Many podcasters claim to be pioneers. Ricky Gervais, for instance, is widely considered one of the godfathers of the medium, having launched The Ricky Gervais Show as a podcast back in 2005. Less than a year later, however, upstart Jesse Thorn was hot on his tail, turning a radio show he created in college, The Sound of Young America, into the podcast that begat an audio empire. While Gervais merely stuck around long enough to cement his podcast deity status, fellow pioneer Thorn created the Maximum Fun network, which is not only still around, but stronger than ever. The network now includes seven active shows, from pop culture roundup, Bullseye to Judge John Hodgman, wherein the "Famous Minor Television Personality" issues verdicts on your life issues.
In the years since Thorn began podcasting, the field has opened up considerably, especially in the realms of comedy and pop culture, which, along with sartorial style, form the 31-year old’s locus of interest. Part of the reason so much competition has sprouted up over the last few years, though, along with the rising popularity of networks like Nerdist and Earwolf, is that basically anyone can make a podcast—and, indeed, anyone does. Of course, it takes more than just a microphone and a voice to get and keep listeners. Below, Thorn discusses the keys to making a podcast that finds its audience, the benefits of expanding into a network, and the importance of recognizing opportunities as they present themselves.
There is something that feels direct and personal about listening to someone talk—perhaps because we associate it with telephone conversations. Radio is a very personal medium, and podcasts are even more so because people are choosing them in a way that they don’t choose things on the radio. With talk radio, you have about five or so choices at any given time; with podcasts, you have literally tens of thousands, so it’s something the listener made an affirmative choice to listen to, rather than just something that happened to be on the radio. A podcast has to be something that can sustain that level of connection.
That’s why there are so many podcasts about specific things, and with such distinctive hosts. Marc Maron is much more successful as a podcaster than he was as a radio host because he is a distinct flavor, and when he is presented in a medium where people choose to engage him, they are getting what they signed up for. Josh and Chuck from Stuff You Should Know are sort of quiet, pleasant guys—not the first people a radio programmer would choose to give a show to. But it’s the intensity of the connection podcasts make that makes these two so successful, as opposed to if they were on the radio and had to reach out to grab attention. When it comes to podcasts, people tend to lean in more.
We have a very specific aesthetic, only it’s not an aesthetic; it’s more of a set of values. Jordan Morris and I started The Sound of Young America [now called Bullseye with Jesse Thorn] as a college radio show. We wanted to create something that had the intelligence values of the public radio shows we loved like This American Life, and that also valued funniness in the way that Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show did. Eventually, podcasting allowed that to take place.
By the time I got a national syndication deal with Public Media International and moved to Los Angeles in 2007, I’d already been podcasting for a while. Contrary to what I’d imagined, though, the syndication deal wasn’t going to be enough to pay my bills. Given that L.A. is where my former co-host lived, I thought I’d start a new show with Jordan that consisted of all the stuff we used to do in college that wouldn’t fit on a nationally syndicated public radio show. Right around that time, some other opportunities also emerged. All of a sudden, we went from having this one radio show that was also a podcast to having a podcast network with four shows.
Having a diversity of offerings was really important to me because it was a much more compelling thing to offer people when we were asking them to support us. Lately, our hard data mostly comes back from surveys we send out to donors, and it turns out the percentage of people who only listen to one of our shows is tiny. The average is three or four out of a lineup of half a dozen or so of our active shows right now. What shows they listen to completely varies. Some are arts and culture-driven, some like straight comedy. Some are into John Hodgman because he’s famous. There’s a thousand different ins. But generally people are plugged into a couple of different things and that’s because while all of the shows are different, they are consistent in their values. And I think that’s what people get out of the network.
It may be because I am a creator first and a partnership deal-signer second, but we are looking for shows that are driven by creative juices, rather than by some sort of calculation of what the marketplace wants. I’ve found that because we don’t add shows willy-nilly, because the growth of our network has been very slow and steady, our audience trusts us a lot. It’s important to me that we maintain quality control because we’re really playing a long game.
Some of our shows have even come out of the fan community. For example, I had never heard of Stop Podcasting Yourself until there happened to be this huge thread on the [Maximum Fun] forum about it. So I thought it must be something, and I listened, and it was a really good show. Almost at the same time, one of the hosts, Dave [Shumka], posted in the forum and admitted that he was a regular listener of our shows and had been lurking in the forum, admiring the thread. So I emailed him and asked if he’d be interested in figuring out an agreement for him to continue owning his own show, but joining forces. That was the first show added to the network that I had no hand in creating.
Now, even a show like Throwing Shade, which only had six or seven episodes and no huge Internet following when it started; we found that as soon as we added it on the network, within three weeks the audience had quadrupled. The reason was because our audience trusted us, and when we said "This is a good show, you should check it out," they did. And because it is a good show, they liked it and stuck around.
We’re not like a television network where we’re producing 25 shows and hoping that one of them hits. I think in part because we’re donation-supported, we’re trying to build a long-term relationship with our audience, even if it’s not the hugest audience in the world. What we want is a deep, strong relationship where the audience really cares about what we make and when we say that this is a new thing we’re doing and it fits in with the other things we’ve been doing, they’ll at least give it a shot.
We are essentially managing the organization—myself and my wife,Theresa, who’s the development director. We’re managing not just this donor base, but advertiser relations, and relations with iTunes, and best practices. It’s certainly a lot better that these other hosts make their own shows rather than us adding more shows that we’re also producing. It’s always more work, the more shows we add to the network. Our hope is that with the revenue and cross-promotional opportunities it adds to the organization, it helps to grow the pie altogether.
I try to work with people who are more talented than I am at the things they do, and then let them do their thing. There are some ways we can nurture new shows. We’ve been helping Erin and Bryan [Gibson and Safi, hosts of Throwing Shade] tweak their compression settings so their audio levels are more consistent. When they joined the network, we also had them change their show intro to set the table for each episode a little more consistently. Those are things that anyone who’d worked at a radio station would know to do, though. In terms of big, broad outlines, I really speak when spoken to. I think that an important part of my relationship with the people who make the shows is that it’s their show.
The really cool thing about expanding is that we sort of closed the loop on building a community. When it’s just one show, you can have a back-and-forth relationship with fans in the way that I’m sure Bruce Springsteen does when the Bruce Boosters go backstage at the Meadowlands. However, when it’s a group of shows with a similar vision and everyone who listens comes together, whether it’s on the forums, or on Twitter, or in real life at one of the live shows or MaxFunCon, it becomes about the bigger thing, rather than about being a fan of one specific aspect. The focus becomes the big picture and the values rather than the minutiae.
When we did MaxFunCon for the first time, I knew we’d get some great comedians and teach some great classes, and I figured that people would like our performances. But the part I didn’t realize—and what turned out to be the most important part—was people’s relationships with each other. That was absolutely the essential, central characteristic of it. Rather than going to a music festival, it’s the interchange, it’s the feeling of being in a community rather than in a binary relationship that really comes from having a network rather than simply having a show.
Because of the way our organization is structured, the hosts need to be people who are serious about getting their work done. We’ve been lucky—I mean, lucky and it’s also been intentional—to work with creative people who also take care of business. Stop Podcasting Yourself and My Brother My Brother and Me never miss an episode, and their quality is exceptionally consistent. You can only have a network if you trust and rely on the people who are creating the shows.
It’s so important to work with people you like and trust and who inspire you. What’s special about my working relationship with Jordan, for example, is that we have always wanted to make something that worked, and we were willing to work really hard to do that. We share a vision, and we’re willing to follow each other’s leads sometimes. Having people you believe in and like and know will show up is the most important thing ever. You have to go out and meet those people and make sacrifices of yourself to make sure they’re happy and that they’re getting what they need out of the relationship too.