How Podbean is Gouging Listeners and Hurting Independent Audio Producers

If you are a podcaster, do not use Podbean. This rapacious company of dishonorable thieves is now arbitrarily altering the terms of their business arrangements with producers without even bothering to notify them. Podbean is now gouging podcast listeners, asking them to pay for content with a custom currency called “beans” even when the arrangement between producer and listener never called for this. This is not only predatory and unethical, but it also hurts the ability of independent audio producers to maintain good will with their audience and recoup production costs. For producers who have taken great care to conduct their business with unimpeachable honor, this unannounced shift makes them appear like penny-ante predators. At a time in which Apple has introduced a special Podcast Subscriptions so that creators and producers can get paid for their labor, it’s pretty clear that Podbean would prefer to decimate any good will established with producers in a desperate effort to survive as a company.

I run an audio drama called The Gray Area. For the second season, I put three years of my life and thousands of dollars (to ensure that all of my actors were promptly paid; I literally paid them cash the very minute that a recording session ended) to make this independent production happen. My strategy to recoup some of my investment (while also keeping the show free) was to include a premium channel at a reasonable and affordable price point — something akin to a DVD loaded with special features — whereby a supporter of my show could get early access to episodes, copies of the scripts, and special behind-the-scenes interviews and commentaries for each episode.

In 2020, I did serious research on the companies that could make the premium channel happen. And Podbean shot to the top of the list. As a fan of supporting small businesses, I liked that they seemed a little scrappy. Podbean felt like the mom-and-pop shop that would be a perfectly aligned ally to an independent producer. I had amicable and detailed telephone conversations and email exchanges. And the people at Podbean ensured me that I could carry on a business arrangement whereby a supporter of my show would pay a flat fee of $20 and have indefinite access to the premium feed. I was perfectly happy with this arrangement and appreciated the way that Podbean swiftly answered all of my questions.

My original marketing plan was to build up listenership (and thus paid subscribers) through in-person relationships and events — largely because I recognized that I was better at turning people into regular listeners in real life. This strategy, of course, was completely uprooted by the pandemic. Since none of us had any idea how long the pandemic would last, I decided to take the financial hit, finish editing, and release the nineteen Season 2 episodes in three tranches: Phase I, Phase II, and Phase III. I released the first two phases last year and did not experience any problems with Podbean. I heard from many fans of the show who were struggling during the pandemic and who apologized that they didn’t have the $20, but who pledged that they would support my show when I reached Phase III. “No problem,” I replied. “I’m a working stiff who’s barely getting by myself.”

Then, after many painstaking months of lapidary labor, I reached a point in the last week where I finally had a release date for Phase III. (June 22nd, to be precise.)


I released the first two sets (episode, behind-the-scenes, and script) to Podbean and alerted my audience. Much to my shock, my subscribers wrote back to me, informing me that they were being asked to pay “beans” for the new content — despite the fact that my premium channel points out that it’s a one-time $20 fee.

I was stunned and angered by this betrayal. Three years of work on a well-received audio drama that had won awards and this was what I got? I contacted Podbean, but they refused to remedy this. I didn’t even have access to a list of my subscribers through the Podbean dashboard. (Presumably, Podbean keeps this list secret so that it can clandestinely ask for more money so that you’ll never know about it.)

I had already done some promotion alerting people to my Podbean feed. But now my Podbean feed is useless. Podbean won’t fix it. Because if Podbean is going to shift the payment structure secretly like this, what’s to stop them from doing this again? CEO David Xu may have all the coding skills in the world, but, when it comes to customer service and sustaining relationships with producers, he’s as much of a shady swindler and a vulpine grifter as any dimebag capitalist.

Unless you enjoy being on the receiving end of zooerastic treachery, I strongly urge you to not use Podbean as a premium channel host. It’s not only clear that these duplicitous bozos are not ready for prime time. It’s clear that they’re very keen on fleecing and dishonoring you by any means necessary.

Media Sound Off

The boys over at Media Sound Off have an interesting concept for a podcast: interview the interviewers and the other strange souls who toil in this goddam media landscape. Well, they’ve interviewed Jesse Thorn and they’ve interviewed me. The former makes sense; the latter baffles me. I haven’t yet listened to either show, but if I had to recommend one without listening, I’d choose Thorn, if only because I suspect his signature is far more concise on paper.

Podcasting to Outperform Radio?

Some new figures released by the Radio Advertising Bureau suggest that radio is now facing problems. At both the local and national levels, radio revenue has dropped over the past year. Off-air revenue growth, meaning advertising that comes with podcasts and digital downloads, has surpassed the RAB’s expectations. It is expected to reach $2 billion by the end of 2008, almost a full year ahead of the RAB’s projected timeline.

I don’t know if these trends will result in radio people calling podcasters maggots or claiming them to be trapped within a basement in Terre Haute. But the upshot is that podcasting isn’t going away anytime soon.

Dan Carlin: A Hardcore Podcaster

Dan Carlin is a very intense and passionate man. One can hear the veins bulging out of his neck when he talks about history. I do not know what the man’s caffeine intake is, but his podcasting presence is a welcome alternative to the soporific lectures sometimes associated with historians.

Carlin’s brio is a good thing. And it’s why I’ve become a fan of his podcast, Hardcore History.

There are regrettably no hyperlinks in Carlin’s archive, but if you spend a day or two bouncing around in his archives, you’ll find a 40 minute monlogue on the impact of drugs and alcohol on historical events, a febrile portrait of Winston Churchill (“A racist! A colonialist! An alcoholic! A bad parent! A reactionary! Militaristic! A megalomaniac! A shameless self-promoter and self-advertiser! These are just some of the criticisms that have been leveled at Winston Churchill throughout history.” And he’s only just getting started.), and speculation on what might have happened had events during the year 1066 turned out differently. He’s also managed to land an interview with Connections man James Burke, who sounds slightly wary of Carlin’s enthusiasm, but is a good sport.

If you have even a passing interest in history and science, Carlin’s energy will most certainly get you pumped up in ways that you may not expect.

Slate Audio Book Club Returns in October for More Base Generalizations

Big news from those cute and cuddly sophists over at Slate! After “a late-summer hiatus” trying to figure out if black writers should be talked about or ignored, the garrulous gang has nailed down the decidedly Caucasian Michael Pollan as their author of the month. Will Katie Roiphe try tapping some hazy memory of a Pollan book she may have read in college under the pressure of politically correct profs? Will Stephen Metcalf hijack the conversation with a turgid aside about how Pollan has earned too many accolades? Find out “in mid-October,” when the audio segment is ready. Let us hope that some brave soul will be able to make it past the thirteen minute mark.

When Publishers Podcast

Unbridled Books gets into the podcasting game, with interviews featuring Ed Falco and Lise Haines. I’ve listened to the Falco podcast and it makes the catastrophic mistake of having Ed Falco read his work through the phone with the gain at a clipped level. This slack fidelity isn’t the way to get readers interested in an author. An author should read his work in person, ideally in front of a crowd, where the sound man can get decent levels and there’s a better aural dimension.

Further, while it’s good to see Unbridled embracing the podcast format, I don’t believe it’s legitimate journalism when a publisher has someone within its own house interview one of its authors. No matter how hardball the questions, there is simply no way to shake the troubling sense that the interview is promotion first, journalism second, and that the interviewer is pulling punches.

I certainly believe that publishers should have a podcasting presence. But perhaps it’s best reserved not for interviews, but for a more liberal use of the medium. Perhaps having an author read his work, transforming a story or a novel excerpt into a radio drama with sound effects and various actors performing dialogue, would be a better use of a publisher’s resources.

The Will Franken Podcast

I listened to the first installment this afternoon, and I have to say that local comedian Will Franken has a very promising comedy podcast. Alternating between lazy California social commentary to cultural obsession (perhaps too much, but he’s just starting out) to the crazed juxtaposition of a cheery guy working at a battered women clinic, Franken’s “Things We Did Before Reality” is a one-man sketch comedy that revives my closet hope that some podcasters out there might just revive old-style radio comedy for a new age of listeners.

Forrester Tells People What They Want to Hear

The big news going around the podcasting community is this Forrester report, which asserts “that only 1% of online households in North America regularly download and listen to podcasts.” Of course, since the actual six-page report is hidden behind a $249.00 walll, we can’t exactly corroborate the methodology behind this sweeping assertion. Nor is there any indication on how these “online households” are defined or determined. How many people were tested? Where were they tested? Were they dial-up or broadband?

Without these terms established, I really can’t see how anyone who believes in the scientific method can get into a big fuss over this. For one thing, Charlene Li’s math seems considerably off to me. If Forrester claims that there are “just 700,000 U.S. households” using podcasting, how did the two million downloads of The Ricky Gervais Show (after the first seven shows) happen? Surely, a substantial bloc of those downloads were American.

Granted, I’m just as skeptical about the Web 2.0 propaganda as anyone else. But if podcasts are a bust, why are so many companies spending so much money putting them out? Is so much VC riding on a long tail effect? A hunch? Or is this because the web stats (a far more verifiable figure than Forrester’s “we’ll tell you how we did it if you drop three C-notes” ruse) confirm a growing audience of listeners?

Of course, for those who Want to Believe, here are some fundamental reasons why Forrester’s “studies” should be called into question.

1. New York Times (February 20, 2005): From CEO George Colony’s own mouth: “Forrester, as it turns out, as it comes out of the recession, is really a portfolio company.” Colony has also insisted over the years that Google will be eclipsed by Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL.

2. CNet (October 7, 2003): Forrester releases “integrity policy” after Forrester stacked the deck in favor of Microsoft concluding that Windows was cheaper for companies to run than Linux (study paid for by Microsoft, with Forrester using a mere 12 companies as the basis for their results) and another bought and paid for by PeopleSoft. Because of this, software companies are now forbidden from publicizing Forrester results. In other words, Forrester Research commissions deficient studies, asks the companies to pay for them and orders them to keep their mouths shut after telling them what they want to hear! Brilliant!

3. ZDNet (November 17, 2005): George Colony: “I foresee a world in which even enterprise applications like financials, ERP (enterprise resource planning), and supply chain software will be advertising-funded.” Sure, because, as the 191 million+ downloads of Ad-Aware have demonstrated, everyone loves spyware and adware that cripples their OSes!

4. And then there’s bullshit from Colony in the Contra Costa Times (July 31, 2005): “Yet the president of Forrester Research, George Colony, who met last week with Hurd, is convinced that the company’s new chief will impose a sharper focus on HP when he unveils Phase 2 of his plans for the company. The only reason he did not do so earlier this week, Colony said, is that he has not been there long enough to devise a new strategy.”

Really, George? You mean, with all of your seer-like powers, you’re essentially telling us that a new CEO needs to settle and assess a situation before developing a game plan? Wow, that’s like Economics 101!

It’s only natural that newspapers are jumping onto this story like crazy. Because like the Microsoft people commissioning the Forrester study back in 2003, they’re hearing exactly what they want to hear. Podcasting is dead! Long live podcasting!

Well, if you want to believe this without proof or confirmable data, then you may as well believe that George Colony has five testicles in his nut sack.

[UPDATE: Looks like the sample pull was 5,015 computer users and that many of those surveys didn’t have broadband. Where were these people located? How was this representative sample obtained?]

Segundo Podcasting Rig

In the past few weeks, we’ve received several emails on the equipment we use for the show.

Shure Beta 58A (x2): Our main recording mikes for the interviews. (You may have noticed a slight boost in audio quality with the last few shows. These mikes are one of the reasons why.)

Shure SM-57s (x3): Backup mikes, what we were using before we nabbed the Beta 58As. (Don’t ask us what we were using before that!)

Behringer UBB1002: A battery-powered mixer we use for large-scale interviews for more than two people. We can record anywhere on battery power! That was our goal in the first place with these podcasts: a sort of nouevelle vague romanticism of having audio facilities that we could schlep about without the need to plug in anywhere. What, our minds asked, if the power went out and the authors we talked with were in the middle of a stunning story? Of course, with real-world conversations, you simply pull the votives out of the cabinet and carry on. This may be a rather odd justification, but consider the other reason: In a public place, finding a place to plug in is often a pain in the ass, particularly if it makes our subjects have to uncomfortably hunch over or the like. We do our damnedest to make our guests comfortable. Hence, battery power.

This replaced our Samson Mixpad 9, which we picked up used, not realizing that it was designed for live PA situations rather than what we were doing.

Samson Mixpad 9: We maintain this as a shaky backup. Or in the event that all audio production facilities suddenly stop manufacturing mixers. Actually, we’re not quite certain why we still have this. Probably because it sounds like a drum machine when it really isn’t. (Used for Show #11.)

Sony Minidsc Recorder MZ-R70: We’ve had this puppy since 1999, believe it or not. And it’s served our purposes extremely well. We’ve definitely put 200,000 miles on this trusty Dodge Dart, but catastrophically dropped this in a Manhattan subway a year ago. The thing still works, but it does have its occasional quirks, which we clean up in post.

SOFTWARE:

Audacity: Yes, we use this. It actually works very well for a lot of basic cleanup and cuts. And the best part is that it’s free.

Cakewalk Sonar: We can’t say enough fantastic things about this multitrack editor. We haven’t tried Cubase or Garage, but there’d have to be an utterly compelling case to get us to change.

Sound Forge: If Audacity doesn’t do the trick for a specific audio gaffe, you’ll find us firing up this application and doing our damnedest to restore the audio.

FURTHER NOTES:

It takes us at least 20 hours to produce a podcast. That includes booking the guest, reading the book(s), doing the research, preparing our questions, doing an equipment check, conducting the interview, dumping the audio into our computer, engineering the puppy, uploading and promoting it.

Radio Shack is actually quite fantastic for affordable mike stands, Y-adapters and ancillary doodads. It is not so good for mikes. Believe me, your microphone matters!

The better it sounds in production, the less work you’ll have to do in post. So it’s important to get the best signal possible in the field!

Organizing and booking guests is sometimes more time-consuming than you might imagine. But we do enjoy the many people we’ve talked with along the way and hope to meet several of them in person at BookExpo America.

Podcasting Authors

While Slushpile is busy noting any and all Jay McInerney developments, it should be noted that McInerney, perhaps taking a cue from Cory Doctorow, might be the first big author to exploit podcasting beyond mere chapter excerpts. McInerney has been providing excerpts from his readings, and it looks like he’ll be offering other goodies far beyond this. There are only two podcasts so far. But if this is representative of what authors plan to do with the form, I hope we’ll see more of it.

Revealing the Truth!

Alright. The cat’s out of the bag. For those who have emailed, yes, there was an interview with Dave Barry. Yes, it is a very funny interview and it should be going up in a few days. Yes, I am indeed the unnamed “local podaster” identified in C.W. Nevius’s column. Yes, C.W. did reveal his first name to me in an odd patrician tone. (He also assured me that he had “done some podcasts too,” to which I replied, “Cool. But did you engineer them?”)

But C.W. Nevius is DEAD WRONG about podcasts! For one thing, there is no “correct” way to use a podcast. Contrary to popular belief, a podcast is neither a form of social etiquette nor a small utility tool. For another thing, a podcaster would never refer to himself by his first two initials. At least not in any serious capacity.