Far From Silicon Valley, a Tech Journalist's Podcast Brings in $11,000 a Month
Photo by Nanette GonzalesTom Merritt in his home studio
In January 2013, tech reporter Tom Merritt moved from San Rafael to L.A. for his wife's new job at YouTube, and in December, was summarily fired from popular Bay Area website TWiT.tv, where he'd been a news anchor for the show Tech News Today. It came as a shock; Merritt had made the move with the understanding that he could Skype in from Los Angeles. But when he left his perch, his superiors decided they would replace him with an anchor who could report in-studio. [See editor's note at story's end.]
Hell hath no fury like a bunch of tech geeks scorned. When Merritt's fans learned that TWiT.tv wouldn't allow their favorite news personality to report from L.A., a hard-core group of followers banded together under the name "Merritt Militia" and organized a campaign to find him a new show.
They succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Even as L.A.'s Silicon Beach tech scene struggles for validation, Merritt has built a tech-reporting empire out of his Mar Vista home. His audience tops 23,000 daily listeners, with a crowdfunding campaign that rakes in $11,000 a month. And he's done it all in just five months - which is especially remarkable in light of how many journalists and news publications are struggling to turn a profit in today's changing media landscape.
The secret to his success is a seriously obsessed group of fans. The Merritt Militia has tasked itself with everything from jump-starting Merritt's business plan to curating the content for his show.
In January, members organized a two-hour virtual hangout with Merritt to brainstorm a new podcast. The result was The Daily Tech News Show, a five-day-a-week wrapup of developments within the tech sphere.
But Merritt's fans were just getting started. They built him a chat room, designed a logo for the show, wrote an original theme song and helped pool 4,000 contributors to fund the podcast. Their monthly donations, made via the crowdfunding platform Patreon, allow Merritt to distribute his podcast for free, no advertising required.
The Merritt Militia is passionate enough to have its own manifesto. On its Google Plus page, the members describe themselves as "a group of soldiers and warriors committed to the support and advancement of our hero and muse Tom Merritt. We thrive in the trenches of fighting for the glory of our victor."
Merritt's home studio is a converted space in a small room next to his driveway, with bookcases lined with Tolkien and Orson Scott Card works, and a maze of wires slithering around his reporting desk. On a recent afternoon, the 43-year-old was doing show preparation smartly dressed in a pressed button-down shirt and jacket, but wearing no shoes under the table, where the camera couldn't see.
"Wow, looks like there's a lot of buzz today," Merritt laughs, watching incoming comments in his chat room.
While a majority of his listeners hear the show by downloading the recorded podcasts, a few hundred tune in for the live broadcasts. (In addition to The Daily Tech News Show, he does three other weekly podcasts covering sci-fi, books, comics, TV, movies and other tech news). Fans are as much contributors as they are consumers: For the daily tech show, Merritt says, about 50 percent of the show's content is generated by fan suggestions.
Thirty minutes before the show starts, Merritt announces that he's opening up an audio stream so listeners can hear him and the episode's guest co-host, tech vlogger Lamarr Wilson, plan out their talking points. The chat room goes wild with activity.
"After a while, you learn to separate the tips from the noise," Merritt explains as comments stream in. "You can build trust with specific users and find out what their biases are. For instance, this guy," he says, pointing to the chat room handle "MetalFreak," "is an open-source advocate, and usually he has good insight on that."
The other way that fans help is by vetting each other - weeding out suspicious comments that look like trolling or PR people trying to promote their tech products.
"Are we all set?" Merritt asks his producer. "OK, here we go. We're live in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ..."
The show, which typically runs about 40 minutes, begins with Merritt touching lightly on a half-dozen tech headlines he's found online. Today, after some banter with Wilson, he segues into the interactive part of his program: fan-submitted news stories and topics they've asked him to discuss.
Merritt acknowledges his fans whenever he takes up their suggestions, many of which come from his chat room and SubReddit page.
"Thanks to Tekkyn00b and spsheriden for today's news picks," he calls out at one point.
It's a model of audience engagement he's been honing for more than a decade.
Merritt first developed his radio voice working as a DJ for country music station WGEL in his hometown of Greenville, Illinois. After graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in journalism, Merritt launched his tech career in 1999 at San Francisco media outlet TechTV. His placement there would shape his perspective on fan interaction.
"When I started working for TechTV as a web editor, my job was to answer the chat room," he explains. "At that time, most thought it was a colossal waste of time - similar to working in the mailroom for a major corporation. But I began to notice a lot of informative comments and got some leads. I realized that by responding to people, it turns your audience into advocates."
Merritt continued to improve strategies for audience engagement when working at CNET on the popular show Buzz Out Loud, which he co-hosted between 2004 and 2010 with New York Times tech columnist Molly Wood, as well as during his recent tenure at TWiT.tv.
Merritt's commitment to accessibility has paid off. Many of The Daily Tech News Show's supporters have been following him for years.
Their numbers are still growing. By the time the day's show has ended, he's gained seven more contributors on his crowdfunding site. Each has agreed to donate at least $1 a month over the next year, so their contributions have added another $40 of monthly income for the show.
After all the drama over his move to Los Angeles, Merritt is doing just fine. With the majority of his reporting aggregated from sources and fans online, he doesn't feel like he's missing anything by not being in San Francisco.
"What I've discovered is, the place doesn't really matter," he says. "The show is possible because of the fans."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated the timing of Merritt's move and termination from TwiT.tv. He moved to L.A. in January 2013 and was fired in December. We regret the error.
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter:
Get the Arts Newsletter
Get the latest news and offers from the LA art scene sent directly to your email address. Exclusive events and art related sales you won't hear about anywhere else!