This sports podcaster's listeners pay him for text messages

With the journalism industry in freefall, there’s a good chance that your local newspaper is experimenting with some kind of digital subscription offering. In many cases, this involves hitting readers with a metered paywall after they’ve consumed a pre-determined number of articles. Hundreds of newspapers have installed paywalls like this, but they’ve seen mixed results, with many reporting disappointing revenue numbers.

But is content the only thing an audience will pay for? That’s a question Doug Lesmerises, a Cleveland.com sports columnist, sought to answer. A few years ago he co-founded a popular sports podcast called Buckeye Talk but had a difficult time attracting advertisers. Then some executives from his newspaper’s parent company approached him with a new product called Subtext. It provides a simple way to allow paying subscribers to exchange text messages with Doug and other hosts.

The service was a surprise hit, and Doug now uses the app to crowdsource questions for the podcast and send his paying subscribers quick-hit analysis when Ohio sports news breaks. I interviewed Doug about how he incorporated texting into his show and what other local journalism outfits can learn from his success.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player. If you scroll down you’ll also find some transcribed highlights from the interview.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How the podcast built up its initial audience

Doug and his fellow sports columnists launched the podcast in 2015. ”It's just three of us who cover Ohio State. It's mostly us sitting around talking about topics that we bring up,  five days a week. It’s called Buckeye Talk, and the listeners are the Buckeye Talk family. I'm an acquired taste. I have a big personality. And some people don't like that, but if you hang with us long enough, I think it does feel like you’re part of this family. It’s definitely personality driven.”

The podcast found an almost immediate audience. “I like to tell the story a lot that I very seldom have people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, it's you, I liked your recent column.’ That almost never happens, but they do come up and say, ‘Hey, it's you! I like the podcast.’ It became a way for people to connect to us very, very quickly. And it was raw. We did podcasts sitting in cars in the McDonald's parking lots after football games. We had fast food debates. We were really raw and rough and weird and a certain kind of person grasped onto that.”

The struggles to convert that passion into revenue

But just because Buckeye Talk had a rabid fanbase didn’t mean it was an immediate financial success. Nor did Doug’s newspaper bosses take the project very seriously. “For the first four years, I was in meetings begging for someone to pay for us to get a better microphone. I said, ‘Can we get a better microphone? Can we just get a microphone?’ And then one of the big bosses sent me a microphone. I appreciated that. So the podcast just wasn't a priority. And there were people out there who were at less established outlets than us doing popular podcasts. And we had a meeting and I said, ‘We should have the best podcasts. Cleveland.com should have the best podcasts on Cleveland and Ohio sports. Why don't we?’ And so we just did it on our own and it has been an amazing transformation to watch, since at the beginning our company just did not care at all. And now they care a lot. They care a lot right now about podcasts.”

Initially, they focused entirely on monetizing the podcast through ads, which was difficult. “It was virtually impossible for us. There was a time where my sports editor and I went around Columbus pitching potential advertisers. We went around and we sold two ads a couple of years ago. But I don't think we were equipped to sell it. We didn't really know how to package it. It was an uphill battle. We didn't know how to price it sometimes. And the result was we were doing a podcast for many, many years that we didn't make a cent on.”

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How the podcast embraced text messaging

While Doug was struggling to monetize the podcast, he constantly heard from listeners that they’d be willing to chip in money to support it. “They said, ‘we love the podcast. We would pay for it if there was a way to pay for it.’ And we were thinking, what can we do to let people give us money? And we just couldn’t figure it out. And then this text subscription model cracked open the door for us.”

The text subscription service was called Subtext, and it was developed by Cleveland.com’s parent company. It allows paying subscribers to sign up and receive text messages from the podcast hosts, but it also allows those subscribers to text back in a two-way conversation. “It costs $3.99 per month and we offer a 14 day free trial. You try to explain it to people, but you really have to give them a little taste for them to understand it. And then the idea was we will send you one or two things a day that will show up in your phone as a text. And it will be a little bit of news, some analysis, something interesting, a tidbit that we heard about the team that you love, and you don't have to go search for it. You don't have to come to our website. You don't have to be wading through the morass of what Twitter is. We come directly to you. We're just in your phone. And you could respond to the texts. And now we don't guarantee this, but then we might have a personal interaction back and forth with you as well.”

Several times a day, Doug texts out short pieces of analysis that aren’t substantial enough to make it into a full article. “I do not tweet anything of value anymore. If I'm  actually giving you my expertise about the team that I have covered for 15 years, I'm going to ask you to pay four bucks a month to get that. And by the way, you don't have to scroll through all the other stupid tweets out in the world to get to my good stuff. I'm sending it straight to you.”

It used to be that the hosts would run segments in which they answered questions from fans on Twitter, but they realized early on that they could make this a feature for text subscribers. “I hope people listening [to the podcast] felt like they were missing out if they weren't on the texts. And it doesn't mean you can't enjoy the podcast, but it's the next level that you're helping produce the podcast. I say you become a podcast producer. We have things where sometimes what a texter sends us becomes a whole episode. We have podcasts where we take 20 rapid fire questions that are all from texters. I used to put out a call on Twitter saying, ‘Hey, send us questions for the podcast.’ And now I don't do that anymore. If you aren't a text subscriber, you don't get to ask us questions. You can listen for free. And we appreciate everybody who does that, but we are not taking your question if you don't throw us four bucks a month.”

The text message initiative has been a huge success, and Buckeye Talk is now financially sustainable. I asked Doug if he thinks other media outlets could see success by rolling out a similar program. “There were some people who criticized us and made fun of us when we started. Do you have something that you love? Do you have something that you love so much, you would pay $4 a month for daily updates on it? This [business model] is scalable for anybody who fits that description. I think that's scalable, not just for newspapers or digital media outlets, but for anybody who has expertise in something people care about.”

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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.

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