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Leo Laporte is an unusual poster boy for the current wave of sustainable, revenue-generating new media start-ups.
The middle-aged, slightly tubby broadcaster and self-styled “tech guy” runs TWIT – a popular podcast and web TV network that has become one of the top stables of online-only content in the world. In 2011, the company, which is wholly owned by Laporte and employs around 30 people, turned over $US5 million in advertising revenue. This year it is projected to bring in upwards of $US7 million.
In media terms, that’s modest enough. But Laporte is a rare example of a new media player who has built a thriving business and global brand on the back of his passion – new technology.
TWIT only does tech – in every shade imaginable. There are shows about digital photography, video gaming, what’s going on at Apple, the Android operating system and home theatre. Laporte himself hosts the flagship This Week in Tech, which attracts over 300,000 downloads per episode, every weekend from his purpose-built studio, the Brickhouse, in Petaluma, California.
TWIT features some 25 “podcasts” in all, with hosts and guest speakers spread across the US and the world, dialing in via Skype to take part in the conversation. Part-time contributors are paid for their efforts, and there are four full-time hosts working at TWIT, as well as content producers, technical staff, interns and a chief executive to take care of business matters.
Laporte never expected to anchor a top-rating podcast and new media empire. A former radio journalist who has covered technology for nearly 30 years, he decided to try his hand at a podcast when a 14 year-old boy rang up the station he was broadcasting from and urged him to take his show online.
INTERNET-ONLY BROADCASTER: Inside Laporte's at purpose-built "Brickhouse" studio in California.
“I liked the idea that people could just subscribe. There was no iTunes, it was still very early,” recalls Laporte, who told the TWIT story at NMX 2013 in Las Vegas earlier this month.
“20,000 people downloaded the first one. I was kind of floored by the interest in it.”
Initially the show was put together using Skype and consumer-grade technology and, Laporte admits, the quality was terrible. In 2005 he formalized the This Week in Tech show format into a weekly roundtable panel discussion featuring four to five technology commentators.
The show remains largely unchanged, though is technically much more slick these days – and features advertising. In many respects, Laporte’s advertising resembles most closely that of talkback radio, where hosts voice ads, interview advertisers and even endorse products.
It is an advertising model that Laporte has embraced, though initially he had visions of TWIT remaining ad-free. In the early days, a subscription model was attempted.
“Unfortunately, we were only able to get US$10,000 in donations. Only about two per cent of people donate. With NPR it is four per cent and they beg all the time.”
TWIT goes ad-supported
The way donations were tracking, Laporte could have made a decent living – on his own. But there was no room for growth. TWIT began running adverts in 2006 and turned over $US300,000 that year. The advertising the network runs has grown as the number of shows has increased, but the level per show remains at one or two ad spots per half hour.
“I don’t think the subscription model works in general,” says Laporte.
“If you are making somebody money maybe they will be willing to pay for what you are giving them.”
His approach has been to bring onboard a small number of advertisers that Laporte feels comfortable backing to the hilt.
“The ad is a personal endorsement. I drive a Mustang because Ford’s a sponsor. Because our audience is a community those ads work better than any other ads Ford has done in the past,” says Laporte.
In this way names like Squarespace, Audible and Cachefly have become familiar names to TWIT listeners all over the world. Laporte claims “unaided recall”, an ad industry research technique used to test the effectiveness of advertisements and commercials, is “in the region of 90 per cent” among listeners and viewers – TWIT shows are also broadcast as an online-only video stream.
Most advertisers offer a free trial of their products.
“We have lost almost no advertisers. They’ve increased their budget,” says Laporte.
The relationship with advertisers works due to the nature of the TWIT community, says Laporte. The audience is tech savvy, looking for an expert steer on where technology is heading. Members of the community are highly engaged – a chat forum runs throughout the shows and usually features upwards of 1,000 people chipping in on an IRC channel. Feedback is instant, if TWIT advertisers mess up, TWIT followers will highlight it. Laporte makes no apologies to his advertisers.
“I tell them it will be a different relationship. You can’t trick my community. My audience is smart. You have to go back to features and benefits, this is what we do, this is how it works,” he says.
It seems to work. Laporte says his model is the way forward for an advertising industry struggling to stay engaged with audiences.
“Nobody’s watching ads any more because we don’t care. Advertisers are getting a bit panicky, that’s where we come in,” he says.
“Broadcasting is not about giving people what they want. It’s about putting crap on the air that will draw the broadest audience. Our opportunity is to create conversation not monologue. By doing so we can create an engaged audience that’s paying attention. We have proven this at TWIT.”
He says big mass consumer brands like Coke and Pepsi will still fight it out over Superbowl ad placements, but that the TWIT ad model will increasingly offer the engagement advertisers are craving.
“Big media is for Budweiser. They have to crank it out in massive factories. We aren’t doing that, we are handcrafting shows for an audience we know. We have to make it cheaply enough to make money doing it, we have to superserve that audience.”
Laporte estimates that only a handful of the 250,000 podcasts from 145 countries available for download in the iTunes store, make money the way TWIT does. But he says you should never set out to do so.
“Podcast your passion, but don’t do it for money. This applies to all new media. Just try and do it because you love it.”
The wave of successful new media shows – TEDTalk, Democracy Now, Ricky Gervais, Annoying Orange, all grew from the initially unpaid passion of their creators, he says.
“We are using the internet to distribute media. But more importantly, democratizing media, allowing people to podcast their passion.”
That democratization really appeals to Laporte who had to beg his way onto the air in 1976 when he got his break working out of a small California radio station situated in a former brothel on Cannery Row.
“It wasn’t easy. You used to need to have a lot of money, to buy printing presses or recording studios.”
Anywhere, anytime content
Now anyone can harness technology to be their own media channel. Laporte’s philosophy has been to make TWIT available on as many platforms as possible. So the shows can be downloaded or streamed from the twit.tv, played on Youtube, Youstream or through apps on internet-enabled TVs and interactive boxes like Roku and Boxee. Still, the iTunes store accounts for around 90 per cent of downloads of the TWIT podcasts.
Laporte says new media companies will only really succeed when they become as easy to access as the old media companies that still dominate with the convenience of broadcast TV.
ABOVE: The TWIT app on the Roku
He has a love-hate relationship with iTunes, which he says is still clunky for podcasts.
“You have to find podcasts in the iTunes store, press subscribe. It’s not very easy and not clear it is free.”
Laporte’s interest in removing the barriers to accessing his content has a very practical underpinning – his shows have stopped growing their audiences.
“There seems to be a ceiling in how many listeners we can get – 250,000 – 400,000 per episode is the max. We just can’t seem to get bigger. The way we grow is with new shows. The shows don’t get as big as fast as they used to.”
The other issue with video is discoverability. While search engines like Google find TWIT shows, with a lot of video content, it is difficult to pick out key segments of video that may be worth sharing. Laporte is working on a technology that would allow slivers of audio and video to be tagged and shared so just the edited highlight could be presented to search engines, not the entire stream. It’s a way of tweeting a moment in a live show, for instance.
Its part of his quest to be everywhere and anywhere, whenever the consumer wants it.
Investing in live
“I’ve bet on live. Where we need to go is live streaming, 24/7 hot and cold streaming, click a button on your TV.”
An endless channel of live TWIT programming – the network isn’t far off it. Laporte has invested millions in a major revamp of the Brick House to accommodate his vision. There’s a 10,000 square foot studio with 40 cameras that are mounted instead of free-roaming so an operator can easily switch between them.
A tricaster interface cuts between images and feeds in video from remote contributors connecting via Skype.
“Most of the money I’ve re-invested,” says Laporte “I don’t have investors, its all bootstrapped. It’s the future”.
Two people can run the entire studio. He estimates the technical costs of an hour of TWIT broadcast at US$400, a fraction of what an hour of regular broadcast TV would cost.
Others are attempting similar things, many on a grander scale. Youtube has sunk upwards of US$100 million into creating channels of content, effectively creating an online TV network. Not tied to any broadcast operator, the channels are available on any internet-enabled TV simply by tapping on an app. It’s a powerful model that could upset the broadcast TV industry. But laporte is wary of it.
“Their model is very old media. It worries me a little bit,” he says.
“You cannot look to big media for a model. That’s not the goal, what we are really trying to do is put them out of business.”
His cynicism goes back to what TWIT has thrived delivering – well-tailored ads to a highly engaged audience – the opposite of the blanket display ads and feral comment sections that accompany Youtube videos.
To those seeking to make their name in new media, Laporte has some simple advice.
“Be true to your vision, your core,” he says.
“It should be a bunch of individuals doing what they care about. When it is someone wanting to be the next Barbara Walters, it doesn’t work.”
Would it work here?
Laporte has built TWIT into a profitable and respected new media operation, with an engaged audience, loyal advertisers and low operating costs. But he is focusing on a trendy and lucrative niche technology. He’s also based close to the action in Silicon Valley and despite his new media focus, still benefits from syndicating one of his shows on broadcast radio.
But would this model work in a small media market like New Zealand? With the decline of specialist TV shows on free to air TV, a lack of depth overall, could the TWIT model translate to an online only TV network running news and analysis, arts, sports, tech, science and politics coverage?
The lack of decent uncapped broadband and low penetration of internet-enabled TVs in New Zealand is a major barrier to the TWIT model taking off. But that will change as high-speed internet services are expanded. Internet providers last year doubled the data available with each monthly plan.
I think advertisers would embrace the TWIT advertising model and consumers would likely respond positively if they were targeted properly.
The key opportunity is that there is a growing audience of what they call here in the US “cable nevers” – people who will never pay for a cable TV subscription, but instead browse the web for content. These are the type of people who would dip into a TWIT-type feed, to get locally relevant information and entertainment. This group actually forms the future mainstream TV viewing demographic so targeting them makes a lot of sense.
But as Laporte points out, the content has to be infused with the passion of its creators, it can’t be put together just to attract advertisers and to make money. The success of such a channel in a market like New Zealand would rely on passionate and skilled media personalities coming together to provide compelling content under the same banner, taking advantage of the low-cost technology and taking an innovative approach to advertising.
Science Media Centre manager Peter Griffin is currently in the US on a Fulbright-Harkness Fellowship to study innovation in media. He is blogging his trip at Future News.