When to offer a member-exclusive content series

By Brian Keller

In this episode, Chris Wade from Chapo Trap House shares his experiences hosting and producing podcasts, plus tips for how to cultivate a passionate member community.

Not only is Chris Wade the longtime producer of the massively popular, radical, left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House, he’s also a whiz behind the mic. He co-hosts the music podcast And Introducing, as well as Hell on Earth, a new history mini-series that launched on Chapo Trap House’s Patreon last month, building off of his earlier show, Hell of Presidents.

On this week’s episode of the Backstage with Patreon podcast, Chris shares his wide-ranging experiences, including what it’s like managing Chapo’s Patreon community, which includes tens of thousands of members who rally around the show’s themes and anti-capitalist roots.

Subscribe to Backstage with Patreon on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or directly via RSS. Join the discussion about the episode in the Patreon Creator Community Discord server.

Episode transcript

Brian Keller:
Hello creators. You are Backstage with Patreon where we open the curtain on how to build a thriving business on Patreon. I'm Brian Keller from the Creator Success Team, and today's guest is Chris Wade, longtime producer of the massively popular radical left-wing podcast, Chapo Trap House, as well as podcast host himself. He cohosts the miniseries Hell on Earth as part of the Chapo Patreon offering, and built off of his earlier show, Hell of Presidents.

He also cohosts the ongoing stand-alone music podcast And Introducing, he directly manages Chapo's community on Patreon with tens of thousands of members and the unique relationship resulting from the show's anti-capitalist roots. So let's get started with Chris Wade on Backstage with Patreon. That's such an interesting mix of projects. Sometimes you are behind the mic, sometimes you're on the production side, and we'd love to have you say a little bit about, how do you choose the projects you work on, the roles that you have?

Chris Wade:
Well, first of all, Brian, I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me. It all stems out of how Chapo started and how it works and exists. For me, as somebody who came on to Chapo as a producer after they were already a going concern and after they'd been going for about 18 months, I was a listener before I was a producer, and to me, Chapo Trap House is the main show, is always the three hosts, the three main hosts. We used to have a few other ones, but now we're down to the original three who founded the show. They are the show, their interaction, their dynamic, their thoughts and sense of humor is the show Chapo Trap House.

I will appear on mic with them sometimes, usually when it's a topic that I particularly care about, or more often when we just happen to be down a member for scheduling reasons and we just need another person on mic to just keep the dynamic going. As a producer, I think of it as my responsibility to mainly just keep that show as close to its central dynamic as possible. That being said, working with Chapo, Matt and I, Matt Christman is one of the hosts of Chapo, developed an interest and rapport with each other beyond our basic friendship of discussing history and our mutual fascinations and interests and sense of humor, I think, really, about the study and discussion of history related things and our mutual interest and history podcast.

So when we had the opportunity to do a spin-off show outside of Patreon, that was through Stitcher, when Stitcher basically came to us and we're like, "You got anything for us?" History was the first thing that came to mind, and Matt and I were like, "Oh, we could definitely do something around here." And that became our first spin-off history show, which was called Hell of Presidents, which started with a very vague concept that I would basically just pitch him the name of presidents and he would riff on them for 30 minutes and we'd do one episode per president. But solely developed from us trying to wrap our heads around it into basically the history of the United States as told through the Office of Presidency. That was a lot of me writing basic background scripts and then him going off of it.

And then while we were doing that, we came up with the concept for the second one, which we wanted to bring back to Patreon to streamline where all of our shows were offered. And so we figured out how to do a history podcast on the other show, the first show, out of necessity or out of just somebody asking, "Hey, do you want to do another show?" And so now when we brought it back to Patreon, we had a dynamic in place, a workflow in place, a process in place. We had a better idea of how to wrap our heads around the entirety of an idea and then bring it forward into a discreet set of episodes. And so that's basically how I delineate between producing and hosting on the Chapo feed.

Brian Keller:
Yeah, it sounds like it's pretty fluid. It's driven by your interests, maybe business opportunities. Anything else that you think about as you're doing that? Because a lot of other creators maybe are in that moment are thinking, what do they do next to expand what they work on?

Chris Wade:
Yeah, I mean, for me and for the show as a whole, it has always been what comes naturally, what flows out of the interests of the specific hosts and creators. Again, we had another show when we got the Stitcher offer that was done by our host Felix, or hosted by him, which he called Time For My Stories, which was looking at American political culture through television shows over the last 60 years, basically since the mid-'50s. I think the earliest series they did was Gun Smoke, and that developed out of his early pandemic fixation with Network, the most mainstream and maybe "normal" of Network TV shows.

He got fascinated with shows like This Is Us, and there's a show called Fellowship of Dads or Brotherhood of Dads, or so, kind of what some people would say bland TV dramas on Network. And so he started doing a series of that on the show basically because it was early pandemic and he was bored, called This Is Sus. That was initially Chapo. When he got asked to do another series, that was what he spinned-off. So it was basically out of something that he was already interested in that felt natural for him to talk about, that he had already started doing is basically a miniseries on our Patreon feed.

So I think it is mostly just not try to force things, take what your interest is and try to drill it down to the most basic manifestation of it. Concepts don't have to be too high concept, and this is more my delineation between host and producer. It's what you feel comfortable with. I feel much more comfortable and confident on the history series, A, mostly because I get to write out everything that I say beforehand, which makes me feel, as a producer, much more in control of what's going on. Whereas the boys, the other three boys have much better improvisational riffs on the main show, and so that's much more the mode that they feel comfortable with. So just not trying to force anything. Letting things come to you and just following where those impulses take you. Yeah.

Brian Keller:
Well, let's talk more about Hell on Earth, and very exciting that it's exclusive for your Patreon members there. How did you decide on maybe the format, the audience, the topics, knowing you're bringing history, you're connecting it to political and contemporary themes, and the right way that you thought it would land really well for that existing audience, and really to drive more folks to join?

Chris Wade:
Well, it comes from a few things. Again, we probably wouldn't have the confidence to jump straight into such a more esoteric historical topic. Hell On Earth is a podcast about The Thirty Years' War, which is, I think, in the pop history kind of a forgotten or under-discussed moment of 17th century German history that we nonetheless started looking at and thinking, "Oh, there's a lot of resonances with our current moment," as we were looking into that. But it's certainly not something that if we, Matt and I, were first sitting down being like, "We should do a history podcast." That would be like, "Let's jump straight to there."

So we had the confidence that we had figured out how to do this kind of show from the Presidents show, which is, I think, obviously a much easier in for most people. That's a pretty easy sell to any audience that's remotely interested in history and American politics. Okay, great. The presidents, I can name almost all of them off the top of my head. I know basic facts about most of them. I have an easy in to figure out like, "Oh, I'd be interested in this history show," if I'm interested in history as an audience member. So once we did that, we were like, "All right, now that we have the muscle built up from doing this show, we can do something a little more esoteric."

And now that we also have an audience, people have listened to us do a history series before, we have a built-in group of people that we can trust will follow us to something a little more esoteric, a little more obscure.

And then from there, building it out in a way where we were trying to front-load what we think are the historical resonances of why one might be interested in this show, like in all our promotional material in our trailers and all the language that we tried to use to sell it. We're hammering home The Thirty Years' War. Might sound obscure. You might not know who Emperor Ferdinand II, Habsburg, is, or who Gustavus Adolphus is.

But what this series is actually about, it's about climate change, it's about financial collapse, it's about pandemic, it's about a sclerotic political institution on top of rapidly changing conditions that it can't really address. All these things. Do they sound familiar to your audience? Well, they've all happened before, in this moment, also in a way that includes really gnarly violence and Game of Thrones level medieval intrigue.

So building out that hook around it and with that built-in audience of like, "You've heard us do this thing before," made us feel confident that we could get people to follow us into this second level of historical analysis.

And then, yeah, I mean, I said it at the very end of the pitch there, just also really trying to hammer home, "Folks, it's Game of Thrones." It's like a Game of Thrones style story of acts of violence and courtly intrigue and there's magic and sorcery. I mean, not real, but these people believed it was real. So, just trying to find the hooks. And then once we started building it, trying to figure out ins with good characters and interesting plot arcs for individuals, even though we're trying to tell a structural history because we know that's what hooks people into these kinds of stories.

Brian Keller:
The thing that really stood out to me listening to the first episode was, you are making characters and memorable aspects with Martin Luther, that idea like he was the first celebrity. He signed autographed photos. That's such a nice way to connect it to contemporary times.

Chris Wade:

Brian Keller:
I mean, the other thing I really noticed was the soundscape that you're putting together on the show where, if it's about outside or it's in the church, there's bells and bird noises and things in the background. Was that a conscious part of how do you make it a little bit lively for the listeners?

Chris Wade:
Yeah, I mean, we definitely wanted to, because we're taking time to design these and produce these beforehand, we wanted to do a little bit to, as you said, make it a little more lively. Otherwise it is just two guys talking back and forth about each other with just monologues, basically. So, I mean, in my mind, producorially, you want to do things that offer peaks and valleys and accentuate moments. It's basically like punctuation, I think about it. And I try not to overdo it because I think that that can get a little grating if there's a production element of every moment of a 70 or 90 minute podcast, especially if you're trying to convey information. Sometimes you just have to sit in the information and let it wash over.

But it's stuff like the musical interludes where it's like, "Okay, this is one complete thought, and now we're going to give you 10 seconds of music to rest your brain and let your brain take a breath. And now we're going to move into another six to 10 minute segment that is another complete thought or idea, and then we'll rest it again." It's mostly about trying to make the show easier to listen to and easier to process, especially when it's fairly dense with names, states, facts, information analysis. Always just trying to give a little bit of oomph to things but not put a blanket over the entire production.

Brian Keller:
Let's talk about the promotional side of it as well, and something really interesting you're doing with this show for Chapo is the first episode released for free on all podcast platforms for people to listen to. Then you have trailers, short versions of those episodes, like you do with some of the main Chapo episodes. How did you arrive at that as a really effective way to bring people from your public shows into Patreon?

"You must be absolutely obnoxious about promoting and my instinct is not to be, my instinct is to be 'ah gee shucks here’s a little thing I made,' but I think that that is important."

Chris Wade:
Well, when we started doing miniseries with Patreon, like the first episode free, I don't know, that felt fairly obvious to me, even when we do... This is going to be, I think in the end, a 16-episode miniseries, but some of our other miniseries are as short as six episodes. I mean, it seemed obvious to be like, you want to let people fully know what the concept is. You want to give people the biggest opportunity to figure out if they like the thing and if they're interested in hearing more. I mean, it's the classic, the first hit is free type thing to rope people in.

And then just in terms of promoting podcasts, I mean, often, frankly, cutting the trailer of a podcast, this is sometimes the most difficult part just because it's very long format and everything that we're talking about is interconnected. So just trying to lift two minutes or five minutes that makes sense on its own is sometimes the most difficult part of the edit for me. But our big promotional platform is Twitter. That's where all of our hosts have their biggest audience. That's where we have our most engaged fan base. That's basically what the show is born out of. So you need something there that is easy for people to just click and be like, "What is this about?" Let me hopefully present it in a format that it has one button push and you can listen right there.

We use SoundCloud as our off Patreon podcast host, which has been always exactly what we need from it as far as podcast hosting goes, and critically is very easily embeddable. So right there on Twitter, click it open, press play on the SoundCloud widget. You can listen to the first five minutes of the episode and also right there in the Tweet have the link to the full episode in Patreon. That's been doing pretty well for us. I think our pre-show promotional cycle also did pretty well. Me and Matt went pretty hard in trying to get the word out about this, and we can talk more about some of those strategies in a minute.

But, yeah, I think it's just figuring out what ways you have to give people as tantalizing a taste of what you have behind the paywall as possible, and then just make it as easy to get to the paywall content or the subscriber content as you can. And so far it's been going pretty well. In fact, we just put up the fourth episode of the series today and I have more trailers to put up a little later. I'm trying to iterate about spacing out what timing and figuring out what times and what platforms, because I'm using both my Chapo Twitter account and my personal Twitter account trying to space things between the two, and trying to manage as best as possible the right sweet spot between making sure people are constantly seeing stuff about this, but also not being totally obnoxious about it.

But as a friend of mine said when the show launched and emailed and were like, "This is great," they were like, "I'm going to tell you because nobody else will. You must be absolutely obnoxious about promoting this." And my instinct is not to be. My instinct is to be, "Oh, gee, shucks, here's a little thing I made." But I think that that is important. It's like pushing yourself to be, when you have something big that you spend a lot of time on, completely annoying about, trying to get the word out about it.

Brian Keller:
And I think that's a really universal feeling for a lot of creators. They don't want to feel overly promotional, overly salesy...

Chris Wade:
No, it sucks.

Brian Keller:
... about it.

Chris Wade:
Selling yourself is the worst part.

Brian Keller:
Yeah, and especially for Chapo. The audience will really push back against things that feel like that that's over the lines.

Chris Wade:

Brian Keller:
How did you figure out what style, what frequency really works, especially with the unique audience?

Chris Wade:
Well, Chapo is very much a unique case because for about our first... If you just look at our subscriber graph for basically since the moment the Patreon was launched till about summer of 2020, for four solid years there, we basically did not do anything other than just make the show and occasionally Tweet, "Here's a new episode about it." And our subscriber base constantly grew, so we were very lucky to have the privilege to not do any kind of promotion. And that then became part of the show and part of what our audience came to expect from us, which is like, "They don't promo it, they don't go out of their way, they don't do PR. It's, in fact, crass in some way to be doing that."

As you mentioned up top, we have a particularly unique relationship with our audience in which, at a certain level, success is kind of a liability or a shortcoming among our audience just in terms of financial success basically. But I think one of the things that helps is the show itself is always just the show. The show Chapo Trap House is just the show and we continue basically doing the same thing about that, doing no more than putting out Tweets on the show account that say, "Here's the new episode. Here what it's about. Here's where you find it." Occasionally having some of our hosts are things that they're particularly involved in. But doing these miniseries and events things does give us the opportunity to be a little more aggressive about things in a way that feels natural.

Again, coming back to feeling natural to our audience and to ourselves of being like, "Hey, here's something that..." I mean, Matt and I put a year of work into this series of reading, researching, writing, recording, putting in the production, the edits and everything, like hundreds of hours of work between the two of us. And so for that, it's like, this is something new and different that the show has never done before. Never this high production under the actual show's name. We did the Presidents series, but that was outside of the show. And so I think that that earns a little bit of the goodwill and reasonableness to be like, "Now we're going to push the hell out of this thing because it's new and different."
And there is an element of it that's even like trying to get the word out there, because there are a lot of preconceptions about Chapo and what it is among the larger audience gauging from maybe a few unkind words people might have heard back in 2016 that reflect what they think about the show now. But this is something new. This is something different. It's in a different genre, and trying to get the word out to people of being like, "Hey, even if you think you hate this show for reasons you can't quite explain, here is a new and completely different thing that the show is doing that you might enjoy outside of what you think of the main show. And you can consume it without even ever touching or listening to the main show. That's fine with us, as long as you hop on the Patreon for the two months or so that it's coming out."

Brian Keller:
There you go. Good. The other tactic I know you guys used pretty effectively recently was taking your annual memberships that you've already had, but really making a promotional push around that. And some other creators, maybe they're thinking about whether to do annual. We're just wondering, how do you actually make it a bigger moment? What did you approach for Chapo?

Chris Wade:
For those kinds of big structural changes, we introduced the annual membership with the announcement of Hell on Earth. So, Hell on Earth premiered January 11th. I think we announced it November 20th. I basically put up a big blog post that was three big announcements that was like, Hell on Earth, this new series that we've been teasing for a while between me and Matt, that's coming out. That is premiering January 11th. And guess what? Starting right now, we have the second season of another historical miniseries that's much smaller production, one of our six-episode miniseries that just Matt and another friend of theirs riffing about historical what ifs, that's launching today. So you didn't even know you're getting that.

That's new stuff coming now. And look at all this bonus content we're putting out. We're also introducing an annual membership. So it's kind of a promise of more stuff is going to come and a way to give you a discount if you are interested in more of this stuff. So it's already like, here today in this blog post, we're announcing that you are going to get X, Y, Z more content than you usually get on the Patreon, plus the additional, plus the regular Patreon content. And to get it all if you're interested in all of this, a discounted way to subscribe to it all. And again, that was just something that just felt obvious because we had all these things ready to go. We had the whole second miniseries, the Hinge Points series ready to go.

We knew when we were ready to launch Hell on Earth, we knew that that was coming in January, and we knew that we were going to activate this annual membership thing. So it seemed like combining them all in one big announcement made for a good push on all those things. And a good promise to our subscribers of like, "There is a reason to get an annual membership. You are going to have more content this year and next year and more high quality content than you have had in the last few years, so why not get the discount now?"

Brian Keller:
Yeah, that bundling and delivering a ton of value makes a lot of sense. I also want to talk about the unique community that Chapo has and that ability to help nurture really a next generation of creators in your genre. And would love to hear how you thought about that, how you really intentionally been a part of other shows, encouraged them, and really helped other creators in the space that you're in.

Chris Wade:
Yeah, I mean, it's kind of unintentional, but we try to alley-oop whenever we can, because as Chapo came out, there were a lot of people in our space who saw the success of our model and the lack of voices in our space, specifically our lefty independent media space while also being funny and casual and irrelevant. And then also just friends of ours that came up around the show and that we were always happy to help promote and push. And so just to name a few, we'd be talking about people like the episode one podcast, which is a podcast of a lot of friends of Felix, all of our friends, but they were specifically Felix's friends who do a very, very funny show where the concept is every episode is the first episode of a forgotten or abandoned podcast.

So it's kind of like a Comedy Bang! Bang! style, like improvisational joke show. There's the Seeking Derangements crew, which is, if I'm not being too crass, it's kind of like gay Chapo. It's a bunch of gay trans comedians, hosts, who are talking about news and culture in a very similar way who were friends of ours. Less directly friends, but certainly people who we recognized as colleagues. I'm a big fan of the QAnon Anonymous podcast who came up starting to really focus in on and examining QAnon and other modern conspiratorial thinking, and seeing all these people. And there are several more shows like that. And I think all these people were inspired by just seeing our model work and seeing that there is a pathway there. And then also knowing that there's not much else like that around, which is one of the keys to Chapo's early success.

And then the thing is, they're our friends, so we like hanging out with them. And really it is also just guesting on their shows, them guesting on our shows. It is strategically good cross-pollination, but it's also just like, that's easy content. It's always good to have the Seeking Derangements crew come on our show because we know them. We like them. They're in the same milieu as us. They know all our same jokes, they know all our same references. It's just going to be a good episode.

So it's very win-win-win all around to build these interconnections between all of these people. I feel like we often get people messaging being like, "Oh, you guys should start a podcast network or something because we're all on the subscription..." I just don't know what the value add of that would be for us.

Usually what a network can give you is negotiating ad rates or something, and none of us use advertising at all. So mostly the value is, one of my key philosophical points, especially around podcasts is, podcasting is about having fun with your friends. And if you are having fun with your friends on the mic, that's going to come through and that's going to make your show work. And so having our friends all have podcasts in our same network and then guesting on theirs, having them on ours, is a very "all boats lifted" type thing. And certainly the success of some of the shows that have come up around us is one of the things that I know some of our hosts are most proud of doing with the show is kind of blazing a trail that works for other people.

Brian Keller:
Well, that's a great message to end on. A few key themes. You talked about, when it comes to new concepts, keep it high level, think about where you're comfortable, find those themes that tie-back into your core content that really make it approachable, but also expand what you're doing there. The idea that shows really earn a lot of trust from their audience, that ability to go out and talk about what they're doing, but also bundle. Show a lot of the value, show why it's valuable for everyone to be a part of it and to join. And then as you collaborate with other creators, that can be strategic, but that can also be fun. That's part of the joy of doing it.

So, Chris, thank you so much for sharing your experience. Any final things you wanted to add?

Chris Wade:
Not really. I think that covers it. The way you summed up all those things is, yeah, that is very strategic, but I just can't emphasize enough that everything should be feeling fun. And I don't know, that that might seem very flimsy or anything, but that has always been a guiding principle of like, "What do we like doing?" And if you find yourself doing something that is strategic that you really don't like doing, then it's probably not the best move. It's easier to say that when you're in a very successful account or Patreon like us. I fully admit that. But I really do think that that has been one of the guiding principles that has got the show there. It should feel easy and like something you like doing, and that I think will most of the time keep you on the correct path, strategically as well.

Brian Keller:
Awesome. Well, thanks for sharing those insights with other creators on Backstage with Patreon. Thank you.
Tune in next week to Backstage with Patreon when we'll have Mimi Xu on the show. She is the Product Manager for Patreon's video product and has tips for leveraging the new native video features to streamline your workflow, offer compelling benefits to your members, and easily promote your page to your audience on other platforms. To catch every episode of Backstage with Patreon, follow or subscribe in your podcast app and leave us a review.

We also have transcripts available at patreon.com/backstage. You're growing as a creator by listening to the show, so why not share the insights from this episode with another creator on Patreon or who is running a creative business. We'd love to have you as an active collaborator with Backstage with Patreon. Come join the discussion in the Patreon Creator Discord. Follow the link in the episode notes and you can get answers to your follow-up questions directly from the guests and weigh in on what topics we'll be covering next. Editing by Tyler Morrisette. I'm Brian Keller. See you next time, Backstage.

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