Ologies’ Alie Ward on Reaching 50 Million Downloads by Treating Scientists Like Rock Stars - S1E12

Mar 24, 2021
Mikel Ellcessor

Alie Ward shares how she built a thriving paid membership for Ologies and the ways she builds connection with her fans to keep it going strong.

Alie Ward is a science journalist and host of Ologies, a smart, fun science podcast filled with bizarre stories and science knowledge from many different fields (or -ologies).

She is also the Daytime Emmy Award-winning science correspondent for CBS’s The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation with Mo Rocca and host of Did I Mention Invention? on the CW.

Key takeaways:

  • 🥽 Building a science podcast with the audience and how they get involved
  • 🎸 Turning scientists into rockstars and tackling anti-science sentiment
  • 💵 Why Alie recommends starting a paid membership from the beginning
  • 👑 Smart ways to involve the audience so they go from passive listeners to fully invested (and paying) subscribers

Get the bonus content with Alie

Subscribe to Supercasters Premium to get bonus content with every episode. It’s free, takes two minutes, and there are no special apps to download.

For this week’s bonus, Alie talks about something that she's done with the paid members that seems small but reveals a lot that's important, and contains the essence of why Ologies is such a healthy content community. 

Mikel Ellcessor: Hey everyone. Welcome to Supercasters. I'm Mikel Ellcessor from Supercast. And on this show, we interview podcasters about how they're building the world's healthiest content communities. We're a company that believes in the power of the listener creator relationship. So we like talking to folks who've been brave enough to ask their listeners to partner with them. And as a result, they built these really great sustainable operations.

And so in this episode, I'm speaking with the science journalist Alie Ward. Alie's the creator, the driving force and the self-identified internet dad behind Ologies. 

Alie Ward: That is true. I'm everyone's weird dad uncle on the mic. My sisters are the only people that think that the dad Ward thing is weird. Because they're like we already have a dad Ward. It's dad. I'm like my sisters don't call me dad, but everyone else pretty much does. 

Mikel Ellcessor: There you go.  Well, again, we wanted you to know that you were like seen in all the ways that you can show up here on Supercast. So look as you do every episode of Ologies, can you please give us your pronouns? 

Alie Ward: Oh yes, I am Alie Ward. And I'm she / her. 

Mikel Ellcessor: Great. Thank you. So Ologies is this sort of beacon of smart goodness on the internet. You and the team have built something very, very unique. So we're going to go deep into the Ologies community, how you built it up, and how it keeps going. And then in the premium content section, we're going to delve into one specific thing that Alie does with her paid members that's relevant to every single podcaster who wants to build a healthy content community. So you're going to want to subscribe to the premium feed so that you can hear that. So Alie Ward, I want to get some important business covered up here upfront so everybody can kind of map where they are. So, I want you to give us two different descriptions of Ologies for the 17 people who are listening that haven't heard the show. The first one that I want you is how would you describe Ologies to the high school science teacher that you really admired.

Alie Ward: Oh, I did have a high school science teacher I admired named Olly. He was great. He was the AP science teacher. And, if there was deer roadkill, he would take us out to do a dissection. He was great. So I loved him. I would say to Olly, it is a celebration of all corners of the worlds of science. And it is putting scientists rightfully on their pedestals like rockstars is how I would describe it. 

Mikel Ellcessor: Love that. Now the second one is for a room of eighth graders who are kind of distracted and completely terrifying.

Alie Ward: Eighth graders are the most terrifying stage of human being. Ah they tell it like it is? I would say, listen twerps, I love you. And if you're into lizard butts and you want to know how the world works here is science delivered in a way where we leave all the gross bits in. And we swear sometimes, don't tell your parents.

Mikel Ellcessor: That's what we needed. So that way people can kind of see that's the whole swing of Ologies. So how long have you been doing the show? 

Alie Ward: Oh, in my heart for  two decades and in practice for about two and a half years. So the idea came to me in 2002, and then I sat on it in this little dark corner of my heart, afraid to fail for like 18 years.

Mikel Ellcessor: Put a pin in that gang. That's what we're going to be talking about in the premium feed. Yes. You're completely independent on this thing, right? You're sort of no corporate ads. We'll talk about that a little bit, but this is your thing. 

Alie Ward: Yeah, I started this idea totally independently. No networks would take me on because I didn't have an in-built audience yet for it. Even for the first year I approached a few networks and they all turned me down because my following wasn't big enough. And so Patreon from before I ever even started the podcast has been there. It started as a couple hundred bucks a month and then eventually, I got enough people to where I could pay my editors and I could pay people to help me make the show so it wasn't just me.  I remember on my birthday, staying in my closet where I recorded with unwashed hair until four in the morning working on it. 

Mikel Ellcessor: That's great. And I'm betting those people that passed on you before are just like dragging right now because you're like, how many shows are you on, on television?

Alie Ward: Oh my gosh. Let's see. I'm on Brainchild on Netflix. I'm on CW’s. Did I Mention Invention, I'm the host of that. I'm on CBS's Innovation Nation. I'm on A Hundred Humans on Netflix. I consult on two different science projects that I'm not allowed to talk about, but … or one of them I am. It's with Michelle Obama's company, Michelle and Barack's company, Higher Ground. So, I'm doing in terms of the number of jobs I have probably more than enough, but Ologies is my bread and butter, both the number of hours I work and the financial.

Mikel Ellcessor: So in round numbers, I mean, as much as you're comfortable kind of disclosing at any point here, but how many downloads are you seeing each month, either per episode or per month or however you're comfortable kind of sharing it.

Alie Ward: Yeah, we just crossed 50 million since the show starts. And we get about a quarter of a million per episode to 300,000, sometimes up to 400,000, depending on how wonky of a topic it is, how interested people are.

Mikel Ellcessor: Wow, fantastic, impressive and congratulations. Win every one of those one at a time so that's a big deal.

Alie Ward: Yeah. You know, it's funny because I don't get nervous speaking in front of big groups typically, but it's funny because every once in a while, I'll think, Oh wow, so far this hour, the size of Madison Square Gardens just listened to it. And it's interesting to think of all those people individually on buses and on walks in the woods and doing their dishes. And each one of those people out there is fascinating to me. 

Mikel Ellcessor: Yeah, I really love that. And especially when you think about the content of the show and that they're really making this very conscious choice to have some fun. And they're just doing some lifelong learning. I mean, it's clearly a very fun experience, but I was sharing this with a friend the other day when I was talking about doing this interview. And it's like the number of beats per minute where my brain goes, I didn't know that. That's really interesting. Oh, I got to go look that up. You know, like the comedy writers talk about how many jokes per minute that they have to get in. And you kind of have that for new discoveries.

Alie Ward: Oh, I hope so. That's always what my aim is. I mean, the whole kind of ethos behind Ologies is there's science in everything if you know what to look for and if you care. And if you care about something, anything can be interesting with context and relate-ability. And so sometimes I'll be up late and researching cicada ovapositors or whatever and I'll think there are so many podcasts out there that are just gossip podcasts that are just like, we're gonna watch an old series from the nineties and chat about it that are so… would have been so much easier. Every once in a while, I'm like why did I give myself the task of making cicada ovapositors interesting. And then, but it always, it's more rewarding because I feel like it just makes you look at the world  differently. Like if you can get drama and gossip and intrigue out of something so small and overlooked, then the world just becomes richer in every direction. Hopefully.

Mikel Ellcessor: And that's really being supported by the paid members, right? What's the percentage of the budget that's covered — because you take ads as well. How does the revenue split work out for you between ads and the paid membership?

Alie Ward: Yeah, no, that's a great question. The first. year and a half, we were solely Patreon funded and amazing, amazing that I could make a living and I could pay an editor and I could pay a mortgage making this podcast that I wanted to make and make it as weird as I wanted to. A dream come true. I mean, that was what I was really hoping for. And then around two early 2019, I did start getting a lot of interest from networks. And so early 2019 in January, I started with Stitcher Midroll. They gave me the most flexible kind of deal and they seem to really get Ologies and they let me say no to sponsors that I did not think that my very science-based empathetic audience would like. And so everything is vetted by me. They let me liberally say no to things. I decided because I still had following and support, just taking money from ads seemed like I needed to make some adjustments with where the money went. And so, everyone got raises obviously. And I also started donating to a charity for every episode. So a few thousand dollars a month goes to charities, and they're all picked by the -ologist because I felt like if you just Google the biggest charity in any field, you might be giving your money somewhere that doesn't use it as locally or sustainably as possible. So, yeah, I have them pick it and also saves research on my end.

Mikel Ellcessor: That's great. So you have these two big principal revenue streams, the paid memberships and then you have the advertisers. And then because you have been able to reach this kind of sustainability threshold you recognize that part of the mission of the show includes this give-back. And so what you've done is you've, this thing you can find when you go to Ologies site and you can find the list of them. And I was going to ask you about that so I'm glad you got to it now. So the ologists are actually the people that choose the target of the give-back that you do. What's that conversation like with them?

Alie Ward: It's actually really fun. It's usually at the end of the episode when we're saying goodbye, and then I always cut this part out, but I always ask, Oh, by the way we give to a relevant charity  of your choice and it's great to hear Oh wow, great. That's great. And sometimes we'll have one, definitely give it to this, you know, this orphaned kitten rescue that I work with a felinologist maybe, and others are like, Oh, I have to decide. What if I have two? Great. We'll give to two. So it's always, it's great to be able to shout out that cause too, because it could be a 501C3 or it could be mutual aid or it could go to a specific person. It's just nice to be able to give them a shout out, to have some of the money that I get to make from this show go to where it's needed.

Mikel Ellcessor: So this starts to tip into the direction that I wanted to go, which really is this community that is around Ologies. And so that activity is very much a community expression. So tell us about, if you would please Alie, the Ologies listener, community member. Who are they, why do they come to the show? As you've gotten to know them, how do you describe them?

Alie Ward: One of the gals who helps me with merch, Boni Dutch and her sister Shannon Feltus, they have their own podcast called You Are That. They're two sisters that are really funny but they coined the term Ologites in the beginning. And so people who listen to the show call themselves Ologites, which I feel is adorable and very funny. But yeah, someone who is an Ologite is typically someone who is really curious about the natural world and about science and about how life works and is definitely very empathetic. I feel, like we've covered everything from neurodivergence to neuroendocrinology and trans matters and BLM. I feel like it's a really compassionate, really plugged in audience.

So authenticity, I think, is really key.  Showing up as my whole self is something that I feel like has bonded me to the audience a lot. And knowing that I can do that and still feel understood and accepted. I think it's very mutual in terms of the audience. So yeah, I get a lot of comments from people saying that they didn't think they were science people until they listened. Maybe they listened to one episode because the topic came up in their feed or something. But converting people and having people realize that they like science is always a joy. And then there's also a lot of scientists who listen because they might study turtles, but they … ton of other fields out there. So they really like to hear other scientists kind of struggles and triumphs and backstories, which I love celebrating. I want scientists to feel like rock stars and I just love when the Ologies community starts following them on their social media and becomes really big fans of their stuff. It really, I love that. I feel like someone who's a really good matchmaker. I'm like, ha ha, I knew you would like each other.

Mikel Ellcessor: You don’t really go into this territory explicitly in the show, but how has that mission, how has that “let's turn scientists into rock stars” part of the work evolved as our culture has surfaced this kind of science skepticism to, in some extremes, anti-science sentiment.

Alie Ward: That's a great question. I launched this in 2017 and so obviously that was a topic that's been on people's minds throughout the entire history of the show. And I think one thing that was really important to me is to show that scientists are people, human beings who are doing their science out of interest and passion because it takes so much passion to stick with your field and your discipline because science can be really hard sometimes, and it doesn't always pay well. And  a lot of times your work is behind expensive journal paywalls. Scientists really are under sung. And I think there's a misconception in a lot of what… the way that we envision scientists where scientists know everything. They’re know-it-alls and they're in a spotless white coat and they're here to tell you to stop drinking soda. Like we think of scientists as like these buzz kills that know everything and this maternal figure.

And Ologies was really also born of the conversations I would have with my scientist friends where they know like Phil Torres, who's a lepidopterologist, he studies moths and butterflies. I remember him talking to us once about how he was doing field work in a hut in Peru. And there was a porcupine in the rafters and he had no choice but to grab his acoustic guitar and chase a porcupine out of his roof. And these kind of stories where you don't hear about these in USA Today headlines.  I remember the same conversation around a campfire. We were talking about extra nipples and two of the guys were like, Oh yeah, I got a third nipple. And then we started talking about mammals and so just understanding that scientists have these great stories. These like Indiana Jones stories of field work. And a lot of them pick what they study because there's something about it that just really lights them up.

What is it about whales that makes someone want to be a cetologist? What is it about neurochemicals that makes someone study the brain? You don't start a baseball card collection out of nowhere. There's usually something, there's some passion behind all that work. And the same thing is true for scientists. So I wanted people to, when they met an ologist of any kind at a dinner party, get stoked and be like, tell me all about proctology. 

Mikel Ellcessor: I do think I have the perfect promotion for you for Thanksgiving coming up this year, for how to save Thanksgiving, is go to the scary uncle that loves Jaws and the scene where they're all comparing their scars and say here's all the scientists and here's all the ways that they're comparing too.

Alie Ward: Exactly. They have adventures. Yeah, I think that if you can get people to fawn over scientists, then you can get them to trust scientists. Scientist jobs are looked at as really ivory tower and white collar, but a lot of scientists are in the muck and they are sorting through buckets of swamp water. I just interviewed someone who was an alligator toxicologist. She loves alligators. Her dream was to work in a swamp and she dives around a swamp that is polluted with nuclear waste in a shuttered facility to test levels of ecotoxins in alligators. Like if that's not bad ass I don't know what is. That is some dirty jobs. That's some real bad-ass stuff. So I think people understanding that scientists are relatable was a huge goal of mine.

Mikel Ellcessor: So as you're developing these shows, how do you get the audience involved?

Alie Ward: That was a really big thing for me. And I should say that when I started making Ologies, so I wanted to maybe write a book. I came across this list of ologies on the internet in 2002. And I was like, maybe I'll write it as a book, maybe I'll pitch it as a TV show. And then I had already been doing a comedy podcast and someone suggested I do a science podcast. I thought, Oh man, Ologies might be perfect for this. And so I recorded about six or seven episodes and I sat on them for nine months cause I was like, there's just something that's not … It was  too, it was just a conversation with no narration and it wasn't, I didn't have the resources to make like an NPR podcast, but it also didn't flow with banter enough to be like a West Coast comedy podcast. So I really tried to develop that format, but I wanted the audience to feel like it wasn't just two people trying to over-intellectualize and outsmart each other.

And so this idea of ask smart people stupid questions came up. Because I just wanted the audience to know that I was a proxy for them. So there was no question too basic to ask. And then I also thought, well, there's so many questions I'm probably not thinking of because I don't have the same perspective as everyone else.  So I decided to open it up to if anyone has questions for this entomologist or this cicadologist or this proctologist, fire away. And so I started doing that as the perk at the lowest tier. A dollar a month, 25 cents an episode, every single patron who's a patron has the right to ask questions. And I used to be able to ask all of them, and now I've got like 7,000 patrons so I kind of figure out the wackiest ones and the most common ones. So I ask their questions and I say their names and the great part about that is as I feel like people really do feel engaged and part of the process. And then also it clues me in. If everyone's asking this one question about a penguin and I don't know what they're talking about, it's great. Because I wouldn't have known about that penguin meme if all these people didn't ask. So it's really good, it helps me out too.

Mikel Ellcessor: That's the thing that's really worth calling out, I think, for our listeners is,what you're doing is you're turning to your community. You're saying I'm going to create a very, very flat threshold for you to come in and then you've devised in the production process, you've actually turned them into an element. It's not exploitative, but it's truly crowdsourcing them. And it's helping you with both doing a little bit of the lift of the show development process, but it also gives you that much closer relationship. That distance between you and the audience is just that little bit less because you're now… you can hear them beating on the other side of the mirror and get a sense of what's really interesting to them.

Alie Ward: Yeah, absolutely. And there are just questions from people that, because I didn't have the same lived experience, I wouldn't know to ask. And I just really like them feeling that they're in on the party, that they're invited to the party. They're not just watching in the audience, but they're milling around the big dinner party. That felt important to me. And it's great because there are so many listeners’ names that I know. And when they write me a letter or an email or something, I was like, Okay yeah, this is this person. Because I've said their name aloud, sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly. And if they tell me that I'm happy to say it better the next time. It really does feel like it's a big kind of happy family. And  I didn't really realize when I started that that perk for patrons would be so meaningful, to really feel like they are part of the show. Because even a dollar from a lot of people is a great way to know that you are not reliant on corporate sponsors or the whims of a network. To know that I could do this probably forever is like, Phewf, I sleep a lot easier at night.

Mikel Ellcessor: Yeah. I mean, this is a thing that at Supercast that just absolutely drives us, just this belief that the communities, the fans can absolutely power these shows and that creators that have that singular vision, that have worked and they've devoted themselves to their craft and they've developed their voice, you don't need the biggest audience to have a supportive audience that can actually fuel the show. Which, because you started with a paid membership almost from the beginning, you've seen that you don't have to get to that mega number before it kicks in and it starts being worthwhile.

Alie Ward: Yeah, some of the best advice I got was my friend, Cara Santa Maria is another science communicator, she hosts the podcast Talk Nerdy. She's also on Skeptic’s Guide. And I was asking her before I started Ologies should I wait and do my Patreon later when I've got more of a following? And she was like, no, do it now. Do it immediately before you start. That was one regret she wishes that she had started it as soon as she started Talk Nerdy. And the reason is, is because the people who are going to support you are gonna want to support you from the get-go. The most ardent fans are already there and they will spread the word too. And I think it's really special for fans to get the behind the scenes before you've even started the podcast. To be like, okay man, I've got five interviews. Anyone want to vote on what the first episode should be? Dah, dah, dah. I'm running these two logos. Which logo do? All that stuff is really cool to be, to watch a podcast sprout, and I think that patrons kind of take a lot of pride knowing that without them I may not have bought the equipment. I spent $400 to buy equipment when I first started and I freaked out wondering if it was a huge mistake and patrons knowing that some of the first patrons really funded that, I think means a lot to them. Hopefully. It means a lot to me.

Mikel Ellcessor: I like that. Because it's, and this is the thing we're going to touch on a little bit more in the premium part of this is that you are making it explicit with the paying community that they actually are part of the machine. It's not just, it's nice to have you and hey, you should do this because, but no, actually we are possible because you are participating.

Alie Ward: Yeah. And one other piece of advice I got  was don't think of Patreon as a Go Fund Me, where you're asking for donations for something. And you're humbling yourself to say, I really need this to make this thing. Think about it as what are you giving to folks that is worth a dollar or $3 or $5 a month? What perks are you giving to them? Asking what you would want as a listener is really great. And then I think it makes you feel good about when you are expanding your base, because you're thinking great, this is more people that are getting this cool premium content or getting early access or getting to have their name read on the show or whatever, instead of begging as an artist, as a creator, because as artists and creators, hopefully if you're making something that means a lot to you it'll mean a lot to other people.

Mikel Ellcessor: If you could do something over again with your paid membership program, what would you do differently?

Alie Ward: Oh my gosh, time machine. First off, I would interview a chronotechnologist for a time machine and go back. The biggest thing I would do differently is I wouldn't make physical deliverables. I was so ambitious and I was like, I will write everyone a letter. And then you get so invested in making the actual show that you just start to fret that you haven't sent out letters and so it starts to stress you out. So I think, try to make your deliverables really realistic. If you don't envision yourself making a bunch of handwritten letters, don't put that as the top tier. Make something digital, just so you know that you are fulfilling it, is my biggest thing. Although I did write a bunch of hand drawn letters, one person who is an Ologite and a patron got my signature and a shark that I drew her tattooed on her arm. So it definitely has value, but just don't over promise, I think. And I do say that…

Mikel Ellcessor: It's much better. I couldn't help myself. Like it was just better than a Nike swoosh carved into your hair cut.

Alie Ward: Yeah, it was definitely a surprise to me, but I would say, think about what you actually have time to do. Think about what you would want from a creator. I tell my top tier patrons that I can be their emergency contact. So far no one has actually hit me up for that but I like to think in my heart, I am.

Mikel Ellcessor: So what's up next for you and for the show?

Alie Ward: Oh crap, such good questions. So we are starting a couple of new things, which are really exciting. But one thing we're starting is in our same feed, some short form, kind of Radiolab shorts actually and they're cut downs of longer episodes so you get just kind of like the best highlight parts. So if you want a refresher or if you don't have as much time. So we're introducing those soon, they’re called SmOlogies, S M O L O G I E S. And so those will be coming out in the next couple of months. So that'll be fun that people can either relisten or intro in that way.

Mikel Ellcessor: It just makes me so happy that somebody else is unabashed about making dad jokes right out in the open. So thank you for that.

Alie Ward: That's part. That's why they call me dad Ward is shameless puns. So many.

Mikel Ellcessor: I'm feeling it. This is really great. Okay. So for our Supercasters premium listeners, we've got the bonus section coming up here where I'm going to be asking Alie about something that she's done with the paid members that is truly singular and it shouldn't be. It's one of these things that seems small, but reveals a lot that's important and I think contains the essence of why Ologies is such a healthy content community. So if you'd like to listen to that, you can sign up for Supercaster’s premium feed at premium.supercast.com. It's free. You'll get it in your podcast player and a couple of taps. No special apps. Download a hundred percent free. It's really been a pleasure speaking with you today, Alie. Thank you so much for coming onto the show.

Alie Ward: Oh, I'm honored. Honestly. Very honored. Thank you for noticing Ologies.

Mikel Ellcessor: So if somebody listening at home, their Google is broken, how do they find you on the internet?

Alie Ward: Oh, @Ologies on Twitter, on Instagram also. Ologies.com forwards to Alie ward.com/ologies. So just O L O G I E S. Boom. There you go.

Mikel Ellcessor: Do it up folks. Okay. That's it for right now, we're going to see you in the premium feed in just a minute, Alie. Thanks a lot. Have a great day.