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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Where We Are Now

Welcome to Servant of Pod. To kick things off, Nick tries to build a (very) brief picture of where the podcast world is right now with the help of Team Coco’s Adam Sachs and Earios co-founder Priyanka Mattoo. He also gets advice on how to be a decent podcast host from a great podcast host: Death Sex and Money’s Anna Sale.

Servant of Pod: Where Are We Now

Season 1, Episode 1

Nick Quah

Welcome to Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah.

Nick Quah

Let me start by telling you what we're hoping to do with this show. Every week I'm going to talk with the people who are in the business of making podcasts at every level. We're also gonna do a bit of news here and there. If I do my job right, you walk away with a better understanding of this medium, the community actually building the podcasts, and why it's a meaningful part of the media landscape. If nothing else, well, at least you get to walk away with a few interesting shows to add to your queue.

Nick Quah

Here's what you need to know about me. I've been covering podcasts since 2014 when I started Hot Pod, a widely read newsletter in the podcast community. I'm a regular contributor to New York Magazine's Vulture where I write about the business and review podcasts and now I'm here with this new show. Alright, with all the introductions out of the way, let's get you up to speed.

Nick Quah

This is a remarkable time for just about everyone. On the one hand, you have the global pandemic. And on the other hand, you have the standing wave of protests against police brutality and racism that's been sweeping across the nation. The podcast world is not insulated from any of that, like just about everywhere else has been dealing with the logistical and economic challenges that come with a socially distant world. And like everyone else, the protests around the country have sparked conversations about how the podcast community can be better with issues of fairness and opportunity, especially when it comes to people of color. The podcast world has also been grappling with a fundamental challenge that predates the pandemic and the protests; capitalism, a flood of new money and corporate interests that some worry might ultimately change the character of the community, possibly for the worse.

Nick Quah

Which brings us to Spotify.

Nick Quah

No other entity embodies the flood of new money better than Spotify, the Swedish music streaming service, which has spent almost half a billion dollars over the past year on podcasting in a bid to become something far bigger than just a music streaming service. That kind of money is head spinning stuff for the podcast community, which had already been navigating the pains that come with rapid growth over the past decade. Consider, almost 100 million Americans actively listen to podcasts these days. That's double what it was five years ago, and triple what it was 10 years ago. Podcasting has changed radically since it began in the early 2000s. Its big innovation was making it free and easy for anybody to distribute their own audio programs over the internet; and the early community was defined by a free flowing openness. You'd find some comedians, some minor media figures, some public radio people, and lots and lots of average Joe tech bloggers. Now, they're significantly more glitz. Today, you'll find celebrities, journalists, authors, social media personalities, athletes, big media companies-you name it. This is a lot to process; so I thought I'd start with a longtime podcast executive to talk through how podcasting has changed over the years and what it means. These days Adam Sachs is the Chief Operating Officer at Conan O'Brien's media company, Team Coco. But for a number of years, he was the chief executive of Midroll media, which is now Stitcher. I asked him for his thoughts on how podcasting has changed over the last 10 years.

Adam Sachs

At the beginning—you're right, it did feel much more niche. It was dominated I think by—you know—kind of coastal liberal elite, both in terms of comedy content and public radio content and techie content. [laughs] But it's become much more mainstream, I think in a lot of ways. I think the faces behind the microphones have changed, the listener composition has changed, you know. I think we're pretty close to like a 50:50 male/female ratio—in terms of listeners. I think many more people of color have podcasts, listen to podcasts, you know, than ever before. And absolutely, with all of this change, and with all of this mainstreamization there's more money in the space; and more money is attracting more media companies, bigger celebrities—which I think does have a snowballing effect in bringing even more audiences in. And then in addition to that, just media consumption and media habits more broadly have shifted in a direction of a little bit more passive, a little bit more short form—you know— content that can be consumed in minutes or even seconds; podcasts—you know, to use the buzzword, have that intimate element to them.

Nick Quah

I gotta say, like, I've grown to really hate that word, but I get it. I totally get it.

Adam Sachs

I don't know! Can you tell me another word because I mean, it's true; I think that the sentiment is true, that they are intimate, right? Like, you have this—again, to use the cliche, you're developing this one on one relationship with the podcaster. I believe that to be true. I've said it so many times over the years that I feel icky when I say it too, because it feels so cliched. But, the truth is that—you know, podcasts do thrive on that deeper engagement, and they are able to capture attention, like few other mediums can today. And so I think that has really helped them grow.

Nick Quah

I think one of the sort of things that my mind has come to define this medium's ecosystem is this sort of classical notion that like anybody can do it. It's become kind of a parody—you know. A joke that's often said to me is like, "Yo, my cousin has a podcast" or like "My aunt is making a podcast." And there's something about that, that is still to me, quite revolutionary; and it is still to me quite important. Even though there is some concern that as the space becomes more industrialized, that there might be an effect to that—anybody can make it in this. Do you see that that's a trade off here? Or do you think it's something that will be maintained even as more money comes into the space?

Adam Sachs

I think the idea that anyone can make a podcast will continue, right—I mean, like the barrier to entry to creating a podcast is so low and I don't see the barrier to actual podcast creation increasing. What I do think will increase, is the idea that anyone can have their podcasts be discovered or heard. You know—when there were 100,000 podcasts, it was already a little bit difficult to break through and to have your voice be heard. Now that there are (whatever the number is) 1.1 million or more, it's very difficult if, especially, if you don't have some sort of machine behind you—a marketing machine, a media company with you know with spend and resources—it will become increasingly hard to have your podcast if you are a DIY podcaster without an existing fan base already. It is going to become harder and harder, I believe to have your podcasts be discovered.

Nick Quah

I'm trying to wrap my head around the notion of: as podcasting becomes mainstream, whether it makes the community or ecosystem less democratic or accessible, somehow? And I wonder if that's always going to be the case with with any medium?

Adam Sachs

Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, you know, if we want to use Conan as an example, I think there—

Nick Quah

Which I should say there's nothing wrong with Conan. I am a big fan of the show. It's—you know—Team Coco makes—you know—I quite like what you guys make, but it is it is a dynamic that impacts everybody else, I think.

Adam Sachs

It does. But, I mean, I will say to come to Conan's defense because he's my employer—but also because I truly believe it. I think that podcasting is still in a lot of ways a meritocracy. I know what I'm describing, what I just said, might be counter to that—in that you know, yes Conan has a big social reach; and Team Coco has a big social reach; and Conan has a linear TV platform, which definitely sets him apart from the vast majority of podcasters—but I also think, and this is sort of mixed in with this whole story is that he's been on TV for 27 years. It's not an accident that he's a good podcaster. You know, he is like incredibly talented to begin with; I think he has a ton of innate talent, but he also has an enormous amount of experience. So I don't know if you want to debate whether it's a meritocracy or not. I mean, I think that his talent and his experience are a big reason that his show is, for my money, very good; and I think why it's successful.

Nick Quah

I personally don't know where I land on this. Like, to what extent I go: more money is better because we can get paid, but in some ways, you know, there there is a there's a cost when you when there's more.

Adam Sachs

Well, here's—yeah—here's what I would say. I think that shows like Conan's show, and there are other shows that would probably fall into this category, are bringing new people into the medium that never listened before. And as you and I both know, if you're a podcast listener chances are you're a power user, right? Like, if you listen to one podcast, chances are you listen to several. That's just the way that this medium works and so I would say that people like Conan are bringing more listeners in, who might listen to Conan's and say, hey, what else should I listen to? And this pie—yes, maybe he is taking a large piece of the pie, but I also think he's growing the overall pie in a big way.

Nick Quah

Hmm. When you look around at podcasting in 2020, did you ever think it would end up in this place back when you were running Midroll?

Adam Sachs

I think if you were to ask me—and I don't want to give myself too much credit, because there are a lot of predictions that I'm sure that a wrong. I bet I would have said that podcasting would have looked like it looks today, maybe five years from now. So in other words, I think that I maybe somewhere felt like this place that we're at now is an inevitability, but maybe didn't quite catch on to how quickly it would happen. And I still think we have a ways to go you know, to your point, like it's not fully mainstream. There is significant money in the space but not an enormous amount of money, relative to other, media. I think we'll get there, it's just a matter of when?

Nick Quah

At Team Coco, I imagine that you're pretty diversified out there. But, have you seen the major impacts in advertising revenue with the economic consequences of the pandemic?

Adam Sachs

So as a business as a whole, we've paused a couple of our business lines, right—like live events. Obviously, that's an important business line for us; it's just on hold. So there are elements of our business that are just paused right now, which is unfortunate, but it's okay. I think we saw about a 10% dip in downloads, which was maybe less dramatic than the industry at large. It's returned a bit, but it's not fully back to where we were before the pandemic. On the money side: our ad sellers were able to keep the majority of advertisers in. So while we weren't necessarily like in major growth mode, we were able to maintain the status quo for the most part. We're still feeling the effects of pandemic and I don't think we know yet what the long term impact is going to be. I think there are going to be some real shifts in routine that end up being permanent. Like, I think we're gonna see more remote workers, which means fewer commuting hours; which means, more time around kids and family, and probably less opportunity to listen to podcasts. One thing I think that is interesting one—one thing that we may see out of this pandemic is, we may see the bar for quality be raised even higher.

Nick Quah

Hmm.

Adam Sachs

When people are commuting podcasts have less to compete against to win the consumer's attention. If I'm in the car, I've got like two choices, right: radio/podcasts, music/podcasts. If I'm at the gym, same thing, two choices. But if I'm sitting on my couch, in my living room, and I'm deciding between listening to the daily or putting on CNN—like the quality of the podcast, it really has to be great to compete against Netflix, and you know—Disney plus, and HBO Max in order to take my time. And that could be a good thing in the long run.

Nick Quah

Let's talk about Spotify, because I feel like we're dancing around the 5,000 pound Swedish gorilla in the room. In particular, over the past one and a half years Spotify has spent at least half a billion dollars in part, on acquiring podcast companies. You might have heard some of them, it was given the media. There's The Ringer, which is Bill Simmon's website and podcast network, and there are two other companies: Parcasts and Anchor, so far. And they've also signed a lot of exclusive licensing deals; they have a deal with The Joe Rogan Experience that's reportedly valued at about 100 million dollars; and they also have a slate coming up with Higher Ground, which is the Obama's production company. It feels like they want to own podcasting in some form or another. And it does feel like—the fact that they're spending this much money in the space, has fundamentally changed the rhythm and the identity of the space. I'm curious as to what you think that has done to the way people think about podcasting, but also how podcasters think about podcasting?

Adam Sachs

That's a great question, I wish I knew the answer to: what it means today. I think, in the long run, if we start to see—what I would call platform wars, if Spotify's aggressive moves finally get Apple to—I don't know that there are reports that this is happening; I don't know that it's been substantiated yet, but if suddenly it means Apple is going to get aggressive and start to spend money and be ambitious in the podcast space, more ambitious, or differently ambitious than they've been in the past; or if Stitcher starts to spend more money, or Audible, and suddenly we have a handful of platforms spending lots of money competing for talent; I think creators will win for the most part, at least monetarily. And I think that there are arguments to be made that listeners will win because this increase of money and attention will bring better content, bigger talent into the space. I think that's gonna happen. Now obviously, there are potential downsides too. I mean, if Spotify becomes a monopoly, and it's not an oligopoly where there's several big companies, but there's really just one and it's just Spotify. Then, you know, you could see a world in which they are sort of like throttling ads to certain podcasts that have better deals with them, or even placement on the app where they are promoting shows over other shows. And that could that could sort of hurt what is today a very open and to use the word we use before, democratic medium. Apple, to date has been seen as fairly agnostic or neutral, although of course, they do highlight shows and their charts can become very self-fulfilling as well. But, if Spotify does become a monopoly in the space, and they can exert the influence that like, YouTube exerts over video—there's a world in which Spotify's own preferences about content and monetization can actually impact the creative of podcasts in general. Right? If Spotify starts to say, you know what, for Spotify, it just makes more sense if podcasts are 20 minutes long or shorter, and we are going to make sure that those short episodes, bubble up to the top, and anything longer kind of gets neglected. Well, then that might mean that there's a rush for podcasters to start making shorter content, for better or worse, it may impact the creative of the medium.

Nick Quah

What do you think podcasting looks like five years from now?

Adam Sachs

I do see a world in which we have several big platforms spending lots of money, paying creators a lot of money. So maybe you have the equivalent of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Amazon—the big platform players spending a lot of money on big creators and big talent. But then, maybe you also have the open market as well; the YouTube for the Long Tail of podcast's. And the fact that we now have technologies helping podcasters monetize themselves—like programmatic ads, dynamic ad insertion, even Patreon as a platform. You know, does—I think mean that if you don't fall into one of these big buckets, eventually, if you don't fall in, if you're not a exclusive show to Spotify, or a show that's exclusive to Stitcher Premium (or whatever) I still think that there are going to be ways to monetize, but we may just see a little bit of a bifurcation of the market.

Nick Quah

So your pro capitalism is what you're saying?

Adam Sachs

(laughs) I don't think—I'm not—this not pro or minor! It is just a prediction; I'm not saying it's good or bad. I mean, what do you think?

Nick Quah

My biggest concern is that if you don't have a pre-existing relationship with a platform; if you don't have a platform yourself, if you're an up and coming nobody from a demographic that's historically underlooked by traditional media companies, do you still have a shot? And to what proportion do you have a shot relative to other demographics? I think that's the thing that I'm a little bit worried about.

Adam Sachs

Let me ask you a question. Let's say these platforms didn't exist, or that they weren't spending lots of money. Let's say Spotify never entered the podcast space and we're really still dealing with Apple owning 80% of the market share. Do those podcasters do they stand a worst chance in that scenario? I don't know.

Nick Quah

Hmm. Last question specifically for Team Coco. What do you guys want to do podcasting? What's your sort of ambition in this space?

Adam Sachs

What Team Coco has— it has a pretty defined sensibility. We like to, in shorthand, say it's like the intersection of smart and silly, really coming directly from Conan sensibility—

Nick Quah

—and self deprecation, probably?

Adam Sachs

Self deprecation, no question about it. And also, for the most part evergreen, you know, a lot of the content that Conan makes is evergreen. That's a part of our brand—something that doesn't feel like disposable, but feels valuable years from now as it is today. But in terms of what we want to build, we want to build a podcast network that's diverse, more diverse than it looks today. But, certainly the connective tissue is that there's the same comedy sensibility and we want to continue to grow. We want to be both ambitious and try to capture really big talent within our net. But also, part of Conan's brand for years has been to curate, identify, and hopefully elevate newer voices. He is still to this day the person who has more stand-ups on his show than any other late night show. And what we didn't really talk about, but it's also something that is on our radar, and an important piece of our strategy is scripted podcasts. We've made a couple of those already. We have more in production as we speak. We think that they are a great way for us, to use more buzzwords—incubate IP, for other things. But also, it allows us to work with talent that we want to work with, writers that we want to work with, and they're really fun to make. And so—

Nick Quah

—just the word IP kind of makes me feel sticky.

Adam Sachs

I know, I'm sorry. You should have—before we started this conversation you should have sent me a bunch of words, a list of words that I should avoid. So—

Nick Quah

—no, no. I don't want to deny your your personality or humanity? (laughs)

Nick Quah

Adam Sachs is the chief operating officer of Conan O'Brien's Team Coco. [music]

Nick Quah

Okay. So, it's important for me to emphasize that podcasting isn't just the Conan O'Brien's of the world. Which is why, for this first episode, I wanted to balance things out by talking to someone who's deliberately keeping things small for the sake of staying independent.

Priyanka Mattoo

I've always said, truly, in every stage of my career when I was an agent, when I was a producer, and now doing this—I wish I cared about money more. I don't. I care about making the stuff.

Nick Quah

More after the break. [music]

Nick Quah

So, earlier in the show, Adam Sachs talked about a splitting of the podcast world; the glitzy money stuff on one side, and the scrappy, independent stuff on the other. Independent podcasts, I would argue, are the spiritual heart of the podcast world. So, I reached out to Priyanka Mattoo, the co-founder of a deliberately independent podcast network called Earios.

Priyanka Mattoo

I think we're very clear because we're ideas first. We're all writers and creators, we really know that—we sat down and said, "What are the three things that we really want to make?" Or, "What are the three or five things that we really want to make?" It's not really about scale, it's not about—I mean, I wish we were business first. We're just not, we're content first. And like the thrill that we get is like seeing an idea from conception to execution, and getting it out there and sharing it with people; that's just how we're wired. It was never let's sit down there's a business opportunity here, let's raise as much money as we can. That just isn't how we're built.

Nick Quah

Before Earios, Priyanka worked as an agent at Hollywood powerhouses W.M.E. and U.T.A. She still made her living from writing and producing, but wanted to start this new company with no strings attached. So, instead of big investors or strategic investments, Earios launched a Kickstarter campaign and raise $25,000. This is a far cry from the money that Joe Rogan is getting to go over to Spotify. I asked her what she thinks of this chasm.

Priyanka Mattoo

For me, that's just another planet. I don't see myself—our work—we have created a company so that we can just put out our own weird stuff. We don't think it's fringe in any way, but we do realize it's quite specific tonally. [laughs] And the fact that we get to make it as a joy. If Spotify doesn't feel like coming knocking for a slate of like, 12 to whatever 15 women led shows—I don't expect giant companies to seek out diverse women's voices, like I'm not a crazy person, you know?

Nick Quah

Tell me more about that.

Priyanka Mattoo

Yeah, they're gonna scoop up the, you know, the sporty people, and a dudes, and that's fine. I've seen it all. Like I've seen it all through studio. I've been, you know, in entertainment for 15 years, and I have my expectations, are my expectations.

Nick Quah

Yeah. It's funny that their framework is that, of course they're not going they're really invest in diversity.

Priyanka Mattoo

No! Never! [laughs] Never. If they do, that's great. I mean, I'm sure right now they're like, what can we do to create a task force [laughs] to hire more diverse people, and it's like, you don't need a task force dude, just like look at their resumes and be like, this person seems interesting. I don't know. I don't think it's that hard.

Nick Quah

I've always personally believe efforts at diversification are intimately tied to capital and ownership. And I'm wondering for podcasters of color who start podcast companies, what would be the right thing to do in order to increase their odds at building sustainable businesses? Do they have to rely on a big company or corporation for startup support?

Priyanka Mattoo

What I'm recommending right now is...don't fall into—a few people have called me who are launching their own companies, women of color especially and they've asked for advice, and I'm like, I don't know, I'm like half a step ahead of you. But, here's what I can tell you, you're not positioning yourself to be noticed by Spotify. That's a losing game—you will—you know—that's like, if they're interested, they're interested great. But that can't be your goal. Your goal is sitting down making a list of the things you're dying to make, and then making them. And as far as an economic plan I mean, listen, we're not paying ourselves. We're breaking even basically, we have a little bit to pay for the company so we're not at a point where we're making tons of money, yet. But the idea is that we are now producing and taking out bigger shows because now there are buyers who are willing to pay money for bigger shows, and take advantage of that. Use them for the bigger ideas you have that you cannot self-fund. There is a—I'm not gonna say a dearth it there. There is definitely, you know, if you have production experience, either creative or technical, people are looking for those skills right now. A lot of these big companies have ideas, but have no idea how to make them and like insert yourself into that dynamic. Call— I mean, this is what we do as producers in Hollywood is, when you start up when you put up your shingle and you're like, okay, we have a production company now, you call everyone you know at every studio, or every buyer, Spotify, whatever, and you go: Hey, what are you guys doing? Here's some things we're doing. Like maybe we can collaborate? And the more they think about you, the more they think of you for projects, and the more of the bigger, funner ideas you have, those are the people you reach out to to sell your big show. So it's kind of the same model, it is a bit piecemeal, but it's gonna be piecemeal until it's not. Bad Robot wasn't built in a day, you know.

Nick Quah

Okay, so what does success mean for you, specifically at Earios?

Priyanka Mattoo

I think that even if we were to fold tomorrow I would be happy with what we we've built. However, what I would like for us is to be able to put out, you know, three to five( in the next couple years) big shows, with big audiences that we can get guaranteed marketing spends for that make a real impact. And because it's all women, and we tend to gravitate toward diverse voices, have it make a cultural impact. It's really about that. I've always said, truly, in every stage of my career, when I was an agent, when I was a producer, and now doing this: I wish I cared about money more. I don't. I care about making the stuff. Nobody cares how much money I make. But you know, I get more attention when I actually connect with an audience, whether it's writing or directing or producing podcasts.

Nick Quah

So something I want to try to do when we wrap stuff up is to ask: what are you listening to right now?

Priyanka Mattoo

A lot of Story Pirates. [laughs]

Nick Quah

Well, you know—the kids got to do something so...

Priyanka Mattoo

So much Story Pirates, I can't even tell you! [music]

Nick Quah

Priyanka Mattoo, co-founder of the Earios Podcast Network. Back in a minute. [music]

Nick Quah

So, let me level with you. I'm incredibly nervous about starting this podcast. There's a certain friction that happens when somebody who writes about creative work actually starts making that kind of work. It's awkward, to be frank. Together with my producers, I've spent the past few months planning episodes, writing scripts, stammering through interviews, and I've never been more intimately familiar with the fact that making this stuff is really hard. So I thought I'd reach out to someone who excels at this, to ask for advice about how to do it. Especially considering that we've all been holed up at home for months.

Anna Sale

I mean, for me, it's less—I just have less time to do work, cuz I don't have the childcare that I usually have. So it has to it has to be super focused, and then I run out of time. [laughs] And I can't—well, I can't get back to this till tomorrow.

Nick Quah

Anna Sale is the creator and host of W.N.Y.C.'s Death, Sex and Money.

Anna Sale

I just feel really proud of the Death, Sex and Money team and what we've been able to make together while we're all remote from each other and in really, you know, a challenging emotional environment. I feel like the teams really showed up for our listeners. I feel really proud of that.

Nick Quah

Yeah. Do you feel like the the sort of substance of the show has been more pronounced right now? Because I'm just thinking of the tagline. Right? "The things that we're all thinking about that we need to talk about more."

Anna Sale

Yeah!

Nick Quah

Almost everything kind of fits into that bucket right now.

Anna Sale

Yeah, I feel like it. And also the other thing I think about is, even the hard things that we could help each other through without talking about it; we have to now talk about it. Like, we can't show up for people and show care in the way that we are used to, so we have to just use words, in a way that's frustrating.

Nick Quah

If I'm not mistaken, your first episode of Death, Sex and Money was with the late Bill Withers, the legendary singer. I'm wondering as to why that was the first episode? Was the decision like, this is gonna be the thing that represents us right out the gate? Here's the conversation, we're not gonna do a bunch of set up, we're just gonna go straight into it.

Anna Sale

Well, I think of the launch of Death, Sex and Money—it was actually three episodes that we put out in one week; and they've really sort of, neatly, have defined the kinds of stories that we do. It was Bill Withers, an interview with someone who is beloved, and a celebrity, and a famous person. The other episodes that week where: I interviewed a woman named Heidi Reinberg, who was a longtime freelancer, video producer in Brooklyn who was priced out of her apartment, and she was middle aged—it was very much about money in that this crisis that happened, that made her question all of the choices that she had made up to that point— like living in New York, whether it was a place she could still thrive, and also the just awkwardness of being in a neighborhood where she had a lot of friends and she'd been for a long time and, it was money that was why she had to leave and it was embarrassing and how to deal with that. So, that was somebody who was not famous, encountering a really tough, specific, concrete thing— money; not having enough. And then the other episode that week was about me; it was about my relationship tumult. [laughs] In the previous year, with my now husband Arthur, where we were long distance and broken up and, figuring out if we could be back together, and it was about that.

Nick Quah

A future senator. Right?

Anna Sale

Yeah, it was about that, and also about former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson and his wife Ann Simpson, and their relationship, and the hard things they've gotten through and they still showed up in our lives in a surprising way that was really wonderful. And so I interviewed them and interviewed Arthur, my now husband. So that was sort of this combination of, celebrity interview plus not celebrity interview. [laughs] So, with that mix the decision to put the Bill Withers in the feed first was—first it was just a conversation where—there are still, you know, that was many years ago, and there's just—I can remember like sitting there with my headphones on and just being knocked over by the way he could put to words, simple words, like these really potent truths about life that were both specific to his life and also broadly applicable and it just felt like radio gold. I liked that it wasn't literal, like it showed—yes, this show is called Death, Sex and Money. But, this is not Bill Withers talking about death for 10 minutes, sex for 10 minutes, and money for 10 minutes. It's like showed that death, sex and money as a concept is sort of a prompt, but not super literal. So, all of those things, informed that choice.

Nick Quah

So what do you see as like, what the responsibility of the host is?

Anna Sale

Like, at what point is does Anna need to jump in here and say like, here's the motivation for this episode. And, when do we just let a guest and their— what's fascinating about them, kind of, speak for themselves. And, you know, it's just kind of feeling your way through. But as an interviewer, my particular style has been to try to explain to the person I'm talking to, to say like, this is why I'm asking you this, and then ask an open question in as few words as possible, to make sure there's space for them to fill.

Nick Quah

Who were your sort of like role model interviewers, like who were looking to as like, I want to be able to incorporate elements of that person into my style?

Anna Sale

I mean, my forever hero, the person who like I listened to and decided I wanted to learn how to make radio was Terry Gross. She's gifted so many things, but what she is just the best at is making it clear without dominating. She asks these questions where you just can hear how much thought, and study, and processing has gone into a pretty short question that is going to get an answer that otherwise would not have existed in the world because she's thought enough about whether it's someone's work or reporting or life, like how to like, move the angle just so, so you're asking a question in a different way than anybody else has. And it's just revelatory. Like, you just hear things. People say things on that show that they don't say other places. [laughs] I also think Max Lynsky at long form is really a good interviewer. And I think that I mean, his particular style is like, it's sort of a sneak attack, because he's so self deprecating, and then you're like, oh, shit! [laughs] He's really gonna just ask this really hard question.

Nick Quah

I've been interviewed on the show and it strikes me how he's actually kind of mean. [laughs]

Anna Sale

I don't know if it's mean, because I feel I find him so—like I feel advocated for as a listener, you know? Like, I think he's not gonna not ask the question. So, probably for the guest, it can be uncomfortable, but I don't think of him as a cold person. [laughs] I think of them as quite warm.

Nick Quah

I'm curious when you're done with an interview, like, how do you usually feel? Like how is it supposed to feel?

Anna Sale

[laughs] Feel? Uh, how do I usually feel and how it's supposed to feel or different? [laughs] How it's supposed to feel is you should feel like, wow, I really connected with that person. I really heard them answering my questions. They told me things that I've never thought of in quite that way. I feel so excited to share this with our listeners. I can immediately see how this is gonna cut and what the episode is gonna, you know, sound like, and that's how it's supposed to feel. And sometimes that's how it feels. Most often, it feels like, ah, I think there's some really nice moments but like, I'm not quite sure how this is gonna cut, and like I think we'll be able to make it work and also I really hope that person has someone to like talk to now that they've hung up with us because we talked about some really tough things and I'm thinking about them and worried about them. That's how it most often feels.

Nick Quah

For your person that's how you often feel recovered out of one of these things?

Anna Sale

Yeah, [laughs] yeah. But also, I'll Slack, members of the team will be like, "Oh, but that did you hear that one thing? That was like a really great moment." So it's not only like: oh my gosh, I don't know if we got anything good. Usually you can-usually there's one or two moments that you're like, YES!

Nick Quah

When does it feel justified to have a platform like this? When like, how do you? How do you sort of build that case for yourself, that this is something that should be doing, and that that should be taking people's time? I think that's that's the one thing to sort of wrap my head around.

Anna Sale

Hmm. That's interesting. What is my case for my platform? That's confidence. I feel. And I think that that's about the relationship that each of us has between confidence and humility. And, you know, and I think that that, for me, it's like a teeter totter thing. Like, I don't know enough about this, so I'm gonna—I want this person to be on the show, because I'm very curious. And I'm aware that like, these are things that I don't know how to talk about, or know how to do well or where I feel adrift in my own life. And so that's motivating the conversation. But then I also, I have to say like every episode that we have put out over six years of this show— I really feel like It was worth people's time to listen to; and that's a really good feeling. I feel really proud of what we've made. Certainly there are other things that are really important and Death, Sex and Money should not be the only part of your media diet. [laughs] You should consume other things. But, you should consume us along with other things because I think what we're doing is important and meaningful to people. The like, way I struggled with that was coming from traditional political reporting, where, you know, you don't have to question like, is it important? Who's winning this campaign? That's, that's gonna be a headline story. What the polls are saying about which candidate is up or down, like that's a headline story. Transitioning out of that to a more sort of personal feelings focus show about the private spheres of our lives, and I struggled with making sure that was enough in the way that like, am I—in a really sort of like anti-feminist way in my head, I was like, is this important enough? Or am I just doing a feeling show, that's not important journalism? And I have come to think, I feel quite confident that it's important journalism. And I think it's, it's meaningful in people's lives to both listen to the show. And then for the people who are on our show, I think it's meaningful for them to get to share about the things that we talked about on our show. So for you, your show is about this like medium. That's emergent, right? This is what your show is about?

Nick Quah

Yeah.

Anna Sale

This emergent medium that has the capacity to create like real intimacy with people who will never be physically proximate. It also has the capacity to, you know, like YouTube have a lot of bad [laughs] result from it. As you know, like to dedicate space to say like, this is how this new way of us being able to communicate with each other is developing, and this is how capitalism is shaping it. And this is how you know, the kinds of stories that are being produced as the models for how you pay for it change. Like, I feel like that's really important. And I'm excited to listen to it. And I feel like nobody else is doing that. It's like a space that's not claimed, like if you—I think that's an important thing for you to think to yourself. Like, if I weren't doing this, it wouldn't exist. So I need to do it.

Nick Quah

I really, I just appreciate talking to you. I feel like I've been following your podcast in your career for a very long time. And, you know, I think in many ways, like the hope of the show would at some point end up feeling, at least in spirit, much like yours. Even though it has to do with money and capitalism, which I guess it's what your show is about.

Anna Sale

Yeah.

Nick Quah

But also creative work. It's something that I'm listening to a lot now re-listening to a lot now to sort of thinking through how I want to handle this show.

Anna Sale

That's cool.

Nick Quah

So I just want to say, I really appreciate it.

Anna Sale

Well, I want—can I give you one more hot tip? [laughs]

Nick Quah

You can give all the hot tips that you want, I am taking everything that I can.

Anna Sale

I feel like something that I didn't know when I started Death, Sex and Money, and I thought it was sort of like—I just didn't appreciate its importance—is how incredible it can be when you make a podcast where your listeners feel like you're listening back to them, you're listening to what they want to say. And like we use the word "engagement" to talk about that and "audience engagement," which feels so cold to me. But, when I think about the persona, or you know what my role is as a host and how that's changed over the years, like, I feel like I have been so guided by our listeners and the stories they want to share with us, and what they send to our inbox, you know unprompted, that they want to hear about or how they respond to our very open questions. And so I feel like as soon as you start the show, like making—just making that invitation to your listeners about this is what I think this show is, what do you want to hear? What are you curious about, and really very quickly integrating listener voices and listener feedback into a show, because then it's not just about you. It's this living, breathing community. And it's, that's what I feel the most proud of with Death, Sex and Money. I think we've made beautiful audio. And I think we've had wonderful moments of interviews, but to think about that; we have become a place where our listeners kind of know they can turn to and they do turn to is really, really powerful.

Nick Quah

Thank you so much for for doing with me. I don't think I know anybody else, I'd rather talk about this more with than you.

Anna Sale

Aw. That's such a compliment. Thank you very much, Nick. [music]

Nick Quah

Thanks again to Adam Sachs, Priyanka Mattoo and Anna Sale. 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.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.