Daily Detroit is proving there’s a market for local podcasts

Jer Staes monetizes his podcast through a mixture of local business advertising and paid memberships.

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In early 2020, a few weeks before the pandemic shutdown, Jer Staes was sitting at a Detroit bar and chatting with the bartender. Suddenly, a stranger from nearby asked, “Wait, are you Jer?”

Confused, Staes confirmed that’s who he was. “Lo and behold, it was a listener of my podcast who was there with his sister,” he recalled. The person had managed to identify him by the sound of his voice. “He and his dad worked together, and he told me that they both listened to my podcast every morning when driving to their shop. So I started having drinks with him and I ended up meeting his dad at another place later in the night.”

For Staes, this incident illustrated the power of audio and its superiority over other mediums. “There is another level of connection that you have when people can hear your voice,” he told me. While producing his podcast, Daily Detroit, every weekday for the past few years, he’s seen how that connection quickly leads to real influence; not only has he interviewed mayors, governors, and celebrities, but he’s also built out a robust advertising and membership business. What started as a side hobby soon grew enough of a following that he was able to quit his corporate communications job to work on it full time. 

Daily Detroit’s success is also evidence that there’s a market for local news podcasts. Most of the high profile news podcasts — The New York Times’ The Daily being the most prominent example — operate at the national level, and many local newspapers, thus far, have only dabbled in the audio medium. Staes proved that both the audience and revenue were there, and so I interviewed him to get a better understanding of how he built it.

Before there was a podcast, there was a Facebook page

Staes wasn’t a stranger to local Detroit journalism. In 2010 he took a job at an organization called the Detroit Regional News Hub, a non profit that operated as a sort of PR agency for the city, connecting outside journalists who were reporting on Detroit  with local sources and information. “It was funded by a group called Business Leaders for Michigan,” said Staes. Whenever Detroit was in the national news, whether because of its automotive sector or a major sporting event, the Detroit Regional News Hub could connect journalists to sources or even take them on tours of the city. “It sort of had a similar role to a visitor’s bureau.”  

After that job, Staes went to work with the communications team at an IT staffing agency. It was a role he was good at but didn’t necessarily find exciting. While drinking at a bar in Corktown one day, he and a few of his friends discussed the idea of launching a local blog, something that was fun to read and didn’t take itself too seriously. Though they did end up launching a blog, the real success came from the Facebook page associated with it; it managed to attract several thousand followers within its first few months. 

The Facebook pages for most local news outlets simply link to stories on their websites, but Staes understood early on that Facebook users were more likely to share and engage with content that was native to Facebook. So while Daily Detroit’s Facebook page, which now has over 67,000 followers, does sometimes publish URLs to its website, it mainly shares photos, memes, and posts from other local pages. For instance, on the day that I’m writing this, the Daily Detroit Facebook page shared a photo from a nearby fish and wildlife conservation office that shows a man lying beside an absolutely gigantic fish he caught in the Detroit River. The Daily Detroit post has over 1,000 likes, comments, and shares.

Growing a podcast audience

Though Daily Detroit published content across several mediums — including multiple social media platforms and an email newsletter — Staes eventually decided that a podcast was the best way to amass a loyal audience and monetize it. There was only one problem: a daily podcast is too labor intensive to run as a side hustle. “I concluded that if I'm going to try something in local media, I would need to do it now,” he said. “This is the time in my life to do it. I'm not married, and I live in Detroit, so my cost of living is low.”

Staes started producing the podcast in earnest in 2017 and pretty quickly established a consistent publishing cadence. “It's right around 20 minutes a day,” he said. “Sometimes we'll do a straight roundup of stories if there's a lot going on. Sometimes, if we want to go in depth, we will do a show that's focused on a specific issue and then run through a few quick news items at the end of it. We switch up the format a bit because we found that that's what people want.”  Depending on the day, the episode might feature a mix of straight news, commentary, and original interviews.

For the episode published on April 23, Staes brought on a guest co-host. Over the course of 22 minutes they run through seven separate segments, discussing everything from their favorite donut shops in Detroit to the local real estate market. He also likes to feature original interviews when he can. He aims to book “newsmakers,” which have included several local journalists and all the Democratic candidates for governor. “One of my mentors taught me that any story can be local if you do the work,” he said. “I had on Roman Mars because he wrote a book about cities and there are a few pages about Detroit in there. I talked to Kara Swisher about the automotive industry because Detroit is still the automotive capital of the world.”

Monetization

For Daily Detroit’s first few years, it was funded entirely by sponsorships. Staes told me he does very little cold calling and that most of his advertisers come in organically via his interactions with the community. He usually keeps it to one sponsor per episode. “Before the pandemic, we were promoting a lot of live events, because we can put butts in seats,” he said. “A few months before the pandemic we had 70 people out at this one bar downtown. Our listeners want to go places. Our audience is young in general, it's diverse. It's interested in being active in the city. It's not your traditional news audience. If you look at the data for TV news, it generally skews a lot older — you know, your 55-65 demographic.”

After the pandemic shutdowns, Daily Detroit’s advertising revenue cratered. It didn’t take Staes long to launch a Patreon account and turn to his audience for help. “I explained that the podcast is supported by members, and that local content requires local funding,” he said. Though he offered some rewards for subscribing — branded stickers and glasses, mostly — he kept nearly all the content free. “People were insanely generous. Like we had people who started becoming members at like a hundred dollars a month.”  

With the economy coming back to life, advertisers have started to return. That episode I mentioned above, for instance, was sponsored by a Detroit marketing agency. The memberships, though, are here to stay, because Staes likes having the direct connection to the community. “One of the guys who became a member, we actually helped him reunite with his long lost father. He was a guest on the show and his father found him because of it, and they reunited for the first time in like two decades.”

I asked Staes if he thought The Daily Detroit’s success could be replicated in other cities and towns, especially those that have experienced a retrenchment in local journalism. “Like any business, it's going to be a ton of work,” he said. “This isn’t a case where you just download your course and pay a thousand dollars and all of a sudden you're a success.”

Overall, Staes thinks the model can work, at least for a solo creator or a lean team. But he emphasized that this isn’t the kind of venture to take on if you’re queasy about embracing the business side of journalism. “You can't be afraid to ask your audience for money,” he said. “You might or might not get it, but you can't be afraid to ask.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.