Insider

Some podcast hosts charge up to $3,500 for guests to appear on their shows without disclosing their pay-to-play tactics to listeners

Summary List PlacementRubi Skilton is an audio producer and host of the podcast "Flaunt Your Flaws," on which she champions people with physical differences, like her. "It's about giving a platform to a lot of people whose voice needs to be heard," she said of the show. "A podcast can...

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Summary List Placement

Rubi Skilton is an audio producer and host of the podcast “Flaunt Your Flaws,” on which she champions people with physical differences, like her.

“It’s about giving a platform to a lot of people whose voice needs to be heard,” she said of the show. “A podcast can connect with the audience in such a personal way because you create this story and a conversation.” 

Like many podcast host-producers, Skilton has been working hard to grow her audience, using techniques like guest swapping, a well-tested strategy for the genre in which hosts will appear on each other’s shows for mutual benefit. Their hope is their loyal listeners will come along for the ride.

Looking for such opportunities, she started browsing podcasting Facebook groups. Skilton was shocked by what she saw from one show.

“There was a guest survey to fill out, and there was a $75 fee just to apply. If you got chosen to be on the show, it was another $250,” she said. “It was so insane.”

But Skilton’s experience was not unusual. Insider spoke with more than two dozen industry veterans over several months — hosts, bookers, audience-development experts, and producers. Many suggested the practice of charging guests for appearances wasn’t unheard of in certain podcast circles and that disclosures around paid interviews could be misleading, minimal, or missing entirely. Some hosts are even making six figures a year from these transactions alone, which risk turning shows into infomercials that fail to disclose their bias to listeners.

Podcasting is a buzzy sector, with big investment and minimal oversight

As major tech firms swoop in and snap up indie producers for seven- or eight-figure sums, the podcast sector is aflutter.

In December, for example, Amazon said it was acquiring the “Dirty John” and “Dr. Death” producer Wondery. The Wall Street Journal reported the discussions around the deal put its value at $300 million.

Two years earlier, Spotify announced it had set aside up to $500 million for an acquisition spree, which would go on to include the content producer Gimlet (“Reply All,” “Crimetown”), the true-crime specialist Parcast, and, most recently, the ad platform Megaphone.

Even The New York Times splurged on a prestige podcast acquisition last year, spending $25 million to buy Serial Productions, the NPR-linked company whose namesake show helped define the form. 

This spending from enterprises comes as the sector’s profile snowballs.

Edison Research has monitored the internet and how we use it for more than 20 years as part of its annual Infinite Dial survey. The longtime tracker showed that 37% of Americans listened to at least one podcast per month in 2020, up 4% year over year, and more than one in five people listened to at least one per week.

That growth hasn’t been without hiccups. Most recently, there was controversy around the fact-checking in the New York Times hit show “Caliphate. The scandal resulted in the reassignment of the host Rukmini Callimachi to a different beat, a flurry of editors’ notes that retracted much of the show’s central storyline, and the Pulitzer Prize committee rescinding its slot as a finalist in the 2019 awards.

The IAB, which oversees internet commerce, doesn’t act as an enforcement body for podcasting, but rather offers guidelines and best practices, mostly for topics such as measurement. The Federal Communications Commission holds sway over other broadcast media like TV and radio, but a spokesperson confirmed to Insider that it did not regulate podcasting in any way. 

The body with authority over podcasting is the Federal Trade Commission. It could bring an enforcement action under the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive practices in the marketplace — these are the same rules that apply to ads. 

According to the FTC, it considers itself a civil-enforcement agency rather than a regulator. A spokesperson confirmed to Insider that the agency had never brought action specifically targeting a podcaster. The only instances where this medium was investigated focused instead on podcasts as one of the ways people accused of fraud reached their audiences.

Several podcasting veterans Insider spoke with said they assumed there was no oversight whatsoever in the industry.  

“I’m not aware of anyone — the focus is audience measurement and listening,” Dave Newmark, the founder of the podcast directory PodSearch, told Insider.

Another veteran, an alum of multiple major news organizations who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships, likened the podcasting sector to the transformative boom in train travel two centuries ago.

“People are laying the railroad track as the train chugs along, and nobody knows where that track will ultimately go — will it run into a mountain or continue cross-country?” he said.

Charging for interviews helps ‘cut the wheat from the chaff,’ host says

The podcast host John Lee Dumas told Insider that his 9-year-old “Entrepreneurs on Fire” show reached more than 1 million people per month with its business-boosting interviews and content. He even proudly displays his monthly revenue as a ticker on his website.

Dumas said guest fees formed about 20% of his annual income of between $1.3 million and $1.8 million. He justified charging $3,500 per slot by emphasizing his sheer popularity.

“It’s to cut the wheat from the chaff,” he said in a voice note sent to Insider. “We typically get around 400 inquiries per month for a guest to be on the show, and typically we do 12 to 20 interviews per month. It’s a supply-and-demand situation.”

Dumas includes a brief “this interview was brought to you by” statement at the end of an interview on his show to note when it’s a paid placement. 

Wes Schaeffer, aka The Sales Whisperer, said he followed a similar model as Dumas, albeit at a low per-show rate. The marketing guru has multiple offerings for fans, including a namesake podcast. He likened his charges to “nuisance fees” in a series of messages with Insider, saying the $75 to $200 charge to appear was incurred only if a guest was cold-pitched to him.

“I get pitched at least 10 times a day, so this was almost a defense mechanism,” he said. In response to a question about how he makes clear the difference between guests who appear for free and those who pay for placement, he said: “They’re all the same.” 

One booker who places clients on shows like these, and who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships, spoke with Schaeffer recently. She said she was unimpressed.

“I told him I needed to see a media kit with download numbers, and he did not want to send me anything, even when my client was paying to appear,” she told Insider. “I just said, ‘Forget it.'”

“Super” Joe Pardo, another business podcaster, justified fees for much the same reason as Schaeffer and Dumas. 

“The fee is mostly used as a filter for all of the podcast guest bookers that reach out several times a week,” he wrote in an email to Insider, referring to guest bookers who are paid by their clients to reach out to podcasters. According to Pardo, his rationale is: If they’re being paid, why shouldn’t some of that fee be passed onto the show creators? 

“Access to your audience is very valuable, and you need to be careful with who you allow in front of your audience,” he said.

Not all guests must pay for their slot on his show, he said, pointing to an episode with John McAlpin, the search-engine optimization director of Cardinal Digital Marketing, as an example of someone who had. But on the page where the episode’s hosted, there’s seemingly no disclosure that the interview included a commercial transaction.

Podcasters have few options for making a profit

“Anyone who has got a following can have a podcast, and you don’t have to have an ethics statement to do it — you just need $20 and a microphone,” one podcast veteran who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his professional connections told Insider. “The barrier to entry is so low.”

In some ways, the fees could be considered defensible. Making money can be hard: Jack Rhysider, the host of the podcast “Darknet Diaries,” estimated that 99% of podcasts were revenue-neutral or loss-making. In part, that’s because quantifying a podcast’s reach is difficult, as there’s no formal ratings system on which to rely. Nielsen, for instance, doesn’t track download numbers.

The few attempts to monetize podcasts in other ways than advertising have found success elusive.

Look at Luminary: The network launched in spring 2019 with much fanfare and a slew of celebrity-hosted shows from the likes of Karamo Brown of “Queer Eye” and Lena Dunham. It aimed to charge $8 for the privilege of listening to such exclusive content, Netflix style.

A year later, it had burned through much of its venture capital as well as several executives and CEOs, all to achieve a reported paid monthly subscriber base of just 80,000 people at a loss of $3.5 million per month.

$1,000 to jump the line

The online entrepreneurs Jill and Josh Stanton operate Screw The Nine To Five, which aims to show others how to live overseas and make money from online businesses as they do.

A namesake podcast is part of their resource pool. To jump to the front of the interview line, prospective guests can pay a $1,000 fee — it’s optional but a service for those anxious to appear, Jill Stanton wrote to Insider in a direct message.

“They don’t have to pay if they want to wait in the queue, but we get so many pitches in the month,” she said. “We don’t say yes to everyone who applies and offers to pay.”

Katie Dalebout hosts “Let It Out,” a self-care series. Its sponsor deck from the summer, which was obtained by Insider, said it reached almost 60,000 downloads per month. The sponsor offerings include a so-called interview package for $4,200, which buys “6 midrolls plus a bonus 15-30 minute founder interview on LET IT OUT.” There’s no clearly marked example of this different, paid-for episode on the show’s feed. Dalebout did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Small steps to weed out paid interview opportunities

Some companies have taken regulation of such pay-to-play tactics between interviewers and interviewees into their own hands.

PodMatch, a startup founded by the entrepreneur Alex Sanfilippo over the summer, acts as a sort of Tinder for guests and hosts. Sanfilippo came up with the idea while at a podcasting conference, realizing that the room was full of guests and hosts looking to connect but struggling to find each other.

PodMatch offers two tiers: free and paid. The latter costs $34 per month, and Sanfilippo said 10% of users had signed up for the premium version, which increases their number of matches and offers a verified badge by their name. There’s also a “report abuse” button, aimed in part at weeding out paid-for opportunities. 

“We’ve seen 20 to 30 podcasts saying something like, ‘Pay me $100, and you can be a guest on my show,'” Sanfilippo told Insider. “We removed those people pretty quickly from the platform.”

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