The Program — Reflections on the second (actually 4th) year of The Program audio series

Reflections on the second (actually 4th) year of The Program audio series

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Whenever I ride an elevator, I quickly say out loud: “The Program audio series is a fiction podcast set in a dystopian future, featuring ordinary people looking back on our present and concluding their dystopia actually ain’t that bad”. When the person trapped inside with me gives me a startled look, I continue by saying that every episode of the show is a standalone story and the best way to get a feeling for the series is to watch its 90-second animated trailer. If we still have a few floors left, I start reciting the following video URL letter by letter:

The Program launched this week in 2019 after two years of pre-production, so it’s actually been four years since I’ve started working on this project. This is the 3rd article about the show’s growth, so I advise you to check out the first and second instalment before proceeding.

Last time we left off in the middle of a pandemic. Toronto, the city in which the series is recorded, endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world, which naturally affected the production. However, since the biggest bottleneck in fiction is writing I was able to create a backlog of scripts to record as restrictions eased. So despite 2021 being a difficult year, I still managed to release 6 episodes.

The year itself started really well - for the first time ever, The Program got a shout out on a “the best of” list courtesy of Jack Rhysider, known for his hit show Darknet Diaries. He recently recommended the show again in his PocketCasts’ "Alternative Future Cyber Adventures" guest list, making Jack officially The Program’s patron saint.

Speaking of patrons, the show’s number of supporters continued to grow, which translates to...

Mo’ money!

The Program is currently supported on a monthly basis by 64 patrons, netting the show US$354 (before the financial platforms extract their rent).

Here’s how this sum breaks down based on the source of support:

When it comes to other revenue streams, merch is still a minnow - probably because its end price has to be so bloody high for it to turn a profit after printing, shipping, and customs fees. I’m now rethinking my approach to merch so I’ll hopefully have better news to share in the next update.

The support The Program is currently getting is enough to cover the basic production costs (music rights and catering), which is splendid. However, we all know that mo’ money leads to...

Mo’ problems!

With the project finally not losing money, I felt it’s no longer fair to ask all the wonderful talent to collaborate with me pro bono. So I gradually introduced small artistic fees for actors who lend their voices to the show. The sums we’re talking about ($50 or $100) are symbolic, but they mean surprisingly much. We’ve devalued arts and entertainment to such an extent that it might be hard for people outside the creative industry to fully appreciate what it means to artists to be paid for what they do. However this led to an ironic situation where the show finally makes money, and for the first time I lose it (depending on the number of characters in the episode). But I shouldn’t complain, since I got a lot of goodies too thanks to...

Mo’ sponsors!

Starting with episode 17, I’ve received offers to sponsor individual episodes of the show. Since The Program attracts tech-savvy listeners, all the offers came from Hacker News members who’ve been following the show’s rise. First came Boris and his IT consulting company Atlas Authority who bought the recording equipment for the show. Then came Nick with his reading enchantability startup BeeLine Reader (which you can see in action on this very page). Finally, Maneesh from the smart wearables company Pavlok sponsored an episode, but in a way also sponsored me by using my project management services for the last year (which reminds me it’s time to ask for a raise).

I’ve also done my first cross-promotion with Midnight Burger, an audio drama about an interdimensional diner (it’s every bit as positively silly as it sounds). I included a trailer for their show in one of my episodes, and they dropped an episode of mine in their feed. So far, The Program episode with Midnight Burger’s trailer got 12,000 downloads, and the episode of The Program in Midnight Burger’s feed got 3,500 - which roughly corresponds to the overall sizes of our audiences (The Program’s 300K downloads VS Midnight Burger’s 75K).

The partnership also connected me with Midnight Burger’s author Joe Fisher, who then appeared in The Program as the lead character in episode 22. This was my second collaboration with a fellow audio drama author, after Zach Valenti of the super popular Wolf 359 voiced episode 17. I’m sure both will pay dividends in the future once these talented lads break into Hollywood and make me their fluffer.

Speaking of fluff, let’s take a look at how The Program is doing on social media.

Mo’ narcissism!

My main takeaway here is that it’s easier to make a fiction podcast than to get a following for it (but that might simply mean I’m better at making fiction podcasts than at being a social media whore). After two years my Twitter following is still dismal, and makes me wish I listened to advice to buy my first 5000 followers and build from there (we live in a pay-to-win society, after all).

The Program’s official subreddit is likewise growing slowly. More important for my purposes however is r/audiodrama, the subreddit where I promote the show to new listeners. I’ve had some great successes with it in the past, but I noticed I’ve been getting less mileage out of it recently. When I started two years ago, r/audiodrama had 65K members - today it’s got 100K more (you can see its growth here). However, a bigger audience doesn’t necessarily translate to more engagement - as exemplified with my recent posts which have definitely been hit or miss. And even when they do get noticed, they lead to a smaller download bump than before, so either the number of people who are actually interested in audio drama got diluted, or The Program is no longer new to the majority of the readers, or posts stay on the front page shorter, or perhaps my numbers are larger now so bumps are simply less noticeable. Whatever the cause, it’s consistent with the old marketing adage: a channel works until it doesn’t.

Since I’m still adamant in my refusal to promote the show on any properties of Meta-Definitely-Not-Facebook, I researched alternative advertising networks. This led to spending my first marketing dollars on Mindgeek. While you might not have heard of Mindgeek by name, it’s likely you’ve visited one of their sites, the best known of which is the 9th most trafficked website in the world - PornHub.

I’ve written a whole article about the experience, only to be informed afterwards of all the controversies Mindgeek has generated (but I guess I have only myself to blame to think a porn & tech combo is going to be without controversies).

Speaking of Big Tech, The Program’s best friend remains Apple Podcasts, the editors of which have been supporting the show since its very beginnings. The show has been featured twice in the US during the summer - once in the “Alternate Realities” curated list and once in the “Road Trip Binges”.

Apple Podcasts has been equally generous in Canada, the series’ home turf, first granting The Program the coveted carousel placement, and then showcasing it in the “Shows We Love” category:

Taking place in July, August, and September, the promotions’ role in the show’s growth during this period is clearly visible:

Spikes represent new episode releases

An interesting observation is that promotions act like booster rockets - they lift the show to a higher orbit, but instead of tumbling down immediately afterwards, it then descends back to ground gradually. This is likely amplified by the fact The Program’s content is practically timeless - unlike a current-events podcast that ages quickly, fiction podcast’s backlog remains fresh indefinitely, meaning listeners just discovering the series are likely to consume past episodes as well. The Program at the moment routinely gets over 500 downloads per day - add the 10,000 downloads that each new episode nets in the first 30 days, and the show now clears 25,000 downloads per month. Which brings it into the range at which podcasts start getting interesting to advertisers.

Mo’ netization!

RedCircle, the podcasting host I use, has a sleeve of monetization features - DAI advertising among them. “DAI” stands for “Dynamic Ad Insertion”, and it allows podcasters to assign audio blocks in the episode into which commercials are inserted. Unlike the burned-in ads, these update automatically, either by drawing from a pool of generic ads, or with individualized host-read ads. It is the latter that command a premium, as they possess the je ne sais quoi born from the tender liaison between the podcaster and their audience.

To test the waters, I decided to go with the regular, non-host-read ads first (also known as “programmatic” - I mean, the show was practically named for them). The October episode consisted of three mini stories, which made it the perfect candidate for the experiment as I could insert ad breaks into it without making them too jarring (see this excellent thread describing why this is an issue). 10,000 downloads later and I’m sitting at US$31.73 after Red Circle’s cut (they keep 50%).

30 bucks definitely ain’t enough to be worth lowering the show’s UX, so I deemed the experiment unsuccessful. However, I have since been told that the secret to monetizing podcast ads is to get signed on by a podcast advertising network and have them match you with fitting advertisers (and definitely doing host-read ads VS just programmatic).

But enough about this artificial construct called “money” and onto what’s really important:

Mo’ art!

One experiment that’s been extremely successful was to let listeners commission episode illustrations. The series’ official artist Carlos Costa has been producing original artwork for the show pretty much since its launch, starting out unpaid but recently getting the symbolic fee like all the other collaborators. So I thought to myself, maybe fans would like to sponsor his work and help the show that way? Which is why we opened an online gallery showcasing all of Carlos’ previous works, and asking US$150 to commission new ones. In return I offered recognition (patron’s name gracing the final work), a high-quality print, and an NFT (because why the heck not).

The result is five gorgeous new illustrations:

We are currently accepting new commissions, so if you’d like to support fine arts (both in the visual and audio medium) choose one of the 6 episodes that still haven’t been illustrated and contact me.

The second oeuvre The Program instigated is the original music Christien Ledroit has been creating for the show. In fact, Chris has been so prolific we decided to collect his tracks and put out an album. “The Program audio series Soundtrack Volume I” will be released on Spotify on December 3rd, followed by a super-limited LP run at the beginning of 2022.

If you want a sneak peek of Chris’ awesome tunes, check out the music video featuring a 25-member choir recorded remotely in the middle of a pandemic:

Mo’ stats!

Ever since the series’ release, I’ve been soliciting feedback on the show. This is the third survey I’ve conducted and it had the biggest turnout yet - 63 people submitted their response during a one week period (demographics: ages 19 - 58, gender 60% male, 30% female, 10% non-binary / not saying). This neatly corresponds to audience breakdown found in Spotify for podcasters, which is the only way to get this info, since podcast hosting platforms don’t provide any demographic data:

What podcast hosts do track is users’ location. Unsurprisingly, almost 90% of the audience comes from four English-speaking countries - here’s the number of downloads broken down per country (combined data from my two hosts - RedCircle and previously Whooshkaa):

  1. USA 166,512 (55%)
  2. Canada 52,488 (17%)
  3. UK 37,763 (12%)
  4. Australia 12,640 (4%)
  5. Rest of the world 34,187 (11%)

One of the most important survey questions for me as the author is audiences’ rating of the episodes. Here are the latest results on a 1 - 4 scale (corresponding to POOR - SO-SO - GOOD - GREAT):

10 My Turing-complete life 3.72
19 Killer app 3.69
4-6 White Algorithm's burden trilogy 3.69
3 Four ways to stop your system from freezing 3.64
17 Create, Read, Update, Delete 3.63
13 This AI not to be used to fabricate paperclips 3.63
15 What you see is what you get 3.62
8 Parent-child processing 3.60
11 Motherboard 3.57
16 Force eject 3.52
7 Move past and break things 3.52
14 More parrot than predator 3.51
9 Right align, justify 3.51
20 Cheat code 3.50
1 You had me at "Hello World" 3.48
19 Abandonware 3.38
12 Jakob's notebook: Exit without saving 3.27
2 White hat, black hat 3.25
22 Homepage not found 3.22
21 Counterprogramming 2.83

These ratings are a testament that authors should ask for both qualitative and quantitative feedback. I say this because it was not possible to detect that episode 21 is such an outlier in terms of audience reception based on the discussion alone. Conversely, some people reacted negatively to episode 22, so I was expecting that episode to fare more poorly than it actually had.

Another question I always ask the audience is who they think is behind the Program, the fictional entity that replaced Money, State, and God in the future. The Program’s origin and purpose are never explicitly revealed in the show, so it’s basically a multiple choice question asking the listeners which theories they find most plausible. I’m glad to say that most options are still held as viable (barring the Program being a product of national governments - I guess imagining that the government could pull off societal change is too much of a stretch even in science fiction).

Which brings us to the theme of this whole enterprise: the future.

Mo’ to come!

I’m currently working on four more episodes of The Program, three of which are in new forms (with every episode being standalone, I strive to keep things fresh). However, I will also be dedicating my energy in 2022 to two additional endeavours.

First, I’m going to retool old episodes. Loyal fans needn’t worry, I’m not going on a George Lucas style rampage. An example of an experiment I’m eager to try is to adapt The Program to YouTube and see if I can find an audience there. The 22 episodes released so far amount to 15+ hours of high quality content, and I feel there’s still a lot of untapped value in there.

Secondly, I’m working on a new fiction podcast. Earlier this summer I received the Canada Council for the Arts grant for production of “Roddenberry fields forever”, a multi-generational audio drama set in a society in which money literally grows on trees. Unlike The Program, which has no set end date, Roddenberries will be a limited series in 6 parts. I expect to have it finished by the end of 2022, which is also when I’ll be able to test if cross-promoting multiple works of fiction through related properties is a way to grow audiences (hey, it worked for Marvel).

This concludes the third chapter of The Program’s chronicle. Which is another piece of insight, actually: keeping a written record helped me gauge the show’s progress myself. And it now helps me identify things I was wrong about - with hindsight, the biggest misconception I had was that the show might attract attention of an existing podcast network that would pick it up. My experience (sample size of 1) with networks has been rather poor, and I would advise any other aspiring (fiction) podcasters not to spend time and energy chasing them. Instead, let them come to you when you become successful - which has an added bonus that at that time you probably won’t need them any longer anyway.

These articles also give me an opportunity to thank members of The Program crew who usually stay behind the curtain: so a big bow to Nikola Plejić for keeping this website running, Ivan Turković Krnjak for being such a fantastic script doctor, and Narration Box for providing me with synthesized voices.

Oh, and in case you haven’t checked out The Program yet, try our machine-learning neural AI recommendation engine and give the show a listen:

I'm in the mood for:

something funny
something poignant
something romantic
a crime story
interdimensional economics
a bit of eschatological IT