How We Got Radiolab Listeners to Pay for $80,000 Episodes with Mikel Ellcessor - S1E05

Nov 20, 2020
Jason Sew Hoy

Radiolab co-founder Mikel Ellcessor shares insights & learnings from creating one of the most iconic podcasts of all time, with over $6 million raised directly from the audience.

Radiolab is one of the most popular podcasts of all time. With each episode costing $80,000 to make, how does Radiolab cover its entire production? By asking their listeners to pay for it.

Radiolab co-founder Mikel Ellcessor shares insights and learnings from creating one of the most iconic podcasts of all time, with over $6 million raised directly from the audience.

Through his leadership, Radiolab became what it is now: a two-time Peabody award winner that focuses on the investigation of big ideas told through sounds and stories. Mikel now helps teams build their content, communication and monetization strategies through his company Limina House.

Key Takeaways

  • 🤯 The future is paying for podcasts: Mikel explains how Radiolab's success is a great example for any show to follow.
  • 🎁 Attracting advertisers is really difficult: Get listeners to pay directly and be specific about what they'll get.
  • 🚀 Bring listeners in on your mission: Let them understand what your stake in the matter is and why you want to do it, so they get what's in it for them.
  • 💰 Interrogate your relationship with money: Don't make the mistake of conflating fundraising success with your sense of self-worth. It's not just to “support the podcast.”

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Jason Sew Hoy: Hey everyone. Welcome to Supercasters. I'm Jason Sew Hoy, co-founder and CEO of Supercast. And on this show, we interview world-class podcasters, deconstruct their growth strategies and find out how they build sustainable independent businesses that thrive on a strong relationship with their listeners. In this episode, I'm speaking with Mikel Ellcessor, an independent producer who has an incredible track record of helping teams form their original podcast strategy.

Mikel's the co-founder of the critically acclaimed Radiolab podcast, a two-time Peabody award winner that focuses on the investigation of big ideas told through sounds and stories. But Mikel's experience runs much deeper than that, having also worked on Freakonomics Radio, On the Media, Two Dope Queens and all the shows at WNYC Studios. 

He now helps teams build their content, communication, and monetization strategies through his company, Limina House. If you want to connect with Mikel on Twitter, it's at Mikel Ellcessor.  M I K E L E L L C E S S O R. Did I get that right, Mikel?

Mikel Ellcessor: Exactly. It's just one of those names.

Jason Sew Hoy: Well, Sew Hoy, Sew Hoy is not the easiest to read out over the waves either. But yeah. Welcome to the show. Great to have you.

Mikel Ellcessor: It's a real pleasure, Jason. Thank you for this.

Jason Sew Hoy: So maybe for the people that aren't familiar with you, would love to just kind of hear from you how did you get into podcasting?

How did Mikel Ellcessor get into podcasting?

Mikel Ellcessor: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm an old radio hand. I came up through the world of radio when you could get in with no college degree, no background, no nothing. Found myself in a studio at 14 years old and so the light is about to turn red and you better have something to say. It's been basically downhill  ever since that, just sort of finding my ways into studios and with creative people. Spent many, many years launching and growing community radio stations in Pittsburgh and other places. 

Eventually was at WNYC in the late nineties. And soon after I was the program director at WNYC on 9/11. Soon thereafter, after we had grown the station quite a bit, and we had this show called On the Media, which we were really passionate about because we had some fantastic hosts with Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield and Arun Roth was our senior producer and the show was just on fire and we still weren't happy with the adoption that we were getting at local public radio stations.

They were saying they liked it, but they just weren't sort of picking it up as fast. And we felt that the show, especially in those post 9/11 years, could really add a lot to people's lives.  Just from being in the parts of the internet where the early days of podcasting was happening and where people were talking about it, we decided to just try it as an experiment. And so in very, very, very early 2005, we did what everybody was doing at that time is we dropped the On the Media audio file into an RSS feed. And in about 60 days, we had as many people listening to the On the Media podcast as if we had picked up three major market public radio stations.

So it was just one of those times when the technology and the audience really met themselves. But it was ridiculously early. It was right as Apple was updating iTunes and the initial folding in of podcasting into iTunes and the diesel-powered iPods that you had to use to sync up, it was just really, really early. And so we got in, we reached a lot of people. We felt that made a difference. But it wasn't until everything else has been better documented than I could ever spell out, that we saw really the real potential of mobile on-demand audio. 

Jason Sew Hoy: That's amazing. And I would love to know as somebody who was right at the forefront of that wave, that, shift of radio to digital and podcasting, has that happened faster than you expected, slower than you expected? I would love to know your perspective on that.

Did the shift from radio to podcasting happen faster than expected?

Mikel Ellcessor: We thought it was going to really ripple out quickly. And we were very wrong. There was just a lot of adoption needed to happen. And like I said, it's a… very, very smart people have documented this and written about it. And I have to agree. I mean, I think what we needed was the ubiquity of a higher powered handset that you were just going to have attached to you all the time and mobile networks. We just needed that layer of strength of computing power in your hand and the ability to get access to it quickly and cheaply. It's like all of the friction of the end user, that final step for the user, needed to get worked out. And then now we still have other issues that are needing to get worked out for, I think, for it to go to the next and the next and the next levels of adoption and cultural impact.

So discovery, broadening out the people who are actually making this content. And when people talk about, why are only certain people listening or why hasn't it reached into certain communities? And, and I think it's because we still have overall a fairly narrow maker base. It's still a lot of white folks coming from specific backgrounds. Even though it's expanded way beyond the post-public radio world, and we've seen lots of really, really strong creative, commercially based makers come into the space, we still just need to see so much more growth for who's making the material and that's going to do a lot to help bring new folks into the medium.

So fixing discovery from a technological point of view, getting more people making it. So that will welcome more folks in, and then just a wider base of genres. Like we still don't have a strong fiction category in podcasting. Fiction is incredibly important to people's lives. Narrative stories, the hero stories that we tell ourselves, are what sustain us as cultures and communities, but we haven't really cracked fiction yet.  The three things that I walk around thinking about that might really get us to go up to the next layers of adoption and importance and cultural impact. Those are the things that I think about a lot that would make it go faster.

Jason Sew Hoy: Interesting. If I could ask a little bit further on one of those, what do you think is in terms of the next step of broadening out that creator base  when you're thinking about that. What are the next steps that you think we need to take as an industry?

What are the next steps the podcasting industry needs to take?

Mikel Ellcessor: Well, I mean, that really kind of ties really closely to what we're going to be talking about. So I'm here today, as you know, if you have an ad-based model, advertisers are comfortable buying advertising on certain types of media. And we have seen historically, media that comes from communities that aren't sort of majority white spaces, it's just harder for them to attract advertising. So the people who place advertising, the people who sell advertising, the people who are buying advertising, they tend to be from, like I said, certain communities. And, when we see that still shaping the advertising curve in podcasting, it's just behaving like the rest of media. The ability for makers and the communities to build monetization, to build revenue, to build communal support networks independent of the ad model will do a lot, I think, to broaden out and diversify who's making it because they're going to find new ways to support themselves that don't rely on the ad world.

This is what it is. I don't think it's any big grand scheme. I think it's just stuff that's been observed and really well documented over the years of just how narrow the world can be unless there's a lot of pressure put upon it to change.  I think then the advertising world will change and will adapt rather to welcome new makers once there's a demonstrated impact.

Jason Sew Hoy: Right. Absolutely. Okay. And then, I would love to know,  Radiolab is a big brand. And a lot of our listeners will know that show, admire that show. How did you get started co-founding that?

How did Radiolab get started?

Mikel Ellcessor: That was very much a post 9/11 experience. So the station that I was at at the time, WNYC, was just a couple of blocks from the event. So we were actually forced out of our building when 9/11 happened, Jad was working there at the time on a show. And as we got back into the studios and we were looking around at what were we going to do that could speak to where we were at the time, speak to what New York City was feeling like in 2002, Jad and I just started talking and there were so many experiments that were happening with people gathering together documentary work from around the world and kind of curating these documentary shows.

And that's really how Radiolab started. And we spent a long time, and Jad's talked about this really, really well in a number of public talks that he's given, about just how frankly bad the show sucked for a long period of time until we figured out the voice and and Jad found his voice. And the thing that I'm just happiest about is that there was the opportunity to create an environment around him so that he could have time to work and develop his voice. That nothing could ever be taken away from how hard that man worked and continues to work to continue to evolve his voice.

And then he's created space for all of these other folks to come in and grow themselves as audio artists and as storytellers and as journalists. So he's just kind of kept paying it back and paying it back. So that's what we were really facing is, we were looking around at life that felt very upended right after 9/11, and then looking at 2002 and saying, how could we do something that felt really contemporary?

And we wanted to highlight these voices and then over time, this great storyteller stepped to the front. And my job was to make sure that he had the resources that he needed and we helped to grow the brand. And then eventually, Ellen Horne came in as the executive producer and I stepped back from the show and Ellen was the person that worked with Jad for the years when  the thing that people now think of as Radiolab really emerged and grew and Robert Krulwich came in and just so many talented people joined the staff. 

I rejoined Radiolab when I was back working with WNYC Studios a few years ago and stepped back into a support role for them on the business and monetization side. And it was really great to reconnect with the show after being gone for a decade, and having all of these new really extraordinary people to interact with and to have this, what I still think is maybe the best audience community in the world grown up around it. And to start a much more mature conversation with them about, OK, here we are. We're kind of passionate about going out in the world and being curious and asking questions and playing with sound and just how good it feels to have your brain kind of sparking now, how can we find new ways to pay for it?

With an audience of the size and the passion of Radiolabs, we were able to get in there and do some pretty radical experiments and really figure out, I think, some important things about how to create a really equitable relationship with an audience. I think the reciprocity is really super important. So yeah, it's been a long, long path of being with the show and then stepping away from the show and then coming back to it. And now, having stepped back away from it for a while and watching what Jad has done with Dolly Parton's America and subsequent seasons of the Supreme Court show and and everything else that they're doing, I mean, I think they're still going from strength to strength.

Jason Sew Hoy: Yeah, absolutely. In the early days, when did you realize, when did the team realize that it was going to be something much bigger than maybe originally envisioned? Was there a moment or was it just kind of an organic gradual increase?

When did Radiolab realize it was going to be a big success?

Mikel Ellcessor: It was very slow. I mean, Radiolab really is a case study in slow organic growth. There were moments that we would see where something would spark with the audience. But it was a very long process and I think that's a really important thing to always keep as part of the conversation is the degree to which creativity is a daily practice. You have to stay in and stay in it and stay in. It's really, it's the practice of welcoming in, being like water on stone in your life. And you just have to stay there and stay with it and be water on stone and and look for those moments where you can find them.

But it really tests you around belief and perseverance and getting strong with the unknown and just getting strong with looking in the mirror and knowing that that self doubt is really, really large because sometimes you have to go for a long time without a lot of signal coming back from the world about how you’re doing.

Jason Sew Hoy: Right. And, I think that is really important. And takes me back to the thought that you had earlier, that you said Jad took him self-admittedly a long time to find that voice and to tune that voice and  turn it into a kind of the next level of hosting for Radiolab. And I was just thinking about that and wondering what were the feedback loops in that process? How was he able to or you were able to kind of guide him on, Hey, I think we need to kind of hit in this direction and try this instead of continuing to do what we've done in the past.

How did Radiolab receive feedback?

Mikel Ellcessor: I can speak to the time that I was working with him most closely, because really by the time that Robert came into the scene, I mean, that's when the real leaps forward again, in the form that people would understand is Radiolab, now took place. And I wasn't there for that. And so I'm really hesitant to talk about those times. I mean, I was in touch with Jad and I'm aware of those things, but I would really want him to be able to describe that. Again, the thing that I just consistently always think of in all of my time with him is, just how incredibly hard he, and how willing he is to keep going back and inward. And this is with all of the talent these days. And one of the things that I'm always looking for with folks is their willingness to turn back inward and ask hard questions of themselves about  what are their true motivations?

What is their true self? What are they actually trying to accomplish? And when you strip back ego and fame and trying to get the outside to give you your insides, what is really coming from inside around that expression. And I think the people who are willing to dig into that are the ones that are best set up to reach into a lot of people's lives. Because there's just an honesty that's really there. When we launched the show and when we were growing the show, there was a real emphasis on serving other makers. We knew, as funky as it was to be on an AM frequency in New York City where the power would go down at a certain point after sunset, and it's just as weird as it all was, we knew that we were providing a platform for makers and we were really, really passionate in that kind of service mission. And we knew that they were telling stories that mattered. We wanted to get their work to these folks in New York, and it was a city that really needed, I think something different at that time.

Lower Manhattan still smelled like 9/11 for a long time. We were all with that. And so I think that the passion to serve is really important. The passion to remember that creativity is incredibly important. And then over time it was about figuring out, right? How do we hone that and target it? How do we go from like a 12-gauge shotgun blast at the side of a barn to do a laser point, then just keep honing and refining and focusing, but always focusing with the question of, how do you do the craft better? How do you reach deeper into people's lives? And how do you test yourself?

Jason Sew Hoy: Yeah, that's really interesting. I imagine, part of your role as you described it for was giving Jad the space to be able to do that discovery over an extended period of time.  How do you make that space and what are the kinds of conversations that  you had with Jad as he was going through that process of discovery and, when doubt creeps in and all that sort of stuff, how do you keep the ship pointed in kind of a positive direction?

How did Radiolab manage self-doubt?

Mikel Ellcessor:  I think it's the thing that we do for each other in so many ways in our lives,  that it's a practice of number one, listening, making room for somebody to come in and say the thing. Let them just say the thing, whatever is there for them, whatever's really sort of strong and powerful and present is be able to close the door and let them just say the thing and, let it be okay.

Let them talk about whatever's scaring them, let them talk about what's exciting them. Let them talk about the crazy thing that they did there that if they tell somebody they'll get laughed out of the room. Let somebody have room to say, I don't know. How many places do we go in the world, Jason, where it's really OK to walk in and say, yeah, I just don't know. I really don't know. I don't know what to do. And that maybe that scares me though, whatever the unattractive emotion is. I think making room for all of that, but then it's also like being a cheerleader. Somebody's got to stand outside, and say, yes, this is great.Let's keep going. 

And then also be willing to take it out into the world. That's where I get paid. I really love that I get the privilege of being in the lives of incredibly talented people. And that what I'm asked to do is to spend all day thinking about how do we get very large numbers of people to be excited about them, because I believe in them and I want lots and lots and lots of people to be touched by them. I've never been somebody’s manager, it's not an aspiration. It's not like that, but I do believe that that's really important for us, to create that space around people and to hold room for them, that emotionally as creative people, but then also to be there on the business side, to say, I'm going to find the money for you.

I'm going to be the firewall when people are scratching around and saying, show me a dashboard for that is to figure that out. And to be a strong advocate for them behind those closed doors. And then to be able to take that message back and to be able to speak to the maker in a way that says, here's how we have to interact with the organization. Being the interlocutor, that's a job that needs to get done. I think that's where makers and people who do the kinds of things that I do, that's when we become, we can become pretty good partners.

Jason Sew Hoy: Absolutely. Yeah. I think partners is absolutely the critical word there and actually speaks a lot to…because it's not just partnerships between the business side and the creative side. The exciting thing about this conversation and just generally listening support is it's also a partnership with the audience. So I'd love to dive into this side of things, the business side, the audience models that you've played a strong hand in pioneering. And actually  on the Limina House website, I noticed that you very boldly proclaim that the future is about paying for podcasts. Something that very much resonates with our team. I would just love to hear a little bit more about why you're so passionate about listener support for podcasting.

Why is Mikel Ellcessor so passionate about listener support?

Mikel Ellcessor: Yeah, well, I've watched it work. I've watched it work. At WNYC Studios, we took the experience that we had acquired from doing I don't know many, many, many, many, many tens of thousands of hours of on air fundraisers, which are the legendary and baneful world of public radio. Most of them really suck. It's usually done really badly. It's really, it's often extremely self-centered and needy and not very audience-centric. And there a lot of sins that get committed through on-air fundraising and in public radio, but over time, the audience, if you're listening, they teach you what words to use. They teach you how they want to be asked. 

They teach you what the values are of the work. And I think that's one of the most important things  to be paying attention, because  it's when you have that value match between the maker who says, this is why I'm doing it, this is what animates me. And when the audience says, Oh, this is what speaks to me, this is what gets me to give you a slice of the most valuable thing that I have, which is a couple of minutes of my life. Then you've met sort of around values and when you can figure out where that is, when you can listen carefully and have a conversation with them and really test your language and study what they're saying, when they write to you and really get down to the emotional core of that, really ask what are those emotional needs that are being met?

Then you can start to get yourself into a truer space for developing that  reciprocal relationship between the maker and the audience where it's truly I do for you as you do for me. And I think it's a really humbling process. You have to go through a lot of ego reduction to listen like that with the audience and to make yourself open and to ask for that. And then study. Study your ass off about what are the signals that are coming back from them and in lots of different ways. And then change. And then adapt and then change, and be willing to kill your darlings. Because I've had hundreds of scripts or spots or strategies that you just have to trash because I thought it was great, the team thought it was great and it just was a flop so you have to just chuck that and keep going.

Jason Sew Hoy: Right. And, maybe in terms of the experiments, we're going to deep dive a little bit into this later in the premium section, but I would love to know how did that all start? What was the very first experiment in terms of asking for donations and how did you make that decision to go in that direction?

How did Radiolab start asking for listener donations?

Mikel Ellcessor: So they had already started fundraising when I came back around to start working at WNYC Studios again, so they had started fundraising during the Radiolab podcast and doing a few of the others. And they were doing variations on what you would do on-air during a public radio broadcast. They were doing sort of versions of that. And so I would say that there were a couple of things that we focused on right away that we started pushing. One ws we recognized that the podcast, it seems so obvious, but it really took us a minute to figure it out. How unique the podcast experience is, physically. It's not the open air distracted multi-purpose experience of terrestrial radio.

You've made a conscious choice to dive into this thing. And maybe you've even set aside some time during the day, like I know this activity goes well with this listening experience. So you start really getting very clear and very specific about what's happening there and then start asking. All right, well, what would be the form function of the message that would fit in really well there? The thing that I think was really the breakthrough for us is that we decided that we were going to push hard on production. Is that we were gonna sweat these things down like you would if you had the contract for Ford and you were going to make the F150 commercial that was going to play during the Super Bowl. You wouldn't wing that. 

You wouldn't go into the studio… I mean, you really sweat every detail on that. And I think we saw the first wave of really major results jumps start to happen when across all of the shows, but especially Radiolab, when we upped our game on our production. We sweated the scripts and instead of however many, two or three or five edits, we were getting up to 10 or 12 or 15 edits. I mean, there was a script that Jad and I edited more than 20 times once and tracked it, oh gosh, definitely many more than a dozen times. So we really started sweating that at the next level. 

And then we started saying, we're going to make this an extremely rewarding experience for the listener. We're going to make this audio sound fantastic. We're going to record it beautifully. We're going to score it. We're going to pace it. We're going to use sound. We're just going to make it cinematic as hell or whatever fits with the brand of that show. So with Freakonomics, a Freakonomics radio listener is coming beause they want Stephen Dubner to speak to them directly. So anything that you're doing that gets in the way of Stephen Dubner speaking to you, you're screwing it up. 

If you get in the room and Phoebe and Jessica from Two Dope Queens want to take flight and they've got a direction that they want to go, if you get in the way of that, you're screwing it up. You've got to recognize what the brand is, play to that, understand what's the nature of the relationship between the maker and the listener. What's the thing that they're providing that the listener is there to receive. Don't mess that up, support that. But also up it and hone it and make it this, it's that whole thing of like coal that receives all of that pressure and all of that heat becomes a diamond.

That's what you want to do for your hosts. You want to take all of the things that the audience loves about them and put that heat and that pressure on it so that it becomes this compact diamond of quality content. Look, what are you doing? You're going into a space where you're saying like, this is what's going to provide us with the economic engine to keep working. What else are you doing that's more important than that? If you're not willing to strive for excellence with that, if you're not willing to do the hard work for that, then why the hell should anybody give you their money?

Jason Sew Hoy: Yeah. As opposed to it just being that last minute afterthought that you're throwing in there somewhat reluctantly and I guess that all comes across in the voice, right. And so I would love to know if you've got any perspective on what people would commonly get wrong when they're trying to ask for money from the listeners.

What do creators get wrong when asking for money?

Mikel Ellcessor: Yeah, look, I think one of the biggest things you've got to interrogate your own relationship with money. That's that looking in the mirror and that's getting really, really honest with people that host. I came out of the booth. I'm not a journalist, I'm not an independent producer in the way that most of the folks who were making podcasts these days are, but I did on-air radio every day for a decade, so I really know what we're asking for when we ask somebody to step behind a microphone  and reveal themselves. There's like a lot that has to happen there. And then we're going to ask them to talk about money.  A lot of folks make the mistake of conflating the results that they get around a funding ask with their sense of personal self-worth, or whether people think that their work is worth supporting.

And those things  should not be conflated. Because there's so many other things that come into play. You may not have done an ask that spoke to the needs of the listener. The listener may not actually have the funds. It may have hit them at the wrong time. They may be in agreement with you, but they may not understand how important it is because you just haven't been emphatic enough. You maybe haven't been specific enough when you make that ask. There's a really big difference between saying, we can't make this podcast without your support to saying every person that puts $7 a month into this podcast are making it possible for us to tell unimaginable stories and these stories can't be told unless you give $7 a month.

I mean, there's a world of difference between that really vague, what I consider to be sort of copping out language to actually saying what the damn thing is. You have to interrogate your relationship with money. Really look yourself hard in the mirror and say, well, do I actually really believe that the work I'm doing is worth supporting? If you can't answer that question emphatically yes, then you should probably be doing a harder, deeper look at what you're actually doing. Should you still be doing this? Because if it's not worth supporting well, I mean, that's great. That's great for you. You can just keep making it, but don't be asking people.

Don't waste their time and don't waste your time. So be really honest with yourself about that. And if you're saying to yourself, well, maybe it's not really worth supporting, there might be some other questions to be asked that's between you and your therapist. But I think you can't skirt that inquiry. 

Because I've watched so many hosts really crash on those rocks, Jason, because they just have not gotten honest with that. They've got their own blockages about money and in their own life and that shows up in the booth when they come in to make that ask. You've got to clear that away. And then be really clear about the craft of the ask. That's the other big mistake that I see people make is, and we've talked a little bit about this already is, this ask  has to cut through, it has to be specific and it has to be actionable. If you don't do those things, if you don't kind of do the work to make it succeed on all of those, then the people probably most people are never going to respond no matter what you do. You could say if a hundred people give $7 a month, I am going to reveal the secrets of life. Still might not get a hundred. 

Jason Sew Hoy: Yeah, that's great advice. Once donations were available. How did that affect your connection with your listeners? Is there any difference in how you think about keeping that connection, serving the paying audience better? Or do you try to resist kind of segmenting like that?

How did listener support influence Radiolab's relationship with its audience?

Mikel Ellcessor: Yeah, this is a thing I'm watching a lot of people talk about these days, where I think I look at it differently than some people. I'm overwhelmingly somebody that leans into, people give you money because they appreciate the work and they want the work to continue. And first and foremost, that's what's happening. … They're giving that money because they support the work and they want that to continue. Some of them will want more stuff. Some of them will want more experiences. But mostly what they want is for you to keep doing what you're doing. And I think being clear and specific with folks about why you make what you make, what you want to accomplish in the world, bring them in on your mission, bring them into your heart and let them understand what your stake in the matter is.

I mean, that is that kind of risky, vulnerable open-hearted approach that I think that in my experience is very attracting and it draws people in. And there's so many ways you can do it. It can be funny. It doesn't have to be like, Oh, like a big heart on the sleeve kind of thing. It's whatever is natural and true for you, but yeah. Let people know why you are really making what you're making and what you want to have happen in the world and why you do it. So they really get what's in it for them. They can see themselves then as part of this larger endeavor. And that's where we really went with Radiolab is we said to people we're here because we are endlessly curious. And we are fascinated by sound and we just believe it's possible to do all of this differently. And you're here because you believe that too, whether you've thought about it that way or not. That's why you've given us just a little bit of time in your life. And if you want more of that, it's a really simple thing.

All you have to do is this one very simple thing. And then you get more of that. You get so much of it. So really get specific with folks about what's the value that you bring to the world. What's the role that it plays in their life. And be generous, open your heart and be generous when you make that ask. Then I don't know if you want to do special events. If you want to do merchandise, if you want to do a Slack channel, like all of those other things, just make sure that they're genuinely on brand with who you really are. I think the guys that acquired a show that I support, having their limited partners Slack community, it's so rigorously on brand for a show that's about startups that go to acquisition and it hits that community exactly where it lives. It's branded as limited partners in exactly the way they are. I think there are just so many ways that people can do that. 

I've had people come to me and say, well, we want to do an object as a thank-you gift for the show, but you know what we're really trying to maximize our net revenues. We wanted to just do something cheap and cheerful. That's to me, it's always been Oh, well, that's like really putting language to you saying Oh, I really disrespect the audience because I'm going to thank them for supporting our work by giving them something cheap and cheerful. A thank-you gift can be inexpensive, but it can also be memorable and kind and meaningful. I think these things are really important. 

They sound really, I think, picky and everything else maybe to some people but I think we're asking people to do something so out of the rhythm of their normal lives, and especially now with where the economy is, where media choices are, with so much that is around us and yet we are still needing so much as a society, we still need so much in our media world, that if you're going to ask people to give up some money, you've got to come to that relationship with a lot of gratitude, and be the one that risks first and come with that kind of generosity of spirit, or else you should just really find something some other way to monetize.

Jason Sew Hoy: Amazing advice. Just on that note, were donations the only thing you tried? Were there other ways to monetize that you're experimented with as well?

Other than donations, how else did Radiolab make money?

Mikel Ellcessor: We did events, like sweepstakes kinds of things and they could be fun. So we flew people into New York City to do a bowling night at a really cool lane over in Brooklyn. Events can be great. I think you should try everything. I just think with each one of those, you should get really, really honest about what is the net return and be really ruthless about cataloging your hours and sweat that P and L. Events, as all kinds of people in the not-for-profit world will tell you, are relationship-growing exercises, they're rarely true net bottom line enhancing things. 

I love branded merchandise, but it's gotta build the tribe. It's gotta be the thing that people want to show off in their … If we ever have cubes at work or whatever. It's gotta be a manifestation of the tribalism that they're a part of. A hundred dollars to get a ceramic coffee mug that’s dropshipped from China… but if it's got the right branding and if it really is an expression of that, then it can be great. And I see shows do some really interesting things around all of that that really shows that they get the true nature of their brand and they get how to surprise and delight the audience and how to make that tribe really thrive.

Jason Sew Hoy: I noted at the beginning of this conversation. You refer to the tribe, the Radiolab tribe is the best audience community in the world. And so maybe this is just a great place to circle back and I'd love to know what it is about that tribe that leads you to that conclusion?  


Why is the Radiolab audience the best community in the world?

Mikel Ellcessor: The reason why I always say that about them and you there's so many shows, Nightvale, This American Life, so many shows that have just incredible audiences, you know, the Thirst Trap Women. I mean, they're just…there's so many that come to mind, that you can just tell they've tapped something in the life of the audience and that there's real reciprocity there, symbiosis there between them. I love that so much.

For us with Radiolab, at the end of the day, what was consistently made available, the promise was, and that we worked really, really, really hard to fulfill on that promise is we're gonna make it give you something that's memorable, that's worth every minute that you're going to get it, that it's gonna add to your life. It'll probably be fun, or if it's not fun, it will be meaningful and resonant. And we respect you. We're just asking for 60 bucks for that, that's it. 

And if you give 60 bucks, we will keep doing that. And then we were really hard on ourselves about living up to that promise. And in the way that Jad and the team have created new shows and brought in new producers who could tell stories in different ways and gone into new topic areas. I mean, I think they've just continued to prove over and over and over again that they're worth the promise that they've made, which is that we respect you. We want to make this a meaningful place to spend your time and if you do your part, we'll do ours. And so it didn't get confused with like, what's the geegaw or what's the crap that we're going to send out in the mail or what's the this or what’s the that. It just really became about, I'll scratch your back, you'll scratch mine. 

If you really kind of focus on that and get really good articulating your mission and especially articulating your mission through the life of the listener, a lot can happen. Pretty magic things can happen. There's a lot of work that has to happen to be able to lift yourself up from getting yourself out of that producer head, which is all I'll tell you what the value of it is through my eyes as a producer. But no, you've got to say this is what you get. So with Phoebe and Jessica, it was like, we're two black women. We are comics. We are living our lives as women in New York City, trying to make ourselves through the world professionally, we're going to have fun. We're going to call out all the bullshit. 

And that's why you're here for the ride is that this was a unique place for you to stop. And you're going to get something that was really going to talk to you, or you're going to get a view into a world that you wouldn't be able to get access to. And where are we going to go for brunch? So they just had this incredible, intuitive sense of the life of their listener and how to talk to them about what they were doing with Two Dope Queens through the lens of the listener's life.

Jason Sew Hoy: Okay. Wow. We are going to wrap up the main episode now, but we cannot stop here. I mean, if you're like me and are really, really enjoying this then the Supercasters' premium feed is where you need to go because Mikel and I are going to deep dive into a bonus section that covers what Mikel learned raising $6 million from listeners and particularly how to figure out what it is that your fans might want and also how much they're prepared to pay for it. So if you'd like to listen to that, you can sign up for Supercasters premium feed at premium.supercasters. 

Mikel, a pleasure speaking with you today. Thank you so much for coming onto the show.

Mikel Ellcessor: Absolutely. And look, all the makers, thank you for doing the hard work. Thank you for looking in the mirror. Thank you for being willing to put your life under a microscope and ask these questions about how to build a healthy relationship with your audience. I mean, there are so many easier ways to make a living, and to not just focus on the craft and the art and the hustle and the sweat and the mic fails and everything else, but then to also put yourself through this as well. I'd like to say thank you. Speaking for the listeners, you make our lives a lot richer. So thanks for being willing to take on this extra layer.