Q&A: How the 2 Women Behind Gastropod Turned a Passion Project Into a Steady Income

And the hard truths they want aspiring podcasters to know

Gastropod co-hosts Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber have built a beloved podcast with 100,000 downloads per episode. Courtesy of Gastropod
Headshot of David Griner

One thing you’ll hear somewhat frequently when listening to Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber is that they are the only staff behind Gastropod, a biweekly podcast that “looks at food through the lens of science and history.”

No audio engineers. No producers. No backing from a media conglomerate or podcast network. The two veteran journalists are completely independent and painstakingly build each 45-minute episode together.

It’s a good thing they mention it, too, because otherwise you might mistakenly (but understandably) believe that a much larger team is behind each exhaustively reported and produced episode, covering anything from the origins of balsamic vinegar to the seemingly magical properties of Asian fungus koji.

Gastropod began as an ambitious passion project in 2014, and after more than three years and 72 episodes, the duo has amassed an audience of 100,000 downloads per installment, a growing roster of advertisers and more than 580 five-star reviews on Apple Podcasts.

Graber and Twilley have approached Gastropod as a startup, building it patiently with a focus on quality while seeking new and innovative revenue opportunities that won’t sacrifice their vision for the show.

The duo recently launched a Share-a-thon encouraging listeners to share the podcast with friends, with bonus content and other rewards being unlocked as new subscribers are signed up.

As this experimental approach built up steam, Adweek chatted with the co-hosts about the podcast’s history and future, along with their hard-earned advice for other aspiring podcasters. Here’s what they had to say:

Adweek: You created a Share-a-thon in lieu of a pledge drive, asking for your podcast listeners to refer friends rather than donate. How is it going?
Nicola Twilley: It’s going pretty well. We’re an independent podcast, and we don’t have the benefit of a network, so it’s always a question of what we can do to keep growing. The Share-a-thon idea came up because we had done a pretty extensive survey of listeners and we found 20 percent found us through friends, so we wondered if we could incentivize that behavior.

It seems to be really effective. The most effective ways we’ve found to get new listeners are mentions on other podcasts or referrals, so what can we do to increase that? We came up with this idea. It’s a total experiment.

We soft-launched it in October, just to figure out the mechanics. Anything’s a success, but we’re hoping for 5,000 new listeners by the end of the year on this. It was super slow at first.

Cynthia Graber: People were confused. We weren’t getting responses. Then we did get a response. One person wrote in and said, I really want to participate, but I’m a little confused. We wanted this idea of accountability. We wanted to know people were actually subscribing other people, but then we said we needed to just go by trust in our listeners.

Twilley: Yeah, exactly. So we tweaked it (requiring only a list of names of friends referred to the show rather than hard proof). Now we’re starting to see, ping ping ping ping ping. We haven’t got an up-to-date number for you. But it’s starting to work.

Graber: As Nicky said, this is an experiment. We don’t yet have a sense if this is going to be a dramatic increase in listenership for us. We would like that. We’re just hoping to increase energy not just from passive listening, but being an active participant in a Gastropod community.

Adweek: Why focus on asking listeners to share rather than on asking for money?
Graber: We never mention the Share-a-thon without saying we also depend on your financial support. We have done [fund drives], and we’re going to do them again. Our Patreon has been steadily growing. We have additional support, either one-time or monthly donation from our website, so listener support is a really significant part of our revenue, and we want people to remember that. Even with that little reminder, we’ve seen some donations come through that are big or end-of-year type donations.

In a listener survey, they asked if fans had contributed financially to the show. The unexpected result? A huge influx in donations. "It was the biggest fundraising success we've ever had!"

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."