City Cast, Unprofitable but Expanding, Finds Podcast Traction in a Radio Model

The 80-person publisher is on pace to generate $3 million in revenue this year

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The city-based podcast and newsletter media company City Cast is on pace to generate $3 million in revenue and expand into its twelfth and thirteenth markets this year, according to founder David Plotz.

The company is not profitable, and the revenues are relatively small for an 80-person outlet. But the figures also reflect substantial growth in a short timeframe: Following a March 2021 launch, the company began monetizing in 2022, generating $100,000. Last year, it brought in $700,000.

City Cast plans to reach profitability by 2027, Plotz said. It owes its generous run rate to the deep pockets of its ownership group, Graham Holdings, which used to own The Washington Post and now owns the publisher Slate.

“First, we built the content ecosystem, and now we are building out the monetization ecosystem,” Plotz said. “We feel good. We are making daily podcasts and newsletters that do for their cities what we had hoped they would.”

Its expansion efforts come amid a broader recalibration in the podcasting ecosystem, which has been prompted by the economic downturn of the last two years. The company has been relatively insulated from these headwinds thanks to its nascency, patient backing and focus on local advertising, according to Bryan Barletta, the founder of the podcasting trade publication Sounds Profitable.

The publisher is also one of several innovative attempts—along with Axios Local—hoping to capitalize on the decline in local news and radio. By creating a sustainable, nationwide network of news outlets, City Cast hopes to bring its model to upward of 50 cities when fully realized.

Early traction and expansion

Through its daily podcast and attendant newsletter, City Cast offers a curated collection of daily news and cultural happenings in the 11 cities it serves. The podcast focuses on a single topic, while the newsletter offers a broader mix of original and aggregated reporting.

In a recent edition of City Cast Portland, for example, the podcast explored the anti-crime strategy of district attorney candidate Nathan Vasquez, while the newsletter offered a section touching on the same issue, as well as a collection of things to do, unofficial slogans for the city and a round-up of trending news stories.

So far, City Cast has expanded into metropolitan hubs including Chicago, Portland, Madison and Washington, D.C. This June, it will launch operations in Austin and Nashville.

Across its network, City Cast has 190,000 monthly listeners and 350,000 subscribers to its free newsletters, according to Plotz. Denver is its largest audio market, with 30,000 listeners, while D.C. and Chicago tie for its largest readership base, with around 45,000 subscribers apiece.

Each city has four or five staff—an executive producer, audio producer, host, newsletter writer and salesperson. City Cast also has a back office of around 20, which covers functions like marketing and sales support. 

To heighten its local feel, the podcast and newsletter are each created by a recurring host, who is often from the city they cover.

By developing these longstanding, intimate relationships with their audience, City Cast is hoping to tap into the same dynamic that made terrestrial radio a source of consistent listenership, according to Ariel Shapiro, formerly the lead writer at podcast newsletter Hot Pod.

“City Cast is taking its references from local radio, which is not a bad thing,” Shapiro said. “I think that’s smart. What makes a podcast succeed? People get attached to their hosts.”

Local advertising insulates City Cast

The publisher’s growth takes place during otherwise turbulent podcasting times, according to Barletta. Major figures in the space, like Spotify and SiriusXM, have laid off thousands of staff, while higher interest rates have dried up the free-flowing capital that once subsidized the booming industry.

City Cast’s focus on local advertisers, however, has helped insulate it from many of these economic headwinds.

“City Cast is able to offer to local advertisers a level of direct access and unique value proposition to spenders who don’t feel as well taken care of in other mediums,” Barletta said.

The publisher generates revenue mainly through advertising, although about 10% of its business comes from its membership model.

The membership tier provides listeners perks, such as an ad-free experience and exclusive content, but City Cast plans to make the offerings more robust. For now, Plotz said, they are essentially a means for listeners to support the company.

Of its advertising business, the majority of revenue comes from host-read ads and sponsored interviews. Only around 10% of its ad business comes from programmatic sources, according to Plotz.

The newsletter also adds another touchpoint for advertising, which Plotz referred to as an action medium that accompanies the emotional medium of audio.

The company has primarily focused on working with local businesses, such as grocery stores, festivals and museums. Many of its ad buys include inventory in the newsletter as well.

It recently signed a six-figure deal with the Western brand Tecovas, which will serve as the launch sponsor of the Austin and Nashville locations. The multichannel sponsorship will include several months of advertising, as well as in-store activations that feature local musicians and cultural marchers.

This focus on local insulates City Cast from the kind of competition for ad dollars that animates the open web, where a handful of platforms dominate spending, according to Barletta.

“All of advertising operates in cycles,” Barletta said, “but I hope and expect that City Cast’s difficulties will not be the same as the rest of the industry because they built a model around audio anchored in local.”

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