Photographer: Al Seib/LA Times via Getty Images

You Can Listen to a Podcast for Free or Pay $100 to See It Live

  • Producers build fans, generate added revenue for digital media
  • Young embrace old-style radio programs with a modern twist

A throng of people stood in line outside the Ace theater in downtown Los Angeles, where musical acts like the Flaming Lips and Aimee Mann make regular stops.

Only this night’s rock stars were David Plotz, a sarcastic, bespectacled editor; Emily Bazelon, a journalist who writes about the law; and John Dickerson, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation.” They were there to record a live edition of their weekly podcast, Slate’s “Political Gabfest.”

Yes, people will pay to see today’s version of a radio show get recorded live. Though podcasts cater to a young generation accustomed to listening wherever they want -- mostly for free on iPhones, computers and tablets -- a growing number want to be in the audience. That’s giving podcasters a new way to attract fans and generate cash. “Political Gabfest” is charging $25 to $100 a ticket for an upcoming show in Washington.

“It’s a way of really keeping your audience engaged with the show,” said Steve Lickteig, executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. “People are so happy to be there in person and see the show that you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles.”

The success of live podcasts -- Lickteig says Slate’s make money -- is encouraging producers to dive in a bit deeper. In March, the South by Southwest interactive conference in Austin, Texas, featured a live podcast stage for the first time. A couple companies are now planning podcast festivals.

Illustration by Ping Zhu

The growth in live podcasts tracks the larger industry. The share of Americans over the age of 12 who listen to a podcast every week has grown to 15 percent from 7 percent in the last four years, according to a recent report by Edison Research. An estimated 42 million Americans listen to a podcast every week and 67 million listen every month.

Companies that produce podcasts, including Graham Holdings Co.’s Slate Group, E.W. Scripps Co.’s Midroll Media, Gimlet Media and Wondery LLC, make the bulk of their money from selling advertisements. Ad spending on podcasts is forecast to more than double by the end of the decade, surpassing $500 million, according to data sourced by Bridge Ratings.

Yet most adults don’t listen to podcasts, so producers are turning to live performances -- a proven draw in sports, music and theater. Podcasts of all sizes tested the waters at the recent South by Southwest conference, while others are arranging national tours.

“There’s a real audience engagement value that’s almost more important than revenue,” said Erik Diehn, chief executive officer of Midroll Media. “There’s just a much larger audience there waiting to listen.”

Making money from live shows is a secondary benefit, Lickteig said. The productions reward super fans who get a kick out of putting a face to a friendly voice. They also help attract new listeners who come with friends.

As the number of live podcast events surges, new entrants point to a handful of success stories as guides. The National Public Radio game show “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!” has been recording live and touring for years. The weekly quiz program travels across the country, and fans can stream it or buy tickets to performances.

The producers of the fiction podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” staged their first show in October 2013, leading to a West Coast tour in 2014. Radiolab, a program that airs on publicly supported WNYC and is available on podcast, first offered live shows in 2008 and found a large enough audience for a 21-city tour.

Midroll’s Now Hear This festival last year drew 1,100 fans who paid to see 35 shows from companies like Slate, NPR and Midroll’s own programs. A second Now Hear This festival will take place this September in New York, the center of the advertising world.

The festival may not be profitable after one year, but organizers are betting every event will bring more fans who bring more friends. The idea is that a larger audience will draw more sponsors, and as the popularity spreads marketing costs will fall.

“It’s something repeatable,” Diehn said. “You establish the festival, you grow the brands. Every year gets a little bit easier.”

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