Before Alie Ward launched her podcast, Ologies, she built a community on Patreon. That decision not only helped Ward fund her incredibly fun, fact-filled show, but also helped her harness a base of science-loving supporters to turn Ologies into one of the biggest (and funniest) science podcasts around.
Not that building a community from scratch was fun. “It was a hellscape,” says Ward. “When I first started, it was an absolute nightmare, but I really wanted to do this podcast, so I just decided, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna make myself do it.’”
“…the people who are going to be most likely to want to support you are going to be there from the beginning, so just don’t wait.”
In early 2016, Ward, a veteran science reporter, decided to create a show where she would interview various ologists (dendrologists, fulminologists, archaeologists, and so on) about their areas of expertise. She secured her show’s Instagram and Twitter handles, started doing interviews, battled her impostor syndrome, announced the show to her friends and followers, made artwork, and a trailer—and then spent the next nine months trying to make the debut episode her version of perfect. “Months went by and people were like, ‘Whatever happened to that?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m still working on it!’” she says.
Eventually, she was kicked into action when she heard rumors that another journalist was working on a similar show. “I put up the trailer that night,” she says, and soon after the first episode (it was on volcanology) was released, too, but it was by no means a seamless process. “I had spent nine months editing my very first episode, adding sound effects and narration, and [the podcast hosting company] just put up the wrong file,” Ward says, laughing. “I had a couple thousand subscribers and I think probably a lot of people were like, ‘Wow, this is a real sloppy mess.’”
Ward launched her Patreon at the same time as she released the first Ologies trailer. “Cara Santa Maria, who has a podcast called Talk Nerdy, told me to start a Patreon from the beginning because the people who are going to be most likely to want to support you are going to be there from the beginning, so just don’t wait,” Ward says. That helpful advice meant that Ward had a small bit of cash coming in to help pay off all the money she had spent on podcasting equipment. It also let her tap into a group of supporters who were incredibly excited to hear what she was doing. It should be noted that Ward already had a fan base thanks to stints as a science correspondent on TV and Netflix and a travel show with Georgia Hardstark, now of My Favorite Murder. So when Ward announced she was launching a podcast, people were interested, which undoubtedly helped her quickly connect with folks willing to offer their financial support.
Ward made sure the entrypoint to join in the fun was very low—it costs just $1 to have your name read on the show or ask questions of the expert guests. It not only gets her supporters actively involved with the show but is a sign of the evolution of Ward’s thoughts on fundraising. Since her donors are paying for her to do what she loves, she wanted to offer them an extra benefit, so that their financial support was akin to paying for a service instead of merely a charitable donation. “So I was thinking, ‘What is a good service I could offer?’ And that was to throw your great weird questions at the ologists,” Ward says. “And they ask such good questions.”
Ward has found that not only do her experts get peppered with incisive queries from listeners, but her Patreon supporters help her craft the show, which blends deep scientific knowledge with Ward’s clever asides, humorous yet informative notes, and pop cultural references. “A lot of times they have movie references I don’t have or there’ll be a meme that I’m unaware of about a penguin and 16 people will ask about it,” she says. “The interviews end up being so much better because of them.”
If Ward sounds like a Patreon cheerleader, that’s because she is one. After about six or seven months of releasing a steady stream of episodes and promoting the show as best she knew how, Ward was able to pay her bills, including her mortgage, thanks to her online supporters. That is truly staggering, particularly because Ward’s podcast is available for free to anyone who wants to hear it. Yet, a group of people love what Ward is doing so much that they are willing to pay her to just keep doing what she’s doing. As Ologies has grown, she has been able to hire additional staff to help make the show even better (and make her life a little easier).
“It’s like [when] someone doesn’t ask you to the prom and then later you show up with some hot guy.”
That said, in the show’s early days, Ward started to think about taking ads in addition to using Patreon. Unfortunately she couldn’t find anyone to sell ads for her. “No network would take me because the show was a little bit too niche and my listener base wasn’t big enough at that point,” she says. While she’s not in the revenge business, per se, Ward admits she did enjoy it when advertising platforms realized their mistake and came back to her when the show really took off in 2018. “It’s like [when] someone doesn’t ask you to the prom and then later you show up with some hot guy,” she says, with a laugh.
Ward decided to start working with sponsors and advertisers the next year, when she had about 7,000 Patreon supporters. The decision was not an easy one. “I agonized over it,” she says. “I kept doing Twitter polls being, like, ‘Would everyone abandon me if I did ads?’” Her followers didn’t mind. One benefit of having solid support from her Patreon community is that Ward didn’t have to use the new ad revenue to keep the mics on at her show and instead was able to use the new cash flow for good. “Because of the ads, I’m able to make donations to charity or a couple of charities of the ologist’s choice,” she explains. “So that was kind of the trade-off. I was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to do ads if I already have Patreon, but it made me feel good to know the ads can help me pay my editors more, hire more people, and then also give some money to charities.’ So that felt like, not too much of a capitalist asshole, you know?”
Thanks to her Patreon community, Ward is able to be very selective about the products she chooses to advertise. “There are so many shitty podcasters out there who are collecting a lot of money for ads that are not for good products,” she says. “And I wanted to try to maintain whatever integrity I had. I was really afraid that I was going to have to do ads for, you know, flat tummy gummy vitamins.”
Finding an ad sales company that would let her be picky took a little time and research. “I ended up going with Stitcher and Midroll, because they were really cool about letting me decide what sponsors I wanted to turn down and who I wanted to take,” she says. “My biggest fear was essentially selling out to Satan, but a lot of the sponsors I’ve had since the beginning are, like, children’s educational crate boxes, which are great.”
Ward fully recognizes that her ability to be picky was only possible because she already had a robust support system. “I was able to make my bills and have [my show] be a job through Patreon,” she says. “Probably if I came in earlier on [to advertising] I wouldn’t have gotten to have as much of a say about who I approved, so that ended up working out definitely for the better.”
Ward knows she is incredibly lucky to be in that position and gives a great deal of appreciation to both her supporters and to Patreon itself. “I did not expect to make money necessarily off this podcast ever. So to have it be my main job is really shocking, and I’m really grateful,” she says. For Ward, though, the community she has found on Patreon extends far beyond financial support. “The moral support is incredible. Just a feeling that you have an audience you can communicate with is really encouraging,” she says. “I cannot sing the praises of Patreon enough, I think what they allow people to do is really important in a society where we’re so used to having to get our money from corporate sponsors in the hopes that our listeners will buy something. I was lucky to make that choice to start with Patreon, but I wasn’t even given an option for a long time because no one would sell my ads. So yeah, I’m a big fan.”