A Q&A with Amanda McLoughlin, CEO of Multitude

Amanda McLoughlin is the CEO and founder of Multitude, a podcast collective based in Brooklyn. She and her team have built the collective from the ground up, finding ways to monetize their shows and offering their services to others trying to do the same. As we move into a new normal, Multitude has had to adapt. We talked to Amanda about how the collective started and how they are coping with the current crisis.

Pocket Casts: Can you tell me about Multitude and how it started?

Amanda: Yes, Multitude is a podcast collective and production studio. That means there are two arms of the business. One is a bunch of podcasters sharing skills and resources to help each other grow. That is how the business started. I had some friends from college, some from my previous internet career as a YouTuber, some from kindergarten — my best friend Julia, who co-hosts the Spirits podcast with me — and each of us were starting podcasts and turned to each other for sport. How do I get my podcast approved in Apple? What are the best practices for recording? I’m having this microphone problem, can you help me? Oh, let me shout out your show on my show. So, it evolved very naturally. At a certain point, there were six of us who had three podcasts, and honestly, it was just easier to have one website to direct people to than to say three different podcast names on each of our shows. So, just before the first PodCon conference in late 2017, I registered the Multitude name. After many hundreds of names that I considered, I created Multitude as this collective.

We’re very much in debt to things like The Heard and Radiotopia and other collectives; we go after a similar model. All of our shows are owned by their hosts and Multitude only makes money by providing services like ad sales. I sell all the ads that you hear on our shows. I take a small commission. That money goes to funding the Multitude studio where we all shared a physical space previous to coronavirus and afterward hopefully to record and in a consistent recording environment.

But because all of us have been doing it now for about five years, including the time before we started Multitude as podcasters, we have skills and we know what we’re doing. We’re able to help other people to come up with, execute, make money on, and develop audiences for podcasts of their own. So that is the other half of the business, the production studio.

We have a physical studio that we rent when it’s okay to do so. We help people to conceive of ideas. We help companies to come up with and launch podcasts. We help college clubs, individuals, theater companies and radio stations who are either getting into podcasting or want some help to develop their audiences to better market their shows, streamline production, or to just generally improve their podcasts. That is exciting and fulfilling to be able to help other podcasters to do this a little bit easier and to have some solidarity.

As part of that, we also published dozens of free resources every year. It’s the defining part of the business for me. A rising tide lifts all boats. We want to make sure that this industry is stronger and more resilient than it was when we started.

I think case in point as we just released our first scripted fiction show. NEXT STOP is an audio sitcom, and as part of that, we partnered with Patreon to publish a nine-part resource on scripted fiction production, everything from coming up with an idea and writing scripts all the way through to post-production, release, marketing, and monetization.

Pocket Casts: It sounds like you offer a lot of resources and services around starting podcasts from the ground up. Can you give people an idea of what it takes to grow a podcast from a side project to a full-time job?

Amanda: Yeah, so the collective model, I think, is one of the most adaptable and approachable ways to help yourself as an independent podcaster. When I started Spirits, along with Julia Schifini and Eric Schneider, we pitched every network I ever heard of. I was like, okay, we don’t have audiences. We really believe in the show. We want to connect with other people who might enjoy it. So, let me tell Radiotopia and Maximum Fun and Earwolf and all these other networks that I’ve heard of before, because how else are you supposed to grow an audience? How else am I supposed to find ads or make money? How else am I supposed to have some path toward leaving this horrible, soul-crushing job in finance that I am escaping from every night to make podcasts about feminist queer mythology?

We were nobody and got ignored. Our show was tiny and that felt a little bit discouraging. So instead, we focused on how we could help ourselves and help raise up our friends. That meant things like promoting our friends’ shows on our own, getting to know other people in podcasting, recommending their shows and vice versa, asking other people who we loved, whose work we respected, on to our show and going on to theirs.

We make those relationships and invest in our own community. We don’t do it for shine or for individual advancement, but it helps. It helps when all of your peers are helping each other, raising each other up and hopefully continuing to grow and succeed alongside each other. And for us, that was a lot more fruitful than continuing to send those pitch emails into the void.

Along with that, we had to learn how to sell ads for ourselves. One of the first articles that we published, I think back in 2018 was DIY advertising, how to sell your own ads. That included reaching out to small businesses here in Brooklyn, where our collection is based, and striking a deal like an affiliate relationship where we could promote their business, and they would pay us a little bit of money for every sale that we sent through their business. Five dollars here, ten dollars there and it began to build up. It took me about three years after starting Spirits to make any significant amount of money so I could quit my job. That started a piecemeal process.

At first, we made no money and we pooled our little bit of savings to buy a microphone, a domain name and a website. And through setting up a Patreon where our audience could support our work right away, we didn’t have to hit a certain threshold to get a certain amount of ads to make money. We could start to be self-sufficient based on audience support from the very start. And so all of our podcasts are on Patreon and all of us made the majority of our revenue from Patreon. And that is the absolute cornerstone of how independent podcasts can survive.

Trying to level up beyond a little bit of money from the Patreon and beyond splitting money three ways — because there are three hosts — we were thinking, how can I get to a world where this is not just a little bit of money I can put into savings or pay bills with. How can I actually live in New York City and support myself? The answer to that was consulting work.

A network of radio stations in Chicago reached out because I had published some articles on podcast marketing. They said, we’re a radio station. We obviously know how to make great audio, but we have never released our shows as podcasts. Would you be able to help us? Come on for eight months to help us launch and market some shows.

That person at that radio network who gave us a shot to prove how skilled we were and how much we could help was pivotal. That was the contract where I looked at it and said, okay, I know that at least I can pay my rent for the next eight months if nothing else. We’re without health care, but we’ll figure it all out. That was the security that I needed to know that I could quit my job. With a mix of the podcast that I made and the consulting and work for hire that I did for others, I had the runway to know that I had at least enough to make it.

That was phase one and then phase two was the business. Our business was growing as our podcasts were growing. I was making more ad sales and starting to build up a little bit of revenue for Multitude and not just for one of our individual podcasts. That allowed us to then commit to getting an office in a studio. Once we had that, it almost made us look way more official in everybody else’s eyes.

People treat you more officially if they think that you’re a business. They treat a group of people with skills as professionals when you call yourself a professional.

It’s kind of messed up, but people treat you more officially if they think that you’re a business. They treat a group of people with skills as professionals when you call yourself a professional, and it’s a little bit fake-it-till-you-make-it and a little bit of artifice, which I think is messed up. But the fact is when we announced that we had a studio, we were just excited and wanted to share the news. That is when people started getting in touch about production, about consulting, and about all the other things that we’d been doing for months. But people tended to treat us as legitimate once we had the trappings of a traditional business to show for it, an unintended consequence.

That is the phase that we’re in now. We’ve had an office now for going on a year. We have some production clients, some consulting clients. We’re able to rent out the studio to other podcasters at an affordable rate. It was really exciting, and I am looking forward to when we can do that again.

And now Multitude has released our first original show. It’s the first show where we are sharing in the intellectual property, and the revenue with the show creator as a production company. And that is NEXT STOP, which we’re very excited about. We financed it using an advance from Patreon. They gave us an advance on our earnings through that show’s Patreon page based on our track record as successful creators of the last five years.

It’s a huge risk. Multitude invested $70,000 in the show and we’re releasing the full budget along with that resource I mentioned earlier on Patreon’s blog as the show continues to air through mid-June. It’s a big swing, but we’re hoping it works out.

Pocket Casts: I think a lot of people underestimate the amount of money that it takes to produce good work because they think an audio medium has to cost far less money to produce than any other content, especially video. I think some would balk at $70,000. Can you give me an idea of how that number came to be and what the money goes to?

Amanda: Totally. That amount is about half of what it should have cost us to make a scripted fiction podcast. We were able to save a lot of money in that, there are six of us who work at Multitude. Four of those are full time. We have people on staff who can work on this project as part of their job. So, for example, our director Brandon Grugle also did all of the editing and sound design on those episodes. If I were working at a giant company and commissioning the show, I would pay him a much higher rate because he’s doing three jobs. But instead, all four of us on the core production team sat down and divvied up roles.

I said, okay, I will be the line producer, the executive producer, the studio manager, lead marketer, and a bunch of other things. But, I don’t need to be compensated for this because, speaking personally, I make enough money from the shows that I am on right now. I’m investing all of that back into Multitude.

We were able to pay our writer Eric Silver, who also helped during production and is doing a lot of the graphic design and marketing after the fact. Julia, our assistant director, was also our casting director. We didn’t have to bring in and pay a casting director because she had the skill set. All told, between all of those savings and having our own studio, we were able to save that money in the budget.

But the fact is we still have three to four people working almost full time on this project for several months. And we believe in paying artists for their labor. We believe in paying people what they’re worth. And so as we’re releasing this budget in mid-June, we also put together an expected range for what each of these roles should be paid. Many editors, for example, charge by the hour. Others charge by the project. And so we’re trying to demystify the numbers and to just share information about what this stuff costs because these are all extremely specific skill sets that are developed over time.

We’re not going to ask our friends to work for us for free. That works if you are a scrappy indie person, trading things with your friends like trading skills for cover art. A friend of mine, Allyson Wakeman, designed the Spirits in exchange for me editing her resume. I’ve been there and that is a really great place to start. But for companies working in podcasting right now, it’s not good enough to pay somebody as little as you can get away with and own all their intellectual property and then sell it to be a movie adaptation. If that’s the precedent that we’re setting up as an industry that is going to be really destructive. We want to push back. It is important that you hire a sound director. It’s important that you hire a casting director. It’s important that someone on your team is looking after the cast the day of and that you communicate with your studio and that you pay an engineer to be there.

We are releasing all information in the hope that it helps other people, whether that’s a scrappy indie person who is making an Indie Go Go budget and wants to get a sense of the relative price of all these things, or a major company that is making a scripted fiction and needs to know who they have to hire on this project.

Pocket Casts I think that resource is so valuable to so many people. I think people are also concerned with the current state of the world and how it will affect production and revenue. I would be remiss not to ask — how is Multitude pivoting because of quarantining and what advice can you offer to independent producers that may need to figure out how to work and make money in isolation?

Amanda: Yeah, this is super scary. I don’t have the answers and I don’t think anyone does. But we are all doing our best. The positive thing in our case is that our business model is already highly diversified. That means that from design, we can’t rely on a network or an agent or an ad salesperson to get a bunch of revenue for us. We had to respond by developing lots of little ways to make money.

We have ads that we sell ourselves. I think currently that’s the biggest thing taking a hit right now. We’ve had a lot of advertisers cancel, which is concerning specifically for Multitude. The way that Multitude, the collective, makes money to pay our office rent is through those advertising commissions. That is concerning.

I think the closer independent producers can get to their audiences and the more ownership you have over that relationship between your audience and you, the better equipped you’re going to be for any kind of disaster.

But all of us, all six of us who are involved, make money as the hosts of our various podcasts. So having that direct audience support through Patreon for each of those podcasts is our bedrock. I think the closer independent producers can get to their audiences and the more ownership you have over that relationship between your audience and you, the better equipped you’re going to be for any kind of disaster. Whether that’s something totally unforeseen like this or something like a media company going under. I know a producer who has been through three different companies either getting shut down or getting sold and deciding to either pivot away from original content or boot all of the podcasts that they represented to the curb.

It absolutely sucks to be in a position where you are not in charge of the way you make money or how you can talk to your listeners. As much as I would love to be able to work with a big platform or a big company to make a show and be able to pay my staff appropriately, to be able to have some budget that I don’t have to earn first to invest into a show — that would be amazing– you have someone above you who can say no or someone above you who can fire you or decide that this medium is no longer worth doing. That’s the great internet experiment that is Multitude. Can a creator be in charge of the business, too? Can a creator own this relationship and make those decisions for themselves and not rely on someone in an executive administrative role to give you permission to do these kinds of projects?

In addition to Patreon and those ads that we sell for ourselves, we have other revenue sources like renting the studio, which is totally impossible right now. Merch, which is largely slowed down and live event sales, which is also entirely shut down. So a couple of those are out of commission, but we’re trying to compensate in other ways. For example, our merch distributor had a really good idea of encouraging the creators to make digital products. We packaged together a bunch of the original music that our composer Brandon Grugle wrote for Join the Party and we sell that as a bundle. We commissioned an artist to make a wallpaper and phone background that we’re selling. These are all little ways that we can still have a connection with the audience.

And then finally, last summer, we started a membership program for Multitude itself. So again, think of a public radio membership or the Maximum Fun member model or something similar. It’s called the Multicrew and people can pay to support Multitude directly. But the differences with us is that we use this fund to produce new work, so people can support the shows they know and love on Patreon, and that goes right to the hosts, which is a wonderful way to support a show that you know you love. But if you like and trust us and you want to support new stuff, the kind of stuff that we would ask a boss for a budget to try a pilot – but we don’t have a boss, we just have ourselves – we use that revenue from the Multicrew to do things like pay for the studio rent so we have a space to try to record new projects like NEXT STOP. One day, hopefully this program continues to grow and we can cover the baseline expenses, we can start to invest in stuff like shows that we own and produce for ourselves.

In this case, one of our hosts, Mike Schubert, is hosting a show called Meddling Adults, where we read children’s novels like Encyclopedia Brown and try to guess the ending. It is surprisingly difficult. We are piloting that right now for the Multicrews. Our members can listen to the pilot and give us feedback as we continue to shape the show. Then we’re going to launch it to the public later this spring.

That’s what we’re trying to do. We are leaning into creativity because it’s helpful for us and our own mental health in addition to trying to provide our listeners with the thing that they come to Multitude for – thoughtful, optimistic, but still willing to be critical, engagement on stuff that we love whether that’s mythology, Harry Potter, Dungeons Dragon or basketball. Or something like NEXT STOP, where it is a nostalgic feeling but is a thoroughly modern sitcom.

Pocket Casts: That’s so brilliant. I love the fact that you’re giving listeners a way to feel invested in your work.

Amanda: Yeah, and it’s not just a feeling. It’s true. We could not make Meddling Adults, we could not make NEXT STOP, we could not continue to have a studio, even though we can’t rent out our studio right now, without that support. We’ve been trying to be as honest as possible with our listeners in the introductions and midrolls of our shows right now, because like I just said on Join the Party this week, ‘You’re hearing all of us say it on the shows, but we literally wouldn’t have jobs without the people who choose to support us, whether that’s giving and contributing to a Patreon or the Multicrew or tagging friends in your Instagram story when you love our work or telling a virtual dinner date that they should listen to one of the shows.’ We’re really fortunate that our audience gets that.

I think podcast audiences in general, they’re savvy. They understand, they know that it takes money to make stuff, whether that’s listening to an ad or responding to a pledge drive. They get that this work is not free to make. And so as we continue to evolve the dialog around business models, compensation and fair practices in podcasting, I am optimistic about how audiences will respond. I think that podcast producers can trust their audiences and trust that they understand that there are real profits and real costs to making these things happen.

Pocket Casts: It seems like you have a great relationship with your listeners. From what I’m hearing it’s a closed circuit relationship, and by that I mean it doesn’t seem like you’re using Instagram or other media platforms that feel like they’re catered to mass audiences or attempting to “go viral.” Are you reaching out through traditional social methods? Has that changed with the pandemic?

Amanda: Our philosophy toward audience development is that we want to fairly represent who we are and what we have to offer to potential audience members. We don’t want to spend a bunch of time trying to make viral tweets that get us a lot of likes, but no followers because that doesn’t translate to podcast listeners. What we do want to do is represent our show’s subject matter, voice and tone on social media, so that when people do see a relatable tweet or we share an interesting article that aligns with their interests, people then decide to tune into the podcast. It’s like sinking into a warm bath. They’re like, oh, yes, I understand this. I get it. This is exactly for me.

To be clear, Eric Silver, Julia Schifini, and Mike Schubert run the social for all the Multitude shows, and they do a great job of engaging with the communities that we are making content within. Eric Silver on the Join the Party Twitter is following tons of Dungeons and Dragons content, elevating content we love, sharing other shows that we think are great, sharing memes and is great at generating memes as well. But they’re always in conversation with what’s happening right now so that people who follow us and who are in the community see that we’re one of them and we’re not just trying to make content at them to get them to click.

People who use the internet are savvy. We’ve all been around it. We all know it when we see it. We all know when a Facebook ad is trying to get us to click an essential oil infotainment article versus somebody sharing helpful information about disinfecting groceries, during social distancing. That’s our main philosophy: to be in a conversation with you.

If you’re already a listener of our podcast, you know a new episode is out. If you’re not yet, you probably don’t care. So most of the content that we share on social media needs to be of interest to you and similarly, to Multitude.

In practice, that means not just sharing our own links and articles when we have a new episode out. We tweet about it, but that’s not the only thing we tweet about. If you’re already a listener of our podcast, you know a new episode is out. If you’re not yet, you probably don’t care. So most of the content that we share on social media needs to be of interest to you and similarly, to Multitude. Our blog is not just announcements of new stuff that we want you to listen to or buy, but information that we think is helpful.

That wasn’t a strategy at the beginning. That’s just what we wanted to see and what we were interested in. We make these podcasts because we love this subject matter so, of course we want to follow these people on Twitter and Instagram. But as we have evolved and learned more, this is now the stuff that we teach our clients. It is really essential that you are in a dialog and you don’t just look at a community and ask, what can I take from this? But instead, what can I contribute? That’s our lens overall.

Specifically, during COVID-19, we are making more stuff to give people a little bit of a break and we don’t care what kind of action that translates into, but we’re just making more stuff because we like it. Meddling Adult is a podcast for charity. We’re going to be donating all the profits from that show to charities of each episode’s winner’s choice to make it a fun game that benefits local and national charities. And similarly, Eric Silver is making a podcast about people’s favorite Pokémon, just for fun. Julia Schifini is posting cocktail how-to videos to our Multicrew finsta, our Multicrew only Instagram, just to give people a smile. I made a livestream of our bookshelf and plants in the office to give people background viewing as they learn and work at home and feel like they’re in an office a little bit. All of us are just trying to cope as best as we can as individuals. We are trying to take care of our audience and give them something to enjoy along the way.

I know that the last thing I want to listen to is a new podcast about Coronavirus. So we are trying to provide some help in the way that we can, which in our case is giving you some sense of solidarity and comfort that isn’t necessarily about the world around you, but reminds you that a bigger world exists and you can listen to something that makes you smile without feeling guilty. You don’t have to listen to something that will make you really upset.

Pocket Casts: I think everyone reading our posts is going to be super jealous of your current work situation and creativity while they’re stuck at home doing finance. So, I think this will definitely lighten the mood.

Amanda: Definitely. We’re not first responders and we are not carrying the burden of this crisis, but we are trying to contribute in small ways that we can.

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