To say that Luke Burbank and Andrew Walsh have built a community around their podcast Too Beautiful to Live is an understatement. The hosts regularly trade texts and voicemails with their listeners, and audience members have formed friendships with one another.
The strength of that community allowed Burbank and Walsh to transition Too Beautiful to Live to a fan-supported series last month after eight years with American Public Media.
The podcast’s first episode as an independent show was July 3; by the end of that week, the show received donations from 1,500 listeners and earned enough to support the salaries of Burbank, Walsh and Jon Sklaroff, the show’s VP of revenue and operations. Sklaroff declined to share the total amount raised but said it exceeded what the show raised in any year of fundraising while with APM.
Burbank, Walsh and Sklaroff have all made careers in radio and public media. Burbank has been a panelist and guest host on Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me! and hosts Live Wire, a podcast and radio show. Walsh produced shows for stations including KUOW in Seattle, New Hampshire Public Radio and KCRW in Santa Monica, Calif., and hosts the independent podcasts After These Messages and Spotless. And Sklaroff previously served as APM’s national fundraising program manager and held several positions with North Country Public Radio.
Burbank said the show’s small but loyal fan base, known as “The Tens” because of a joke about the show’s “tens of listeners,” has remained consistent despite the changes in the podcasting industry, with shows ending and networks and companies closing down.
“We didn’t ever soar to the highest heights of podcasting, but we also didn’t have our wings melt the way that it sort of happened in other places,” Burbank said. “So we find ourselves — oddly, I think — in a really good position.”
A return to their roots
Too Beautiful to Live started as a radio show on KIRO in 2008. At the time, Burbank had two other co-hosts and Walsh was working in public radio with a desire to make something like what he heard on TBTL. Walsh moved to Seattle and became friends with Burbank; he joined TBTL as a guest and eventually a co-host.
“I started listening to TBTL and became a big fan of it. I loved what they were doing,
Walsh said. “It was exactly the type of thing that we were trying to create on public radio … something loose or something fun, but with really intelligent people doing it.”
TBTL transitioned to an independent podcast in 2009 before signing with APM in 2015. New episodes are released weekdays, consisting of 60 to 90 minutes of freeform conversation between Burbank and Walsh interspersed with listener voicemails and emails.
From 2009 through 2015, Burbank and Walsh had other jobs and considered Too Beautiful to Live a side project. By 2015, Burbank said he and Walsh were looking for structure and help with fundraising so they could focus on content and community. Around that time, Burbank met Steve Nelson, the former PD of APM’s podcast network, at a conference. The rest is history.
“Steve said that we should collaborate, and I turned around and said that he should hire me and Andrew as full-time, salaried employees, and all the money we’d been raising would go to APM,” Burbank said. “That was how the system worked. It was really helpful to have the APM system and their professional fundraisers behind us.”
Over time, however, APM’s advertising relationship with Cadence13, a podcast studio and advertising company, led to more dynamically inserted ads on the show. The ads automatically appear in episodes and are not read by the hosts. To Burbank and Walsh, the ads clashed with the community they’d worked so hard to cultivate.
Burbank said that at 175,000 downloads per month, Too Beautiful to Live’s numbers are not high enough to be lucrative in podcast advertising. Podcast ad sales are based on a CPM model, with an industry-wide average of $18 CPM for a 30-second ad and $25 CPM for a 60-second ad, according to Libsyn AdvertiseCast. So a 30-second ad appearing for one month on Too Beautiful to Live would in theory generate only $3,150.
Under the show’s agreement with APM, Burbank and Walsh were salaried employees and received no advertising revenue. Moving back to independent production allows the show to return to a more traditional public radio model of fundraising directly from listeners.
“Now that everything in the industry is shaking up a little bit, we can kind of reevaluate what success means,” Walsh said. “We have a relatively small audience, but they’re so incredibly loyal and generous and supportive. And that’s success right there. We decided to just put ads aside for a little bit and rely on this public radio model.”
An ‘amiable’ split
Joanne Griffith, CCO for APM Studios, said the break with Too Beautiful to Live was good-natured and called it a privilege to watch the show and its community grow during its eight years at APM.
“We supported Luke and Andrew every step of the way, including through an amiable move to independence in which they were able to continue production on their own,” Griffith said. “We wish Luke and Andrew continued success as they move toward a new chapter. I still listen and look forward to seeing where they take it next.”
Griffith said APM Studios does not have any plans to find a show like Too Beautiful to Live to replace the opening in its lineup, adding that “the show came to APM with an established voice and presence in the podcast space and is near impossible to replicate.”
On a technical level, Burbank and Walsh took Too Beautiful to Live’s RSS feed with them when they left APM but were not able to take their email newsletter list. They’re working on rebuilding the list and are encouraging listeners to sign up for a new newsletter that they run outside of APM.
The show celebrated its 4,000th episode Saturday with a live show in Seattle. Moving forward, the team plans to focus on expanding TBTL’s audience and video content. Walsh said the show will have one major fundraising drive per year, with the possibility of smaller fundraising activities throughout the year.
Walsh said he hopes public media can adopt some of the show’s success in cultivating loyal listeners by encouraging staffers to let their personalities come through, especially during fundraising.
“I think that the key to fundraising, and being successful in that kind of sector, is being vulnerable and letting your audience really get to know who you are,” Walsh said. “We’ve found that when you loosen up a little bit, a fundraising week can be a time for your listeners to really hear who the people are behind the microphones and develop more personal relationships with the hosts they hear every day.”
Related to that, Burbank recommends resisting the urge to overly focus-group a new show and instead give hosts the time and space to build an audience in their own way, something he’s previously called “an embarrassment of niches.”
“I would say let the hosts narrowcast. Let them just talk about what it is that they’re interested in in the way they talk about it and give them enough time to find an audience,” Burbank said. “I think there’s still too much emphasis on trying to get the most number of listeners, and that’s a really hard thing to do.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Live Wire airs on KIRO in Tacoma, Wash. It airs on stations across the country.