This year, Jimmy Pardo’s pioneering comedy podcast Never Not Funny made the move back to free downloads, after being subscription-only since 2008. That became possible thanks to The Midroll’s ability to match advertisers with the show.
After Jimmy spent many years carving out a sustainable niche as a subscription podcast, I was interested in learning what motivated Never Not Funny’s shift to an ad-supported model. I recently talked with the show’s producer, Matt Belknap, to learn more.
Never Not Funny started in April 2006, inspired by Belknap seeing Pardo’s live talk show at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade in Los Angeles. After trying out a live recording of the show, Pardo preferred recording a show specifically for the podcast, with Belknap serving as producer and co-host.
After two years and 100 episodes, they had made a number of different attempts at monetizing the show. “We’d done all these things, and nothing was really catching on.” Belknap said their feeling at the time was “we don’t want to quit, we don’t want to stop doing this, because it’s fun and we love it,” but they needed to find a way to make the show pay off.
In considering a subscription model, he said, “If 10% of our audience paid we’d be doing pretty well, so we pulled the trigger. I think we ended up keeping close to 25% of the audience, which kind of blew us away.”
Belknap said the value proposition for the listener was that “when Jimmy goes on the road, 75% of his act is improvised and people pay to see him perform. The podcast is 100% of him improvising for an hour and half. If you pay to see him at a club, you should pay to hear him on the show. A lot of people agreed with that.”
Yet, with all of the success that Never Not Funny enjoyed as a subscription podcast for nearly six years, he said, “the only downside was that we couldn’t grow our audience significantly with this model, because we were in a space where almost everybody else was free.” Despite putting out 20-minute teasers every week—along with a couple of free episodes a year featuring big names like Conan O’Brien—they found “that wasn’t bumping our numbers at all. We were basically just staying steady, but we wanted to grow.”
As a podcast producer and as a listener, Belknap was certainly aware of how the advertising model had matured since he started in 2006. “I knew that guys like Marc [Maron of WTF] and Jeff [Ullrich, the CEO of The Midroll and Earwolf] had blazed a trail for other people to actually make meaningful revenue with advertising,” he explained. Also, as a co-producer of two other ad-supported podcasts–Doug Loves Movies and The Smartest Man in the World–he knew more about what the actual return could be.
“I’ve always been of the belief that there’s so much value in a podcast,” Belknap said. “It’s not like radio. It’s not like any other medium in terms of the level of engagement. Also, there’s [audience] loyalty. There’s this combination of things. The listeners are listening intently and they actively are rooting for the shows that they love to succeed.”
Therefore, he recognized that they needed a company to help capitalize on that engagement and loyalty, “and make the case in a organized way to advertisers.”
Belknap said that The Midroll is that company. “It was the only place that I was aware of that was actually working on behalf of the podcasters… to really get these shows paid what they deserve to be paid.” That’s why he and Pardo decided to bring Never Not Funny on board.
The show is now seven episodes into its new, ad-supported season. So I asked Belknap how it’s going so far.
“It’s going really well,” he said. “In terms of where we were before, we tripled or quadrupled the audience just by being free.“ The show also joined the Earwolf network, The Midroll’s sister company. Belknap also said that they benefited, ”by having all the promotion that comes with being on Earwolf.”
He likes delegating the ad sales, too. “It’s great to have somebody else dealing with that stuff,” he said. “I just want somebody to hand me the copy, we read it and then send [the recording] to them afterwards.” Working with The Mid Roll “just makes it very simple. That part has been great.”
And, how have the fans reacted?
“I would say it’s 98% positive,” he reflected. “How can people get angry at us for making the show free?”
In recognition of the fans who continued to subscribe over the years, Never Not Funny now offers the Players’ Club, which gives paid subscribers the video version along with a second exclusive bonus show each week. That second show is something that had been requested many times over the years, so Belknap said, “it’s nice to be able to give those people what they’ve always wanted.”
Overall, “I know Jimmy and I are feeling great about the decision,” he concluded.