Tenderfoot TV’s hustle is reshaping an industry.
After years managing hip-hop artists, Donald Albright was ready for something different. So when longtime collaborator Payne Lindsey brought him an opportunity to create a new podcast, “Yes, I have no experience in doing that, but I’d love to go down that road with you” was his answer.
Donald soon realized that hyping rappers was not unlike hyping podcasts. He and Payne even brought a vinyl-wrapped truck and street team to their first podcasting conference. Their show Up and Vanished quickly blew up.
Now Donald and Payne’s production company Tenderfoot TV has a roster full of successful shows. Donald credits his nontraditional path to podcasting as his “unfair advantage” in breaking into the industry. He sat down with the Apple Podcasts team to talk tactics, tools, and tough lessons learned along the way.
Apple Podcasts: Hi Donald, thanks for making time for us. Let’s talk about your ambitions for Up and Vanished. When did you realize this was going to be a business?
Donald: Literally, the same week we bought an ad with my last $2,500, a member of the Apple Podcasts team tweeted about Up and Vanished because he liked the cover art. Then, the same week the ad ran, it was featured in New and Noteworthy on Apple Podcasts. From there, the podcast skyrocketed. It sounds cliché, but believing in yourself — and timing — is everything.
People started saying, “Do you want to monetize this?” That’s when I said, “OK, wow, this is a business. I know how to start businesses.”
AP: In the past, you’ve talked about listening to the podcast Startup at the same time you were growing your business. Can you share a little bit more about that?
Donald: Yeah, it was interesting. Serial and Startup. Payne said, “Go listen to Serial. You’ve got to understand what we’re doing.” Light bulbs went off. I said, “I get it. This is a documentary. This is just like Making a Murderer. It’s just audio-only.” Then I said, “Let me now do my research.”
When I listened to Startup, I got a ton of great information, but I realized quickly, I’m not [Gimlet Media cofounder and host] Alex Blumberg. I’m not going to San Francisco to pitch venture capitalists. That’s not my world. I come from hustling and grinding and marketing my own projects.
This was exactly like having an independent artist and trying to build a buzz. So I just said, “Up and Vanished is our album. Payne Lindsey is our artist. Tenderfoot TV is our independent label. We’re going to take everything that we learned over all these years in the music industry, and we’re going to put all that into podcasting.”
We went to Podcast Movement in 2017. We looked like a record label — T-shirts, a street team, a wrapped truck outside. Just like you would promote a rapper, right? We probably rubbed some people the wrong way, actually.
AP: How did your experience promoting and managing musicians help you in the podcasting space?
Donald: You have to recognize who you are and what your unfair advantage is. Ours was this music business experience. I know the format — artist, album, independent label. Artists need to have their own lane to create albums, but the label or company has to be built around several artists that can each produce two or three albums.
It was really just that same music industry strategy about growing and understanding and learning from our mistakes. When you make all your mistakes firsthand, you fully understand and appreciate them and you know why the oven is hot versus someone just telling you.
AP: Speaking of learning from a failure, do you have an example?
Donald: Oh man, so many. I remember we signed on to an ad deal with a sponsor for a year, but we were growing. It turns out in six months, we were getting 10 times the number of downloads. We were literally selling ads to one company for 250 bucks, and in the same episode, another ad to a company for $25,000.
That was a business lesson, but I could have never learned it until I made that mistake. But now I understand, and I’m working with our sales team so we can avoid reacting to how the industry is today, and instead invent how the industry should be tomorrow.
AP: That’s really insightful. How did that experience influence your approach to subscriptions?
Donald: There has to be a way for creators to monetize outside of delivering massive numbers. Smaller podcasts really need the advantage of subscriptions.
In the past, subscriptions were clunky. I would never tell our listeners to do something that I wouldn’t do as a listener, right? When we were introduced to Apple Podcasts Subscriptions, we heard the pitch and were like, “This is exactly what we’ve been waiting for: Click this button, and now you can get extra content.”
AP: Did you face any resistance from your audience?
Donald: Well, the biggest obstacle is always going to be the perception of your listeners. A lot of it is people just not understanding. We had to learn how to price and message it so that our audience understands it’s a benefit to them. It’s not a cash grab for us. It’s like the meet and greet at the concert, right? You’re just offering something additional, some deeper access to the people who want it.
AP: How do subscriptions tie into your overall business approach?
Donald: I don’t think advertising is going anywhere and it shouldn’t, right? But subscriptions are changing the way we make content. Instead of us being reactionary to what the advertising market is saying about our product, we’ll just sell it direct to the people that want it. I’m going to be looking for subscription-only shows that are going to be released bingeable on Tenderfoot+.
The reaction from our listeners has been overwhelmingly positive. We now have a 30-day free trial to get people bingeing our old shows, discovering content. We’re completely integrating this.
AP: How do you see Tenderfoot TV changing or even helping shape the industry?
Donald: I want Tenderfoot to set an example. I want to have an open door to anyone that wants to do business with us, whether that be a new creator, an established creator, or any podcast platform. We’ll be stronger if we are not taking the approach that another podcast’s success is going to be our demise. We’ll be stronger if we’re all sharing our analytics.
AP: How are you leveraging the analytics you see from Podcasts Connect to your audience?
Donald: It’s actually extremely valuable. It even goes beyond audience, with consumption rate, right? I’m able to give advertisers confidence that whether you’re in a pre-roll or mid-roll slot, 85%, 95%, 100% of our audience is listening.
An incredible percentage of listenership is happening on Apple, dwarfing every other platform.
AP: You’ve talked about seeing yourself and Payne as outsiders to the industry. What kind of advice would you give to someone who is trying to break into the industry and sees themselves as an outsider?
Donald: That actually, it’s an advantage. It’s not a disadvantage. People will want to surround themselves with new people, new ideas, a new approach, especially in an industry that’s young. So you’re going to stand out in that room. Whatever makes you an outsider, lean into that. You’re going to create the industry that you want to thrive in.
The content is what makes the industry, not whatever rules preceded that content. They used to say all kinds of things about music. But look at what happened to the labels over the past decade. Who’s in control? The artists. The industry is either going to change their strategy to support the content or the content will survive without them.