It is 6:00 am Pacific Time when Tom Merritt and I talk on the phone. He’s a busy guy these days, so he must use his time wisely. During our conversation, he fed the dog, made coffee, and possibly ate breakfast. But all the while, he enthusiastically described his new crowd-funded tech news show.
Merritt, a veteran tech journalist and podcast pioneer, has been the co-host of hit podcasts Buzz Out Loud on CNET and Tech News Today on the TWiT network. However, when he recently left TWiT at the end of 2013, he decided to try going it alone instead of heading straight to another gig.
The result was Daily Tech News Show, which stems from the same goals Merritt has always had in his popular daily tech shows: telling important, buzzworthy stories about the technology industry while providing insight and context. Instead of a 45-minute panel discussion like he did on BOL and TNT, on DTNS he now interviews guests one-on-one for about for 30 to 35 minutes. But he still does what he’s always done best: produce a tech podcast worth listening to on your daily commute.
To fund the show, Merritt started a campaign on Patreon, a crowdfunding site for art and media innovators, if they would be willing to donate a dollar a month. Since he does 20 shows a month, that translates to a nickel a show.
“Can you buy anything for five cents any more?” he asked the audience in his Patreon promo video.
The strategy worked shockingly well. In just over a month, he’s received over 2,000 pledges totaling more than $6,000 a month. It’s still surreal for him, especially since he just received his first paycheck from the patrons this week.
“I now know exactly how much people value my show,” he said with a laugh, adding that the backers haven’t revoked their pledges after seeing their first credit card charges, so he’s hopeful that the model is working.
More than anything, Merritt wants to build the show based on what the audience wants—though of course, this isn’t a total democracy. He has always chatted with fans through Twitter and email, but through Patreon, he can have more ongoing discussions with a loyal, caring fan base. Because they invest money, their quality of feedback is even higher, so his main reward for them is keeping them in the loop and letting them have a voice in the show’s content.
It resembles a public broadcasting model that—as Merritt jokingly pointed out—would have been laughed away 20 years ago: Asking people to financially support something, even if it’s with a very small donation, if they like the service.
DTNS already surpassed Merritt’s first goal ($5,000), which will allow him to upgrade the show’s quality. If DTNS reaches its next milestone, $10,000, the show will be ad free. He’s also working with an experienced producer and would like to eventually have a co-host or series of co-hosts. But his one-on-one interviews have been “unexpectedly pleasant,” a nice change of pace.
Molly Wood, deputy tech editor for The New York Times, co-hosted Buzz Out Loud with Merritt for six years. The two were known for their great on-air chemistry. Buzz Out Loud was also an early experiment in involving audiences in a show, she said. That was the secret sauce to its success, and Merritt was the advocate for it becoming the show’s philosophy. “For that, he deserves all the credit in the world,” Wood said.
She compared a dedicated audience to an online army. They take care of you, defend you from trolls. They make the experience richer and become your friends.
“You want a dedicated audience who enjoys what you’re doing—it doesn’t have to be massive— that grows out of your own passion and dedication to what you’re doing,” Merritt said. “If you’re honest in doing what you love and it shows, if you treat the audience right, you’ll be able to do pretty amazing things together.”
Merritt has always liked the self-sufficiency of creating an internet business. Working at a Half-Price Books in Austin, Texas in the early 90s, Merritt raised enough money to afford a computer and dial-up connection and built himself a successful website just because he could—it was a minimal investment and he could teach himself how to do it. That part hasn’t really changed, he said. On today’s internet, we can work on bigger things and have a larger audience to share them with. It’s a natural growth in the technology world, and most importantly to Merritt, the audience can have a say in that world.
“Crowdfunding has become a really powerful way to make podcasts specifically become a viable media product,” Wood said. “Companies have found it hard to monetize for a variety of reasons, but it’s super intimate, portable, so [the] audience can listen wherever they are, in places they otherwise wouldn’t consume media.”
It was hard for Merritt to ask for money from his audience, Wood added. But she said he is talented enough to pull off this show and has worked hard to build a loyal community, so she will tell anyone that there is no one more worth funding.
“It feels really natural, because I learned early on in my career from a boss of mine to always assume that you are an independent contractor even when you’re a full time employee,” he said.
One questions still hangs in the air: Would Wood and Merritt ever co-host a show together again? Definitely. She’s only a week and a half into her exciting new position at The New York Times, but she’s already planning on making appearances.
“Someday I’ll get to do a show with Tom,” she said. “Someday, no one will come between us!”