How Bob Cesca built a paid membership for his politics podcast
Welcome to the latest edition of Creator Collab House. I’m your host, Simon Owens. For those who don’t know me, I write a media industry newsletter you should definitely check out.
Today’s featured creator is Bob Cesca, the voice behind the popular politics podcast The Bob Cesca Show. I’ll start by asking him a few basic questions, but my main goal is for you, the audience, to ask him questions of your own. Bob is an expert on everything from politics to running a successful podcast, and he’s happy to jump into the comments section to answer your questions.
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Ok, let’s turn it over to Bob…
What's the origin story of the Bob Cesca Show? How did you come up with the initial idea? How did you develop the format? When did you launch it?
The idea for the show originated with my love of morning zoo radio, in particular the old Don & Mike Show in Washington, DC. I’ve always been attracted to the idea of two or more energetic co-hosts bouncing ideas and jokes back and forth – the spontaneity of an improvised live broadcast. Same goes for the Howard Stern Show and, in terms of politics, The Stephanie Miller Show, which was one of the first to successfully marry fun morning radio with political commentary. There was also a talk show host in Philadelphia during the middle 1990s named Kent Voss who inspired a lot of my on-air approach.
So, The Bob Cesca Show, at least the format, originated in college circa 1992 where I hosted a daily morning show on the campus station, and then I was fortunate enough to be hired as an intern for Don & Mike in 1993, which gave me a behind the scenes look at how it’s done professionally. The format I developed in college moved with me to my first paid job in radio, at an AM station in Reading, PA called WEEU from 1994 to 1996. The WEEU show was the very first I hosted with the title “The Bob Cesca Show.” Fast forward to 2010, when podcasting became a thing, I launched “The Bob & Elvis Show” which, after a year, became “The Bob & Chez Show.” My dear friend and co-host Chez Pazienza died tragically in early 2017, so I reverted back to “The Bob Cesca Show” as the name. But throughout, the format has remained mostly the same: personality-driven spontaneous political conversation with one foot in morning radio.
What have you found to be some of the most effective growth strategies for getting new subscribers?
There are many, but the most important to me is consistency. A lot of podcasts come and go because the hosts don’t see an immediate burst of incoming listeners, so they get discouraged and quit, or they only sporadically deliver new content. I’ve found that consistent, loyal listeners require consistent, loyal hosts. If you don’t plan to stick with it for a few years as an opening commitment, don’t start. Don’t waste your time. Solid ratings growth takes a long, long time to build. My podcast only became a full-time endeavor after five or six years of doing it part-time.
In order to be successful, your listeners need to weave your show into their lives. And, to me at least, that’s a huge privilege for a host: to be worthy of a total stranger’s daily schedule. I take that responsibility very seriously. In order to make it onto a listener’s daily to-do list, hosts need to be prepared to deliver episodes on-schedule exactly as promised. You can get away with missing episodes now and then, but you need to be as routine and reliable as corporate podcasts, not to mention satellite and broadcast radio, which are always on and always relentlessly available as an alternative.
People will only incorporate a podcast into their daily lives if they’re convinced the show is for-real and isn’t going anywhere. Listeners ultimately don’t care about whatever’s preventing you from delivering new episodes regularly. They just won’t bother. There are thousands of other (more consistent) shows they can choose from.
Can you walk us through the business model for your podcast? How does it directly and indirectly help your career?
I’m lucky in that my podcast is actually 95 percent of my career and income, so it’s my main thing. Consequently, I produce four episodes a week. (I suspect this is what I’ll be doing with my life for the next 20-30 years, if I live that long.) My business model – what’s allowed me to achieve this level of career stability with the show – has been all about Patreon. While most of my listeners hear the show through the various free platforms, I have a core base of listeners on Patreon who supply most of my income in exchange for bonus content. I supplement my Patreon income with advertising through Stephanie Miller’s Sexy Liberal Podcast Network. Between both sources, I can pay my bills and so on.
What are some recent episodes that you're particularly proud of?
In terms of political conversation, the answer begins and ends with Mary Trump, who’s been on my show several times. She’s smart, hilarious, and she’s also a regular listener of my show so she gets me, too. In terms of non-political conversation, I’d have to say my shows last year with TV’s The Furniture Guys, who used to host a series on TLC called Furniture To Go. Joe L’Erario and Ed Feldman are like the “How To” versions of what I do – a couple of guys who are spontaneously funny, no matter the topic. (We seldom talk about furniture, by the way.) Ultimately, whenever a guest says, “That’s a really good question,” I feel like I’ve done my job.
I should also note, too, that your show probably shouldn’t rely exclusively on outside guests. My recommendation is to launch the show with the same host/hosts for a few years in order to build your audience based on who *you* are. This way, even if you have a bad interview one day, your listeners are still there for you and not necessarily your guests. You need to be the thing people listen for, if that makes sense.
What are the podcasts that you immediately play when a new episode hits your podcast app? What is it about them that makes them so good?
I definitely listen to the other shows on the Sexy Liberal Podcast Network. I listen to Stephanie Miller every morning, and whenever I’m in the car I listen to Marc Maron or my friend Buzz Burbank’s “News & Comment” podcast. (Buzz used to be one of the co-hosts of both the Don & Mike Show and the Mike O’Meara Show podcast.) I listen because they’re just really damn good. Plus, they *sound* good. Another important factor for a successful show is making sure everything is properly mic’ed and equalized. Most people hate riding the volume on their iPhones or car stereos, so solid production values are super important. But with Stephanie in particular, it both inspires and entertains me. Our shows or so similar in tone and substance. Material that works on Stephanie’s show often works on my show, too. Plus, Stephanie is the gold standard for radio and podcasting.
Want to ask Bob questions of your own?
Go ahead and leave your questions in the comments section and he’ll dive in and answer them.
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What do you think is the #1 driver to get a free listener to convert into a paid listener on Patreon? What kind of calls to action do you use to entice people into going to your Patreon page and signing up?
I thought this comment was really interesting:
"I should also note, too, that your show probably shouldn’t rely exclusively on outside guests. My recommendation is to launch the show with the same host/hosts for a few years in order to build your audience based on who *you* are. This way, even if you have a bad interview one day, your listeners are still there for you and not necessarily your guests. You need to be the thing people listen for, if that makes sense."
I know lots -- LOTS -- of podcast that are basically all about guest interviews. And they're great! I love a lot of them. But I definitely know that for some of them, I'm listening for the guest and not the interviewer.
How, exactly, do you weave yourself into it with the right balance so that you give listeners a reason to listen for you? (Or, is it just something natural about the way you go about it?)