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Servant of Pod Kara Swisher Episode 18
Thu, 11/19 4:42PM • 24:49
people, power, question, laughter, sway, kara swisher, kara, talk, spalding gray, jesus, thought, wrote, recode, struck, interview, theater, early, idea, feel, elon musk
Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Kara Swisher, Nick Quah
Kara Swisher 00:00
I think people have their little dog and pony show like, "Here's my act! Ahh!" I have an act, you have an act. Everyone has an act. And very few people have genuine discussions anymore, right? It's all performative.
Nick Quah 00:13
There is a mythology around Kara Swisher, and it goes like this: she is the tech journalist known for cutting through the bull**** of the most powerful people on the planet. Like Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos.
Kara Swisher 00:26
You know, we're not going to get to this, you know, "let's put on our pajamas, and cuddle up, and have a real talk" kind of thing. But I'm hoping that it will be... That's the idea. You know, the idea is, "Alright, look, I know what you want to say here. But do you understand the price of what you're doing?"
Nick Quah 00:46
And on her new podcast, Sway, she wants to go beyond the tech world into the heart of the matter: who has power, and how do they use it? From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the power of Kara Swisher. Kara Swisher is a journalism legend. She's been writing about the intersection of technology and business, and its effect on our world, since the 90s. And she is regarded as one of the most influential and important journalists in the business right now. She's also an experienced podcaster who's launched two successful shows: Recode Decode and Pivot, with Scott Galloway. Now she's launching one with New York Times Opinion. This time, she's focusing on power. And she says the title, Sway, really showcases the vibe of the podcast.
Kara Swisher 01:49
The idea of persuading, since it's for the opinion section, to sway someone is a nice... You know, in this sort of twitchy, horrible, partisan time we're in, swaying someone is actually a better way. It's like persuasion, versus debating or forcing your opinion on people. And so I thought that was a nice connotation. There's another connotation of it's bringing fresh voices, or being fresh. And I like the idea of fresh. It's got a wind feel, I don't know, it just...
Nick Quah 02:15
[Laughter] So tell me, what's the difference between... So what are you trying to do with Sway that's different from what you were doing with Recode Decode?
Kara Swisher 02:23
The main thing that is different is that it will really do the gamut of everything, not just tech or business. I had started to move out of my concentric circles, I had done all the tech people, and then I did a lot of big business people, because they were impacted by tech, but tech was always the formation of it. And then it moved out to... I did a lot of politics in the last year or two--two years, it's maybe three--and then started doing--I didn't really get to artists--and some science, more science, and stuff like that. And so I was moving outward already. And I think the New York Times, if you define it as power, and what it is in this country, because that's really what's happening right now. It's shifts in power, and who has it, and how do you get it? How do you take it? I think really does sort of explain it. And it gives me permission to talk to just about anybody about that stuff.
Nick Quah 03:12
How do you define power?
Kara Swisher 03:14
Well, it's interesting, I kind of define it in a different way than other people. I mean, there's obviously traditional power, like you can look to who holds the big jobs, whether it's in law enforcement, or entertainment, or science, or things like that. You can define it by people who have ideas, to me. And that's one thing I was doing on Recode Decode that I am going to be doing a ton more here. I think I had a lot of people before they became powerful, like Stacey Abrams, I had very early, when she was a state legislator. And I just was struck by her language. This was before she was mentioned as anything, really. Same thing with Shoshana Zuboff, who is a professor at Harvard. I had her on very early, talking about surveillance capitalism, which was the topic of her book. And so I think they have power because they're starting to persuade people of new ideas. I also want to talk to people not in power, and what's that's like, and how they can get there. There's obviously these emerging movements that have been there forever, but are starting to gain different either political grounds or intellectual ideas. And then I want to talk to people who are in power and why they think they need to grasp onto it, right? Why they need to hold onto it. One of the reasons I loved covering the Internet in its early days is that when I got to the Wall Street Journal--I had been covering it for The Washington Post, and then wrote a book about AOL--I got there and there was a power structure. There was... Media was the most important... Media moguls is who they interviewed, all the media moguls, all the time. And I came in and I was like, "This new medium is going to decimate everybody, and it's going to flatten power." Right? Or/and spread it out. And I remember being greeted by people there, like, "Oh, you're in the CB radio area, Kara," and I'm like, "No, this is going to change... These people are going to be the most powerful people in the world. They're gonna be the richest, they're going to be..." and nobody agreed with me. I thought that was like... I remember that, how quickly industries can be decimated--in this case by a technology, and it's usually a technology. And that was always fascinating to me, how quick it happened, and how the collapse was so vast, and now we're in a societal collapse around politics and civility, and...
Nick Quah 05:19
Kara Swisher 05:20
...And information, really.
Nick Quah 05:22
Do you feel like there are fewer people with more power these days? Than like...
Kara Swisher 05:26
Nick Quah 05:26
...10-20 years ago?
Kara Swisher 05:27
Oh, yeah, I mean, look at I mean, what what I spend my life doing: yelling at Facebook, right? [Laughter] So, really. And I was early to that, I was like, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, do we understand what they can do?"
Nick Quah 05:37
Kara Swisher 05:37
Yeah, I do. I think it's really quite amazing that, not just in terms of the ability to reach citizenry, but having no accountability, and vast sums of money, and the coalescing of power around certain--actually individuals, in this case--much like, you know, back in the day, when we had these giant monopolies that were then busted up by Teddy Roosevelt and others.
Nick Quah 05:58
I feel like companies like Facebook, and Twitter... You know, they were once up and coming companies, and I get the idea that they still see themselves as underdogs.
Kara Swisher 06:07
Well, you have to figure out, "What, are they just lying to themselves?" Or what's going on in their minds? "Oh, I'm still wearing my flip flops and hoodies, so therefore, I'm a regular guy." I remember talking to a lot of them, including Zuckerberg, and you know, he always tried to be "regular guy," and I'm like, you're not a regular guy, you're a billionaire. "Well, I can still be the same." I'm like, "You can't." You have enormous power or enormous... I think one of the things I was always struck by, among a lot of them, is very few of them took the responsibility of the power they had. They pretended it was like, if you look at--Zuckerberg is a good example. He uses terms like "we," and "the community," and "together we will." Yeah. And I was like, you run the whole thing, and you control the whole thing, and you made certain you did, so why is there a "we" going on here?
Nick Quah 06:50
Kara Swisher 06:50
So I was always really struck by the inability to acknowledge their power and at the same time take responsibility for it. Because when you do that, you have to admit that you might have done things that were problematic. And they have. And then they don't... They aren't like regular people, right? Secretly, behind the scenes, they have... their hoodies are made of this cashmere they can only get on the top slope of Peru, and the sneakers are perfectly crafted to their feet, and they're eating food that was grown by, you know, small children, who were very well paid, by the way, you know what I mean? Like...
Nick Quah 07:22
Kara Swisher 07:23
Whatever, I'm teasing, but it's an unusual group of people who hold enormous and potentially rapacious power that pretends that they're benign. And that's always struck me as unusual.
Nick Quah 07:34
Well, let's flip this around a little bit. Who would you say is an example of an individual who appreciates that power difference?
Kara Swisher 07:41
The power they have?
Nick Quah 07:42
Kara Swisher 07:43
Nick Quah 07:45
The adults. [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 07:46
The adults. Tim Cook understands his power. And I think he does. he doesn't pretend he's a benign force. He doesn't. I've never heard out of Tim Cook's mouth, "That was mean, Kara," or "I didn't deserve that." He's an adult, he takes it. That kind of stuff. I would say, again, the adults. Reed Hastings, from Netflix, he's an adult, he knows what he's doing. He knows what he's disrupting. And he knows the power he has now.
Nick Quah 08:11
So what would you say is our way out of this moment we're in right now, with all these corporations holding this much power? I mean, short of government intervention, which I don't think is happening anytime soon.
Kara Swisher 08:21
I think it is government intervention. I don't think there is any other way. I don't think you can... You know, people are naturally inclined to want to move to power and money, right? I don't... Like, this is the human race. So you know, as much as we hope that we're better, powerful people get things, right? So I think that if you're allowing unfettered power with no accountability, the only way to deal with is the government of the elect of the people. Whether you like your officials, they're elected compared to everybody else. And so, you know, there's flawed but elected, and so... And maybe the whole system's screwed, and we should change that, but they are the closest thing we have to us, and our voices. I think taxing these people better, and not letting them decide what diseases or things like that we're going to solve; as a society, we should decide, with, by elected officials, and elected government regulators, and the people they put in place. I think government's The only way... I think that that's, historically, that's how all these companies have been brought to heel--and not down. I don't think they should be brought down, I think they just have to be brought to heel.
Nick Quah 09:25
So they can be shamed into better behavior, essentially, which it feels like the current modality of activity now, is public shaming.
Kara Swisher 09:32
Well, I don't know about that. We can have a long debate. I don't... this "cancel culture" thing is not our biggest issue in our society right now, although a bunch of really privileged white people think it is. Here's what I think's happened is, a lot of people have had a lot of ****ty takes for a long time from positions of power, and then people say, "Hey, that's ***ty." And they're like, "You're attacking me!" Like, too bad. Stop having ****ty takes. Stop saying offensive things and then cherry picking the results. It's just... Jia Tolentino wrote about... a really beautiful essay on that. That's what she was talking about.
Nick Quah 10:01
Yeah, that's in The Trick Mirror, right?
Kara Swisher 10:02
Yes. Wonderful. Wow, what a talented... That's another person, her. I want to talk to her, because I want people to hear her voice more widely. Like people's voices, and ideas, like that really fresh... She's a fresh--besides being a beautiful writer--she has fresh ideas, I think. Fresh takes on things. I want to introduce voices that you need to hear more of.
Nick Quah 10:23
Kara Swisher 10:23
At the same time, as doing the, you know... talk to Gavin Newson about the fires, talk to Nancy Pelosi about the election, talk to Elon Musk about neural nets and "Battery Day." Those are all going to happen.
Nick Quah 10:41
Coming up: Elon Musk, Spalding Gray, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jesus. More in a minute.
Kara Swisher 11:01
Do you feel a duty to pay them and make sure they're okay, despite the fact that you don't agree with how they feel about COVID versus how you feel about it?
Elon Musk 11:09
Let's just move on.
Kara Swisher 11:09
"Just move on." That's what you want to do.
Elon Musk 11:15
Kara, I do not want to get into a debate about COVID, this situation.
Kara Swisher 11:21
Okay. All right. Okay. I want to finish up talking about...
Elon Musk 11:23
If you want to end the podcast now, we can do it.
Kara Swisher 11:25
Okay. What did you say? No, we don't... I don't want to end it. I just want to understand the way you feel. But I do I feel like I understand where you are.
Nick Quah 11:31
Kara Swisher is known for her direct interview style. And she says that she can do this because of the power that she has.
Kara Swisher 11:37
I think my power is--I know it sounds crazy, but--going, "Huh? What you just say? I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense." I think I say what everyone's thinking a lot of the time.
Nick Quah 11:48
Like, cutting the gaslight, essentially.
Kara Swisher 11:49
Yeah, I'm willing to say, like, "What? I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense." And I think most reporters, by nature, are... even though there seems to be like, "Oh, reporters are so mean," I'm like, most of them are really polite. Right? They don't ask that question. And then when they do, like, for example, when you see it out play in these White House sessions, they're asking reasonable questions. It's just that they're made to seem like those are rude. "That's a nasty question." Trump always does that. That means it's a good question, whenever he does that. Some are nasty questions, some... But so what? You're just trying to provoke an insight. I try to do an interview where if I never have an interview again, it's fine. Right? I'm not trying to hold on to access or get them again. And I think that's what makes it better. At the same time, I'm not disrespectful. I don't think I'm like, "Aren't you the idiot everybody knows you to be?" You know, I don't want to treat people like they're wrapped in cotton batting; at the same time, I don't want to needlessly poke them unfairly. It's kind of a weird dance. But I think I do say, "Huh?" Like, a lot. Like, "What? I don't understand what that just said, that's..." Or, "That's bullshit." Like, "That's not true, why are you saying that?" And it's not like, they said something, like, "Defend yourself." If you're going to say something inane like that, you have to explain it.
Nick Quah 13:07
Getting to the truth: that's what Kara wants. And interestingly enough, she found her inspiration for that in the theater.
Kara Swisher 13:15
There was a show that I saw at the Kennedy Center when I was in my 20s. I covered theatre for The Washington Post in my spare time when I was just a newsie. Yeah, I just had a column called "Backstage." I love...
Nick Quah 13:28
It's like, a classic column name, too. [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 13:30
"Backstage!" "I'm backstage with everybody!" Yeah, it's a good name for a podcast! I'll bring it back. [Laughter] Spalding Gray. I went to the theater all the time. And Spalding Gray, who... For people that don't know him, he was an actor, he ended up committing suicide, a very tragic story of him. But he was also a wonderful writer, and playwright, and all kinds of things. He wrote Swimming To Cambodia about his time doing Apocalypse Now. Beautiful writer, beautiful thinker, great actor, all... Just sort of this renaissance man in that regard. And he had a show at the Kennedy Center, I don't remember the name of it. And what he did is he plucked people from the audience, just every night, three people from the audience. And he had conversations with them. And they were riveting. They were just the stuff he... His whole contention was everyone has a wonderful story, if you only get it from them. And so I really was always amazed by that. Every time I went--I went, I don't know, half a dozen times--just these stories, you couldn't believe it, what these people had gone through, or the kind of pathos he got out of them, and their life story, and their experiences. And I just... And they weren't anybody. They were like, some guy, or some woman, and I thought that was just really... I'll never forget it. I'll tell you. It's stayed with me, 30 years later, this ability, and I think his contention was everybody is interesting. Everyone has a story to tell about their lives and their experience and I can make it interesting. You will be interested in this person even though they don't have a movie, or they don't... You know, aren't a sports star, or run a corporation. I just thought that was a beautiful piece of art and journalism at the same time.
Nick Quah 15:11
But her love of the theater stretches way back before she was a journalist.
Kara Swisher 15:15
Yeah, my mom and my dad, when I was living... We went to theater a lot. I went all the time to Broadway. I never was on stage, which is interesting. I was... Actually, you know what, in fourth grade, I played Cordelia, in a really bad version of King Lear. I know, I can't believe fourth graders were doing that. For a fourth grader, I was excellent. In any case, that was my end of my stage career. I always thought that people "putting on a show" was really interesting, especially choices they made around, not just the play or how they interpreted it, but the lighting, and the revelation that they would bring you because of the immediacy of the closeness. It's so analog, and it's so... You're right there, and you can see them--and not just big shows like Hamilton, which did send a shiver through me when I saw it. But I saw the early versions of Rent, I'll never forget that. When you're... sometimes in the theater, I have revelations about life in ways that are really profound. Like Angels in America is another good example: two parts, very long, huge commitment of time. I went and saw that a dozen times, because I thought it was beautifully written, it was about an issue that was important to me, which was AIDS. And being gay at that time period, it captured it. It had Roy Cohn in it, the person who we really should go back in time and like, find a way to throw into the ocean, because he had such an impact on so many awful people. He's sort of the font of awful that then begat other awfuls, including Donald Trump. The ability of people to get on stage and give you a revelation is what I think I'm trying to do; is give you a little revelation into the truth of the people I'm interviewing, and willing to ask a question that people would sort of, I always like when there's a sharp intake of breath, when I do live events, and I ask a question, by the audience, like, "[Gasps] She just asked that?"
Nick Quah 16:57
Yeah, like Mark Zuckerberg.
Kara Swisher 16:59
I think I was one of the--I think I was the first person to ask about these issues in Myanmar. You know, people have done great reporting on it. But no one had asked him, they're too polite to ask him. And I was essentially like, "Don't you feel guilty about all these people dead on things that you made, and because of your sloppy management?" You know, I asked it in a more deft way, but that's essentially the question.
Kara Swisher 17:19
Can I ask you that? A specific about Myanmar? How did you feel about those killings and the blame that some people put on Facebook? Do you feel responsible for those deaths?
Mark Zuckerberg 17:28
I think that we have a responsibility to be doing more, to be doing more than...
Kara Swisher 17:33
I wonder how you feel?
Mark Zuckerberg 17:34
Yes, I think we... I think that there's a... There's a terrible situation where there's underlying sectarian violence there, and intention. And it is clearly the responsibility of all of the players who were involved there.
Kara Swisher 17:49
And he's like, "But solutions are where I really... I think we all together..." He did a "we" kind of thing. "We hear..." This is your fault. Like, I'm sorry, I want to know why you did this and how you feel about it. And he went back and forth like that for several back and forths. And I didn't let up, and I was like, "No, you're going to answer this question." And then I talked about who should be responsible. And then we used that clip in the marketing for this, is where he said... I said, "Who should be fired for this?" And he said, "Well, I guess because I'm in charge, it should be me." And what they didn't include was right after that, I said, "Okay. But to be clear, you're not gonna fire yourself right now? Is that right?"
Mark Zuckerberg 18:23
Not on this podcast right now.
Kara Swisher 18:24
Okay. All right. Well, that would be fantastic. I mean, I think you'll do okay. So, let's get to the the privacy and data part of it. One of the things you kept saying in Congress, which really drove me crazy, because you said it, like, I counted...
Mark Zuckerberg 18:32
You really want me to fire myself right now?
Kara Swisher 18:37
Mark Zuckerberg 18:39
Just for the news?
Kara Swisher 18:40
Yeah, why not? [Laughter]
Mark Zuckerberg 18:41
Kara Swisher 18:43
Whatever, Mark, whatever works for you. Now...
Mark Zuckerberg 18:45
I think we should do what's um... what's gonna be right for the community. So I...
Kara Swisher 18:49
All right, okay.
Nick Quah 18:50
So you spend all this time with these super rich, super powerful people who the average person might see as disconnected from the world. And all that coupled with this really divisive political reality we're in. So I'm just curious, I mean, how hopeful are you, really, for the future?
Kara Swisher 19:08
Well, it's hard not to be like, "Ugh, Jesus." You wake up and you're like, "No." Like, when you're sort of like, "I'm getting back in bed," like, what the hell? And at the same time, I do think it... Everything is arrayed against the forces of good. They just... You know what I mean? And I always I use this example a lot. This idea of "Star Wars vs. Star Trek" point of view of the universe, right? Star Trek is like, "We're all gonna be together and we're gonna figure it out, And even the villains will change their mind and become with us, be part of our team of multiracial, multicultural, multi-everything group, and we'll all pull together as a team, and we'll beat evil in every episode that..." It never ends sadly on that show, you know what I mean? And then you have the Star Wars themes, which are all about the Empire always striking back, right? No matter what these people do, "We're gonna, you know, we put up our sword, we're gonna do the fight!" It doesn't end well for anybody in that movie. It just doesn't. And they die, right? And badly! And so I don't know why I'm so up, given how dire everything is. I have no idea why that is. But I do think--I still do think--that individual people, at a price, can change things. And I want to put a focus on both the bad people doing these things and understanding their evil natures, essentially, and the good people. And I think that really great big ideas do move humanity forward. Just like in Angels in America, the line at the end is, "The world only spins forward." I was in the middle, I didn't... I had a lot of friends who died of AIDS, I remember it was dire. It was like, "We're never gonna solve this." And then we slowly... the community slowly worked its way out of it. And gay people were never going to get rights. And then everyone's getting married, I have another new baby, I never would have thought that. And here we are. And then history then slaps you back, and then you push forward. And so I do have a sense that it's really important to put a light on the people who are pushing us forward despite all that we're dragging behind us. And I think that's what I am going for here in a lot of ways.
Nick Quah 21:25
Very, very last question. Dream guest: one dead, one alive.
Kara Swisher 21:31
Oh, that's a good question. You're a good interviewer. Nick.
Nick Quah 21:34
Oh, I appreciate that.
Kara Swisher 21:35
Gosh, that's a really interesting question. I think about that a lot. Obviously Trump. I'd like a go at him too. Everybody would, right? He seems to like, talk to the door. He's like, "I'll talk to you," he's talking to everyone. So I don't know. I mean, I'm so hostile to him on Twitter. I think he'd love it. Like, why not? Well, Putin, I guess. I think Putin's a fantastically evil person. Not fantastic in any way, but just like, I'd really like to have a real conversation with him. I don't I don't understand what motivates that person. Dead? Oh, so many people: Cleopatra, book to interview. Julius Caesar. I'd like to interview Shakespeare that would be the... Well, I'm back with white guys again. I can't get away from them. All right. Here's one who is not a white guy, which everyone always portrays as, Jesus. I'd like to interview Jesus. The historical Jesus.
Nick Quah 22:27
Like at the time? Or like, if he can pop up right now and you...
Kara Swisher 22:29
Well, he's coming back, I don't know if you know that. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:31
Right, well, some people don't, but...
Kara Swisher 22:32
Allegedly! [Laughter] He's coming back and he's real pissed. He's gonna be real pissed. Jesus, the historical Jesus. Yeah.
Nick Quah 22:40
Oh, man. That's a... I don't think I've ever heard that answer before. I think that that's a really...
Kara Swisher 22:45
I'm going with Jesus, Nick.
Nick Quah 22:46
Kara Swisher 22:46
How much do I get for that?
Nick Quah 22:48
You get 500 points. [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 22:49
What would be your first question to Jesus? "So you're back." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 22:55
"How'd you do it?" [Laughter]
Kara Swisher 22:56
"Glad you're back. Tell us how that worked. Tell us how you did that resurrection thing." What would be your question for Jesus?
Nick Quah 23:03
Kara, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.
Kara Swisher 23:05
No, seriously, Nick, what would be your question for Jesus?
Nick Quah 23:07
My question is just, "Did you ever think everybody would **** this up this hard? And because of you?" That would be my question.
Kara Swisher 23:13
Nick Quah 23:14
I mean, because that's the thing that we're afraid of, that somebody misunderstood what I was trying to do.
Kara Swisher 23:19
Nick Quah 23:19
And turns me into... I think a lot of celebrities probably deal with this, where they had a certain idea of something to do going forward.
Kara Swisher 23:24
Nick Quah 23:25
Artists do this all the time.
Kara Swisher 23:26
I would say "Was it worth it? The death, was it worth it? Or would you rather have your father flooded everybody, just like the Noah era?"
Nick Quah 23:33
Damn, that's a good question. Do you think...
Kara Swisher 23:36
Oh my god, every Evangelical's gonna come after me now, but that's okay. Whatever. I'm booking Jesus! [Laughter] On Sway!
Nick Quah 23:45
Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate this. I've been a fan of your work for so long.
Kara Swisher 23:49
Thank you so much.
Nick Quah 24:03
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Albert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Roman Mars Episode 17
Mon, 11/9 2:08PM • 28:03
laughter, roman, people, podcasting, world, story, radio, mars, invisible, independent, totally, ghazi, book, regrets, love, part, person, abstaining, building, pr
Sandy Allen, Roman Mars, Delaney Hall, Nick Quah
Roman Mars 00:03
Here at the San Francisco main library, and that is Dennis Paoletti. If you walk into the library, there's a five story atrium. He's an acoustic designer. And it also is very hard and reflective with all of the plaster, concrete, reflective materials. Companies hire him to make their buildings, and boardrooms, and cathedrals, and public spaces sound better.
Nick Quah 00:30
If you're a longtime podcast listener, you probably know this voice. It belongs to Roman Mars--99% Invisible's Roman Mars. And this was the first episode:
Roman Mars 00:41
It's a hack, a jankity retractable movie-theater-style velvet rope partition, that helps create the proper traffic flow. And right there, 15 feet apart from one another, a minor triumph, and a minor failure, of design.
Nick Quah 00:59
That episode clocked in at just four minutes and 20 seconds. What was once a short experimental podcast is now one of the most popular shows in the history of the medium--but in many ways, still doing the same thing: inspiring listeners to take a closer look at the world around them. And Roman Mars is happy to be our guide. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Roman Mars. When Roman Mars moved out to California in the late 90s, he had no plans for fame. He just wanted a job.
Roman Mars 01:59
I applied to work at Pixar...
Nick Quah 02:02
Oh, no way!
Roman Mars 02:03
Nick Quah 02:04
Roman Mars 02:05
I mean, I was just looking for anything that was stable. Because there was no podcasting industry, there was no... and there was no work in public radio. I was pretty desperate. So I really was like, we're gonna need to exchange all of it for some degree of stability.
Nick Quah 02:18
And I don't think I know this about you, but before you became a radio producer, what did you want to do?
Roman Mars 02:24
I wanted to be a scientist. More than anything, I always loved science. And I went straight into grad school to study population genetics of plants. I didn't have a particular affinity for for plants, but I love genetics and evolutionary biology. So I thought I would be a researcher or a teacher.
Nick Quah 02:42
What about evolutionary biology was... spoke to you at the time?
Roman Mars 02:44
I just liked understanding the world. I like to understand where we are, and how we got here. It just delighted me, to read and learn. And I still do that. That type of discovery is really, really important to me. And so I wanted to be a part of it, or at least see it up close, of how it was done.
Nick Quah 03:01
Yeah, I'm sure there's a lot of lines to be drawn from that, to the stuff that you do on 99% Invisible, because you're looking at physical structures through that kind of lens.
Roman Mars 03:10
Yeah, it's really not all that different. It really... I mean, grad school really taught me a way to think. And when I first got into radio and journalism, I thought I would basically be a science reporter. But I fell into this other stuff that I loved: the storytelling, and the and the mixing, and the putting new music on stories, and stuff like that, and then that ended up sort of dominating for most of my career in the beginning.
Nick Quah 03:36
In 2010, Roman teamed up with public radio station KALW and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco to create 99% Invisible, or 99PI. The show has gone from a side project made in Roman's bedroom to a fully-staffed office in the Bay Area, paid for in large part by loyal listeners and wildly successful crowdfunding campaigns. In 2014, Roman founded Radiotopia, a collective of independent podcasts in partnership with the nonprofit audio platform PRX. It's been a pretty busy decade. And Roman says sometimes it feels even longer than 10 years.
Roman Mars 04:13
It's one of those things--it didn't go by in the blink of an eye, because there's been so many changes and iterations, and so the continuity of it, and sort of the assigning of a date of its birth, is really kind of weird to me.
Nick Quah 04:27
Roman Mars 04:29
Because each thing was its own moment. The first Kickstarter was its own moment, in the way it was born, that... and then moving into the office, with a bunch of teammates, was a real difference. And you know, everything about it, it's just changed so much, that it barely feels like the same thing. But I am glad I've done it as long as I have, partly because I think it was easier to start a podcast then, you know, there were fewer of them, and easier to get people's attention. And also, it gave me some time to figure it all out, while this industry was forming around it.
Nick Quah 05:04
And I take it that you have the feeling that if you were to start this today, it just would not be the same; or at the very least, you wouldn't be able to do it this way.
Roman Mars 05:13
No, I mean, I know this a little bit because I do this other show called What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law. But it's like, Trump Con Law has a fraction of 99PI's audience, but it also takes me like, three days to do. [Laughter] Every episode of 99PI taking, you know, six to eight weeks and a bunch of people. And so it's like, well, would I create seven Trump Con Laws or one 99PI? It makes much more sense to make seven Trump Con Laws, which explains the state of podcasting. [Laughter] Because economically, 99PI doesn't really make a lot of sense these days. I mean, it does well now, it makes money now, but...
Nick Quah 05:56
Roman Mars 05:57
And it's totally valuable, it's just, it is a much more "Shoot the Moon" plan, if you were to launch it today, than it was 10 years ago.
Nick Quah 06:06
So I know of you that you have this really strong punk and independent sensibility.
Roman Mars 06:11
Nick Quah 06:11
Does it feel like you're stuck in there as a big indie, like The National or something? [Laughter] How do you position the show, or how do you understand the show, in the larger context now? And then, did you think that it would end up this way?
Roman Mars 06:28
I kind of had no imagination for how it would end up, because this is not how I thought podcasting would necessarily go. All I know is, I knew that we were making something that people really, really liked. And whenever you're doing that, that's meaningful, either monetarily or just emotionally. And I knew for a long time, when I thought the show was undervalued, or podcasting was undervalued, or even public radio programs were undervalued, by the system, that if we went directly to the audience, that they would be corrected more to their proper value. I always knew I was going to be kind of independent because I just was... You know, I just wanted to solve the problem myself, and anytime I had to ask permission, I never got permission. And so I was just like, well, I just have to do this. I'm not someone who necessarily has this ethic that with the right partner, or with the right boss--and it's not that I'm totally against it, or I feel like people who do sell their shows are doing something wrong, it's not that way at all. It's just that every time I've had that situation, it's never worked out that well, you know? There's been approaches for acquisition before. It's never like, "No, are you kidding me? This is against my religion," or anything like that. It has nothing to do with that. It just has to do with the fact that I'm always trying to solve the problem the best way I can, for my show and my staff. All I really wanted was for my people to have good jobs, for us to make the thing we like, and whatever path that is, is the right path, in my opinion.
Nick Quah 08:04
How would you describe what you get out the most, right now, of working on the show in year 10? What is the thing that really draws you back to work? Because I can barely fathom a life where I'm working on the same thing for 10 years. [Laughter] Let alone like five years, even.
Roman Mars 08:21
Well, so in the beginning, what really got me going was telling the short little stories, and having fun with them, and developing a tone and a way to interact with the audience, which was really fun. And then what really took over was solving the problem of making a thing, when there was no industry to make a thing, like there is now. [Laughter] And I was really into the business of it. And for a while, I was totally fascinated by the Kickstarter campaigns, and the ad sales, and developing all that stuff. So to make sure the people who I admire, the people who work for me, can make the thing they want to make, and be secure, and feel good. And I was totally in love with that as an issue. I also loved my connection with the audience, and being a host, and all that sort of stuff. Now, I have to admit, the solving the problem of the money is less fun for me. It's just...
Nick Quah 09:19
Is it because you figured it out? [Laughter]
Roman Mars 09:21
It's a little bit that I've figured out part of it. And also it's that thing where like, I feel like I can't do it as well as other people can do it anymore. I love that people have figured it out. So now, I think the things that excite me the most are just like... I still love every episode. Like, I put it out and I'm proud of it. I still like a really good interview, where I read someone's book, and they're brilliant, and I have a really good time, and you get into a flow with someone. I love that. I love really affecting the conversation on things, like I love... It can be its own kind of pain, but Like, whenever there's a flag thing in the world, you know? [Laughter]
Nick Quah 10:04
Yes, you're still on that horse.
Roman Mars 10:06
The proposed design consisted of a white field--that's the background color--with a--oof--with a city seal--in gold--in the center, flanked by two red roses on either side, and then the words "World Port of the Pacific" on top, and then the words "City of Roses" below. Oh, boy. I think I might have to go lie down.
Nick Quah 10:38
Roman Mars 10:39
I love that we've had a show, and I've created stories that have really changed the way people think about things, and moved a conversation forward. And, you know, that's sort of fun. So that stuff is pretty joyful. So most of it is the good interaction with the audience that keeps me going.
Nick Quah 10:58
You know, I struggle with boredom a lot. So I'm curious: how do you keep going back and falling in love with this project year after year?
Roman Mars 11:07
The great thing about journalism, which I didn't quite realize when I started, what that's what I was doing, is that you get to become a little bit of an expert of a thing for a few weeks, and then you get to tell the story of it. And then you get to do something new. And so a show like mine, and journalism is the perfect antidote to somebody who gets bored a lot, because I don't really spend a lot of time on any one subject. And for the most part, the things that I explore, you hear about as a listener, and so sometimes my opinion about something like, you know, "What is your favorite building in Cincinnati?" I actually have an answer for that, so that's a good example.
Nick Quah 11:46
Well, what's the answer? [Laughter]
Roman Mars 11:48
The first reinforced concrete skyscraper is the Ingalls Building in Cincinnati--I have to actually fact-check that before you put that on the air. [Laughter] But I think it's the Ingalls Building. You can leave all this hemming and hawing in, but it'll be something like that.
Nick Quah 12:03
He's right, by the way. We checked. So it's not the material that wears on Roman. Rather, what gets to him is the rhythm of producing a weekly show. It's relentless. And when that pace gets to be too much, Roman's had some of his staff fill in, like senior editor Delaney Hall.
Delaney Hall 12:21
This is 99% Invisible. I'm Delaney Hall, filling in for Roman Mars. Maybe you've heard a story like this: how, once upon a time, on the outskirts of the town where someone grew up, or where they went to school, on the edge of the woods, there was a scary old asylum.
Sandy Allen 12:42
Over the last few years, so many people have told me versions of this story.
Delaney Hall 12:47
That's writer Sandy Allen, they wrote a book called A Kind of Miraculous Paradise, about mental health care in America.
Sandy Allen 12:54
And often, when somebody learns that I write about mental health, they will launch into their old asylum story, how they used to break into one with their friends, or how someone they knew saw ghosts there--the details vary.
Roman Mars 13:08
It was a really great moment, because I was working on some stuff with the book, and I was like, I just don't have time for this episode at all. And I just want to not hear it, and I don't want to be in an edit, I don't want to host it, I don't want anything to do with it. And then I listened to it. And I was like, "Oh my god. My show is really good!" You know, like... [Laughter] I really enjoyed it. It made me feel so good.
Nick Quah 13:37
Yeah. Did it make you feel jealous, a little bit?
Roman Mars 13:39
No, it didn't at all, because I know my place in the world. I know. [Laughter] Like, it's okay, I still have those feelings of fraud like everyone does. But it made me realize, I was like, "Oh, I would be a fan of my show." And that was what I was trying to do when I made it, I was trying to make the show I wanted. And you lose a little bit of perspective on that when you're in it, because you just don't have as much fun with it. That moment was fantastic.
Nick Quah 14:12
Has the popularity of 99PI totally killed Roman's indie cred? More in a minute.
Roman Mars 14:31
This is 99% Invisible. I'm Roman Mars. Humans have been living in cities for a really long time. But like a lot of things about the past, getting around cities used to be just needlessly difficult, because we didn't have reliable maps, or street signs, or even addresses. An address is something we all take for granted...
Nick Quah 14:55
This may be a weird question, but how much of the show is actually you, and how much is being left off the mic?
Roman Mars 15:00
"How much of the show is me?" What do you mean?
Nick Quah 15:03
Yeah. Okay, so here's my relationship with the show: I understand you to be a very obsessive, interested, curious, nerdy, kind of chill person--patient--because of the nature of your dulcet tone--you know, comforting, soothing voice, all that ****. [Laughter] Yeah, like... But once in a while I just get this flash where I'm like, I think he might be a really sassy, sarcastic person, and I don't hear that. [Laughter] So I guess my question is how much you leave off the off the mic?
Roman Mars 15:27
Oh, for sure. Okay, so how much of Roman Mars is a character? Like, is...
Nick Quah 15:30
Yeah, yeah, that question. Yeah.
Roman Mars 15:32
So definitely a character. So all the things that are represented as the "host of the show," of 99% Invisible, are aspects of my character. It's sort of a heightened, aspirational version of me. And it is definitely a more generous, empathetic version of me. And the thing is, though, it's not just something I'm putting on for the show. I can put this on, when I'm out in the world, and I'm a better person. [Laughter] Like, I'm a kinder person. I definitely am a person who... You know, do I read every plaque as a person? No, probably not. I try, you know, but I get in a hurry, and I get... and I have strong opinions about things, I'm much more like... I definitely react to the world and believe in things. And that can be shocking to some people. But I do think that a listener of the show has a good idea of who I am as a person. But there's different aspects that are heightened at different moments, for sure.
Nick Quah 16:31
Yeah. What would you say is one aspect of you that most of your listeners would be surprised to know about?
Roman Mars 16:39
I mean, I think the sort of aggressive "punk rock-ness" of it all would be... is surprising to people, maybe. To me, it's like, I make sense as a person, because I'm the person that it's centering upon. [Laughter] So to me, there are no contradictions in these things. But I can imagine people having an image of like, tweed coat, listens to classical music, a kind of Niles Crane type of person. And I get that, but to me, it's totally like, the thoughtfulness is the thoughtfulness of a person who grew up in sort of indie/punk culture, and... Yeah. ...Loving of the world and holding the role to a high standard as part of that, too. Like, I was never part of the sort of nihilistic punk culture, I was much more in the American hardcore, like, "the reason why I'm angry is because I love the world so much, not because I think it should all burn."
Nick Quah 17:31
You identified as straight-edge, right?
Roman Mars 17:34
Yeah. So, I mean, I still don't drink, or do drugs, or anything. That stayed with me. And that was a little bit... it was something to do with this sense of control over my place in my environment. And the fact that I just had encountered a lot of alcohol and drugs kind of early in my life, and it was not for me, it was very bad for me, and it was bad for a lot of people in my family. And so, rather than abstaining, I discovered straight-edge, and realized that I could be a part of something, rather than be abstaining from something, and it gave me a lot of purpose, for lack of a better word, you know? So like... So a lot of those things are a huge part of who I am. And they're reflected in the show, like, I think only recently did I do, I allowed an announcer read for alcohol on the show, just because of COVID, and I have to, you know, balance the books, so...
Nick Quah 18:10
Roman Mars 18:25
I had to let that go. But there was like, for 10 years, I didn't do any alcohol of any kind, because I just... not because I felt that anyone should live the way I do, or I was really against it--I know and love people who enjoy alcohol quite a bit. But it was like... it didn't feel like it was genuinely from me, and that felt against my ethic more than anything. But when it's other people, you're like, well, maybe I need to, like, consider this. And so that's what ends up happening over time, is that you get all these responsibilities, and you have to think through them, and really get to the root of it. And as you get older, and you have more people depending on you, that becomes the ethic that matters the most. I think that's what changes.
Nick Quah 18:25
Yeah. The next frontier for Roman and 99PI? A book. It's called The 99% Invisible City. And it was co-written by Roman and the show's digital director, Kurt Kohlstedt.
Roman Mars 19:19
I love making a podcast, that's the thing. But there's a certain point where you have all this information, and all this worldview of how 99PI approaches the world, and realize that like, if you... "Oh, I remember they did a show about revolving doors at one point in like, Episode 112," or you do a search on it, and it's really just like... it doesn't serve the information anymore, to be locked up in this linear audio format over 10 years. I mean, it was just really like, the reason why is because there was a reason for it to exist, and before this point, the show did the job and now it was failing to do the job, when you want it to like really like access and enjoy the information and the stories. And so... So the book just made a ton of sense. And it was also just like, there's a certain point where you're like, as big as podcasting is, there's still like a huge percentage of the world you're not reaching. I just really wanted to have 99PI, as a concept, reach more people. And also, it was just like... Kurt, who worked on the book--so hard on the book--we just felt we could do it. He drove it forward. He was the project manager and co-author. It really was just one of those things, just like, when you have a small team, an independent team, when you have a person who's raising their hand and saying, "We can do this," you just go, "Okay," and now it's done, you know.
Nick Quah 20:44
After doing the show for so many years, any regrets? Anything that you would have done differently, maybe?
Roman Mars 20:51
Well, yeah, I mean, I don't live... I don't really go and get obsessed with my regrets. I mean, I do know that there's definitely things that I would... well, not that I would change... It's just like, when something grows sort of organically, with just the money you have, you move forward, you don't have a strategic plan in mind, you know? [Laughter] And so...
Nick Quah 21:14
Roman Mars 21:14
You know, especially as all this stuff is falling apart, and there's no office, for example, it's like, "Well, why did everyone have to be out here? Why didn't I just build the team from all over all the time?" Because clearly you can do it. And so it was kind of like... There was that, and then, you hit things where it's just like, well, there's a huge diversity problem within Radiotopia, and it's like we... because we're looking for people who can do everything, and own everything, we're building on the biases of the whole industry that came before it. And it's really hard to fight it--and it's not an excuse to not keep fighting it.
Nick Quah 21:48
What Roman is talking about here is something we've been seeing in the media industry: a reckoning for more diversity, equity, and inclusion in predominantly white spaces. In the podcast world, one of the places that's recently been called out has been PRX, which helped Roman build the independent podcast network Radiotopia.
Roman Mars 22:07
That's the thing, I don't really... I've never worked for PRX. But I had some influence, to try to make Radiotopia to be what it is. But you do just wonder like, "God, if I just could like, frickin' hire people." You know, like, if... this way, it would be totally different, and create shows, like how people create shows. And right now, the structure really doesn't serve the moment sometimes. It serves people like me. And so those are the things I have regrets about is like, is not anticipating it. But it was really hard to anticipate that stuff 10 years ago... Yeah. ...for sure. But that's the type of thing that I think about today.
Nick Quah 22:45
So I would be remiss not to ask you about what went down at PRX. Just a little background for everyone: not long ago, an employee at PRX, a Black woman, made the decision to leave her job during the pandemic, because she felt like there was no future for her at the company due to systemic racism. She wrote a really impassioned open letter to the organization, and I'd love to hear your thoughts about that situation.
Roman Mars 23:08
I read that. I was sort of shocked by it. I was surprised it wasn't handled well in the moment. I do think that when you have a history with somebody, when somebody says they're sorry and they're going to work on it, you either hear that and you think, "Well, I believe them," or you hear that and say, "This is just like everybody else, and I don't believe them." And I must admit that I land on the side of believing people working hard on things, than not. And so in this case, I've just been like, keep me apprised guys, because it's just like... it reflects on me. It reflects on the show, we felt the need to talk about it a little bit as a show.
Nick Quah 23:50
On the 99PI website, Roman put out a statement in support of the employee who left PRX. In his statement, Roman described how he and his staff have been discussing the inequities in their own show, and how they're hoping to improve it through initiatives like rethinking staff structure, increasing the diversity of voices in their stories, and better pay for freelancers.
Roman Mars 24:09
The whole point... I mean, this is what makes you question the idea of what... What does independence mean? Okay, so the show is independent, it does its own thing. But what other people do affects it. And so like, how independent is it really, you know? What does that mean? And I don't know. And that's... All this stuff is sort of swimming through my head right now, and I don't have a good answer for you. You know, to me, the part about independence that matters is, if I see that anybody who I work with is not behaving in a way I'm proud of, then me working with them is always on the table, you know? But I also... I have a long history with PRX existing in this world where they are really trying to fight for making public radio more accessible, and better, and so I come to them with a little bit more benefit of the doubt than I think maybe other people do, you know? Yeah.
Nick Quah 25:02
Do you... To what extent do you think about your legacy? And do you see 99% Invisible, at this point, as the sort of sum of your life's work?
Roman Mars 25:14
Do I think about my legacy? I don't really think about my legacy all that much. Um...
Nick Quah 25:19
So like, 50 years from now, when people think about Roman Mars, you don't have an opinion of how people would think about Roman Mars?
Roman Mars 25:25
Well, I have an opinion that I want them to think well of me, like that I was a fair person, and kind person, and that the show was good. So yeah, I think there's that. I think, over the time... You know, five years ago, I think the show really defined me, and now I feel like I could do something else and it would be okay. Or like, not work for once? That would be okay. [Laughter] Like, it's not as important in the broad sense of my life, even though I do truly still love it. It's just...
Nick Quah 26:00
Roman Mars 26:01
My best days are the days where we have an edit, and there's a new story, I haven't heard any part of it yet, we're doing the read to tape, and it's just like, "Oh, this is so good." That puts me in a good mood. And I just want as many days like that as possible. That's what I want the most.
Nick Quah 26:21
Roman, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Roman Mars 26:24
It's my pleasure. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.
Nick Quah 26:41
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios. Okay, favorite Dischord band.
Roman Mars 27:19
Jawbox and Shudder To Think, I loved that sort of like, the third generation of... that's when I came in. So like Jawbox, Shudder To Think, Circus Lupus... Early 90s. I needed to find something besides Fugazi, because everyone kind of owned Fugazi. Like, if you were to say, like when you're asking about my legacy, if somebody says, "99PI or Roman Mars is the Fugazi or the Dischord of podcasting," I would be like, "That's a fine legacy. I'm totally good with that." [Laughter] This all goes in, Nick.
Nick Quah 27:51
Alright, no, yeah, we'll put it right after the credits, if you don't... [Laughter]
Roman Mars 27:53
It all goes in. You have to put it in.
Servant of Pod Forever35’s Self-Care Revolution Episode 16
Sun, 11/8 2:13PM • 27:22
laughter, people, podcast, listeners, kate, care, feel, women, talking, shows, thought, practices, hosts, fun, shampoo, topics, unquote, interview, produce, aoc
Doree Shafrir, Nick Quah, Madeleine Albright, Kate Spencer
Doree Shafrir 00:01
Okay, people have been asking for months why we haven't tried Briogeo.
Kate Spencer 00:08
I use their shampoo.
Doree Shafrir 00:10
Okay, we haven't talked about it.
Kate Spencer 00:12
Sorry. I like it, I use it.
Doree Shafrir 00:14
Kate Spencer 00:15
At first blush, Forever35 may seem like any other light-hearted product driven chat cast.
Doree Shafrir 00:20
I haven't used the scalp treatment yet, so I cannot weigh in on that, but I have used the shampoo, the conditioner, and the massager.
Kate Spencer 00:28
Doree Shafrir 00:28
I really like all of them, and I'm alternating using that stuff with the shampoo and conditioner from their "Blossom and Bloom" line which is supposed to be volumizing, and I also got this volumizing powder.
Nick Quah 00:41
But at its core, the show and its hosts are going way beyond their passion for haircare. It's retail therapy of the highest order, with the emphasis on therapy. From LAist Studios, This is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: Forever35's self-care revolution. Back in 2018, writer Kate Spencer was on a book tour promoting her memoir, The Dead Moms Club. She was stressed, and overwhelmed, and looking for an outlet.
Kate Spencer 01:27
Ultimately, it just stemmed out of an idea of something that would be fun to do that I pitched to Doree. Because Doree and I are good friends, and I enjoy all my interactions with her, and I thought it was just... it was kind of a fluke, I just texted her and said, "Do you want to start a podcast about skincare but also, like, about more than skincare?" And it really went from there. And I guess my podcast listening at the time was either like, political podcasts or true crime. And while I enjoy both those genres, a podcast--or comedy, you know, the comedy world, which I kind of come from--I didn't feel like there was a space talking about the things that I was texting my friends about.
Nick Quah 02:09
One of those friends was fellow writer Doree Shafrir. She was working on her own podcast, Matt and Doree's Excellent Adventure, where she and her husband talked about their struggles with infertility. But Kate's idea about the skincare podcast stuck with Doree. So she said yes.
Doree Shafrir 02:27
I don't think Kate--and Kate has said this, so I'm not projecting--I don't think Kate actually expected me to take her up on it. [Laughter] Or at least not kind of mobilize.
Kate Spencer 02:40
Well, that's what I think makes us a good team, Doree, is that I like to just spout off ideas, and you actually can take all ideas that you have, or that I have, or we both have and, and see them into action.
Doree Shafrir 02:52
Aw, thank you, that's so kind.
Kate Spencer 02:53
It's true, though. Like, if I had said this to someone else, and they had been like, "Yeah," I would have never gotten it off the ground. But I feel like you really have the drive, and the wherewithal, and the knowledge to get it going. That's...
Doree Shafrir 03:07
Well, I think when I see a good idea, I'll run with it. It's not just any idea that I'm gonna run with Kate, it's got to be a good one. You had a good one.
Nick Quah 03:17
That good idea became Forever35. In 2018, Kate and Doree released their first episode.
Kate Spencer 03:24
These are the things that are good distractions from the other challenges in life.
Doree Shafrir 03:30
Kate Spencer 03:30
This is how I...
Doree Shafrir 03:31
What would you describe as the other challenges in life?
Kate Spencer 03:34
I mean, just our current political and social climate, Doree.
Doree Shafrir 03:36
Kate Spencer 03:37
And, you know, work.
Doree Shafrir 03:40
Kate Spencer 03:40
Doree Shafrir 03:41
Kate Spencer 03:41
Like, work and career are the same thing.
Doree Shafrir 03:43
Yeah. Uh huh.
Kate Spencer 03:43
Doree Shafrir 03:44
Yeah. sometimes not.
Kate Spencer 03:46
Parenting, for me.
Doree Shafrir 03:47
Yeah. Trying to be a parent, for me.
Kate Spencer 03:49
Yeah. There's a lot of crap going on.
Doree Shafrir 03:51
There's a lot. Also, just like, getting older.
Kate Spencer 03:55
Yes. Getting older...
Doree Shafrir 03:57
I mean, it's a lot. It's all a lot.
Kate Spencer 04:00
It is. This is gonna be therapeutic.
Nick Quah 04:04
Forever35 embraces all aspects of self-care. Even the kinds that might make some people feel guilty.
Kate Spencer 04:13
Our audience is predominantly women-identified people. And as with anything that goes along with something that women enjoy, we're often made to feel badly about it. Or there's an association that it doesn't have value, or it's not worth our time, or we could... "Why are you wasting your time on this thing?" When I actually think there is deep value in self-care practices and what it can provide people on all sorts of levels. So I don't particularly feel guilt when it... I think what we're trying to avoid is feelings of guilt for taking time for ourselves and taking care of ourselves.
Nick Quah 04:52
I gotta say, and I think this may be largely me projecting, but I have an extremely hard time being at peace with the notion of caring for one's self. Part of it is maybe cultural, and part of it feels like the way my brain is wired. Having made the show for a few years now, has talking about self-care made it easier to actually do it?
Doree Shafrir 05:15
You know, I think it's helped me expand my definition of self-care. It's not just about buying an expensive serum, or getting a massage. Like, it doesn't have to be something that costs money. Maybe it's meditating for five minutes every day, maybe it's taking a walk, maybe it's calling a friend. Those are all... to me, those all fall under the rubric of self-care, and I think doing the podcast has really helped me understand that.
Nick Quah 05:45
Kate Spencer 05:45
I think too, I think of self-care, on a larger cultural scale, in which self-care is not something we have ever really been granted or allowed to treat as important. We haven't ever really been, I think, permitted culturally to explore these ideas. I think of it now on on that scale, as well, as well as a serum scale. You know, you gotta love a serum, it feels good to put something on your face. But like Doree said, I think there's a lot more to it than just that.
Nick Quah 06:14
Yeah, so like, a little bit of consumerism, but mostly plugging the gaps of capitalism, really.
Kate Spencer 06:19
Yeah, it's tricky, because there is a pleasure to be found in engaging in consumerism. And, you know, that is something that we've kind of run up against, as we've explored this topic.
Nick Quah 06:31
Yeah. So I feel like that's how I tend to get a lot of my sort of personal self-care going, is in making purchases. So a big part of Forever35, as I understand, is that it is sort of talking about certain products and certain experiences that that require purchasing, and things like that. How do you balance that out, routing it through a certain sense of consumerism and something that's beyond it?
Kate Spencer 06:54
I think we try to be really conscious of accessibility, in terms of cost. And that the cost is not something that gets in the way. I think with Amazon, it's tricky, right? Because, on the one hand, Amazon does allow for many people to buy things that they might not be able to buy locally. But on the other hand, you're feeding... you're feeding a beast, for lack of a better word. And, you know, we both consciously, really try to reconsider where we purchase things from, and neither of us are perfect in any means. And it also... also part of it, for example, I love being able to purchase a small-batch skincare product that is cruelty-free, and vegan, and sustainably made, and I know who's making it, and I'm supporting a small woman-owned company, but there's a cost involved in that and an inherent privilege involved in being able to make that kind of purchase. But I think these are all considerations that we think about, and we grapple with, and we are certainly not perfect with any of it. And it's an ongoing learning process in being more thoughtful consumers.
Nick Quah 08:06
Doree Shafrir 08:07
I would also say that our listeners are actually really great about checking us, and letting us know when they feel like our privilege is showing, and we aren't thinking about people who might not be able to afford the small-batch, women-owned, etc., etc., products. And this also comes into play with clothing, thinking about size inclusivity, and balancing that with sustainably and ethically made clothing. That's just not always possible. So these are all things that our listeners have really opened our eyes to, and I think... I mean, I know... I don't wanna speak for you, Kate, but I think we are both grateful to them for that.
Kate Spencer 08:53
Oh my gosh. It's... I feel like we've learned so much from the people we are lucky to have listening to this podcast. It's been amazing. And they've helped shift our practices. Like, you know, we would... we did a lot of linking to Amazon for things in the beginning, especially books, and now we use Bookshop, and just different choices like that, that I feel like our listeners have been really helpful in guiding us.
Nick Quah 09:15
Kate and Doree's relationship with their listeners was practically a back-and-forth from their first episodes. They started a Facebook group just a couple weeks after launching the show. That allowed listeners to interact with topics on the show, but also with the hosts themselves and with fellow listeners. Now the group has more than 20,000 members and around 100 subgroups. It's so big that Kate and Doree had to hire two people to manage it.
Doree Shafrir 09:40
Another aspect of self-care is boundaries, and setting boundaries, and we've been pretty vocal about that on the podcast. And so that is a boundary that we both set, that we are not going to be super active in the Facebook groups. We do pop in every once in a while. If someone tags me in a post, I will usually respond, but I almost never start posts unless it's a kind of announcement that I need to make. And I think, actually, our listeners kind of like that we have set up this mechanism for them to talk amongst themselves. And we're kind of... we're there if they need us, but we're not micromanaging the Facebook group or any of the communities.
Nick Quah 10:24
Okay, so to what extent do the listeners shape what you talk about on the show?
Kate Spencer 10:29
They've certainly raised topics that I don't think I ever envisioned us even talking about, which has been amazing. And it's always really fascinating, what will spark a conversation. You know, I think that's what makes this experience of creating this podcast very two-sided. It's not just Doree and I driving all the conversations, it really... it's actively involving ourselves with what our listeners want to talk about. And that has been really fun, and really satisfying, and that's what, personally, continues to blow my mind about the podcasting experience, is the relationship with the people who listen to your show.
Nick Quah 11:09
Hmm. So, you alluded to this a little bit earlier, that the show kind of took off in a way that you didn't quite expect. At what point did you realize that you had something special here?
Kate Spencer 11:24
I think it was when we almost immediately started hearing from people over email, like, with questions or comments, or wanting to contribute or add to the conversation in some way, and that was really amazing, just people writing in. And about three months into doing the podcast, we decided to add doing this mini-episode once a week where we reply to these emails in a podcast, because we are getting so many, and they were interesting. And then also, there's people seeking advice, which was kind of mind-blowing. And so that was... I mean, obviously, you know, we're able to see our numbers go up, and we're able to see when we are written up on a really cool website, or, you know, featured in some sort of podcasting list, but I think that was when the kind of like... the relationship establishing between the people listening and ourselves was really what sealed it for me, personally.
Nick Quah 12:19
And now, about two years into it, you decided to launch a spinoff show, thereby expanding the Forever35 platform, or brand. Do you see Forever35 as a quote-unquote "brand," or something like that?
Doree Shafrir 12:34
Well, here's some news that we can break on the show, Nick:
Nick Quah 12:40
Doree Shafrir 12:41
We just reupped our deal with acast for two more years, and, as part of the deal, they are going to help us produce some more shows. So we are actively starting to look into producing more shows. I think we're both just really excited to take what we've learned from doing Forever35, including creating these intensely engaged communities, and doing that for other shows that we believe in.
Kate Spencer 13:14
Doree Shafrir 13:15
Great. [Laughter] Phew! Thank God
Kate Spencer 13:17
Nick Quah 13:18
What's the vision with this new slate of shows? Like, what do you want this to be?
Doree Shafrir 13:23
You know, I think that we still feel that, despite the success of our show, that the audience for shows targeted to women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond, that are not true crime, there's still a big audience for those shows. I mean, you look at... we are not going to start producing the next Serial, that's just not our label.
Nick Quah 13:48
So no true crime for either of you. [Laughter]
Doree Shafrir 13:49
No true crime. As much as I enjoy listening to true crime, it's just... it's not the type of show that we want to produce, nor do we feel equipped to produce it. We feel like we've done really well with these conversational shows that really kind of welcome the listener in, we get a lot of feedback that people say we sound like their best friends, we sound like their big sisters, and that's the kind of cozy vibe that we want to create. And so the shows that--and we can't really talk about what we are potentially developing yet, because everything's in the very early stages--but the types of shows that we are discussing are conversational shows, hosted by women-identified people, on topics that we feel are sort of within the Forever35 universe. You know, we're probably not going to launch the female Ben Shapiro.
Kate Spencer 13:56
[Laughter] Oh, God. "Probably?"
Nick Quah 14:15
So, can self-care topple the patriarchy? More in a minute.
Kate Spencer 15:14
What's fascinating is we have listeners that are in their early teens. And we were like, "What are you... you're here?" and they were like, "We're here!" So, you know, the intention is definitely creating content with an older bent because that's where we are in life, but I think it appeals to a broader range of people than just the kind of target demographic that one sets out with.
Nick Quah 15:38
Forever35's core audience is women in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond. But Kate and Doree are here for their younger listeners too.
Doree Shafrir 15:47
But it's kind of in like... the same way that fashion magazines tend to be targeted to women in their 20s, and maybe 30s, women of all ages read them. It's just that the focus is on younger women, and youth is kind of venerated. We're saying, like, "Come along for the ride," like, "If you're 13? Great, we welcome you," but like, these are the things that we're going to be talking about, these are the topics that we're gonna be talking about, and this is our perspective, and kind of take it or leave it.
Nick Quah 16:19
So why do you think there is a lack of media, in podcast creation specifically, for women over the age of 40?
Doree Shafrir 16:27
I think if you look at who's in charge of greenlighting shows, you'll get your answer.
Nick Quah 16:31
Hmm. Well, they seem to be like older men, right? Like the...
Kate Spencer 16:34
Older white men.
Doree Shafrir 16:35
Nick Quah 16:35
Older white men, yeah, who place bets on younger people. It's just... even that itself is an arrangement that doesn't quite make sense to me.
Doree Shafrir 16:41
Totally. Totally. So, you know, I think that was one of the things that we liked about signing with acast, is they had women in positions of power, to greenlight shows, to set budgets, to make decisions. And a lot of the other networks that we spoke to did not have women in those positions.
Nick Quah 17:04
This might be more of a broader historical note, but I'm curious as to how self-care became so... I'm not so sure this word is used pejoratively, but just in the sense that there's this sort of discourse around it, that it became sort of feminized, that it's very located in this... defined in gender, and I'm curious as to your perspective on why that is. Because it seems like a notion that should be applied universally, in some respects.
Kate Spencer 17:30
I mean, because women are trying to survive in the patriarchy, and so we've got to come up with a bunch of tools to make... [Laughter] to somehow get through. I mean, honestly, you know, I mean, we're... household labor falls on women, emotional labor falls on women, the pay gap is real, and the disparity is more real for Black women than it is for white women, And, you know... So it's like... I don't know, I'm not an anthropologist, or a sociologist, or anything, I'm literally just a writer and a podcaster, but you know. And I think ultimately, it's unfair. It's like, we don't have systems in place that actually take care of these groups of people. And so, in many ways, people have had to figure out things for themselves, in order to exist in our systems of society. That might be a very dark way of looking at it.
Doree Shafrir 18:26
I also think that men do practice self-care. They just don't call it that.
Kate Spencer 18:30
Yes, Doree. Yes, totally.
Doree Shafrir 18:33
They get together to watch football, they play golf, they... You know, there are things that are coded male...
Nick Quah 18:43
Doree Shafrir 18:44
...that, to me, fall under the rubric of self-care, but because--and this is sort of a chicken-and-egg issue--but because self-care has been, quote-unquote, "feminized," they are reluctant to call it that.
Nick Quah 19:00
Hmm. What is a better way to articulate this moving forward, then?
Doree Shafrir 19:05
I think self-care is a good way to articulate it! I think men need to get over this, personally. [Laughter] Like this... that question kind of reminds me of all the discussion around "lean in," right? Like the whole premise of "lean in" is that women should be leaning in so we can better be accommodated by the patriarchy, I guess? But like, why aren't we just changing the whole system? And I think that's fundamentally the question that we are trying to answer is like, let's change this whole system. Like, we don't need another term for self-care, we men to not be afraid of being quote-unquote "girly."
Nick Quah 19:52
Yeah, I guess it's it's also kind of tough to justify a stereotypical definition of self-care when the world feels like it's falling apart.
Kate Spencer 20:00
I think certainly there are times, where things are really challenging in the world, and then you're like, "How are we going to do a podcast where we're talking about, you know, like facewash?" [Laughter] Like, certain topics can feel trivial, but at the end of the day, I really think we think of self-care as this really large umbrella term, and so much of it is mental healthcare, and that is so crucial--right now, especially. So, I think ultimately, in many ways, it's gotten more relevant, and more important, and more necessary. Just different. You know?
Doree Shafrir 20:37
I think it is something that you are actively doing, to bring peace to yourself, and comfort to yourself. Nick, I don't know what is going to bring peace and comfort to you. It's probably not what brings peace and comfort to me. But we can both be mindful of that definition as we go about our lives.
Nick Quah 21:03
So what's bringing you peace right now?
Doree Shafrir 21:06
One that I'm really into right now is The Nap Ministry.
Kate Spencer 21:09
Doree, I knew you were gonna say that! [Laughter] Oh, my God, I love it!
Doree Shafrir 21:13
Well, you just know me so well. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 21:15
I'm afraid I have no idea what that is. [Laughter] Could you explain, please?
Doree Shafrir 21:19
So well, their bio is, "We examine the liberating power of naps. We believe rest is a form of resistance and reparations." And they have really reframed my thinking around rest and, quote-unquote, "productivity," why we do the things we do, and what our priorities are, and normalizing rest, normalizing naps. And I just... I've just really kind of learned a lot from this account, and I feel like it's influenced what I talk about on the show and how I think about my own priorities.
Nick Quah 22:00
Self-care practices as a priority are a hot topic these days, even for people you wouldn't expect.
Kate Spencer 22:08
I mean, we had Madeleine Albright on this year.
Nick Quah 22:09
Yeah, I was gonna bring up that that was probably the most... [Laughter] Yeah.
Doree Shafrir 22:14
That was iconic.
Kate Spencer 22:15
[Laughter] That was surreal. That was surreal. She was so amazing.
Madeleine Albright 22:20
So, at a cocktail party, she looked at me and said, "You're really brave not to have had a facelift." And I thought, "Hmm." I actually didn't know what to say right off the bat. And it was only later that I thought of rhetorical ways of answering it, because I was so taken aback that somebody would say that. I do think that we do put an awful lot of emphasis on how people look, and looking young, when you're way past that.
Kate Spencer 22:53
It was like... It was also just crazy. Like, we... It was during the pandemic, so I was in my closet. Like, I'm just sitting in my closet talking to Madeleine Albright and started... You know, it was... You get very emotional because you you're talking to... I mean, she's just an... Like, a prolific icon, and she was so cool, too. She was so open and generous with her time and her... the conversation that she had.
Nick Quah 23:20
So, who's on your dream guest list? I remember reading somewhere that AOC's on the list?
Kate Spencer 23:26
Oh, yeah, we've like, literally begged on podcast episodes for someone to connect us to AOC. [Laughter]
Doree Shafrir 23:30
I mean, she's always posting about her skincare routine, her lipstick, like...
Kate Spencer 23:36
Like, "Oh, come on!" [Laughter]
Doree Shafrir 23:38
And she talks about self-care in a really brilliant way, and she's so fun. She has a fun sense of humor.
Nick Quah 23:43
And she's advocating for policies that would support self-care.
Doree Shafrir 23:45
Kate Spencer 23:46
Exactly, she's the dream. I mean, so... Actually, there are so many politicians--Ayanna Pressley, I would love to talk to; I mean, obviously, Michelle Obama; Kamala Harris, listen. I mean, it would be fun. Who else is a dream?
Doree Shafrir 24:01
Tracee Ellis Ross, we would love to interview.
Kate Spencer 24:05
Oh, you know who we talked about, Doree, like jokingly, but also kind of serious? Jennifer Aniston.
Doree Shafrir 24:10
Oh, yeah! [Laughter]
Kate Spencer 24:11
Like kind of an icon of our youth.
Doree Shafrir 24:12
We would love to interview Jennifer Aniston!
Nick Quah 24:15
So what would be an ideal guest that's not alive right now? Like, historically, if you could interview somebody who has long passed? Who would that person be?
Doree Shafrir 24:25
Kate Spencer 24:28
Oh, my gosh, can I be really dark? Is that fine?
Doree Shafrir 24:30
Nick Quah 24:30
Kate Spencer 24:30
Okay. I mean, for me, I would love to interview my mom, because my mom died 13 years ago. And this was never something... Like, I want to pick her brain about all the weird routines that I saw her do, and how she felt about all these things, and all I have are bits and pieces of stuff that I've like, thrown together. Like I've talked about her face cream that she was using and things like that, but I would love, now that I am older, to get to really sit down with my mom and learn about her self-care practices. Because I truly don't have much of a context for them, she died when I was 27. So I know she's not famous, but like she did...
Nick Quah 25:07
No, no, that would be such a fascinating continuation of your memoir.
Kate Spencer 25:10
Yeah, I mean, I know. I know. But I just like... That stuff that I actually really would love to get her thoughts on. And maybe she would, generationally, she would have a very different take on things. I don't know.
Doree Shafrir 25:20
I'd love to have Dorothy Parker on. She'd be so keen on me. [Laughter] I mean, all these people in the past, like...
Kate Spencer 25:28
There's so many interesting women who I think practiced self-care, but also really carved their own paths in the world.
Doree Shafrir 25:36
Kate Spencer 25:38
Oh, come on! [Laughter] Princess Di! Doree, you know, no disrespect to my mom, but Princess Di over my mom. Then my mom. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:49
I feel like this is a spin-off situation, hopefully. [Laughter]
Kate Spencer 25:52
I could do this for days. I love dreaming up guests.
Doree Shafrir 25:55
Interviewing historical characters. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 25:59
Kate and Doree, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Doree Shafrir 26:02
Thank you for having us.
Kate Spencer 26:03
This was really fun. Thank you so much.
Nick Quah 26:26
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod: How Happy is Gretchen Rubin? Episode 15
Thu, 11/5 1:26PM • 22:25
people, book, gretchen, happier, memoir, podcast, podcasters, laughter, happiness, thought, sister, writer, life, voice, author, called, research, subject, world, hear
Gretchen Rubin, "Happier" Excerpt, Nick Quah
Gretchen Rubin 00:00
The idea of being happy doesn't mean that you would be “10,” on the 1-to-10 scale, 24/7. That is not possible. That's not even a good life.
Nick Quah 00:11
This is Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author, podcaster, and a prominent voice on the subject of happiness. And yeah, happiness is a little tricky right now, given that we're in the middle of a global pandemic and a moment of racial reckoning in the United States.
Gretchen Rubin 00:27
Obviously, there are times when it's appropriate to feel angry, or resentful, or bitter, or agitated, or fearful, or uncertain, or disappointed, or guilty, ashamed, all these things. But the question is: given your circumstances, and given the events of the world, are you as happy as you can be?
Nick Quah 00:49
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. On this week's episode: Gretchen Rubin's empire of happiness. So, let me show my cards here for a second: I'm a big consumer of self-help books. And I realize that as I say this, I feel pretty self-conscious about it. Self-help is a contentious area. And Gretchen Rubin would be the first to admit just how loaded that term is. But does she even think that what she does is self-help?
Gretchen Rubin 01:29
I would say it's "self-helpful."
Nick Quah 01:29
Gretchen Rubin 01:31
Nick Quah 01:32
Tell me the distinction.
Gretchen Rubin 01:34
I just feel like self-help... I love self-help, but for a lot of people, it has very negative connotations, as your question suggests. You could also call this a reported memoir. I think this is a form that's really catching on. I have many friends who have written reported memoirs, where you use your own story and your own experience as the underlying structure, and it gives it some narrative movement, and some suspense, and that interest that comes from one person's story, but then there's a lot of research and, for some people, actual reporting that goes into it, to widen it out and make it beyond one person's story. So it's sort of a combination of a memoir, and reporting or research. Mine fall in that camp. I do a tremendous amount of research, but I think it reads much more like, "Hey, this is one person's story." And I think that does make it more accessible or more interesting to some people.
Nick Quah 02:28
It's funny, when I hear "reported memoir," I think of David Carr's The Night of The Gun.
Gretchen Rubin 02:33
Yes. Right. Well, he really reported on himself, yes.
Nick Quah 02:36
Gretchen Rubin 02:37
Because he was like, "I don't remember, because I was a drug addict, so I had to actually go look things up."
Nick Quah 02:41
Gretchen Rubin 02:42
Nick Quah 02:43
So, calling it a reported memoir, do you think there's less baggage with that? Because there seems to be a general distaste, or criticism, or negativity towards self-help as a genre.
Gretchen Rubin 02:53
Yeah, even though it's wildly popular.
Nick Quah 02:55
Yeah, even though it's wildly popular! A little bit. I don't know. There's a lot of... like pop music, almost. I'm personally a big consumer of self-help stuff.
Gretchen Rubin 03:04
Nick Quah 03:05
I want to explore that a little bit. Why is there this disparity between, on the one hand, the consumer popularity of it, and the fact that it is helpful for a lot of people? But there's a lot of critical arguments that I think find some genuine theoretical purchase in some areas. But...
Gretchen Rubin 03:21
Nick Quah 03:21
Talk to me a little bit about that.
Gretchen Rubin 03:24
Well, I think it's a very earnest form, and some people just don't like earnest. I remember when I wrote The Happiness Project, somebody said to me, "Earnest doesn't sell, you need to be ironic." And I'm like, an ironic book about this? No, that's just not gonna work. And I'm a very earnest person, too. So I think that's part of it, I think part of it is, it's often kind of light, or there's a lot of bad examples of it that are very striking and often very popular, so they're in your face. And also part of it is there's--and I'm very much caught in this--there's the astrology and there's the astronomy. So there's the astronomy of it, which I think people do take seriously, then there's the astrology of it. And many people are somewhere along that continuum. And I think if you're more on the astronomy side of it, then you really sort of dismiss the astrology.
Nick Quah 04:08
Gretchen Rubin 04:08
Even though sometimes those things really penetrate to people and can be quite significant to them. So I think it's kind of caught in that tension as well.
Nick Quah 04:15
Hmm. So you're saying it's like, this is a genre that's typically been defined, at least popularly, by its bad examples, as opposed to its good examples,
Gretchen Rubin 04:23
At least by the people who are criticizing it, yes. You know, the thing about things like happiness, it's like all the big ideas have already been discovered. This is too big a subject. The greatest minds in human history have thought about how to be happy. So anything that's new, or particularly flashy, is probably kind of questionable too. So I think, sometimes, to get heard in a noisy marketplace, people sort of push it too far.
Nick Quah 04:48
Gretchen argues that her work is less self-help, and more about what makes people tick. And she uses her own internal compass as guidance. Gretchen went to law school because she didn't know what else to do. While she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, she found herself thinking about more than case law.
Gretchen Rubin 05:06
On my lunch hour, while I was clerking, and I was wandering around Capitol Hill, and I just asked myself a rhetorical question--you know how you do, you sort of pose yourself these questions--and I said, "Well, what am I interested in that everyone else in the world is interested in?" And I thought, well, power, money, fame, sex. It was like, "Power! Money! Fame! Sex!" And I immediately ran out and started doing all this massive research on what I consider to be one giant subject: "power money fame sex." And I often get really preoccupied with subjects and will do tons and tons of research on them just for fun. But this sort of took over, and I was just working on it all the time. And I finally realized, this is the kind of thing a person would do to write a book about a subject. And I thought, well, maybe I could write that book. And I went out to a bookstore and got something called like, "How To Write and Sell Your Nonfiction Book Proposal," and I just followed the directions. So it wasn't so much a rejection of law as it was that I felt this immense pull, and not just toward writing, but to writing this particular book.
Nick Quah 06:08
She published Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide in 2000, followed by two books on a couple of the most powerful men in the world: Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Was that, in your mind at the time, like, "I'm gonna try to build up a publishing career here, and just gonna come up with a bunch of different ideas?" How did that phase of your writing career play out?
Gretchen Rubin 06:28
Well, you know, with each book that I write, it's almost like I become incredibly interested in a particular subject. So it's almost like I can't help but write that book. And that's something that's not uncommon among writers. A lot of times they'll have sort of a blocking project where it's so important to do a particular project, that you kind of can't help it. And it's funny, because I think looking at all my books, now, those books look sort of out of place. But to me, they fit extremely firmly within everything I've done, because they're really examinations of human nature, which is really my subject. My subject is human nature. So those books were really about how can we understand human nature better by understanding these particular lives?
Nick Quah 07:05
And so in that era of your book writing, what did writing those books help you understand about human nature? And/or, what did you understand about "power fame money sex" that you didn't before writing the book?
Gretchen Rubin 07:17
Well, I think one of the things that I really grew to understand is that with strengths come weaknesses, and usually they're the same thing. Like Jack Kennedy's strengths were in many ways, his weaknesses. Churchill's strengths were his weaknesses. His tremendous belligerence, his love of war, served him so well at certain times of his life, but at other times, he was highly criticized for it--justly. And so it's sort of like when you look at someone, you say, "Well, this is a strength and a weakness." So it's a question of like, how do you get the benefits of the strengths, but how do you understand the weaknesses that come from it? Like one of the things I understand about myself is I'm highly disciplined, but that also means that I can be rigid. So I have to learn how to... Okay, how do I shake off the bad parts of rigidity, but then take advantage of the discipline that I love? So I think that's one thing that really came... I really saw playing out in both those lives over and over.
Nick Quah 08:09
Yeah. And so that sort of exploration of human nature, eventually would bring you to the concept of happiness, right?
Gretchen Rubin 08:15
Nick Quah 08:16
What was that trigger? Why were you working on that idea?
Gretchen Rubin 08:19
Well, I was finishing up my JFK book. And I had... and I was waiting for it to come out. So I had sort of open space in my head, which I don't often have. And I was on a city bus, in the pouring rain, and I looked out the window and I thought, "What do I want from life anyway?" Which I never asked myself. I thought, "Well, I want to be happy." But I realized I never spent any time thinking about like, "Am I happy? What does it mean to be happy? Could I be happier?" So I ran to the library the next day and checked out a giant stack of books about the science of happiness, the philosophy, memoirs, anything to try to understand: what is happiness? Can I be happier? And at first, it was just something for me, I was just interested in for my own life. And I actually had the thought, like, "I should do a happiness project." So that was how the idea struck me. But then I just got deeper, and deeper, and deeper into it. And finally I thought, "Wow, this is such a big subject. It's so rich and interesting. Maybe this should be my next book." And then I've been just expanding out from there ever since.
Nick Quah 09:23
And eventually, it would become her thing. More in a minute.
"Happier" Excerpt 09:47
Hello, and welcome to Happier: a podcast that gives you strategies and tips for how to build happier habits into your daily life. We discuss cutting-edge science, the wisdom of the ages, lessons from pop culture, and our own experiences.
Nick Quah 10:03
Gretchen's 2009 book The Happiness Project became a New York Times bestseller. And five years ago, she launched her podcast Happier, with her sister Elizabeth Craft.
Gretchen Rubin 10:14
My sister and I, for years, had been saying, "We should have a radio show." So I was like, this is even better than a radio show. So I called her and I was like, this could be a big public failure. I'm just telling you right now.
Nick Quah 10:26
Gretchen Rubin 10:27
And she's like, "Sure, I'll do it. 100%. That sounds great." We had Car Talk as our model.
Nick Quah 10:32
Gretchen Rubin 10:33
We are the Car Talk of happiness, yes.
Nick Quah 10:35
That makes a ton of sense in hindsight. [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 10:37
Nick Quah 10:38
Gretchen Rubin 10:39
Because part of it is that it's information. There's tons of information, but delivered in this personal way. And through this relationship of sisters, just like, Click and Clack.
Nick Quah 10:49
And when Gretchen says it's personal, she means it. She always tries out the advice she shares in her books and podcasts on herself before sharing it with her readers and listeners.
Gretchen Rubin 10:59
You know, really, when I'm writing, I'm writing for myself. You know, they say "research is 'me-search,'" and so I'm always writing what I need to know. So I'm always kind of my own guinea pig. And I think that's a really important test. Because look, you can give people tons of great advice, if you don't try to take it yourself. You know? [Laughter] And a lot of times I read stuff, and I'm like, "That sounds good on paper, but I don't know if you tested that out on very many people, because I don't... that's not what I see playing out." And I'm so fortunate that I am in constant contact with people, so I get so many examples of people that I think then can enliven it. Because a lot of times when somebody tells you a principle, it's not that you disagree with it, you're just like, "Yeah, but what does that mean for me?" and then you hear, "Well, this is what one person did," or, "This is how it played out for somebody else," then you can make it real in your own life. And so I'm really fortunate that the world is my research assistant, because I get so much richness from hearing these ideas play out with far more people than I could ever actually talk to in one lifetime.
Nick Quah 11:25
Yeah. The show started in 2015. It was produced at the now-defunct production house Panoply. That's where I met Gretchen. And she was one of the few authors using podcasting as a platform to share published content.
Gretchen Rubin 12:12
I was surprised that more people didn't do it. I mean, at that time, you have Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons, which was doing extremely well. It was a limited run series that was done specifically to promote the book, Magic Lessons. And I thought it was a huge example of a success. And I was surprised that she stopped the podcast, given how successful it was. But I remember going to a presentation and being like, "Oh, my gosh, every author is going to try to get in on this." But what you realize is that, first of all, a lot of people aren't interested in it. Second of all, like our content on Happier, which is very much tied to my written content, it really lends itself. Like, being a biographer of Winston Churchill, that wouldn't be as easy... like, we've had, this podcast has been going for five years, we've never missed a week--we're super vain about that. We've never repeated an episode, we've never done a "favorites," "greatest hits," we've never missed an episode. Because this subject lends itself to the form. So there's a great marriage between the content and the podcast--what people go to podcasts for. So I think there's a lot of authors where that would have been harder to do. But then you look at someone like Dani Shapiro, and Family Secrets, and how her book Inheritance was very specifically her story, but then she realized that there was such an appetite for this kind of story as she was traveling around the world doing her book tour, that she thought, "This could be a great podcast." And it is a great podcast. So it's not about her book Inheritance, but it definitely comes out of her book Inheritance, and it's definitely tied to her. How much she's recognized as a writer, I think.
Nick Quah 13:38
Yeah, well, it seems like there's almost two emerging models here. One is the "author makes a nonfiction investigative series" or something like that, like what Malcolm Gladwell and Pushkin Industries is doing, and then there's this other notion of community-driven, personality-driven--not a big fan of the word "personal brand," but I feel like it's relevant to this discussion. I feel like that's the second model that's happening.
Gretchen Rubin 14:03
I can take "voice." I think "voice" sounds better for writers.
Nick Quah 14:06
That's a fair... that's a much better edit. [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 14:07
Nick Quah 14:07
Gretchen Rubin 14:10
Nick Quah 14:11
Gretchen Rubin 14:13
I run into that all the time. People are like, "I don't want to have a brand!" Like, "But could you have a voice?" Yes, we're all very comfortable with the idea of "Yes, I have a voice."
Nick Quah 14:20
Yeah. And in that situation, the product is yourself, basically. Does that ever get exhausting?
Gretchen Rubin 14:27
To me, it's really, really energizing. And again, I think it's the way that my content is always... I'm always sort of test-driving it against myself. Also, you know, having my sister as my co-host, Elizabeth Craft; I mean, my sister herself is a super accomplished writer. She's a TV writer and showrunner in Los Angeles. She's brilliant. I've called her "my sister the sage" since we were like 12 years old--I'm five years older than she is. And it's funny, because when we started, somebody said, "Well, you're gonna have to really fight with your sister because people are really interested in conflict. And if there's no conflict--"
Nick Quah 14:54
Who's giving you this advice?? [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 14:56
Oh, a lot of people! Like, one of the biggest things I had to do was figure out the bad advice and the good advice. So they were like, you have to have conflict. I was like, that's a problem, because I have less conflict with my sister than literally anyone else in my life. But what we realized is we don't have conflict, but we have differences. We see things differently, we have different experiences, we have different challenges. And so we can talk about those differences so that people will often say, "Oh, I'm more of an Elizabeth than a Gretchen." But then it also kind of gives us more things we can talk about, because she's got different issues and different takes than I have. And certainly different ideas. You know, she has so many great ideas.
Nick Quah 15:30
And as of now, has her own show, Happier in Hollywood. And you built something called The Onward Project.
Gretchen Rubin 15:37
Nick Quah 15:37
Could you tell me a little bit about that decision to build a... I guess we can call it network, but, you know, kind of like an imprint?
Gretchen Rubin 15:44
I'd say it's kind of an imprint, yeah, I guess.
Nick Quah 15:45
Gretchen Rubin 15:45
That's the metaphor to use. Yeah. And so the idea is, these are shows that are gonna make your life better, in one way or another. So there's everything from Side Hustle School with Chris Guillebeau, that's basically "how to have a side hustle," which... now more than ever. And then the latest addition is Kate Bowler's Everything Happens, and she is somebody who really talks about the very, really super challenging things from her memoir Everything Happens. It's about her getting... having stage four cancer and living with that, it's about how to make your life better in all these different ways. And one of the things I really hope to do is to invest more in it, and to build it out much more. I haven't done that to the degree that I really want to do, really, to scale it up. Yeah. Because I think there's a lot of possibility there.
Nick Quah 16:27
Tell me a little bit about the thinking around that, because I think there's a... I feel like in the podcast industry, right now, we kind of moved away from this model of thinking about things in terms of podcast networks. And I think there's a lot of companies nowadays that kind of view themselves as publishers, that have multiple projects. But with something like The Onward Project, you're essentially building a stable of individual people, and individual writers, and voices.
Gretchen Rubin 16:52
Nick Quah 16:52
What is the, on the one hand, opportunity here, but on the other hand, what is the responsibility over working with an author that you brought into this model?
Gretchen Rubin 17:01
Well, I think one of the big key things is discovery, right? Like I can't believe we've talked this long, and we haven't talked about discovery! Because any time you talk about podcasters, all they want to talk about is discovery, because it's a huge issue. How do you help people discover stuff that they like? How do you get people to listen to podcasts? How do you help them find the content that's really going to grab them?
Nick Quah 17:20
You're, I think, one of the few podcasters that's very public about trying to solve that problem on your own terms. And you built that Gift of Podcast website, right?
Gretchen Rubin 17:27
Yes, giftofpodcast.com! Podcasters, listeners: this is like... it's a cheap... you just, I'll email you this PDF, and you can fill it out like a gift certificate, so you can put a ribbon around it, give it to somebody for their birthday, or for a holiday. And you're like, "I'm giving you the gift of podcast, I'm giving you the gift of 20,000 Hertz, because I know you love music and you love sound, you'll love 20,000 Hertz!" Because it's free, anybody who has a smartphone can listen to a podcast. Finding a podcast that you love, or discovering a podcast for the first time, is like the most mind-blowing, exciting thing. So everybody go to giftofpodcast.com and we can grow the pie. Yes, I'm getting on my high horse. Grow the pie!
Nick Quah 18:05
[Laughter] It's like a--
Gretchen Rubin 18:06
Let's get more people listening to podcasts!
Nick Quah 18:07
Well, that's one thing I really like about you, you're--
Gretchen Rubin 18:11
Share 'em here! Let's fight for it!
Nick Quah 18:11
[Laughter] You're really, really giving back to the community in this way. And I appreciate the earnestness of it. Like, every time I try to phrase things in that way, I feel very self-conscious about it. [Laughter]
Gretchen Rubin 18:20
Well, it helps all of us. It helps great content to get discovered, which it's harder, and you talk about this all the time in your newsletter and on Servant of Pod, as more and more people come into it, it's harder and harder for independents, unique voices, people who don't already have a huge hook to get heard. But one way we can help is by shining a spotlight on things that we know other people would like. And if you you... maybe you've got a giant newsletter, or maybe you just give it to a friend... Believe me, every podcaster's like, "Tell a friend, that would really help me out." I mean, how many people say that in their in their closing? "Please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us, and tell a friend. That really helps listeners find our show." Right? We've all done it.
Nick Quah 19:01
This might be a non sequitur question, but it's really not--and I'm just curious: to what extent do you view your work--either as an author or a podcaster--to what extent do you see it as a form of service?
Gretchen Rubin 19:15
Well, I think it is a form of service in that what I hope is that I make it feel easy, and possible, and enticing for people to do the things that would make them happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. And I think a lot of times there are things people could do that just haven't occurred to them. I mean, one of the things that the research shows is, sometimes there's this idea that if people are happy, they just want to like drink margaritas by the beach all day long. But research shows that happier people are more interested in the problems of the world. They're more interested in the problems of the people around them, they're more likely to vote, they're more likely to donate money, they're more likely to volunteer their time, they make better leaders and better team members, they're more likely to help out if somebody needs a hand, and so I think that it's one way to try to help people have the energy and the wherewithal to turn outward. If you feel like you're "good," then you can turn outward and think about, well, how can I help other people?
Nick Quah 20:14
Okay, so what do you think is a way that we can help ourselves, so we can help other people, given the state of the world right now?
Gretchen Rubin 20:23
So we talk about “Power Hour,” which is when you set aside an hour every weekend to do all the nagging tasks that you never... things that can be done at any time, or done at no times. So these... that's when you do like, go to the hardware store for that weird light bulb or whatever. So a listener proposed a wrinkle on that, which it turned out people keep talking about, which is “Empower Hour,” which is when you take an hour every week, and you think of something to do to put your values into the world. So people have done things like write their congressman, or research organizations to donate money to, to support causes that they believe in, reading books about, you know, policy that maybe you're not going to... you'd have to set aside time to study those books because they're not just your average "read a chapter before bed every night" type of book. So that's a way where we also try to show to listeners ideas for how to make ideas real. Yeah, you say you want to be an anti-racist. What does that look like for people? What are they actually doing? Maybe that'll give you an idea of your own life. Maybe you can actually make change real.
Nick Quah 21:22
Gretchen, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate this.
Gretchen Rubin 21:25
Oh, Nick, I always love to talk. Thank you for having me.
Nick Quah 21:28
My pleasure. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alford, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristin Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Season 1, Episode 13
Tue, 9/8 11:25AM • 23:16
podcasts, laughter, people, audio drama, story, asian, kpop, movie, writing, paul, showrunner, korean, fiction, big, assistants, loop, interpreting, head, god, realized
Excerpt, "The Big Loop", Paul Bae, Nick Quah
Paul Bae 00:02
Let me turn on my camera for one second.
Nick Quah 00:04
Oh, are they in your room? [Laughter]
Paul Bae 00:06
Yeah. Hold on a second.
Nick Quah 00:08
I feel like I see them on Twitter all the time, I should at least get to know who they are. This is Paul Bae, one of the more prominent creators of fiction podcasts. He co-wrote the popular series The Black Tapes, which is one of the many podcasts being developed for television. He's done a lot of other things as well. But right now, he just wants to show me his dogs.
Paul Bae 00:12
The oldest black one is Monty, the tall, middle tan one is Billy, and the young crazy Pitbull one is Ella.
Nick Quah 00:36
Oh, man. Cute dogs, man.
Paul Bae 00:38
Yeah, Billy's, right now, in the studio with me lying down, farting. So if you heard me like sniffling, it's the the stench that has threatened to wipe me out. [Laughter] But I'm like, I gotta get through this for Nick. I can't pass out.
Nick Quah 00:50
I appreciate you, man. [Laughter] Paul is a genuinely nice guy. He's vibrant, and approachable, and earnest. And the fact that he's pretty willing to talk about his life is one of the many reasons he's developed a strong following. In the podcast world, he's also known for his work as the creator of The Big Loop, and is the director of the fiction podcast series from Marvel called Marvels. Right now, he's working on two upcoming projects for Spotify.
Paul Bae 01:20
I just recently, in the last few years, realized what my thing is, when people ask, "what is your thing?" I think it's always been--and my mom defined it for me--I've always been a storyteller, from the age of five. I'm the kid who would sit down on the grass, and all the other kids would surround, and I'd tell a scary story. That was my first types of stories. That, and jokes, which shouldn't surprise anyone, because a hitting a story's scary beat is the same as telling a punchline, right? It's all surprise, and you build it up the same way.
Nick Quah 01:46
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. On this episode, we're going to talk about how a one-time preacher and stand-up comedian ended up being one of the more prolific creators of fiction podcasts.
Paul Bae 02:06
I'm the one who built haunted houses in our basement and charged the local kids to come walk through the haunted house in my crawlspace. So I was always a little enterprising kind of storyteller. I found a way to tell the story that mattered to me. So before was a story about interpreting our world via God. And then when I lost my faith, it was just interpreting our world for young people and helping them navigate it. Then it became helping people laugh at their pain, and laugh at a few dick jokes along the way. And then it became, well, let's sell something for me, but tell something about ghosts as metaphor for God at the same time. In the TV stuff, everyone's noticing I have a thing that I'm always pitching, which I can't share right now because it'll give it away, but it's just telling stories in different mediums. I'm not tied to any medium. And I think that explains and the breakdancing was just, you know, Nick, my body wants to tell a story, right? My body just needs to--[Laughter] That sounds so stupid.
Nick Quah 03:01
You speak your truth, speak your truth. [Laughter] Paul was born in South Korea in 1969. When Canada adopted its Multiculturalism Act in 1971, his parents moved the family to Toronto. He says his work, regardless of the medium, is about interpreting the world as he sees it, whether he sees things as a Korean man, as a Canadian, or simply as a person grappling with existential anxiety.
Paul Bae 03:26
I have these anxiety attacks, to be honest, once in a while, where suddenly I'm reminded, this is all going to end. So there's an episode of Big Loop called "You," which I don't recommend during the pandemic, it's quite depressing. But that came out of me, several years ago, sitting with my at the time girlfriend, sitting next to her and thinking, "Well, I'm really lucky. I came out of my divorce. I used to be really depressed. I was a borderline alcoholic, but now look at me. My life has totally turned around. I'm so ****ing happy. I'm so ****ing lucky. It sucks that this is all going to end." And so I remember thinking that and looking at her and she goes, "What's up?" I'm like, "I'm very sad that this is going to end one day." And that went into that episode, that I could spill up my anxiety, and hope people will listen to it. I'm hoping they'll say, "Yeah, I feel that too. There's nothing we can do about it, and it ****ing sucks. And it's sad. It's depressing as ****. But what are we gonna do about it?" And there's no answer for that. And that's what that episode was about. So The Big Loop is sort of like me pouring in that, in different ways, into different characters, into different situations.
Nick Quah 04:27
The Big Loop is an anthology series that spans horror, science fiction, and dark comedy. Its tagline is "stories of finite beings in an infinite universe." This clip is from an episode called "The Promise," which tells the story of a Korean gangster.
Excerpt, "The Big Loop" 04:44
I grew up in Gwangju. I don't know where I was born. But the orphanage wasn't fun. My boss adopted me in Gwangju, raised me with his family in Gwangju. Gwangju was my life. I asked him once, why he adopted me. Out of the hundreds of orphans, why me? And he said, [Korean language clip] He said "your hands." [Korean language clip] "You had the hands of a killer." [Korean language clip]
Paul Bae 05:17
The Black Tapes became my commercial thing. The Big Loop, that became my personal journal to put into story format, but I had a business plan for The Big Loop too. It wasn't just all--I had a few commercial stuff in there to make sure someone might buy it.
Nick Quah 05:29
Yeah. So that experience--or that psychology of yours, to take things not for granted, but also just to stick to the moment--do you feel like that has prepared you for a life in the film and television business? There's this... one of the greater stereotypes and mythologies about Hollywood is that it's a brutal, brutal, brutal business. Do you think that you feel like your experiences kind of prepare you for that kind of life?
Paul Bae 05:58
Yes, I definitely do. I think what happens is because... everyone always talks about, "just make sure they like you." The chances are people aren't gonna like your pitch. They'll invite you and they won't like the pitch. Move on. And people always say "make sure they like you." I didn't understand why, and the one that ended up buying my most recent series, that network, that was my fifth pitch to them, and I realized, "Oh, they like me." Then I started realizing, "oh, they like being around me." And then the people I do the notes call with, they tend to save me for the end of the day. I don't like being at the end of the day because everyone's tired. But they've confessed to me they like it at the end of the day because they say I lift up everyone in the room. That makes everyone happy. Because I never fight about the notes, I'm very collaborative, and I realized--I'm starting to realize--I bring a lot of joy. I think I exude a lot of... everyone's trying their best to make this thing work. Everyone's doing their best, coming from their different angles, and I'm just happy everyone's ****ing here talking about my thing, right? I never forget that. I'm really happy in the beginning, the middle, and the end, and I never, maybe because I'm old enough, I don't take it for granted, because I don't want that. The last thing I want is for me to keel over with a heart attack tomorrow, and my last memory is of me getting into a fight with executive yesterday. I think that'd be an awful way to go.
Nick Quah 07:09
Paul says he's still considered a newcomer when it comes to television. Nevertheless, he's at the table. And his work has an actual shot at reaching a screen. And he's not the only one. So why are film and television studios so interested in podcasters right now?
Paul Bae 07:26
I have two reasons for that. And one's sort of a jokey reason, but I think it's real. The first jokey reason [Laughter] is that podcasts are easier to consume, for assistants. Because what happens is, like, The Black Tapes was discovered by my manager's assistant Chad. He was driving one day, and--he heard about it through a party--and he's driving on the way to work, And he's--assistants are so busy--and he just listened to it. And he's like, "wow," and he fell in love with it. Then he told his boss about it. If it was a novel, I don't think he would have had the time to read that thing. Everyone in Hollywood drives all day and they're stuck in traffic. I think they spend about at least two hours a day. So podcasts are the easiest way to consume it. It sounds ridiculous but an industry is being formed because of the way people--[Crosstalk]
Nick Quah 08:04
I believe it, I believe it. [Crosstalk] [Laughter]
Paul Bae 08:07
Yeah, exactly. So I think that's a real reason, though. People tend to laugh when I say it, but I think that's a real factor.
Nick Quah 08:14
Have you met Chad?
Paul Bae 08:15
Yes, I have. Yeah, I kept hugging him, I felt really weird. Because I was so grateful! [Laughter]
Nick Quah 08:19
Well, tell me about Chad, what's his deal? [Laughter]
Paul Bae 08:23
He's moved on to something else, another business, I got to catch up with him. But it's, he's a guy that I'm so, so grateful for. And then to actually have him hand our thing over to Guymon, who ended up being my manager. That's a big deal. And that's happened for other stuff. It's always an assistant that's discovering stuff, and then passing it up, and they're doing that with podcasts. Everyone's listening to... and they're young, and they're all the exact demographic for podcast consuming. So I think that's the one thing.
Nick Quah 08:30
Shout out to the assistants. They should be unionizing.
Paul Bae 08:54
Well, that's the assistants' side, the reason it gets sped up the chain, but the reason it's actually circulating around Hollywood is, Hollywood is, what I've learned, you always see the stereotype: "What's big this year?" Meteors, okay, everyone's gonna do a meteor movie, or comet/Earth destruction movie, or dinosaurs. It is very buzzy. And trends happen. So I'm hoping this is not a trend. But it could be, I don't know. Novels are still being adapted, short stories are still being adapted. People from social media have, like with these Twitter threads, they're being, once in a while, picked up, and I think podcasts, as long as the quality stays high, they'll keep at it. They'll keep searching podcasts for new material.
Nick Quah 09:33
So I think this speaks to a secondary trend that's been happening in the podcast business lately. I think I'm seeing a lot of people using the medium as a place to test intellectual property, explicitly. And I feel like I've listened to a lot of podcasts these days that feel like spec scripts. Is that something that you're seeing, and do you find that frustrating?
Paul Bae 09:53
It's a definite trend. Because I've had meetings with some of the companies--the big ones--and they're like, "okay, we see"--and they basically told me--"we see this as a cheap way to test our properties. We have like 20 movie ideas." And then I tell them how much it cost, how much I could do it for--you could do a whole series for the cost of a pilot.
Nick Quah 10:12
Paul Bae 10:13
Right? And gain a user base, bring them over to from the IP, the podcast, over to TV or film.
Nick Quah 10:19
Paul Bae 10:20
So I know that's real. What's happening, and it's no secret--you've written about this--is that these podcasts are being... I've always described audio fiction as a loss leader. Whenever I went into these meetings, I'm like, you realize, you're not going to make money off this. You're spending money to advertise the thing it's going to become in your mind, your movie or your TV series. And it's very rare that a podcast can make enough money that an executive will be happy.
Nick Quah 10:44
That's very true. Yeah.
Paul Bae 10:45
Right? It's enough for me to be happy, but not somebody who's used to millions of dollars, so I always warn them about that. And so I don't get frustrated so much. I've been spending not a lot of time, but I'm spending any free time I have devoted to helping indie creators that I know and I'm not really friends with but I'm getting closer to, that I've always been a sort of a sideline fan of, and I'll reach out to them say, hey, do you have representation? And they're like, no, or they have one, but they're not doing anything. And then I'll contact my person. I'm like, hey. I send them the link to their show, I go, let me know if you want them, and then I know at least one of them got signed. Another one, I helped with negotiations with a big company, and they just signed a sweet deal. So that's the way I don't get frustrated. I'm like, okay, this is a reality. People are coming in. And I've talked with show runners on Zoom, helping them make audio drama, because we've become friends. And they're like, hey, Paul, we can't do our TV production. Can you teach me how to do audio drama? [Laughter] And they're really good at... they provide me, if I ever become a showrunner, they're like, here's what you need to know, Paul, about the business. So they help me too.
Nick Quah 11:44
Well, tell me a bit about more about that. It sounds like so you're saying that in the pandemic, now that everybody's shut down you're seeing showrunners, television showrunners, now trying to make fiction podcasts. Is that what you're saying?
Paul Bae 11:54
Yeah, because they're realizing, unless you're a mega showrunner or producer, it's really hard to pitch, an original series that came out of your head.
Nick Quah 12:02
Paul Bae 12:03
Without any IP--even they're having problems. Everyone jokes about it, everyone talks about it. Among TV writers especially, they're like, yeah, they want the IP. Even if they don't read it, they won't read it. They just need to know what's out there. And so they see podcasts as a way to do it. I haven't seen any of them yet. The ones I've talked to take the serious steps to do it. They just want to know like, what does it involve? How much money am I gonna have to spend? Who will I have to hire so they and they always do it respectfully. So I don't want people thinking, yeah, these these guys coming into our territory. Because I'm someone that did that. I used the space of audio drama to turn our screenplay into another media and happened to fall in love with audio drama in the process.
Nick Quah 12:43
An evangelist of a different kind. More on Hollywood, and podcasting, and the audition that changed Paul's life in a minute. What are the differences between writing for the screen and writing for the ear?
Paul Bae 13:12
Oh, okay, so this one is very specific. I have a secret that--there's not really a secret--but I have a tactic. [Laughter] I have a technique for writing audio drama, like very literal, specific technique. When I sit down to write audio drama, I make sure I have music in my head. It's not playing. But I have a piece of music in my head to drive the mood because everything I write for, for example, Big Loop. Music is so important to The Big Loop. Sometimes I don't have... I have an idea, but I don't know how it's gonna go until I find the song that's going to end it. For example, "Children of God," that one. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a man struggling with his faith because of his child that is only a head. Right? It's just so abysmal, and so hope crushing, and so nightmarish.
Excerpt, "The Big Loop" 13:56
You know how you see Christians talk about God answering prayers. I used to talk like that too. But during that time I realized God might answer your prayer in action. And you might hear him, but not literally, you know, but in the result of prayer, but you never really hear a voice, you know, it's not his voice. Sure you hear the voice of other Christians interpreting God for you, telling you what God intends for you, for the baby, but it's not like God goes "This is God," that "the reason I'm giving you this child is because it's a test of your faith." It's never a voice. We just say it is to fill the silence. Because the truth is, God doesn't speak that way.
Paul Bae 14:53
And it makes you think like Job. It makes you think, what the hell are you doing God? What are you doing to me, a faithful servant, a servant of God? I was really struggling, how do you tell this ****in' story? I'm not Cronenberg. I'm not as skilled as him in that kind of macabre storytelling. Then this band from Sweden that I love, Tjuv, they have this song called "The River" and I heard it, I'm like, that's the feeling. That's the feeling of throwing it away, your logic, and just going with faith, and just hoping the universe rewards you for being a good person. And so the whole thing I wrote with that music in my head, and the way they talk, and the way the narration went, and everything about that was driving towards that song. So a lot of people notice, The Big Loop, when you end an episode, you have these feelings, and the song allows you to sit in those feelings. It's because I'm writing towards that song at the end. So it starts as audio. For when I'm writing TV, it's all visual. I'm thinking of what do they look like? What are they walking through? What is their home like? It's entirely visual. So it's a different way of writing. And I notice on the script, because I do that, the TV version has more description in the scenes, where the audio version has none. It's just people talking.
Nick Quah 15:59
So let's focus in on what you're working on podcast-wise these days. You've got two shows through Spotify. One is a "Black Tapes for teens," essentially. And the other one's about a Kpop group, which is one of the more interesting things that's crossed over into the West in 2020, of course, as Asian folks who've been very aware of this for a while. [Laughter] Tell me about these projects.
Paul Bae 16:19
Yeah. So, Amanda Chi and The Ghost Sessions, I'm not sure how much I'm allowed to tell, but it's basically what the trades were saying: it's a young girl, a Korean/Indo-American girl, who has to navigate her way through a new high school while learning of a new power, which is she can see ghosts and interact with spirits. It becomes this crossover between a whole bunch of... like Veronica Mars, and I guess Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then the Kpop one was based off of... I have a friend who was the lead singer in one of Korea's first Kpop groups.
Nick Quah 16:54
Wait, what?! [Laughter]
Paul Bae 16:55
Yeah, it's crazy. It's a crazy story. Well, I'll say it. His name is Sean, I don't want to say the name of the group, but Kpop fans who know history will know who this is. He's back in Canada, he's a realtor now, but he went through a crazy experience in Kpop, starting before there was Kpop, before the country started putting their muscle behind the music industry and the entertainment industry.
Nick Quah 17:16
Yeah, it's a real state effort. It's wild how Kpop is a state creation, a little bit.
Paul Bae 17:21
Yeah. And it was just before that. He's one of the ones that made Koreans realize, Oh, this could be something we could invest in, and take out there. His story was just insane. And I remember him sharing it with me one night and I'm like, do you mind if I take this part of the story and turn it into an audio fiction? And you come on? And then he goes, Yeah, but then I didn't use it. It just felt sort of weird using too much of a story for something that's going to be out in public, so I changed it all up. But the idea of someone's ascendant career in Korea brought up other things that I was personally struggling with, and that I've personally seen, having grown up in the Korean church. So I wanted to tackle those issues. So I thought, well, this is a good way to do it. And I get to maybe meet some cool Kpop stars while doing it.
Nick Quah 17:22
Okay, so I'm generally hesitating to ask this question because I feel like it might be a little self-indulgent. But I'm going to ask it anyway. [Laughter] How has your Korean-ness-slash-Asian-ness informed your experience in the entertainment business?
Paul Bae 18:20
Oh, it's been totally shaped by it. Like, a lot of kids who grew up in the 70s and the 80s, there was only a limited amount of media you could consume. So I grew up watching... I grew up wishing I was white, basically. All my heroes were white, until Bruce Lee came, right? Like before, I wanted to be Six Million Dollar Man, I wanted to be... There was no Asians to look at, all right? I just want it to be something that I consumed. I never saw me on the screen. You hear the story all the time. And then when I was acting, I remember I got so sick of some of the roles I was getting. This one time, I don't mind saying this, there was a very well known TV show, and my agent said hey, they want you to be a pizza delivery boy, but you don't have to say anything, just practice reacting to something terrible. I'm like, okay, so I just practice my reactions. You know, like "oh ****" in the mirror. Showed up, it was all Asian dudes. And I'm like, well, that's really interesting. They have the heart set on an Asian guy delivering this pizza. And then the casting directors assistant came out to the room and said, "Okay, guys, there's a slight change. The character is no longer pizza delivery guy. It's Chinese takeout guy. But you guys probably all figured that out." And I remember looking at all the other dudes in the room, and I could tell right away, none of us had figured that out. Like none of us had assumed that. And it was so insulting. And I felt so, not hurt, but angry that at that age, I have to debase myself and sit in a room with with other guys trying their best to achieve their dreams. And just sort of been tossed away with these assumptions. And so I thought, you know what, I need to be on the other side of that camera. I'm ****ing sick of this. I need to be on the other side writing stories for people like me. So that's one... and I was already writing screenplays, but at this point I really started a focused effort in systemically building my skills to realistically get something sold.
Nick Quah 20:04
Hmm. Last question, and I want to stick with the entertainment industry angle a little longer. So I think I personally grapple with feeling a little bit weird about the representational politics of Asians in Hollywood. I mean, it's fine if we get more like Crazy Rich Asians or, you know, x genre movie, but with Asian leads, but I wonder how far that's actually going to get us because we're still not talking about Asian people actually being owners of studios, or having any structural power, or anything like that. I'm curious if you have any thoughts about that.
Paul Bae 20:38
Yeah, I think it's good to go on several tracks. So I like us having... and I say us, like, people that look like us. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 20:48
It's just young people here. [Laughter]
Paul Bae 20:51
I like people that look like us finally getting some power and control in an industry that has historically not allowed people that look like us to have those things. I like that. So I like those movies for that purpose, and for entertainment. But I also think it's important for movies, like with Alice Wu, making the smaller movies. The more intimate, very personal movies. And it's not that they said, Okay, let's reverse engineer this genre and put all our Asian friends in it. It's not that. She just went, this is my life, alright? This is... Or The Farewell, that one. "This is me." This is... Like, more personal stories. I think we can do both and everything in-between. I think it's really important because it's always like, one for them, one for me, right? One to make the money, one to use that money to finance the thing I really want to make.
Nick Quah 21:02
Paul Bae 21:10
But if we can do both simultaneously, that's good for everybody. And it's good to see people like Randall [Park] and Daniel Dae Kim really opening up their own production companies, telling Asian... basically doing what Jordan Peele is doing. He, and he's not just, he's telling a history of the Black experience in America using a very familiar genre and just turning it on its head. And I would like to see us doing that kind of thing, being super inventive but encouraging each other, and giving each other the resources to do that.
Nick Quah 22:11
Paul, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Paul Bae 22:14
Oh, thanks for having me on. This has been awesome.
Nick Quah 22:31
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Jessica Alpert and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Richard's Famous Food Podcast
Season 1, Episode 12
Mon, 9/7 2:08PM • 26:59
episode, podcast, pickle, jimmy, hear, podcasting, convention, france, richard, record, french, people, question, call, story, tangent, sounds, monks, bit, clip
Excerpt, "A Woman's Smile", Nick Quah, Richard Parks III, Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast"
Richard Parks III 00:22
I cannot settle on one description. And I mean honestly, I've taken a page from you and others who have written about the show. And so I'll say it's like a cartoon, except you listen to it. I'll say it's a documentary food show. If I'm talking to someone who knows me, I'll say it's like taking a trip inside my mind.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 00:39
Anyways... [Squelching sounds] What's that? [Squelching sounds] You want to go for a walk? [Raspberry] Oh, you think we should do a definition of what a cornichon is, for those who may not know. [Squelch] Good idea, girl! You want a belly rub? [Squelching sound] There's a good girl, there's a good girl. [Squelching sounds] Anyways... [Music]
Nick Quah 01:00
This is Richard Parks III, host and creator of Richard's Famous Food Podcast, which is a pretty hard show to describe. It's kind of a food show. It's kind of a cartoon. But whatever it is, it's one of the most fun and interesting podcasts you'll ever hear. And I think it's the kind of thing that could never be made by a major podcast company.
Richard Parks III 01:22
I was looking to make something that I didn't hear out there in the world, that I felt like would appeal to me. And others, too! Honestly, in the beginning, it wasn't just for me. But that's changed.
Nick Quah 01:35
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. On this episode: when making a podcast is just about having a ton of really weird fun. At its core, Richard's Famous Food Podcast is a food documentary. Every episode tackles a different food subject, whether it's wine, truffles, or bone broth. But what you get isn't a simple accounting of a history, or profile, or anything like that. You get wild tangents, weird fictional characters, and a lot of zany energy. The narrative doesn't necessarily follow a linear path. And storylines don't always see themselves through. But honestly, some of it is completely entertaining.
Richard Parks III 02:21
Yeah, I don't know what I'm doing when I make this show, but I've figured out the feelings that I would like to repeat, that I'm looking for, and I've given into what it is. I'm not trying to make it something else anymore. I'm not trying to make it something that fits in and that took some--a lot of hard work. My background is, I guess I would have called myself a journalist at the time. My first thing that I did out of college when I was 22 years old is I went to West Texas, and made a documentary film with some friends, and then, shortly thereafter, I started as a cub reporter at a small newspaper, and then after that, I became the editor of that newspaper. And then I was the editor of two of the newspapers in this small newspaper group in the Bay Area. First day on the job, I was given a Rolodex. The computer was not connected to the internet. And the editor said, you're writing three things today, and I was you know, terrified. But in doing that, I learned a lot about journalism, and so it was always between film and print. But in working on films, I had developed a fluency with audio equipment. And so I felt like "I can do this." There is an explosion in podcasting. Who knows? Maybe you make one really good episode and that's about all you have to do to kind of like--then you're established, and I don't know what I was thinking.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 03:38
Nick Quah 03:40
To really explore the ethos behind the show, I wanted to focus on how Richard thought through one episode: "Cornichon's Quest." In the episode, Richard travels to Paris, literally, to learn more about the history behind a tiny pickle with the extra tart crispiness. But instead of getting the story of the first documented cornichon, or something like that, Richard creates a character, Jimmy The Cornichon, based on his real-life nephew. In order to fully appreciate "Cornichon's Quest," you have to get the backstory from the previous episode. Let's jump in there.
Richard Parks III 04:12
Jimmy and I are in dialogue, and it doesn't really matter what's happening, but the Pod God shows up, who is the deity who is the ruler of the on-demand audio universe in my show. And so he shows up, and there's too much frivolity going on, and he kidnaps Jimmy, and he says to me,
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 04:32
I'm going to kidnap little Jimmy Pickle! No, that's mean! If you don't figure out a way to do a real canonical RFFP, with that signature mix of real reporting, sound design, and original music we've not yet heard, I'll serve Jimmy on a piece of a crusty baguette smeared with some pâté de campagne! [Evil laughter] Oh no!
Richard Parks III 04:59
So that's what preceded the episode. Another thing that I think about in storytelling, and particularly where it pertains to the more whimsical aspects of my show and the characters, is something that I think William Saroyan said--I'm probably going to bowdlerize all of this, I hope that people are looking this up and finding that I'm very much wrong--but somebody said, and I think it was William Saroyan, "all of storytelling is just 'get the cat up the tree, and then get the cat back down the tree." That's the story. And so I had this trip planned to France--rare European vacation, first time in 20 years. And I knew if I'm in France, that's a good place for gastronomy and I should probably take my microphone and when I can, as long as I don't completely alienate my vacation companion who is also my domestic partner, record things here and there and maybe piece together an episode. So the episode that precedes "Cornichon's Quest" is me getting the cat up the tree, and just saying you're gonna go to France, you're gonna have to do something because France is the birthplace of gastronomy, modern gastronomy in Western continental food. It's a very important place for food. That's where "cornichon" is from. And so if you go to France, you're gonna find a story, is what I'm telling myself. And in doing that episode, and putting it out, I challenged myself to actually do it. That's what a lot of the fictional aspects of the show do for me. For me, it serves a practical purpose, that there are these external things challenging me to make another episode. Because to be perfectly honest, every single time I make an episode, I think about never making an episode again, because it takes a lot of work. And it takes me--as joyful as it is, it's also psychologically demanding. I am not exaggerating, every time I make an episode, I wonder if it will be the last time but in setting up that episode, I challenged myself: No, now you have to do it. So I got the cat up the tree.
Nick Quah 06:52
And so, one of the more interesting aspects about that episode after you're trying to find the cat in the tree, to stick to the metaphor, is like you do commit to this gonzo bit. You go out into the street and you ask people "where's the pickle," right?
Richard Parks III 07:06
Nick Quah 07:07
I'm just gonna play that clip.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 07:09
[French language clip]
Nick Quah 07:31
I'm just curious as to what possesses a person to ask random people in the street, in a country you're not from, for what is essentially a fictional aspect of a podcast?
Richard Parks III 07:45
Commitment to the bit, you know. [Laughter] Look, I am willing to make myself look ridiculous to fulfill things and create moments that you're not going to hear anywhere else. I care about it that much. I love it that much. And yes, I am willing to go down to the banks of the Seine River, where I literally was recording that. And I asked people in my broken French "Where is Jimmy? Have you heard of Jimmy the Cornichon?" It sounded like somebody responded in Russian. "Nyet," I think he said, but it was a high tourist area. So I knew I wanted to create some moments. I guess in that episode in particular, that's one of the episodes where as a host, and as a, quote-unquote "reporter," I am a little bit more in-character than than I normally am. Because I've written for newspapers, as I said, and I've written about news for the New York Times, and when I go interview for my show, I mean, obviously, the topic is a little bit different, but generally I operate the same way as I always have. If I'm making a movie, if I'm getting quotes for an article. I think it's that early experience as a journalist in a small town when I was 22, and they didn't even give us the internet. You have to go hit the pavement, and it's the most mortifying thing ever to do for the first time. To pick up the phone and call someone, or to go approach someone on the street, or to go chase a fire engine and talk to people. It's scary. But I think that it's probably that experience that I'm reminded of when I hear that tape, and I just knew that I wanted to get some some reactions. Yeah, does that excuse it? I don't think so.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 09:17
[French language clip] Because here it's not just an obscure pickle. It's a point of national pride. [French language clip] I think you have cornichons in every French shop. And like Ludo, everybody knows what makes a good cornichon. [French language clip] Crunchy? Crunchy, yeah. [French language clip] As a pickle-obsessed podcast host whose logo is a mustachioed pickle, I feel right at home. [French language clip] But I'm not here to network. I'm here to find Jimmy, the most special cornichon in the world. And I hear if you're looking for cornichons in Paris, the place to be is Maille. [French language clip] You will find your happiness there, I think.
Nick Quah 10:29
It sounds like a lot of what was driving you creatively with the podcast is this frustration with conventions, a little bit. Wondering if this if the podcast is your way of working through a couple of those frustrations.
Richard Parks III 10:44
I mean, I'm cowed by the excellence of conventions, that I see pulled off in other shows or in things that I really like. A lot of podcasts I really like I don't necessarily take inspiration from, because I'm worried that I can't pull it off, or I can't do it, especially on my own. I don't know. But I do have a very fraught relationship with convention. And I always have, but I think that that sort of manifested itself differently in the 19-year-old me than it does in the 38-year-old me who makes this show. Because you can't just sit down at the piano and be like, "I'm gonna make amazing music, but I don't need notes! I don't need chords! I don't need to hit these keys, I'll just bang on the lid!" That's not really how it works. I think you have to have a reverence when you're approaching a form that takes a lot of expertise, like a storytelling podcast, which I really still kind of am holding on to the belief that maybe my show still is, and I think you have to love it, but you want to play with it maybe because you're a little bit self-conscious when you're doing it, maybe because you don't think you can pull it off, or maybe when you do it, it doesn't come off. It doesn't ring true. And so what does ring true? I think a lot of my show is also--it's sitting here working, and working, and working, and working for days and weeks on end on the sound side of things, and these feelings of self-doubt. And I think it comes from working alone, which you're always working alone when you're editing, and so all these things are just based on my own personal experiences. That's all you have when you're alone here working. You're a monk. You're alone.
Nick Quah 12:21
So it feels like the way you use these characters, they're essentially plot devices that carry out ideas about the stuff that you're reporting on.
Richard Parks III 12:28
Nick Quah 12:29
So how do you make the choice of creating a character within the context of any given episode?
Richard Parks III 12:34
I think generally it is about that relationship to convention. I know at some point that I'm going to have to define what the topic of my show is, but I start to feel self-conscious about "I'm going on too long here and it's too dry, and there's got to be another way to do this." How can I do this convention, or this cliche, in a way that only I can do? What are my ideas? And how do I serve what I'm doing in the whole piece by doing that? If I can do all those things then I've used, I've honored, the convention of other shows, and storytelling in general, by doing the convention, but I've brought it into the world of my show, made it something that you will only hear on my show. And hopefully I put a smile on your face. If I can do those things, then I've checked every box. And I don't always do it. I try to only do it when it serves the story. But you know, Jimmy, Jimmy is the MacGuffin, it's like the thing that propels the story forward, both behind the scenes for me, and also it's just a framing device that, I set up a question in the beginning of the episode--it's very simple--and answer it in the end. But other shows do this all the time. I'm just doing it in my way.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 13:45
A lot of Americans who come to Paris come here... Back at the Maille Boutique in Paris, I feel like I've asked Valentin enough softball questions. Have you heard of a cornichon named Jimmy? Jimmy? No. No, no, no. That's you, maybe? Jimmy is my nephew. Yeah? Okay. No, I haven't. So you don't know where he is? No. We're all pickles. Okay, yeah. Okay, nice. Anyways...
Nick Quah 14:33
So let me see if I got this right. So you have a standard radio story. Let's say it's about a pickle, right? And then the thing about the way a normal radio story conducts itself is that it's sometimes very slow. It has to find excuses to get you interested as the listener, whether it's news hook or something like that. But within your context, it sounds like you could just create a cartoon, lay it over, and it would serve the same machinery of getting the journalistic part forward. Does that sound right?
Richard Parks III 15:02
I think that's absolutely right. Yeah, there's no reason why not. I really--I know that it's off-putting to some people. But I don't understand why there isn't more of this type of thing in the world. So tell me more about that. I'm curious as to--because I'm constantly thinking about that sort of thing that people keep saying about certain kinds of arts. I think some shows--and Radiotopia does this, I think The Heart does this sometimes, Love + Radio does this sometimes--where there's this blending of the fiction and the nonfiction. And there's a kind of sacrilege that happens with that. Right.
Nick Quah 15:32
I'm curious as to why it's off-putting.
Richard Parks III 15:34
I mean, obviously, it's not off-putting to me, so I don't know if I'm the right person to answer that.
Nick Quah 15:41
More on cornichons in a minute. Let's get back to that cornichon episode.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 15:55
Fed up with Valentin's question-dodging, I take my search to a smaller Parisian culinary store [French language clip] I share a snack with the lady behind the counter, [French language clip] and then uncover an alarming truth about the contemporary cornichon. [French language clip] Because here, she tells me, as everywhere, there are two types of cornichons: those made in France--and there are not many of those--and then the ones made in India. [Sound effects] I know! It turns out, these days, due to the high cost of labor and production, most cornichons are produced in places like Eastern Europe and India for a fraction of the price they would be in France. It's a classic story of globalization. For instance, farmers fought it for as long as they could. The frontline in this battle includes miniature pickles, cornichons. I can't believe that public radio got to the story already. Now cornichon farmers are learning to compete with producers from countries like India.
Nick Quah 17:19
So there's the story and information Richard wants to get across, and then there are the cartoonish characters, like Jimmy. But then there's another level of aural chaos going on. Like the "anyways" you heard earlier.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 17:31
Nick Quah 17:33
So why do you do that?
Richard Parks III 17:34
You know, we all say that when we've gone too far, ended up in a place that we don't recognize, or just ended up on a tangent that we hadn't anticipated. I should be saying it a lot more in this interview. But when we say these verbal tics, oftentimes we musicalize them. There's other examples of this. If I said, "Now, I want to tell you about how I make my show." "Now," that's a verbal tic like "anyways," it's a question. There's punctuation points--I'm struggling to think of more examples, but I think "anyways" is a common one. And so yes, as you say, to underline what is kind of absurd about it, and almost to put in bold letters what I'm doing here, I just went on a tangent, this is not important, let's get back to the matter at hand. I said it again, and I put a little vocal harmony on it. And then after that, I was like, "Well, I'm not going to do that again, because I can't repeat myself." So in making subsequent episodes, I was like, "I'm not gonna make 'anyways' as a part of this," but then I gave into it in editing them, and it's become a signature of the show. I call it a catchphrase, because there are a lot of them, but they're not catchphrases. They're just normal words said differently in a way that I say them on the show, typically in silly musical ways, like "poodcast" and "eektually," and "anyways," and these are things that, to take a cue from music, what they would call in opera a leitmotif. God, I'm just talking about opera and Orson Welles. Someone smack this guy.
Excerpt, "Richard's Famous Food Podcast" 19:07
Well, I'm back from France. Empty handed. Empty house. No Jimmy. Empty fridge. See what we got here... Got some sauerkraut, homemade yogurt, rye starter. Hmm. cornichon, of course. Guess I might as well. [Sound effects] Uncle Richie? [Record scratch] Jimmy! Whoa, you're making your poodcast! Poodcast? Woodcast. Wouldcast. [Record scratch] Yeah!
Nick Quah 19:37
As much as there's a frustration with convention and the formality of a lot of the medium, it seems that there's some--I hear a frustration with, the industrialization of capitalism in general.
Richard Parks III 19:52
Nick Quah 19:53
And my understanding of you, at least through this conversation, and from what I've heard on the show, and from what I've read, you seem like an artist at heart, like one of the rare real diehard ones. And I'm curious as to what your relationship is with the notion of the marketplace, as we call it, and the notion of what's been happening to podcasting more generally?
Richard Parks III 20:12
I mean, I don't know. I mean, I have a job, right? And I make my money. And the situation with the show right now is, like the monks do in Buddhism, it's like "chop wood, carry water." Or like the monks that make cheese in Kentucky, and beer. You got to sell that stuff, and then you keep the monastery clean, and you meditate. Because the whole point is to meditate on God or whatever, you know? If art, or a passion project food podcast, also falls into that same category, in terms of the reasons for doing it and how it is outside of the marketplace, then I'm lucky that I am able to make it at all, right? Because it fulfills me. But I disagree with--I've talked to people who have jobs in podcasting and stuff, and there's this notion that like, "Oh, it's an art project, and as long as you can do it at all, that's it, just think of it like that." And I just disagree with that. I think that obviously, what's going on in podcasting overall, and you've talked about it on this show, I've listened to this show, and there's been discussion about this, and I kind of can sense where you fall on this, a little bit. And maybe we do think the same way about certain things. I mean, I'm worried that it's not friendly to creators, of course, and in ways that are historic and endemic, certainly in America. I mean, my father is a musician. He came up through the greatest time in the music industry, when, as he likes to say, the sale of record albums were second only in America to the sale of legal drugs, in terms of the money that the economy, in the late 60s. That was the case, I guess. I mean, anyway, he says that. And I know things from him about how contracts are written, and how when you get money back on an album that you made that you owe the record company for making. You don't get it all, you get a percentage of it. And it's a percentage of a percentage, because of things like the breakage clause in record albums, which still exists. Breakage is something that was established when the technology was Bakelite, which was this this stuff that would smash. If you weren't careful with a box of Bakelite records--78s--they would break. And so they had this clause the record company did for--they reserve 10% to cover the cost of reproducing those albums, that's called breakage. Breakage is still in digital contracts today. That's nuts! [Laughter] What are we talking about? Vinyl fixed that problem in the 40s, or whatever. So, I'm familiar with how the industry is unfriendly to the artists. This is nothing new. But I would hope that there would be some room for different kinds of business models in podcasting than the ones we have now, where ads are sold on a CPM basis, per thousand impressions, or there are these sort of these, what I call the "podcast Medici." And it's like if the podcast Medici blesses you, then that's another way forward. Or public media. But I think that a lot of public media organizations are looking at what they're doing. "Why have we been doing podcasting? What's coming back?" And at the end of the day, all of these places are businesses, right? But I think it takes creativity on the business side to figure out how shows like mine, and a lot of other shows that are independent right now, will survive or be sustainable. Or come out more, which they have to. I can't make this show every week. I mean, I would if I could.
Nick Quah 23:42
One last question, just to wrap it up. What are you listening to right now?
Richard Parks III 23:47
Oh, yeah, that's right. I knew this.
Nick Quah 23:50
[Laughter] You knew this was coming.
Richard Parks III 23:51
I know, and I did not, uh... [Laughter] In terms of podcasts? We're talking podcasts, right? Okay. [Laughter] I mean, I really like A Woman's Smile, but... do you know that show?
Nick Quah 24:02
I do, but talk to me about that.
Richard Parks III 24:04
Last year, actually, after you wrote about my show, obviously, it was like all of a sudden, I heard from a lot of people about my show, and I kept on hearing in the same breath about A Woman's Smile and Have You Heard George's Podcast. And A Woman's Smile is just aggressively strange.
Excerpt, "A Woman's Smile" 24:20
The world is filled with different beliefs, cultures, people, but one thing is unclear. Where do we go when we die? What is there beyond when we cross over? Is there anybody in the sky? Today we'll be talking about these things and more. I'm Patti. And I'm Lorelei. And this is "A Woman's Smile Explores The Paranormal."
Richard Parks III 24:58
And completely fictional, but then it was even an episode that I was listening to a while ago, that I think was from the second season, where there was a series of ads, like as if there were three mid-roll ads in a normal podcast, but I think two of them, I'm pretty sure were fake. And I think one of them was real. And I was like, "Oh, I gotta use that," I really liked that. It's very bizarre in an off-putting, but somewhat charming way. And it's like that kind of thing where if you put it on, you do not know what's going to happen, or where you're going to be taken. The first episode I listened to, I had to pull over the car, I was laughing so hard five minutes in, but then I was deeply disturbed like five minutes later. And so I appreciate the effort to make something like that.
Nick Quah 25:43
Richard, thanks so much for doing the show. I really appreciate it.
Richard Parks III 25:46
Thank you for all of your thoughtful questions. And for all you've done to bring attention to this weird little show. I appreciate it so much.
Nick Quah 26:07
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Jessica Alpert and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
ESPN Daily: Sports Coverage Without The Sports
Season 1, Episode 12
Sat, 8/29 5:49PM • 28:53
sports, laughter, espn, pablo, people, feels, podcast, nba, stories, episode, baseball, threads, mina, interview, eve, big, korean, week, high noon, major league baseball
Pablo Torre, Nick Quah, Excerpt from ESPN Daily, Eve Troeh, ESPN Excerpt
Pablo Torre 00:01
I believe that the pandemic has given rise to amazing, amazing content and stories that are actually, in my opinion--and this is as someone who's worked in sports for, God, a million years--I believe it's more interesting now than it ever has been.
ESPN Excerpt 00:22
The NBA shocking the sports world last night. The game tonight has been postponed. You're all safe. And all it's gonna take is one really bad outcome. If enough people get it, you're probably going to have a terrible tragedy happen, and what then? What will be the reaction of the public? College institutions just can't afford that and so it's no surprise that they're pointing to the spring until we can find out some more information.
Nick Quah 00:50
College football and Major League Baseball are hanging by a thread. LeBron James is playing in the bubble, pro athletes are opting out of whole seasons, and stands are either empty or filled in with digital fans. The world of sports has never been stranger. So, what is it like to make a daily sports podcast when a sports business is anything but usual? From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Today, the people behind the ESPN Daily podcast talk about the struggle and the unique opportunities in this moment. Pablo Torre is the new host of ESPN Daily, taking over from Mina Kimes, who just moved on to become an NFL analyst. When we chatted, he had just finished his first full week behind the mic.
Pablo Torre 01:44
It's been good, man. It's been super exciting. I've really enjoyed the metabolism of this show. I have a borderline drunken sense of power because we have a staff of really good people that care what I have to say to them all the time, which is really great. And the thing about doing a daily podcast at ESPN, and this is what Mina experienced, of course, when she was launching this thing, is that there really isn't anything else at ESPN like it. And so, it feels like we are both an island unto ourselves, but also deeply connected to the company, where we can kind of pluck all of this fun **** from around our content empire for our own purposes. So I am--yeah, I feel like I am both harvesting the fruit and the labor of other people, as well as planting some seeds for myself as we grow this thing.
Nick Quah 02:38
Eve Troeh is a senior editorial producer at ESPN Daily. Before ESPN, she worked at Marketplace and was the news director at WWNO in New Orleans.
Eve Troeh 02:48
There are a lot of people at ESPN, who, it's the only place they've ever wanted to work and it's their dream come true to have that name attached to what they do. I was not that person. I have always worked in pretty straight-ahead news or documentary-style work. So, to me even the idea of working at ESPN, when I updated my bio to say I had taken this job, people had a lot of question marks. [Laughter] Like, are you a big sports person? I'm like, "I am now, y'all!"
Nick Quah 03:20
But are you a big sports person? [Laughter]
Eve Troeh 03:24
I am a big sports person. I was very serious about running track in high school, for example. I went to a football-obsessed tiny, tiny high school in rural Missouri where my cousin Judd is actually the winningest football coach in Missouri state high school athletics history.
Nick Quah 03:42
That's a big flex right there. [Laughter]
Pablo Torre 03:45
Yeah, shout out to Judd! When are we getting Judd on the show?
Eve Troeh 03:48
Anytime. Anytime. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 03:51
Pablo has extensive experience both in print and television. Most recently, he co-anchored the television show High Noon from ESPN's New York studios. But what exactly did he hope to do on a daily news podcast?
Pablo Torre 04:04
I like to talk about things from angles that maybe aren't the most obvious ones all the time. So I think for us, the news magazine sensibility, it means "let's find topics, let's give people what they need to know about it, but let's also advance the discussion and leave them with things that maybe they weren't considering in the first place." So for me, I'm a big fan of enterprise stuff. I'm a big fan of--I mean, look, I love a good celebrity profile. I've done my share of them when it comes to sports. But for me, there is a breadth and depth to sports, insofar as sports is kind of America's biggest tent, where people gather underneath, and so communicating to the people in that tent, and getting to tell them, this is what I think is important, and interesting, and maybe different. I would say curiosity is probably the quality that I bring to this most organically. I'm just super curious about so much in our industry.
Eve Troeh 04:58
And I think that's such an opportunity to showcase the behind-the-scenes, exclusive-access, insider information that so many of our journalists have and have won over their years and decades of reporting on their beats.
Nick Quah 05:15
So I feel like we shouldn't avoid the big 800-pound gorilla in the room: the fact that sports basically shut down in March. And so, around that time--
Pablo Torre 05:24
Eve Troeh 05:24
Nick Quah 05:25
I don't know where you were. Are you surprised? [Laughter]
Eve Troeh 05:29
"What did I miss?" [Laughter]
Nick Quah 05:31
So my--it was so fascinating to watch this show, first of all, deal with the lockdown on March 11. It kind of felt like the "it's not just Tom Hanks and Rudy Gobert" day. So, just looking back into the archive even, it also kind of felt like it was just a gradual acceptance that the sports world as we knew it would cease to exist, at least for a time. This probably is more for Eve, because you were working on the show at the time, but probably from your vantage point, I believe that was also the same month that High Noon was wrapping up. What were your experiences of that moment, within a sports media company?
Pablo Torre 06:05
Yeah, I appreciate the euphemism "wrapping up," by the way, it's way better than "canceled." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 06:10
[Laughter] Yeah, you're talking to probably one of the very few fans of the show.
Pablo Torre 06:13
[Laughter] No, no, no.
Eve Troeh 06:17
I count myself among those who were upset to see High Noon go.
Pablo Torre 06:19
It is a loyal army that has since gone underground and is plotting a revolution that I can't really go into further detail about, but I appreciate all of you joining that cause. So for me, very briefly at the top here, my whole life changed. So my daughter was born on February 24. That was the day of Kobe's memorial. The next morning, in the room at the hospital, I remember Liz looking at her phone and reading out loud a headline about Coronavirus, and I was thinking to myself, okay, let's keep tabs on that, I guess. And then as the days go on, obviously, everything you described happens, including the cancellation of High Noon, the pandemic taking over the world, sports going away. And so my vantage point has been, wow, my life is entirely different. But, and this is maybe the hottest take I have, Nick, on all of this. I believe that the pandemic has given rise to amazing, amazing content and stories that are actually, in my opinion--and this is someone who's worked in sports for, God, a million years--I believe it's more interesting now than it ever has been. And I'm not saying that as spin, I think my company, ESPN, would hate the fact that I'm in any way supporting the notion that without live sports, we can do really good work, because the business model, of course, is entirely live sports. But for me, the stories, and the issues, and the intersections of real world events, and then you layer on, of course, all of this with this moment in American history that's unprecedented, at least since the 60s, in terms of racial justice. The convergence of all of that under the big tent of sports is so historically fascinating to me that I've kind of loved it, as much as it's been horrible in all of the ways that are grave, and profound, and terrifying. I do believe that there's really good **** for us to talk about.
Nick Quah 06:34
So isn't it interesting that that happens in the sudden absence of sports, when the interesting things about sports get to have the opportunity to be talked about?
Pablo Torre 08:34
I think magazine writers have been made fun of for that for a very long time. "You guys don't care about the games? What the ****? You care about this kid's sob story? You care about his childhood?"
Nick Quah 08:44
"--the corruption in the league?" [Laughter]
Pablo Torre 08:46
Yeah, right! So for me, this is, again, that magazine sensibility blooming. When the most predictable day-to-day schedule has been disrupted, what do you turn to? You turn to these off-angle, off the fields--by necessity off the field--kind of storylines, and that's the stuff that I've always been interested in.
Nick Quah 09:09
So, it's March 2020. Pablo's world being up in flames, Eve, what was your experience of March?
Eve Troeh 09:18
Flames of a different type, I would definitely say--no childbirth involved. I will say that specifically on that day, on the 12th, I remember, late in the day, we were thinking about the P-word, "pivot," because we had the announcement that, I believe, March Madness was going to be held without fans. That was the big thing that dropped, and we had an NBA show planned for the next day, which no one will ever hear. That was with one of our favorite guests, it was sort of a nerdy basketball numbers technique kind of show, and we were trying to decide if we should pivot to talking about March Madness happening with no fans. And we're sort of going back and forth on that on Slack, when "hold up, hold up, hold up, guys, something's going on. We don't know what's going on, the game has been stopped, the current game with Utah," and "everybody just press pause for a second," and then the dominoes started to fall from there. And then it came home real quick with that NBA announcement. So we recorded at, I think, 11:30pm Eastern Time and got the show out, just scrapped what we had and went with a whole new thing, and then from there, I don't think that we knew what would happen. I will say that what has happened in the past few months is very different than what I expected. There has been so much more news to cover. We have not lacked for things to cover at all. There has never been a day that we looked at the calendar and just blankly stared and blinked and said, "Guys, what the hell are we going to put on this show?" There has been a ton, it's just been as much of a buffet as ever. A mix of things related to the COVID impacts, of course: the different plans taking shape for coming back, the different labor agreements that had to happen for any of these leagues to return, to come to an agreement with their players. The next week, actually, we had Tom Brady. Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer now! Who saw that coming? We're like, thank you, Tom Brady, some actual sports news to cover. We had the NFL Draft, we had the US Women's National Team, and we had our own Julie Foudy on, former US Team player to talk about the equal pay lawsuit and developments there. We had just all kinds of news pouring in. And I wanted to give one of my favorite sort of threads that showed how, like all good journalists, we just follow the threads. So we had Jeff Passan in that first week, our absolute star Major League Baseball reporter who's been on the podcast consistently since it started, come to us with an idea that he actually interview some people with first-hand, up-close looks at how the coronavirus was impacting baseball, and that he host those shows. It was a novel idea, novel approach. So he did some excellent interviews for us, including one with Dan Straily, who's a former US Major League Baseball pitcher who now plays in Korea, where baseball was able to restart months ahead, it turns out, of the US. So while we were on that interview, Jeff and I, afterwards, were texting and I think one of us jokingly said, "Hey, ESPN better pick up these rights to Korean baseball, and we might as well put it on TV because it doesn't look like we're going to get any American baseball anytime soon." And, lo and behold, fast forward to May 5th, and that happened.
Pablo Torre 12:50
Hold on, I didn't, I mean--
Eve Troeh 12:52
Korean baseball opening on ESPN! [Laughter]
Pablo Torre 12:56
When we talk about the drunk-with-power Asian agenda, that should be noted. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 13:01
It was a big moment for visibility, I think, for the Asian people. [Laughter]
Eve Troeh 13:06
Once we found out, on a content call, some bigger ESPN company called that that was happening, there's no expert on Korean baseball at the company more so than our own Mina Kimes, who did, I will say--Pablo, I hope you take no offense--but the premier reporting on Korean bat-flipping, which is a feature of the game there.
Pablo Torre 13:28
Yes, and how!
Eve Troeh 13:30
If you know of any other bat-flipping deep dives that come close, let me know, but I don't think so. I think we can say with authority Mina's got that topic cornered. So Pablo actually interviewed Mina, which was a flip, and who knew, a foreshadowing of things to come, on the day that the KBO opened on ESPN about Korean baseball, the different style of play there, the fan base there, what it's like to play games and follow baseball in Korea; sort of a primer on Korean baseball that included this thing that's very taboo in the US, which is they love to flip their bat.
Excerpt from ESPN Daily 14:04
It's almost like spiking a football, Pablo. It's a celebratory gesture. And, as you know, this is something that is taboo in the United States. In Major League Baseball it violates the unwritten rules and executing this maneuver will often result in a hitter getting drilled the next time he's up. But in Korea, bat flips are not only accepted, they're also extremely common.
Eve Troeh 14:31
So Korean baseball is going to be on ESPN. Watching Korean baseball was the first time that a lot of us noticed, "wait a minute, there's sound there. There's crowd sound there that's coming from somewhere. What's going on with that?" And yeah, look it up; they're piping in crowd noise. They have not only had these cardboard cutouts in the stands at the empty stadiums in Korea, but they were, for the broadcast, piping in the sound of crowds cheering and reacting to the different stuff going on on the field. And that put into motion an episode we did a couple weeks ago, just a bigger, deeper look at the role of crowd noise in sports and how broadcasters, players, and others would be adapting to this fact of there being no crowds, no fans in the stands to cheer--or boo, for that matter. So I got to say, overall, these past few months, we've just followed the thread and it's taken us where we need to go every time. And I do agree with Pablo, we've produced some of our most interesting, dynamic, creative work in these past few months.
Nick Quah 15:32
Past few months, but there's really no end in sight. So then what? More in a minute. So the show, to me, kind of feels like a rebuild process because it sounds a little different, it's paced a little differently. But it's also happening during what feels like sports leagues also rebuilding themselves. We're in the middle of this, but it does feel like a first push to get sports back into operation. We're recording this in early August, chances are it's going to come out in mid-August. I don't know the baseball league is going to be still playing around that time. It looks like the NBA bubble is gonna hold. The NFL, that's gonna pick up at some point, and college sports, probably. Maybe. I don't know.
Pablo Torre 16:39
I'm tugging at my collar, Nick. I am tugging my collar like a cartoon character.
Nick Quah 16:44
So I guess my question is, does this feel like everybody's holding their collective breath? Is that the feeling that you guys have going into every every episode at this point? Because it feels like naturally the frame of ESPN Daily in these next few weeks is looking at something that feels quite fragile.
Pablo Torre 17:00
The fragility of this is absolutely the--that's the number-one overarching story. That's the lens through which I think all of sports is seeing itself through. But I also think that existentialism is felt far more, probably, by the people in the C-suite at ESPN, who are managing live rights, and billion dollar contracts in some cases, and they feel it in that bottom line sense. For us, I think, it is this geyser of stories. One of the stories that I've really enjoyed following is exactly the story that you described, which is ostensibly terrifying. I mean, we had Dr. Fauci on the podcast last week. And that's not something that we have the opportunity to do when sports is not so teetering on the edge of this canyon. And so for me, like, oh, what, wow, somehow sports is in the center of this story, and that opens up all of these doors to people that are genuinely awesome guests for a podcast, and also people who I think the sports audience would really enjoy listening to. And so when that is married and multiplied--force-multiplied--by the movement in America towards racial justice, I think those two stories we could do--I don't think we will or should do this. But, Eve, correct me if I'm wrong, we could do a daily show that only talked about that stuff. And in some senses, the struggle is to make sure we leave space in our appetite for the rest of it, because there's also other stuff going on. But the terror of there not being sports is not even scary to me in that sense. It's actually, again, like, morbidly exciting as someone who covers this stuff.
Eve Troeh 18:48
Yeah, I would say that when we look back over the past few months, I would be remiss in not also mentioning the death of George Floyd as something that came in as a major topic for us, and something that we knew we had to and wanted to find creative ways to cover in terms of the conversations it was prompting in the sports world--all across the sports world. We just had some excellent episodes with athletes themselves, whether it's one of the Missouri football players who boycotted the season and stopped playing after Ferguson, or a player in the MLB who was the only baseball player to kneel at the time that Kaepernick did so and faced some really troubling consequences from that, and whose life and career took a fascinating direction, in a way, tied back to that decision. So we've had these two prongs of coverage going, both covering the virus, covering social justice and racial injustice causes that athletes have taken up, and those intersect in a lot of ways. I mean, if you think about the topic of the athlete's voice, and his or her agency, in negotiating with the league on whether and how they're going to protect their health and safety and that of their family in returning to their jobs--playing sports is a job. And if you also talk about that same right to use their job and their platform as an athlete to further causes they care about, and further progress in this country in areas that need to be furthered, and using their voices for that, that's all related. That's definitely not unrelated. And I think we've been able to tie those threads together in fascinating ways.
Nick Quah 18:48
Yeah. So here's something I've been wondering about. I'm curious about the tension when you're choosing topics for an episode. To what extent is it a choice between, a classic sports topic, like "how will Cam Newton fit into the Patriots?"
Pablo Torre 20:43
Nick Quah 20:43
And is it a choice between that, and the grappling of, like, how sports has been changed by the pandemic and protests?
Pablo Torre 20:49
Yeah, yeah. I mean, so I'll take this week, and this episode will come out after this week, so I think, you know, spoiler alert. So yesterday, we interviewed J.J. Redick, from the New Orleans Pelicans, and we had a conversation that was very much about his life, and about what it's like to play with Zion Williamson, and sort of a more magazine-feature-y kind of dive, but that was layered with the fact that he was there for the "bubble opener," as we've come to call it, kneeling arm-in-arm with every other player on his team. He has been wildly involved in the NBA activism movement. So it is both things, and not one or the other.
Nick Quah 21:30
So what if this drought in live sports continues past six months from now? Or longer? What is the plan? Is there even a plan?
Eve Troeh 21:41
Let me just pull out this emergency plan in the drawer that I have over here. [Laughter] I do have one!
Nick Quah 21:48
Eve Troeh 21:49
It's not in a drawer. It's not printed out, but I do have one. [Laughter]
Pablo Torre 21:51
It's tattooed on my skin. I mean, I think something's gonna happen. And I don't even mean sports' return is assured. I think something else is gonna happen like, there's gonna be some unpredictable chaos that's going to befall our universe in ways that we don't foresee. Thinking about this, "what if everything is like this for six months from now?" That feels like an assumption of consistency, or a stable pattern. It's probably the least likely thing to expect of all, so I'm just anticipating another random chaotic turn here that we'll be forced into covering.
Eve Troeh 22:30
When we heard that the NBA was canceling its season, one of the things we did do the following week was ask people who've been at the company for a long time, doing big in-depth features, whether it's for E:60 or it's for the magazine unit, which now produces just fantastic reporting as digital features. They pulled together a list of 200 of the best long format, long read features that ESPN has ever done. We combed that list and there's just so much there that you could totally tell in podcast form over one episode, some of them could be two or three episodes, so that was a contingency plan that we put together that we did enact a couple of times over the past couple of months. We called it ESPN Daily Essentials, and those produced some really, really fun, just riveting narratives, asking whether the famous "Battle of The Sexes" tennis match was actually rigged, and some insight from a golf pro in Florida that suggested it looks like it probably was, amazing reporting by Don Van Natta. We did a fantastic sports crime story about a boxing coach who had a murder plot against him by his own wife, and actually faked his own death as part of catching her in that, and survived--amazing story from Tisha Thompson. That was an E:60 episode. We had The Last Dance! We had the programming gift of The Last Dance, the--
Nick Quah 24:00
Eve Troeh 24:02
--unparalleled Michael Jordan documentary that got moved up to April, and we did fantastic programming tie-ins with every weekend that Last Dance episodes were airing. We just had fantastic conversations. I mean, that was about basketball in the late 90s. And we had conversations that felt so relevant to today about the famous line, "hey, Republicans buy shoes too" with Jesse Washington from The Undefeated, about Jalen Rose and facing Jordan in that season, what it was like to play him that season. It was just no lack of great ideas from just the other programming that ESPN is producing, or the great stories that are truly timeless in sports.
Nick Quah 24:41
What a great stretch of content, The Last Dance, just a great stretch for the content economy.
Pablo Torre 24:46
It really was, I mean, just in terms of--
Eve Troeh 24:47
And right on time. [Laughter]
Pablo Torre 24:48
If only podcasts could use memes. That's my only regret there. There's so many good memes.
Nick Quah 24:55
Oh, that's a good take right there.
Pablo Torre 24:58
Note to self: figure out how to make podcast memes, audio only memes. [Laughter]
Eve Troeh 25:04
So I would say, we can't pivot the podcast to be all evergreen narrative-driven features, obviously. But we can find great stories to tell even when there aren't live games being played on the field or on the court. And even, yes, to combat the fatigue of the latest updates on testing, or the pandemic, or fans or no fans. We strive for a diverse mix in every way on any given week between news and narrative, between guests who are telling us a story with a beginning, middle, and end, to guests who are giving us just the sharpest insights and behind the scenes reporting that they have to offer from their latest conversations. So, I think that mix will continue, truly and honestly, regardless of what's in store for the future of live sports in these coming months.
Nick Quah 25:55
Okay, my last question: who is your dream guest, dead or alive?
Eve Troeh 25:59
Pablo Torre 26:00
Eve Troeh 26:00
Wait a minute, that introduces--
Nick Quah 26:02
I can open up--
Eve Troeh 26:03
--a whole different category. [Laughter]
Pablo Torre 26:05
Let's go, let's go. Copernicus. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 26:09
What does he think about the Knicks?
Pablo Torre 26:11
I want Copernicus versus Kyrie Irving in a flat earth first-take style debate, that is my dream episode.
Eve Troeh 26:17
Honest to goodness, I would love to talk to Coco Gauff. I think that would be a fantastic interview for us. And I think she's so dynamic and fascinating, and so young, and has so much ahead of her, and has already accomplished so much. Would love to get Coco Gauff on the podcast.
Nick Quah 26:35
Is tennis coming back? Has that been greenlit yet?
Eve Troeh 26:38
Some tennis is coming back, yes. The Williams sisters will be on a court sometime soon.
Nick Quah 26:44
Amazing. Pablo, dead or alive?
Pablo Torre 26:47
This is like a nerve--Wow. Wow, wow. Dead or alive?
Nick Quah 26:51
Pablo Torre 26:51
I mean the answer--okay, here it is, I mean, I want Muhammad Ali. I want to do--I want to be Howard Cosell to a revived, phantasmagorial Muhammad Ali. Yeah, I want that dynamic. I mean, what those interviews, man, Cosell and Ali, go into YouTube. Look at that, something along that line of conversation is the most gold standard for interviews, in my opinion.
Nick Quah 27:20
Eve, Pablo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Eve Troeh 27:24
Thanks so much, Nick.
Pablo Torre 27:25
Nick, thank you for furthering the Asian agenda.
Nick Quah 27:27
Absolutely. We will survive. [Laughter] Pablo Torre, host of ESPN Daily, and Eve Troeh, the show's senior editorial producer. If you're watching Korean baseball, or not, I want to hear from you. Or tell me about a podcast you want to learn more about. Tweet me at @nwquah. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Jessica Alpert, and John Perotti and Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Finally, thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
A Brief Peek at Audio Erotica
Season 1, Episode 10
Fri, 8/28 6:42PM • 28:26
porn, audio, pornhub, people, women, quinn, user, sex, content, laughter, creators, feel, erotic, masturbate, called, pay, bit, interesting, fun, site
Alex Klein, Girl On The Net, Excerpt, Pornhub Described Video, Excerpt from Anonyfun35, Caroline Spiegel, Excerpt, "Harry Eats You Out", Nick Quah, Excerpt from "Girl On The Net"
Nick Quah 00:01
Heads up: this episode contains a lot of sexually graphic content. So make arrangements.
Caroline Spiegel 00:09
Yeah, I think it was just an "aha" moment. I was masturbating one day, and it was just really exhausting. And it wasn't fun. It really wasn't what masturbation is supposed to be. And I felt like I was just misaligned. And I just wanted to create an option for young women that felt safe, and fun, and easygoing, and intimate. I don't think I really realized that then. But I think I just felt so frustrated in that moment that it was really lightbulb in some ways.
Nick Quah 00:34
Caroline Spiegel is the CEO of Quinn, a company that specializes in audio erotica.
Caroline Spiegel 00:40
It's all user-generated and people fall in love with characters, or personalities. So there's Harry, there's James, there's Anonyfun. And everyone has a different flavor and it's like an online boyfriend, kind of.
Nick Quah 00:52
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Today: a peek into the world of audio erotica.
Caroline Spiegel 01:13
It's a little bit random. I was studying computer science at Stanford, and I dropped out my senior spring. So I was really so close and I dropped out. And the reason was, I had suffered from an eating disorder my junior year. It basically really messed with my sex life. Long story short, I wasn't able to get turned on or enjoy sex in the way I used to be able to. And so I started looking into other porn options. Visual porn wasn't working for me and even my doctors were like, you have to find something that just really gets you going. So I stumbled upon Literotica, and Reddit, and Soundgasm; all these really deep internet, amazing places for audio porn, and I fell in love with it. It worked for me immediately and I shared it with all my girlfriends at Stanford, my sorority. Everyone was obsessed with different creators and getting really into it. And I was like there is definitely something here; there needs to be an option that is totally devoted to women and their eroticism.
Nick Quah 02:13
What is it about this audio, the non-visual element of it, that opens up this experience in a different way? What do you gain if you don't see anything?
Caroline Spiegel 02:23
Right. So everyone's always like, the best thing about podcasts is you can turn them on and do random stuff, And you're just a little bit entertained, and it's like when you're cleaning your house or whatever.
Nick Quah 02:32
Caroline Spiegel 02:33
But the thing with Quinn is that you actually have to really listen for it to work. You have to be really locked in. So it's almost the opposite of that ambient listening argument for podcasting, which is really interesting. You really just want to close your eyes and imagine that you're with the person and it just becomes a sort of VR experience, obviously.
Nick Quah 02:52
Without the visual element.
Caroline Spiegel 02:53
Yeah, without the visual. But you really do feel transported. And so, I think one cool thing about audio is that it allows you to imagine that you're with whoever you want to be with, wherever you want to be, while still providing a level of tangible feeling to it, so that your imagination doesn't provide, because a lot of women I know masturbate just to their imaginations, which men are like, "What?" But I think maybe men, some men, do it too. But having an audio aid or something to take the legwork out is really helpful.
Nick Quah 03:25
I mean, I imagine that the reason why women mostly masturbate to imagination is because there's not a lot of porn made for them. It's a product that doesn't exist.
Caroline Spiegel 03:33
Nick Quah 03:33
I'm sure you've told this story a bunch when you've been interviewed before about Quinn, but could you walk me through when you started the company, and what the experience was like?
Caroline Spiegel 03:40
Yeah, so I dropped out of school. I moved to New York to be with my co-founder, Jackie. We met in college; she's three years older than I am, and she had graduated. And she was working in finance and decided to--she always says that she was working in special situations investing, but this was the most special situation she's ever seen. She quit her job, and we raised money, and started building our first iteration. And where we're at right now is: we've just been on the web, so we're just a website, and we've just been experimenting with a lot of different aesthetics and user flows, and just trying to find what really works before we make our app, which is coming out next year.
Nick Quah 04:18
Hmm. And what did you find has worked?
Caroline Spiegel 04:21
So at first, we had a really kind of girly aesthetic--bubblegum pink--just to really make it clear to everyone, "this is not Pornhub."
Nick Quah 04:30
Caroline Spiegel 04:30
And that was more of an editorial blog. And then we pivoted to a truly user-generated platform for audio porn. It was dark; it kind of looked like Pornhub and Spotify combined. And it was all user-generated. So that was--the big key learning there was user-generated is better than editorial, for this kind of content. We just immediately got an influx of incredible content, and people were interacting with their favorite creators, they were commenting, and liking, and it felt social. And then we were like, we're kinda missing that clean feeling that I think women really crave. There's that classic line, like a clean, bright, well-lit space, which is meant to evoke all these new sex toy companies, and just sex brands are really trying to evoke that clean, well-lit space for women.
Nick Quah 05:17
Caroline Spiegel 05:18
So now we're back to a more clean, girly aesthetic, a little toned down, and still keeping the user generated content thing. So it's a mix of both of our previous attempts.
Nick Quah 05:29
Why user-generated content? What was the finding? Were people not responding to editorially generated stuff, or did people--did the users respond more to the community aspect of it? What was the shift point there?
Caroline Spiegel 05:44
Yeah, I don't know if it was even that people were dying to comment on these audios and leave a ton of feedback, but what they really wanted was profiles or people, or more information on who they were listening to.
Nick Quah 05:56
Caroline Spiegel 05:57
So when we just we just posted like, "hot British man talking," they're like, "well, who's this British man?" And "what does he do for a living?" And "what does he eat for breakfast?" And "does he have a girlfriend?" Those are the questions that people were asking.
Nick Quah 06:07
Caroline Spiegel 06:08
And actually, it reminds me of this story that one of my friends was saying: he was watching porn with his girlfriend, and it was like, a pizza man comes to the door. And she's like, they never show what kind of pizza it is. And he's like, why? Why are you thinking about that? And she's like, it matters. You want to know the context, and the details, and who you're watching.
Nick Quah 06:25
Let's dig into that a little more. When users say that they want to know more about these creators, what more do they want? What are they looking for, really?
Caroline Spiegel 06:34
You kind of want to know if you're compatible. I mean, I don't want to put all women in this bucket because it's only an interest to some.
Nick Quah 06:41
Sure, like Quinn users.
Caroline Spiegel 06:43
[Laughter] Quinn users, yeah. We've definitely found that women want to know, "is he single?" That's a big question. Or "where is he from?" Or, "does he actually got turned on when he makes these audios? Or is it just an act?" They just want to know the context. Yeah, it actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. It's like, a mindful consumer.
Nick Quah 07:02
Yeah. To what extent do you feel like these design choices--like shifting away from the darker Pornhub-meets-Spotify aesthetic to something that's brighter--to what extent do you feel like that's an impulse to sort of normalize the content? Is that an impulse that's strong for you?
Caroline Spiegel 07:18
Yeah, I mean, like I mentioned before, people have a lot of shame associated with porn, and for good reason. So it's really important to make it clear that this is all consensual, safe, fun, fantasy-like playland, and not a dark place where you have to feel ashamed about yourself.
Nick Quah 07:35
And I see this differentiation, or separation, between porn and fantasy almost, like you're trying to sort of rescue the fantasy part of this, it seems like.
Caroline Spiegel 07:44
Right, exactly. Well, porn is just like anything that arouses people, right? A lot of people think that porn is people having sex. For most of the content on Quinn, no one's actually having sex or touching themselves. They're just engaging in fantasy, and fun, and dirty talk. You don't have to use your body if you don't want to.
Nick Quah 08:01
It may be fantasy and fun, but all content must follow Quinn's strict community guidelines for submitted work. So no incest, no rape, no minors. Caroline says that 70% of Quinn users are women. So what makes a certain Quinn track--she calls them "audios"--more popular than others?
Caroline Spiegel 08:21
The amount of energy that the person is giving and the audio, just the "oomph" of it, is so important. We have one creator named Anonyfun35 whose "oomph" is just there, time and time again, and users are obsessed with him. I think it's because it feels like you're having sex with someone who's really into you.
Excerpt from Anonyfun35 08:40
Everyone's quiet down there. They're watching TV, we've got a little bit of time. Come here. I need this, I need this. Okay. Take your clothes off.
Caroline Spiegel 08:56
And there's that line, that sex is about how the other person makes you feel about yourself, which is something I obviously believe, and I think you can tell with his audios he thinks you're really, really hot and that just feels so good. How often do you get that affirming message?
Nick Quah 09:11
Are the creators generally anonymous? Or are there splits between people who do that and use their real name, or something like that?
Caroline Spiegel 09:18
Yeah, it's--the majority of them are anonymous, but we do have a few who are--do this full time. We have a creator named Jim, "Feel-Good Filth", who does this as his main job, and he is not anonymous.
Nick Quah 09:30
Interesting. When you say main job, how does the compensation system work here?
Caroline Spiegel 09:33
He has a Patreon where he monetizes most of his content. And then we'll pay some of our top performing creators per audio.
Nick Quah 09:41
Caroline Spiegel 09:41
So we pay him as well for his content because it performs really nicely.
Nick Quah 09:44
So from the creator's perspective here, it's like, "ah, this is a place where I can increase my brand, my exposure a little bit" and then sort of funnel them away to Patreons and stuff. Is that the general cycle?
Caroline Spiegel 09:54
Yeah, totally. I mean, we're really great if you want to reach that 18-to-10--18-to-10? Nope. [Laughter] 18-to-25-year-old woman who is new to porn, who is that mainstream woman. And then I do think that there's that other theory that you only need like 10 or 100 loyal fans to monetize your content, and, especially with erotic content, that is the case. I mean, there's whales, which is what they're called in theory.
Nick Quah 10:18
It's also casinos, I think. [Laughter]
Caroline Spiegel 10:20
Yeah, yeah. If you want to reach that larger audience, you might post your audios on Quinn and then funnel away your top fans.
Nick Quah 10:27
So let's talk a little bit about the actual material. You said that your favorite track is called "Harry Eats You Out." Here's some of that.
Excerpt, "Harry Eats You Out" 10:34
Put your back down. Come sit over here. Take the weight off your feet. Let me help you unwind. Let's get those heels off. I'm gonna rub your feet for you. How's that feel? You like the way I'm pushing my thumbs in, there? Good. Sit, baby. Let your hair down. Just relax. Let me take care of you.
Nick Quah 11:12
Tell us about this track. What about it makes it a, in your mind, a "good," quote-quote, contribution? Is it from a super-user? How is this representative of what you think is the best of Quinn?
Caroline Spiegel 11:22
Why I love Harry is because he takes it really slow. And he's very purposeful with his words. Another thing I really like about him is he always asks like, does that feel good? Do you like that? And you kind of just get used to answering him in your head as you're listening to him. So it's just incredibly immersive. But he just has an energy about him. You know, he has BDE. [Laughter] He just has a great energy and I mean, women absolutely adore him. And men, too. A few men adore him as well.
Nick Quah 11:54
What makes good erotic writing?
Caroline Spiegel 11:58
Obviously it has to be really descriptive. I've read quite a bit of erotic writing and there's some oral sex and there's some p-in-v sex and then it's like, "bada bing, bada boom," and you want something that has a little bit more spontaneity to it, a little more flow. You don't want it to feel mechanical, or like you're filling out a Mad Lib, which I think for regular consumers of erotic content that's written or audio based, that can get annoying when you feel like "oh, this is just gonna be the same tropes over and over again."
Nick Quah 12:27
Right, just like swap professions.
Caroline Spiegel 12:29
[Laughter] Right, exactly, yeah. Or like car sex, and then there's bathroom sex, and then there's--
Nick Quah 12:34
Caroline Spiegel 12:34
--we're in a movie theater. It's like, "okay, all right, okay."
Nick Quah 12:37
[Laughter] Yeah, it's interesting because the clip itself feels pretty representative. It's like the gaze is on you, the consumer, as opposed to conventional porn, in which is the gaze is outwards. It feels really revolutionary, in the sense that you are the center of attention, and that feels like a rare experience to get from the internet a lot of times
Caroline Spiegel 12:58
Isn't that true? I think that's a rare experience to get in life as well, just someone that's completely focused, and attentive, and interested in you. And it's one of the reasons why I think the audios are so powerful, because you do feel like, "I'm the star right now. It's about me." You know?
Nick Quah 13:14
It reminds me a little bit of what they say about really good politicians, when they talk to you.
Caroline Spiegel 13:19
[Laughter] Like Bill Clinton, or whatever? Yeah.
Nick Quah 13:20
Yeah, like nobody else--well, Bill Clinton's a good example, right? Like nobody else in the world exists. [Laughter]
Caroline Spiegel 13:26
Nick Quah 13:28
So to switch gears for a little bit, to what extent is diversity something that you think about?
Caroline Spiegel 13:34
It's been an interesting process working on creator diversity in the audio space. Because at first, it wasn't something we thought about because we were like, "it's just voices, right?" Which was idiotic, and almost immediately people were like, "all these guys are white." And I was like, "oh, but I never thought about that. How can you tell?" And people are just like, "I can just tell." And then we just started making a huge push to make sure that everyone's preferences were served, and we had different genders, and sexualities, and ethnicities, and ability levels represented because otherwise you're just not doing a good job of being an erotic content provider.
Nick Quah 14:14
Quinn is just one destination in the audio erotica universe, but there's a much larger mainstream porn industry. So let's talk to the 500-pound gorilla in that room. More in a minute. Pornhub is one of the largest producers of user-generated porn in the world. Around 1.36 million hours of content has been uploaded onto the platform. In 2019, they reported an average of 115 million daily visits. For scale, that's the population of Canada, Poland, Australia, and the Netherlands combined. It's a private company and hasn't publicly shared how much revenue it makes. But whatever it is, it's probably a heck of a lot. But Pornhub is predominantly video, as is the rest of what we can broadly call mainstream online pornography. So, is Pornhub thinking about audio at all?
Alex Klein 15:23
Yeah, I think it's definitely something that we've all been paying attention to, especially in the past two years or so, I would say.
Nick Quah 15:30
Alex Klein is a brand manager at Pornhub.
Alex Klein 15:34
As, obviously, there's been more and more offerings hitting the market, we've been paying attention to it in the sense that we do want to make sure that our audience is being served in terms of, "what's the latest technology that's available?" Porn kind of has this reputation for being at the the cutting edge of technology, so to speak, in terms of having really been at the forefront of development of things like video streaming. So obviously, audio is not necessarily the most cutting edge thing, but it's certainly a really interesting experience that I think more and more people are starting to be captivated by, and conversations we've been having internally as to "is this coming to rise at the same time as podcasting being something that's more interesting and more compelling to people as a form of storytelling and entertainment?" So yeah, we've we've been paying attention to it. All this to say is we don't have anything official on the site at this time, in terms of an official audio section or category.
Nick Quah 16:38
But you can find audio porn on Pornhub.
Alex Klein 16:41
We've seen that things like ASMR porn have been increasingly popular. We also, in the same vein, over the past couple of years have been focusing more on accessibility initiatives. So the first foray into that would have been with our described video category, which launched a couple of years ago now. We selected some of the most popular videos on the site at the time. And we kind of redid them, almost.
Excerpt, Pornhub Described Video 17:09
This is Pornhub's descriptive audio of the video, "Handy Tanner ****s Aunt ****y On Air Full Holes Parody Scene 1," by Pornhub Originals.
Alex Klein 17:20
We worked with a team of script writers who took up on the task of describing elements that are happening in the video that you wouldn't necessarily, just by listening to it, really know what's happening. So, things the setting, what the models look like, what they're wearing.
Excerpt, Pornhub Described Video 17:38
A white woman in a cheap-looking red power suit sits next to a tall, lanky white middle-aged man with brown hair, a white shirt, gray suit, and a red striped tie.
Alex Klein 17:49
We then added an audio track that we recorded with professional voice actors to help fill in those blanks.
Excerpt, Pornhub Described Video 17:56
They passionately grab each other and start making out, mouths wide and tongues exposed. Handy Tanner opens up ****y Donaldson's blazer, her big boobs held by a black lacy bra.
Alex Klein 18:09
And it was this really interesting challenge because obviously, the existing audio, we kept there as an important sort of underscore to what was happening in the scene. Because there's, of course, so many really interesting audio components that go into a sex scene or a porn scene. But we didn't want to overwhelm it also, at the same time, so it wasn't too much description, it was really just enough to help paint a more accurate visual image of the scene, and then just let the rest of it be carried out by what was happening organically.
Nick Quah 18:39
So at this point in time, it doesn't sound like there's any interest in building up a user-generated audio content component of Pornhub, right?
Alex Klein 18:48
It's something that I think we're definitely keeping an eye on to see if and when it would make sense to start introducing, but it's not something that's coming out tomorrow.
Nick Quah 18:58
So what do you think about the audio-specific porn that's out there now?
Alex Klein 19:02
I think for us, what's been interesting about what's been emerging so far is the branding of it, specifically. I think a lot of it has been obviously kind of skewed more towards women or female-identifying viewers. And I think a lot of--listeners, I guess, would make more sense to say, in this case--I think what's been interesting there, at least in some of the interviews that I've read, that have been coming out over the past couple of years about this kind of new trend is, I think, this idea that porn, like porn with a capital "P", is too gross for women. And that's why there's this need for audio porn, which is something that I think I have a little bit of difficulty with, because I think there's this problematic idea that porn for women is this really singular thing and it's all supposed to be really soft and really like the Harlequin romance vibe about it, and we've actually seen, just in terms of like our data, that that's not really what women are into.
Girl On The Net 20:10
Of the people who come to my site, roughly 65% are men and 35% are women. I know that's going to come as a shock, because audio porn is so frequently presented as something that is for women. It's not as visual--"men are more visual, women, you know, softer and more words-based." That is not true.
Nick Quah 20:32
So there's the startup, and there's the big platform. But what about the actual creators? Girl On The Net is an independent UK-based sex blogger who also posts audio porn on her site.
Excerpt from "Girl On The Net" 20:44
This is "I Want You To Destroy My ****."
Nick Quah 20:47
This is the voice of Girl On The Net. And that's how we will refer to her since she chooses to remain anonymous.
Girl On The Net 20:54
For a very long time. I've had the phrase "destroy my ****" sitting in my ideas bank. It's a phrase I used to utterly hate, but which I've softened on a bit in recent years, because I'm an eager pervert, who will usually fetishize almost every phrase eventually, like "monster ****," which, if you search my blog, you'll find another post on that's kind of similar. I know that for many people, this phrase "destroy my ****" is quite an aggressive-sounding turnoff. So if you're one of them, you probably won't enjoy this piece. If you're like me, though, and you've either enjoyed saying, "please destroy my ****," or "I'm going to destroy your ****," then you might like this random stream of consciousness porn.
Nick Quah 21:35
While Quinn audio is mostly user-generated, Girl On The Net writes and performs the majority of the audio porn on her site. That said, when she created the blog in 2011, audio was not on her mind.
Girl On The Net 21:48
As the blog grew, I had a couple of followers of the blog, one who's blind and one who has other visual impairments, saying basically, one of the problems with erotica is that if you're reading it via a screen reader, the screen reader reads it in a robot voice. And the robot voice is not very sexy. So unless you have a very particular kink for robots, it's not very sexy, and it's not very accessible. And I've always wanted to make sure that my website is accessible to as many people as possible. So one of them suggested I start recording the audio of the sexier posts. And it was quite fun, so I gave it a go. And that's sort of how I found out about audio porn. I don't think I really, I didn't realize it was a thing until I started making it. So it sort of started from an accessibility point of view and then launched into just being something that was quite fun and it's now one of the most popular sections of my website.
Nick Quah 22:45
Popular, in the case of Girl On The Net, with more men than women.
Girl On The Net 22:49
The reason that more women listen to audio porn is because audio porn is more often marketed at women, and made for women, and it does, generally, people who produce it do more of the kind of female gaze-type stuff. Whereas I tend to write more stuff which is designed for straight cis men to get off to because they're generally most of my readers. And so my demographics are different. I think broadly what I would say, is that audio is a medium, just like video is a medium. And so audio can be tailored to any person of any gender, any sexuality. Or it just depends on the words that you write in the story that you're telling.
Nick Quah 23:31
Girl On The Net is mostly supported through Patreon, and it's her full time job. She's very intentional about who she works with and she considers herself a member of what she calls the ethical porn movement.
Girl On The Net 23:42
Who was the studio? Were people paid to produce it? Was there good consent when it was being made? Were people paid fairly and treated fairly? All that kind of stuff. And all of that is definitely important when it comes to ethical porn. But there's a fantastic article by a porn performer called Jiz Lee called "Ethical Porn Starts When We Pay For It." And that's the thing that I would always highlight to pretty much any consumer, really. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to pay individually for every single piece of porn you consume, because different people have different funding models. What it does mean is, when you're seeking out porn, you should always have the question, front of mind, who is making money off this? And is it fair to the people who are creating it? For instance, if you went to go and see a band in concert, and you learned that that band was being paid peanuts, but the management company was absolutely raking it in, then you might question whether you want to spend your money on tickets for that in future. And likewise with porn. I think there is plenty of incredibly brilliant free ethical porn out there. You know, there are sex bloggers who put their work up for free and fund, like I do, through advertising and Patreon. All of my work is free to access, I just ask people to chip in on Patreon if they want to.
Nick Quah 24:58
So have the pandemic lockdowns helped her business?
Girl On The Net 25:01
Yeah, right at the start of lockdown, there was a huge increase in traffic, and particularly people listening to audio. It started dying off a little bit, like maybe people got bored of masturbating partway through the pandemic, but yeah, it was very good to start off with because people are inside more, and they can take more breaks from work, and not spend too much time commuting, and really get stuck into the wanking. [Chuckles]
Nick Quah 25:26
It may seem like Pornhub isn't diving headfirst into the audio space, but that doesn't mean they don't influence the community.
Girl On The Net 25:32
I think one of the big challenges, and I don't know if Quinn would say this, but I would think this is a challenge for Quinn and any company that does user-generated content, is that the most popular content, because of the nature of the internet, is usually going to trend towards the sort of thing you would see on the homepage of Pornhub. Because Pornhub has defined how we see sex. So if you go to Quinn, you will find a lot of male-dom, fem-sub-type stuff often, and DDLG play; you will find a lot of that content because it is popular and it gets people clicks. Which brings me neatly onto what I'm trying to do with my site. Because obviously, a lot of my fantasies--my sexuality is incredibly boring when you really sort of cut it down to basics. I am a straight cis woman. I mostly like being a bit submissive and getting banged really hard in the way that you would see on the front page of Pornhub. I don't want people to think that that's what porn is like. And so my mission for the next few years is to expand the number of writers that I'm working with on my site, bring more attention to their work, without them having to do loads more work, and I can kind of shine a spotlight on other writers who are doing really incredible things.
Nick Quah 26:51
Girl On The Net. You can hear more at Girl On The Net dot com slash audio hyphen porn. There are links to all these sites in the episode description. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. The show is produced by Jessica Alpert, and John Parate, and Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios. What's the top performing accent?
Caroline Spiegel 28:01
Nick Quah 28:02
Caroline Spiegel 28:03
Nick Quah 28:04
And I'm gonna guess that Quinn is largely American audiences?
Caroline Spiegel 28:07
Yeah, it is.
Nick Quah 28:08
What do you think is going on there?
Caroline Spiegel 28:11
Come on, everyone loves a British accent. [Laughter] I get so much more excited when I'm on a call with someone with a British accent, just in a non-erotic context, so I understand why. [Laughter]
Servant of Pod
What Does a Podcast Editor Do?
Season 1, Episode 9
Fri, 8/28 3:44PM • 29:04
podcast, people, editor, tape, listening, feel, producer, episode, host, thinking, catherine, person, land, cherokee, rebecca, point, story, structure, editing, treated
"Murder On The Towpath" Excerpt, Catherine Saint Louis, "This Land" Excerpt, "Bear Brook" Excerpt, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:01
Let's try something a little different. This is from the first episode of This Land, a podcast from Crooked Media:
"This Land" Excerpt 00:09
Sometime after, George's family would put up that white metal cross to remember where he died. It was important to George's family to have a symbol of their loss. Years later, Lisa, the public defender, would be driving along the road to discover this cross, and more importantly, where it stood. She realized if the cross marked exactly where George had died, the police had the wrong crime scene. It was a mile or more off what the state Bureau of Investigation had said.
Nick Quah 00:45
So that's the scene. Now, why would that matter?
"This Land" Excerpt 00:51
It mattered because both the victim and the convicted murderer are citizens of Muskogee Creek Nation. So if the murder happened on Indian land, the state of Oklahoma didn't have jurisdiction. They didn't have the right to prosecute Murphy, let alone sentence him to death. That roadside cross pinpointed exactly where George Jacobs was killed. And ultimately, it put his killer's open-and-shut conviction into jeopardy.
Nick Quah 01:22
So what are you thinking about? The structure? The details? The specific choice of language? You're probably not thinking about all of that. But if you are, I've got news for you: you might be a podcast editor. from LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah.
Catherine Saint Louis 01:53
I think a good podcast does three things: it educates, it enrages, and it entertains.
Nick Quah 02:00
Catherine St. Louis is an editor at the podcast production company Neon Hum. She edited This Land. Her latest project is Murder On The Towpath, a narrative podcast hosted by Soledad O'Brien.
Catherine Saint Louis 02:13
It's basically the podcast of these two women. One of them is Mary Pinchot Meyer, a painter, a mother, and a CIA wife, who is murdered on a towpath in the 1960s. A black man is accused of her murder and a black woman is actually his lawyer and defends him, and tries to save his life.
Nick Quah 02:35
Whether in podcasting or beyond, editors shape stories, they think about structure, tension, representation. It's a tough job, and it tends to require a specific kind of personality. Now, I should say, this conversation only focuses on one type of editor: the folks who work on longer form narrative nonfiction podcasts. It's different from editing something like audio dramas or interview shows. Nevertheless, some aspects of Catherine's editing toolkit are universal. For example, the turn.
Catherine Saint Louis 03:07
So like, a turn is kind of like, a big surprise, like, how to reveal a surprise. It's kind of like comedy. You know, like when people explain jokes, it doesn't work?
Nick Quah 03:17
Yeah, setup, setup, punchline.
Catherine Saint Louis 03:19
Like either you get it or you don't. Like, I feel like you know a turn is working when you've said just enough, and people are like, [gasps] "no!" right? Like, they have to have that "what!?" feeling. And sometimes you've written it and it's too staid, the way you wrote it, or it doesn't have enough mystery, and then you just have to keep rewriting it so that people just get that feeling. So at the end of the first episode of Murder On The Towpath, a podcast that we made with FilmNation that's on Luminary. The turn at the end of episode one kind of comes out of nowhere. Because what we don't tell people throughout that whole episode is that Mary Pinchot Meyer was not only a socialite who was very well connected, but she had had an affair with a very important man. And instead of saying what his name was, we just went to a speech of his, and his voice is so recognizable, that it felt great to just have people know it before that tape was done.
"Murder On The Towpath" Excerpt 04:28
A case which only gets more shocking and more complicated with time. That's because what Debby couldn't have known, what most people didn't know, was that Mary had had an affair with a very powerful man. I pledge you that we shall neither commit nor provoke aggression. That man was John F. Kennedy.
Catherine Saint Louis 04:52
And we had kind of played around with, "should we say JFK, and then go to the tape?" And I felt like it hits so much harder if you just heard the tape and you were like, "no!" It was almost a way of like not having to say it. I mean, ultimately, we did say it, after it. But it was a way of having the surprise come from just this kind of historic speech rather than us saying who it was.
Nick Quah 05:19
So, how did you become an editor?
Catherine Saint Louis 05:22
Well, I used to think I wanted to be a professor of English.
Nick Quah 05:25
Catherine Saint Louis 05:26
Nick Quah 05:27
What were you gonna specialize in,
Catherine Saint Louis 05:29
Like 20th century American, like every other person out there. And that's what made me realize I would end up being an adjunct professor in Kansas without health insurance, and realized maybe there's something else I can do. But it's actually a professor who took me aside and said, "Catherine, you could totally make it in the ivory tower. You fall in love with a book and don't get out. But the truth is, is you might have noticed you kind of are really chatty." And I was like, "yeah?"
Nick Quah 05:56
She said that as if it's not a good thing for a professor to be?
Catherine Saint Louis 05:59
Well, she just was like, "Girl, you might want to try the outside world, cuz I've seen you and you could talk to anybody. And that's a skillset that not everybody has. And sure, you could deploy that as a professor. But you could also do a lot of other things." And by then, I think she was a bit tired of being an English professor, and had decided that she was trying to make people think hard about becoming one.
Nick Quah 06:27
Catherine started thinking about a life in journalism. And eventually, she ended up at the New York Times.
Catherine Saint Louis 06:33
I got there because I didn't get a fact-checking job at the New Yorker, and I was on my like, sixth, or seventh, or eighth--I can't even remember--interview, and basically they called me and said, "Hey, we loved you, but we want somebody who's more into politics." And inside, I was freaking out, and cursing myself, and really upset. But instead of showing any of that, I basically said, "Well, thanks so much. I really hope we keep in touch and maybe we can go for a coffee sometime." So I basically became friends with the guy who rejected me. And then, when he had a friend at the Times who needed fact checkers, he mentioned me to her. And that's how I ended up in the New York Times.
Nick Quah 07:19
As a fact checker.
Catherine Saint Louis 07:21
Well, so, what's weird is I actually started as an editor at the Times. So, the Times used to have this program where they took like, intermediate reporters, gave them two years to prove themselves, move them around through different departments, and then either hired them or didn't. Adam Moss basically made an intermediate editor position for me, and did the same thing for me. Gave me the lives column at the back of the magazine, all those memoirs, and I was also reporting this column called "What They Were Thinking," where there was a photograph of a pivotal moment in someone's life and I call them up--the person in the photograph--and basically got them to open up about that one moment.
Nick Quah 08:05
What did you learn from that experience--from that specific feature?
Catherine Saint Louis 08:09
That like, every moment there is actually something going on. And that if you come armed with empathy and good questions, and you get someone to trust you, they will tell you what's really going on. I mean, I remember there's this one picture at a kitchen sink of just this woman looking out of a window. And it turns out like, that was the day she either got divorced or filed for divorce, I can't remember. But she danced around what that day was for most of the interview, and then finally at the end said, "Yeah, oh, now I remember that day." So I mean, obviously, it wasn't like she had forgotten when she got divorced. She just, in the beginning, didn't want to say so.
Nick Quah 08:53
It takes some time to sort of like, open that conversation up.
Catherine Saint Louis 08:55
Yeah. And I think after a half hour she felt like "this girl can handle it." [Laughter]
Nick Quah 09:02
Catherine would spend 18 years at the Times. But near the end of her time there, she became obsessed with something completely different: podcasts.
Catherine Saint Louis 09:12
And I didn't listen to them in like, a normal way. [Laughter] I listened to them and then would like, jot down the structure of it, and listen to some podcasts like, numerous times trying to understand how it worked. It became this whole thing where I fell down a rabbit hole. And eventually my husband just sort of said, like, "Catherine, I know this is how you like to spend your weekend, deconstructing an entire podcast series and mapping it out on Post-It's on our wall, but I'm sort of thinking this might be a job." And I was like, please, is podcasting like, big enough for like, a lot of editors, or is it just the same editors who get a ton of work?
Nick Quah 09:57
So you had that sort of reticence that maybe there wasn't an economy for podcast editors at the time?
Catherine Saint Louis 10:02
Nick Quah 10:03
Catherine Saint Louis 10:04
For sure. I just had no idea. Like, I wasn't part of the conversations where people were saying, "Oh my god, there aren't enough editors in podcasting." And also, I was still kind of confused about--when I say editor, I mean, story editor, someone who structures the story, someone who works with a producer. I ultimately left the Times and went to Transom, because I wasn't sure I wanted to be an editor. I thought maybe I'm a producer.
Nick Quah 10:30
Quick side note: Transom is a nonprofit that, among other things, organizes workshops that train audio producers.
Catherine Saint Louis 10:37
And then after going to Transom, I realized, wow, I could spend the next 10 years and probably not be as good a producer as like, half of the producers I listen to, or I could go into editing, which is literally how my brain works. There isn't--there are very few podcasts I listen to that I don't immediately start deconstructing. And Nick, it took me a while to realize other people didn't do that, like I didn't know. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 11:07
So there are so many places I want to go here, but I want to ask this one thing: why did you think that you weren't going to be a great producer?
Catherine Saint Louis 11:16
Because there were people who literally talked about being "in the tape," like as if they had gone like, to Hawaii, and I was like, "Really? Okay." So I'm sometimes quote, "in the tape" and I don't come out rejuvenated. I come out, like, lost and confused, or--and like a little crazed. Like, I've come out of a very deep, deep sleep, or a deep dream, a deep creative space. So, you know, that was a hint that I wasn't born to be a producer.
Nick Quah 11:51
Not a big fan of tape logging, it sounds like.
Catherine Saint Louis 11:54
Yeah, no, but you know, like, if you're gonna write for the ear, you have to kind of be in the tape and know your tape well enough to be able to know what all the ingredients are to be able to make the recipe, right? And for me, I really liked stepping back and sort of thinking about: okay, so you say you have good tape on this, we have this scene. We've proven this point with our reporting. How do we take all of those ingredients and put them in such a structure that people can't stop listening; that they have to keep listening and that we're unfurling the information in such a way that's seductive, so that you're giving them just enough to keep them going to the next point, but not enough, so that they keep listening.
Nick Quah 12:44
So how exactly does she do that? More in a minute. What do you think people usually mean when they say editor, or they think about a podcast editor? What do you think the sort of popular characterization is of what that job is?
Catherine Saint Louis 13:10
To be honest, I think people don't know what it means. You know, like, if you were to ask a whole bunch of people like, what does an editor do? And podcasting, they don't know. I think that's actually part of the problem and why we don't have a pipeline of more women and people of color thinking, "Oh, I really like podcasts. I want to be an editor." I think people think editor is something that happens to you after you've been a producer at NPR for a certain amount of years. And you get your first gray hair and someone's like, "yeah, she's an editor now."
Nick Quah 13:44
It's kind of like--it feels like it's that's how newsrooms used to--still work, actually. Like, you need to be a senior reporter to a certain point before you can become an editor.
Catherine Saint Louis 13:53
Nick Quah 13:53
Even though those are two very different skillsets.
Catherine Saint Louis 13:55
Exactly. While as I think an editor is someone who looks at the mechanics of storytelling, right, so that they are the person that the producer is talking to about how to get the good tape, and then how to structure that tape when it comes in, and also how to create moments that will be memorable. Like how to make the information that we've got stick in people's brains. Because when you listen to something, things can slip by so fast. So how do you make like, memorable moments that cannot be forgotten, so that people think about them a long time after?
Nick Quah 14:35
So let's stay there for a little bit because I feel like this is--this illustrates, I think, one of the sort of special moves that you alluded to earlier. There's that--there's a couple of moves with a first episode specifically as to like, making that argument: why should you be listening to this? Why is this worth your time? And I feel like one of those moves is like, this is why I, the reporter, or I, the sort of host of this, care about this particular issue, and I sometimes wonder whether that's like a move that is necessary sometimes. What what do you think about those opening gambits? What do you feel, as an editor, are the more effective ways of, of getting somebody to go like, this is worth my time?
Catherine Saint Louis 15:14
Right. I think the problem with most of those sort of host bios is they tell people how the person fell into the story. I think what's more effective is showing what this host is like, and showing their personalities so that you want to spend time with them. Like the best host, that's basically it. It's like you want--you keep coming back to it because you enjoy the host's company, because you trust him or her, but also like because they've put these clever touches in their copies so that even if they're talking about something very difficult, you want to stick with it. Like there are these moments that feel like you can trust them and you want to keep going on the journey. Because that's really what it is, right? Like you're kind of--I think the point in that first episode is not to convince someone that you have written many, many books and gee, you know--
Nick Quah 16:17
My Buddha feet is (?)
Catherine Saint Louis 16:18
Right, like, you know a lot about World War II, like, isn't that fascinating? It's like, no, I don't care. But if you got into this because of something that happened to you when you were a kid, or something random that you couldn't let go of, and it actually ended up having real stakes in your adult life.
Nick Quah 16:39
This is a perfect time to go back to This Land, which is one of Catherine's earlier projects with Neon Hum. Hosted by Rebecca Nagle, it tells the story of two crimes nearly two centuries apart, that provide the backbone to a recent Supreme Court decision that determined the fate of five tribes and nearly half the land in Oklahoma.
Catherine Saint Louis 16:59
And like, someone like Rebecca Nagel, she, you know, she was the person to host This Land because her family's history was like right at the core of some huge events in Native American history. And so it wasn't like convincing people that Rebecca was the right person to tell the story, like, her own personal family history put her smack dab in the middle of these things. So she just cares on a level that is moving. So that you don't need to oversell it. She's just the right one.
Nick Quah 17:31
Well, tell me more about that show in specifics. So what what was that process like? Walk me through the beginning of like, do you sit down, sketch out the episodes? Do you work through the problems? Do you work through the framing at the beginning, or is it all taped first, and then you figure it out after the fact? What was your approach to that show?
Catherine Saint Louis 17:49
I feel like the best way to approach things is to have an amazing outline.
Nick Quah 17:53
Catherine Saint Louis 17:54
That's very key to me too, in terms of like, narrative pacing and in terms of knowing where your cliffhangers are going to be. Like, I think unless you establish that it's really hard, I think to have a season hang together. It was a little hard for that one, though, because there was a Supreme Court case at the center of This Land, and the Supreme Court case was going to be decided while we were writing episodes. So we didn't really know how it was going to go.
Nick Quah 18:25
I guess I'm wondering, to what extent do you--are you shaping the host or the storyteller at the center of it? To what extent like, your job is to challenge that person or to draw out and provide a fuller picture of that person?
Catherine Saint Louis 18:40
I mean, look, it's very intimate to make a podcast with somebody. And the way you write shows a lot about yourself, right, and your biases, like, what you feel like is important. And the thing about This Land, and I think why a lot of people listened to it was it was all that Native American history that we were all kind of wondering why we didn't learn in high school. Like, seriously, how could I be in my 40s and learning this now? Right? So I think a lot of people were drawn to it for that reason. But I think there was this one part of the process where we were so focused on Native American issues that there came a point in their history where Cherokee people, so the people that Rebecca--Rebecca's tribe, they enslaved black people. So they took--stole a page from the American South and treated black people like property. And there was just a part in one of the episodes where, I mean, there were so many injustices in that episode.
"This Land" Excerpt 19:47
Allotment was devastating for all Cherokees, but one group had the least protection: the Cherokee freedmen. And that's because of racism, pure and simple. Cherokee Nation's racism. My tribe enslaved people before the Civil War.
Catherine Saint Louis 20:04
But this one was kind of not given, I thought, its due. And basically, I just, I just was very frank with Rebecca and said, "Look, people will have stuck with us this long because they want to know about this history, and they want to know how America broke its promise for Cherokee people and other nations that are part of this lawsuit. But no one's gonna listen to this podcast, that is a Black person, if you don't acknowledge how messed up it is that you treated us like property. Like, up until now, Cherokee people were the heroes of the story. And you just told me that actually, for a whole large chapter, you were anti-heroes. So you have to have a come to Jesus moment." And she did. I mean, it was kind of beautiful, because I think me saying it that way--I mean, I was pretty candid, which I am, I'm just like that. I was like, at that point, when I was listening to the mix, I literally wanted to throw my phone across the room and break it. Like that's how pissed I was that you were kind of--not glossing it over, but not treating it, like slavery has to be treated. And she totally got it and went away and wrote two different parts of the podcast that I thought was beautiful. And those parts were beautiful, but they really, I think, made a case for why people should continue to trust Rebecca as a host, and stay on the journey with her.
Nick Quah 21:45
Well, let's play that clip and just dig a little deeper into it.
"This Land" Excerpt 21:49
Over the course of this podcast, you've heard a lot of stories of Indians being oppressed, but my tribe is also responsible for the oppression of others. Starting In the early 1800s, we adopted the institution of slavery from the American South. And no, it wasn't kinder because we were Indians. There's no kind way to treat another human being like property. After the Civil War-- [Fades]
Nick Quah 22:15
So what was the emotion that you're going for there?
Catherine Saint Louis 22:17
Nick Quah 22:18
And how do you work that out?
Catherine Saint Louis 22:20
I feel like the line that she wrote and the outrage with which--the like little tinge of outrage when she says, "And no, it wasn't any kinder, because we were Native American," right? That felt like really real to me. And I, I'm not sure if that line she ended up improvising and wasn't in the script. But that's what I felt like we needed to hear in the context of talking about freedmen. So freedmen are the former slaves of Cherokee Nation that then became Cherokee at a certain point. And in that episode, you know, the fact that they were freedmen played into how much land that they got, and for a while they were treated differently. Look, it just would have been a big hole if she hadn't brought herself to that moment, and kind of understood how some listeners would take that.
Nick Quah 23:17
So are there any other shows that stand out to you in terms of editing?
Catherine Saint Louis 23:20
Did you ever listen to Bear Brook?
Nick Quah 23:23
Ah! Great show.
Catherine Saint Louis 23:24
I mean, there are a lot. Yeah, there are a lot that stood out, but Bear Brook, I felt like was incredibly ballsy because the experience of listening to it is like, the first two, or even three, episodes I feel like are all build up.
Nick Quah 23:42
Catherine Saint Louis 23:43
And I feel like it breaks all the rules. It's like reading a 19th century novel where they like start at the beginning and patiently like lay out stuff, but the thing was, is I couldn't stop listening. So I re-listened to those early episodes a bunch to kind of understand; how are they getting away with telling me so little, and yet I can't stop listening? And the key were all of these kind of amateur sleuths, remember? Like, there were all these people who were not cops, were desperate to know what were the names of those bodies in the barrels.
"Bear Brook" Excerpt 24:20
Later, Rhonda would tell me she had a two-year-old niece who died of leukemia not long before she started on the Bear Brook case. Now she wonders if that may have had something to do with how she felt about the mystery. I just thought of the process our family went through and fighting to, you know, keep her alive, and then grieving her death, and then to think of, you know, a little child about her age who nobody seems to be coming forward for. That was--it's--the case struck me so hard because I saw those little unidentified children, you know, and felt like who's mourning for them?
Catherine Saint Louis 24:54
Who were these people? Who are their people? How did they end up dying in those barrels without anybody ever coming to look for them? And it was those characters that completely carried those first two episodes. That story doesn't really even get cooking, I dare say, until the two Episode Fives--for whatever reason they had two episodes five, they split them into two, I don't know why they did that. But anyway, that's when you find out so much. So Bear Brook established a very strange structure. I mean, not to give too much away. But everybody comes to Bear Brook thinking it's a true crime story. But is it? No, it's not. It's awesome! It's not!
Nick Quah 25:40
What kinds of people would you like to see come into the podcast editor positions? What kind of people do you want to see more of in the podcast editor position? And where do you think podcast publishers, producers should be looking to draw those editors from?
Catherine Saint Louis 25:54
I think that we need to understand that editors are not born, they're made, in the same way that we might take someone who doesn't have a ton of producer experience, and help them get to a point where they can cut tape, and Pro Tools, and collect good tape, and become a badass. I wish we took more young people of color, women, and guided them so that they became editors. I think we have to demystify that editors are somebody who are older, or who are established. I think it's like the way you view podcasts. And if you have strong opinions, and you have empathy, and you have a great sense of storytelling. All of those things should be a starting point to making the next generation of editors, and we can't kind of keep wanting different podcasts and not recognize that we need more Black editors. It seems absurd to me to think we can just have a Black host and then things will be different. Because, you know, some hosts only come in way at the end. Some hosts don't write the scripts at all. The person who's guiding all of that script writing, and all of that collecting of tape, and all of the structure. And a lot of the nuance is not only the producer that's writing scripts, but their editor. It matters to have that person in charge. And also, editors get to decide what stories are told. At Neon Hum like, we are getting into originals right now, and, you know, I'm part of the team that are deciding what stories deserve to be podcasts. So I'm bringing my full self to that decision making process. We just need a greater diversity of people. I feel like it's the same five people who are editing things. And things would sound different, but they would also--you know, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier, which is editors are the people who speak up and sort of say, "okay, so this is how I'm hearing that. If you don't want that effect, then we need to change this."
Nick Quah 28:08
Catherine, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Catherine Saint Louis 28:11
Nick Quah 28:23
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Jody Avirgan: The Ghosts of the 2016 Elections
Season 1, Episode 8
Thu, 8/27 6:01PM • 29:07
podcast, election, feel, moment, people, media, jody, politics, talking, shows, history, lessons, political, thought, world, pod, host, unprecedented, compelling, chemistry
Keeping It 1600 Excerpt, Nick Quah, On The Media Excerpt, Excerpt from Another Round, Jody Avirgan (Excerpt from Five Thirty-Eight), Jody Avirgan
Jody Avirgan 00:01
In 2016, I think it was more just like, this is such a massive story. There was like, an endless appetite for content about this story. And so podcasting was going to kind of take off in that way.
Nick Quah 00:16
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Today, we look back on the 2016 election podcast explosion with Jody Avirgan, host of This Day in Esoteric Political History. Jody Avirgan's journey into the world of election podcasts was half strategic, and half baptism by fire. A few years ago, he knew he wanted to cover the 2016 election and found a home at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver's data driven political news and analysis website.
Jody Avirgan (Excerpt from Five Thirty-Eight) 00:52
Hello, and welcome to the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast. My name is Jody Avirgan. There are just three weeks left until Election Day, and we are going to focus on who plans on turning out and which groups of voters could make the difference for either party. In particular, we will talk about the gender gap and how-- [Fade]
Nick Quah 01:06
Jody knew that their podcast project was a good idea. But he couldn't have known just how big it would become.
Jody Avirgan 01:13
When you have a story that is that overwhelming, yeah, it's gonna lift all the boats. And so you know, I think I've even, with you, chatted about kind of like, if you're in Brazil, and there's a World Cup--
Nick Quah 01:25
Jody Avirgan 01:25
--And you have a World Cup podcast, your podcast is going to be big, just because the story is that big. Now I also think there were particular things about podcasting, and particular things about the show that we were working on, and the other shows that were successful, that helped. But I also--I don't want to dismiss the fact that it's just a massive story. And when you're covering a massive story, you feel it. And you know, I felt it like, immediately, right?
Nick Quah 01:45
Jody Avirgan 01:45
We formally launched that show pretty late. And within two weeks, the show felt fully formed, like it had its own sort of backstory, its own sort of history. We were getting letters from people referencing stuff that we had been--said on the show, as if it's stuff we said all the time when we'd actually done like two episodes. Like I could just feel the like, rocket ship of that show, but also just the news taking off, and it never really slowed down. Ever, I guess.
Nick Quah 02:10
When people were responding to the show strongly, what were they responding to? What did they want from you guys, from your perspective?
Jody Avirgan 02:18
It's interesting. I mean, I think, you know, certainly at FiveThirtyEight, the ethos is, we're going to help cut through the bull**** narratives and try and bring some data-centric, more empirical analysis and context. And so, I think, when you find yourself in an election, and in a world that feels like it is sprinting away from rationality and empiricism, you know, there's a certain sector of the population that kind of really responds to media or conversation that tries to really like, hold on to that. I also think--and this gets to some of my kind of basic ideas just about why podcasting is powerful--I also think people responded to just like, the nature of the group that we had, and the chemistry that we had, and the fact that, you know, this was intentional, like we worked a lot on like, the chemistry on the show, and recognize that that was a big part of the show. And there was even a point, I think it wasn't until 2017, but Micah Cohen, one of the co-hosts of the show, I think he asked at one point, he said, you know, is there anyone out there who listens to this podcast who doesn't like politics or doesn't follow politics? And we got, like, we got dozens and dozens of emails back from people saying, "Yeah, I just kind of like hanging out with you." And it was just such a nice reminder that this medium in particular is about chemistry and intimacy, and all those buzzwords that we maybe feel a little icky about, because they're buzzwords, but they are actually true, you know, and that was a big part of it, is I think we just had a show with good chemistry, and people like to spend time with us.
Nick Quah 03:51
Well, that sort of like, chemistry-driven, conversational format seemed to be like, the format standard for the genre. Thinking about the other ones, like Slate's Political Gabfest--been around for a very long time--it kind of feels like this sort of like, master--
Jody Avirgan 04:03
Nick Quah 04:03
--format here. And then, you know, there was the NPR Politics podcast, I think one of the critiques that came out after 2016 was that the format itself was part of this problem in which like, it created this sense of a self-reinforcing bubble.
Jody Avirgan 04:18
So you know, I will offer a mild defense there of like, the bubble, in the sense of like, you want to have your world, you want to have your lingo, you want to feel like people want to join something that feels familiar. You know, that doesn't mean that you can't introduce new perspectives, and new voices, and so forth. But I also think people like their comfort zone; it's called a comfort zone for a reason. You know, I will say on the FiveThirtyEight podcast, one of the things that I really liked about doing it and just kind of one of the reasons I wanted to work at FiveThirtyEight was because I found this challenge of marrying, kind of dispassionate, analytical approach with what we need to show some personality to be very compelling and like, I thought that was one of the successful things of that podcast was, it took a site and a kind of journalism that sometimes can be a little more difficult to find quote-unquote "voice." And on the podcast, you know it naturally, you know, in every sense of the word has to have voice. And I thought that was really healthy for the site. I kind of liked the little tension there between those two sides of the site. And it was something we always played with, and was at times challenging too, to find that line. But I found that particularly compelling, as just someone who was trying to make the thing each week.
Nick Quah 05:32
Let's go back to 2016 a little more.
Jody Avirgan 05:34
You should charge me for therapy. Let's go back to 2016 a little more. Let's really like--let's pick at those scabs. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 05:40
Yeah, that's--I mean, I wasn't going to actually go to a not too far direction there. So 2016 was--that election cycle, I feel, was very formative for me writing about podcasts because I was watching this cohort grow up. And, you know, when I think about that period, I think about like, there's a couple of moments that really stood out to me of like, oh, there's something with this medium that's really punching well above its weight, and the proliferation of like, FiveThirtyEight, and NPR Politics, and that kind of show was a big part of that. But it was also these sort of really key tangible moments, like when Hillary Clinton showed up on Another Round, for example.
Excerpt from Another Round 06:15
Well, before we get started, we saved you some bourbon. We don't know if you'll partake. I've got so much still to do. If it were--if this were the last event of my day, I would take you up on it. So we'll raincheck that. Next time. Okay, raincheck, got it. And since you won't drink it, I guess I'll have to. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 06:30
So that moment was where I started feeling that the old rules didn't apply anymore, that there was an opportunity here for something new. Do you remember that episode?
Jody Avirgan 06:38
I do remember that episode. That was relatively late that they announced it and you don't, I mean, I don't know. At the time like, that didn't pop to me as necessarily a sign of like, oh, podcasting has, has reached a new level and maybe I felt like... Well, let me put it this way: after the election, I did an interview with someone who said like, do you think podcasting had an effect on this election? And you know, to me, I think the answer was pretty clearly no. Like, I think podcasting had a moment. It was replacing a lot of legacy media. It was like, convening a certain kind of conversation, but I don't think it reached a level where it was like, shifting one way or another. You know, I'm curious what you think. I wouldn't be surprised if even maybe by 2018, that answer might have been slightly different.
Nick Quah 07:27
Jody Avirgan 07:27
Nick Quah 07:28
By that time we had institutions built, like, The Daily, for example.
Jody Avirgan 07:32
Yeah. And even like, we haven't mentioned Pod Save America, which I think, you know--
Nick Quah 07:36
Jody Avirgan 07:37
--at the time, was Keeping It 1600, and then turned into Pod Save America, you know, and I mean, I think like, they obviously--very different kind of charge than a place like FiveThirtyEight. But, you know, by the time they got to 2018, they were really like, organizing and mobilizing, and I think like maybe did have like, some effect. And it's hard to disentangle all these things, because there was already going to be a wave in 2018, and so were they just more a reflection of it than a cause? You know, but I think, um--
Nick Quah 08:01
Jody Avirgan 08:02
But I do think like, at that point, they were showing the power of a podcast to like, organize people in a really compelling way. And I think I, you know, there's equivalence on the right as well. But in 2016, I think it was more just like, this is such a massive story. There was like, an endless appetite for content about this story.
Nick Quah 08:22
Jody Avirgan 08:22
So podcasting was going to kind of take off in that way.
Nick Quah 08:26
Yeah, Pod Save America was definitely something that I want to talk about. It was one of the moments that really stood out to me, was the creation of Keeping It 1600, but--
Jody Avirgan 08:32
Nick Quah 08:32
So, that question that you raised here, like, whether podcasting had any impact, for the most part, for a long time, I think I came down where you do, which is, the answer's no. I--it was--the election forged that genre, and it forged the medium in a lot of ways, but ultimately, it didn't lead to any sort of specific outcomes. And I think I've kind of softened on that position. Because I think this is like the eternal question with news media in particular, sort of, do we--are we overestimating its impact in some ways, and are we underestimating its impact in other ways? And I feel like here, for me, I--no, I don't think it had a direct impact that like, it didn't change the outcome of a race. But it did, I feel, like, solidify certain feelings. And it did sort of contribute to this culture of like, politics as entertainment. And I don't I don't think that's insignificant or immaterial.
Jody Avirgan 09:21
Well, and you know, and to your point about bubbles, I mean, I think certainly, like, you look at the taxonomy of like, Chapo Trap House, and Pod Save America, Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, you know, like, I think you certainly can see, you know, we're living in an age of these bubbles, and these silos, and podcasts are either reflecting or reinforcing that, and so forth.
Nick Quah 09:39
Jody Avirgan 09:39
I'm gonna say something very glib here, but like, to the--and that I'm thinking of for the first time--but like to your question of "did it affect the race," like, one concrete example of in favor of saying it did not affect the race is that for several weeks on the FiveThirtyEight podcast, we were sitting there going, "the Midwest might be a problem for Hillary Clinton," like, "she may want to go there" like, "we may want--" like, and they didn't, in a way that maybe they should've, and um--
Nick Quah 10:01
Jody Avirgan 10:02
And we ended up where we did. Again, that's glib, but like, you know, in a world in which the most influential people are listening to the podcast, and taking their cues, and it has like, the kind of real impact that maybe other mediums have, or had in the past, maybe Nate says, you know, "Michigan seems like it could be a problem." And the Clinton campaign sort of realizes that. You know, there's a million reasons why Clinton didn't win that campaign. The Comey letter was--no one could have expected that, you know, we can get into all that. But, um--
Nick Quah 10:30
Hyper-chaotic, multivariable reality.
Jody Avirgan 10:32
When we sit here, and we make the list of "media that affected the 2016 election," you put Facebook up there, you maybe put Twitter up there. I don't think podcasting is in that echelon.
Nick Quah 10:45
Yeah, I mean, I'm absolutely not. And I think that's--that's a bit of the point here is sort of, while it did not play that outsized of a role, like, it did play some role, and that is not insignificant, I think, and for, especially, people who were activated by those podcasts. So it, I think, kind of leads me to the second thing that really sort of stood out to me during 2016, which is even then, I felt like when shows like Keeping It 1600 came out, when Chapo started like, bubbling up, when the New York Times released The Run-Up, I had this sort of, really, this big sense that we're looking at the beginning of some institutions here. And it kind of happened that way, especially after 2016 turned out the way it did. Like, a lot of the big shows we have today were sort of seeded in that moment.
Jody Avirgan 11:27
Nick Quah 11:27
And I don't know if you felt that way, when you sort of saw the early versions of those in 2016. But like, I remember listening to those shows, and like, "I think this is gonna be around for a long time."
Jody Avirgan 11:36
I maybe didn't feel it as--in a way, because when you're in it, you know, it's more just like, "we're covering a story." And I just want to get to like, November, you know, and get some sleep. And I could tell that like others were doing that same thing. But I will also say, immediately after the election, I recognized that a) you know, news is not going anywhere, and this conversation that 2016 prompted is not going anywhere, and we're gonna have to, we're gonna have to grapple with our new reality for years to come. But the other thing I recognized was that, you know, I'm a sort of watcher of the podcast space as well, and I recognized like, oh, all of these politics podcasts have like, a pivot moment right now. There's like, a real challenge in front of them right now. And I just sort of like, could see how each show grappled with that moment. I didn't have much time to listen to all the shows, but I did go and listen to everyone's first episode after the election, just to hear kind of how they took it on, because it was so--I mean, for us, you know, that was one of the more memorable shows I've ever hosted, and it was just kind of like a big moment. I think it had a--and it was sort of polarizing, and a lot of people kind of like, couldn't listen to it, or listen to it and then unsubscribed, or listened to it and felt like, a deeper bond with the show, but you know, like, I could tell Keeping It 1600, maybe they had changed to Pod Save America by that point, had the biggest challenge in that moment.
Nick Quah 12:57
Right, they had the big "mea culpa" episode.
Keeping It 1600 Excerpt 12:59
We've all grown up in the Obama administration, and we were taught to not worry about the horse race, and focus on the substance, and focus on the stakes, and keep our heads down. And I think it's fair to say that, at times on this podcast, we got away from that. You know what, though--? And and I, and I just, I just want to, I want to say that I think going forward, it's going to do us all some good to focus a little less on what's going to happen in politics, and a little more on what the stakes are for real people.
Jody Avirgan 13:28
Yeah. And I thought that was right. And I thought they nailed it. And I thought that they had the most divergent paths, like, you know, maybe this is too extreme, but I think there was some version of their first show after the election, that doesn't go well. And that thing maybe completely falls apart or something. And I've talked to them a little bit about that. And they recognize that that was like a big moment. And it wasn't just about a mea culpa for them, I think it was about a like, we've learned some lessons and we are going to, you know, put one foot in front of the other and go forward in this way. The Slate Gabfest, I think I've just always admired that. It has a lot of the sort of core ingredients we've been talking about. And I think that they, you know, throughout the election and post election were just, in many ways, best positioned to just say, like, we are who we are, you know, like, we've always been a show that has just kind of like, tried to be clear eyed about the world and all the complexities of it. So they were able, I think, to just kind of keep moving forward. And every other show had like, you know, their lane and their angle, and they had to sort of like grapple with that lane in that angle in the new reality.
Nick Quah 14:26
I think the the post-election episode that I remember the most is the one from On The Media, which I know you're a big fan of.
On The Media Excerpt 14:32
I hope that it's some sort of clarion call, but you know, what I most hope--Brooke, and Kat, and producers, and audience, is that we are not all passengers on the ship of fools. What the **** does that mean? I don't know what that means, either. What's, what does it mean? Why would you want to end on the line of we're all going to hell?
Nick Quah 14:55
That, to me like, that's, I feel like--I think it really captures the moment.
Jody Avirgan 14:59
Yeah, I know. I mean, on our show, you know, we had a really tough episode. And we had a lot of like back and forth. And, you know, I was in a--I was, more than anything, I was just tired. But you know, I was in a place where I was like, really, I was hit. Yeah, there's a bit of a trope of like, FiveThirtyEight and others sort of botched the 2016 elections in terms of prediction, and I, you know, I have all sorts of ideas about why I thought FiveThirtyEight actually did a pretty good job of predicting it and, you know, 30% chance things happen all the time. You know, but I will say, like, the way that I described kind of the mood in that room, and the way the site sort of met that moment, was, you know, shocked, but not surprised, was kind of where my head was at. And I think like, I wanted to be honest to those feelings. And I remember, you know, in those conversations, like, we were like, "Well, this was, you know, this was something we expected could happen, and it happened in x, y, and z ways." And this is going to set up a really compelling, and interesting, and unprecedented moment in American politics. And you know, I remember asking on that show, like, you know, but at what cost? And I think that those conversations, like, you know, yeah, that broken Bob exchange is perfect. You know, it's like you have your right brain and your left brain and they're just like, smashing together in real time. And you have to just kind of like, be honest to that.
Nick Quah 16:13
Jody Avirgan 16:14
And again, I think podcasts are really good for that. Podcasts are really good for like, talking through what you know and don't know. And so I was just grateful to have that space to sort of process, while at the same time trying to help make sense of it.
Nick Quah 16:30
So after the 2016 crunch, Jody wasn't going to do another elections podcast for 2020. He's done with that type of grind. But he's not done with politics. More in a minute.
Jody Avirgan 16:58
Hello, and welcome to This Day in Esoteric Political History from Radiotopia. My name is Jody Avirgan. This day: July 16, 1863. Riots are spreading throughout New York City. They'd started a couple days earlier in lower Manhattan. Now they have spread to Brooklyn and Staten Island. Houses and businesses burning, mobs of people with bats and clubs roaming the streets, and the reason? A civil war draft. The riot was in response to a new draft that had been-- [Fades]
Nick Quah 17:28
You might notice nowadays that Jody isn't talking about election polls. Instead, he is co-hosting This Day in Esoteric Political History with Columbia political historian Nicole Hemmer.
Jody Avirgan 17:39
You, earlier, kind of asked me what I learned throughout 2016. One of the things I've definitely learned about myself as a host is I think I really like to be surrounded by people who are smarter than me, and experts. So like, having Nikki, who's actually a historian is really wonderful. And you know, I love talking with her but she also just like, knows her stuff. It's really nice. And that's definitely growth on my part, to realize that like, oh, you're better if you're the least smart person in the room.
Nick Quah 18:07
Yeah, and it feels like this is--it feels like you're--you can take a little bit of a breather with the show.
Jody Avirgan 18:13
Yeah, well, it's a little bit of a breather in that, you know, we intentionally are not talking about the latest, you know, crazy thing that has happened in the world. We're looking at history and then trying to sort of draw some connections. But I think it also--I wanted to do this show, and in general, I'm very drawn to history. And I think like, you can see it in the rise of media over the last few years, like, history is having a moment. I think people are looking to the past, people are recognizing that there are lessons from the past, not tidy lessons, but like things to, you know, like I was saying before, things that can kind of give you space to think and process. And so, you know, we did some historical stuff at FiveThirtyEight. Some of my favorite moments were when we would just look at a past election and sort of draw some lessons. And then my work at 30 For 30. You know, that's a history podcast and I really liked doing stuff there that was about the past but, you know, the themes and the lessons and some of the echoes were very apparent and would help us process this current moment. And this show is very much inclined towards that as well. And I've really, personally, and I think we're hearing from audiences, that that's happening. Like, people are just sort of appreciating hearing something from the past that again, like, walks you right up to the edge of then giving you some, you know, a few more tools to help process the present.
Nick Quah 19:30
Right. So I'm--I listen to the show a bunch, big fan of it.
Jody Avirgan 19:34
Nick Quah 19:34
This sort of thing of talking about a moment in history--could be 40 years ago, it could be 100 years ago, and trying to rhyme it at the present somehow. And whenever I listen to the show, I am both comforted by the feeling that this too shall pass--that's--that was a--that's a big reason why I go to this show is to get that a little bit of salve that way, but I also get a bit of some of melancholia associated with like, "ah, ***, we're doing this again? We're going through this again?"
Jody Avirgan 20:03
That's very well articulated, kind of like, what history does to us. I, you know, that first one is one that I've always been a little uncomfortable with, like, I don't want history to be a salve, right? I don't want history to be something of like, well that--"we got through that, so we will get through this," and like, well, we got through that, and a lot of people suffered, and a lot of people had to work really hard--
Nick Quah 20:25
And a lot of people died.
Jody Avirgan 20:26
--and a lot of people--yeah, and a lot of people like, put their ass on the line to effect change, and, you know, and so that's as much of a lesson as "this too shall pass." But I also, again, don't want to dismiss that simple comfort of just like, you know, and with the Coronavirus in particular, like, this happens to me all the time, like I have, I just have to keep reminding myself that like, this is a temporary thing, this pandemic, like a year from now--oh god, I'm going to say something that I might regret. But like, no matter how incompetent our government is, like, a year from now, the pandemic will probably be over, and I have to remind myself of that, while at the same time recognizing how awful it is, and all the other things that shows us about the state of our country and so forth. So, you know, I think yes, you're right. History kind of does that for me, but then, oh, God, the like, we're repeating ourselves. We're making all the same mistakes of the past. I mean, that is just like, you know, that has emerged as probably the number one theme from the show, and I don't know what to do with that other than to say, like, let's try and not make those mistakes again.
Nick Quah 21:30
Does working on this show make you reconsider the use of the word unprecedented?
Jody Avirgan 21:35
Yeah, it does. I think it might be in the show description. But you know, it probably--we should probably take it out. But here's why I don't want to use unprecedented. Like, I don't think we need to measure. It's not a competition between the present and the past.
Nick Quah 21:49
Jody Avirgan 21:49
What we're feeling now is real. What we're feeling now, like, you know, and I hate using the past as like, a weapon to dismiss the present, what happened in the past was intense, and hard, and we should learn lessons, and what's happening now is real, and intense, and hard, and we have to confront it, and, you know, we should not diminish it using the past. So, you know, "unprecedented" has a little hint of that. So you know, I mean, like "tumultuous times," is probably the right phrase and it just sort of acknowledges what's, well, that we're actually living through, you know, some real stuff.
Nick Quah 22:23
One of the greater linguistic cliches, "tumultuous."
Jody Avirgan 22:26
I know, I know. But, you know, these words exist for a reason. They keep getting trotted out for a reason.
Nick Quah 22:31
I want to wrap up by looking at the broader sort of election-slash-political podcast landscape today. We're seeing a lot more right-wing, conservative podcasts in 2020, which now I feel like challenges this narrative about podcasting that it is sort of like, a largely left-leaning medium, both in terms of its production and consumption. Are you seeing the same thing at all?
Jody Avirgan 22:55
I think, I mean, I think it's--look, the right has always had talk radio. And, you know, I think we still undervalue how critical talk radio has been to the right over the last year.
Nick Quah 23:04
I believe your co-host is somebody who wrote a book on that.
Jody Avirgan 23:07
Correct. And Nikki's whole thing is she looks at sort of conservative media, you know, this is the cliche, the right is always on talk radio, the left has never been able to kind of get there. And they tried Air America and so forth. And podcasts may be kind of starting to reach that, you know, I mean, I think on the right, I think as the medium grows, you will inevitably see the various factions in our country find their way into the medium. And you know, and obviously, like Joe Rogan is a really good example of a sort of not traditionally left-wing podcast empire growing, and I think Ben Shapiro has a lot of listeners as well. And so you know, you're seeing that, but I still don't feel like there's the electricity around a right-wing podcasting ecosystem as there is on the left, even in this cycle. But you know, maybe I'm wrong. But yes, I agree. I mean, like there's a podcast called We The Fifth, which I often disagree with vehemently in terms of their politics, but I think it's a wonderful podcast in terms of its good faith, and I think it is--got really good chemistry and so forth. And that's a show that is like, convening--you can tell it's convening a lane, and it's building its audience, and I think it's gonna have a big year, I think you're certainly starting to see that it's not just lefty podcasts out there.
Nick Quah 24:20
The other thing that I feel is a pretty stark observation to have is that there's just fewer new political podcasts. There's fewer show generation. And I kind of feel like I have two prevailing theories here, maybe they're both in cahoots. One is the fact that you know, we're going through a pandemic, it is the all consuming story, and it just feels like the lane is not clogged. So not just political podcasts, like Pod Save America and everything Crooked Media, but also just the proliferation of news podcasts.
Jody Avirgan 24:50
Yeah, like daily shows, yeah.
Nick Quah 24:51
Exactly, a daily news podcast. And it feels like a lot of the functions that a new political election podcast would have served are largely taken up by other news podcasts or these prevailing-from-2016 political podcasts, like FiveThirtyEight, like Pod Save America.
Jody Avirgan 25:08
You know, I think a lot of that has to do with, the pandemic took over. And I also think like, there's going to be this interesting moment. It's going to come later than it often does, but I think there is going to be a moment in like, August or September, where people are gonna say, "Oh, right, the election, right," and sort of snap back in there. And so who knows, but the notion of starting an elections podcast right now actually feels really, like, weird, and off, and like, not of the moment, even though like, we are having the most important election of our lives. And to say it's weird to have something like, dedicated to that? I don't know. I'm trying to sort of process through that feeling. I will say though, it is a moment where every story feels like it is connected. Every story is intertwined. You can't talk about politics without talking about race, without talking about voter access, without talking about the pandemic, without-- --talking about inequality, and elections refract those things and they've always been about everything. But a show that is like, we're going to look at the mechanics of the election, and we're just going to follow the twists and turns of the election feels like, inadequate for the moment in the way that we were describing, like, I think the best approach to the moment now is like, open, and versatile, and like, able to take all these different strands that are colliding together and talk about them. And so yeah, weirdly, I feel like the Slate Gabfests of the world, which were always wired that way, which were never like, "here's our little segment in our little specific perspective," it was more like "we're just smart, interesting, people who are gonna try and process the world," those shows, I think, are going to be in a good position. Because that's just kind of what this moment is demanding of us, is like, more kind of bigger thinking. And then the daily shows are interesting, too. But I think the daily shows do that too. Like, they can just do one angle one day, another angle the other day, another angle the other day, and in totality then feel like they're sort of taking on every strand that is swirling right now.
Nick Quah 25:54
Right. So essentially, the task right now is to piece the world together.
Jody Avirgan 27:00
Yeah, I think that's right, and to just like give yourself the space and the ability to, like, be open to a moment where all the rules are out and all the conversations are colliding. And, you know, I think that's one of the, like, hopeful things about this moment, is that we're living in a politics of people recognizing that everything is connected, right? And that you can't just kind of like, have your opinions about economics without being forced to think about race, and you can't have your opinions about race without being forced to think about inequality. You can't think about schools without thinking about housing and like, you know, just kind of like--
Nick Quah 27:36
Jody Avirgan 27:36
--we have to have our head around all of these things together.
Nick Quah 27:40
What are you listening to these days that you're enjoying?
Jody Avirgan 27:44
I--you mentioned On The Media. I still think that On The Media is one of the best shows. I was really excited to join Radiotopia, just because I think, you know, they have shows like The Heart, which just came back to Radiotopia, and Everything is Alive--it's kind of amazing to say that I have any sort of affiliation with the--with shows like that. Ear Hustle. There's a new show--man, this sounds like I'm gonna be a shill. But this new show from LAist, California Love, like, I'm really impressed by that. It's--you know, it sounds fantastic. I still really like Fresh Air.
Nick Quah 28:14
They're the staples, the classics.
Jody Avirgan 28:15
Nick Quah 28:16
Jody, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate this.
Jody Avirgan 28:19
Nick, thank you. Yeah, this was great.
Nick Quah 28:31
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios: Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Josh Levin: Slow Burn
Season 1, Episode 8
Tue, 8/25 2:30PM • 31:49
duke, story, people, feel, david duke, slow burn, season, josh, interviews, white, moment, beth, episode, series, host, stood, rickey, conversations, talking, living
Jesse Jackson (Excerpt), David Duke (Excerpt), Josh Levin, Anne Levy (Excerpt), Beth Rickey (Excerpt), Nick Quah
Josh Levin 00:02
You know, who's to say why he turned out the way he did? Who's to say, you know, whether it could have come out any differently?
Nick Quah 00:12
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Slow Burn, Slate's critically acclaimed podcast series, has always had a knack for telling stories that speak to the current moment. And now, it's tackling white supremacy. More in a bit. Josh Levin is the host for this latest season of Slow Burn, which focuses on the political rise of David Duke. Josh has been at the show since the beginning, having served as the editor on the first three seasons. Still, despite all that work, he never thought he'd be sitting in the host chair.
Josh Levin 01:03
I did not nominate myself to be the host. That was not--I'm not empowered to do that. But I think once the idea was floated that maybe I could do one, this was the story that I was most fascinated by and that seemed to fit into this rubric.
Nick Quah 01:25
For Levin, the story of David Duke was also a personal one.
Josh Levin 01:30
The David Duke story was one that I grew up with. It was one that I lived through as a kid. I was eight years old when he won his first race in 1989 in the New Orleans suburbs not far from where I lived. And then over the next couple of years, I watched him seem to gain more power and prominence and his run was something that left a really profound impression on me, some conscious and some subconscious, I didn't necessarily realize until I was an adult, but it just felt scary and confusing. And I wanted to try to understand who he was, where he came from, why people who did support him, would support someone who I found to be so appalling--and I'm Jewish, you know--someone who said things about people like me, you know, wanting them to be in the ash bin of history; things that seemed like so obvious that--how could my fellow citizen support somebody who has said these things? I didn't feel equipped, as a child, to understand that and so now, 30 years later, I wanted to try to understand what it was that I lived through and that we all lived through in Louisiana, and in the, you know, whole country is Duke became a national story and phenomenon.
Nick Quah 03:01
Hmm. What did you feel like that experience watching him sort of--his political rise in Louisiana--were these sort of like, more recent revelations on your part as to how that affected your thinking?
Josh Levin 03:12
As a kid, I didn't really understand, before Duke, that politics had real consequences, potentially life or death consequences, what the stakes were. And I think, as an adult, especially right now, that feels obvious, and very real and present on an everyday basis. Living through this moment that we're living through now, I think has made me kind of understand in a deeper way that that is the feeling that I had back then. And that was the genesis of it. And this feeling that the worlds can switch seemingly in an instant that what feels safe and comfortable, might not be the next day, and also what feels safe and comfortable for you might not be safe and comfortable for other people who are in your community.
Nick Quah 04:11
Josh Levin 04:11
And those are some of the things that I've been thinking about, and make me feel kind of like the show we're making is in conversation with what's going on in the world right now.
Nick Quah 04:22
The decision to focus on David Duke marks a return to politics for Slow Burn. The first two seasons of the show, hosted by Leon Neyfakh, took on Watergate and the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Last season, the show shifted gears with a turn towards one of the biggest stories in music, the rivalry between Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur in the early 90s. Hosted by Joel Anderson, that season illustrated how the Slow Burn franchise could be flexible. I asked Josh if Slow Burn has a template and what the team looks for when they decide on a story.
Josh Levin 04:55
I think a good story for our series is one that is fascinating in and of itself, that just as a story on its own, you want to know what happens, you are transfixed by the individual beats in that story. You don't know what is going to happen next. Or even if you do know, there is just still this feeling of suspense because we create this sense of living in the moment and being in a place in time when you don't know what the outcome is going to be. So just, on its own, kind of in a box, it's a story that you want to inhabit for a long amount of time. And then the second part of it is that you want a story that feels thematically important and like it resonates with things that are happening in our lives right now. You know, whether it's questions about power, or sex, or race, or gender, or, you know, what it means to stand up for a cause, what it means to capitulate, who makes decisions in a moment that we would now question, and who makes ones that we would now celebrate? Like, how does that happen? I think you can see all of those elements in every season no matter what the topic is.
Nick Quah 06:20
So when you sort of sit down to map out a season like this, how do you sort of see it in your mind? Like, do you have a number of setpieces you want to go after? Do you sort of identify characters to build it around? What does the initial planning process look like for you?
Josh Levin 06:39
It works as a feedback loop. So there are stories that I want to tell that have to do with the different plot points. So we're obviously going to tell a story, or a set of stories, around Duke running for governor in 1991. The other side of things, that there are a number of questions that I had going into the series: how did the press cover David Duke? How did the Republican Party deal with David Duke? And then you have a set of people that you think are interesting or important. And so there's some set of matching, of is there a person who exemplifies this theme or this plot point? Or there's this theme; who is the person that can help me tell that story? So all combinations of all those things are the process, which might lead you to the correct assumption that it's a bit chaotic and disorganized at times. But since 2019, I've been pursuing this, reading, watching, listening, interviewing, having conversations with the team at Slate. And we're still working on it, kind of until the thing is out in the world. We're still thinking, and refining, and trying to make it better.
Nick Quah 08:04
And this is all happening during a global pandemic. Josh says there were issues around archival access and recording interviews. But in the end, the team rallied and worked to make it come together remotely. I asked Josh about the process, like what it was like to edit with Christopher Johnson, who produces the series.
Josh Levin 08:23
So we're just now, as we're recording this, we're working through the opening section of the fourth episode, which is about the Senate race that Duke ran in in 1990. But the opener is this kind of setpiece about this rally at a bar in the swamp in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, and you hear Duke talking about bumper stickers and saying that everybody in the audience needs to put bumper stickers on their car.
David Duke (Excerpt) 08:56
I'm gonna stand up and do what I know is right. And I'm willing to fight for you, to speak for you, to say the things out loud what y'all say in your heart, and to your friends, your neighbors, your church, your work. I'm saying all that out loud, I hope I'm speaking for you. And if I want to do that, I'm gonna ask you, when you do something for me, and show where you stand and put a bumper sticker in your car. Will you do that for me? Will you raise your hands if you'll do that for me? I want to see it.
Josh Levin 09:24
And that then leads into this discussion about the meaning of iconography in these elections; the meaning, the valence of yard signs and bumper stickers, and what they stood for, and what they signified. And there's a personal element to that, because that's one of the things that really sticks in my mind. I don't remember the kind of blow-by-blow of a lot of this stuff, I was 10 years old. But I just--the signs of it never left my memory. And so that's a lot of different elements that I just described to you. You have like, Duke making this campaign speech, you have these examples that we cite of how yard signs were used and what they meant during that period, and then you have my personal reflections about what they meant to me. So like, turning those things up and down in the mix, in the proverbial mix, and also thinking of the different ways to use all of the archive, and all of the interviews, and research finds that we have to tell that story in a concise way. Like, that's the most recent thing I can remember where we had a back and forth about how to really make that story flow and also make people feel the things that I feel and want people to feel.
Nick Quah 10:41
Hmm. I want to pull back a little bit and talk about this season as a whole. What did you find was the most challenging thing about covering David Duke, or telling the story?
Josh Levin 10:53
One of the things we thought about is how much we care about David Duke as a person versus what he meant, what he espoused, what he stood for. I think you can see some of the choices that we made in the second episode, where we rewind and look at his time at LSU as an undergrad, at Free Speech Alley where he's out there making racist and anti-Semitic speeches, and then going on to found this new Ku Klux Klan, and kind of anointing himself the leader of this white power movement in the US. So we don't try to get inside Duke's head that much in that story. We don't focus too much on what his childhood was like or, you know, ask the question of, you know, why, why did he think these things that he thought? For a couple reasons, number one, I do think I landed on the side of more being interested in what he signified, what he stood for, and what he espoused being more important than just him. Like I don't want this to come off like this is David Duke's biography, like that feels less interesting and less warranted to me. But also those questions feel less knowable. And you know, who's to say why he turned out the way he did? Who's to say, you know, whether it could have come out any differently. But as far as the series went, I just felt like charting that path in that second episode, it felt very comfortable and it felt very important to me to lay out what Duke did, what he was trying to accomplish. Like, I felt pretty firm and solid in my views on that. And then what the different moments were along the way: Tom Snyder interviewing him, debate with Jesse Jackson.
Jesse Jackson (Excerpt) 12:54
Uh, we're not behind because of any lack of genes. We are behind because of the white agenda. That agenda was-- [Crosstalk]
David Duke (Excerpt) 13:01
[Crosstalk] White people--I should say the Jewish slave traders--if they would not have brought you over from Africa, I think your condition would be far less than it was today. So any, any condition you have today, as Black people above that of other Blacks, in the world standard of living, or rights, or freedoms, or whatever, is a responsibility of the, of the actions of the white people. That, that's why it's--you're sitting in a better position than other Blacks are around the world. Indeed, if Blacks wouldn't be here--
Jesse Jackson (Excerpt) 13:28
--wouldn't need you-- [Crosstalk]
David Duke (Excerpt) 13:28
[Crosstalk] --and you'd still be over there-- [Crosstalk]
Jesse Jackson (Excerpt) 13:30
[Crosstalk] --and the American whites are sitting— [Fades]
Nick Quah 13:32
This is tape from the 1977 televised debate between Duke and the Reverend Jesse Jackson in Chicago. After this broadcast, Duke became a "get," sort of an attention grabbing sideshow, for national networks.
Josh Levin 13:45
I mean, you can see in the 70s, when the media is giving him oxygen, there are these kind of personality profiles. This guy is interesting because he looks a particular way, because he's wearing a particular thing, because he sounds a particular way, and not really examining the underlying content of what he's saying, not really examining the intentions behind it, and sort of playing his game.
Nick Quah 14:12
Josh Levin 14:13
In that way of, you know, looking at the wrapping paper, rather than the the package, or looking at the cover rather than the book.
Nick Quah 14:20
Yeah, it's almost as if the media assumed people would hear what Duke was saying and draw the correct moral conclusion.
Josh Levin 14:26
Yeah. And you--I mean, you see this debate around Free Speech Alley--
Nick Quah 14:31
Josh Levin 14:32
--at LSU, where the values that are being championed there are very 1960s values around the importance of allowing anyone to say anything, and that that is the most important marker of a civil society that we can present a forum for views, even ones that we find abhorrent. That was sort of where a lot of people were in the late 1960s and early 70s. And I think you're right about what the intentions were. If we fast forward 5 to 10 years around these television bookings, there's a sort of--I don't know if it's naivete or arrogance--I don't think Tom Snyder had any sympathy for Duke's ideas; I actually think quite the opposite. I think he thought they were self-evidently wrong. And they thus would not have to do any work to disprove them. And so he gets into a situation where somebody is just much more prepared than he is because David Duke has been thinking about these ideas and presenting them to often unfriendly audiences for a very long time. And so he just gets the upper hand. That is something, I think, some, you know, whether they're television anchors or print journalists, think some had a better grasp on that than others; that there is this kind of imperative that when you're presenting a person like this or someone's ideas, that you're taking on a pretty large responsibility, and that you need to be aware of that and be willing to take that on. And that is something Josh Levin has been thinking about throughout the development of this series. It's a major responsibility. And with that in mind, he made a big decision early in the production process. He wasn't going to interview David Duke. More in a minute.
Nick Quah 16:43
David Duke has historically proven to be an incredibly difficult subject to report on, in large part due to his ability to spin, manipulate, and lie. For those reasons, the Slow Burn team decided to treat him differently. In the show, they walk listeners through his political philosophies, decade by decade. And as you'll hear, nothing really changes, including Duke's mission. Despite the refrain he uses to explain away his past. "We all change and grow."
Josh Levin 17:11
But he's still using whatever platform he has to foment racism and anti-Semitism. Duke is also congenitally dishonest. He made himself a mainstream political candidate by lying about his views and his background. His goal in interviews isn't to explain himself. It's to manipulate the record.
Nick Quah 17:33
Self-evidence is such an, like, an interesting word here because I, you know, a lot of that does reminds me of a lot of the conversations we've been seeing in just, discussions about news these days, like what do you give your attention to? What do you take seriously versus literally? That like, old nut with, I think, the early days of the Trump presidency. The thing I guess I'm thinking a lot about when I when I'm listening to the season, is like, this notion of bad faith. How it's really hard to identify and deal with bad faith actors within a system. And I'm curious as to if that's something that you thought about when you were working on the Duke story.
Josh Levin 18:11
Yeah, so, when Duke becomes a political candidate and then becomes an elected official, then he's treated as part of a category of political candidates--
Nick Quah 18:25
Josh Levin 18:25
--and elected officials. And there is the sort of assumption around people that fit in those categories, are in this particular band of beliefs, are in this particular band of normative behavior and discourse. And it's just very uncomfortable, I think, for--whether journalists, or fellow politicians, or just citizens to have someone who fits in this category--
Nick Quah 18:59
Josh Levin 19:00
--not actually be in that category, and then like, it just totally throws you off. Well, okay, we're treating other candidates this way, does that mean we have to treat him this way? And Duke would try to profit off of that and accuse people of hypocrisy, if they are not giving him the same amount of airtime. And then to kind of to zoom out a little bit, this was the game that he would play around, quote-unquote, "white rights," or "white civil rights."
Nick Quah 19:26
Josh Levin 19:26
If Black people get x, then white people have to get x or else you're a hypocrite, and it's unfair, and "I just want things to be equal, and why can't we have a white caucus in the state legislature?" "Why would you be offended by the National Association for the Advancement of White People? It's exactly the same as the NAACP." So he would play these games and kind of tie people into knots with it, or try to. It's a phenomenon that I've definitely thought about a lot and it's one that is really evident the kind of moment that you start digging into this stuff, everything from the NAAWP that I mentioned, to Duke's just complete obsession with Jesse Jackson, and comparing himself to Jesse Jackson, and trying to put himself on equal terms with him.
Nick Quah 20:13
Right, I mean, that--this is sort of like whataboutism in that it's kind of like, it reminds me of like, today's discourse about like, Black Lives Matter. That "white lives matter," that kind of like, "what about us" feeling.
Josh Levin 20:23
Nick Quah 20:23
That seems to be a rhetorical move that happens again, and again, and again. The other thing that's sort of really striking, and it comes across in the season, is, you know, just how kind of eerie and frightening he is as a character. Like so, there's a scene in the third episode, where Beth Rickey, who is, you know, a GOP, sort of, operative in the state of Louisiana at the time, you know that the, sort of, third episode follows this arc where she tries to, you know, infiltrate Duke's circles and in her own way tried to expose him to, sort of, the state GOP officials that be, and there's a scene specifically where she's talking about an encounter with Duke in a Chinese restaurant.
Beth Rickey (Excerpt) 21:00
Here we are at lunch, having lunch, and we're talking about bodies at death camps. And he was telling me how, in sort of a conspiratorial tone, leaning over and saying, you know, Beth, it really didn't happen. And, you know, finally one--at one point I leaned over and said, "David." He said, "Yep?" And I said, "Are you out of your mind?" And all around me life is going on. Yeah. Here are these normal people, sitting there eating Chinese food, and we're talking about him going to visit one of the death camps in Europe--Mauthausen, I believe--scraping the walls. He said, "Beth." You know, he talks like this, leans over with this kind of breathy voice. "Beth, if there had been any gassings, there would have been a residue on the walls, called Prussian blue. I went and scraped, there wasn't a residue." And he's telling me this and I wish I could convey to you this growing sense of horror to be sitting there talking to this guy, it was just--I just found it so offensive. And that was the last time we had lunch.
Nick Quah 22:12
So there's a couple of things about that scene in particular that I think kind of really sticks in my mind about Duke as a character within the show, which is, you know, he is really unsettling as a person, but he's also incredibly sort of slithery and charming in his own way. And he like, the sort of relationship between him and this woman Beth Rickey is one in which he's able to be somewhat persuasive. You just get that sense, the way that she talks about him. And I kind of recognize a kind of part of why you made the decision not to interview him for the show.
Josh Levin 22:44
He is a manipulator. That's what he has always set out to do. If I can go back to the very opening of the series, the scene that we chose to open with, he's at this Holocaust deniers conference and having a conversation with a grad student, Evelyn Rich, and a neo-nazi named Joe Fields. And he very openly talks about what his beliefs are about the Jews, about the Holocaust, about Hitler. And then when he's a political candidate, just a few years later, he says none of these things. And so his core beliefs never change. It's the way that he chooses to package them. It's what he chooses to emphasize. It's the guise that he appears in. And so somebody like Beth Rickey is so interesting, because she understood all that. She didn't just understand it, she had a visceral hatred for what Duke was and what he stood for. And she knew that going into having these conversations with him, having this kind of relationship with him. And yet, he still was able to work on her, which is just so interesting, and kind of amazing in its way, and we got so much great tape of Beth Rickey, in those moments, as she was kind of living through them and thinking through them talking about how she would talk to Duke and then need to be, she called it, "deprogrammed."
Nick Quah 24:19
Yeah, it seems that one of the sort of bigger takeaways from this story, and just experience in general, is like, there are just some things that you just can't take on their own terms. Like, you just can't even engage. And I think that's kind of an unsettling takeaway, almost.
Josh Levin 24:36
You know, another way to frame that is that there are some cases where the standard rules don't apply, where just kind of moving through life in the way that we would normally just isn't going to work. Now there are multiple people that you've heard throughout the series say that they weren't activists and didn't consider themselves activists. That's what Anne Levy, the Holocaust survivor, described herself as, and she just never wanted to talk about what happened to her. But she said that this feeling came over her and her body that she had to do it.
Anne Levy (Excerpt) 25:12
I never wanted to be in the papers and I never wanted to make a nuisance of myself. But it was something about making myself a nuisance to David Duke that I didn't mind. I was this meek, very in the back person that didn't speak up. And it really did change my life. It changed because, in a way, my children look at me differently. Because I did speak up.
Josh Levin 25:45
This was about more than politics. It was about more than an election, multiple elections, and about a choice between who is going to govern the state or be in the United States Senate. It was an--it's hard not to be too grandiose about this, but it's a kind of a choice of like, there are lots of different lines in the sand here about--
Nick Quah 26:07
Josh Levin 26:07
--things that you would countenance and things that you wouldn't, things that you would accept under the banner of your party and things that you wouldn't. This was just one of these moments that I think people either stepped up or didn't.
Nick Quah 26:21
Did you, at any point, feel nervous or scared to do the story?
Josh Levin 26:26
I think, in a particular way, I would say. I didn't feel under threat for my safety. But I would say, and this goes with the book that I did about Linda Taylor, who was the woman who was known as the welfare queen. I will tell you, I felt nervous about doing both of these stories, because they're just so fraught, they cut so emotionally deep and get really at the core of prejudice and racism and the kind of terrible things that we do to each other. And these stories need to be taken on with a lot of sensitivity and I don't want to get it wrong. And so, that's the way in which I'm nervous, is that I want to do justice to a story that feels important to me, and that I hope is important to people that listen to it. And those are the kinds of stories that, as journalists, we want to do; you don't want to do a story where there's no risk involved, that just feels easy and straightforward. And it feels like you're gonna learn a lot more and you're gonna, you know, make people feel things if you're getting into this kind of rough territory.
Nick Quah 27:33
Do you have a sort of "Moby Dick" story in your mind that would be a perfect Slow Burn story right now that you just not--just don't think that there is enough bandwidth to cover yet?
Josh Levin 28:01
This was it for me, man. Like, I guess--
Nick Quah 28:02
This was the one for you.
Josh Levin 28:03
Well, it's like, what do you do when you do the thing that you've been wanting to do for so long? I mean, this was the story that was on the top of my list. Vann Newkirk did an amazing job with Floodlines.
Nick Quah 28:17
Floodlines is fantastic, yeah.
Josh Levin 28:19
Love--really love that, um--
Nick Quah 28:21
Do you think that's a Slow Burn story?
Josh Levin 28:24
I think it could have been. And I think that it's a story that's personally very meaningful to me. Because I'm from New Orleans and Vann did that show differently. It sounded like Vann, which made it great. So there's kind of a limited number of stories--at least for me, I don't want to speak for everyone--that feel both deeply personal and like other people are going to care about them in a way that, you know, you might be able to make them feel as deeply about it or they already do feel deeply about it. David Duke was really one of those for me just because of the circumstances of who I am and where I came from.
Nick Quah 29:07
We'd generally like to wrap up each of these conversations with--do you have any podcasts that you're listening to that you're really enjoying right now? Or recently?
Josh Levin 29:14
Can I go with my same answer from a second ago?
Nick Quah 29:17
Josh Levin 29:18
Nick Quah 29:18
Let's talk about that show a little bit more, because I, you know, I don't think I have heard a show written and scored like that before. Like, there's something about the way that they used music that really had a hyperreality to it.
Josh Levin 29:33
Nick Quah 29:35
What stood out to you the most about that show?
Josh Levin 29:38
What you just said, and also the ways in which institutional voices are placed alongside those of--I don't want to use the term ordinary, but, you know, people who were living through this catastrophe, this disaster, and were placed on the same level, with the same amount of importance. And the kind of humanity of the series, the way in which it was able to tell a very close-up, zoomed-in story about people and about their lives, while also telling a story about kind of enormous structural and cultural forces, and the impact they have on this specific set of people and all of us. I think it was just so deftly done. And I also, if I can say this, I think Vann just has an amazing voice.
Nick Quah 30:36
Josh Levin 30:37
Just feel like you're in very good hands and you're being told a story by someone that you want to be listening to.
Nick Quah 30:50
Well, I'm really enjoying the season. Josh, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.
Josh Levin 30:56
Appreciate it. Thank you, Nick.
Nick Quah 31:09
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristin Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Kids' Podcasts: A True Alternative To Screen Time?
Season 1, Episode 7
Sun, 8/23 9:36PM • 36:04
podcast, kids, episodes, people, creators, listening, media, big, audience, brains, questions, molly, called, host, parents, thinking, camille, feel, gilly, intellectual property
Podcast Excerpt, Excerpt from Tumble, Lindsay Patterson, Nick Quah, Priyanka Mattoo, Camille Stanley, Molly Bloom, Excerpt from Brains On
Nick Quah 00:01
What are you listening to right now?
Priyanka Mattoo 00:02
So much Story Pirates, I can't even tell you.
Nick Quah 00:06
Priyanka Mattoo 00:07
So much Story Pirates.
Nick Quah 00:08
Has that podcast been a big part of your parenting experience?
Priyanka Mattoo 00:11
It has now. It's really interesting because I'm trying to keep my son busy, he's got a very active mind and I have a personal--I detest screens. That's just a thing.
Nick Quah 00:22
That's Priyanka Mattoo, the co-founder of the podcast company Earios. She was on the very first episode of this show. And she's not alone in what she's describing here. The fight against screentime is very real. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Today, a closer look at kids' podcasts. Are they the answer to screentime? But first, let's talk about intellectual property and creators of color. More in a minute. The subject of intellectual property ownership and creators of color has become a real hot button issue in recent weeks. When the hosts of The Knot and Another Round took to Twitter to draw attention to the fact that they didn't own their respective shows. This is an issue that highlights greater inequalities in the media business--inequalities that have historically and disproportionately affected creators of color. Camille Stanley wrote a lengthy piece for Hotpod recently exploring this subject; specifically, how creators of color are grappling with a system that puts them in a structural disadvantage, even in the relatively new context of podcasting. Camille, welcome to the show.
Camille Stanley 01:50
Nick Quah 01:51
Alright, so walk me through what you found.
Camille Stanley 01:54
So, the first thing I found was that everyone wanted to talk about this, which is not surprising because it's a conversation that has been going on, I think, for producers and creators of color, not just in the context of podcasting, but just in the context of living. But I think there was definitely something that seemed to be a nerve that was struck after the hosts of The Knot and Another Round really just bared what they've been going through, which is making very successful shows, very meaningful shows, with strong attachments from their audiences, and then their audiences finding out that they don't own them, and then, to varying degrees, going public with like, what their fights are. The second thing that I found was that although podcasting is very small, relative to other mediums, and maybe bigger media structures, that there are definitely people who are watching this space and seeing what is going on. And podcasting seems to be kind of at a--I don't know if it would be an inflection point, but certainly kind of a reckoning that gels with what, really, the whole country is going through.
Nick Quah 03:04
Right. So a big part of my understanding of the story is that the sort of intellectual property and ownership arrangements that we've seen have largely been carried over from sort of these older, larger media structures. And there's a feeling that with podcasting, there's an opportunity to sort of rebuild this. And the fact that we're seeing this replicated again, is sort of, kind of feels like a--almost like a loss of opportunity or betrayal.
Camille Stanley 03:26
Nick Quah 03:27
And you've had some experience with this yourself, is that right?
Camille Stanley 03:29
Yeah. I'm a black woman and I have been in podcasting about five years. During that time, I was making a show for other people. So I totally understand the idea of pouring yourself into something and then having a realization that you don't own it.
Nick Quah 03:46
Right. And so one of the bigger sort of counter arguments I've heard so far has been sort of like, well, sort of, what do you expect from these arrangements from these larger companies? They are the ones that's putting in resources and they are the ones that sort of taking on the risk in these arrangements. What's your sense of the validity of that counter argument?
Camille Stanley 04:05
So I think there's definitely a validity to, for a certain class of podcast, it does take resources, it does take money to produce them, to make them happen, to market them, to get them to big audiences, right? That is the fact of that. Like, it's a seductive thing to conflate the kind of little-D democratization that happens in podcasting, because people can make it easily and it can be distributed easily. It's easy to confuse that with like, that making content is easy. Making content has never been easy, right? Or necessarily inexpensive.
Nick Quah 04:42
Camille Stanley 04:43
Nick Quah 04:43
I can relate, I can relate.
Camille Stanley 04:45
Exactly. However, I think it's a little bit of people questioning right now, for the big boys, for the big media companies, for them to think like, well, we have to do all these things and it costs so much money, therefore we hold all the power. So I think that's where the push and pull is, so to speak, specifically in the medium of podcasting. Hosts in particular, they are not just as "switch-out-able". It's not a word, but it's what I'm going to say here. You know, like, people get attached because podcasting is such an intimate medium, right? It is much less easy for a media company to just say, well, this show, we'll just take this person out because they're, you know, maybe getting a little uppity, and put someone else in. Like that doesn't work. The audience doesn't accept that. They attach much more strongly the creator to the show, which means that, whether or not media companies want to acknowledge it or not, there is power there. And IP ownership is a form of power and it should come as no surprise, I think that this is bubbling right now in podcasting. Also because I mean, people are just like, it doesn't have to be this way. We don't have to go the way of the music industry. We don't have to go the way of big legacy news organizations.
Nick Quah 06:11
Camille Stanley 06:12
Nick Quah 06:13
That kind of leads up to this little larger question, which is, you know, if it doesn't have to be this way, what should it look like? And in your piece, you talked to a couple of intellectual property lawyers about this, who's thinking really hard about equitable arrangements? What did you find? And what do you feel is a productive way moving forward to restructure these intellectual property agreements?
Camille Stanley 06:33
So there's kind of like this parallel work that needs to be done, right? On the structural level, producers themselves, creators flexing their business muscle, that means like paying attention just as much to their business--and they are a business--as they do the creative part of it.
Nick Quah 06:51
Camille Stanley 06:52
Nick Quah 06:53
The whole context, yeah.
Camille Stanley 06:54
Yes, yes. On the industry side, it will require them giving up some stuff; giving up some power, recognizing that, hey, if we're making this pie together, I don't automatically have to get the biggest slice. Or, I can give a bigger slice to a creator. But in the context of all of this, because, again, none of this is happening in a vacuum, there will be pushback and there'll be resistance, because there's a lot of work that just has to be done like, on the on the people level, right? So if the industry is largely white, largely has shut out these groups, then there will have to be structural changes that happened before, like the hard work begins, so to speak. Like, there's some hard work and some head work and some policy work that has to be done on both individuals' and industry sides. So like, everybody needs to get to work. But specifically, they really think that this is a moment where producers themselves, creators themselves, should feel emboldened to flex. And that's even if you are making a podcast for a company now, there's no reason why you can't say, hey, I'm making the show. Can we talk about, after the season, us rethinking our relationship?
Nick Quah 08:12
Yeah. So, essentially the permission structure is open now to have these conversations as an opportunity and a window here to really, really push forward into some real concessions on the industry's part.
Camille Stanley 08:22
Nick Quah 08:24
So in your reporting, did you find any models of arrangements that people have generally felt good about?
Camille Stanley 08:31
You know, I found people who felt like they have come to a good compromise. Kristen Meinzer from By The Book talked about how she doesn't own her show outright, even though she tried to buy it, but the home that she landed with, Stitcher, she does feel like they're investing in the show and that they have given them a seat at--her and her co-host--a seat at the table when it comes to kind of future uses of their IP. Rebecca Nagle, of the This Land podcast, talked about working out IP with Crooked Media and how she was able to come to a place where she shared IP with them. Many creators would love to own it outright, but there are some people who are coming to kind of a compromise. And that's actually--it supports what the experts told me, which is, you have to decide kind of like, within your own heart and mind like, what's most important to you, and maybe giving a little bit away to have a little bit more freedom might be okay with you, but maybe holding on to that ownership 100% is so important, and that's how you kind of want to move through the world.
Nick Quah 09:32
Last question from me. Does this feel like a hopeful moment for you?
Camille Stanley 09:36
Oof. Oh, man. In the world? No. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 09:40
No, I mean, specifically for this issue, like, I too have mixed feelings about hope in our world right now, but I mean, specifically, do you feel like there is room to actually make headway here? Like we can actually see something change?
Camille Stanley 09:55
I do think there is room. I do think there is room and I think there's headway, if only because--I mean, I'm not necessarily thinking on the institution side or industry side--but I think you will see creators of color, and creators, not of color, just everyone, like, I think, flexing a little bit, and I think they should, and I think they should feel empowered to do that. Because their work proves that like, they do hold inherent power, whether or not that's being recognized right now by the industry yet or not.
Nick Quah 10:27
So, Camille, usually I like to ask people what they're listening to these days. Do you have something that you'd like to share?
Camille Stanley 10:33
Okay, I'm just gonna tell you guys what I was listening to this morning.
Nick Quah 10:36
Oh, go for it.
Camille Stanley 10:36
I think we can all use a little Zen in our life. So um, I was listening to the 10% Happier podcast--
Nick Quah 10:43
With Dan Harris, right?
Camille Stanley 10:44
Yes, with Dan Harris. And it was an episode about kind of the foundations of meditation. It was just really nice because it wasn't--if you whether you meditate or not, whether you're like super deep into it or not--like, it was just laid out like really, for like foundational things for kind of any practice, so I found it like, as a good reset and something that I think we could all, in today's world, like use. Just like, take a second.
Nick Quah 11:09
Are you a big meditator?
Camille Stanley 11:12
I practice daily. I don't know that I'm big, but I, I believe in it. And I try to practice it. I'm not always so great at it. But yeah.
Nick Quah 11:20
I'm envious. I tried meditating. I fell off the wagon a couple of months ago.
Camille Stanley 11:23
That's part of it. That's part of it.
Nick Quah 11:26
Thank you so much for your time.
Camille Stanley 11:27
Nick Quah 11:35
When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was sit in front of a screen. Television, early 2000s Internet, video games, video games, video games. I fried my eyeballs by the time I reached high school. If you have a young child, you might have anxieties about that whole screen time thing. How much is too much? What is it doing to your brains? Surely something that addictive is inherently bad. I imagined these anxieties are even worse during the pandemic. You know, you're trying to deal with work while trying to deal with your kids. And a lot of those dealings involve negotiation of screen time. Now, I personally don't have kids--I have a cat--so I'm only going from anecdotes here. But I imagine it's been hell for parents everywhere. So if you're worried about the whole screentime thing, and if you're worried about your kids' eyeballs, I think I know something that might help.
Podcast Excerpt 12:33
That's I'm talking about! High fives all around! Welcome to The Music Box. This is the story about Thomas the Tank Engine. I'm Julie Andrews, and this is my library. It's Two Whats?! and a Wow!
Nick Quah 12:50
Now, kids' podcasts have been around for a while, but over the past few years, they really blew up. And as you would expect, they've seen a real bump since schools everywhere started closing down. And now it's summer, and schools are still closed. So are podcasts the answer to too much screentime? And if they are, why aren't more people making them?
Molly Bloom 13:15
You know, when we first started--we started Brains On like, we're like, one of the granddaddies of kids podcasting. We started back in 2012.
Nick Quah 13:23
Molly Bloom is a key member of the creative team behind Julie Andrews's new podcast for kids: Julie's Library. She's also the host and co-creator of American Public Media's Brains On and its spinoff, Smash Boom Best. Brains On is a science show for kids. And it's also one of the longest running kids' podcasts.
Molly Bloom 13:40
And back then, like, a lot of what we heard from people was like, kids would never listen to anything without a screen. Like, they like to look at stuff. Kids listen to stories all the time. Like, they're always listening to what people are saying to them. They love to listen to stories. I mean, kids back in the 30s listened to radio shows, so there's no reason they wouldn't want to do that now, too.
Nick Quah 13:58
This has been especially true for the past few months, with schools out indefinitely because of the pandemic. Molly's dealing with this issue herself, self-isolating with her husband and four-year-old daughter. We spoke back in April.
Molly Bloom 14:10
She thought it was hilarious when I recorded an episode in our closet. She was telling everybody we FaceTimed with about it like, "Mommy recorded Brains On in the closet!" But you know, and so, she is around a lot--like, she was near me when we were doing a script readthrough for our episode we did about social distancing.
Excerpt from Brains On 14:29
People are being extra careful. They're not going out much. They're avoiding crowds. A lot of schools and restaurants and stores are closed for a while. Lots of events and parties have been canceled. And everyone is washing their hands.
Molly Bloom 14:44
And she was listening to it, and it was really interesting, because she like, stopped and asked me some questions. She's like, wait, so even this is closed, and this? And so, she was tracking and listening, which was interesting for me because she is on that younger end of the spectrum. But I think it just goes to show like how much this is impacting all of us. And kids understand so much more than we think, I think, sometimes, so like, it's important for a show like ours to really address all of these things head on. So we've done you know, three episodes about Coronavirus now. And we have more on the way.
Nick Quah 15:16
Has this sort of experience of thinking about what the acute needs are of kids right now sort of altering the way you're thinking about episodes in general? Like, I think the most recent one that just came out--and we're recording this around mid-April--was one about laughter.
Molly Bloom 15:29
Nick Quah 15:29
Did I get it right?
Molly Bloom 15:30
Yeah, it was about tickles and cuteness. Yeah.
Nick Quah 15:33
Has the sort of like, the approach sort of different with any sort of increased awareness of what, what kids are feeling right now?
Molly Bloom 15:39
Yeah, I think generally, we do evergreen episodes. So like everything that we do, are things you know--they're all inspired by questions we get from our audience, which is awesome. We get you know, hundreds and hundreds of emails and letters from our audience every week with the questions they want answered. So we always pick from that big pool of questions for our editorial calendar and we plan far out, but with this happening, basically we've been doing, every other week, episodes about Coronavirus and then more like our normal episodes because we want to provide counterprogramming as well, because kids have a lot of questions about Coronavirus, but they also need some relief. And so the episodes that we are doing in sort of rotation with our Coronavirus episodes are ones that we're trying to make, you know, very fun and very engaging in a way that's very different than our Coronavirus episodes.
Nick Quah 16:28
How has sort of like, the listenership, or the audience, for Brains On change since schools started closing? Have you seen sort of a market bump? Has there been sort of a 20% increase? How's it look like for you?
Molly Bloom 16:38
It's grown a lot. Over the past month, we saw, I think, a little over 60% increase. And then just compared to like a year ago, at the same time, I think it was 100% increase over that time. Yeah, it's been kind of incredible to see how many people, I think, are just discovering that kids podcast exist for the first time, because that's sort of been something that, you know, I think, our little genre has always struggled with is that people don't necessarily think about it as an option for their kids, even if they do listen themselves. It doesn't occur to them that there actually are podcasts for kids out there. And so now I think as people are home, and looking for alternatives to screentime, but also something that they can kind of put on and like have their kid entertained while they do something else, because everyone's you know, trying to do that: get work done, or get the dishes done, or whatever, while entertaining your kids. And so it's exciting for us that people are discovering kids podcasts.
Nick Quah 17:33
Do you have a, like a recommended way to slot it into your routine?
Molly Bloom 17:37
I mean, I think like, you know, while eating or coloring, like, I think a lot of kids like to color or kind of like, build Legos or something while they listen, or just kind of like, how I used to listen to podcasts; back when I first started listening, I would like put on a podcast and knit because it's just like a really nice thing to like, do something with your hands and also listen to a podcast, and I think for a lot of kids, they kind of let their imaginations wander and like, make cool drawings while they're listening, and we get like, sent a ton of drawings from our audience, which we love. Like, we have these two characters we created for our Coronavirus episodes called Kara and Gilly, who are viruses who host a podcast called "Going Viral," sort of based on My Favorite Murder, very loosely.
Excerpt from Brains On 18:18
Hit it, Gilly! I'm Kara. And I'm Gilly! And this is "Going Viral with Kara and Gilly!" Sup Kara? How's things? Good, good, yeah, I've been infecting a new friend. It's going well, but I hope they don't get sick of me. Ugh, Kara.
Molly Bloom 18:38
And so we've had a ton of giants of carrying Gilly in a Kleenex on the floor of a closet recording their podcast.
Nick Quah 18:45
For the record, I too doodle and draw when I listen to podcasts.
Molly Bloom 18:48
Nick Quah 18:49
Actually, I've always been curious about this. So, I am a childless adult. So I haven't had been privy, or had the privilege of watching, consuming a lot of children's media, and I'm curious as to when you create one of these episodes, and when you sort of think through the experience of it, how much are you writing and producing for the kid? And how much are you writing and producing for the parents that you know would be, or might be, listening with the kid?
Molly Bloom 19:14
That's a great question. Yeah. So for us like one of the things--we have sort of like, some like, core principles, I guess you could call them, when we first started making it and those have like, really stayed in place the whole time, which is like, we didn't want to talk down to kids, we felt very strongly about that. We wanted to feature a ton of kids voices in the show. And we wanted to make something that would not annoy their parents. So those are sort of our like, three main things. And so when we set out to answer these questions, we're learning a ton. And so we figured the parents listening are also probably learning a lot about those topics. And also, we try to make ourselves laugh a lot too. So like, we kind of look at it like sort of like Looney Tunes where there's like, a ton of jokes in there, or like a Pixar movie where like, there's a lot for kids to hang on to but there's also some jokes that probably only the parents will get. Like we did an extended skit about lobsters that involved lobsters in a conference call and there was a lot of great conference call humor.
Excerpt from Brains On 20:12
Okay, lobsters Okay, everybody, it's time. Let's get this meeting started. Let's get it going. So, we should say who's here--I think you all know me. I am Lenny Lobster, of course. Head of Marketing. Lily. Thanks, Lenny. Hi, Lily Lobster, deputy of public relations. Oh, hi, I guess I'm next. Hi, I'm Lucy Lobster. Creative Director. Hey, Lucy. Alright. And I know we have some lobsters on the phone, who's on the phone with us? It's just Rock from the Mid Atlantic office. Hi, everyone. Hi, Rock!
Molly Bloom 20:43
You know, the cool thing about doing an audio product for kids, rather than like, a book, is that kids are able to do listening comprehension sort of above their reading comprehension level. So you can introduce more complicated words and ideas than you would be able to in text.
Nick Quah 21:02
Would it--is it a fair assessment to sort of like think that--aren't children just like little adults, when you sort of like, think about them in that way? They are asking exactly the same questions that we are. There's just like a little bit of a difference in prior knowledge. Is that sort of how you think about when you're writing for kids?
Molly Bloom 21:19
Like, a little bit, yeah, like, I mean, they want to know the same things we want to know. But I think it's sort of like, you know, if there is a scary side of something, presenting that in a way where you can also talk about the good parts of it, like, so I think, you know, we don't do a lot of things that relate to death and dying. We have, but when we talk about it, we do it in this very, very sensitive way that we would not do if we were talking about it with adults.
Nick Quah 21:46
Molly says that the podcast was born out of boredom. Molly and her co-producers, Sanden Totten and Mark Sanchez, were antsy in their day jobs and they were looking for a side project. At the time, the world of kids' podcasts was still really small. It felt like an opportunity.
Molly Bloom 22:04
I think, at that--when we started Brains On there were no active kids' podcasts in the iTunes Store. We were kind of the only one who was posting episodes for a while. And it was interesting. It was cool because like, there was no template. Until like, when we made our first four pilot episodes, it took us a really, really long time to make those episodes, just because I think we were trying to figure out what that sounded like. So I think that sort of just shows like, how long we spent thinking about what we wanted to be in the show and what we wanted to show it to do. But back then, like when we were booking guests, we always had to explain what a podcast was. Or just like, say radio show, because it was just easier a lot of times, but now we don't have to do that anymore, which is awesome.
Nick Quah 22:46
The team started releasing episodes in 2015. But it didn't really become a full-time job until 2017, with help from a National Science Foundation grant. Now it's all they do. The kids' podcast world has changed quite a bit since 2015. There's a lot more of them now, and it's beginning to fill up with bigger and bigger names. So I wondered if Molly missed "the good old days?"
Molly Bloom 23:12
No, I mean, like, I mean, I think, you know, it was helpful to us in growing our audience in the beginning, because when people were looking for our kids' podcasts, search for kids' podcasts, they found us. Even though we had like, no marketing money to spend, we built an audience pretty quickly because people were looking for it and hungry for it. As the number of podcasts has grown, so has the audience. So like, as there's more and more audience, that's great, because there's more audience for everybody.
Nick Quah 23:42
There may be more shows, and there may be more audience for everybody. But one thing that will always set Brains On apart is one of the more intriguing segments: The Mystery Sound. It's exactly what it sounds like: a kid sends in a mystery sound and listeners have to guess what it is. I couldn't let her go without taking a shot at one.
Molly Bloom 24:00
I was hoping you'd ask. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 24:03
[Laughter] I haven't played a kids' game since I was a child, so let's see how this goes.
Molly Bloom 24:08
This one is very difficult.
Nick Quah 24:11
Molly Bloom 24:11
So here it is.
Nick Quah 24:26
It's a horn, or at least somebody making a horn-like sound with their hands.
Molly Bloom 24:32
You are--hmm. Yes, that is definitely happening. Do you have any idea what they're making that sound with?
Nick Quah 24:42
Sounds like sheets of plastic? I have no idea.
Molly Bloom 24:44
Okay. Well, you are like 50% of the way there, which is really great. The answer is, that is one of our listeners blowing through bull kelp.
Excerpt from Brains On 24:56
My name is Otis, from Victoria, and I'm six years old. That was the sound of bull kelp horn. Bull kelp is a plant that grows in the ocean. It looks like a cow's tail.
Nick Quah 25:09
Wait, like, kelp? Like the underwater plant?
Molly Bloom 25:13
Yes. And it's so big that it's like, basically the size of a hose. And you can blow through it and make that noise. And--
Nick Quah 25:20
How did it--?
Molly Bloom 25:20
--he just happened to find this near his house.
Nick Quah 25:23
Is it edible? Like, what's the deal with this kelp? Molly, thank you so much, and keep safe out there.
Molly Bloom 25:32
Yeah, you too. Thanks for having me.
Nick Quah 25:39
Molly Bloom is one of the creators of Brains On and Smash Boom Best from American Public Media. The team's latest project is a storytelling podcast from Julie Andrews called Julie's Library, and that's out now. Okay, so, kids' podcasts are big now. But it wasn't always that way. More after the break. It's a little crude to say it, but making stuff for kids is still a business. The people doing the making need to put food on the table, you know? But there's an uneasiness to selling ads on something made for kids to make it all work. Sure, maybe we're a little numb to all of that, with kids' YouTube channels and Saturday morning cartoons, but still, when it comes to something like a kids' podcast, which does feel a little different from all that, there is something uneasy about the whole affair. So I thought I'd call up Lindsay Patterson. She's the co-creator of Tumble Media, which makes another science podcast for kids called Tumble.
Excerpt from Tumble 26:52
Hi, I'm Lindsay. And I'm Marshall. Welcome to Tumble: the show where we explore stories of science discovery. Today, we have the story of the first alien visitor to our solar system. Alien visitors like Mr. Spock--?
Nick Quah 27:05
Like Brains On, Tumble has seemed quite a bump since the start of the global lockdown. Even if the show doesn't resonate with everyone--
Lindsay Patterson 27:13
He is not our biggest listener. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 27:17
--like her own son.
Lindsay Patterson 27:19
His favorite show is Circle Round. And we listened to the new episode twice in a row today.
Nick Quah 27:24
In addition to Tumble Media, Lindsay is the co-founder of Kids Listen, where she advocates for better-quality audio shows aimed at children. She's been a champion for kids' shows for a long time, going back to the years when it was really hard to get any of them off the ground. She said that the genre has a serious numbers problem.
Lindsay Patterson 27:43
What I discovered is, basically, there's been a general narrative, in at least public media, which is the world that I come from, that data is not collected on kids under the age of 12, and therefore, you know, the radio consultants that said, "yes, this is good," or "no, this is not worth spending money on," kind of always were keen to cut the kids' shows. So time after time, efforts to make kids' shows were killed off. It just wasn't something that radio was ever able to support. And I sort of have the theory that as a result of the lack of models for, you know, up-and-coming producers to follow, they just didn't have the idea that you could make audio content for kids, which is why when we started Tumble, the most common question we got was, are kids even going to listen to a story without pictures? But--
Nick Quah 28:45
Wait, who was like, asking that question?
Lindsay Patterson 28:48
I mean, just like people, we would tell the idea to, like, friends, family; everybody was really skeptical. And so it was just, I think, a lack of the tradition of audio for kids, at least in the world of public media and commercial radio, that sort of led to the idea that this is going to be a really difficult sell. I did a story on this, because I just couldn't let it go, digging into the history of public radio shows for kids. And there was a show called Kids America, produced by WNYC, that ran for four years and they had incredible level of engagements. But, you know, when it comes along to radio consultants, deciding what can you spend money on for the next year, people just really did not see the value in children's programming because there weren't really the numbers there to support it, because the numbers simply were not being collected. You know, there was definitely proof, but I really felt like the number one thing that we had to do when proving to the larger podcast ecosystem that kids are an audience, that they are listeners, and that they're a valuable audience, is get data to substantiate what we were hearing in emails from kids, from teachers, from parents, saying that their kids were really engaged in it. So that's sort of how we started Kids Listen.
Nick Quah 30:25
Lindsay teamed up with a few other kids' podcast creators to pull together a survey. They needed more data to support their work. And what they found was supremely helpful.
Lindsay Patterson 30:33
The one that I return to over and over again, because it surprised me so much, is that 80% of parents reported that their kids listened to an episode more than once, their favorite episode more than once. And of that 80%, 20% reported listening 10 or more times.
Nick Quah 30:56
I feel like any household with a Frozen or Frozen 2 DVD would probably be familiar with this.
Lindsay Patterson 31:02
Yeah, it was so surprising for me, but then, thinking about it, I was like, this makes complete sense. And so I think it was really easy to then express to people; this is what we're seeing, and it's consistent with just how kids consume their favorite kinds of media in general. And then people are like, "yeah, oh, yeah, I can totally see that." I think that kids find a lot of comfort in repetition. And once they find something they're into, they're really, really into it. So it's a combination of like, you know, I'm cuddling up with the thing that I like most. And also, I like this routine. I like this episode. These are just a few of my favorite things, basically.
Nick Quah 31:49
All right, so you you sent out a survey that was the sort of major findings and, since then, my understanding is that the genre has definitely sort of taken a leap, or grown steadily and quietly over the past few years. How do you think the kids' podcast community has changed since you co-founded Kids Listen?
Lindsay Patterson 32:04
You know, when we started, it was all people who were independent, even if they were working from a station, you know, they were kind of going rogue and coming up with their own ideas. And that definitely still exists. But I think there's a lot more support for people to get funding off the bat, to get large distribution deals off the bat. And more people coming in from other areas, whether it's like, TV, film, other corners of the podcasting universe and say, okay, yeah, I've--this looks interesting. Like, why don't I try my hand at this? So I think that we're at the point where it is much more mature, but I think it's, I think it's always sort of two years behind the adults' podcast ecosystem.
Nick Quah 32:54
Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about the numbers bump we've been seeing under the quarantine conditions. What are the specific roles that kids' podcasting can play in these times? Can you walk me through your thinking on that?
Lindsay Patterson 33:05
In the Kids Listen survey, we saw that 70% of parents had searched out podcasts as a screen free option for entertainment and education for their kids. So, you know, it's something that parents can put on to take a little break, to give their kids a bit of rest, and not feel bad about it. You know, so often as parents, we feel guilty about the kinds of distractions we provide our kids with, but when I put a podcast on for my son, I feel like I'm doing something good for him. You know, the pandemic and its effects are going to last a very long time. So I think we're gonna continue to see audience growth and then, fingers crossed, once it's over and people return to their normal routines, podcasts are going to be a part of their media diet.
Nick Quah 34:05
Before we go, what are you listening to right now?
Lindsay Patterson 34:08
I'm actually listening to Audm, the app that just reads articles.
Nick Quah 34:13
The New York Times has acquired--yeah.
Lindsay Patterson 34:15
I find it really comforting just to have like, the simple voice reading to me. So I'm just, you know, finding enjoyable articles about pop culture to be read in a calming voice.
Nick Quah 34:28
Do you feel like it's a kind of a return to being a kid when somebody reads a story out loud to you? Like there's a bit of a comfort there?
Lindsay Patterson 34:35
Yeah, I think so. And I mean, I think that circles back to the power of communicating to kids. It's like, when times are hard, you want to go back to what you really enjoyed on like, a very basic level. That kind of like, comforting storytelling really taps into like, things are going to be okay, I can be calm, like, I can get through this. Those patterns that you start developing when you're a kid. They last a really long time.
Nick Quah 35:05
Lindsay, thanks so much for taking time to talk to us. I really appreciate this conversation.
Lindsay Patterson 35:09
Thank you so much for having me. It's been a joy.
Nick Quah 35:23
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital marketing team at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Hank Green: Big Money in Podcasting
Season 1, Episode 5
Fri, 8/21 8:09PM • 33:03
spotify, podcasts, youtube, people, creators, content, hank green, audience, platform, hank, world, money, feel, big, listening, ways, creating, apple, crash course, monetization
Hank Green (excerpt from Brotherhood 2.0), Anna Akana (excerpt from Crash Course), Nick Quah, Hank Green
Hank Green 00:01
I think it's a big messy moment. And it may be that Spotify coming into this is ultimately going to be good for a lot of types of people. And that it may actually make the ecosystem more robust, and have people make more money, and give people more choice, and maybe I'm just being a curmudgeon.
Nick Quah 00:24
from LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Hank Green knows what happens when something unique and quirky grows up to be something else. As a veteran YouTuber, he's seen how that platform evolved from a weird one to land into a vast machine of content and commerce. Hank is also a podcaster, making shows like Dear Hank and John and SciShow Tangents. He sees podcasting right now as similar to YouTube's early days, and he doesn't necessarily want to see that change. In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, he wrote, quote, “It's a decentralized, hacked-together, open system. And as a podcaster and a listener. I think it works perfectly.”
Hank Green 01:13
I remember when this kind of happened to YouTube, and ultimately what it meant was that it felt a little less like home, but it was open to a lot more people. And it was an option, it was a place for more people. You know, me wanting that not to happen was, you know, in some ways me wanting things to stay the same, but in some ways, it was me wanting to deny it to other people.
Nick Quah 01:39
Hank Green on what happens when big money hits a young community. Throughout his work, Hank Green has been consistently drawn to building communities. His passion for bringing people together started in 2007 with a vlog that he made with his big brother, the author John Green, called Brotherhood 2.0. The brothers vowed to stop all forms of communication except for their daily vlogs, which they posted on YouTube.
Hank Green (excerpt from Brotherhood 2.0) 02:23
Good morning, John. January 5, and I'm sitting in my basement back home surrounded by all the things I love. I love orange juice, I love Mental Floss magazine, and Benjamin Franklin.
Nick Quah 02:35
Before Brotherhood 2.0 the brothers spoke maybe once or twice a year. Now they talk every single day. They developed a big following, and they call those fans Nerdfighters. They'd host meetups around the country, and those meetups turned into conferences; most notably VidCon, the largest online video conference in the world. For a person who primarily makes stuff over the internet, building spaces where people feel connected to each other is remarkably important to him.
Hank Green 03:05
Oh, I think it's, I mean, for me, it's the meaning of life to some extent. So yeah, I mean, it's like, the big thing where I think that I'm happier when I have people who I love things with, and I am happy to be able to provide that service to other people. And we are headed into a world and increasingly are in a world where there is less community and more loneliness, and that is extremely unhealthy, like actually unhealthy for people's bodies. And also unhealthy, I think, societally, and ultimately leads to searching for meaning in ways that are not community. And a lot of those can be—not all of them, but a lot of them—can be destructive. So it's not just like something that I really enjoy, it's something that I really think is vital to the long term stability of humans and ,like, individual prospering. We are a communal species. We are, you know, we are obviously individuals, but I think that any robust understanding of humans recognizes that we are sort of collective first, individual second.
Nick Quah 04:21
Hank Green is prolific, usually working on three or four projects at a time. Right now, he has four podcasts, he has a book coming out, and I'm sure he has more stuff in the pipeline that I don't know about. It's a lot.
Hank Green 04:37
I mean, I'm not great at it. It's always been a combination of two things, like, what is the thing I'm most excited about and what is the obligation that I am most not fulfilling? And sometimes those are the same thing. Like sometimes the thing that I am, have, like obliged myself to do to people who I love and respect is also something that I am really excited about doing. But oftentimes it is not. Where my excitement comes from is actually something I'm trying to be more mindful of. Because sometimes I think that the excitement comes from, you know, that fuel is coming from unhealthy places, but sometimes it's not. And I need to recognize the difference between those things.
Nick Quah 05:19
Okay, could you explore that a little bit more? Because I feel like I'm struggling with the same thing. I feel like most often than not my my own productivity comes from—sort of an anxiety of like not being able to do something, or like not realizing something. How do you listen to yourself?
Hank Green 05:37
You... listen. [Laughter] And like, it's not easy right now. I think that one way is to treat yourself like a person and, you know, if my wife is talking to me, I should be listening to her. So in the same way, I should also be respecting myself and listening to myself, and part of the reason is that it's become more important that I do that, because, you know, one, I have a lot of obligations and, you know, being excited about something, drawing me into doing it, might make it harder to fulfill those obligations. But yeah, I think that the main thing is listening and like understanding that my own health counts as productivity. You know, there's like, sort of a cult of productivity in some areas of business, and, you know, I came to the conclusion and actually wrote it into my most recent novel that, like, my own happiness, my own joy, my own health are all parts of productivity. Not that like they helped me be more productive, but they are productions. Like, that is stuff that I am producing. I am making stability in my life, I'm making joy for myself, I'm making—I have a chronic illness, so I also have to pay a lot of attention to that—and so I'm like, I'm making a future where my body is healthier for longer, and all those things aren't things that I'm making, and they count as productivity.
Nick Quah 07:06
When you think back on all the work that you've done so far, what are you most proud about?
Hank Green 07:12
Probably Crash Course. So we have this show on YouTube that teaches mostly late High School, early college stuff, though some into like mid-level college work, and so it's got like anatomy and physiology, World History, chemistry, all kinds of stuff. We have an artificial intelligence course, a business course.
Anna Akana (excerpt from Crash Course) 07:32
As entrepreneurs, we have control over how we grow our companies, so we can be successful on our own terms. Sometimes our business gets out of hand, and we have to face our worst nightmare: failure. Or is that just my worst nightmare? I'm working on it. So let's grow together—or decide to keep doing what we're doing—and face down failure. I'm Anna Akana. This is Crash Course: Business Entrepreneurship.
Hank Green 07:57
And that is the thing that I am most often stopped for on the street, and people, instead of saying like, “I love your stuff”—so this is like a, this is a thing that I'm aware of; I am placing extra value on this because it's harder to explain away—and so, when like somebody stops me on the street and they're like, “I love your YouTube stuff so much,” I kind of—there's a part of me that like tries to explain that away as there's just like, you would have found something to love, you know, and like I'm it just happens to be that I'm the thing that you found to love. Like our content is like a thing that you found community in, but you could have found it in in music, you would have found it in something. And so I'm explaining it away that way. But with Crash Course, it's people who are like, “Hey, thanks for helping me pass my anatomy and physiology class in nursing school. I'm a nurse now.” I'm like, that's really hard to explain away. It feels really good. I just like, helped a person get a job that they like and also I helped there be more nurses in the world, which is like something that we desperately need, and yeah, the stop is always very brief. And it's like, oh, hey, they're not even like—it's not even like they're excited to see me. It's like they're stating a fact. And I’m like, “I believe that guy.”
Nick Quah 09:16
Oh, man, I feel like what's pretty striking in your responses in the past 5-10 minutes is this notion of like, creating ways to not let you wiggle out of something.
Yeah, yep. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, that's been the most motivating thing in my life—my whole life. And I don't know if this is just not the case for other people, or if they’re just not honest about it. But it's definitely the case for me.
Nick Quah 09:39
It’s the same for me, but I think—[Laughter]—I don't think there's a lot of people like this, to be perfectly honest. What Hank saw with YouTube weighs heavy on how he sees things. And so you can't blame him for asking, “Will podcasting go the way of YouTube?” More in a minute. Hank Green was there during the early days of YouTube, and he watched it evolve into the machine that it is today. I asked him if he feels a sense of deja vu, whether he thinks big corporations are taking the creativity out of podcasting.
Hank Green 10:35
Yeah, and in my experience, what I actually see is that's the perception, but not the reality. So the perception is that the samey-ness comes in, and then the weirdness goes away. But what actually happens is that the samey-ness comes in and then like the Big Bang Theory of podcasts, whatever that is, and I'm not gonna like name any names, but we've all got sort of our thoughts behind that. So these like super popular, kind of bland things show up and like, are much more interesting to, you know, the people that we, as nerds, might consider, like, the basic, sort of, like normies. And, you know, all of this is kind of BS, right? Because like, this is just our own, like, struggling through our middle school memories of being bullied as adults, which we should get over. But like, there's this—like boring **** comes out and like, takes over, and like, floats to the top., and it's gonna be like lowest common denominator stuff. But that doesn't mean that there's not interesting stuff, it just means that like, what we tend to look at is like the five most popular things, and then all the stuff below, that might be getting like, you know, millions of downloads, is still thriving. It's just not as big as the biggest things. And so the biggest things tend to define, not necessarily even the culture, but how like the broad culture understands that medium. And, you know, music is the best example of this, like, there are hundreds of thousands or millions of working musicians just in America, you know, and some of them, like most of them, probably have other jobs also. And a few of them—a very few of them—are billionaires, you know?
Nick Quah 12:18
Hank Green 12:19
So when like, there was this period of time when like, YouTubers were starting to make real money, and reporters would always ask me, “Hank, how much money do YouTubers make?” Or like,”Who gets paid most, like that person right there?” It was like the grossest question ever. But like, the point is, that like Lady Gaga makes a bunch of money, but like, look at where—don't look right now—but five, you know, six months ago, look at your local theater and see like all of the bands that are performing there, and know that you've not heard of any of them, but they are all going to have plenty of people coming out, paying money to go watch them, because music is really distributed and that's how it should be, and video has become—we used to be very not distributed because we were sort of stuck. And radio’s the same way. We're stuck, like, with limited bandwidth, we're stuck in limited spectrums, and like, we're stuck with with like, high production values. Video and audio have have opened up to allow there to be all of this space, like really fragmented, and if there is a vector toward anything that's not really a cycle, it's toward fragmenting audience. And that's, I think, really good because it means that there's fewer shows that are sort of lowest common denominator, and more things that are being made specifically for people who have like more niche interests. The other vector is toward providing for an audience-first ecosystem, where the first thing you care about is the experience of the audience. That might end up being a little less the case in podcasting, because the content is long. Whereas in video, you know, you end up with these platforms where like they really care only about the experience that the audience has, because the creators are there to get access to the audience so that everybody sort of agrees, like, serve the audience first. And you see, like the ultimate manifestation of that in TikTok, where it's just like, it's not at all designed to optimize the income, or the stability, or the happiness of creators, it's there to optimize the ease with which you consume content. I think that podcasts in this case, are different, are an exception, because I don't really that often want a new podcast because I'm comfortable with the ones that I like. And there’s enough of them that I, you know, I haven't even listened to every episode of 99% Invisible and like, that's inexcusable, because they're all fantastic. But like, I just don't have the time so that there's always more great content for me to consume. Right.
Nick Quah 14:50
It's kind of like books a little bit.
Hank Green 14:52
Yeah, and stuff that I'm already comfortable with, exactly.
Nick Quah 14:56
Shortly after Spotify announced its hundred million dollar exclusive deal with Joe Rogan, Hank wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post expressing concern that podcasting might go to way of YouTube. Less creator-friendly, less free.
Hank Green 15:10
You know, my concern generally is that, like, podcasts are this, like, beautiful last bastion of the open Internet where we put them in, you know, like, I can host my own podcast, I can create my own podcatcher, like, the architecture of podcasts is kind of clunky and old, and it has its problems, and its ways in which it doesn't maybe work as smoothly as it would if it were all sort of controlled by one big company. But it allows for it to be weirder and more accessible. And the fact that it is controlled by no one is something that I actually really like about it. And I worry that you know, anybody might look at that and say, well, let's take that and try and have it be our thing, where we are the ones who monetize it, we are the ones who create the best platform for drawing audience attention to something, and also create—like, sort of extracting the value and turning that into money through dynamically inserted ads. I could see that happening. And when I'm trying to imagine the world in which podcasts lose that open nature, to me, Spotify is that is the one who's clearly most interested in it, but also probably most able to do it. I think it would be hard. I think it might not happen. I think it might happen sort of in demographically segmented ways. But I think that they have the best chance of doing it. I know that plenty of companies would want to.
Nick Quah 16:36
Right. And so you wrote, I quote, “My guess, and I'm hardly alone, is that Spotify wants to become to podcasts what YouTube is for video, simply the default platform for both listeners and creators. And that should worry people in both those groups,” endquote. So walk me through why a “YouTube-ification,” for lack of a better word, is bad necessarily. Just sort of lay out the argumentation.
Hank Green 16:59
Well, the basics are, that when you make content on a platform that is in control of audience and control of monetization, we are limited to making the things that they want us to make. The sort of most obvious example of this is, at some point, YouTube really started to push watch time, and they really started to reward content that kept people on the site longer, and that meant that people started to make much longer YouTube videos, and suddenly we went from a world where the average YouTube video was five minutes or less, to the average YouTube video being 10 minutes or more—oftentimes 20, 30, 40 minutes. And that's a very different world, like the algorithm, what the algorithm was choosing to promote, affected the kind of content that people made. And that meant that people who are making stuff that creatively worked best as shorter form content, weren't able to continue their careers, basically. Like, that stuff just more or less stopped existing. In those worlds where you basically say, like, what the platform wants decides what content gets made, you lose—like certain audiences don't get served, certain creators don't get audience, certain kinds of content just don't exist. And like, I just like a world where the only people involved in whether or not content is being created are the people creating it and the people consuming it. And the sort of intermediary, they're deciding what content is best for monetization, or best for the platform, or best for whatever arbitrary goal they may have now--that they might not have in five years--is a scarier prospect because I want people to make things for people, not for algorithms.
Nick Quah 18:40
Right. So I think one of the counter arguments, my sense is, is that like, you know, I think if Spotify were to come in and be--and argue, like, "Well, we're not--we don't want to make anybody do anything." Like, "We just want to give tools to everybody."
Hank Green 18:52
Well, of course.
Nick Quah 18:52
Yeah, and in a way, that's a sort of--everybody's the hero in their own story, right? But, so what are we really looking at here? Are we talking--is this like a cultural thing? Does this happen more softly, as opposed to something that happens more concretely? Like, how do we know if the sort of poor outcomes that you're worried about happen?
Hank Green 19:11
Well, my other big concern is that content starts to only be available through Spotify. And not because Spotify has it exclusively, but because it just--there are little reasons why your content might be more successful if you upload exclusively to Spotify.
Nick Quah 19:28
Hank Green 19:28
And that might be, you know, access to monetization tools. It might also be access to audience. And so what the world looks like, in this future that I'm afraid of, is that Spotify becomes the default platform for podcasts, and so you can't get a podcast through a normal RSS feed. So basically, the Apple Podcasts app becomes, you know, a place where some, but not all, podcasts are available. And that's like not just one or two podcasts that have been licensed exclusively by Spotify, but also lots of podcasts who are like, "Well, it's just not worth the trouble or the extra expense of my libsyn account to do that," because Spotify like, hosts it all for free, and they monetize the stuff, and like, all this is done very easily. And so that's the kind of the--that when I say like an analogue to YouTube--the stuff that Spotify is doing with Joe Rogan and Kim Kardashian--that's, to me analogous to Netflix. Like, this is stuff that is big budget, and we've got these shows that are going to draw people into the Spotify ecosystem. What is analogous to YouTube is this much less talked-about acquisition of Anchor, and all of the tools to make podcasts more easily and get them into Spotify very simply. And what that might mean is, like, if Spotify controls the creation systems, which YouTube doesn't really do, but TikTok, for example, does a great job of that-- --Instagram, to a lesser extent. But I think that YouTube is interested in it, where the creation system is controlled by the platform--so this is how you make the stuff--monetization is owned by the platform, and then for all creators, and creatives, the most important thing is access to audience is owned by the platform. And so instead of, in podcasts where we have this very word-of-mouth based, non-algorithmic serving of content, Spotify could start to find ways to get ears on podcasts through algorithmic recommendations that then give Spotify this sort of tremendous amount of power and means that you kind of can't have a successful podcast unless you are interfacing really deeply with Spotify's ecosystem.
Nick Quah 21:36
Right. I guess one of the other "con" arguments then is that we have seen at least a softer version of this with Apple already, given the fact that, you know, majority of podcast listening up until this point has been on--facilitated over the Apple Podcasts platform. And that, you know, the charts and the editorial front pages end up being, you know, soft kingmakers almost--
Hank Green 21:58
Nick Quah 21:59
--when it comes to podcasts. So, so how do you sort of see that counter argument? And what does make it different compared to Spotify?
Hank Green 22:06
Yeah, I think it's a question of degrees. And I think you're right that those spaces, you know, are extremely important. And also, our human curated--that sort of front page, which is, in my experience, how a lot of success comes in podcasting. To me that's not better. Like the those human creations are often like, very--they can be pretty nepotistic. It's about who you know, and, and sort of like what company you're making your podcast with, can sort of, like, influence how you show up on those pages. That's not better. But what I'm afraid of is that like, this isn't Apple competing with Spotify, competing with Pocket, competing with like a bunch of different apps and structures that like--Spotify is playing this game to build a monopoly. And that's the thing that I'm really afraid of is, like, monopolies are--tend to not be great for creators, and they tend to sort of isolate all of the power.
Nick Quah 23:01
Yeah, I mean, that's--I feel like that's the thing that is fundamentally different. And despite the fact that we have heard a lot about Spotify over the past year and a half, we--I still get a sense that we still don't know what the end game is supposed to look like.
Hank Green 23:15
Yeah, I think that's totally true. And I don't think that we will for another 5 or 10 years. And I don't even know that Spotify knows. I just think that Spotify is thinking, well, music is great, and it's a really important thing for us, but we're not about music. We're about ears, you know? And I think that that's a really smart decision. Like, for full disclosure, I own stock in Spotify and have for a very long time. And I think that they are a really great company to own stock in. I just like, as a podcaster, as a person who loves this space, I really want there to be a diverse ecosystem of lots of different ways that people get their audio content. And so there's lots of options for creators, lots of options for listeners, and like that, just tends to be the the way that like, the most interesting things happen. And it just also tends to be not the way that most of the money gets made.
Nick Quah 24:08
I guess the one last kind of argument that has stuck with me, and it's something that I feel like I haven't been able to get around, is this argument that like, you know, monopolies have their uses in the sense that it will increase or improve the capacity for some, maybe not all, podcasters to make money. The other version of that argument is that like, things in podcasting were pretty inefficient beforehand. It was a pretty rough experience, you know, having, you know, just launched this podcast, even the experience of trying to figure out, is there a way for me to not have to rely on Apple to promote the show, or to have it even be known to exist? So, do you see that trade off as being one that's realistic? Or--and one that is that--do you see that kind of argument as being one that's like, I understand why people would buy into the Spotify system, but it's still bad in the aggregate?
Hank Green 25:00
I think that that makes a ton of sense. And like, this gets to a kind of feeling that I have about my own take here, which is that it is a little bit elitist. It's a little bit like, I like it the way that it is because it's been this way for so long, and it's like been this cute little corner of the internet that I feel like is good and passes my vibe check. Whereas in reality, if we're looking at podcasts, there's like a really subjective creative business perspective. The fact that it's all word of mouth is a problem. The fact that like, there is no single place to have dynamically inserted advertisements is a problem. The fact that like, you know, if you have fewer than, you know, maybe 5,000 downloads per episode, it's really hard to get anyone to take you seriously enough to--for you to make the you know, maybe $100, $200, $250 an episode you might be making otherwise. That money is real, but because there's so much sort of administrative cost to serve ads on any content that it sort of like, is prohibitive to serve to smaller podcasts, and so the long tail doesn't get monetized the way that it does on YouTube. Those are all real things. And I think like, those are all indicative of, you know, the kinds of reasons why Spotify might have a real value proposition here. And the other thing is like, I always try to emphasize that what creators want isn't--we don't tend to be thinking about making money first, we tend to be thinking about reaching audience. And that's not to say that money doesn't matter. It's to say that audience is the path to, like, sustainability of your content. So I think a thing to really keep an eye on is how effective Spotify gets at figuring out how to serve audience to new content that isn't getting it already. You know, this is really why people are on YouTube because YouTube is where the eyeballs are. That's the competitive advantage of YouTube, even beyond monetization, is I get to make content and YouTube will send new people to my content if I make good stuff. And that right now is not a thing that podcasts have and is a thing that, you know, aside from sort of the, you know, the charts on Apple, or the front page of Apple Podcasts. And that's something that I think is really potentially very valuable.
Nick Quah 27:11
What do you think can be done, at this point in time, to improve the lot of creators? If it does feel like "Spotify the monopoly" ends up feeling inevitable? Are we talking about unions? Like do we--are we talking about collective, like, power? Like, how--what would you say is a good path forward?
Hank Green 27:32
Well, I think there's two advantages here. One is that, you know, compared to a YouTuber, a TikTokker, or something, podcast creators are older and smar--like, um, I don't want to say smarter, but like, have more experience like, in general-- They've had their heart broken a couple of times. Yeah, exactly. Like, your average TikTokker is probably under 20. And so like, those people maybe don't have the same amount of, you know, expertise and awareness of the value that they bring. So I think that there is a certain possibility there that podcasters will be able to more effectively leverage the power that they do have over platforms. And I think that the other thing is that they do have that power. Whereas on some platforms that are big deals right now, creators don't have a ton of ways to reach their audiences that aren't on that platform and that aren't controlled by that platform. TikTok is the best example of this, where you know, if you don't post something that's, like, big, like, designed to get audience, and it just reaches your people, it's not going to reach very many people. And Facebook is a similar thing where you basically have to pay to reach your own audience, oftentimes. But I think that podcasters really tend to have a much deeper relationship with their audience. And so can leverage that audience to help them control the platforms that they're engaging with. We've--you know, I've also seen this--to help them control their own content, and the media companies that might own it despite the fact that it might feel like the podcast creators own it because they did all the work in creating it, but, you know, a media company owns it. And I think that the audience oftentimes feels like, you know, their relationship is with you. It's not with Earwolf, and it's not with BuzzFeed, it's you know, it's with you. Not with... what's the one? Barstool.
Nick Quah 29:21
Hank Green 29:22
Ooh, boy. So figuring that dynamic out, and creating an ecosystem that allows for it, and that understands it, hasn't happened yet. And I think that it needs to happen.
Nick Quah 29:35
Hmm. Where feels most like home to you right now?
Hank Green 29:40
Where feels most like home to me?
Nick Quah 29:41
Hank Green 29:42
What a ****ing awesome question. Especially because like, my town feels less like home because I don't see it that much anymore. Oh, God. Am I--I don't know, I feel very alienated from Twitter, because it's so--makes me pretty anxious. I feel more alienated from YouTube. But like, I guess I'd say that my like, my YouTube channel still is the place that feels like home. Like, the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel. That's where the people are who I've been making content with for the last almost 15 years now, and I think that that probably will always feel a little bit like home to me.
Nick Quah 30:22
Yeah, it's kind of like, if you can preserve your block in a bustling city--
Hank Green 30:26
Nick Quah 30:26
Hank Green 30:27
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah. YouTube as a whole does not feel like home. But um, but there are definitely parts of it that do.
Nick Quah 30:34
Hank, we usually end with podcast recommendations. What are you listening to, that kind of thing. But you have a book coming out. You want to start with that?
Hank Green 30:42
Ah, so first, I will plug the book and say that because I love podcasts, there are podcasts in the book, like excerpts from podcasts, where like, characters are being interviewed. And we recorded those as if they are podcasts for the audio book, which I'm very excited about, like a lot. But that's not technically a podcast. It's, for example, it costs money, you have to buy it. I've been listening to this podcast called Meddling Adults. It's fairly new, and it's like, friends, and they try to solve the mysteries from old like, middle-grade detective novels. So like, Encyclopedia Brown was the first episode, I think?
Nick Quah 31:23
Right, right, right.
Hank Green 31:23
And so there's--they're these dumb mysteries in Encyclopedia Brown, like--but like, they use all different kinds of young adult and middle-grade mystery novels, but they like, set it up for you and then like, they try to have the hosts actually figure out what this like, genius detective in the story figured out. It's very fun. I also don't--have you ever listened to Dr. Game Show?
Nick Quah 31:44
Yes, I have, actually.
Hank Green 31:46
Oh God, I love it so much. It is--it is really out there. Like, it's so out there.
Nick Quah 31:56
Hank, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate this conversation.
Hank Green 32:00
Yeah, thank you very much.
Nick Quah 32:14
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist dot com, slash Servant of Pod. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.
Servant of Pod Caroline Crampton: Stitcher Sold Season 1 Bon...
Fri, 8/21 3:15PM • 13:24
stitcher, sirius xm, podcast, feel, big, company, caroline, acquisitions, iheart media, deal, employees, wnyc, spotify, joining, leadership, money, sale, talent, cooper, people
Caroline Crampton, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:02
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I’m Nick Quah. We're coming to you with a bonus drop today because there's been a pretty big development that has a ton of ramifications for the podcast industry. And we'll get to that after the break. Last night, The Wall Street Journal reported that Stitcher, one of the oldest podcast specific companies, is being sold by Scripps to the satellite radio giant Sirius XM for around $300 million. We talked about the possibility of this at last week's new segment, when a report in The Information confirmed that Scripps was shopping Stitcher around. I should say, this is the largest podcast deal we’ve seen yet. In my view, Stitcher had been in a bit of a tough spot. They do a bit of everything: content creation, ad sales, they have an app—which is a complicated position to be in in 2020, when you have substantially larger companies like Spotify and iHeart Media also trying to do everything, and are able to easily outspend you on deals. To help think through this development, we brought back Caroline Crampton, HotPod’s UK writer. Hey Caroline.
Caroline Crampton 01:23
Nick Quah 01:24
First question: what's the significance of this sale?
Caroline Crampton 01:29
I think its size is pretty significant, and I think as well what it represents about the moment we're in at the moment—extreme consolidation, it feels like
Nick Quah 01:39
Yeah, and Stitcher, for the longest time, had been this interesting end-to-end company. And nowadays, like when everything is super hyper corporatized, AND you can't really compete unless you have a lot of money, you probably don't have a really clear path to do very much, so it just kind of strikes me as almost like an inevitable outcome. Do you feel the same way?
Caroline Crampton 02:00
Yeah, that sounds fair to me. I think I could see a pathway for Stitcher maintaining its position, but I couldn't necessarily see a pathway for them to grow, as you say, with these really big spending massive companies coming in above them, as it were. So I suppose this deal does provide a path for the entities within Stitcher, their various sort of constituent networks like Earwolf, and the My Favorite Murder people, and so on. It gives them a path to growth that maybe they didn't have in its previous incarnation.
Nick Quah 02:30
Absolutely. And I think it's sort of worth noting that Stitcher, for the past couple years, at least since Spotify started making its major acquisitions, I think its big sort of differentiating point was its robust ad salesforce. I don't think there was any other company in the market that had that depth of history and expertise. And so it does feel like at the very least Sirius XM is picking up a salesforce that nobody else has. And that kind of, to me, feels like one of the main points of the sale.
Caroline Crampton 02:58
I think that's a really good point. I think that there's a depth of experience with Stitcher’s institution, and also some of the people there, that a lot of companies that have got into podcasting very quickly and very recently just don't have.
Nick Quah 03:11
What do you think this means for the way we should think about Sirius XM? Sirius XM is the major satellite radio company. They also own Pandora. They recently made another podcast acquisition in Simplecast, which is kind of a back end hosting technology platform company. This feels like a “deal now, think later” kind of thing. I am not sure how they're going to manage all those different brands at the same time, which suggests, at the very least, there'll be some changes coming to Stitcher, at least in the immediate future, I think.
Caroline Crampton 03:41
Yeah, I think that, as I think we said last week, Stitcher is fairly unusual these days in being a kind of end-to-end podcast operation. They have that ad sales element, but they also have a pretty, you know, reasonably-used app. They also have the content and they have some pretty decent IP in there as well. So they sort of had a little bit of everything. And since Sirius XM already owns all those other things, as you said, it's kind of hard to see how they're not now duplicating some of that.
Nick Quah 04:09
So Stitcher has been, historically, when I've spoken to a lot of podcasts in the past, for the most part, they've been good partners. They've been sort of really agreeable, non-hyper aggressive corporate partners in their, sort of, creative collaborations with creators. I—to me, that—I feel like that's going to be a really interesting canary in the coal mine to see whether Stitcher’s culture will change as a result of this new ownership. But what are the other things that you will be watching moving forward about the way the sale will affect Stitcher?
Caroline Crampton 04:38
That's definitely a big thing. And Stitcher does have that reputation for being “the good guys”, if you want to put it that way.
Nick Quah 04:45
Which is ironic because they used to be, I feel like they used to be, the sort of, like, symbol of corporatization.
Caroline Crampton 04:50
Nick Quah 04:51
Like in 2017.
Caroline Crampton 04:52
If you were a comedian and you were selling out, you did it with Stitcher.
Nick Quah 04:56
Caroline Crampton 04:57
Obviously, that's changed quite a lot, given the other acquisitions and so on that we've seen. I do think that the path that Sirius XM eventually works out for themselves is really, really important to watch out for. Are they going to join Spotify and iHeart Media in this sort of big race to buy up exclusive content? Are we going to see more Joe Rogan-type deals? Just not traditionally something that Stitcher’s really gone for, those really, really big-money talent acquisitions, but with that power behind them, is that now the strategy?
Nick Quah 05:31
I think it's inevitable. I think that's definitely a strategy because Sirius XM, fundamentally, is in the sort of radio talent business. Their strategy is to throw sort of money at big name talent, Howard Stern being sort of like their, sort of, diamond in the set there. And so it does feel like this the very least we will see that kind of competition from Sirius XM in these sort of, quote-unquote “higher end” deal-making processes.
Caroline Crampton 05:54
I also think there's something interesting that we should watch out for with the branding. With all these different existing companies that they've now acquired—Simplecast has probably less name recognition than Stitcher, but not none—is Stitcher going to continue as the Sirius XM podcast division, or does it become “Sirius XM Podcasts”? I think it’s interesting.
Nick Quah 06:16
What do we gain and what do we lose from this, as consumers?
Caroline Crampton 06:21
I think there is going to be a bit of a, “Is this the end of the old podcasting times?” You know, the sense that, as you say, Stitcher was once upon a time, a big player in a small pond and there was something maybe sort of benevolent feeling about that. If you think back to a time of podcasting’s self-image, at least, as a kind of DIY—
Nick Quah 06:43
Caroline Crampton 06:44
—streaming, scrappy industry, Stitcher, I think, was the helping hand reaching down to some of those people to sort of help them level up. So I do think there's going to be some nostalgia and feeling that we have lost something there in that Stitcher is now just part of another massive corporation, and that completely changes the culture of any deals that they might do. In terms of what this might be the beginning of, or what we might gain, I think, for a certain type of person, and I'm thinking mostly celebrities, influencers, sports stars, that kind of thing, I think the market for their podcasts just heated up once again.
Nick Quah 07:22
It just gets even more competitive for people who already have power and value.
Caroline Crampton 07:27
I do think that that's, you know, what we've seen already is that, you know, celebrity podcasts do seem to be a first stop for a lot of these companies.
Nick Quah 07:36
Right, the prime beneficiaries of these arrangements. My sense is what we are losing that is, you know, that's kind of unique, is I think we're losing sort of what feels like a middle-class company. I think there's an interesting argument to make that you can't really stop this kind of corporatization from happening, especially when a space heats up and gets more popular and just becomes more valuable to advertisers, and creators, and people who have money in general, but what you would want, at the very least, is a company that's robust, that's able to build mid-sized shows sustainably, and to serve that part of the creative market. And that's not to say that there aren't companies already doing that pretty well, I think, arguably sort of Maximum Fun and Headgum are two networks that are still very much independent, and still very much serving a certain kind of quote unquote, “middle-class” show. But Stitcher used to be, I think, one that felt like it was able to build projects that you would think would be kind of quirky, or, you know, they sort of pursued projects that aren't obvious, from a sort of, you know, corporate media standpoint. It's sort of an interesting thing to lose at this point in podcasting’s sort of history. To me, it also opens up the opportunity for another company to tap into this way. Also, as I’m sort of saying this out loud, I'm thinking that we're talking about it as if it's the end of Stitcher. Do you think it's the end of this kind of company?
Caroline Crampton 08:57
I don’t think it's the end of this company. I mean, it'll continue in some form under the much bigger umbrella of Sirius XM. I do think whether they choose to keep the brand name is an important point, actually, towards what you're saying. Because if they're even going to try and continue with that kind of sort of middle-to-large role, as it were, then they’ve built up a lot of goodwill under the name Stitcher, so it might well be worth keeping if that's the play. But yeah, I think it is a developing problem in podcasts, actually, this missing middle. We've written about it quite a bit in Hotpod before, about if you're not a small show, but you're also not a massive one, where is your natural home these days? What's your natural monetization direction, and all this kind of stuff? It does feel a bit like there's still some space there.
Nick Quah 09:46
Before we wrap up, there was another piece of news that's worth tracking because it's—I think it's fairly important to hear. There's been some commotion happening at WNYC, and I believe you've been tracking it a little more closely than I have. Could you walk us through that story, Caroline?
Caroline Crampton 09:59
Yes. So, this, in recent times, has its origins in the appointment of a new editor in chief for WNYC, who is Audrey Cooper, who joins from the San Francisco Chronicle. But this actually has roots way back, going back years now. 2017, there was a big shakeup at the station that ultimately ended up in the departure of New York Public Radio President Laura Walker. There were lots of harassment allegations, bullying allegations; some top talent left the station. And after that, there was a real reckoning that, you know, there was apparently an internal, lots of internal discussion and investigation, particularly employees of color and black employees contributing to listening exercises and so on to try and turn the thing around and get a better, better leadership going forward. There's now been a letter sent to the trustees and management of the station, signed by 145 employees, calling on them to fulfill the promise of diverse leadership, which they don't feel that Audrey Cooper's appointment does. The reasons for that that they state being that, firstly, she's white; secondly, she doesn't have a sort of radio/audio background, she's really a print journalist; and also, she's not particularly rooted in New York, and she's joining from the west coast. And so for all of those reasons, staff are expressing their disappointment that they've taken part in these years-long processes, just to feel like they're getting more of the same.
Nick Quah 11:29
So what it does feel like is that it's emblematic of what feels like a performative process, in which the sort of leadership, and structure, and management structure, you know, engages in these listening sessions and basically try to engage in these, what feels like, acts of appeasement to the workers within an institution or advocating for better outcomes for the institution, while at the end of the day doing something that feels like it doesn't actually draw from those inputs at all. And so, you know, what's further complicated about this is the fact that there in that letter, I think there was no sort of clear set of reforms or clear set of outcomes that's being demanded—at least that's my understanding—and so I feel like I have a bit of confusion as to how this will move forward effectively for all parties.
Caroline Crampton 12:11
Yeah, that that's pretty much where it's at. The letter doesn't go as far as to call for, you know, Cooper to step down from the job before she's even really taken it up or anything like that. It's really just a statement of dissatisfaction with how what felt like it was supposed to be a productive internal process has not been, and so the employees have gone public with that, and in an attempt to get some kind of action—what that action is going to be though, I don't think we can really say yet.
Nick Quah 12:41
Well, big weekend news. Thanks so much for joining us, Caroline.
Caroline Crampton 12:44
Thanks very much for having me.
Nick Quah 12:55
Servants of Pod is a production of LAist Studios. And keeping with the theme, we have a new episode coming out tomorrow where I talk with Hank Green about big money in podcasting, which, you know, great timing.
Servant of Pod: Making Music for Podcasts
Season 1, Episode 4
I think as long as I remember since I was a kid, I loved soundtracks. I loved the way that music interacted with stories.
Music is an important tool for any movie or television show. The same is true for podcasts.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
I think I've seen people sort of turn what we thought of as podcast scoring on its head in ways I'm really excited about.
From LAist Studios. This is Servant Of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. Today, making music for podcasts. We talked to two composers to take us behind some of the podcast themes and music choices they love.
Music does a lot for any form of storytelling. It sets the tone conveys character elevates emotions. In many ways podcast scoring is still an emergent art; and it's becoming more important by today. I remember the first podcast is stood out to me for its use of music, Snap Judgment. The show's tagline is storytelling with a beat. And listen, they really mean it. [music]
My name is Glynn Washington and my humble task, is making radio GREAT, again, and again. And you're listening to Snap Judgement.
And to this day, I still think the best use of music and a podcast is S-Town, whose scoring effectively conjures the fuel of its rural Alabama setting. [music]
On this episode, I talk to people who represent a new wave of music composers who primarily work in podcasts. Ramtin Arablouei is a musician and producer. These days, he's also a music composer behind many of NPR's popular podcasts. His journey to NPR is almost accidental. A few years ago, he was playing with his band Drop Electric in the local DC club, when NPR's Bob Boilen, the dean of All Things Considered approached him after his set. He wanted to feature the band in an episode of the show. That exposure got him a manager and calls from labels. Eventually, he crossed paths with NPR again This time, they asked if you could help out with an episode of TED Radio Hour, with Guy Raz.
We did that, it was a really good experience. And then he tells me afterwards, like, "Hey, I'm gonna work with you again, I've just really loved the way you think this was such a good experience." And I didn't think anything of it because people say things like that all the time, right? It doesn't come to fruition. Fast forward again, another six months, I randomly get a text from Guy being like, "Hey, can we talk? I have a project I want to work with you on." So I'm like, okay, whatever. He's like, I'm working on this new idea for a business podcast at NPR. I want you to come in and produce it. And I was like, I haven't ever done that before. I mean, the only journalistic experience I had was I worked on like my college newspaper. And he was like, don't worry about it. Just come in and I'll help you, and we'll teach you, and we'll work on it together. Just give me like three or four weeks. I was kind of hesitant to even give him that because I was going out to LA and hustling and trying to get, you know, soundtrack gigs or sound design gigs. And so I agreed, because I liked him, and I wanted to try it, I thought it would be a fun like experiment. So I go and three/four week project turns out to become how I built this, where I had to basically produce it and write the music for it and all of that, and it ends up becoming a hit show.
Over the next few years, Ramtin would composed music for nearly every NPR podcast, including five theme songs.
Honestly, I don't know how to explain it, it just happened really suddenly. And it just was one gig to the next. And the next thing you know—t's like one of those things, you climb to the top of a mountain and you look back down, you're like, whoa, I did all that stuff. But I didn't even really take note of it while I was doing it.
Alright, so let's start talking about how you approach scoring a podcast or making a podcast theme. I imagine that like there's some sort of functional work that goes into what a theme is supposed to do. It's supposed to like set the tone, supposed to ease you into what the show is supposed to be. When you kind of sit down and you think through for example, like TED Radio Hour. What are you doing, or what are you looking for?
You know, I get the most out of having a conversation with the creators. I ask people what their favorite music is what shows they really like? I tell them what I like. And we kind of have a dialogue. And then eventually, usually I try to get to actually talk about specifically what the theme is we're trying to do for their show, because I view this work as collaborative, but also, ultimately, when you're writing music for a podcast that someone else is making, or a film or any experience I've had—you're serving their vision, right? You're serving what they're trying to achieve. So for that reason, it's really important to get to know the people making it so TED Radio Hour, for example, you know, that show is about wonder. It's about like posing big questions. In that sense. I really thought that the music should have an orchestral sound, it should have a kind of a wondrous, something that would make you just like ask big questions and think big. What makes sense they're some kind of like driving orchestral rhythm. [music]
But the other thing is, you know it's a radio show and a podcast, and so in a radio show format that music has to just like reel you in. You have to know that I when I'm hearing this it's TED Radio Hour coming. The same way you feel like when you hear the opening hit of Radiolab; when you hear the kind of voices and the cascading sound effects you know, okay I'm getting ready to to like have a Radiolab experience. And I think that music has to have a certain novelty to it. It can't sound packaged or can sound like a lot of other things. It has to have that sense of like originality, but also that pop right at the start.
Nowadays, Ramtim co-hosts his own NPR podcast called Through Line with Rund Abdelfatah, and of course, he wrote the theme for that too. I asked him to walk me through the process.
When we were creating the show—when Rund and I were creating the show, we knew that the show is all about looking at history through a current events lens. So we look at things that are happening. So we knew that for a lot of episodes, we wanted to have some kind of montage at the beginning—so instead of sitting there and explaining, this is what's happening in the world, right now, we just have a montage of news clips kind of do that work. So we don't spend a ton of time talking at the top. And so, we needed music that was driving that had rhythm that could—a montage could sit over and work. So that was the first thing I knew I needed like rhythm and you need to beat. The second thing was the tone of the show is serious. It's not like a lot of NPR's content is— has whimsicalness to it. And I think that's the case in general and podcasting and like, you know, we didn't want to make you necessarily laugh about what's happening and like, the relationship between Hong Kong and China, because it's like mostly not funny. It starts ambient and mysterious and it builds. So it goes—if you listen to the show usually the the cascading montages are cut to that rhythm. We wanted to create something that had that same effect where you knew like okay, this is I'm listening to Through Lline so it's gonna have a certain vibe and I'm expecting a certain storytelling style and mood. That was the goal there. [music] I'm a huge hip hop head. So anytime I can fit a boom-bap-beat into something, I do it. [laughter] I love hip-hop, so in that case, it felt like a good place for it.
So let's shift over and talk about a couple of themes you didn't work on but you have some appreciation for. Let's start with let's start with Mogul.
I'm Brandon Jenkins and this is Mogul.
So Mogul is a Gimlet Media show, it's a sort of a documentary series. It changes to season to season, it kind of profiles different sort of personalities and individuals and figures in the sort of music and hip-hop world. What about that theme is interesting to you?
I like it because it was surprising. When you're listening to a show about hip-hop—particularly because the show always has some kind of cold open before you get to the theme. You're not necessarily expecting like an essentially kind of a drum and bass theme song. And what I like about it is it's driving, it's very much like propelling you into the story which I love. I love how he says "You're listening to Mogul" and boom, you hear the the drumbeat come in and you're in it. I love that in general, about themes. When it feels like rhythmically, it's really working with the show. The predictable move was to have like, a boom-bap-beat or a trap-beat and have it be like okay, this is a hip-hop shows which you're listening to. But that's not necessarily—that doesn't trigger hip-hop from me, and I love that and that's such like a gutsy move by the composer and by the producers of the show to go that direction, and I just respect the hell out of it.
There you go. One more pick here, and it's from the folks over at The Ballad Of Billy Balls, which is a spinoff from the crime time folks. [music] This one's a little different because it comes from a pre-existing song. It's Light Asylum by Dark Allies.
I really dig it within the context of the episode. It's a lift off kind of feeling was kind of watching one. Could you walk me through what spoke to you about this choice?
So what I like that it you know, it's the one example of like something that they picked that already existed—when doing a theme even if you're writing a theme song—I think the role of the producers, or the people making the show is as important as the composer because they really drive the intentionality of the theme. And in this case, it's so well selected because it's a lift off for the show. But you know, when it hits like you're, you're going in and the shows really intense, and the song is really intense. And I love that feeling of like, grabbing you and like keeping you in that space for as long as you're gonna listen. And then the other thing I like is that there's lyrics, there's vocals, which is generally like, not something you do when a theme song, right? The way they use it in the show actually highlights—like when they do these little breaks, and these kind of little posts—and in each one, you hear a little bit more of the lyrics. And I just love that move. [laughter] Again, I think that's gutsy. And then it also really fits the like vibe and the time of the show, right? It has a very much like a goth, synth-goth, kind of post punk feel, which is the kind of vibe of the whole show. In some cases like asymmetry is good, but in some cases when they really nail the symmetry of the theme song with the content, that also feels amazing. Just makes you feel like alright, now I'm about to get into a really serious and intense story. Which is what they do you know, episode after episode.
What would you say are the rules for a theme song?
Um, I think generally, people don't expect to hear lyrics or vocals, that's one thing like in a theme. The other thing is generally, theme songs propel you into a show, versus necessarily grounded. And The Ballad of Billy Balls is a good example. It's a lift off into the content of the show, same thing with the Mogul theme. But in some cases, like a ground you into the content versus necessarily lifting you off into it. So that's kind of a rule that I think can be broken—that's really fun to break. Another one is generally theme songs have percussion in them, but generally that when people want a theme song, they want something that's like driving. That that's seems like a kind of unspoken rule, if you kind of survey all the theme songs out there, they always end up having some sort of percussion. That's a rule that I think could be broken more. The other thing is people generally don't want themes like to be dark, and that goes back to the shying away from darkness in podcasting. It's just been a format that's been dominated so long by that sense. It's acceptable, for example, for HBO to have a show like The Leftovers, and then also have a show like Betty, this new show that they have, which is really good and very bright and happy. Those live on the same network and I love both. Whereas I think in podcasting, there's much more of a propensity towards brightness towards like a whimsicalness; towards like, being sarcastic about things or like not being too genuine or sincere. And I think that's a, something that'd be corrected over time as more and more people get into the game and everything, you know, kind of gets better and better and gets more and more advanced. That's another rule that I like, hopefully want to break in the future was some theme song. I'll make something that's just very dark and brooding to fit something that's dark and brooding.
Ramtin, it's fantastic to talk to you. I really, really appreciate this. [music]
Music composition is still a field very much dominated by men. But Haley Shaw didn't let that stop her, we will speak to her in a minute. [music]
Sound familiar? Earlier in the show Ramtin Arablouei told us how much he loved the theme song from the Gimlet podcast, Mogul. And as it turned out, for this next part, we had booked the very same woman behind that theme. Haley Shaw who also composes music under the name So Wylie. I had to tell her.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Oh! Wow, that's amazing! Oh my god.
He loves that scoring for that show.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Oh, that's so sick. I'm so glad to hear that. Yeah, I, I feel like because our field is sort of niche, the compliments from other people doing what I'm doing or like the highest compliments, you know? I take those very seriously. [laughs]
Can you briefly list all the shows that you've worked on at Gimlet?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Sure. Oh my god, it would probably take quite a while. [laughter] So the main shows I've worked on at Gimlet are Mogul, which I'm currently working on now. I worked on The Habitat, I worked on The Horror Of Dolores Roach. I've dabbled in music for The Journal, which came out recently, this past year and is a daily show with the Wall Street Journal. Chompers, the daily tooth-brushing show, [laughter] did the theme song for that? It's tough because if I list all the shows I've mixed on it's probably all of them.
Yeah. So so you have a hand on directly shaping the Gimlet sound?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Sure. Thanks! [laughter] Yeah, I hope so. I mean, at this point, it's like, YES, [laughter] just by way of being there for long enough.
So I just want to make sure that I get the definitions down because I think there's a sort of lack of fluency around what music scoring means versus sound design, particularly as it relates to podcasts and radio shows. How would you sort of differentiate between what sound design is and what scoring is?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Yeah, this is an interesting question that I think is the biggest gray area in our field versus fields like television or film that are so much more mature, in a sense. Sound Design, I believe is like the largest umbrella for what we do, which is like a combination of writing music for a show, shaping the sound of the show. So does it have immersive sound design, like with ambient room tone sort of things? Or does it have sound design that you record, like foley, like sound effects that you source from libraries. Or is there no music like that decision is sound designed to me as well. But also, sound design is a more specific thing, right that we know of; taking and sourcing sound effects from libraries and putting it into a show to enrich the sound of the show. That's like sort of a more specific definition of sound design. But, in my opinion kind of falls under the larger definition that people tend to use to mean music, mixing and sound design.
And do you feel like there's still relatively few people doing this work?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
I would definitely say it's grown. When I started I'm not sure I knew of like that many, especially full-time positions in the field doing specifically this. I think a lot of people in podcasting have had to be scrappy, at the start especially and do six jobs at once. And when I first got into this field, like that was part of like the jack-of-all-trades nature was part of what got me the job in the first place, you know. And that wasn't true in other fields, in other fields you have to become an expert in one tiny slice, you know, to make your mark; and in this field, I felt that due to the nature of it, you know, it was an asset to understand sound design, but also be a good mixing engineer, but also be, you know, a composer and understand music editing and kind of be able to do many things, wear many hats.
A start up amongst startups. [laughter]
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
So I'm curious, like on a more personal level, what draws you to music composition and scoring?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
That's actually a really great question, because I've never even really asked that of myself. I think, you know, I started playing instruments when I was really young, and my mom is actually a violin teacher. And so music has always been a really big part of my family. And so it's always just been kind of a part of who I am—playing music at least. And then I started composing really young as well. I think I was in fourth grade when I first wrote like a little piano piece. So creating music and sort of communicating with other people through that music, but also through the creation of that music is really important to me. And I think that's why I've been drawn to writing for narrative. And and also producing because I want to help other people sort of reach their vision. It's not quite as exciting to me to just write alone, or create something alone. I really like the communication aspect of composing.
What do you think makes good music composition? What do you look for? What does what does the process look like in your mind? How do you sit down and think through a piece for a narrative?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
This is sort of an answer in two parts, maybe. The first part being, what I like to do for my own music. But the second part being sort of as a listener, what I like to hear. So for me, like I always start every project with trying to work with the show-runner or work with the material or glean from what I'm hearing. What is the identity of this project? What's its overall character? And I'm thinking like macro here. And then the second question is, how should the intended audience like feel about the project as a whole? So like, how does this come off to people? And then like, what is the effect of my music within the overall work? So am I trying to cause a ruckus? Like, am I trying to do something bombastic here? Or is it meant to be subtle and like what serves the narrative the most? So that's sort of where I start for me, especially in podcasting. I think, with music that I hear in shows like as a listener, just casually, I really like big swings. And I think sometimes if you're trying to do something new and something sort of innovative and it's a big swing, and it's sort of like a whole idea, like you go all in, I really appreciate that even if it doesn't work. Hmm. You know, I mean, even if it doesn't end up working, it's nice to hear people trying things out, musically.
Okay, let's start with one of your picks here. Actually let's start with yours. So you sort of picked out a flurry, which is a track from The Habitat, which you scored. [music]
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Let's play that. [music]
So, for context here, The Habitat is an audio documentary that follows basically the plight of a group of scientists that, I guess quarantine in preparation for—or In simulation of a Mars colony situation, is that the accurate describe show?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Yes. Yeah. So they are quarantined in a dome in Hawaii, in sort of pursuit of finding out what it would be like to live on Mars.
So let's talk about that track. So I'm not quite sure what I'm hearing, I'm hearing a bunch of digital sounds; I think it feels like the effect that you're trying to create. It's kind of a rising crescendo, not super dramatic, maybe a little ominous. What was the sort of major emotions you were thinking about when you putting that track together?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
So the idea for the overall score was this meeting of these big space ideas like unfamiliar territory and expanse; things that feel unfamiliar. And then, the human element of the story, which is like six humans living very close together very sort of intimately. And so you know, I wanted to create a human side of the score as well. So using acoustic instruments but then treating them in a way that feels very digital, sort of meeting the human and this unfamiliar aspects of the story. So with this, what you're hearing is a lot of sort of close miked, intimate acoustic instruments treated in weird digital ways that like couldn't actually be played in person. And like human sounds, like literally human sounds. For instance, in this track, there's a whistle that's put through like a delay and a hugely long reverb. And there are a bunch of cellos that are put through an arpeggiator because, you know, we're trying to meet these two ideas of warm analog kinetic and unfamiliar expansive space. And as you said, the crescendo is definitely purposeful. I wanted this to feel like a wedge because there's so much energy building up to this moment or they close the door, and I was inspired by something that one of the crew members says in tape during the episode.
[ CLIP: The Habitat ]
Haley: Hi guys!
Crew member: Wave goodbye. And then we enter [silence] and then, well then it's silent.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
We closed the door and then it's silent. And so I wanted this to feel sort of like a drop off moment at the end of this cue.
So let's move on to the next pick that you had, 10 Things That Scare Me. [music] So it sounds like a very traditional, or conventional theme almost. There's like a hook, it's a kind of like a like a rhythm and a loop. What draws you to the theme?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
What I like about this theme is that, like the crux of this show is you know, it's created around people reading through a list of 10 things that scare them. And so it's like a list format with embellishments or stories surrounding bits of the list along the way. But that means that they have so many different recording settings. And so a lot of the tape is like foam tape or super rough or people are recording themselves, etc. And the theme kind of, to me, like what sets it apart is that it matches the style of the tape and the show itself. You know, it has these elements of like hard cuts, and it speaks to how the sound design is in the rest of the show. Another reason I wanted to talk about this theme is because from listening to many of these, like in a row, there's like a little Sonic easter egg in the very start of every episode that like has to do with something that happens later in the episode. So, it'll be like a baby cry or something sound from later in the episode and they plop it in at the start. It's tough to notice, and I if there's almost like no reason to do this other than if you like, listen closely, and it's like a little treat.
That's crazy! I love to show it. Listen, I really listened to it a bunch, and I don't think I've ever noticed.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
It'll be like [verbal sounds] WHAM, [singing] you know? Like, it's like, it's it's in there. So if you go back and listen to it's like, pretty cool.
Yeah, no, there's there's a way in which I think that shows seems like a collage. Like, it's you can paste a bunch of different things together.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Yeah, I appreciate it. Because it's like, it's very high concept. And it's like it feels pasted together, but it also feels purposeful.
Okay, so let's talk about the last track here. It comes from a show called Moonface, an independent audio drama from James Kim, who I think used to be your colleague.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Yes, he's amazing. I worked with him briefly at Gimlet. And yeah, A plus dude.
So this track or this sound comes from the last episode of the show. It's only six parts. And the context here is, it's basically you're gonna hear one of the characters read out a note with pulsing music behind it.
[ CLIP: Moonface ]
Male & Female voice: I grew up in a small village in South Korea. My father was farmer, and my mother sold vegetable and fruit at the market. [Male voice fades out] I had five siblings. We were poor. [sound] Every morning, my mother would walk me to school when I was little. I still remember those walk. How my mother would make me smile. The sound of the nocturne river right beside us.
Maybe it's just sort of in my nature to be like a overly emotional Asian dude. But like that that stuff hits man.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
First of all, this whole thing sounds like an indie movie and gave me all of those feelings. And like, it's just such a beautiful story. He he just absolutely nailed it. I mean, yeah, I was so impressed by this. And I listened to the whole thing and like one day,
What are the difficulties of implementing a scoring like that?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Well, it's really tough to put pieces of ambient music in a podcast format, without it necessarily feeling stagnant or not feel like there's movement. And, you know, in a sense, it matches, storytelling and the human voice in an intimate way. Like, it matches the medium well, but it's actually difficult to implement. I think the form of the piece allows us to sort of float through time in a way that's tough to do without narration in a podcast; and the music just gives this podcast such a reflective tone.
I want to make a quick observation here. It's not there—I feel like there is a a thread, maybe sort of an aesthetic similarity between all the three picks that you've made.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
They all have that sort of like drifting quality or that that light dreamscape kind of, we're not quite in a physical world kind of fuel to it. I'm curious as to like if that's Is that something that you feel like it's a it's a part of your signature style? If you have one, do you think?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
It's not conscious, but I think you're right. Especially with these picks, you know, it might speak even more to what types of things I glean as working well and in our field, right? Then maybe even just my own personal like style preferences, but I definitely I sense that, I sense that through line.
Ironically, Throughline is the name of Ramtin's, podcast, the other person—
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Okay, before wrapping up, I just gotta ask, what has your experience been working in a male dominated field?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Yeah, I mean good question. I I definitely feel like everybody who's like not a white straight man is in need of more sort of industry support as composers because for hundreds of years, that's been who has been writing music. That being said, I've definitely seen so many women take to technology of late, and sort of become their own music producers and composing music is a very digital thing now. And so I think like the rise of consumer audio has helped a lot more people who weren't represented in the field, have access to things that allow them to learn and take control of their sound. And it is an exciting time and I've also seen like, social justice has become trendy for corporations for better or worse; a lot of times worse, but all So better so there's been like a sort of rise in people being passionate about finding these creative people who weren't represented before in the field for sure.
Did you feel like you had adequate mentorship from women coming up the field?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
You know, Irene Trudel over at WNYC. She was kind of amazing for me. To like work with her and see her like in her job. She was recording soundcheck for a few years, or probably more than a few and just like she's the boss.
Why was she amazing?
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
I was interning at Soundcheck as like a production intern, like not as an engineering intern and she extended my internship and took me on as an engineering intern and I like helped to record soundcheck with her for a few months there.
It's always remarkable to me just how important mentors are.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Especially if you're not the majority demographic.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Haley Shaw, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.
Haley Shaw (So Wylie)
Thank you guys so much. This was so so nice.
Haley Shaw, she's a composer, sound designer and audio engineer at Gimlet media.
There's a little bit of news this week, and to help us walk through it we're going to talk with Caroline Crampton, who writes for Hot Pod for me, and she's based out in the U.K. Caroline, welcome to the show.
All right, first piece of news this week. And this is a kind of a big one, if it's true. According to a report by The Information, which is a tech news publication. Stitcher, which is one of the bigger podcast specific companies in the space, is currently being shopped around by the parent company's Scripps. Details are pretty scant at the moment, but there's a little bit of talk in the piece that possible buyers could be Spotify or Sirius XM. Stitcher is kind of a classic company, does a little bit of everything. It does ad sales, it makes shows, it works with partners. It has an app, it's neither focused in any particular area. Nor is it big enough, it feels like it can compete with some of these bigger spend your competitors. And so this acquisition rumor, or just sort of selling off, rumor comes at a really interesting time for that company. And I'm curious Caroline as to what you make of this news.
Well, I think it makes a lot of sense for Scripps, unless they are really keen to try and refashioned Stitcher into the kind of podcast company that might compete with Spotify. An easier way is just to sell it to somebody who does want to take that fight on really. There's also the possibility that there's actually some serious money to be made for them since they bought Midroll for what? 50 million dollars?
50 million. Yeah.
Yeah, that was a that was way before there's this hot market that we have right now.
Exactly. Right. So Spotify has massively inflated the market. for acquiring podcast companies, so they could easily double their money, let's say? And you know, who in this economy is going to turn that down?
Yeah. And I suppose the challenging question is sort of like, you know, if you're in Stitcher's position, you either need a parent company that's willing to give you a ton of money to go after, or at least compete with the big spenders right now. That would be Spotify, but also companies like I Heart media that is only sort of focused on audio.
So I reckon there's probably two types of acquisition that could happen. Either a much bigger audio player that wants something that Stitcher has. They might not want to duplicate their own operation with the app and everything. But there might be one or two elements, like for instance, the partnership with My Favorite Murder, that they're very keen to get hold of. That's one way it could happen. Another way would be a legacy media operation that doesn't currently have much of an audio outlet. Just wanting to sort of buy one out of the box and Stitcher could very easily be that for them.
This might not be the most charitable way to read does but like Stitcher kind of feels like a starter kit, almost. If you're a deep pocketed legacy media company looking to jumpstart your entry that the space.
Yeah, you could have in one stroke, you could have, you know, an app, a content pipeline, a talent network, a hugely popular deal with some really great creators in My Favorite Murder. You kind of have everything from zero to 10 in one go.
Yeah, it kind of reminds me of what Entercom did when they bought both Cadence 13 and Pineapple Street at the same time. They have this sort of, you know, entryway into the market. I still don't have a clear sense of how Entercom has sort of progressed over the past year. So I'd be curious to see who ends up being the sort of acquire here—if of course, this report turns out to be true. I think it is. I've heard rumors about it for a while, for the record and for what it's worth Stitcher spokesperson told the information that they do not comment on rumors. So you know a non comment comment is also a comment I guess.
There's also the option that it gets shopped around and there aren't any serious takers. I think that's also a possibility right now. We've seen some sort of acquisition moves in the last couple of months, but nothing, I suspect on the scale that Scripps might hope for for Stitcher.
Yeah, I don't know, I kind of still feel like stitcher is like pretty valuable, even though in its current position, it's kind of hard to move forward. Like, I think somebody is going to pick them up. If only for this sort of intellectual property piece of it. Which brings us to the second story, canister teen we just talked about them. Being one of the companies that was bought by Entercom, which is a older radio conglomerate. They just recently announced the creation of a new division, it's called Cadence 13 Features. And according to the press release, C 13. features will use quote, a traditional Hollywood blockbuster movie creative approach to construct audio features at scale, which is a very P.R. jargony way to say it, essentially, it's a division to create a bunch of podcasts and programs that would essentially serve as an intellectual property-like pipeline machine. Of course, this is not anything new. We've seen similar plays, including this company called Q Code, which has this habit of making very sort of low rent fiction podcasts, and they kind of slap a Hollywood name on it, and maybe try to convert it to a television show. We also see this in a bunch of different ways. Endeavor Audio is a company or an entity that's doing something into space as well. So Caroline, when you hear this, when you sort of see this trend playing out, you know, what does it make you think like, I really want to listen to those shows. Well, how do you feel about this kind of trend in particular, as a consumer?
As a consumer, I must admit, I'm pretty baffled by it. Because when I have enjoyed fiction podcasts, it's been mostly serialized stuff, you know, a story that builds over six or eight episodes, or even continuously as in something like Welcome to Night Vale, for instance. So I'm a bit baffled by the idea of a really long form one-off story. They're saying these could be standalone 90 to 120 minute shows. I can't see that fitting into my life. Everything that you do around enjoying a movie in your life, you know, you make certain foods, you sit with other people, you sit in a room. I can't necessarily see how you would translate that to the audio experience where it's mostly something you do by yourself. You listen while you're doing other stuff. But I guess like all these things, I'm waiting to be surprised.
I don't know, I think the thing that bugs me the most about this is, on the one hand, like a very square, peg-round hole kind of situation. But it's also just, you know, it just feels like very uninspired. This notion of like, "movies for our ears." It's discounting of what's possible in this space, and maybe I'm elitist. I'm trying to sort of balance myself out. I think whether my preferences here are just a hoity-toity an overly "sophisticated" or something.
Yeah, there's definitely a sense of that, which is why I say I'm like open to trying it. But I do think that the kind of language they're using around it is absolutely going to get a lot of people in the existing audio drama, podcast space, really, really furious. This whole idea that, you know, this new podcast studio has just invented the idea of making high quality audio fiction experiences is absolutely the kind of thing that gets people up in arms.
Right? It's a very Columbus kind of thing.
Exactly yeah, we've just discovered this new thing, except that what people here already. Yeah. Yeah.
Alrighty, so usually we wrap up these segments with a podcast recommendation, what's yours for this week?
So I would recommend a podcast called Anthems which comes from Broccoli Content, a U.K. podcast outfit that's backed by Sony. They call it an anthology series, they publish a daily first person monologue essentially all made by different contributors. The current season is on the theme of pride it being Pride Month. There's one in particular that I would recommend by—he's actually the BBC's LGBT correspondent—he first person ever to hold that role, guy called Ben Hunte. And his episode is called Champion, and it's all about his feelings growing up as a Black gay man looking for any kind of representational role models and how he got really into the sixth series of Big Brother U.K., where there was a contestant called Derek who was this outrageous right wing guy. He was really into fox hunting, but he was an out gay man who was also Black. And so how Ben kind of reconciled his own politics and seeing this guy on screen and how that helped him grow up.
Caroline Crampton, she writes Hot Pod with me and she's based in the U.K. Caroline, thanks for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. Web Design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and Branding by Leo G., Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including:
Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristin Muller and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of Laist Studios.
Servant of Pod
Avery Trufelman: Articles of Interest
Season 1, Episode 3
Everything has fashion, cars have fashion, buildings have fashion, our cities have fashion, literature has fashion; everything has cycles of taste. [music] And clothing is just the most visible. Like that's when you look at an old photograph, that's how you can tell when it was taken by what they were wearing.
From LAist studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah.
Avery Trufelman has questions about fashion. Why is it significant? Why do we give it value? And how does it materially impact the world? So she made a podcast to find some answers. [music]
It's always busy In podcast land, but last week turned out to be busier than usual. Two stories that stood out to me in particular: the first, Spotify announced another wave of content deals, one of Kim Kardashian West and one of Warner Brothers. That second deal opens up a pathway for Spotify to develop podcasts around characters from the DC comic book universe. The second story, last week several podcasters, mostly podcasters of color, took to social media to raise the issue of intellectual property and ownership over shows they produce. This kicked up broader conversations about how podcast companies should be structuring their relationships with creators, and whether podcasting is replicating unfair practices from other media industries. To talk through these stories is Ashley Carman, senior reporter at The Verge and the host of Why'd You Push That Button? Ashley, welcome to the show.
Thanks! Thanks for having me.
So I want to take the story about ownership and IP first. So I think, we saw a couple of things last week. The most prominent example I think, is the host of Another Round which is this really popular BuzzFeed podcast (is no longer active right now). It's been talked about as like a big part of podcasting history at this point. They took to Twitter to pressure BuzzFeed to give back the rights to their back catalogue. And that kicked up questions about who owns what, what is the role of a media company in these relationships of creators? There were also a couple of examples of other podcasters that took to Twitter or social media to you know, sound these concerns: The Nod which is a Gimlet show hosted by Eric Eddings and Brittany Luse, it's also a Quibi show now, and also KPCC's former staffer Misha Euceph, she hosted a show called Tell Them, I Am. She also brought up the sort of conversations around not just ownership in IP, but also what it means to get adequate support for media companies. When you see all these stories, what is the larger story here that you're you're thinking about?
It's so interesting to me, because when you work for a media company, you know, unfortunately, unless you've worked out a very special contract, that the work you produce for them is probably owned by them. And what gets really complicated, and I think this is especially true with podcasting, that's why we're seeing this now is that the host of podcasts make the show, right? So like, because it's so intimate, because you build a connection with the hosts; that is where we're having these issues. Because you might know that you have this IP that's owed to the company, right? But at the same time, you're like, I built this because you would have nothing without me. And I think that's where this is becoming so complicated.
A couple of weeks ago there was a story around this podcast by Barstool Sports called Call Her Daddy, which is, you know, I think they started out at a very sort of basic contract that paid them X amount of money, but I don't think they had any ownership of the show. And it was one of those situations where the host got really, really popular. And it was this one of the situations where they had to be a restructuring of what the prior arrangement was. And so we saw this kind of weird standoff between the company and the host in that situation. We're going to see a whole lot more of this as we move forward.
People don't realize is when you say "back catalogue", that doesn't just mean they're sending you the mp3's to your show. That's one thing, that could be that. But I have a feeling, what we are talking about here is the RSS feed and control over that feed, which companies are not going to want to just hand over that feed because it can be used for marketing in the future, they can totally change that feed around, which already has subscribers. So you can see why the companies here that tension exists, why they don't want to just fork over a feed.
Right. One of the interesting qualities about last week's stories in particular, is how these were stories about creators of color. And how I think part of the feeling is that when they were in those institutions, they weren't provided the adequate support that they felt like they would have gotten if they were white, or if they were, you know, for more “brand name” or something. And so this ties back into the larger questions about racial equity that ties very much into the moment that we have right now. How do you think these contracts and regions should be structured moving forward?
I mean, if people haven't read the Twitter threads, Jonah Peretti kind of hinted at the idea—
that's the CEO of BuzzFeed.
Yeah. He hinted at the idea that their feed could be licensed, which is interesting. But, I do think going forward, there has to be—definitely clauses in like in the event that you put our show on hiatus or cancel it, we get access to our back catalogue and we own the feed. I mean, that is what people want. Or we can pay a set fee, and we get that feed, something like that, because a licensing agreement means you're ongoing, you're going to have to keep paying for it. And that that doesn't seem like a long term solution. So I do think going forward, there needs to be a tacit agreement that maybe you get access to your feed if they cancel the show. They had first rights, you know, they got the first go at it if they don't want it anymore—okay, I want to shop it around.
Yeah, and just to tie a bow and a story. I think the larger anxiety that's that's creeping in, as well as that, you know, is podcasting gonna look like other, you know, media industries or entertainment industries that have historically been the creator unfriendly for the longest time and I think podcasting being a relatively new medium, and also a medium that came out of the spirit of everybody is an independent worker and to get to own your stuff. I think there's a lot of worry that as these bigger companies sort of make their plays into space, we're going to see sort of these sort of bad contracts and bad arrangements float around, and that becomes industry norm. That's not something that creators are very happy about or, you know-they would want to push back against that?
Well and podcasters are so outspoken that I actually think podcasting could end up affecting the TV industry, for example, because when TV shows get cancelled occasionally see a backlash; but I feel like a lot of times, it's kind of quiet, it's like, oh, dang, and the fans are upset, and then the screenwriters go off and work on new projects, and so to the talent. But I feel like we might end up in a world where the podcasters are influencing TV and you see, maybe the TV deals start becoming more flexible as well.
Oh, we can only hope. [laughs] Sticking to the subject of big companies and big companies spend a lot of money Spotify, you know, they announced last week two major content deals one with Kim Kardashian West of Keeping Up With The Kardashians and many other multi hyphenate things. She was on contract to produce an exclusive show for Spotify about—I guess wrongful convictions the way that it was phrased to me. And the second deal is with Warner Brothers and DC Comics or just DC in general, that opens up the pathway for or Spotify to develop shows around the wide universe of DC comic book characters, but also there's a potential pathway here for other Warner Bros. properties as well. This, of course, continues Spotify's run at, you know, very spendy, buzzy, exclusive licensing content deals. What do you think about the situation?
What was most interesting to me about the DC deal specifically, is the idea that they're going for kids content. I'm going to assume some stuff is relatively kid friendly, or at least young adult, let's say teenagers. So I think that's an interesting place to watch. Because, as of right now, a lot of the acquisition work has been around, you know, quality narrative shows, big names for adults. We haven't seen them really strive to kind of capture that younger market, and why that younger market is so critical is because if you can lock a kid in to Spotify at 16, it stands a good chance that they're going to stay on Spotify as an adult. And they just launched their kids app to which is worth now here so they know kids are going to be an important demographic going forward.
What's your feel on the Kim Kardashian West podcasts? To me where it's the most interesting is that is in this overlap between true crime and celebrity podcast. There's a lot of juice there.
It is so interesting their branding it on their Parcast, which is one of their acquisitions.
I did not know that that is stunning! Parcast being one of the acquisitions for Spotify. It specializes in the sort of like pulpy, true crime-ish, true crime adjacent shows; interesting acquisition, I think it also has turned out to be one of the more effective ones in the company. Here's the thing like, do you think people actually want to listen to this stuff?
I do. Well, more than the Joe Rogan Show, my friends were like, "Wait, Kim K is getting a show?" And I was like "Yeah," and they're like, "Okay, I'm listening." I was like, "Really? It's about criminal justice reform." And they're like, "YES." I was like, "Okay." [laughs] I know you're skeptical of the exclusive deals. So I'm curious to hear your take because I do think that it could work especially because the products free.
Yeah, everything looks great on—like the strategy looks sound to me on paper, but like, you know, we haven't really seen the first of these original exclusive shows come out yet. And so I really want to see if the first one takes because that would tell us infinitely about what it's going to look like. Last thing on this, does this raise any red flags to you in terms of like, the ongoing narrative about centralization, as you know, Spotify as podcast monopoly?
I mean, it does bum me out a little bit, but not necessarily just because oh, all this content is going to live on one platform. For me, I'm more concerned about the ad side of things. That's why I'm very interested in their ad technology, because as soon as they start doing all this ad targeting which they've started. I just think podcasts are going to be more like the web in which your ads are specifically targeted to you, which could be a good thing for creators, you know, advertisers will be willing to spend more, but I think they might be willing to spend more only on Spotify shows. And that's, that's where I start to worry.
Okay, thanks so much Ashley, before I let you go. Any podcast recommendations this week?
So the podcast I've been listening to is Boom/Bust, it's the HQ podcast show, from The Ringer—so a Spotify show! [giggles]
A Spotify show! [giggles]
I've really enjoyed it, and I would recommend people check it out.
Awesome! And the podcast recommendation for me this week: I'm really enjoying This Is Not A Drake Podcast, it's from the CBC. It's not about Drake, it tells a story of the history of hip hop in Canada and history playing pop in general, through the lens of Drake. It's by Ty Harper, a really talented music journalist over in CBC and I'm utterly fascinated by the show thats the, This Is Not A Drake podcast. Ashley, thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you, Nick.
So before we get to the interview, I just want to be up front here. I've known Avery Trufelman for a while. In fact, we were in college together. And on top of that, she was in a student play that I had co-directed.
Well, first of all, I'm insulted that you couldn't see my future as a podcaster from my performance in the student play. And it's funny in some ways I'm like, Well, our roles are still so similar like I'm still performing and you're, you're you're behind the scenes.
Barking orders! [laughs]
Well, not anymore. You're a podcaster now.
Frankly, I never thought we'd end up in the same business a decade later. But I wanted to bring Avery to the show for two reasons. First of all, she had just wrapped up the latest season of a show Articles of Interest. And second, I think Avery is representative of a segment in podcasting that's really interesting. Singular producers that integrate a strong worldview into their storytelling.
The weird thing is, I think I'm from—this is another way that I feel like an old—I think I'm from kind of the last generation of people who wanted to work in radio. I could have never known that podcasting was gonna be a thing. I always wanted to work in radio, because my parents met working in radio and they always—they met working at WNYC and they spoke about it really fondly. I mean, just like the adventures my mom was able to go on, recording classical music concerts for QXR and, you know, the events my dad was able to organize. They just had such a ball. They talk-and they both worked at WNYC for a long time, like, like a decade at least.
I did not know that they both worked for WNYC. That's crazy.
Yeah, that's how they met. And so they were always like, that's a job. They were always really supportive and it wasn't, you know-now everyone's like, "Oh, podcasting!" Well, not everyone. I shouldn't say everyone. But now there's this idea that there's money in the banana stand, especially when you look at the news about, you know, Call Her Daddy and Joe Rogan. Everyone's like, "Oh, it's a goldmine. Ding. Ding. Ding!" And my parents always knew you're not going to get rich, but it's a job, like you can live on it, and it's fun. So yeah, that's just a long way of saying like, I was a radio person and I really loved everything about radio because if I can get a little like, woo-woo for a second radio is cosmic! You know, literally radio waves, and that everything emits a sound that you can listen to the sounds of like celestial bodies via radio waves! You can listen to the sound of a flie's wing via radio wave like that everything is kind of humming and coalescing in this harmonious universe that's just above our ears, like so beautiful! And I also really loved how democratic it was. I grew up listening to Brian Lehrer being like "New Yorkers: Turn on you're...call in and tell us what you see outside your window." You know, one of my first internships that was definitely—I mean, I applied for it, and I got it—but there was no way there wasn't some nepotism in there, was at WNYC working for New Sounds, which is just like an incredible, incredible show. John Schaefer is one of the most extraordinary interviewers ever. He totally ruined what I thought working in radio was like, that guy's just like, you hardly needed to prep him. He's a genius. But we would open up the phone lines and that was part of my job as an intern was to regulate the phone lines. And I remember one day we're having some debate about like Lady Gaga. Is she a fad? Is she high art? And someone called them was like, "Yeah, it was Stephanie's teacher in the second grade." It was just like, wow, people are amazing. And you can open up the phone lines and have this extremely democratic exchange without getting biased by how anyone looks or where they are, and it's open to everyone. And like, I loved listening to the BBC and how there was a different host every time that it was really about the the news and the stories, and not about how pretty the presenter is. And of course, there are a lot of things about podcasting that I love. I love the variety. I love that you can cuss. I love that the timing is different, but I really do miss that era. Remember when we were all like, "What does Lakshmi Singh look like? I guess we'll never know." [laughs] Like, you know, you'd see like pictures of your favorite persona and just get shocked by what they actually look like. And now that's not really an option. But now podcasters are just turning into personalities. I mean, most obvious examples Michael Barbaro, like extremely distinctive in the fact that it's the same person, one host hosting a daily show every day like that's, I mean, just a crazy amount of effort. But it felt like there's a little cult of personality around him and people recognize him on the street. And I don't know if that ever happens to Sylvia Poggioli. So that was just a long way of saying, I started to work in radio and I thought that was what I was going to do in this podcasting thing totally took me by surprise in the most delightful lucky lucky lucky, lucky, lucky, lucky lucky lucky lucky way.
I'm actually super curious about is like, there's like a ton of romanticism, is I think the word that you use [Avery laughs] and you know, maybe I'm gonna show a bit of my cards here like, I do feel that, but I feel like so it kind of crusty now, [laughs] You know, watching the amount of money coming in and a discourse around, the possibilities change when that happens. And also, with respect to public radio, I think a lot of the stuff that I've been sort of—the stories have been writing and that the narratives that have been sort of trying to pin down, has largely been about like the power structures of public radio. I'm curious from the perspective of somebody who is sort of public radio adjacent, but very much in this sort of, like podcast world: Has the romanticism kind of dulled? Or, do you still feel strongly about these things the same way that you did say, you know, a couple years ago before you started working for 99pi?
Oh, yeah. I mean, look, I get jaded as much as the next person. I'm a notorious hater, but—
You are? [giggles]
Oh, yeah! Yeah, I hate because I love. Like, I I just expect a lot. Because that's, that's just the way the world works, right? Like you think you've heard it all and then something comes along, that just changes your mind entirely and you didn't realize that things could sound like that. I remember, you know, I had that feeling, listening—you know, you listen to Radiolab and This American Life and when I was listening to Radiolab and This American Life when I was a kid, and I was just like, wow, I didn't realize radio could sound like that. And then that became a bit of a formula. And then Nickey Kapur, my friend from college, was like, have you heard of podcasting? And then you know, I listened to Love and Radio, and The Memory Palace, and 99% Invisible, and back then Too Much Information. And I was just like, I didn't realize radio, you know, podcasting could sound like THIS, especially Love and Radio, that really blew my mind and just like, addicted to the new and fascinating ways that people were finding to tell stories. And then you know, podcasting gets a little bit more codified a little bit more formulaic, which is, you know, no one's fault. It's just what happens when there's a demand for regular-regular programming, but then something comes along like Richard's Famous Food Podcasts, or—
—Imaginary Advice, just like your—there's always that capacity for wonder. And it's gre—the Paris Review podcast. And I'm really excited to try to take more risks as well. I mean, I know it's a bit of a cliche that everyone's, oh, you got to be more creative and take more risk. But yeah, I'm perpetually inspired by the things that are possible in podcasting, and I really think we've, like barely, barely, barely scratched the surface.
When she launched the first season of Articles of Interest, Avery had already spent a few years at 99%, Invisible, the popular podcast about the hidden world of design. She cut her teeth on that show, and it was there that she got the opportunity to treat fashion as seriously as art.
Because it's alienating. It's intimidating. And, you know, it's almost like looking at the world of high art. If you look at a Rothko on the wall you're you know, and you haven't been thinking about it for years, you're just like, what does that have to do with my life? What is that expensive thing on the wall have to do with with my daily existence. And, I mean in a weird way, I've been thinking about this concept before I came to 99% Invisible and so the stars all just aligned and this really, really serendipitous way. But when I was 16, my grandma lived in San Francisco and my aunt still lives in San Francisco, so I came out to the Bay Area all the time, when I was a kid. And when I was 16, I went to an exhibit at the de Young Museum, which was one of the first places where I saw fashion treated seriously like art. And there's something so powerful about that because especially when you're 16, and you think you're fat, and you think you're hairy, and you think you're ugly, and you look at all the pictures of live, beautiful pore-less, flawless models, and you're like, I can't relate to this at all like this, you know, you just kind of shut it down. You're like this is not for me, but there's something about seeing fashion on mannequins, just the clothes themselves without the music without Anna Wintour in the front row. You could really admire them for the pieces of craftsmanship that they were. And this exhibit that I went to see was about Vivienne Westwood, who I'd never heard of before. And just making that connection, realizing that someone had to invent punk. You know it—that just blew my mind because it seems so grassroots. And it was one of those early like baby moments before I started working at 99% Invisible, before I was listening to podcasts, actually. I was like, wow, the built world is constructed, like this thing that I thought would have happened in any alternative universe that people would eventually start ripping their shirts and putting it back together with safety pins, like someone had to invent that. And it wasn't just anyone. It was a fashion designer in a high end shop selling this shit for like thousands—well, not thousands, but maybe hundreds of dollars. And it was in that moment where something clicked. I was like, oh, this is what fashion is for. You know, the people who saw those clothes in that shop probably thought they were ridiculous like that Rothko on the wall. They were like, what does this have to do with me? This is absurd. This is expensive. It doesn't matter, blah, blah, blah. And then, decades later, we've all been influenced by punk fashion. Like every single one of us. It has changed the world. It has changed what we consider to be beautiful. It has changed what we consider to be acceptable. It has changed what we consider to be cool. And it just made me really angry, that we weren't talking about it, but we thought it wasn't worth talking about because we dismiss it as frivolous or superficial or snobby or expensive, because it really, really, really affects us all. And it changes so quickly. Like fashion—everything has fashion cars have fashion buildings have fashion or city Have fashion literature has fashion, everything has cycles of taste. And clothing is just the most visible. Like that's—when you look at an old photograph that's how you can tell when it was taken, by what they were wearing. Like that is how we mark ourselves as participants of our era, and of our time. And it's a beautiful thing. And it's a fun thing. And it's an interesting thing, and I want people to feel nerdy about it. Like they feel nerdy about typography or urban planning.
So you use a word that I think really sort of jumped out to me and it's something that I'm really curious about. So, you use the word— you feel angry about some of the under-telling of those stories. And I think there is, sort of, I don't wanna use the word anarchistic, but it's like that let's rip everything apart kind of sensibility to the show, in particular—
Aww, thank you.
—in particular is this sort of nothing is real kind of quality to this which is very 2020 there's a clip in an episode about diamonds, which I think kind of speaks to this a little bit.
[CLIP from Articles of Interest]
When I visited the diamond district, I asked a couple jewelers to look at a pair of lab grown diamond earrings. I know for a fact that these earrings are lab grown, they were sent to me by a lab grown diamond company. And these two diamond sellers with booths across from each other took turns testing each earring. And I am fairly certain that they both got it wrong.
He said that one's a jackpot, because both jewelers told me that one earring was quote-unquote "real" and the other was lab grown. One diamond seller offered to buy the real diamond for between five hundred to a thousand dollars.
Five hundred to a thousand dollars is not—
—nothing to sneeze at.
That shouldn't be right?
And then the other one, you'd sell at a very low price.
Like what's a really low price for that one like—
I don't know if you could hear that. But he said the lab grown diamond would only be worth about one hundred dollars. So one earring was supposedly worth 10 times more than the other. And again, I can't emphasize enough that this pair of earrings came from the same laboratory. We value diamonds for their perceived worth so much more than anything about the way they actually look. [music]
So I think that clip perfectly, I think encapsulates something I think a lot about when I listen to the show, which is I'm just so pissed that all this kind of feels like lies to me. [laughs] And that, it's just sort of the social construction aspect, a lot of these notions of beauty/fashion value. It feels like it's taking something away from you. It's It feels like it's taking a certain kind of freedom. But, my sense is that like you didn't— you kind of took that anger and kind of rebuilt it up into something more productive, a little bit curious as to how you think through artifice, when it comes to something like fashion.
I don't know. I just seen something—I've seen the truth of something that couldn't be unseen with season one, because season one really examined the basics of clothing and I was someone—I mean, I love to go thrift shopping. I love to dress really outlandish. You knew me in college, I think I wore like a first stole for my entire freshman year. Like, I enjoyed it, almost as a joke and as a lark and as a costume. But I never really dig into it in a nerdy way. And when you dig down into fashion, you do get a lot of artifice. And what's more, you know, what's at the center of fashion, it's slavery. Like it all comes back to slavery and imperialism. Like that is one of the foundations of America's our need for cotton. And our need for indigo. Almost every story when you drill down to it is about colonialism, imperialism, slavery, like there's suffering. I mean, even now, if you think about fast fashion, and Bangladeshi sweatshops that are operating under conditions that we haven't tolerated since a Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It's so tied up with suppression, and powerlessness. And it's so ironic, or maybe fitting that clothing is a form of power for people who don't have it. That people who can't control the environments they live in, or the marriages they're placed in or the lives they have use clothes as a means of seizing that power back. And I just love this idea that fashion is this kind of two sided coin, that is a tool and a means of oppression and also a tool and a means of liberation in this really subtle way. But at the end of the day, it ultimately made me very upset, season one and I didn't buy anything for a long time and I was like, ugh I hate clothing. I walked away from that series, absolutely hating it. And I just felt like I would walk down any major street and just see the sheer number of clothing stores, these huge towering Forever 21's and H&M's just filled to the brim with this stuff we are gonna throw away and people just like mindlessly shopping. I guess it wasn't like The Matrix. It was kind of like they live. I just, I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe I ever participated in this system, so unquestioningly. So yeah, season one actually made me quite furious at the end. And it was funny because there were a few times where I'll give talks, and people kind of wouldn't get it. They'll be like, "Oh, so what are your fashion predictions for next season? You're a fashion podcaster." and I was like, "Nah, man, like, I hate clothes. Don't ask me about clothes."
So why would she makea second season? More in a minute. [music]
If making the first season of Articles Of Interest made Avery furious, making the second was a rediscovery. Season two is all about luxury, Prada bags, men's suits, perfume, a subject that every knows carries some serious baggage.
Like that world is for very very very few people. And I definitely came into season two with season one energy I was like I'm gonna tear all the shit down, nothing matters, like perfumes a joke, suits are joke, wedding dresses are joke, diamonds are joke, like fuck it all. I'm gonna burn it all down ma-ha-ha. And then as I dove into it and read more, like I realized these aren't just about rich people things or dreams that were aspirations that were spoon fed to us, like we have all taken them on. These are our dreams and aspirations, like it matters. I don't want to make fun of anyone who wants a diamond. That's a really—and I think that's the thing with the story. In a weird way, I find a lot of comfort in that artifice. To know that diamonds really aren't about money. They are about love. They are about this core need and this core desire we have to feel loved and accepted. And that is what gives diamonds their actual tangible value. And there's no point in tearing it down making fun of anyone for wanting to be loved. In season two, I guess the idea was a bit of like, "yes, and." To see the ways that we have been trained and taught to desire these expensive, ridiculous things, but to understand that there is real weight to them. There's a real reason. I mean, I used to make fun of people who cared about designer logos who wanted, you know, Prada emblazoned across their chest. And now, after talking to Dapper Dan, who basically equated them to these holy insignia, you know; like in the same way that people used to wear scarabs in ancient Egypt, or cockle shells, just like any—or hamza's or ankh's like these holy symbols have carried great weight throughout human history, and now these logos are just an updated version of that. And that blew my mind. And now I really want a knock-off Gucci belt, and I'm so excited to go to New York and go to Canal Street so I can get a knock-off Gucci belt. Like I get it now, for all of these,—for perfume, I get it, I totally get it. And I think they're beautiful. And I love them. And I love fashion again.
This sort of phrasing issues that like luxury is this thing that that is so limited—or not limited, but it's only accessible to a small number of people; but the trickle down effects is just massive. And I remember just like growing up in Malaysia and seeing a lot of people wearing knock-off versions of that, as it as an emulation and a way to sort of thought of the value, and the personal identity and stuff. And I think even right now, that sort of thing—tension of sort of working through is, there is a romanticism to the reclamation of this, but I can't quite square that romanticism with a sense of—with the anger essentially. I don't quite know how to productively live. And I think that's sort of one of the things that I think you're really sort of brings out really, interestingly. I think is really fitting in sort of the spirit of the times, which I do find—I found a challenge and like, how do I live in this world? Like I can't quite fit in it, in a way that feels clean, or in a way that feels morally pure. And even though it said, it's kind of sounds kind of dumb, but like, like, well, everything is kind of screwed dirty anyway, so why not approach with apathy? Yeah, where do you fall on the question of apathy?
You know, it's funny, that's such a good question. And it's something I've been thinking about a lot, and it has way less to do—I mean, it has everything to do with the time we are living in now. And it's something that really scares me. Because, so after season one, I can't tell you how much season one changed my life and like made me extremely furious. So I stopped buying clothes. I went zero waste. I tried to—I mean, I wasn't like those influencers with like the little jar, you know, like this is all the junk I produced over a course of a year. But I just got really into waste and systems and I went vegan. And I developed what I thought-I mean, this is very Bay area, right? Like I know this doesn't fix anything. This is just entirely a form of self soothing, like talking about... [laughs] Like, this is definitely a version of like a quirky character, rather than a system. But I developed a lifestyle that I was like, I can live with this. I was like, I'm only gonna shop at the farmers market. I'm not gonna buy new clothes, I'm gonna repair everything. You know, I was a bit obsessive. And then this happened, then COVID happened and I can't live that way. And also, I kind of slid back down Maslow's Hierarchy, like I I just need to get enough food to live on for a week and I don't drive. So I walked to the Trader Joe's and use just a bunch of plastic like more waste. I'm generating more waste than I ever thought I'd be able to. And the other night I was like, you know what, I really want a tuna melt and I'm sad. So I'm going to eat a tuna melt, and I hadn't had fish in a while. Like all of these consumer habits, you know, because I think in America, we're taught that this is our voice, right? Like our dollar is our vote, the way we consume is—our lifestyle is our values is the way we live, or the choices we make. Like that's kind of the gospel we're taught, and all of these habits that I worked so hard to form, that we're very much inspired by Articles Of Interest, had to go out the window. You know, we worked so hard to train everyone to bring their reusable bags to the grocery store. And now you legally can't, like now you you cannot use your reusable bags if you if you go to the grocery store. And those examples might sound stupid, but there are all these other examples that I think loom way larger, and way scarier. Like yes, of course a lot of people are talking about, you know, will we be able to vote. But I think even the idea of like the Me To movement, we're going to look back at that as something that was like entirely pre-viral, because of job scarcity and money scarcity. I was talking to a friend of mine who worked at a yoga studio in 2008 when, you know, so hard to get a job, and she realized there was a lot of sexual harassment happening in the yoga studio, but she didn't want to say anything because she wanted to keep her job. You know, we're going to be so scared to criticize our places of employment now in this new strange reality. And also, you know, I'm scared about it in terms of, I mean, this is kind of scary to say, but like, I'm scared about what it will do for podcast advertising. Because soon, beggars can't be choosers anymore. I think it's not going to be you know, I have really strong core values and beliefs about what I want to show for and what I want to advertise for. And I don't think I'll be able to have choices. I think we'll just be expected to take whatever money we can get. And so I don't have an answer. I think I'm really really scared for this like quiet, insidious, moral unwinding, that will happen. But at the same time, I think season two helps me because it has taught me to value luxurious things, which sounds stupid. But I think it's teaching me to invest more in beautiful clothes and beautiful art. So I think examining the idea of luxury, and what is precious, and what we value, and what it means to us is going to really help me. I mean, it's so privileged, right? It's so privileged to be like, it makes me want to buy more nice things. But I don't know. I just I don't know what kind of power we have right now. I don't I don't know how to live. I mean, that question that you raised, like, how do I—how do I get by as a decent person? I don't know.
We typically try to end each of these episodes by asking: What are you listening to these days?
Mm hmm. I've been listening to a lot of music. I love podcasts, but I've been recently just getting very, very into music. Just like lying on my floor and listening to music. You know, like this moment has that angsty teenage feeling and I just want to release, and listening to music feels like I'm a teenager again. I can just like feel my heart soaring. It feels so romantic.
Well, the name, the favorite-your favorite track from the mix that you listened to yesterday. Let's go with that.
I mean the song that really jives with the feeling of completing a project and having to learn to sit with it, especially in this moment where everything feels like weird and sad and I'm trying to feel satisfied, and i'm trying to feel happy; but I'm lonely, and I'm hungry, and I'm excited, and I'm aimless, and I'm lazy and the song is Fruits Of My Labor by Lucinda Williams.
Ohh, good pick.
That song. I mean, that's just like [music] looking at the sunset sitting on my floor, drinking a gin and tonic. That's my quarantine. Like, that's what I'm trying to do.
Avery, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate this conversation.
Oh my God, thank you so much. Thank you for listening, and thank you for your thoughtful questions. It's really, it's really a gift.
Avery Trufelman. Season two of Articles Of Interest is up now.
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. Web Design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and Branding by Leo G., Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including: Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristin Muller and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of Laist Studios.
Servant of Pod: John Moe: The Hilarious World of Depression
Season 1, Episode 2
Hey folks, just a heads up: This episode contains references to suicide.
[Clip: The Hilarious World of Depression, John Moe and Miz Cracker]
Is depression funny?
Depression is hilarious! When life is void of meaning, and joy, everything is hilarious! You're like, I can't believe that I am getting dressed today. [laughs] Like, why would I do that? When my naked body will be soon returning to the soil, anyway? [laughter] You know what I mean? [laughs]
From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod.
In many ways, my relationship with podcasts began as a mental health exercise. It was years ago, I was living by myself in Chicago. I was deeply unhappy, and I was deeply alone. To ward of loneliness, I would take long walks in the freezing Chicago air, listening to podcasts. I listen to people talk and tell stories, and interview each other and have a good time. That's how I started really getting into podcasts, as a way to manage my depression.
So for this episode, my guests was John Moe, the creator of the hit podcast, The Hilarious World of Depression, and the new memoir of the same name. We spoke a few weeks back, and we had planned to release the interview as part of our launch. The conversation was lights, thoughtful, fun; it was hopeful. We talked about the future, and where John might want to take the show. But much has changed since we spoke. Earlier this week, we learned that the show was being canceled. That Moe is being laid off by American Public Media. The official reason as reported elsewhere: “Economic turmoil and budget shortfalls due to the pandemic.” We briefly considered pulling this episode, but decided against it. We felt that what happened to The Hilarious World of Depression stands as a representation of how tenuous these times are, the pandemic, and its economic consequences. So we're running this interview to help honor John's vision. Furthermore, I really believe in the show. Since its debut in 2016, John has served up interviews with interesting people about depression, mental health, and most difficult moments in their lives. He's spoken with reporters and drag queens, actors and comedians, athletes and musicians. Recently, he sat down with Darryl McDaniels, otherwise known as DMC of Run-DMC, who spoke about a failed attempt to take his own life.
[Clip: The Hilarious World of Depression, Darryl McDaniels, DMC of Run-DMC]
We's in Austria Yugoslavia—somewhere, I was gonna go jump off the roof—at the hotel roof. When we's in Japan one time I went to the fucking hardware store by myself, but I didn't go with a translator. So the man behind the counter didn't know what the fuck. I need rat poisoning! So then, when I say I'm really gonna kill myself, this what happens? I said okay, if I kill myself, people gonna know the Run-DMC story. They're gonna know what me, Run and Jay did: first to go gold, first to go Platinum, first on the cover of Rolling Stone. Everything that hip hop is doing is because of me, Run and Jay and what we did to represent this beautiful culture. But they don't know about Darryl, the little boy who's no different from any other little boy or girl on the face of the earth.
Heavy, human, hard and revealing. When I listened to the podcast over the years, I've often thought to myself, Man, I wish I had this back in Chicago. So I asked John, where he came up with the idea to do a show like this.
Whenever I would talk about mental health and depression and suicide on Twitter, I got a tremendous response. And most of my Twitter is dad jokes and Black Sabbath references, [laughter] like it's not, it's pretty—
— that's a big overlap.
Yeah, it's pretty low brow and, you know, like—I'll say Twitter is just a valve on my brain that I just let the thoughts out on through typing. So nothing's ever all that considered, it just kind of plops out. Which is a big tonal shift when I started talking about mental health issues, and I just got this enormous response like from tweets of people saying, "Hey, what you said, inspired me and made me want to make an appointment with a therapist, and I did and I kept it this time and things are going great. Thank you for for tweeting that." I'm like, tweeting that. Like, that thing took me five seconds to type and this difference that it's having. So it's just this incredible response. And at the same time, I knew a lot of comedians and musicians so when Wits, the variety show I was doing, got cancelled. I was like, okay, well, what— what's in the cupboard here? Like, what can I make dinner with, what ingredients do I have? And it sort of seemed to line up nicely to talk about mental health. Given that, when I did, it seemed to go over big. And I had all these friendships really, or at least acquaintance-ships with a lot of creators, entertainers. And, you know, there there are, like a handful of radio shows that become consistent hits, like, I think the list is like, over the last 20 or 30 years: This American Life, Wait, wait, Don't Tell Me and Radiolab. Those are really—I mean, there are other shows on the air, and I've hosted them, but those are the hits. And so it's really hard to, to break into it and get all those stations to carry it and get sponsorship and get good time slots. And the podcast, I thought, you know, this is a really narrow idea that I have, but that's what podcasting is for. And I saw it as a chance to like take these tools that I had and work with a tremendous amount of freedom for the first time. So, I kind of had the idea and pitched it internally at A.P.M. and it really caught on. People really just latched onto it, to me to a surprising degree. Cuz I did think it was a sort of weird idea. I thought it might work, it might be a total disaster because they're asking comedians to talk about, like, definitionally the least funny thing in the world.
And so I pitched it, and then we, you know, there was enough interest to do a pilot. So we made a pilot with Patton Oswalt, and then we found a sponsor, and then we're off to the races.
Was the concept for the show always the same? Like, I mean, my understand is that you start every—almost every episode with a sort of thesis, right? Like, do you—
Do you find depression funny? Which it's still, you know, quietly a provocative question, but it also feels like a journey in a sense.
Yeah. I mean, when I started the show—when I started thinking about the show, the idea was why are so many comedians depressed? Do depressed people—are depressed people more likely to be comedians, or does comedy make people depressed? And it quickly became clear that it was unanswerable because there's some people who say, yeah, it's just because comedians can talk about this. There are no more depressed comedians, than there are depressed dentists. But, if your dentist was talking about suicidal ideation, it would be bad for their business. Whereas if a comedian does, it's, it's part of the job. But then other people said: no, you know, depressed people see the world in a different way. And they are, they're sharp about observing the absurdity of it. And so comedy is a thing that they gravitate to. So there was kind of a difference of, of take on that. But what I discovered pretty quickly was that they were really good at describing it, and it's a hard thing to describe. And when they describe it in a resonant way, then people relate to it and pretty soon you're part of a community; and you're not just sort of, suffering alone in silence. And so that focus kind of shifted after the initial idea.
But before you got to that point where the show's out, and it starts hitting its community, you mentioned that the station had a lot of sort of excitement around the show.
Was it difficult to just to even just get off the ground? Was it difficult to sell ads against or, or just to build a model around it?
Well, I think, I think A.P.M. saw the same thing that was happening around the country and that I had seen, which was that there was a hunger to talk about this thing. There was a shift going on. In the same way, like with littering in the 70's and drunk driving in the 80's. People just said, let's get better about this. Let's change things. And there was a real hunger to talk about it. And then like, it was being talked about more among well known people. I mean, that all started, I think, with Dick Cavett in the 1970's, who was on our first season of our show. And so, mental health had already been identified by A.P.M. as an area that they really wanted to put some muscle behind, that and water—like global water issues. And so it fit really well with that and at the same time, there's a company in the Twin Cities called HealthPartners, which is a health care provider and an insurance company. And the company had been looking to do some partnerships with them. And so when we made the pilot, I met with them, me and a few other people from the company; and they had this website: makeitok.org, which was this really cool website that's all about destigmatizing mental health, promoting conversation—talking points, like how to approach someone when you're concerned, and they had stories about— individual stories that kind of traced how these things evolve. It wasn't just depression was all sorts of things. And they had this great website. They couldn't get enough people to go to it. They had bus ads and billboards and nothing really goose the traffic like they wanted. And so they had this fund for community support and community awareness. And what I wanted to do with the show matched up with what they were doing with Make It Ok, just the Venn diagram looked like a circle. So they sponsored us right out of the gate, which kind of gave us some wiggle room in terms of underwriting, and in terms of generating money in other ways. And it also let me get on an airplane to go out to Hollywood and talk to some of these people in their homes and in their offices. So that was a real serendipitous kind of arrangement. And we still have a very close partnership with them. It's kind of a unique thing, because they have nothing to do with the content of the show. Like everybody agreed on that right away, like there's, there's going to be a wall. But it's, sort of more like I go out and do events with them, and we talk to them all the time. So it's it's more of a partnership than a sponsorship. [music]
And that partnership, at least in its current form, ended this week. More with John Moe in a minute. [music]
John Moe has had a long career in public radio. For the podcast, I wanted to know whether he primarily pulled from that experience or with the he looks somewhere else for inspiration?
I think I took a lot from Marc Maron, because you know, sort of about the mental health stuff—but like, Marc Maron and Howard Stern will just ask the blunt questions without worrying about like, without apologizing beforehand or without, you know, kind of tiptoeing through it. They'll just smash right in, and people tend to answer them. And that's what I really noticed, is that if they've agreed to be on the show, then they kind of know what's coming. And if I don't make the question scary, then they probably won't respond like it's scary. And that worked out really well. I think a lot of it is after being in radio, as long as I had been, seeing people just being comfortable with the narrow range of topic. And the drilling down was really inspirational, and you know, I could get that from a music podcast or a basketball podcast, or a lot of other things that I was listening to where you know, if you're going to talk about Karl Malone, you don't have to do the [laughs] radio thing of Karl Malone was a basket—.
—also the best d—
Yeah! [laughs] He was known as "The Mailman" and here's why. You know, you just talk about it, and the people who are listening to you get the reference already, and you're free to just drill down.
This is one of the things I've been perpetually fascinated by, because even the two examples that you had like Marc Maron, on the one hand, Howard Stern to the other. There's this sort of sense of, with something like Maron and with podcasting in general, is the thing that we're talking about the whole—the narrow you get, the more you're allowed to be yourself.
And there's something about like, Stern, probably—possibly not these days—but especially, in his earlier like, part of his career where the very fact of his personal mess is the thing that makes him the shock jock. Like, well, what is this? It feels like this sort of embarrassment over the the personal, like in the broadcast culture.
Yeah, I mean, I've got all the respect in the world for, for a lot of the things Howard Stern does. I've never been a fan; I've never been a listener, because some of it makes me uncomfortable, some of—the awkwardness of it and—I can't relax into it. And I think with with Maron, I heard him doing it in a more empathetic way, and doing it about things that you could tell matter to him. Like Howard Stern can have anybody on the show and ask those questions. I don't get the sense that he's very personally invested in any of it. And so, especially when I started the show, and I had a lot of people on the first season, who were, who were friends of mine, or acquaintances of mine, talking about things that I had also been through, I was I have always really put my heart in it. Like, you know, when someone's talking about some of these tough times, I might not have been through something identical to that, but I've been through something similar. And so, I kind of connect with that. I think the other thing that comes from is, before I was ever in radio, I was an actor for many years.
And what you're trained to do there is give your attention to your partner and go off to cues that they give you, and you have your the lines you have to say, and the situations that you're in. But, you're a human responding to another human, ultimately. And, I've tried to carry that over to interviewing. And so if somebody is, you know, telling a funny story about something that happened with their mental health, I'm probably having fun along with them. And if they're talking about some real dark stuff, I'm down there too. And I'm thinking in those terms, in that moment. I mean, that's one of the reasons when I'm done with an interview, I'm completely spent; I often need to take a nap. [laughs] Because it's, it's an incredibly emotional journey just to be the interviewer in that situation.
Yeah. Is there like a collective weight that you feel? Because it does sound-what you just said there, with each interview, you're giving a lot of yourself in that situation? Yeah. I imagine that's different from sort of earlier parts of your broadcasting career?
Yeah, definitely. I mean, I've done—I've been a producer. I've been a newscaster, I've been a reporter. When I did all those things, really my focus was on: how is this going to technically sound? And then what information can I get across in what is invariably a very short amount of time? So it's economy of language and it's a—
—it's a puzzle, almost.
Yeah, yeah! It's definitely solving a puzzle. I used to use that analogy when I did a four and a half minute tech show once a day for Marketplace. How can I get all this in 13 seconds? What preposition can I lose? What adjective can I lose? And so this was a different thing right away, when I didn't have to worry about the clock. I didn't have to worry about swear words. I didn't have to worry about a lot of things that I used to. And it really just let me lean into, in the interview, extracting the story; extracting the story in its full depth and color and then in editing and assembling the show using the parts that define the fundamental arc and putting it in the clearest relief I possibly could, so that the listener would have the same illumination that I found in the interview.
I want us to unpack that that sort of post production process a little more. But before that, so I'm curious, like when you are done with these interviews, and then you find yourself spent, like, do you have like a self-care routine that happens afterwards? Like, what what's the decompression like?
I just—I let it be. I don't try to expel it. You know, I might, depending where I am, I might go get a lovely cup of coffee or, [laughs] or a sandwich. You know, I might, I might nap, I usually don't, but I just sort of have to let it sit for a while. And when we do it in the A.P.M. headquarters, like if I've been in a studio there, we'll get through the interview and then at the end, Krissy and I will talk about okay, what stood out for you? What's—
—and that's Krissy, your producer?
Yeah. Like, what's the part that you're going to go home and tell your family about, this amazing thing that this person said; because that's probably something you want to keep and maybe build around. We'll have the debrief and then, she just sort of leaves me alone in terms of like, you know, gotta go voice this underwriter, you got to write the WebCopy. So we can just rest for a while, and then I can resume getting back to it.
So there's like, no, like, pump up music or—
Or watch—put on an episode of Parks and Recreation?
No! I don't try to do that. I try to just let it sit. And, you know, it actually gives me a lot of clues about how to form the episode after the editing process is done. Like, what stood out and what was surprising? And I kind of just let that sit for a while, and then maybe watch some Bigfoot videos on YouTube because that always helps everything in my life.
Yeah, that's the Pacific Northwest. [laughs]
Yeah! You know what I'm talking about.
So, when you sit down and you kind of like think through the arc of these interviews, what is the shape you're looking for? Like, what are the sort of main components to build around in the initial run of thinking back to an interview?
I'll generally listen to it all the way through and then just like, you know, while I'm playing poker on my phone or something. Like, I try to do something else with my eyes in my hands, so I'm not checking email and and not paying attention to the interview, I try to avoid words. [laughs] And so I'll listen to it once, maybe twice. And then my process, which I just kind of didn't learn from anywhere, I just sort of came upon it, is I'll start separating out the interview, the raw tape into beats; of like, okay, this is the junior high section, and this is the part about when he was a shoe salesman. So I'll label it in all caps, each of those beats, I'll do like little micro cuts on the tape on Pro Tools, and label that cut "shoe salesman", "junior high", you know, "breaking with mother", whatever it is. And, then I start to kind of see the bones of like the chronology. And if I got to something about childhood late in the interview is something that I can slide back into the first part of the tape and have it be smooth, what it needs to transition does not fit at all? And then usually by then, something is kind of emerging that either has been talked about, or has been implied, or something that keeps coming up. And then I'll sort of weigh that against the public interest in this person. So an example, we have an episode with Steven Page from the Barenaked Ladies.
[Clip: The Hilarious World of Depression, Steven Page, Barenaked Ladies]
Well, I had this memory, I realized that suicidal ideation had been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. And I remembered walking home from school one day, and well probably many days, but I remember specifically one day of walking home from school and imagining the knife I was going to get out of the kitchen knife drawer. I was probably six. And it wasn't until I was in my 30's that it kind of dawned on me, that that's not how everybody thinks; that wasn't the normal way a six year old's brain should work. I mean, awareness of suicide is one thing, or being upset about something-but just having you know, have-the idea of having a plan. Thankfully, I know now that knife was super dull, my mom never had sharp knives.
The thing that I thought about while listening to Steven being suicidal at age six, and you know all the things-being arrested for cocaine possession, and also being a pretty hilarious guy was—oh, okay, there's two levels here. You know, there's "One Week" is a great song, but it's ultimately about the collapse of a relationship, you know. And "Pinch Me" is a song that he brought up, which is a song about depression that he made Ed sing because he was more comfortable not singing it himself, because it was such a heavy song; and it's a it's a pop song. I even say in the episode, like, hold on, "Pinch Me" is a funny song. There's an underwear joke in it, and someone runs through the sprinkler in their gym shorts. That is a fun song about summer. [music] But then, you know you listen to it. I point this out in the in the podcast episode. There's also the lines:
[Music Clip: "Pinch Me", Barenaked Ladies
I feel fine enough, I guess. Considering everything's a mess.
—and talking about leaving town and nobody would notice "that I'm not around." Like, it's a really bleak sign. And so that sort of two levels that he would operate on was really telling. And so he would be everybody's favorite party band. But then, if you pay attention to what he's really saying, he's doing things on the same level. And they're both truthful to Steve, and he's, you know, he's like, no, I do like, having fun with my friends. But then there's also this. So that, to me, was the most telling thing about it. And especially because that is something that if you think you know, that band, maybe there's a darker, deeper side to them. And I think people would appreciate knowing about that. That's something people might not have thought of, or you know, Mike Birbiglia is on our show, and he says, I've never been diagnosed as depressed but he also talks about this persistent obstacle of an inability to feel joy. [laughs] And, you know, and he talks about it in almost all of his shows but doesn't elaborate. And I'm like, okay, what's going on with Mike Birbiglia?
[Clip: The Hilarious World of Depression, Mike Birbiglia]
I think that at a certain point, I had this understanding of, of my own existential dread, just this idea of like, well, there's, you know, there's not much we can do. [laughs] We're gonna die. It's gonna be either instantaneous and soon or it's gonna be—
—protractive and horrible—
—in fourty or fifty years from now, and they'll have some declined to, and, and I feel like—I that's something I—you know, I feel like I can't get that out of my head. I think it's part of what makes me a comedian.
Mm hmm. (host)
Because I think about that, and I think that part of the job of a certain type of comedian is like, what—the kinds of I do is, is to take the darkness and-and-and-and-and break it open and find the humor in it so that people themselves can see the humor in it. Because I think laughter is a great coping mechanism for a lot of darkness that surrounds us at all times. (mike)
And that became a show really about how depression is a term that is sometimes just used for insurance purposes. Like all you're talking about with depression, you can call it that, or you can call it something else. You're talking about a dark tendency that is an obstacle in your life. And beyond that, it's semantics and nomenclature, what you know—however you want to go about that. But that really became what that show was about. And so I try to, I try to tell the person's story and use the insight that I've gleaned from their story. And from all these other dozens of interviews I've done. [music]
This is neither here nor there, but I'm reminded that the word for inability to feel joy is anhedonia.
Which is a beautiful word.
—for something ghastly.
I know. It's like gonorrhea. It's just a beautiful word. [laughs]
In hindsight, gonorrhea is actually a fantastic word.
After the break, how the podcasts changed John's life. [music]
Yeah, yeah. [music]
I'm curious has your relationship with, you know, mental health and your depression specifically changed since doing the show? Or starting the show?
Yeah, it has in a kind of unexpected way. And a lot of that is from the book because after the first season we we won a Webby Award for Best Comedy Podcast, which I can only think must have mystified, actual comedy podcasts. And so, we were getting some buzz and my book agent said you should write a memoir. I said, nobody cares about me. She said: "That's depression talking, it'll help people." I said, okay. And then after the second season, I struck a deal with St. Martin's Press to write it. And then it was like, well, if I have to write a book about a subject, I better know the subject. And I don't know how well I know me, I better go start figuring that out. And honestly, like, through two seasons of the show, my thinking was, well, I've stopped my depression from getting worse. And I think I know where some of it comes from. And so then that's the best I can do. If I can just not get worse until I die, I will have won. [laughs] But then I thought, well, maybe I can get better? Maybe it doesn't have to be, just not worse? And I got into some good therapy, because I also wanted to find out more about how my mind works, for myself and for the sake of this book. And I got into Cognitive Behavioral Therapy because I researched enough of the modalities and the, you know, different approaches, that I had a good feeling that would work for me, not everything works for everybody. I thought that would work for me. And it did. And it was amazing and regulatory. So the show, I think, has given me enough variety of stories in terms of what works for people, what people have tried. You know, I've heard everything from Electroconvulsive Therapy to Ketamine to you know, a million other things, and it let me kind of see the menu and order what I thought would be good.
I'm sort of thinking about, so I just re-listened to the Mike Birbiglia episode this morning for this, and he talked a little bit about the way he restructured to thinking about his sort of career—his working to contribute something, as opposed to be something. Do you feel like, your work with the podcast and the memoir has been sort of biggest contribution you had in your life or—
How does that settle into your your personal narrative?
Yeah, it's it's been—it's a show that I started because my other show had been canceled, and I wanted to keep having a job. And so—and this seemed like a good topic to have the show about. Now, this topic is what I do with my professional life, and there happens to be a podcast involved. Since the show started, I've been asked to do speeches all over the place. I was invited to go down to the Carter Center and met with Rosalyn Carter down there, like all these—writing this book—all these amazing things have happened. And it came in a time too, where it wasn't just that I was between shows, but I was I was solidly middle aged and I was thinking: what am I doing here on the planet? I'm not especially religious or even spiritual? So I didn't really believe any, in you're intended to do this, it's written down in a space book. [laughs] But I thought, well, what what should I do? What should I do to help people and, and this seemed like a chance to do that just before we launched, about four months before we launched, my wife had an acute appendicitis while we were on a vacation and it perforated. And we're very lucky to have her still with us. And, after that happened, you know—by the time that was like, all done, it was fall of 2016. And I thought, jeez, we could all go anytime. You know, tragedy is always just around the corner. And so maybe I could just help people carry things. Maybe I could just help with the load of being a person on the planet. It felt like the same sort of relief is when I was finally diagnosed with depression in my mid 30's after having it since seventh grade. It gave me a chance to think about my work in something other than what are the download numbers? What are the sponsorship numbers? Where are we on the charts? All these things that I ultimately can't really control and that I was had always had a tendency to misinterpret as a judgment on my own worth, you know, like, if a lot of people are listening to the show, that means I am a good boy. [laughs] And thinking in a different term, thinking in terms of like, go out there and help people. That's a goal that's much more easily filled, and much more generous to the world. So I was giving a speech at this conference for surgeons and talk about "imposter syndrome." What am I to tell surgeons? And the the person introducing me was was from HealthPartners and she said—talked about what I had done in my career. Like other shows I had done, and other things done. And she used the phrase "Prior to finding his true calling." And I'm like, oh, no, really! [laugher] I had the rest of the biography to find my legs again, because it really blew my mind. But it is, you know, I mean, who knows what the future holds. But this is, this is what I'd want to do; through this podcast through other things through books through speeches through, I don't know, folk music, whatever it is. It's the thing I want to do.
Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
Well, thank you. This was delightful.
On Tuesday afternoon, Moe tweeted, quote: "American Public Media has ended production of the Hilarious World of Depression. I have been laid off. I am unemployed. I don't know what the future will be. I thank them for giving me the opportunity to make the show happen in the first place. It's a hard day. I don't know where I go from here, but I I'm looking for work." End quote. We hope that the show finds a home and that Moe will be back in your headphones again soon. For now, though, if you haven't checked out the show, I highly recommend that you do. It was a helpful one for me. John Moe, The Hilarious World of Depression. [music]
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/servantofpod. Web Design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and Branding by Leo G., Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including: Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristin Muller and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of Laist Studios.
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