Monetizing Stories from History

Logo Zeitsprung Podcast

“We are two historians and each week we are telling one another a story from history”. That’s the ever same opening of one of my favourite podcasts, Zeitsprung (‘leap in time’).

Each week, either Richard tells a story to Daniel or Daniel to Richard. ‘The story’ might be any happening or development in the history of mankind. I’ve listened to murder stories from ancient Rome and to a description of the collapse (and following resurrection) of the Swiss watch industry in the mid 20th century. I have listened to Daniel telling the history of the board game Monopoly and to Richard speaking about the legendary 47 Ronin in Japan. Each episode runs for 45 to 60 minutes.

Though it is about history (since schooldays, I must admit, not my favourite subject), this podcast and its format make these stories very much entertaining. If you happen to speak German (Daniel and Richard are from Austria) you definitely should have a look at the 250+ episode archive.

The reason why I present this podcast to you is, of course, that Daniel and Richard are trying to monetize their podcast with the help of their audience. There are no ads, no recommendations, no paid mentioning of products, services or companies. The podcast is available for free on the website, via any podcast player, via Apple Podcasts and Spotify. But in each episode Daniel and Richard ask for voluntary payments. It always is a cautious pledge for support, usually placed at the end of each episode, with a rather hesitant wording. Much more ‘you may support us if you like’ than ‘please fund our podcast’. Each supporter gets a thank you-mention in the episode following the money transfer.

Zeitsprung makes no use of Patreon or similar services. Rather, Daniel and Richard ask their listeners to transfer money directly to their bank account or via Paypal. The support page on their website also lists Flattr, Auphonic or even Bitcoin as means to transfer money to them.

I was curious to learn more about this self-publishing venture, about its own history, and what the two historians have learned about the commercial side of podcasting in the five years of telling stories from history. So, Daniel and I met for a Zoom Call.

Interview with Daniel Messner

portrait picture of Danie
Daniel Messner, historian and podcaster

Hi Daniel, thanks so much for much for the opportunity to learn more about Zeitsprung. Would you tell me how this podcast originated?

“Sure. I am producing podcasts for quite a long time now, for 10 years, to be accurate. Before Zeitsprung, I’ve produced science podcasts, typical interview podcasts. But I became interested in doing something more popular to reach a broader audience. So five years ago I asked Richard, a long-time friend, both we were studying history in Vienna, if he would like to do a podcast with me. He was specializing in history of the Middle Ages and I knew he was full of thrilling stories. At the beginning, there wasn’t much of a plan. We met in Richard’s kitchen, we recorded 4 episodes which lasted some 15 minutes each. And from there on it developed. We have published an episode in each week of the past 5 years. All those elements you know from our current installments, the way of storytelling, the introduction, the short discussion of the last installment, the responding to comments of our listeners and also the pledge for financial support were developed during the first, say, 20 episodes. It took a long time till the support started to play a role. At the beginning we didn’t even ask. In fact, some listeners who addressed us with the question if and how they could support us financially, made us set up this scheme.

And now it plays a role. How would you label your podcasting activity? It is a hobby, a part-time or even a full-time job?

“Currently I’d say it is a half-time job. That doesn’t mean that the financial support for Zeitsprung already pays half of my personal bills. But there is associated business. I do some consulting in the field of podcasts. We have a column in Spektrum der Wissenschaft (editor’s note: the German counterpart of Scientific American Magazine). So there are monetization opportunities arising in the periphery of the podcast.

Nonetheless I still see it more as a hobby than a job. For me, the appeal of podcasting is the passionate amateurism of many podcasts. It is an amateur culture in a most positive sense. And I am happy to have a real half-time job as science communication expert at a university which gives me the security and the means to do Zeitsprung as a hobby.”

“Currently I’d say it is a half-time job”

How long does it take to produce one episode of Zeitsprung?

“I’d say some 20 to 25 hours. We have to read one or two books on the story we are going to tell, then comes the recording, then the editing. It takes around 5 hours to edit a recorded episode. Then there is something I’d call community management. You have to communicate with the people. You have to answer to comments, questions, critique on all the channels people are addressing us, be it on Twitter, Facebook, E-Mail… That also takes its time.”

Let us talk about numbers. How many people are listening to Zeitsprung?

“I think you know that the measurement of podcast usage is very difficult. As long as I look at Spotify we do have quite solid numbers. I know how many people actually listened to an episode, how many of them did finish the episode on Spotify. But all those people using podcatchers or who are turning to our website are much harder to measure. I know how many have done the first step to listen, how many have done a click on a download or ‘play’ link. But I do not know if they really did listen to the episode. And: one person might be counted more than one time. Having said that, I’d say each episode has some 70,000 to 100,000 listeners.

Wow, that is a lot.

“Yes, it might seem so. But if you have look at successful Youtubers that is not a big number. It is a number continuously growing, though. As is the number of people sending feedback or comments, proposing topics or supporting us financially. And to see this growth is what motivates us to continue this podcast.

What kind of people listen to Zeitsprung anyway? Whom do you want to reach?

“I mean, actually we do not know exactly. We do get some figures from Spotify. They account for around half of the downloads. Listeners are mainly between 30 and 40 years old. More men than women. Primarily people with a university degree, I’d say. I really hope to reach people out of a broader spectrum. People who want to learn, but who are not only academically interested in history. I’d like to show that history as part of the humanities is very much different from what you learn at school.”

Back to the numbers and to the business side. Do you do marketing?

“As far as that means to spend money on ads, no. What we certainly do is to post on Twitter, on Facebook. Either Richard or me, whoever is telling a story in the current episode, has to post something on the Wednesday it is published.

We network a lot. We meet other podcast publishers, we are invited to other podcasts, we host other podcasters in our show. That drives attention and reach. Also, this interview is kind of marketing, of course. But all in all, our strategy is rather to invest as much time as possible into the podcast than into podcast marketing.”

What do you think of Spotify? [editor’s note: in the German speaking countries Spotify usually is the most important channel of podcast usage] Would you prefer me listening to your podcast via Spotify or via your website or a podcatcher or don’t you have a preference at all?

“I couldn’t care. It doesn’t play a role when you look at our monetization. But I do care and I’d rather wish you didn’t use Spotify. As I’ve said, I really love the open world of podcasting. And Spotify, being a platform, is kind of threat to this world. And what I really have to criticise is that Spotify doesn’t pay anything to us. They take our content, they earn money with their subscription model or with ads, but they do not pay anything to us podcasters.”

“I do care and I’d rather wish you didn’t use Spotify”

Speaking of ads. Wouldn’t that be an opportunity to earn more money? Did you ever think of ads in Zeitsprung?

“That is difficult. We’ve got some inquiries from advertisers. But Richard and me we are very delicate, we wouldn’t read recommendations for a lot of products which usually are promoted in podcasts. And if we would do ads, we would have to acquire them. In no case we would integrate an ad in two or three episodes and then stop advertising again because of a lack of suitable advertising clients. So, no, at the moment I cannot see us doing ads.

Apart from the financial support (I’ll come to this soon 😊) your listeners seem to find other means of supporting you. In a recent episode you gave a thankful shoutout to ‘Andreas’ who obviously has set up an Amazon skill for Zeitsprung. He donated his time and his software skills to you rather than money.

“That is true. Before, he mailed and told us that he had developed an Alexa Skill for his personal use. If we would like to publish it. We said ‘yes, sure, great, thank you’ and so you can listen to Zeitsprung with Alexa, you can search for episodes asking for keywords aso.

That is not a singular case. Another guy has created a Google map, where the location of each story is marked. It links to the concerning episode in our archive. Or someone designed shirts which we could sell as merch.”

Zeitsprung podcast offers a map where the location of each episode is located. This feature was created by a Zeitsprung fan.

“What I think is: the reason why people do support us this way is because they know we do not podcast to earn money. If we would charge to listen to our podcast we wouldn’t receive this kind of support.”

Finally, let’s have look at the monetary part of the story. What’s your view on this topic?

“First, I have to make clear that those 25hrs which we need to create each episode are not compensated financially. That doesn’t work. The financials support covers all our costs. And it remains a surplus. But by no means that is an appropriate compensation for the production time. I doubt that voluntary payments ever can suffice to make a life-sustaining job from Zeitsprung.

Do you think that switching to another monetization model would make it possible to make a living by publishing Zeitsprung?

“Hmm, yes, indeed I think if we’d struggle a lot, if we’d ask for money more urgently, more prominently at the beginning of the show, if we would make clear that we want to make a living by this podcast, like some other podcasters do, that might be possible. But it would take very much energy. And if you reach this level you’ll have constantly to meet the very high standards you have to promise to your audience. And you have to hang on to this a year and the next year and so on. I am not sure if I’d really wanted to do this.

At least, I wouldn’t want to linger at the borderline between nearly being a full-time podcaster and just earning enough to money to make a living but constantly in the danger of falling back. Probably I’d go all-in then if we managed to take our business reliably into a self-sustaining mode. 

“It might be possible to make a living by publishing Zeitsprung.”

Your listeners can support you by transferring money to your bank account, via Paypal and also by usage of some rather exotic ways. I suppose Flattr was a dead-end, I think nobody pockets out Bitcoins if he is happy enough to own some. What the heck is Auphonic?

“You are right that Flattr and Bitcoin don’t play much of a role. Bank transfers and Paypal-payments nearly reach the same magnitude. In fact, it is the case that Richard owns our bank account and I am registered with Paypal. At the end of the year there is not much to level out.

Auphonic is a service provider for podcasters. It is quite popular in our community. Auphonic automatically suppresses the random noise, it levels Richard’s and my audio track, it reduces the file size and does much other technical stuff. I think, the majority of podcasters is using it. Other podcasters can pay us a certain amounts of credits with Auphonic. In total, I’d say around 5% of our revenue comes as Auphonic credits.”

People can give single donations to you or even set up regular payments. What is the share of each group?

“As a rule of thumb bank transfers most often are regular payments and Paypal is used for one-time donations. In total I think there are as many people paying regularly as people with one-time payments. Regular payments usually are between €1 and €5 per month.”

And what percentage of your listeners is paying?

“That is very hard to say. We’ve spoken about the difficulty to measure downloads. We do not know how many of our listeners are frequent listeners. Many podcasters say that around 1% of the listeners is willing to pay. Till now, we haven’t ever calculated this number for Zeitsprung. But it feels as if this rule of thumb also applies to our podcast”

Thank you, Daniel. Is there something you’d like to add, something I didn’t ask you but you’d like to answer?

“The more I think about monetizing podcasts the more I am convinced that first you have to love what you are doing, to love podcasting and only second to that you might think about earning money by doing this. Recently I see a lot of podcasts which are published only because the people behind think they can make money by publishing a podcast, sometimes quite questionable products, often in the True Crime or sexuality genres. That doesn’t work.”

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