Long before the breakout of last year's Serial podcast from This American Life, the medium of podcasting had evolved into a cultural phenomenon, thanks in large part to the success of WTF With Marc Maron. That show, launched in 2009 by comedian Maron and producer Brendan McDonald, is now nearly 630 episodes deep and features compelling, revealing interviews with everyone from little-known comedians to President Obama. Which is one good reason to pay attention to Howl, a podcast discovery and listening app that relaunches today from podcast ad network Midroll. Maron has partnered with the platform to offer his entire archives, and sees it as a critical step in expanding the medium's reach.
"What's exciting about Howl is that it's going to really create a world and a platform and a place that is uniquely podcasting. It's almost like a Netflix for podcasting," says Maron. "People that wouldn't have come to our show will come to our show, and people who are generally into podcasts are now going to have very easy access to whoever is on Howl. I think it's going to blow up the audience for podcasts in general, because its going to make it easier and all in one place."
Despite the proliferation of podcasts on every conceivable topic over the past five-plus years, a true one-stop, all-you-can-eat shop for distribution has yet to exist—even iTunes is an à la carte experience. Midroll serves ads to more than 200 podcasts and is part of the same company that owns comedy podcast network Earwolf, cofounded by Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman, and its new pop-culture sister network Wolfpop—but this is the company's attempt to build a model to advance the medium as a whole.
A first iteration of Howl launched for iOS in May, primarily to house recent episodes (six months old or less) of the 35 comedy-focused podcasts produced by Earwolf and Wolfpop. A free version of the new platform will do the same, but a premium subscription version for $4.99 per month will be much more robust: at launch, Howl includes access to the full archives of every show on the network plus WTF and a large library of Comedy Central specials, behind-the-scenes photos from each episode, and host commentary and Twitter streams. The app will be available first on iOS and on the desktop and mobile web, with an Android version to follow soon. And like with Netflix, the new model will allow Howl to produce and distribute original exclusive shows in experimental formats.
"What we were looking for is a way for us to continue to evolve the medium," says Midroll CEO Adam Sachs. "One limiting factor is that if you want to create a viable podcast, you really need to create a show that is long running, has a cost structure where the costs can stay relatively low and you can do 30-50 episodes per year, build up an audience, get ad sponsorships. And that's great, we built a successful business based on that. But we see big opportunity for more premium content or more experimental content, or working with talent that otherwise wouldn't commit to doing 50 episodes per year if we could create a subscription service."
Experimenting with format, Sachs says, has allowed Midroll to commission exclusive content without committing to deliver a minimum number of episodes. "We have documentaries that are a single episode of an hour and five minutes long, and there is only going to be a single episode," he says. "You could never afford to make an audio documentary that was just an hour long because you would never be able to monetize that with ads."
Among the 11 original shows that will be exclusively available through Howl is a documentary about the Insane Clown Posse's Gathering of the Juggalos by Art of Wrestling host and wrestler Colt Cabana. There will also be a miniseries called Superego Forgotten Classics, spinning out of the improvised podcast Superegos with comedians Paul F. Thomkins, Jeremy Carter, Matt Gourley, and Mark McConville—in the miniseries, the comedians choose a book they've never read (e.g. The Red Badge of Courage), read the first and last lines, and then improvise what they believe the book is about and then add high-end production that emulates a film. Another series, by Earwolf-favorite host Lauren Lapkus, will investigate the world of psychics.
"It might be incentive for somebody like me to do a five-part piece on a subject that I might not want to do as part of my regular show," says Maron. "To be able to showcase it within this new platform, as part of the package, would be pretty exciting."
But just as important, says Maron, is the potential of a platform like Howl to push podcasts even further into the mainstream.
"Podcasts require another step of engagement that a lot of people are not culturally used to," says Maron. "You still get people that just aren't in the habit of listening to podcasts, for whatever reason. It's amazing how many people I hear from who are like, 'I just started, man.' They always say, 'I'm late to the party.' I think it's really important to know that, in the age we live in, there is no late to the party. You can enter the party at any time, and it's always going full tilt. So, I think access is a big thing, and it's really one of the few mediums where there's a huge possibility for growth. In my mind, it's only a matter of time before they just become commonplace, and I think Howl is a step towards that."
The key, says Maron, is the seamless promotion that an all-access platform like Howl can provide.
"It has to be easier and more present so it can integrate into people's life patterns," says Maron. "Even when you can download music, and people are sort of proficient at that, it's just shifting your appetite for radio product or audio product through pattern. A lot of times, when I advertise my shows and we plug a podcast on Twitter, even if I do it five or six times and I talk about it on the podcast, a lot of people are like, 'I didn't know you were coming to my town.' I'm like, 'I don't know what I gotta do.' Because there's so much stuff that falls through the cracks, even on a promotional level.
"Who the hell knows how people take in news or how they become aware of something? I am constantly out of the loop. I don't know anything that's going on, most of the time, unless somebody tells me to go find it, and I'm a pretty sophisticated person. I declare myself a modern dude, but I'm way, way out of the loop. I think that everybody has their own loop, and there's no loop to necessarily be in, in the big picture. You've got to get them there, you know?"
WTF producer Brendan McDonald says that while the podcast had already monetized its archives on its own site, integrating with Howl is likely to be a huge advantage. "At this point, our archives sales pitch was entirely to existing listeners," says McDonald. "People who were listening to the free podcast and enjoying it and thinking, 'I'd really like to hear the stuff from this I missed.' Now, being part of a platform that people may come to because they want to hear the Comedy Bang Bang archive, or maybe there's original programming on there that lures them in, and they say, 'You know, I never gave this Marc Maron show a shot.' Or, they never heard of it, which is is definitely still true. Even with the president on the show, people still have not heard of it."
For now, Howl will only include its own networks' podcasts plus the licensed content from WTF and Comedy Central—but concrete plans are in the works to make the platform a true all-in-one listening app for content of all kinds.
"We want to be the place where you go and listen to Freakonomics, if you like Freakonomics or you listen to Radiolab, if you like Radiolab, because the listener experience is that much better than any other player out there," says Sachs. "We're really targeting our core fan base first—the Earwolf fans, the WTF fans—it'll be our early adopters who get into the service, and let us know what's working, what's not working, what casts they like, what casts they don't like so that we can keep creating more and more content. That's the immediate, short-term goal. But the medium and longer-term goal is to become the go-to listening player for all people who want to listen to podcasts."