Why Tenderfoot TV is “doubling down” on subscriptions

Co-founder Donald Albright is changing up the company's strategy

It’s not hard to argue that podcasting is experiencing something of a golden age right now. The podcast market has been growing at an impressive rate, and there have been massive increases in the amount of new shows, listeners and advertising dollars flowing into the sector over the last few years.

One beneficiary of this surge in interest has been podcast production studio Tenderfoot TV. Founded in 2016 by documentary filmmaker Payne Lindsey and music industry veteran Donald Albright, the network has made a name for itself with slick, stylish true crime shows like Up and Vanished, Dead and Gone, and Atlanta Monster, characterised by immersive sound design, detailed investigations and eye-catching branding.

Its shows have gained substantial audiences and critical acclaim, as well as multiple accolades such as a Webby Award and an iHeart Radio Podcast Award. The network has also had no small amount of commercial success, partnering with a number of major organisations to produce podcasts for them, including streaming platforms like Audible and Spotify, and TV companies like Netflix, HBO and Blumhouse Television. 

Lindsey and Albright have become luminaries within the industry, despite the latter’s prior lack of experience with the format. While Albright’s music industry expertise has been instrumental in shaping the look, feel and tone of the network’s output, he confessed during a panel session at The Podcast Show 2023 that when Tenderfoot created its first podcast, it was the first one that he’d ever listened to. Now, Albright sits on The Podcast Show’s Industry Advisory Panel, shaping the event’s content and direction, and his leadership has positioned Tenderfoot TV as one of the most notable companies in the sector. 

However, while the podcasting boom has given a boost to organisations like Tenderfoot, it has also resulted in increased competition, and more noise in the marketplace makes it harder for individual shows to stand out. “Growth is stunted a little bit when there is so much to sift through,” Albright says.

“It's a saturated market. There's reasons for that, and it's not all bad. Anytime that there's a low barrier to entry… that also means that there's going to be a whole lot of content out there and it won't all be good, because people are just trying it out. It's like when music hit the digital age and it became easier to make beats, make songs; not only just record and make them, but actually put them out to the public, I think you saw the playing field get more level.” 

The traditional model of selling podcast advertising and securing commissions to create new shows has served the company well so far, but the podcast industry is evolving - and Albright is well aware of this. Tenderfoot TV is one of many podcast networks expanding beyond these models to look at other monetisation channels - ones which aren’t affected by fluctuations in the ad market or macroeconomic factors beyond its control. 

One of the most popular revenue models for podcast production houses is IP licensing. Podcasts have become a rich pipeline for content-hungry networks and streaming services looking for the next hit show in the constant battle for audiences’ attention, on the basis that a property which worked as a podcast is more likely to be a successful show as well, and one that comes with an existing audience of fans.

For a company like Tenderfoot, which specialises in the type of limited-run investigative podcasts which tend to be most attractive to TV executives, this represents a strong opportunity for potential revenue - and indeed, Up and Vanished was already licensed by US true crime TV network Oxygen back in 2020. It’s a tactic which has also been successful for producers like Novel and Wondery, the latter of which has licensed shows such as Dirty John and Dr. Death for high-profile adaptations. 

While these deals can be lucrative though, Albright warns against relying on them entirely, noting that these adaptations are often held up by the whims of the buyer. Like many producers in the industry, he advises keeping tight control of the IP, keeping the nest feathered in case a project ends up getting stuck in development hell.

“I think the beauty of it is that we can license IP or we can sell the derivative to a Hollywood studio, and we own the brand, we own the podcast,” Albright says, “and while they're messing around for two years, trying to develop it and produce it, we're making season two, we're making season three, we’re making season four.” 

“It doesn't stop there; we keep going and making new IP and that second season might go to another studio or that next project might go to another network. So there's a lot of different levers we can pull where we still maintain control of our IP and I think that's the way to go, is to keep moving.” 

As with all businesses, this kind of revenue diversification is crucial for providing a safety net for podcasters, and one of the pivots that Tenderfoot TV is betting big on in 2023 is subscriptions. The company operates a subscription scheme via SupportingCast, and with UFO podcast High Strange, it started experimenting with releasing all episodes to subscribers as a boxset - or, as Albright refers to it, a ‘binge’.

“We're doubling down on subscription over the next 12 months,” he says. “High Strange was our first binge under Tenderfoot Plus, our subscription service; we'll have more binges coming, more exclusives coming and as we continue to self-finance shows and develop a subscription model for production, not just for distribution, I think you'll see a lot of exciting things that we can do.”

One of the major benefits of a subscription strategy, Albright says, is a greater sense of stability; not only is recurring revenue from listeners less prone to sharp drops when advertising budgets get cut, but using subscription revenue to self-finance the creation of new shows means that they can be produced without needing a cash injection from an ad partner. 

“Now instead of me going to get a 50/50 deal or 70/30 deal, there's nothing to recoup - so I don't need an advance at all. I don't need production, I don't need a minimum guarantee. What I need from [my partner] is just ad sales. So let me go get the best back-end rev share split, with nothing to recoup. It's an opposite approach from a business standpoint and a production standpoint, so it just gives us a lot more freedom.” 

“You want to have options, especially when there's an economy that’s kind of up and down. You want to make sure that you have different levers to pull for diversifying your revenue.”

This also requires a slight shift in attitude, and careful management of content strategy. As Albright points out, basing your strategy around subscriber revenue as a starting point means pursuing content that’s going to drive subscriber acquisition and retention, rather than total listens and advertising income. 

“I'm basing my production and my budgets on that and how many bonus episodes do I need to produce - and now I'm making that bingeable, because that's the biggest draw for a subscriber.”

As part of this push to serve its subscribers, Albright says that more changes are in store for Tenderfoot this year. The company will be branching out into new genres beyond its limited-series true crime roots, he says, as well as exploring new formats such as weekly or daily shows. Albright also notes that Spanish-language podcasts - which Tenderfoot launched its first foray into last year - are a huge potential market for both podcast studios and advertisers.

One thing that Albright is particularly passionate about, however, is supporting the growth of podcasting as a medium; establishing it as a creative and artistic force in its own right, rather than as an advertising vehicle or a proving-ground for TV and film. 

“I think one thing that we have to do better as an industry is build superstars in podcasting - and I don't mean manufactured ones. I don't mean stealing them from Hollywood or from somewhere else where they're already famous. Until we are developing and standing behind our own celebrities, then the industry can easily be overlooked for the next person with an already big name,” he says, “rather than us bringing up the authentic, real podcasters who built their celebrity within our medium.”