 3-½ months ago with zero listeners. We have since amassed several thousand paid and unpaid. The sustainability threshold is in the neighborhood of 10,000 paid.
When I was (bizarrely and unjustly) banished from On the Media over matters now being litigated, our audience was in a posher neighborhood, on the order of 1.4 million. The better angels of my nature hope it remains there, but if a few of those listeners -- say, 300,000 -- wished to defect, we would find a way to accommodate them.
Because in a marketplace of 2 million stalls, it is really, really hard to get anyone to stop by yours.
This is called “discovery,” a perennial challenge for marketers of all sorts in every category of consumer commerce, but the single most confounding challenge for bloggers, musicians, independent filmmakers and -- ugh -- podcasters.
This gets hard to talk about without sounding like a complete dick, but let’s imagine an example where the customers for your product seem to evince not only satisfaction but enthusiasm.
To be specific, imagine a bunch of iTunes ratings in which, on a scale of 1 to 5, 61 of 65 users rated you 5. Glutwise, you may or may not rise to the level of “genius,” but you’re doing something right, right? Good for you! They like you!
Alas, the relevant statistic in that hypothetical is not 61 out of 65. The relevant statistic is 65 -- only 65 human beings.
The Joe Rogan Experience Review Podcast has 1,267. Not the Joe Rogan Experience podcast itself, mind you, but the podcast that recaps his podcast. Adam Carolla has 33,931. Ben Shapiro has 130,973.
It's all pretty daunting, as you would expect for the No. 1 conundrum of marketing and media to be.
Cold comfort that for 20 years at On the Media and an overlapping 30 years as a columnist for Advertising Age and MediaPost that I was presumed to be an expert in such matters. I look at the landscape and can see only three paths to overcoming obscurity.
Intensive advertising, which is unaffordable
Virality for one or more of my pieces, which is also nigh unto impossible to achieve without leaking a sex tape or confessing to something abominable. I have no blood on my hands or secret love child. The best I can do is admit that I stole bubble gum from a Woolworth's in 1967. Unfortunately, no lives were lost.
A cult following, like Q or William Shatner. I thought about trying to create a mystique around BP, but evidently those initials are taken.
So now what? Well, I’ve finally settled on a Fourth Path -- namely, crowdsourcing.
I have turned to you actual media and marketing professionals, who perhaps recall the exalted majesty of my previous MediaPost musings, then titled “Garfield at Large.”
My colleagues there see Bully Pulpit’s challenge as a compelling business case for the very Genius Glut problem I identified in these pages so long ago. A week ago, editor- in-chief Joe Mandese explained it his column titled sooooo hilariously “Garfield at a Little Less Large.”
Sure enough, a number of you weighed in with thoughts. Douglas Ferguson of the College of Charleston suggests TikTok promos, which are painless to produce, perfect for cherrypicking the best moment of a BP episode and themselves can conceivably scale.
Jim Meskauskas from Media Darwin, Inc., observes that the path to the answer begins with a question: “Who's the audience and where are they at?” He’s not being a smartass. He means the most likely audience. And he’s got me thinking.
Jonas Jones of Deer Creek Broadcasting asks, “Have you made yourself available to all the radio talk shows around the U.S. and abroad?” Holy smokes. The answer, ironically, is “no.” But I’m on it.
Another reader offered extremely prudent marketing advice: that I move off of my Eurosocialist and anti-GOP politics because the pod glut is especially glutted with voices from the left. But I'm not selling razors here.
Building the product for the marketing opportunity is not an option. Otherwise, Bully Pulpit would be titled The Most Lurid True Crime Stories Ever I Swear to God.
Still, it's a most encouraging start. I look forward to workshopping this case, and -- who knows? -- maybe the community of experts comes up with something groundbreaking. If not, I'm back to the sex tape plan, like Paris or Kim. But that’s no slam dunk, either, unless I can find the right partner.
Off the record, Hulk Hogan is already a hard pass.