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Podcaster Leo Laporte, the everywhere man

August 25, 2010 |  8:58 am

Leo-laporte-fireLeo Laporte arrived Thursday at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.

On Friday morning he arrived at the office of KFI AM 640, the radio station that airs his syndicated "The Tech Guy" program. At 3:42 p.m., he was back at the airport, ready to fly home to Petaluma, Calif.

I don't stalk Laporte. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. Every time the tech-savvy broadcaster checks into a nearby place using a service called Foursquare, an alert pops up on my phone.

Location-centric social networking is one of the hottest Internet technologies today. Last week Facebook announced four partnerships and a feature of its own, called Places, for telling friends you're hanging out at a particular restaurant, bar or other notable spot.

Laporte, a 53-year-old avid Foursquare user who runs his own online broadcasting company, travels constantly. However, he sets up shop in a suburban town about an hour north of San Francisco. Location, for most of what he does, is irrelevant.

"Thank goodness there's Skype and the Internet," Laporte said recently in an interview with The Times. "We don't have to be anywhere."

Sometimes he does.

In January, Laporte was in Las Vegas, shooting live video from the Consumer Electronics Show. In March, he was in Austin, Texas, crowd-surfing at a South by Southwest party, with live-streaming video equipment on his back and a camera in his hand. Then in June, he covered L.A.'s E3 video game expo.

That he still uses Foursquare to let friends and fans know about his travels is worth noting.

Known in some circles as "President of the Internet," Laporte wields major influence in the consumer-technology industry. From the phones he uses -- now, Verizon Wireless' Droid X, though that could change tomorrow -- to the websites he supports -- he was a big proponent of Twitter early on -- Laporte's habits are worth watching.

Indeed, hundreds of thousands of people do tune in to watch his podcasts and listen to his radio show. When he's not traveling, Laporte runs a network of online talk shows called TWiT out of his two-story office. Somehow he's not the Foursquare mayor there.

The company is named after its flagship podcast, This Week in Tech. On it, reporters and pundits in the technology industry discuss the week's news, and episodes net hundreds of thousands of downloads. (Disclosure: I've appeared several times as a guest panelist on the show.)

Another two dozen programs cover topics such as food, law and science, but most deal with more specialized areas in technology, including recently launched shows about green tech and Apple's iPad.

The TWiT company has been expanding steadily in staff -- now at about 10 employees and 30 to 40 contractors. "We've outgrown our studio," Laporte said.

The control room contains two desks, mixing boards, a multi-camera setup, monitors, chairs in the corner for occasional guests and a giant rubber ball Laporte sits (and bounces) on while shooting hours of live Internet video daily. He aims to have 24 hours of original programming on the Web. Video is constantly streaming at Live.TWiT.tv, but most of that content is repeats from its still-growing stable of shows.

Despite some complaints from city-dwelling employees not enamored with the commute to Petaluma, the next step for the 5-year-old company is to build an even bigger studio in Laporte's favorite small town, he said.

A radio broadcaster of 34 years with a six-year stint on TV, Laporte's booming voice, love of Hawaiian shirts and ability to distill complex topics into easily digestible bites has won over fans.

As a businessman, he can talk a big game, but it's obvious he's making some of it up as he goes along. After all, that's often the best way to succeed in the tech industry.

"If you want to understand my business, you just have to come from the point of view of: What did Leo want to do?" he said, half-jokingly. "I wanted to be my own boss. I didn't want to commute. I wanted to choose the shows. I wanted to cover shows that I was interested in. And if you understand that, then everything makes sense."

Laporte's psyche isn't the only beneficiary. It's proven a sensible business. TWiT's revenue was $2.25 million last year and is on track to gross $3 million this year, Laporte said.

The chief TWiT, as he calls himself, doesn't take his salary from the interstitial, old-time ads he reads between discussions, which account for the majority of revenue. He's paid by donations from fans, which can exceed $20,000 some months. (He limits his own monthly payments to $10,000, or $120,000 annually -- plenty for him and his family to get by in Petaluma. The rest goes into the company budget.)

A testament to how sustainable Laporte's business is, Jason Calacanis, who helped launch the blogging phenomenon with his Weblogs company that was acquired by AOL for $25 million, is getting into the online broadcasting game. Even the name of Calacanis' company, ThisWeekIn, is just four letters off from Laporte's signature show's title.

The blog mogul called Laporte the "godfather" of podcasting in an interview with The Times earlier this year.

For TWiT, Laporte is steadfast in asserting that location isn't important for his breed of Web broadcasting. Most panelists call in using a mic and a Webcam connected to their computers.

But when discussing the future, he relents.

"Phase three will probably be in San Francisco," Laporte said. (Phase two is the bigger Petaluma studio.) "I think we have to be in San Francisco."

Laporte also thought he had to be in New York in order to do a daily morning talk show. "If you're going to do a morning show, it just makes sense to do it in New York," he said. "I don't know why. Howard Stern or what, it just made sense."

Those N.Y. deals fell apart when he saw the costs -- too risky for his modest empire. He refuses to accept venture capital, a decision that he admits can inhibit growth but ensures that he maintains control.

"L.A. would be a good place for us to be too," he said.

Why? Didn't location not really matter? What's your master plan, Laporte?

"You give me way too much credit," he said. "Now we're kind of in this stage where we're starting to turn into a real business. So it's no longer: 'What does Leo want to do?' It's: 'What makes sense for the business?'"

But surely a big part of the formula that made the company work in the first place was that it wasn't saddled by the costs of operating in expensive cities.

Broadcasting from nowhere while being able to reach just about anywhere has worked well. TWiT can be watched live using a computer, on TV using a set-top box, or on the move with a smart-phone app.

Plus, "we are global," Laporte said, noting that 30% of its audience comes from outside the U.S. TWiT has attracted advertisers that include Microsoft, Ford and Audible.com, and more than half of them choose a global ad package, he said.

If Laporte shows up in the U.K. one day, where he has a large number of fans, don't look for him to check in on Facebook Places; He led a campaign against Facebook on behalf of consumer privacy concerns. This week in a much-ballyhooed rant, he railed against Google's Buzz, another mobile- and location-heavy social network.

So if you really care about where he is, you can always keep an eye on Foursquare, his blog or Twitter profiles. (On the latter, he has a page for his bathroom scale. Just FYI.)

But no matter where in the world Laporte is situated, fans know where to find him.

-- Mark Milian
twitter.com/markmilian

Photos, from top: Leo Laporte "eating fire" in his studio. Credit: Tony Wang / Inside TWiT via Flickr; Leo Laporte at the controls during an episode of "This Week in Tech." In the background is Digg founder Kevin Rose. Credit: Tony Wang / Inside TWiT via Flickr

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