Podcast company Maximum Fun to become worker cooperative

Company behind NPR’s Bullseye will become 100% employee-owned

Jesse Thorn, founder of podcast company Maximum Fun and host of NPR’s in-depth interview podcast Bullseye, has announced that his business is being turned into a worker cooperative. 

Under the new structure, the company’s 23 full-time employees will have the option of buying equity in Maximum Fun for a stake of several hundred dollars, which will be kept in a trust and returned with interest if they leave the company. Participating workers will also have input in the company’s decision making such as voting on the company’s board. 

As part of the deal, Thorn’s ownership was bought out via a loan from a community financial organisation. The paperwork for converting the business into a co-op is planned to be finalised by the summer of this year and Thorn told TechCrunch that as of last week, 17 out of 23 employees have opted in to the plan. Although most of the hosts of the company’s podcasts can’t join the co-op, as they’re not full-time staff, Thorn says they were consulted on the decision, and nothing about their existing agreements is expected to change. 

Thorn told the Los Angeles Times that he did not want to sell his business to another company despite receiving many offers from other radio, media, and TV firms as he wanted to protect his current employees from being laid off under new ownership.

“I had been trying to square the circle of how do I back off this stuff without selling out my colleagues or my friends that make the shows,” said Thorn. “...In the end, this is the way to do it that won’t ruin everything and allows the company to be owned and operated by people who I trust who are doing it for the same reasons that I was.”

The decision that led Thorn to sell Maximum Fun and back off from this business came down to being unable to manage his work and personal life due to the immense workload running a successful independent podcast network. Thorn told TechCrunch that when he launched the business 20 years ago, he used to work up to 70 hours for the first 10 or 12 years and until now was “still working seven jobs at once”. 

“When some family situations came up that were really intense, I just thought, I can’t maintain this,” said Thorn. 

Maximum Fun produces or distributes over 60 successful podcasts across a range of genres, including My Brother, My Brother and Me, Secretly Incredibly Fascinating and Adam ruins Everything. The company relies on its community for funding by hosting annual fundraisers and memberships and limits the number of ads so that 65% of its funding is community-based and only 35% comes from ads. 

The new transition for Maximum Fun makes the podcast company one of the few businesses in the media sector to be employee-owned, especially with the rapid increase in consolidation of start-ups and independent companies by media giants like Spotify and Amazon in the podcast market. 

“It feels incredibly important that we are taking this next step now, at a time when the podcasting industry is chaotic, and frankly scary,” the Maximum Fun website said. “The last several years have seen an influx of investment into podcasting — literally billions of dollars. The last several months have seen the natural consequence of those speculative investments, when the market turned and prospects for a financial return faded: show cancellations, and layoffs.”

“We have operated MaxFun to survive boom-bust business cycles, and we have been through two so far. We avoid hype cycles and letdowns by focusing on what we do best: producing and partnering with shows that matter to our audience, and asking our audience to support those shows, so that they can continue to exist.”