This episode features a riveting interview with Christina Denning, attorney for Mark Hunt, MMA fighter, regarding his lawsuit against the UFC and Brock Lesnar. Christina also joins us in the Your Legal Travel Guide segment for an amusing discussion on the oddest laws of the land, starting with the law banning high heels in Carmel-by-the Sea, CA. Lastly, as we cross the globe in the international spotlight segment, we delve into anti-corruption and politics in Asia during an interview with Oliver Welch, associate attorney with Gibson Dunn in their Hong Kong office, who specializes in white collar defense investigations and anti-corruption due diligence.
By Jaclyn Peiser
The film mogul Darryl F. Zanuck was among the skeptics in the years before networks started broadcasting shows seven nights a week. “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months,” he infamously predicted. “People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”
To make sure that television sets would become something more than ungainly appliances, entertainment executives of the late 1940s and early 1950s went in search of programming. And they found it within earshot, in radio shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Our Miss Brooks”and “Dragnet,” which were among the first TV hits.
With the rise of streaming, the entertainment industry is going through a similar transformation. Executives at Netflix, Amazon and Apple are spending wildly for content, which has created a sense of urgency among their rivals at broadcast networks and cable channels. And like their midcentury predecessors, they have been aggressive about buying up ready-made programming to fill their expanding slates. These days, that means podcasts.
“Homecoming,” the Amazon series starring Julia Roberts, is based on a fictional podcast from Gimlet Media. Bravo’s “Dirty John,” with Eric Bana in the role of the con man John Meehan, is based on a true crime series from The Los Angeles Times and the podcast network Wondery.
Hernan Lopez, a former Fox executive who founded Wondery, has blurred distinctions between the podcasting world and Hollywood by giving his shows tag lines, trailers and advertising billboards. “I set out to create a company that could build on bringing to podcasting the skill set of television and movies, both in storytelling and production, as well as marketing,” he said.
Amazon’s “Lore,” which was recently renewed for a second season, is another one that made the transition, having started as an anthology podcast of scary, real-life tales hosted by the writer Aaron Mahnke. “Up and Vanished,” a special that aired in November on Oxygen, was based on a podcast hosted by the documentary filmmaker Payne Lindsey about the disappearance of Tara Grinstead, a Georgia beauty pageant queen and high school teacher. The independent production company Propagate helped bring it to the screen.
Ben Silverman, the co-chief executive of Propagate, said podcasts make for good source material partly because their fans are not passive. “It’s a very active process to download a podcast,” said Mr. Silverman, whose company is also working on an adaptation of “Sword and Scale,” a true crime podcast from Wondery. “And so we hope that fans of the podcasts are likely to be active enough to come and watch the show, once it gets produced.”
Before the spate of narrative fare, talk and variety shows made the jump from audio to TV. “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” which started as a radio show before it became a much-downloaded podcast, had a five-year run on IFC. Following its leap from podcast to TV were “2 Dope Queens,” a series of live specials on HBO starring Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson, and “Pod Save America,” the political show, also on HBO, hosted by the writer and producer Jon Lovett and three men who worked under President Barack Obama, Jon Favreau, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor.
As podcasts have become more elaborate, with complex stories complete with cliffhangers, narrative reversals and subplots, the main action in adaptations has shifted toward scripted series.
Mindful of the trend, Gimlet hired Jenny Wall, a former Hulu and Netflix executive, as chief marketing officer, to help the company better navigate Hollywood. “We created an I.P. factory,” Matt Lieber, the president of Gimlet, said. “We generate a lot of stories.”
Among other shows it has in the works, Gimlet has teamed with Blumhouse Television, an arm of the company that made the film “Get Out,” to create a TV version of its limited-run horror podcast, “The Horror of Dolores Roach.”
“Gladiator,” a podcast made by Wondery and The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team focused on the NFL player Aaron Hernandez, who committed suicide after being convicted of murder, is in development at FX. Other Wondery shows in the works for TV are “Dr. Death,” about a neurosurgeon accused of malpractice, and “Business Wars,” a series centered on corporate rivalries. Janet Leahy, a “Mad Men” writer, has written the “Business Wars” pilot.
Facebook Watch has ordered 10 episodes of “Limetown,” based on a fictional podcast about the disappearance of 300 people at a research facility in Tennessee. Jessica Biel has signed on as an executive producer and lead actor, and the podcast’s creators, Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie, are on board as the show’s writers.
“Welcome to Night Vale,” the long-running podcast (and book series) created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor in 2012, is in development at FX. Gennifer Hutchison, the executive producer of “Better Call Saul,” is in charge, and Sony Pictures Television is a producing partner.
The director and producer Sam Raimi is part of the team aiming to make a TV series out of “Tanis,” a fictional horror podcast created by Terry Miles. That one is being produced by Dark Horse Entertainment and Universal Cable Productions. The same two companies are at work on an adaptation of “The Bright Sessions,” a sci-fi podcast created by Lauren Shippen. Ms. Shippen and Gabrielle G. Stanton, an alumna of “Grey’s Anatomy,” are writing it.
Not every podcast survives the move from the intimacy of audio to the brighter, broader medium of television. The ABC sitcom “Alex, Inc.,” based on the Gimlet podcast “Start Up,” lasted all of 10 episodes. But in a time of expansion, with demand outstripping supply, executives at podcast companies know they have something the entertainment industry needs.
“We’ve prepared most of the meal,” said Mr. Lieber, of Gimlet. “Now you just have to put it on the table and eat.”
A fascinating conversation with Salk Institute cancer research scientist Dr. Geoffrey Wahl and cancer survivor and advocate Bianca Kennedy. We discuss cancer as chameleon, artificial intelligence and Dr. Wahl’s view that a patient advocate should be embedded into every research lab. And Bianca Kennedy shares her journey, family history and why she volunteers at Salk.
The show was co-hosted by Lizzie Wittig from Komen San Diego.
The industry generates a lot of enthusiasm and little revenue, but that could be changing.
By Gerry Smith
About a decade ago, Hank and John Green, fraternal YouTube stars, founded VidCon, an annual convention in Anaheim, Calif., that celebrates online video auteurs and their screaming teenage fans. As YouTube’s cultural impact deepened, so did VidCon’s. A constellation of amateur creators grew into an industry, with VidCon providing a stage for them to promote themselves IRL. Walt Disney Co. and DreamWorks Animation LLC bought up pieces of the YouTube ecosystem, confident they could transform fandom into fortune.
As VidCon matured, the Greens noticed a stir of creative energy in another corner of the web. The audience for their comedy podcast, Dear Hank & John, in which they offer listeners questionable advice, was growing faster than that for their chatty web videos. So they decided to create a VidCon equivalent. In December 2017 the Greens and a few collaborators threw the first PodCon. Months later they sold VidCon to Viacom Inc. for an undisclosed sum.
PodCon reconvened at a Seattle conference center in January with more than 3,000 people in attendance. Some wore T-shirts with podcast logos, while others dressed as their favorite podcast characters. In between panels they swapped practical advice, like how to make sound effects (rocking the legs of an old wooden table mimics a creaking ship) or how to avoid an echo (record under a blanket). People scribbled podcast recommendations on a wall and took selfies with stars. In a dimly lit auditorium, a few hundred people watched Griffin McElroy edit his family’s podcast—another comedic “advicecast” called My Brother, My Brother and Me—as his keystrokes were magnified on a Jumbotron.
Anyone who lived through the early days of the online video boom, when investment and hype outpaced profit, may have experienced some déjà vu—the same sense of exhilaration, the same thin financial rewards. “People are starting to realize it’s not super easy to make money in this world,” Hank Green says.
Even so, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are once again lining up to give it a try. Shortly after PodCon, Spotify Technology SA, owner of the world’s most popular paid music streaming service, made the largest deal yet in the space. In a filing it said it had paid $340 million for podcast company Gimlet Media Inc. and Anchor FM Inc., an app and web tool that helps podcasters record and distribute their work. (It was widely reported that it spent $230 million on Gimlet and $110 million on Anchor.) By investing in the medium, Spotify becomes less reliant on music, which requires paying royalties to labels.
The company plans to spend as much as $500 million on podcast deals this year, a big bet that profits will eventually match enthusiasm. “Audio is only one-tenth of the size of the video market,” Chief Executive Officer Daniel Ek said on a February earnings call. “There is a massive opportunity here for audio to evolve into a more personalized, more immersive experience, much like how the video industry has evolved.”
There are more than 600,000 podcasts in Apple Inc.’s service, about double the number from three years ago. The top ones attract audiences rivaling those of cable-TV shows, but the vast majority reach few listeners and make no money. The median audience for a podcast is about 130 people, according to hosting site Libsyn.
The competition for attention is growing fierce, though. Newer podcasters are paying for studio time, upgrading equipment, and hiring artists to design logos that stand out in Apple’s podcast app. “There’s a much more savvy sensibility among creators,” says Gina Delvac, who produces Call Your Girlfriend, in which two friends talk about pop culture and politics. “You have to have that professional gloss to get any amount of attention.”
The most popular offerings are a mix from podcasting companies (Gimlet, Wondery Inc.), individuals (The Joe Rogan Experience, WTF With Marc Maron), traditional media (the New York Times, Slate), and radio giants (WNYC, IHeart). NPR is the largest podcaster, with 46 shows reaching more than 19 million U.S. listeners a month. Oprah Winfrey, Conan O’Brien, and Mike Tyson are podcasters.
About 73 million Americans listen to podcasts monthly, up from 42 million in 2014, according to Edison Research. Industry revenue, though minuscule compared with that of radio, TV, movies, or books, almost doubled from 2016 to 2017, to $313 million. (For context, that’s about how much revenue BuzzFeed Inc. alone generated in 2018.) That figure is expected to double again by 2020, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PwC. Several top podcasts make more than $1 million a year. Last year The Daily, from the New York Times, cleared more than $10 million in advertising.
There are several lines of thinking about how to close the enthusiasm-revenue gap. One focuses on the programming logjam, which can make choosing something to listen to a frustrating experience. Several startup websites and apps, including Piqd, Listen Notes, and Podchaser, are trying to match listeners with lesser-known shows. Larger platforms such as Spotify and internet-radio giant Pandora Media Inc., which honed this functionality in music, are now applying it to podcasts.
The industry is also striving to broaden the market. Some fear that podcasting has become a community talking to itself—a coastal thing, like electric scooters and avocado toast, which may soon reach saturation. “It’s less exciting when it’s the sixth football podcast or the third comedian with a podcast talking to his L.A. comedy buddies,” says Amanda McLoughlin, co-host of Spirits, which describes itself as “a boozy dive into mythology, folklore, and urban legends.”
Courting the millions of Americans who’ve heard of podcasts but don’t listen will mean diversifying their subject matter. After the success of Serial, produced by This American Life in 2014, which began with an investigation of an old murder case in Baltimore, true-crime podcasts became as ubiquitous as TV police procedurals. While the genre is popular, the macabre material can be off-putting to many potential listeners. Tom Webster, a senior vice president at Edison Research, wrote in an August essay posted on Mediumthat the industry has to get out of its bubbles “and understand the real bottlenecks to the growth of podcasting.”
These bubbles are demographic inefficiencies that traditional media—which has spent decades designing TV series, magazines, and radio shows to amass niche audiences—should be well-suited to address. Everyone from radio syndication heavyweights such as Westwood One LLC (The Mark Levin Show, American Country Countdown) to supermarket publishers like American Media Inc. (Us Weekly, Soap Opera Digest) have rolled out podcast ventures.
The advertising model will have to evolve, too. Early on there was no easy way to insert an ad break into a podcast. Creators haggled for deals directly with sponsors and read commercials themselves. When Marc Maron started WTF in 2009, his first advertiser was Just Coffee Cooperative; his declaration that the brew is so strong “I just shit my pants” soon became a catchphrase. (While the canned ads are a popular vestige of podcasting’s early days, they’re perhaps less palatable to big advertisers accustomed to mass-produced spots.)
Companies such as Panoply Media LLC sell software to automate the advertising process and target listeners, while businesses such as Stitcher act like traditional media-buying agencies, connecting hosts with brands hoping to reach a particular demographic. Owned by media conglomerate E.W. Scripps Co., Stitcher sells ads for more than 250 shows and pays out millions to podcasters each year. Ad brokers sell commercials for $25 to $50 per 1,000 downloads (an episode usually has two or three breaks). The money adds up—a top show like Freakonomics Radio averages more than 1.5 million downloads per episode.
Larger advertisers haven’t fully embraced the medium, but they’re interested. Procter & Gamble Co., maker of Crest toothpaste and Oral-B toothbrushes, recently spent some of its world-leading ad budget on Chompers,a series produced by Gimlet. Kids can ask Amazon’s Alexa to play the two-minute episodes and take trivia quizzes while brushing their teeth. Chompers is also available as a twice-daily podcast you can download on any platform.
One of the reasons there aren’t more Procter & Gambles on board is that the medium’s best consumption metric is the inexact one of downloads. Who hasn’t downloaded a podcast and then forgotten about it or immediately deleted it? Apple, the dominant listening platform, has its app on every iPhone, but it doesn’t share as much data as it could, making it hard for a podcaster to access major ad budgets.
Many podcasters supplement ad revenue with live tours. The night before PodCon, Welcome to Night Vale, a popular podcast about a fictional desert community where bizarre things happen, performed at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle. Tickets were $30. The sales for the two sold-out shows at the 800-person auditorium amounted to roughly $50,000. Over the next several weeks, Night Vale did more than 20 shows from Berlin and London to Austin and Phoenix. Co-writer Jeffrey Cranor says the show averages about 400,000 downloads an episode, but it makes more money from touring and finds it a more reliable business. “Advertisers are fickle,” he says.
Several companies are betting that fans will pay subscription fees for exclusive content. For $4.99 a month, the Stitcher Premium app offers subscribers exclusive podcasts, including a fictional show about the character Wolverine, which is co-produced with Marvel. Luminary will also offer exclusivity when it starts later this year. In 2018, Spotify paid comedian Amy Schumer more than $1 million for the rights to her podcast, 3 Girls, 1 Keith, which will become part of the content buffet available to paying Spotify customers; during the quarter ended Dec. 31, it offered subscribers 14 other exclusive shows. For now, most Gimlet podcasts are universally available, but in the future more may be placed behind Spotify’s paywall.
Gimlet sees Hollywood as another income source; Matt Lieber, who co-founded the company with Alex Blumberg, says it wants to be “the HBO of audio.” The five-year-old business, which produces 24 podcasts, has a staff of 120 in a Brooklyn office designed by the architect who created studios for Jimi Hendrix and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The company recently scored a hit with Homecoming, a psychological thriller Amazon.com Inc. adapted for TV starring Julia Roberts. An episode of Gimlet’s most popular podcast, Reply All, which mines internet culture, is being made into a movie. Directed by Richard Linklater and starring Robert Downey Jr., the film is about a con artist and an editor who tries to expose him.
Lieber says Gimlet wants to be both the Marvel and Bloomsbury of audio, with storytellers cooking up the superheroes and villains of Hollywood’s future. “It’s just as likely that the next Michael Crichton or J.K. Rowling will be a podcaster,” he says.
Oren Rosenbaum is an agent with United Talent Agency, which has about 50 podcast-focused clients, including Ira Glass; Guy Raz, a co-host of several NPR podcasts; and Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, co-hosts of My Favorite Murder. “We’re thinking about the economic deal terms,” Rosenbaum says, declining to elaborate on them. “How much can we get guaranteed? What are the revenue shares we can expect?”
About 50 percent to 70 percent of all podcast listening is done via the Apple podcast app and iTunes. Getting featured in the New & Noteworthy section can bring a new entrant a horde of listeners. Yet despite its centrality to the industry, the roughly $800 billion company hasn’t devoted many resources to it. For years a single employee, Steve Wilson, was the contact for anyone seeking promotion.
Others sense opportunity. In addition to Spotify, there’s Google, which last summer started a podcast app for Android users and has begun including podcasts in search results. Last fall, Pandora introduced the Podcast Genome Project, which uses an algorithm to make recommendations. Recently, Audible, Amazon’s audiobook company, has made forays into podcasting.
If Apple wants to hold its position, it might take a page from YouTube’s playbook. In the early days of online video, it was laissez-faire toward the creative community. Over time, however, as Facebook and Amazon’s Twitch tried to lure away creatives, YouTube embraced the culture. It signed deals with high-profile YouTubers and built lavish studios where producers got free resources to improve their craft. Spotify’s purchase of Gimlet signals that a similar fight for the podcast community is taking shape. “For publishers, it’s about who do you play with now,” says Nick Quah, who writes the industry newsletter Hot Pod.
If online video offers ideas for nurturing a scene, it also presents warnings. Boosters used to make big predictions about video, too: Monetization would catch up with fan enthusiasm, Hollywood money would flow in, paying subscriptions would skyrocket. A half-decade later, the business model is still in flux. At the peak of the frenzy in 2014, Disney bought Maker Studios, which created and aggregated short-form videos, ultimately paying $675 million for it. For a moment, Maker was key to Disney’s future. Then it wasn’t. By 2017 it was laying off large portions of its staff. Podcasting has already faced similar doses of reality. Last year, a few dozen employees involved in podcasts left Audible, Buzzfeed, and Panoply through layoffs or restructuring.
Much will depend on Apple. The company declined to comment for this article, but there are hints that it’s being more proactive. Last year some of its employees flew to Los Angeles to meet with “Dr. Phil” McGraw, the celebrity psychologist, who’d decided to start a podcast. McGraw says the reps gave him a crash course in the basics. They told him to keep each episode to about 45 minutes so fans could listen to half on their way to work and half on their way home. They told him the importance of a good microphone and a quiet room. “They give you an awful lot of information you just wouldn’t know otherwise,” McGraw says.
On a recent episode of his TV show, he explained to viewers how they could listen to his podcast, Phil in the Blanks, in which he interviews celebrities. A screen behind him displayed a giant iPhone. “On your phone or iPad, you click on this purple icon,” he said. “It has the word ‘podcast’ under it.”
McGraw says he plans to do a true-crime podcast next.
The once useless-seeming medium that became essential.
When you first heard about podcasts, do you remember how excited you weren’t? Do you recall the first person who said, “Did you know you can now download audio files of people talking?” To which you might have replied, “Talking about … what?” To which they might have replied, “About … anything!” — at which point you realized that podcasts seemed like radio but more amateurish, which wasn’t the most compelling sales pitch.
I’m going to guess you’ve listened to a podcast since then, maybe even a few. And I’m going to guess that you’ve even become obsessed with one or two. There are now an estimated 660,000 podcasts in production (that’s a real number, not some comically inflated figure I invented to communicate “a lot”), offering up roughly 28 million individual episodes for your listening enjoyment (again, a real number; yes, someone counted). The first two seasons of the most popular podcast of all time, Serial,have been downloaded 340 million times. In podcast lore, the form was born in 2004, when the MTV VJ Adam Curry and the software developer Dave Winer distributed their shows Daily Source Code and Morning Coffee Notes via RSS feed. Or maybe it was really born in 2005, when the New Oxford American Dictionary declared podcast the Word of the Year. Or maybe it was born in 2009, when abrasive stand-up Marc Maron started his podcast, on which he interviews fellow comedians and other celebrities in his California garage, debuting a disarmingly intimate and bracing style that culminated in a conversation with Louis C.K., named by Slate four years later as the best podcast episode of all time. Or maybe it was born in 2015, when people realized that Joe Rogan, a former sitcom star and MMA enthusiast, had a podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which started, in his description, as “sitting in front of laptops bullshitting” and was now being listened to by 11 million people every week. Or maybe podcasts were born way back in 1938, when Orson Welles proved that a seductive voice could convince you of anything, even the impending arrival of aliens. Or maybe they weren’t born until February of this year, when the music-streaming company Spotify bought the podcast-production company Gimlet Media for a reported $230 million, enough money that even the most skeptical observers had to acknowledge that targeted nuggets of radio on demand might be the future of media and not just a quaint variation on its past.
Perhaps it’s tricky to pinpoint the exact arrival of podcasts because they’ve spent a decade in a state of perpetual arrival. In any case: They’re here. What’s more, these humble chunks of audio have emerged as the most significant and exciting cultural innovation of the new century. In an age when we were promised jet packs, or at least augmented-reality goggles, it turns out what we’ve really been craving is the companionship of human voices nestled in our ears. These voices provide us with information, yes, but also inspiration, entertainment, enlightenment, emotional engagement, companionship, and, above all, a sense that, in even our most arcane obsessions, we are not alone.
In hindsight, the elements that made the podcast revolution inevitable (they’re cheap to make and easy to distribute) are the exact ones that made them seem the opposite of revolutionary when they first appeared. The portmanteau podcast, a mash-up of iPod and broadcast coined by the journalist Ben Hammersley in The Guardian in 2004, suggests that podcasts rode in on the coattails of the digital-music revolution. Their development since has been a case study in sheer, unfettered experimentation — the gleeful result of the kind of widespread, wiki-sourced evolution that can happen only when no one is paying attention or, at least, no one with enormous bags of money is paying attention. Podcasts have one very obvious progenitor — radio, to a surprising degree the public-radio program This American Life— while being the brainchildren of thousands of disparate inventors. There are no editors to convince, no producers to pitch, no green lights to be green-lit. To make a podcast, all you have to do is buy a mic, install a recording program on your laptop, and start talking.
As for what people talk about — well, anything they’re obsessing over, from classic board games to the state of our political discourse to organic-farming tips to D-list celebrities to every single episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.Your favorite subgenre of podcast likely depends on your personality and how exactly you prefer to spend those moments when you can’t do anything else. Maybe you favor the talk-show podcast, such as Pod Save America, in which people interview each other (or, less frequently, one person talks directly to you) about contemporary events. Or maybe you prefer narrative podcasts, which methodically explore a single story over a full season, such as the Watergate scandal in Slow Burn. Perhaps you’re more of a talk-radio-style-podcast fan, drawn to shows in which strong personalities, people like Ben Shapiro, Preet Bharara of Stay Tuned, or Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman of Call Your Girlfriend, advance a worldview through unbridled commentary and occasional interviews with like-minded guests. Or maybe you’re drawn to the roundtable podcast, shows like Slate’s Culture Gabfest or Extra Hot Great, in which smart people chatter about smart things (and, just as delightfully, dumb things) while you get to ride shotgun. There are useful industry-expert podcasts like Scriptnotes (hosted by two successful Hollywood screenwriters) that provide an unfiltered view into a particular business. There are fully fictional podcasts, such as Homecoming (adapted into an Amazon TV show starring Julia Roberts), that offer the pleasures of — and occasionally struggle to escape the stilted sound of — old-time radio dramas. (Voice acting is hard, kids.) There are podcasts that drill down on one simple question, such as Vulture’s own Good One, in which each episode is devoted to a different comedian detailing how he or she wrote his or her very best joke. And, of course, there are true-crime podcasts — so many true-crime podcasts. So, so many true-crime podcasts.
The most instructive examples of the state of the art, though, are those delightfully unclassifiable podcasts, the ones that represent the medium’s potential to grow beyond simply digital talk radio. These are shows like Everything Is Alive, an unscripted interview program produced by Ian Chillag, in which the subject of each interview is an inanimate object (a pregnancy test, a can of generic cola). Or Jon Mooallem’s Walking, which is part podcast, part performance-art project, and consists of hour-long recordings of his walking in the woods. (No talking, just walking. For real.)
Whatever your personal preference, it’s become clear that podcasts are particularly well suited to cater to personal preferences. The form, which once seemed like it might not be particularly good at anything, now seems to be good at nearly everything. And podcasts increasingly are learning to do things no medium has done before. If podcasts sprang forth from radio, then started to borrow from written essays, novels, movies, and TV, they are now learning to be podcasts in all that entails. To understand where they’re headed, however, it helps to start with how they ended up sounding the way they do right now.
There’s an episode of the podcast Without Fail that’s titled “The Man Who Launched a Thousand Podcasts.” The show is hosted by Alex Blumberg, an ex–This American Life producer and co-founder of Gimlet Media, and he’s interviewing Ira Glass, his ex-boss and, of course, the creator and host of This American Life. The two of them personify two distinct eras in podcast evolution. When Blumberg left This American Life in 2014 to start Gimlet, he bet on a future in which podcasts were not just a curiosity but a popular and increasingly lucrative emerging cultural form. And Glass, his mentor, is arguably (or, you could say, inarguably) the spiritual godfather of podcasts, even though he and his show remain tethered to public radio. (TAL has been available in podcast form since 2006.)
Not every current podcast sounds like a TAL spinoff — some sound like drive-time radio shows, or audition reels for aspiring shock jocks, or lively arguments among friends over beers at a favorite local bar, or the monologues of rambling relatives at endless family dinners, or the mumbled and strangely compelling musings of people confined to padded cells — but the distinctive TAL aesthetic, which has proved both adaptable and resilient, has emerged as the sound of the podcast revolution. You know the style: the charming, earnestly inquisitive host; the narrative eddies and switchbacks; the hems and haws; the “tape everything” credo (by which you air not only the interview and the interview outtakes but the producer and the host discussing the interview outtakes and why they out-took them); the jangly musical interludes; the welcoming fireside tone. It’s a style that prizes authenticity over authority, a purposeful antidote to the traditional newscaster’s drone. It suggests a wide-open eye avidly searching the world for wonder under an ever-so-slightly arched eyebrow. It’s the sound we’ve come to think of when we think of how a podcast sounds.
The most obvious reason TAL casts such a long shadow over the podcast landscape is that so many of its distinguished alumni (and current practitioners) produce the most innovative podcasts. This includes Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder at Serial, Brian Reed (and Julie Snyder) at S-Town,Blumberg at Gimlet, and a diaspora of on- and off-air talent spread across several influential companies. It’s not surprising that a decade spent crafting audio stories for radio should pay off in this new medium. But this tone, as it exists now in podcasts, did not arrive instantaneously or fully formed. It’s the product of hundreds of small revelations people had as they figured out what exactly podcasts could do that radio could not.
The most popular current podcasts often bear the imprint of their distinctive origins. 2 Dope Queens, with Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, went from a live show to a podcast to an HBO television show and was born from the pair hosting a comedy night, so their podcast has the loose, jocular, in-the-room feel of a sprawling, two-headed stand-up set. Marc Maron had two failed radio shows at Air America, and another scuttled online show, when WTF was born: He and a producer would sneak into the Air America studios after-hours, smuggling their guests upstairs aboard the freight elevator. No wonder the show sounds like a mash-up of pirate radio and personal diary — its origin story contains a bit of both. Dan Taberski’s breakout podcast, Missing Richard Simmons— which follows his personal quest to determine whether Simmons has in fact disappeared and, if so, why — started as a film documentary. When Taberski was well into the project, a podcast-production company convinced him that his tale was perfectly suited to a podcast, partly because it would benefit from an episodic structure and partly because his story was, in essence, about his own obsession, which is excellent podcast fodder. “It was super-personal and partially about me and why I couldn’t let it go,” says Taberski. “I wasn’t necessarily happy about inserting myself into it. But at one point we were doing edits and my producer looked at me and said, ‘Taberski, you realize this is about you?’ And I was like, ‘Goddamit.’ ”
A similar moment marked the development of Serial. When it debuted in 2014, even its makers weren’t sure exactly what kind of show it would become. Both came from TAL, but they had to reorient their thinking around an extended story told week to week, in chapters, in real time.
Koenig first thought of it as an audiobook. But producer Snyder recalls listening to an edit of the second episode with Koenig and another TALproducer, Nancy Updike, and being dismayed that the installment, which focused mainly on the relationship between two characters, felt so flat. At one point, Updike asked, “Where’s the hunt?”
From that question, Snyder and Koenig realized that Serial was not about the murder victim or the accused murderer but Koenig herself. “That was the aha moment,” says Snyder. “No one’s doing anything in this story except for Sarah. Sarah is the protagonist.” From then on, they began to think of the show not as a radio documentary or an audiobook but an episodic TV show, in which the audience follows one person’s quest through a series of encounters. This, not incidentally, is when they decided on another podcast innovation: borrowing the convention of a “Previously On” roundup to start each episode.
When Snyder moved on to S-Town, she and her co-producer and host, Brian Reed, had a different revelation. This show wasn’t radio or TV. It was a novel. Or at least it should be novel-like. S-Town was born when a random person named John B. McLemore called Reed out of the blue with a tip about an overlooked murder. But the heart of the story, it turned out, was McLemore himself. In crafting the show, Reed and Snyder spent a lot of time discussing the novel Stoner, a propulsive portrait of a peculiar personality, and imagining how they might borrow from its structure.
They began privately referring to the podcast as a “nonfiction audio novel” until they realized that neither of them was sure exactly what that meant.
But as Reed explained during an appearance on the Longform podcast, “One of the conventions of radio is that you can’t rewind it.” As a result, he says, a certain didacticism is required to tell a story, since you have to constantly warn the listener when you’re digressing or heading off on an unexpected tangent. “Julie was saying it would be nice if we could let things breathe a little bit,” Reed recalls. In its elliptical structure, its carefully crafted metaphorical resonances, its finely drawn characters, and the cumulative effect of its expert scene building, S-Town adopts a novelistic approach infused with the intimacy of an oral tale. One critic applied the label “aural literature.” When it arrived, S-Town sounded like no podcast that had come before. It was also downloaded more than 40 million times that year.
In their interview on Without Fail, Blumberg and Glass don’t talk much about the future of podcasts or really about podcasts at all. But Blumberg does ask Glass if he ever steps back and considers what, two decades later, TAL begot. Glass recalls having the feeling way back in 1995 while working in public radio that there is a thing radio can be great at — telling stories — yet nobody was using it for that purpose. Radio could provide news, sure, it could play music, it could transmit a voice barking opinions, but it wasn’t really telling human stories, let alone finding innovative ways to tell them. “It’s as if violins existed but nobody played violin music on them, just tried to make them sound like something else,” Glass says. “So you say, ‘You know what would be really great? If you take the bow across the thing. It’s really pretty! And finger it here — it’s amazing! Why don’t people do this?’ ”
It’s an apt analogy and, in the era of podcasts, one you can take even further. When Glass launched TAL on radio, it was as if he had imagined violin music and figured out how to play it on a banjo; then, ten years later, violins were invented. With podcasts, that music has found its perfect instrument.
In the beginning, there was little money to be made in podcasts, so no one was making podcasts with the intent of making money. People made podcasts because there was something in the world they found interesting and they had a hunch that someone out there might find it interesting too. As a medium, podcasts have thrived because they intrinsically deliver one thing the internet and all its attendant gizmos haven’t proved to be very good at: intimacy. Social media, which arrived in our lives around the same time as podcasts, had been heralded as a breakthrough in global connection, but it has become a machine that manufactures discontent. Take a look at your Twitter feed. It is, by literal design, a great leveler: a cacophonous conversation with all the humanity drained away. The Nobel Prize–winning biologist tweets next to the random anti-vaxxer who tweets next to a Russian bot spreading disinformation. Facebook is worse. The connection promised by social media turned out to be an algorithmic ritual of posting, swiping, scrolling, and liking.
Then there are podcasts: cheap, niche, idiosyncratic, weird, and highly personal. In their myriad varieties, podcasts have emerged as an audio analogue to the spirit of the early internet, Internet 1.0, the version that promised to provide a platform for every manner of obsession, no matter how specialized or obscure. But podcasts have an additional appeal — they take that obsession and whisper about it in your ear in the real voice of an actual human.
The first person who ever tried to turn me on to podcasts — back when my initial reaction was “Why would I listen to podcasts? I don’t even listen to the radio” — was a friend of mine who, for medical reasons, had been confined to intermittent bed rest. She’d become addicted to podcasts. She loved them precisely because they could so comfortably colonize her mind. Podcasts were constant company, audio portals into unexpected worlds. She’d realized that the experience of podcasts is fundamentally different from being Extremely Online. No one listens to a podcast and comes away feeling agitated and slightly guilty, the way you feel after an hour on Facebook. If the internet is increasingly like a seedy business district you visit reluctantly then regret, podcasts are an invitation you extend to another human being to hijack your consciousness. (The extent to which she persuaded me is evidenced by the fact that — full disclosure — I have also discussed developing a podcast.)
Radio used to do that, sort of, sometimes, but podcasts introduced portability, accessibility, and a nearly endless selection of subjects on demand. And thanks to the hothouse strangeness of podcast evolution, the hits of the medium are nearly impossible to predict, let alone replicate. Could you have guessed that the breakout podcast of a given year would feature a former Daily Show producer’s compulsion to find out whether Richard Simmons had disappeared? Or that the animating appeal of the true-crime genre would not be the details of the crimes themselves as much as a podcast’s ability to foreground its host as she puzzles through the investigation? Comedy was an early driver of podcasts because comedy is fundamentally about the pleasure of listening to funny people talk. It’s also pleasurable, podcasts reminded us, to listen to experts talk. Also panels of pop-cultural mandarins. Also famous people, who for one reason or another have proved exceedingly willing to reveal themselves to an unprecedented degree once their lips are only inches from a microphone.
The one constant, though, through all the standout podcasts is that notion of obsession and connection. Freed from the constraints of attracting a mass audience, podcast creators double down on their enthusiasms and invite you, the listener, to come along. It’s a refreshingly democratic medium that, not incidentally, is driven by distinct personalities. Dan Taberski has a background in television, and he realized early on with podcasts that a major difference is “it’s your voice. It really is you. There’s no way around it.” This combination of distinct voices dwelling on personal enthusiasms is addressing a collective desire we didn’t even know we had.
In a digital world in which we crave human contact so badly we’re willing to listen to ASMR YouTube videos by the millions, to hear people whisper gibberish and tickle microphones with feathers to provoke some kind of physical sensation in us, is it any wonder that the notion of a soothing voice in our ear for an hour has proved to be so popular? Technology makes podcasts possible, but the experience of consuming podcasts is an oasis from our indentured interaction with screens and passwords and keyboards. Podcasts appeal to the twin modern manias for constant enrichment and constant escape. Despite their low-tech origins, we should never have been surprised at podcasts’ modern allure. They’re instant company with interesting people. What could be more exciting than that?
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