The Program — 2022 year in review

The Program 2022 year in review

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This is the latest in a series of annual reports chronicling the growth of my sci-fi anthology podcast The Program audio series. I write these articles in hope they’ll help other podcast authors and creatives avoid the mistakes I’ve made - and replicate the thing or two I got right. It’s been a long journey since I started, and you’re encouraged to read the 2019, 2020, and 2021 instalment before continuing. But I know you won't do this, so here's a recap:

That was in late 2021 - as announced back then, the show had somewhat of a relaunch in January of this year, updating all episodes with better audio and a new main theme by the series’ composer Christien Ledroit.

The retooled episodes now also allowed for ad breaks. Which immediately brings up what was my #1 priority for this show in 2022: turn this labour of love into something profitable (or at least not money-losing).

Let’s look at the numbers to paint a better picture.

The last point is the bank account killer. Starting in 2021, I started paying all my collaborators $100 CAD (all amounts in the text are in Canadian dollars) for their involvement - a symbolic sum that I don’t take their time and talent for granted. However, multiply this paltry sum with the average number of people involved and the sum suddenly becomes less paltry $500 to $1000.

Then, add another $200 to $300 on top of that for music - a sum which would be higher if it weren’t for Chris also making original music (and also higher if Neosounds, the royalty-free service I use, hadn’t generously provided me with a discount).

Lastly, there’s the cost of catering. In my youth I once volunteered as an assistant director on an indie film. The fact there was no pay didn’t bother me, but when the food was delivered on set and the producer asked us to pay for it, I was left with such a poor impression that I swore I’ll always feed anyone helping me bring one of my silly ideas to fruition. So add another $100 or so in food costs for each recording session (anywhere from one to five of them for a single episode).

So budget-wise we’re talking at least $800 per episode - which can easily double for more ambitious episodes.

Let’s now see how much of that the show recoups.

My biggest source of income is still Patreon. As reported in the last annual report, at the end of the last year I was making $400 per month from 64 patrons. This year I managed to grow that to current $500 per month from 86 patrons (these are totals AFTER Patreon deducts ~18% of their fees). So Patreon still covers a big chunk of the show’s production costs.

The second biggest revenue source however, is a completely new channel for me: Apple Podcasts subscriptions.

Apple Podcasts launched subscriptions in the summer of 2021, and I enrolled in the programme in February. For US$4 / CA$5 / £3.49 / 3.99 € per month, subscribers get the ad-free version of the show and over an hour of bonus content (same what Patreon members get). Much has been written about the cut Apple takes (30% for the 1st year), and I’m usually the first to lambaste rent-seeking. However I can decisively say that - in a span of just a few months - I am now getting $150 monthly that I otherwise wouldn’t, and that it goes a long way towards making the show sustainable. My only chagrin is that Apple doesn’t grant creators access to their own subscribers, which makes it harder to foster a community - and also means losing all subscribers should one ever decide to leave Apple’s orchard.

Having said that, I have zero intention of leaving - Apple’s team is exceptionally responsive and proactive when it comes to communicating with creators and I have nothing but words of praise for them. But I admit I’m biased, as The Program and I were beneficiaries of their editorial spotlight, having been featured multiple times during 2022 in the US and Canada.

Compared to the first two revenue streams, others are relative minnows - especially since they mostly consist of one-off donations rather than recurring revenue. The first of these is Patreon’s fledgling competitor Buy me a coffee, which made me less than half in the entire year ($212) than I make on Patreon in an average month. The second are direct donations made through PayPal, which are a bit more tricky to break down because they fall under three rather different sorts of contributions:

  1. One-time donations, which totalled $500 in 2021
  2. Commissions for episode illustrations, each of which is $200 (more on this below)
  3. Tim Franklin, who constitutes a separate category, as he not only commissioned three illustrations himself, but also financed a short animated film related to The Program’s universe that will be released in 2023

With his support for the show so far, Tim is one of The Program’s two superfans - the other being Hendrik, who’s single-handedly responsible for over a quarter of that monthly Patreon support (all us camgirls can attest about the importance of whales).

In addition to revenue from supporters, podcasts also get money from sponsors, merch, and advertising - or at least that’s what these sorts of articles were telling me before I started. So let’s examine these one by one.

It is true that I had good luck with sponsors previously, having had three companies pay for a baked-in ad (meaning their sponsored message will appear at the top of the episode even years from now when The Program is bigger than Game of Thrones). However there hasn’t been any further inquiries, and I wasn’t able to secure a single sponsor in 2022 :flacid-microphone-emoji:

The trouble with merch is that it’s expensive. In order to turn a profit after fulfilment, shipping, and taxes, I had to yank up the prices so much I myself would be hesitant to buy anything. To at least somewhat mitigate this, I frequently give out discount codes - currently it’s LITTLESISTERS for 10% off the entire order. So hey, it’s still not too late to visit the store and bitch slap Santa to bring you a gift.

All your gods are fake trust only the Program

Which brings us to advertising. One reason that spurred the 2021 relaunch I mentioned was signing on Advertisecast, a podcast advertising network, to sell ads on the show. However, my collaboration with them was short lived, as a few months passed without me being offered even a single host-read ad (Advertisecast at that time still didn’t do dynamically inserted ads - if you don’t know what these are, check out The Program’s previous annual reports). I was then approached by Rusty Quill, a network that focuses exclusively on fiction podcasts. So I jumped ship and dynamically inserted ads started running… But the revenue that afforded me so far hasn’t really been a game changer.

This is not a dig at Rusty Quill, who are trying hard to bring value to The Program in various ways. It’s more a reflection of a sad reality that - as Gabriel Urbina meticulously explained - fiction podcasts face unique challenges when it comes to advertising. One of the biggest being is that fiction podcasts cannot achieve the volume it would take to recoup the time investment through advertising. Case in point: in January of 2023 I’m releasing an episode based on an idea that a listener suggested to me in October of 2020! These production times mean I am only able to release 5-6 episodes per year. So yeah, the current revenue the show makes might be enough to cover the barebones production costs of these - “barebones” being the operative word here, as paying fair market rates would increase the budget by at least 4 times.

And let’s not forget that Chris and I invest our time in the show almost completely without compensation (we won some art grants, but those are for a future project called Roddenberry fields forever which got pushed into 2023). Chris is lucky that I only bother him a couple of hours per week, but since I write, direct, produce, and edit the show on my own, my workload is intense. I currently work half-time as a software project manager to support myself, but this also means I can dedicate only half of my energy to The Program. This leads to a catch 22 situation most creatives are familiar with - I need to make more content more often to make more supporters, while needing more supporters to release more content more often.

Based on this, my goal is to raise my earnings to $2,500 per month, allowing me to switch to a monthly release schedule (minus December and August - man needs a holiday!)

This would still allocate $1000 per episode every month for contributors, whose fees would need to remain symbolic until I manage to turn this into something I myself can subsist on. It's not the most valiant of decisions, but it’s rational: The Program needs to exist so that others can take part in it, and it's never going to become self-sustainable otherwise. And in order to minimize my own costs, I would likely be leaving Toronto and moving to a lower cost of living area where I can make do with $1,500 per month (as I explain in a blog post I wrote for a local housing advocacy group, decades of poor policies have turned urban centres in the West unaffordable but to those responsible for the said policies).

With ~$700 the show is making now, I'm 28% towards this goal. So if you’re one of the listeners who want more Program episodes faster, now’s a good time to contribute to the idea.

An actual ad for The Program I ran on Pornhub

One more challenge when it comes to podcasts is getting accurate data. I am now on my 4th podcasting host (Whooshkaa > RedCircle > Libsyn > Acast), and I can tell you there’s a massive difference in how they report downloads. For example, The Program’s reported numbers dropped by almost 60% when moving from RedCircle to Libsyn. I’ve been told by people in the industry the discrepancy boils down to whether the host is IAB-certified, but because this difference is so massive I wasn’t convinced. It also made me more wary of publishing milestone numbers, as the 180,000 downloads I made on Libsyn + Acast might have easily been reported as 280,000 on RedCircle.

Which brings us to new numbers. As I write this, The Program is 5000 downloads shy of half a million, meaning by the time you’re reading this it might have actually surpassed 500,000 downloads. The show also boasts over 550 ratings (82% of them 5-star) and pretty much stays in the TOP 40 of Apple’s science fiction charts. Top 5 countries by number of downloads remains unchanged:

Note: Table above looks only at the last 6 months of data.

The composition of the show’s audience didn’t change much since the last report. The Program is still listened more by men (roughly 60% male, 35% female, 5% non-binary), and there’s hardly any listeners older than 60 or younger than 23. I’m chalking this down to the medium - presumably older folks still haven’t figured out what this “podcasts” thing is, and younger peeps probably don’t have the attention span to listen to 45 minutes of audio.

When it comes to socials, my numbers are still miniscule both on Twitter and Reddit where Program has a presence. This might be explained by me not investing enough energy in them, as I only post when I feel like I have something meaningful to post (I can hear social media managers gasping in disbelief). So what do you do when you suck at social media? You open yet another one, of course! Which is why in August I started posting episodes on YouTube:

And yes, the numbers there are abysmal as well, with only one episode managing to break 100 views so far. But I continue to post new episodes every two weeks as it doesn’t require much investment on my part, and a couple of listeners told me they appreciate the ability to follow the story with the help of closed captioning (which are never autogenerated - the beauty of fiction is that scripts easily turn into transcripts).

Let's talk about initiatives that do (continue to) deliver: the first of them being episode illustrations. As mentioned above, listeners can commission these from the show’s official artist Carlos Costa who depicted seven more episodes this year:

Make sure to check out the illustrations in all their glory before AI takes over one of the few remaining bastions of human expression

In addition to the intrinsic satisfaction of having fostered a work of art, everyone who sponsored an illustration got a 90 x 60 cm poster of it. We fulfilled the first batch of these over the summer, with the second batch being printed and shipped in the first week of 2023. I personally am not making a profit on these (which is becoming a common refrain by now), but I’m hearing The Program keeps the Brazilian art scene flourishing.

The second physical thing the show successfully fulfilled this year is The Program audio series soundtrack volume I vinyl record. As announced last year, we put Christien’s original tunes to an LP press and allowed everyone to buy them basically at cost. The entire run was less than 25 copies so it’s hard not to pretend it’s somewhat of a vanity project, but as every digital creator will tell you, having something tangible to hold after all the labour you put into your work is priceless. Or rather it costs $45 per unit, which is how much Little Elephant custom vinyl charged us for their service.

Chris’ work was also featured on How I make music, a podcast dedicated to audio drama composers and their craft. They decided to showcase his piece featuring a 25-person choir made in the middle of the pandemic, and I can’t lie, hearing it makes me so proud.

One more thing that makes me proud is what Nikola Plejić, The Program’s tech ninja guru wizard, implemented on this very website. If you visit any individual episode page you’ll notice it now features a rating system, allowing listeners to rate all episodes from 1 to 4 stars, and allowing me to gauge audience reaction to particular stories. The cool thing is that Nikola went all-in on a couple of "serverless" / "edge" offerings to build this, using a combination of Deno Deploy & Neon. It might be a bit of an overkill, but it was fun, and it's one thing less for us to maintain (or rather, someone else is in charge of the maintenance). So cutting edge tech - just like the Program itself.

And there you have it. One more year spent on long-form, high-brow, audio-only narratives. Pity the year in question wasn’t 1922 instead of 2022, but hey, can’t always have it your way.

The Program salutes Yolanda, Salil, Joe x3, Ana, Ivana, Akin, Christopher, Margaret, Travis, Rachel, Amy, Taneer, Jonah, Kevin, Meredith, Annie, Kenneth, Diana, J, Catie, Adriane, Alex x3, Ben, Patricia, Philip, Tim, David x2, Reece, Dana, Adriannam Miya, Brett, Zack, Liz, Jacqueline, Juan, Iain, Sarah, Colin, Jean, Patrick, Reidlee, Filipe, Max, Daniel, Ivar, Braydon, Rafael, Haowen, Joey, Dan x4, Steven, Izak, Kobi, Vincent, Katie, Reyna, Dave, Ian, Hendrik, Noxn, Ben, Nicole, Casey. Raphael, Roli, Scott, Florence, Tonio, Callie, Giovani, John, Shalyn, Kyle x3, Nashia, Pete, Roman, Nathan, Darryl, Julius, Rosey, Kurtlan, Jonathan, Rebecca x2, Josh, Edgy, Torrence, William, Jeff, Tiger, Kathleen, Jayden, Lorenz, Dylan, Rebekah, Atanas, Morgan, Nils, Michelle, Tori, Betty, Kevin, Gregorio, Pavel, Sabrina, Torvos, Jackson, Davor, Ari, and Maneesh for supporting the show. Add your name to the list (and get bonus content) here.

And for those who are yet to give The Program a go, here’s a snippet from each of 25 episodes released so far:

Listen to the one that strikes you as most interesting and let me know how you liked it.