A Podcast About the Dark Side of the Internet Is a Bright Spot in the Universe of Monetizing Creators

True Crime Stories & The Internet

The Internet is a strange place. There, we spend hours and hours as consumers, researchers, communicators, entertainers and entertainment-addicted visitors. And all the time – we all know that – all kind of crooks, thieves, thugs, vandals and blackmailers are just around the corner. The Internet is such a dangerous place to be.

As with all kind of dangers, stories about them are a thrill, reading about, viewing them, listening to them can give you a very good time – as long as you are not involved, especially not involved as the victim of such a story.

Internet-crime as a subject of such a story is quite special though. It involves highly complicated technology. What a hacker does is so much more abstract than what a common thief does. Whilst we all would think, that stealing the Mona Lisa would be kind of a criminal masterpiece, only few of us were able to say if hacking into a multinations company’s website is more difficult than manipulating online poker games. And probably none would have guessed that redirecting tax refunds to fake acounts was such an easy game that a rap musician put the ‘how to’ into the text of a song. Probably all of us would think that creating and distributing a virus which lead to the destruction of nucelar technology in Iran is a masterpiece. But who would be able to imagine, how this could have been done? It’s hard to even imagine a thrill when learning about.

That’s why real world crime is so much more present in the world of crime fiction as well as in the true crime genre in comparison to digital crime. Although most of us at any given day will be much closer to the criminal digital underworld than to the world of physical crime.

Darknet Diaries

Myself, I am by no means an IT expert or a security nerd. But, for sure I do like suspense stories from the real world. Darknet Diaries is a podcast which tells true stories from the world of hackers, malware-authors and digital spies, it is about “the dark side of the Internet”. But its host, Jack Rhysider, is such a phantastic narrator, that he makes even people like me at the same time understand what he is talking about and having a very good time listening to him. Jack’s stories may even help to make me a more competent citizen of the digital world.

So I was really happy to connect with him and ask him the many questions I had, when thinking about his podcast as one of my favourite self-publishing ventures.

 

Jack and I had an extensive, slightly asymmetric Zoom call

Interview with Jack Rhysider, Publisher and Host of Darknet Diaries

Hi Jack, I’ll start with a question which maybe is a bit naïve. Do I really speak to a person who was named Jack Rhysider by his parents?

“Yeah, that’s my real name.”

Is it? Because at the same time you do not show publicly pictures from you, trying to keep anonymity.

“Yeah, I try to stay out of the public view and you know, one of the things I think is that, being an American journalist with our current administration has actually resulted in certain journalists being physically or digitally harassed. And so I do try to maintain a distance from the shouting crowd. I try keep my face out of the view and stuff like that.”

Jack Rhysider, publisher and host of Darknet Diaries is a self-declared ‘privacy nerd’ – not without good reasons!

I’ve seen a Youtube video where you said you were kind of a privacy fanatic. I do remember a recent episode, I think it was the Miko episode, where you stop digging deeper into a topic out of fear for your personal safety. So, I was wondering if you think what you are doing is dangerous. Do you think that?

“A lot of the stuff that I publish somebody else has already published, like for instance, there’s this book called Sandworm which really goes deep into the Russians hacking Ukraine and the Olympics and this kind of thing. And I got that author on my show to talk about the book. So, if there’s going to be somebody upset with me for talking about how bad Russia has hacked the, you know, different places, I would feel like that person who wrote the book would be the first person to fall on this.

I kind of go slowly in this space as well. I see, did someone else already write about this? That makes it safer for me to do it. So far never anything has happened to me that’s been scary. Maybe that’s because I’ve been keeping private as much as I can. But there are a couple stories that I do need to tread very carefully into as I’m investigating them.

Also, I am very specific about trying to represent the truth as best as possible. I think with that, with truth on my side, it helps a lot, they don’t really have much to refute me on.”

Can you give me a short account of your professional career? I know you have a formation as an IT security expert. How long did you actually work in this field? And how did you become a podcaster?

“I got a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and then worked for a large company doing network engineering. I was in charge of securing the network and keeping hackers out. That was what I spent 10 years doing professionally.

But in that time, I had really fell in love with podcasts. I really was loving the audio journalism aspect of it. It felt more intimate. You got to know the reporters so much more and you got to hear the people so much better. There’s something special about it. That just captured me. I’m not an avid reader, but I’m an avid audio book listener, and I listened to a lot of things.

So I wanted a podcast that talked about cybercrime in a storytelling kind of way. My idea was to be a storyteller, one part entertainer and one part journalist. That’s what I wanted to exist. And I couldn’t find that show out there. So I read a book where they interviewed a bunch of audio people to teach how they made their sort of audio journalism stuff (Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio). I just really soaked that up and it gave me formulas and scaffolding to get going in this space.

I kind of went through the motions to get one thing out, you know, like, one episode and then show that to some people. And they gave me some feedback and I just kept going. And yeah, I got picked up pretty quick. People all over started liking it right away.”

“My idea was to be a storyteller, one part entertainer and one part journalist”

To my opinion, you are a great narrator. You even have a perfect voice for what you are doing. Did you know this before you were starting Darknet Diaries? Did you have other opportunities to work with your voice? Did you have any vocational training as a speaker?

“You really can’t do much on that. I mean, you can do a few things to enunciate better or so. But you can’t really change certain parts of your voice. There’s a certain depth to it and a certain cadence. I feel like I might’ve lucked out with just having the right voice for it. That’s just how I talk. That’s what I’m lucky that I was born with.”

In that interview mentioned above, with the Technado guys, you said that, when starting your podcast, you had one Bitcoin. You sold it, and that gave you a three months runway to start the podcast. Is that true? That you had this Bitcoin and invested it to become a podcaster. And, if so, what gave you the confidence that this Bitcoin would be a Bitcoin well spent?

“Yeah, that is true. I bought a Bitcoin at $600 just to play around with it, you know, try to invest it and go play in the market. Then, I just kind of forgot about it and left it there. And when I had this podcast idea the Bitcoin was worth like $15,000. I was kind of burnt out at work. And I thought this podcast has some potential. So I could sell that Bitcoin and that would give me the runway to have three months of not having to worry about work. That’s exactly what happened.”

 

 “I could sell that Bitcoin and that would give me the runway to have three months of not having to worry about work”

Let’s come to your podcast. What do you know about your audience?

“I had this listener survey a couple of years ago. I’ve got it in front of me, right here. It shows listeners are mostly male and people who 90% are from 18 to 45. Mainly professionals, because they are in a salary range somewhere between 70, 50,000 and $150,000 a year. Most of them have advanced technical knowledge, at least that’s what they rated themselves. Half have a bachelor’s degree. And then I have the majority of my audience in English speaking countries.”

 

How to market a Podcast

How do you market your podcast? What tricks or strategy or tactics do you use to grow your audience via social media?

“Yeah. Social media is by far the most important marketing channel. At first, I was just on Twitter because Twitter is where all the important people are in. All the journalists, all the speakers, all the authors, all the content creators. Everyone is there on Twitter, and they’re all trying to share stuff. Right. They’re trying to share articles. They’re all trying to kind of promote themselves there.

So, that’s where I thought I’d want to be. My strategy was basically to post like 10 posts and two of the 10 would be self-promotion. The other eight would be inspirational or helpful or let’s get a conversation started basically. I just wanted to become noticed or visible in this big echo chamber. And so yeah, I would just create as much content as I could for social media and try to make things that are engaging. I mean, the things that people like and comment on and reshare and that kind of thing is what is the most valuable.

I was experimenting with a lot of different types of content there. Once that was going well, I expanded out and got on Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and I started a Subreddit and there’s a Discord channel. So now there’s ample places for it. I wanted to make sure that if anyone wanted to reach out to me or ask me questions or say something, that I was one click away, right. I was on their platform. So it wasn’t like they had to go join another site to contact me or something. I was pretty much at their front door. So it was easy for them to see: ‘Hey, is Jack on Facebook? Yep. There he is. Okay. Let’s ask him something’. So that created a good amount of interaction with the fans. It made it easy for people to add content and share content, talking about my show and stuff like that.”

Do you have a recipe for a Twitter post which will get shared a lot? Anything, any ingredient, that makes a successful, Twitter post?

“I don’t know exactly. I’m the kind of person that just kind of likes to experiment and post over and over and over and try to see which one is the best for whoever’s following me and then find more posts like that. I did a mixture of jokes, names and questions, really hard questions, like ‘How is quantum computing going to break encryption in the future?’

So, you’re pretty much getting a conversation going and once the conversations are going, then that spreads and more people join in and then it gets seen by more people. So I would do some of that and I would also do tips. Like ‘here’s a command that you can try using if you’re ever in a situation’. People like that. And then comments on the news, anything that’s going on in the news, you can comment on it and people can appreciate the comments, maybe. So. Yeah. It’s just a wide variety of things. You keep doing more stuff.”

You started as a solo publisher. When you started Darknet Diaries more or less you did everything on your own. Nowadays, there are some people working with you for Darknet Diaries. How many are they? What do they do for you? And do you employ them or are they freelancers?

“They’re all freelancers. I’ve got artists, producers, writers, editors. That’s the majority. I’ve got a transcriber, somebody who takes the audio and turns it into written word. On the website every episode has its own page.”

That helps with search engine marketing, for example.

“Yep. That’s exactly it. So when people are searching for a certain stock, they see the transcript, and then they come and then they see there’s a whole podcast. ‘Let’s listen to it’. So that helps too.”

Having support by those people, does that give you another feeling? Do you feel a bit like a media company now or do you still think you’re a creator, a solo publisher?

“I see glimpses of being a media company sometimes. Like for instance when other respected journalists reach out to me and say, ‘Hey, I’m publishing a story in my magazine. Do you want to publish the same story on your podcast?’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing’. And then other people are like, ‘Hey, that story you publish on your podcasts. You could totally publish that on in our magazine’. So I see that I’m on par at least. When I really dissect it and look at it, it definitely feels like a media company, it definitely feels that way. But it’s surprising at the same time. Because I’m just the guy who makes a podcast.”

The monetary side of Darknet Diaries

You monetize your podcast via Patreon and advertising and maybe merchandise, would you share the percentage of these three channels for your business?

“Patreon is public. Let’s take a look. It’ some 4,000 patrons and $13,000 a month now. That’s about half of what I’m getting for advertising.”

Oh! So much more money by advertising?

“Yeah. Two times as much on advertising. And then, there is a shop where I have shirts with the show logo in. It’s not just shirts, but I just have a lot of ideas for shirts. I’ve got a graphic designer that keeps making me whatever idea I come up with, turning it into a shirt. There’s something like 50 different shirt designs in the shop and that brings in some good money too. For me, merch is not only marketing. It is actually doing some very good profit.”

Graphtreon stat graph of the growth of Darknet Diaries' Patreon support

What do you think is motivating paying patrons? How important are the bonus episodes they get? Is the free RSS feed a relevant incentive for them?

“I’ve done a lot of research on Patreon to try to be as successful there as I could. There’s a site called Graphtreon. It lists the top paying podcasts on Patreon. I analyzed like the top 50 of them to see how are these people different from the bottom 50 or whatever.

I noticed that people who are very successful on Patreon a few things in common. Number one, they’ve been there for a long time, like an average of 180 days or so. Number two, they have a very popular show. Their net promoter score would be very high [the NPS is a figure representing the share of people who would recommend a show referenced against the share of those who wouldn’t]. You’re not going to have a very successful Patreon unless people really like the show. Number three, I saw that all the top earners tweet a lot, like they’re basically on Twitter all the time, which is just an interesting thing to notice. I didn’t check their other social media. But again, that shows how social media is just a great place to market your stuff. The last thing that I saw, as far as bonus content goes, all of them are giving bonus episodes. The top earners on Patreon are all giving bonus content.

You can use that in your messaging when you’re asking people to donate to Patreon. If they are on the fence and see that, that finalizes it. But you don’t need to give anything. People are there just to show support, show that they want to help out and get their show going. I’ve reached out to Patreon and asked ‘How many people listen to bonus episodes?’ and they said only a third of my patrons actually are listening to bonus content. Concerning the ad-free RSS feed: I do think some people appreciate that.”

How do you grow the number of your Patrons? How does marketing for Patreon work?

“I try to put it in every episode that I have a Patreon and I try to do a really good strong request like, ‘Hey, if you’re that person who’s listened to every episode. I’ve given you the show and you know, it’s good. So why don’t you throw something back at me?’ I do these kind of really strong calls to action and that gets a few people to click. Every time I release a new episode, I see a significant amount of new patrons. And every time I have bonus episodes on Patreon, I see a significant amount. A lot of people tell me that this is the first time they’ve ever helped anyone on Patreon. It’s kind of cool to see people getting on there and helping me out. It’s amazing.

At the beginning, my shoutouts weren’t so strong. I didn’t do it as heavily. I would kind of tik tok between asking people to share the episode, share the show with your friends, talk about it, online, tweet it, that kind of thing. And then, in another episode, I would say, go to the shop and buy the merchandise. And then, in another episode, I would say go to Patreon. Now, I just say, go to Patreon every time. I don’t really tell people to share it or go to the shop anymore.”

You have four levels of Patreon funding. How do your Patrons distribute between those four levels? I suppose the highest level is probably quite rare.

The four Patreon-membership leves of Darknet Diaries

“I’ve got a three, five, 10 and $20 plan. At first, I didn’t have the $20 a month plan. But I saw that there were many people on the $10 a month plan. So I wanted to create a higher plan since it looked like some people want to give more. I think the average is around $4 a month right now. So that means that probably most people are paying $3 a month, a significant amount are giving five and not so much giving above that.”

On your website, you’re offering several other ways to donate to you. It’s virtual currencies. You have PayPal, you have credit cards. Do these play a significant additional role?

Donations to Darknet Diaries primarily come via Patreon. But there are alternatives

“I notice it. It’s definitely cool to see, you know, here’s $5 PayPal and here’s $5, you know, somewhere else. That’s really cool because that does add up to a few hundred dollars a month. I can use that to do extra things. Some people don’t like Patreon, and they just want to give one time. So I want to have an option for that too.

But clearly Patreon is my preferred way. The truth is, that if you ever give money to someone like your creator, like if you give them $20 or something, you can then kind of wash your hands and say, all right, I should help support this person. You feel good about yourself for years to come.

But the thing is, that if I could get them to sign up for $5 a month, then they’ll actually give me more money over time, continually support. So that’s more of a sticky relationship that I can hold on to for a lot longer. It becomes more valuable to me.

I’m just amazed that this is like normal and people are interested and willing to do this. It’s really fascinating to me that people give. When I’m looking at the top paying podcasts, the highest dollar amount I see there is Chapo Trap House gets $160,000 a month from their Patreon. That’s nearly a million a year. And they are not professionals. They are just a few video game players or political pundits. They just got together as friends online.”

Let’s come back to your business. I wasn’t expecting that advertising is so important for your business. But what I noticed is that you are in a lucky position because your advertising clients seem so often to be a perfect fit to what you are doing. VPN services, security software and so on. Often, it’s a perfect match to the content you’re publishing. How much effort does it cost you to find advertisers? And do you rely on agencies to find them? How do you get these customers, these clients?

“Yeah, it’s a massive thing. I think podcasters are going to face three big challenges when they are podcasting. Number one is making a great show, which is very hard to do. It’s going to take years to get there. Number two is marketing it to build your audience. And third is getting ad revenue for it, making money off it. A lot of people just don’t have that skill. They can’t get that in their head how they can make money off it.

I did hire an ad agency. Their job is to negotiate the ad for me and to get the highest rate. Then, they give me the ad copy to read the ad for the show. And then they’re going to verify that that ad is acceptable by the sponsor. Finally, they’ll actually put it in the show for me. There is a technology, where they can insert the ad into my podcast. They let that run for however long it needs to be run because we have a limit. I guarantee only this many downloads. After that, your ad is no longer in there.

Then, they’ll pull it out when it’s done running, and they’ll put a new ad in. So, some of the older episodes got the first ad ripped out and a new ad put in and still people are listening to those older episodes. It’s kind of like evergreen content. The ad agency does all that kind of juggling and scheduling. They do all that kind of work. And they go in and collect the money from the sponsors and pay me for it. Because of all that, I actually pay them 30% of what I make to do all that work.”

But if they find you clients or mega contracts and so on, that’s probably worth those 30%.

“I think it is worth it. I don’t really see the 30% anyway, because they take it before they give my cut to me. It’s just like they’re bringing me in money. A lot of times sponsors reach out to me directly and then I just hand it off to them too.”

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