Cochrane was hosting podcasts back when barely anyone knew what they were. His company, Blubrry, continues to dominate the space.
An interesting genesis story can liven up an interview and keep listeners engaged, says podcasting pioneer Todd Cochrane.
So the founder and CEO of Worthington-based Blubrry Podcasting—the second-largest podcasting service and hosting site in the U.S., according to its own research—asks guests on the three shows he hosts or co-hosts why and how they began podcasting. “The stories are amazing,” Cochrane says, “and range from self-therapy to a business idea to a way to talk to their friends and turn it into a business.”
But here’s the thing: Cochrane’s own creation story with Blubrry is pretty compelling, which may play into why he’s all about the genesis story. His combines a life-changing back injury and the end of a 25-year career in the U.S. Navy with his pioneering, hall-of-fame worthy efforts in a new medium. Plus, the rather unique way Cochrane recruited the people who helped him build an industry leader.Stay up to date with the region’s movers and shakers, top employers, philanthropic causes, real estate developments and thriving creative and startup scenes. Subscribe to Columbus CEO’s weekly newsletter.
‘I know how to talk’
Cochrane, 55, joined the Navy soon after high school, and spent the next two-plus decades as an aviation electronic technician on P-3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft. “I got to know a lot of stuff in the intelligence space that I can’t talk about,” he says.
He suffered a broken back in an off-duty swimming-pool accident during a deployment to Bahrain in the Persian Gulf in June 2004. “I was a 3-percenter and was lucky to walk out of that hospital,” Cochrane says, adding his doctors told him 97 percent of the people who suffered this type of injury, a burst compression fracture, became paralyzed. He was grounded, and eventually reassigned to a base in Waco, Texas, where he helped oversee aircraft modifications.
While in Waco, armored up in a clamshell brace to protect his still-healing, surgically repaired back, he discovered the world of podcasts. Already a bit of a techie, Cochrane decided, “I know how to talk.” He bought an inexpensive microphone and began recording the Geek News Central podcast in October 2004. “When I went home to Hawaii, I told my wife (Shoko) this was what I was doing,” he says.
Her response: “What’s a podcast?”
Followed by: “You have two years to make this work financially.”
Cut Shoko some slack. It was 2004 and very few people had heard of podcasting back then. Nobody was making money creating audio conversations, interviews and stories that had to be downloaded from an MP3 onto your computer using a Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, a process not quite as simple as the name suggests. But Cochrane soon became one of the first to monetize the fledgling field of podcasting.
Going with GoDaddy
Geek News Central attracted a following, including a book publisher and a domain-name company. Wiley Publishing asked Cochrane in late 2004 to author what eventually became Podcasting: The Do-It-Yourself Guide, the first podcasting book. Scottsdale, Arizona-based GoDaddy, which today is a $3 billion internet domain registrar and web hosting company that trades on the New York Stock Exchange, came calling in late 2005 and offered to advertise on Geek News Central. It was already the world’s largest web registrar. The affiliation was a beginning.
“The podcasting space was quite pure then, and making money from it was not something you did,” Cochrane says, adding he lost a lot of listeners after he talked about his book on a show.
Nevertheless, the dam had burst. GoDaddy asked Cochrane if he knew other podcasters interested in paid sponsorship, and a new business was born: a podcasting advertising agency that morphed into a podcast hosting and services company—Blubrry.
“On my podcast (after GoDaddy asked about other podcasters), I said I’m looking for a lawyer, an MBA, a graphics guy and a programmer to start a company,” Cochrane says. Anyone interested could join a teleconference scheduled for the following week. About 10 curious folks called in. Determined to separate the wheat from the chaff, “I said, if you don’t have $10,000 to invest in a podcasting company, hang up. I heard click, click, click and was worried nobody was left.”
A few brave souls were still listening, including lawyer Barry Krantz and Brian Yuhnke, a graphics and creative guy. Yuhnke recruited his friend, programmer Angelo Mandato. “I said this is probably a good idea,” says Mandato, who jumped in and is now Blubrry’s chief information officer. “I started developing the backend for the podcast feed.”
The four founders all held down full-time jobs and worked on Blubrry in their off hours. Cochrane was still in the Navy, and he and Shoko had three young children. “I was working 16-hour days and getting up at four in the morning to make calls because of the time difference in Hawaii,” he says of the hectic, early years of Blubrry.
The first business plan was to connect potential advertisers with podcasters by creating a tech podcasting network of shows and take a 30-percent cut of the advertising buy. But first, Mandato had to develop the software that would accurately track the number of downloads a podcast received. Until this point, it was more of a guessing game than an exact science, and potential advertisers weren’t interested in guesses. “People were trying to game the system and inflate their numbers,” Cochrane says, adding bots were the most common method of deception. “We learned all the tricks.”
And no, Cochrane and the fellow founders don’t have something against the letter E. “The actual name of the corporation is RawVoice, and Blubrry is a property,” Cochrane explains. “Our tag back then was ‘fresh organic media.’ ” With the emergence of Apple’s iPod in 2001 and the tech giant’s propensity to protect the name, “there was some discussion if the word podcasting would even survive,” Cochrane says.
The Blubrry founders decided to use the “fresh organic media” theme and came up with Blubrry. “Back then, in the dotcom days, people were using a lot of weird names with no vowels,” Cochrane says. “We own a bunch of sub-domain names, like raspbrry.”
The podcast explosion
Cochrane describes the growth of podcasting as “a steady climb with a few inflection points.” A huge increase in interest came in 2005, when Apple introduced iTunes. Overnight, it became easy to download a podcast. Ricky Gervais and Adam Carolla created podcasts that attracted millions of listeners and big bucks from advertisers. Marc Maron began interviewing comedians. Smartphones made listening to podcasts even easier, and the incredible success of the Serial podcast in 2014 introduced the medium to a mainstream audience. The age of the podcast had begun.
Mandato became Blubrry’s first full-time employee in 2007. Because he lived in Columbus, that’s where Blubrry set up shop, first in Dublin and now Worthington, where nine of its 20 employees work now. “It was still a risk,” Mandato says of leaving his job as a programmer with Groveport’s United McGill Corp. “And for three years I was making a lot less than I had been making.”
The other founders worked remotely from wherever they lived. Cochrane retired from the Navy in 2007 and remained in Hawaii. He didn’t take a Blubrry paycheck until a couple of years ago, he says, adding he lived off his GoDaddy sponsorship deal.
“Todd is a fierce advocate for podcasting and the principles it was built on,” says Dan Franks, president of Podcast Movement, a national organization that promotes podcasting, holds conferences and created a Podcasting Hall of Fame in 2015. Cochrane was a member of the inaugural class of inductees.
The podcasting principles he tries to uphold are that anyone and everyone should be able to host a podcast, and entry should be simple and relatively inexpensive. “He’s super passionate about this, and [he] makes sure to stand up for the independent podcaster,” Franks says.
By 2010, Cochrane noticed a change in the podcasting world.
Shows hosted by celebrities were sucking up a growing percentage of the listeners and advertising dollars. “I told the team it looked like the advertisers were moving away from the smaller shows,” he says.
Blubrry adjusted and became more of a podcasting host and services company and less of a podcasting advertising agency. Libsyn.com and Blubrry were two of the early leaders in this area and remain the two largest podcast hosting companies; they’re essentially the WordPress of podcasting, giving people the platform and tools to self-publish.
There are about 850,000 podcasts out there now, according to Blubrry statistics. Cochrane declined to divulge how many podcasts Blubrry hosts, or the company’s annual revenue, only saying it’s between $2 million and $5 million. Blubrry has about 80,000 customers who pay a monthly fee for hosting services, a statistics package, or their PowerPress apps that enable users to link podcasts to WordPress. Customers can choose one or more of these services.
“They work hard to be customer friendly and make it easy to get into podcasting,” says Gary Monti, one of the organizers of the Ohio Podcasters monthly meetup.
Blubrry fees range from $12 to $80 a month for an independent podcaster depending on the services they receive. It starts at $100 a month for companies and organizations that require more services, storage and bandwidth.
Business is up 50 percent at Blubrry during the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown, as more people are listening to and producing podcasts, Cochrane says. “Existing podcasters are doing a second show as they have extra time, and a huge number of brand new entrants are jumping in. And, corporate clients refining their podcast strategies with a huge uptick in private, internal podcasting inquiries.”
Cochrane hunkered down in his Michigan home during the lockdown, recording podcasts from his in-home studio as the Blubrry team in Columbus began working from home.
Cochrane still does Geek News Central and is up to more than 1,400 episodes. GoDaddy is still a sponsor, making theirs the longest continuous podcast-sponsor affiliation. He also co-hosts the New Media Show with Rob Greenlee, a vice president at Libsyn (yes, the competition!), and he hosts Blubrry’s Podcast Insider.
“We go back to the early days,” says Greenlee, adding his first podcast was part of Cochrane’s original tech podcasting network. “Todd has always taken an outspoken role and fought for protecting the values and culture of the medium—and making sure [the ability to create podcasts] is open to all.”
Cochrane recently moved to Quincy, Michigan, and now divides his time between Hawaii, Columbus and Quincy. This makes him an expert not only on podcasting, but also jet lag and sleep deprivation.
“He really likes to get the ideas going,” Mandato says of Cochrane. “He has a military background and doesn’t like when things are late. And things are commonly late in the tech development environment.”
Cochrane describes his management style as the opposite of micromanaging. “I like to empower people,” he says. “And surround myself with people who know how to do their job better than I do.”
A lot of this leadership philosophy comes from Cochrane’s years in the Navy, which included liaison duty with Boeing and Lockheed Martin. “We wanted people to think outside the box,” he says. “I wanted someone to come into my office and say, ‘I have an idea.’ Then, we’d run it through the wringer and see if had merit.”
He brought the same philosophy to podcasting and Blubrry, and he encourages employees to come up with new ideas—and to challenge what’s already in place.
Cochrane, Blubrry and podcasting have come a long way in 15 years, and this industry pioneer sees continued, steady growth. “Five years ago, if someone asked me what I did, and I told them I was in podcasting, they’d say ‘what’s a podcast?’ ” Cochrane says. “Now, when I tell people I’m in podcasting, they ask the name of the show.”
And then download it onto their smartphone.***
Todd Cochrane talks about finding talent, what Columbus offers podcasters and how he’d react if he was approached by someone wanting to buy his company.
Why has podcasting taken off?
We continue to see an expansion of the space because it’s so easy to get connected. You can listen in the gym, in the car or on mass transit. I have someone in Antarctica who listens to my show when he walks along the ice shelf. On an airplane, you don’t have to be connected to Wi-fi to listen like you do with YouTube.
Is Columbus a podcasting hub?
There are a good number of podcasters here. There’s a monthly meetup [hosted by the Ohio Podcasters, and supported by Blubrry] and we get 15 to 40 people, and that’s just a small percentage of the podcasters [in the area].
Is it easy to find good tech people and programmers here in Columbus?
The challenge is we have all these big-name companies here, all fighting for the same top people coming out of Ohio State [University] and the other [local] colleges. That’s why we have a really good internship program. We just hired a developer who was here as an intern.
While people in the podcasting business know about Blubrry, you don’t seem to have a strong local presence. Not a lot of Central Ohio residents know you’re here.
That’s probably true. We’re a global company [but] we don’t have people coming through our door asking for services. Everything’s online. Now that I’m here [at the Worthington office] on a more regular basis, I will get more involved in the community. Any good corporate citizen should get involved and give back.
What’s the key for a podcaster?
In the end, it’s all about listeners. If a podcaster has more listeners, they’re more inclined not to quit doing their show and to remain a [Blubrry] customer. So, whatever we can do to help podcasters grow their audience, we’ll do. The focus is on making shows easier to find on a Google search, so you can [type in keywords on Google] and then when you scroll down, you may find a podcast on that topic with a time hack of when they talk about it. You can now use your smart home devices, like Alexa, or even Siri, and say ‘play this podcast,’ and as long as it’s phonetically correct, it will play the latest episode of that podcast.
What if a company offered you millions to purchase Blubrry?
Sold! There are all kinds of ways to structure an acquisition, and we’d want to make sure the company that acquired us was a good fit, that they understood our goals and the value we put on supporting independent podcasters. It would have to be a culture fit.
Then what would you do?
Maybe I’d start a new company. It would have to be something that was fun.
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.