Sunday, September 30, 2012

On paying for skepticism

The most recent episode of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe featured along with its normal banter, news stories, and Science or Fiction segment, an interview with Dr. Pamela Gay.  Dr. Gay is an astronomer, professor, science advocate and popularizer who is lucky enough to have one of the best voices for recorded audio.

The interview was recorded either at or shortly after TAM 10, and the interview delved into her talk at the time on how regular old science advocates can do more than just whine about the problem du jour, but also do some manner of positive good.  The interview also touched upon how to deal with trolls on websites.  Dr. Gay also discussed how to pay for science and skeptical outreach, and she noted that when asked to either donate or hear an ad during a podcast some listeners get a bit upset.

This struck a chord with me.  How to pay for all the skeptical goodness we receive on podcasts, and what the expectations are and should be of the listener.  Even a show that does not edit, is recorded on the built in computer software in someone's home office does is not free.  At the very least, there is the money value for the time taken by the podcaster.

There is the completely free model and the host/producer of the show do not want a nickel from the listening audience as done by Karl Mamer on the Conspiracy Skeptic podcast.  There is the free, but please donate money to pay for this operation which is what Brian Dunning does on Skeptoid.  (Me. Dunning often asks his listeners to enroll in the micro payment program.) There is the advertising on podcast model which is done on the tech podcast Talk Show by John Gruber.  Finally, there is buy our swag so the benefits can benefit the show model as done by The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe.  Yes, there are variations of the above, and the SGU does have a donate page, but that appears to focus on selling swag.  The most restrictive is the podcast behind the paywall.

An example of Skeptical swag
The best one for the listener is the Mamer approach, i.e. I don't want anything, and if you see me around don't even buy me a lovely beverage of thank you. (Ed. note. I don't know about that; you could certainly buy Mr. Mamer a coffee or something.)  The problem with this approach is that the listener is a moocher and if you want to proudly show the world you enjoy CS there is not swag to buy.  Also, moochers can't be chosers, so one has no real axe to grind if Karl decides that sometimes there is so-so audio quality and the release schedule is uneven for new episodes.  It's what you get, dear listener, and you'll like it.

Advertising, if it is not intrusive, is fine, but I suspect this model is restricted to a podcast with a large audience that an advertiser might find useful.  If a podcast can turn a dollar with advertising as long as the advertisers aren't selling homeopathic supplements I cannot complain.  For some of the more popular podcasts, such as the SGU or Skeptoid, that they do not go down this route I find a bit surprising.  As a listener if a podcast accepts ads, I think it is fair to expect the podcast to be produced to a higher standard.  (I suppose the advertiser has an expectation of quality too.)

The more a podcast requests money either through donations or by reminding the listeners to go to store to buy swag, the higher the standard of the production a listener ought to expect.  At the far end, if a podcast would go behind a paywall, then the podcast ought to be done to a studio quality and release schedule ought to be regular.  The less than skeptical, but highly produced and entertaining, Mysterious Universe had a extended portion of the show behind a paywall.  The show during its initial run ran into problems getting episodes out and the paying listeners were none too happy.

Listeners ought to donate to the shows they enjoy on a regular basis.  I am seriously guilty of not being generous enough in this regard.  It is a balancing act.  I listen to a lot of podcasts.  Right now on my smartphone of choice, I have 28 podcast feeds on my podcatcher app.  Not all are skeptical podcasts, but nearly all do request listener support of some sort (other than CS and Exposing PseudoAstronomy.)  If I would go the micro payment route with all them, it could reach $150 per month. (Ed. note. Unacceptable; we are on a budget.) I doubt this is realistic for most people.  However, I do think it is reasonable that each month a podcast or blog should be singled out for a donation.  I am not saying if you don't follow the above you are a morally depraved person, but I do think listeners ought to give from time to time.

Most of the skeptical goodness I listen to is not the day job of the podcasters.  They do it for the love of the art, a desire to entertain and educate the public.  It costs money, so give a little monetary love from time to time.


  1. I don't ask for nor accept donations for a few reasons. First, I don't think my quality is that good.

    Second, I do this for both hobby and for outreach. My goal is to educate people, not make money. (I'm also single with no children and don't have car nor a house payment to make, so I reserve the right to modify this statement ;-) .)

    Third, I am getting big enough in what I do that people whose arguments I speak against accuse me of being financed by NASA or making money in some way off of what I do. If I started to actually take money for it, then their non sequiturs would seem to have merit to some people, and I don't want that.

    Personally, if I ever *were* to adopt some sort of pay model, I like the idea of having additional content behind a paywall. SGU does this in part, AstronomyCast did this once, and some paranormal stuff I listen to does it. Basically, keep the same schedule of free releases as before, but add "premium" content for, say, $1.99 or something like that. Such as a video, extended interview with a popular guest, or something like that. That way, listeners don't get pestered to donate, still get what brought them to the podcast for free, but then they have the option of getting even more of what they like for a small fee.

    1. 1) Don't sell your podcast short.

      2) I don't think it's about making money in most cases. I think it has to do with making enough money that it is not a financial drain.

      3) The "special" material behind the paywall is fine as long as the material behind the door is worth it. I've been burned this way a few times. Other instances it has been great.

      4) Another pay method I did not bring up is paying for the back catalog, but the most recent material is free. It works as long as the material of the show is not time sensitive. A news heavy show makes less sense, but a topic driven show such as a history podcast could work.

    2. That's actually one reason that I don't really talk about new discoveries or the most up-to-date science out there but try to focus on basic stuff -- I don't want the back catalog to go out of date!

      As for point 2, I didn't mean "make money" in the sense of bringing in a paycheck. I realize that most folks are just trying to offset their costs and maybe a bit of their time.


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