The Internet History Podcast story, with Brian McCullough

Brian McCullough

When Brian McCullough launched the Internet History Podcast in February 2014, his intention was to use the podcast to help him write a book. He’d already started the book, about how the web and internet went mainstream, but he wasn’t having enough fun.

“I’m a web startup guy,” he told me, “so I’m used to getting an idea, throwing up a minimum viable product and getting immediate feedback. The process of researching and writing the book was very lonesome.”

To alleviate the boredom, he decided to turn his book into an “interactive project.” This was partly inspired by author Walter Isaacson, who from late 2013 posted updates for his book The Innovators on sites like LiveJournal and Medium. Similarly, McCullough figured he’d use his new podcast and accompanying blog to crowdsource ideas and feedback.

He also just wanted to release the interviews he’d been accumulating, since he thought they’d make a nice supplement to the book.

Well it’s now five years later, and McCullough’s podcast has racked up 192 episodes – including one with yours truly, about my Web 2.0-era blog ReadWriteWeb.

McCullough’s book, How the Internet Happened: From Netscape to the iPhone, was released last October and has been a critical success. I’m in the process of reading it currently and, despite already having a thorough knowledge of internet and web history, I’m finding it both illuminating and entertaining.

Becoming a podcaster

The book may’ve been the final product, but the podcast turned into a force in its own right.

I asked Brian whether the success of the podcast surprised him, and did it grow into something bigger than what he originally envisioned?

“Yes, the podcast took on a life of its own for a time,” he replied. “I had 1,000 subscribers in the first week [he later discovered this was thanks to a prominent listing in the iTunes podcast directory]. And so I leaned into the energy of that for a while and sort of forgot about the book, as the audience for the podcast kept growing. I have to credit podcast guest Nancy Evans for reminding me that the whole project needed to be a book.”

Over time, McCullough discovered that the podcast allowed people to join him “on the journey of writing the book.” He got corrections and additional material from listeners, along with help booking podcast guests.

So did he also end up having fun, as he’d hoped? Or did the combination of the podcast plus book sometimes become a burden?

“The podcast/book combo is the most fun I’ve had in about a decade,” he said. “Doing the podcast was always more fun than writing the book. Writing is tough, dirty, methodical work. Podcasting is sitting down with someone and learning stuff. Doing the podcast while writing the book was fine, because it was symbiotic. The process of one was feeding the progress of the other.”

Now that the book is released, he’s finding that maintaining the podcast is “more problematic,” although also “easier in a way, because the podcast has a certain prestige now.” At this point guests come to him, rather than him chasing people down (as I’m currently doing for Creator Interviews!).

Tipping points

For all of the creators I’m interviewing, I ask what tipping points they’ve had in their creative careers. With McCullough, it seemed like the interviews he did with internet luminaries were the most popular content in the podcast. Was that the case?

McCullough confirmed that the interview episodes were “a huge driver of discovery”, but I was surprised to learn that it was the “chapter” episodes that got listeners hooked. These were episodes in which McCullough would read a draft of the chapter he’d just completed.

“It’s very much the long-tail, back catalog phenomenon,” he told me. “The chapter episodes do 70k downloads a month on their own. People discover those, listen through for the narrative, then come back for the interview episodes to flesh out what the chapter episodes have done.”

But he also reminded me that you never know what will end up going viral. It turned out the episode that went “the most viral” was the one he did with Tesla co-founder Marc Tarpenning.

“That was sort of outside the scope of the book, and even the podcast to a certain extent, but I managed to get on his radar in a random way. So I figured, why not talk about this? And it got picked up by a bunch of automotive blogs and magazines and the whole universe of Tesla/Elon fandom. So, as you know very well, you just gotta keep churning out good material. You can never know what will hit.”

Brian as a guest on the Hidden Forces podcast.

Book and podcast revenue

Even though McCollough had started writing his book before the podcast launched in early 2014, it took him a while to land a publisher. In the late summer of 2015, McCullough signed with the literary agent Kevin O’Connor. He’d connected with O’Connor “through cold contact and random chance.” Then in June 2016, he signed the book deal with Norton/Liveright.

As noted, the book was eventually released in October 2018. I asked Brian whether he’s made much money from the book so far? And perhaps more pertinantly, what about revenue from the longer running podcast?

“It’s sold as well as a non-blockbuster nonfiction book sells these days,” he replied. “And the Internet History Podcast is now monetized by ads, to the tune of a couple thousand dollars a month.”

Curiously, he has mixed feelings about the ads.

“When it was research for the book, I tried to keep it pure,” he said. “And I’ve promised the content to the Computer History Museum someday. But to keep IHP going after its reason for being has come to fruition, I do have to make a little money to make it worth my time.”

Life of a professional podcaster

Which brings us to McCullough’s current podcasting project, which is apparently making a lot of money.

In March 2018, he started Techmeme Ride Home, a daily podcast that complements the popular tech news aggregator Techmeme.

“I’m now a professional podcaster,” he said. “Such a thing actually exists. I’ll make the majority of my income this year from podcasting, which I would never have imagined five years ago.”

I follow the Techmeme Ride Home podcast, which is a useful 15–20 minute analysis about the tech news of the day. But I hadn’t realised McCullough came up with the concept and has licensed the Techmeme brand from its owner, Gabe Rivera.

“Around 2 years ago, as the book writing process ended, a media brand approached me about launching a tech podcast for them,” McCullough explained. “The talks ended up going nowhere, but in the midst of that process, I mentioned to Gabe what was going on and said, you know, if I end up doing this show, I’ll just be cribbing all my stuff from Techmeme. Have you ever thought of doing a Techmeme podcast? Gabe said, funny you should mention that…”

The pair realised that Techmeme’s value is its immediacy – people go back to the site multiple times a day to find out the latest tech news.

“So to us at least,” McCullough continued, “the only thing that made sense was to do something that built off of the immediacy of what Techmeme has always been good at. The New York Times’ The Daily was just getting popular around that time, so we figured why not do something like that? The Daily comes out in the morning, so why not do something that was daily as well, but for the evening?”

Hence the name, Techmeme Ride Home.

“Plus, it fit the realities of the production process. I have to watch the news break all day and summarize it. I didn’t want to stay up all night and put something out at 6am. I’ve got kids.”

Techmeme gets a percentage of revenue generated by the podcast, but McCullough owns the show and has editorial control.

For those who say podcasting doesn’t bring in much revenue, Techmeme Ride Home has news for you.

“We’re not even a year old yet, and we did 560,000 downloads last month,” he said. “We’ll do north of 600,000 this month. Our ad inventory has been sold out since June of last year and right now we’re on a $500,000 run rate for ad sales this year. Though given the audience trends, we’ll probably end up doing significantly more than that.”

The voice in Silicon Valley’s head

Brian McCullough has been on an interesting journey over the past five years. He started out as a lonely author, and has ended up a professional podcaster.

McCullough himself calls it a “weird trajectory.”

“I founded some web companies, which gave me the background and interest to want to do the book. I did podcasting to support the book project, then the podcast took on a life of its own. I became known more for podcasting than anything else, which led to teaming up with Techmeme to launch a daily podcast for them. And now I’m the voice in Silicon Valley’s head every night as they head home from work.”

It’s great to see McCullough find his niche in the current era as a podcaster. But what about his alternative career as an author?

“We’re ramping up for another book on a history of nerd culture,” he replied, “but I’m 100% committed to the podcasting game for the foreseeable future.”

He’s even considering other “ride home” podcasts, targeting verticals beyond tech.

“If someone has a keen interest in some such vertical, and wants to follow the model I’ve just described, get in touch.”

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