Almost 10 years ago, before most of us had even heard of Netflix, a team from Ofcom, the UK broadcasting regulator, swooped on the suburban wine-making town of Petaluma, 35 miles north of San Francisco. They came back convinced they had seen the future of TV. What they had actually seen was a pioneering online service combining podcasts with live streaming.
This was the TWiT ‘netcasting network’, begun 15 years ago (the year YouTube was launched) as a series of podcasts by tech journalist and Emmy-winning broadcaster, Leo Laporte. He had dropped out of Yale in the final year of a Chinese history degree and turned to radio. He began specialising in talks on technology in 1990 and then turned to Tech TV.
Laporte stumbled into podcasting which became his low-cost route to media ownership. Within a few years, he was producing 30 hours of podcasts per week, with his flagship ‘show’ notching up some 250,000 of downloads.
Now, his TWiT network (“This Week in Technology”) is being downloaded millions of times a month. TWiT TV streams video all day long that captures Laporte’s podcasting and a commanding weekend show, ‘The Tech Guy”, which adds hundreds of thousands more listeners through 200 radio stations across the US.
TWiT produces some of the most popular podcasts in the world, including shows such as This Week in Tech, Security Now!, The New Screen Savers, and Triangulation. Twit.tv broadcasts online as an audio and video stream. The podcasts are heard by around 5m people.
It’s come a long way since Laporte told his ‘aw shucks’ story to a TED conference in 2010, where he spoke of ” a little podcast network which I have built into an internet television and radio station in this little cottage in the middle of nowhere in Northern California.”
Not so amateur
It had all (seemingly) been nicely amateur with Laporte hosting TWiT from his old wooden California cottage (he’s got a proper studio now, down the road in Petaluma). But there was never anything make-shift about the audience or the profits.
Laporte started out by eschewing advertising and asked listeners instead for contributions of up to $10 a month. But, as his audience grew, so did his ambition. He took on a business partner and started selling advertising. By the time companies like Ford, Visa, Microsoft, and AOL, were paying a premium price (of some $80 per 1,000 viewers/listeners compared with the then US average CPM of $15) to reach Laporte’s loyal, tech-savvy audience, the rest of the US media started to notice.
His revenue doubled for each of the first five years. As one of the first people to tap into the real business potential of podcasting, he was able to market a niche audience that advertisers loved, 30% of it outside the US.
Revenue reached $5m in 2011, the year when Leo Laporte’s true ambitions – and potential – became clear. He established a purpose-built studio and declared his goal of becoming “a 24-hour technology news network, the CNN of technology”.
The entire production facility is designed to play all programs on as many platforms as possible. Some 40 video cameras (costing $600 each) are in the two studios. There are no camera operators, everything is automated. The result can be viewed or heard on YouTube, Spotify, UStream and other platforms. It’s fast, exciting and oozes expertise and enthusiasm.
Laporte says: “We want to be everywhere. I think it’s great when Spotify buys podcast companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. That means they want to be in this market.” The only disadvantage is: Today everyone makes a podcast, 2,000 new podcasts are started every week. But only a tenth of the podcasts survive, he says.
Here’s the bit that will get your attention. TWiT has a revenue of $9-10m and makes a profit of more than $2m.
TWiT broadcasts around the clock with 20 programs created every week: “Our audience is very loyal, and the advertising industry likes it. We don’t do market research with our users, but we know that they are above average and have a high income.”
An average of 1,000 to 2,000 viewers watch the video stream. The audio podcasts are downloaded around 5m times a month. “Our best show has a quarter of a million downloads. The smaller shows generate 30,000-50,000 downloads per episode.” The station now charges advertisers between $50-90 per thousand viewers or listeners.
“I want you all to do it”
YouTube now creates real stars and real profit with video and audio streaming and podcasting. But, back in 2005, Laporte’s former colleagues in radio and TV, laughed at his plans for niche podcasts. “… this attitude has long since changed. Today, the networks are looking at our production studios.”
For all his New York upbringing, the TWiT founder is every bit the California idealist. He told his TED audience: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the internet, the most democratising force in the world. I started a little podcast network. Now I have a global internet TV and radio audience. But I don’t want to own it. I want to give it all away. I want all of you to do the same thing.”
His own personal following is propelled by the unlikely mix of a booming voice, loud Hawaiian shirts, and an ability to distil complex tech topics into digestible bites. But behind the folksiness lies 35 years of radio broadcasting experience and an infectious enthusiasm for technology. His personality runs right the way through TWiT, and even extended to some scandalous accidentally-aired sexual chat with his lover.
Laporte has a clear view of why blue-chip clients are lining up to pay TWiT’s premium advertising rates: “Our audience is authentic, genuine and enthusiastic. We treat them as intelligent and these are the smart people that advertisers really now want to reach. Advertising is moving away from the mainstream messages of ‘tricking’ people via mass media, to targeting people through Facebook and Google. Traditional mass media required the high costs of printing presses and transmitters but that’s all changing because of the low cost of digital production and widely-available distribution through the internet. As media consumers, we’ve been trained to sit down and shut up. Now it’s time to stand up and be heard.”
The TWiT network is significant because:
- The technology is simple, highly-effective and brings together TV, the internet, podcasts and social media.
- The operations are, by TV standards, stunningly low-cost. Laporte has been making a profit since he hit 2,000 regular viewers in his first year. His entire team is just 20 people.
- This is dynamic, open-access TV where viewers Skype in and engage in dialogue online and on-screen. TWiT offers its viewers not just friendliness but also authenticity: controversial views are challenged and corrected in real-time in ways which appeal to many consumers reared on the untouchability of mass media and the fake news of social networks
Captivating niche audiences
Laporte has been able to prove the viability of this real-life cottage industry TV because he, his colleagues and audience are geeks discussing the technologies that have millions riveted. But look beyond that. There could be hundreds of other enthusiast networks just like TWiT. It is easy to imagine the development of narrow-cast ‘live’ channels for food, finance, travel, relationships, and a hundred other ‘enthusiast’ topics. And, in B2B, why not global channels for executives in travel, retail, or construction? Serious niche-interest news channels are another possibility, as are local networks to fill the gap left by the collapse of regional newspapers.
The TWiT track record proves that an online global TV network can be sustained for not that much more than the cost of a good magazine – if you have a team that can produce compelling content and connect with its audience. It could be specpub heaven.
In the 15 years during which almost everything in media has changed, TWiT TV has been the far-sighted fusion of the social media, podcasts, web TV, and specialist channels which have exploded in the years since Leo Laporte became a media entrepreneur. The only surprise is that we are still awaiting the flood of TWiT-like channels that those UK regulators once predicted. Perhaps next year.