It’s tough to change the world from inside a middle-management corporate cubicle. So Cameron Reilly dropped out and tuned in, creating the world’s first podcast network. Having turned down venture funding, the only thing that Reilly wants to lend is your ears.
Cameron Reilly waits, propped on a stool at a plush bar in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Richmond. He’s chatting on the phone, sipping occasionally from a glass of white wine and working his way through a plate of scalloped potatoes. Beneath the heavy oak table, his knee jogs along to a private rhythm.
As I approach, he ends the call and peels away a grey beanie to reveal a full head of silver hair. “Hey man,” he says. “Good to connect.”
Reilly, 36, is the founder, CEO and sole employee of the world’s first podcast network, named… The Podcast Network (TPN).
When he launched TPN back in February 2005, most people could be forgiven for thinking that “podcasting” was a specialised fly-fishing technique. In actual fact, it was far more esoteric. Today, podcasts – digital audio recordings that can be created, downloaded and listened to by anyone at any time – are as ubiquitous as that other pillar of democratised, user-generated media: the blog.
Naturally, Reilly has one of those, too.
PEAS IN A POD
From humble beginnings “Skype-bombing” and recording conversations with friends in late-2004, TPN now owns the title, content and copyright (with a few exceptions) of over 95 shows/podcasts. In June, TNP had 492,017 unique visitors, impressive traffic for an independent media company. The most popular podcast is The Digital Photography Show, with 39,912 subscribers. Reilly himself hosts two podcasts: “G’day World” and a series (co-hosted with an eminent American historian) about the life of one of Reilly’s historical heros, Napoleon Bonaparte.
TPN’s business model, like so many in the new media constellation, is based around advertising revenue. When I raise the point that there isn’t that much advertising on TPN’s website or in the podcasts, Reilly tightens slightly and assures me that TPN has been profitable for over a year. It surely helps that he is the only salaried employee (affiliate podcasters are on profit-share plans while operating costs are just $1,000 per month, for server and bandwidth out of Texas).
TPN is certainly not the first new media start-up to lack the support of the traditional advertising industry. For Reilly, this reaffirms his belief that corporate Australia is missing the point and missing the boat on podcasting. He is eager to avoid the commercial radio model of blanketing “dumb” ads across his entire network of shows, choosing instead to leverage the intrinsically targeted nature of podcast audiences (who actively seek out, download and listen to content rather than flicking a radio to whatever’s on).
“We sell to our advertisers directly,” says Reilly. “They tend to be brands that aren’t used to dealing with radio and TV. They don’t want to reach two million people in the western suburbs. They want to reach 70,000 people who are passionate about, for instance, digital photography. They have the ability to deal with them on a global basis because they sell across the internet. So we’re having to build the back-end of this as well as the front-end, which early on I didn’t think we’d have to do.”
PUT UP OR SHUT UP
Not so long ago, Reilly was an executive at Microsoft Australia – on a good wicket, as they say. After a blissful first year at the corporate giant in the late nineties, he grew restless and began planning his first dot-com start-up (Golf Lounge), raising $3 million on the back of a napkin just weeks before the tech-bubble burst in 2000. Reluctantly, he gave it all back and remained at Microsoft.
As the years ticked by, Reilly’s resentment of the corporate landscape grew. “The thing that ate me up the most was that I could talk a good game, but I kept thinking, ‘Are you full of piss and vinegar or are you really going to do something with this? Are you really as clever as you think you are? If so, why are you working this bullshit corporate job sitting behind a desk in the cubicle like the rest of the lab rats? If you’re really as good as you think you are, go out and prove it. Go out and do something. Change the world. Build a business. Affect people’s lives.’”
It was at that moment that a friend offered some advice: Sometimes, you have to jump off the cliff. When you’re working 80 hours a week for a big corporate, you don’t have the time or the emotional energy to figure out what you’re going to do. So he jumped.
MOUNTAINS AND VALLEYS
In October 2006, Reilly appeared on the cover of the Bulletin magazine wearing rose-tinted glasses, earphones and a canary-yellow T-shirt that said “Geek”. Beneath him ran the headline, “Who wants to be a Billionaire?” The story focused on Aussie web entrepreneurs heading to America to make their name and fortune.
Reilly spent about a month in San Francisco, sleeping on the couch at the home of Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes (and even playing poker with Mike Arrington and his crew at the TechCrunch ranch). But after just a month, he headed home. Was his tail between his legs?
“I felt very uncomfortable in the start-up climate in San Francisco,” says Reilly, following a moment’s contemplation. “There’s this vibe, real or imagined, that everyone is just trying to build a business so that they can flip it to Google, Yahoo or Microsoft as soon as possible. The VCs encourage that. There’s this whole expectation that if you’re doing a start-up you should try and raise $20 million as quickly as possible, build the business to $1 billion and then flip it, sell it, get the fuck out. While that’s completely legitimate and acceptable, after a month there I realised that that is not who I am and that’s not why I’m building this business…. What gets me up in the morning is the idea that we can use this medium to change the world. We can have an impact on the political arena, the educational arena and the corporate arena.”
Perhaps Reilly would not be whistling this exact tune had he successfully raised capital in Silicon Valley. But there is something undeniably idealistic and refreshing about his outlook on business and life. He is careful to point out that TPN is a media business, not a web business like the majority of companies building to flip in Silicon Valley. As a grass roots media entity, his goals are more profound, more entrenched, more subversive to the mainstream.
“I’m an idealist. The Net to me has always been an opportunity to reshape the human race and make the world better. That’s what gets me excited. I realise that if I fuck that up, I’m going to hate myself. If I take this business and turn it into something just to make myself rich, I’m going to disappoint myself. I would rather keep my self-respect and stay excited about this.”
This philosophy has led Reilly to decline several offers from prospective investors since he returned to Australia. He is adamant that his only prerequisite for a strategic partner (apart from capital) is that the investor is “down” with his long-term vision for TPN. He’s worked for the man before, and it didn’t work for him.
VIVA LA REVOLUTION
Reilly is known as something of an agitator and readily admits that revolution courses through his veins. He is a willing participant in public forums, panels and pretty much anything he can get along to. The world is not always as eager to extend him an invitation, especially segments of corporate Australia.
In the course of researching this article, several people told me that Reilly has a knack for rubbing certain people the wrong way. He intends to pen a book in the near future entitled “Debunking Christianity”. And pretty much everything that could be termed “mainstream” in media, business or technology is squarely in line for one of his regular caustic sprays.
During his first appearance at Influence, an annual junket held in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley for Australia’s tech media (sponsored by a who’s who of large corporations all seeking to garner favourable media attention), Reilly reportedly tore one too many holes in the intricate fabric of proceedings. He was not invited back the following year.
“I get incredibly disappointed with the lack of revolutionary fervour in my entrepreneurial colleagues in this space,” says Reilly, shifting forward in his seat and locking eyes, as though I, too, might occasionally indulge in furtive daydreams of a comfortable job, 2.4 kids and a white picket fence. “Even with those who 10 years ago had revolution in their blood, now it’s all about build and flip. I think the dot-com crash burnt a lot of people and now, as soon as they can get seven times EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes), they’re out. I respect that. In some ways I think I’d be better off if I was more like that and less the revolutionary firebrand. But I am what I am. I have Irish blood. I want to torch the autocracy and reinvent the world in my image.”
He eases back, stretches out his arms and grips his hands behind him, his black leather jacket fanning open like theatre curtains to reveal a white T-shirt bearing the words: “Everything I know I learned from Wikipedia and The Podcast Network.”
GOOD TO CONNECT
Until the right partner comes along, Reilly is content to build TPN organically, scaling up by promoting podcasters through the management ranks. “I call it the mafia model,” he says. “I’m Tony Soprano and I have all the ‘cappos’ coming up.”
Perhaps the best way to describe Reilly is that he is a Renaissance man. He reads a lot. His show, G’day World, covers the entire sweeping spectrum of his world view, from media to technology to history to religion to business to politics to gossip. He is profound, imposing, magnetic and likeable.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can turn this into something more than radio on an iPod. It’s not much more than that today. We need a lot more innovation and risk-taking and exploration. Podcasting is still too geeky. It won’t be the geeks that innovate this. It will be the artists and mums and dads who take it in a new direction.”
It’s these new directions and new participants that interest Reilly. Now back in Australia, he is a proud Melburnian. There is little doubt that Sydney is the epicentre of Australia’s online business scene. Last year, Martin Wells (Tangler) and Mike Cannon-Brookes (Atlassian) launched the STIRR Sydney events, emulating the popular US events that throw attendees together to network via hypothetical games and activities.
Earlier this year, Reilly decided that the digital media community in Melbourne needed a regular, informal forum where they could catch up, have a drink and get to know each other. The result was MODM (Melbourne Online Digital Media), which is held on the first Thursday of each month at ACMI in Federation Square.
“I’ve never been a big fan of networking events,” says Reilly. “I’m not very social. I don’t like people very much. They tend a bore me. But it was obvious to me that Australians aren’t very good at this. We’re very uncomfortable with networking, unless it involves sport. We need to get better at it.”
When I enquire as to why traditional organisations and corporations haven’t developed a MODM-like event for the digital media crowd, something is triggered in Reilly.
“Where is the really innovative stuff? Who are the people that are reinventing the landscape and doing something that’s never been done before, with no budget – scrappy, guerrilla stuff? That’s the exciting part of this industry, not $300 million budgets doing an ad campaign. That’s boring. That’s what’s wrong with the industry, not what’s exciting about the industry. What’s exciting about the industry is people coming along and reinventing it on the smell of an oily rag. THAT’S what’s exciting.”
Reilly is sitting bolt upright, gesticulating on each point. He’s looking beyond me, rallying the troops on the eve of battle and, for a brief moment, I think he might actually slide his hand inside his jacket and rest it there on his chest. But he doesn’t. Instead, a little smirk escapes; an involuntary acknowledgement of the theatre of the moment just shared in a mostly empty bar in Richmond in the early afternoon.
And then he sits back, looks around casually and says, “Stop me if you disagree…”
Paul Ryan is editor of Australian Anthill.
|To listen to Cameron Reilly’s 5 September, 2007 podcast interview with Anthill founder James Tuckerman and editor Paul Ryan, click here.|
Photography: Paul Philipson