Why it’s the best/worst time to start a podcast

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I recently created a new podcast called Culturally Relevant, where I interview fascinating writers/filmmakers/artists to talk about big ideas. I’ve never worked harder on a podcast before, nor have I ever been more proud of something I’ve made. I hope you have a chance to check it out and subscribe.

Getting this show off the ground has revealed to me just how different the podcast environment is today than when I first started podcasting over 10 years ago. In many ways, it feels like it’s the absolute worst time in the history of mankind to start a podcast. It is also, coincidentally, the best.

Let’s start with why it’s tough out there.

Big money has come to podcasts: VC money and other forms of investment have come flowing into podcasts. Gimlet Media recently sold to Spotify for over $200 million. Luminary has entered the game with over $100 million in investment in the hopes of becoming the Netflix for podcasts. We are a long way from when podcasting was the sole domain of hobbyists. Many podcasts are now extremely well funded, giving them the means to have high production values and longer lead times on their episodes. They also have marketing budgets in the tens of thousands that allow them to advertise on other podcasts and even other forms of media. If you don’t have a big budget to produce and market your show, it can feel like you are David going up against 10,000 Goliaths.

Celebrities have caught wind: Celebrities and TV personalities have begun converting their massive fame into podcast equity. People like Adam Carolla and Mark Maron led the way, and now folks like Dax Shepherd and Conan O’Brien have also realized there’s an audience for them in the podcast world. It used to be that when I landed a big interview with someone on a press tour, I’d be so thrilled to have a big differentiator for my show. Now, you can literally listen to Alec Baldwin interview that same person. And most people? If they only have time for one show, they’re probably going to go with Alec.

Discoverability is a challenge: Related to the previous two points, it’s very difficult for a small new show to get discovered. It used to be that if you netted a few hundred subscribers in your first week, you might show up in a “New and Notable” section or even a “Trending” section on Apple Podcasts or another podcast app. That might lead to more subscribers, which might get you into the “Top Podcasts” chart. It was a virtuous circle that could drive up subscriber numbers for even small timers. Today, you need to multiply that initial subscriber number by about 10x or 100x to get noticed. Furthermore, there are now more podcast apps in the game, meaning that you have to impress multiple algorithms, not just one.


On the flip side, it’s not all bad out there. The initial modest success of Culturally Relevant has shown me that there are reasons it’s actually great to get into the podcast game right now.

The audience for podcasts has never been larger: According to a recent study, about one in three people in the US listen to a podcast every month. That’s the highest it’s ever been and it looks to get bigger in the years to come. Sheer audience size is not just about numbers; it also means people are more familiar with basic elements like how to find and listen to podcasts. They’re less likely to turn up their nose at the idea of checking out one of these things and that means it’s easier to recommend something to people that they’ll actually try.

It has never been easier to make a podcast: Between the high quality microphones everyone is carrying around with them in their pockets and apps like Anchor that allow you to create and publish podcasts on your phone, there has been a proliferation of services and support for podcasters in recent years. This means it’s never been easier to create a maintain a show using cheap online tools. There are also countless resources on YouTube and blogs and websites (like this one!) that will help guide the way.

It has never been easier to make money from a podcast: Between Kickstarter, Patreon, and selling ads, it’s now a real possibility for people to make a living off of podcasting. Short of that, you can use the money you make and reinvest it back into the show, thus growing your listener base,  getting more money to reinvest back into the show, and so on forever. The ability to monetize is a potent tool for podcasters looking to level up their production value, marketing capabilities, or just increase their quality of life.

So there you have it! While launching a new show has been a time period of great discouragement and rejection, it’s also been encouraging to see how the podcast environment has improved for newcomers out there. In any case, if you enjoyed this article, I hope you have a chance to check out Culturally Relevant. And if you like that show, please consider sharing it with your friends. As I’ve indicated above, it’s one of the most important ways for people to find a show like mine.


Since I’ve had a particularly intense podcast schedule recently (I’m basically producing four podcasts per week), I’ve been slacking on these newsletter updates. I want to try to keep to a weekly schedule but once every 2-3 weeks is more realistic until my schedule dies down. That said, here are some online links I’ve found interesting lately:

[Featured image by TheMachinePhotography is licensed under CC BY 2.0 ]

The Sweet Smell of Succession

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HBO’s Succession is one of the most compelling shows on television and it’s returning for a second season on August 11th. And I’m launching a new podcast to recap it with Tara Ariano! You can find the podcast at successionpodcast.com, where we’ve already recapped season 1, and you can support the show at successionkickstarter.com.

For those who aren’t aware, Succession chronicles the power moves of the Roy family and their patriarch, Logan Roy. Logan is the founder of a a gigantic media conglomerate called Waystar Royco which has generated obscene wealth not just for himself, but for his four children. While they each defend against outsiders that would threaten to infiltrate their circle, they must also contend with their biggest obstacle: each other.
Succession’s portrait of the Roy family is funny, biting, tragic, and heartbreaking. It offers so much fodder for discussion and we’re looking forward to breaking it all down with you.

On a personal note, this marks my first real collaboration with Tara Ariano. I first encountered Tara’s work over a decade ago, when I became a huge fan of her website, Television Without Pity, one of the first TV recap sites ever. TWoP managed to combine snark and insight into an irresistible package. It was essential reading for show watchers and showrunners alike (Famously, the site was referred to obliquely in an early West Wing subplot). It’s not an exaggeration to say that sites like Television Without Pity paved the way for some of the work I’ve done with my own TV recap podcasts.

Tara and the founders of TWoP also went on to create the Extra Hot Great podcast, a weekly general interest TV podcast which is a exceptionally well produced. Extra Hot Great manages to capture what makes television wonderful and transcendent but also, occasionally, truly terrible. Still, the podcast itself is always a delight and continues to this day.

In any case, I couldn’t be more excited to work with her on this new venture. I hope you have a chance to check out our first episode at successionpodcast.com. You can also support the show via Kickstarter at successionkickstarter.com.


Some other interesting links from the week:

Announcing Culturally Relevant, a new culture podcast

When I first started podcasting 12 years ago, it came out of a desire to preserve interesting conversations that I had with other people and to put them out into the world. On a fundamental level, I believed that when people can have access to meaningful dialogue about topics they’re passionate about, it makes them feel less alone.

In addition to creating an intangible camaraderie, podcasts also open people up to new perspectives and interesting arguments. If I started podcasting from the position of wanting to find people who affirmed my opinions, I’ve tried to get to the point where I seek out those that challenge my own. Only in the crucible of a blistering, incisive argument can your own point of view be truly tested and validated, I’ve come to conclude. And podcasts are an amazing vector for all of these interactions.

In the intervening years, I’ve been fortunate to meet dozens of fascinating and talented individuals, including filmmakers and writers and authors and artists from all walks of life. But despite all the podcasts I’ve created, there still hasn’t really been a vehicle for the full breadth of these conversations. That’s what I’m hoping Culturally Relevant will be.

Every weekly episode will feature an in-depth conversation about an interesting topic, whether we are discussing a creator’s own work or reviewing something else. I hope it’ll be a mix of the casual and the formal, deliberate and off-the-cuff. I have absolutely no idea if it’ll work but I’m hoping you’ll join me for the journey.

And now our watch is ended

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This week, Joanna Robinson and I released what will likely be the very last episode of “A Cast of Kings,” the Game of Thrones recap podcast we’ve been publishing since April 2012. You can listen to it above. It got emotional.

When I first started podcasting, I was living my post-college years in Boston with my parents, financially supporting them with the money I made from an academic research job. This left me with a lot of spare time, so I started recording podcasts because I enjoyed talking about pop culture and building online communities around films and television. It was how I first encountered the work of Joanna Robinson, who at the time worked for a website called Pajiba.

Joanna’s work was insightful and trenchant, and I soon invited her to guest on the Slashfilmcast. I was impressed by her wit, humor, and perspective. We started collaborating together on a podcast about the FX original series Justified.

One day, she pitched me on the idea of a Game of Thrones podcast where she would take on the role of a book reader and help explain the show to me, a non-reading heathen. The idea for “A Cast of Kings” was born.

I don’t think we quite understood that we were tapping into three phenomena that would dramatically grow in importance in the years that followed: podcasting, explainer culture, and Game of Thrones. “A Cast of Kings” combined them all into one neat package. At the time, The Ringer wasn’t even glimmer in Bill Simmons’ eye, Vox Media had barely just started, and Game of Thrones was still being compared unfavorably to Boardwalk Empire in the ratings.

There are times when your can feel the tectonic plates in your life shift underneath your feet, when something grows beyond what you could’ve possibly imagined. As “A Cast of Kings” continued, it reconfigured my notions of what was possible with a podcast.


I don’t remember the first time that I realized “A Cast of Kings” was bigger than any other show I’d ever done. It was more of a steady accumulation of little moments: an unknown friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend mentioning the show at a social outing, getting featured on numerous “Best of” podcast lists, appearing on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to discuss the show, hosting a panel at Con of Thrones to chat with some of the great actors from the show. I learned that people who I respected and admired — people whose work I read online, who I regularly watched on television or whose podcasts I enjoyed — listened to “A Cast of Kings.”

These moments filled me with many emotions but the overriding feeling was one of gratitude. It is an extremely rare and beautiful thing to be able to create something that is meaningful to so many people. When something that significant comes along in your life, the best you can do is try to enjoy it for as long as it lasts.

I went through many life changes during my time hosting “A Cast of Kings.” I uprooted the only life I ever knew and moved to Seattle on, hoping it would change things for the better (it did). I got my first ever taste of life in the corporate world, which has enabled me to experience many incredible opportunities. I got married to a lovely woman who I met because she was a “Cast of Kings” listener.

Through it all, the podcast soldiered on. And there was Joanna, whose profile rose along with the popularity of the show. She went from a writer whose work was read by thousands to someone who was read by millions — one of this country’s most trusted experts on one of the most popular cultural properties ever.

It’s rare to find a person whose personality clicks with yours. It’s even rarer to be able to capture that magic, package it up, and put it out into the world in a way that other people can appreciate it too. But, that’s how I felt about my time working with Joanna.

I looked forward to our podcasts because I would always leave with something new — some bit of knowledge or insight that I never would’ve come up with myself. Her diligence, particularly in the first few seasons when I depended on her to illuminate the show and protect me from spoilers, was admirable. It’s that work ethic that has propelled her into becoming an online star in her own right. I was fortunate to be along for the ride.

And that’s where we are today. At the end of a long and crazy journey that has irrevocably altered both of our lives.


One thing I’ve learned over the years is that it’s a miracle any good podcast survives. People’s lives change. People change. Few things stay constant.

Consider your own life: are you still talking to the same people you were 5-10 years ago? Is the state of your day-to-day existence the same? Throw into the mix strong personalities that are the ingredients of any good podcast and you have a recipe for an enterprise that is genetically engineered for a brief lifespan.

Joanna and I both have strong opinions, not just about pop culture but about ways of doing things. We sparred verbally on occasion, both on and off the show. But in the end, I think we understood how blessed we were to be involved in something that was helping to shape how so many people watched and enjoyed this beloved pop cultural artifact. For a brief moment in our lives we shared a partnership and an audience that became more than the sum of its parts. That’s part of what helped get us to the finish line. It’s also ultimately what Game of Thrones tried to do: to transcend its medium and become something more memorable and meaningful than we could’ve possibly predicted.


Note: If you are a fan of my audio work, I’ll be launching a new podcast this month called Culturally Relevant, which will feature many of the conversations I have with interesting people around the internet. Subscribe now to make sure you get the first episode when it goes live.

An intense time

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You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two:

Podcasts I’ve been listening to recently (March 2019)

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Podcasts have become so sophisticated that they have started to take on the characteristics of their entertainment predecessors. Their production values are often sky high. Many are divided into “seasons,” with lengthy arcs that take time to build and land. And also, as with TV, there are way too many to consume than a single person could possibly do in a lifetime.

As a result, there are some podcasts that I’ve wanted to get around to, but have avoided due to the “commitment” required. Now, a few lengthy road trips later, I am slightly more caught up on all the media I’m behind on.

Here are a few podcasts I’ve been listening to that I’d highly recommend:

The Drop Out – Examining the life and times of Elizabeth Holmes and her catastrophic failure of a company, Theranos, has become a big business. This podcast is one of the latest entrants. While I still think the book Bad Blood is the definitive retelling of the Holmes scandal, this podcast makes for fascinating listening, allowing you to hear fairly extensive interviews with many of the main players. With seven 40-45 minute episodes, they have enough time to dive in depth into some of the key aspects of the story. Overall, this is probably what I’d recommend for people who don’t have time to read the book but want to learn what went wrong at Theranos.

Surviving Y2K – I wasn’t a fan of “Missing Richard Seasons,” which I found to be a bit too creepy and invasive for my tastes, but I quite liked the second season of the Headlong podcast, which dives into the Y2K phenomenon. The show revisits the mania around the Y2K bug, and how people from different walks of life reacted to it. In addition, the host, Dan Taberski, uses the show as an opportunity to reveal how he tried to use Y2K to restart his own life. It’s a bold thing whenever a podcast host bleeds for his art. In this case, it also made for a worthwhile listen.

Slow Burn: Season 2 – “Slow Burn” is a testament to the importance of learning from the mistakes of the past. This politics-focused narrative podcast, whose second season covers the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, is fascinating and gripping.  Listening to it, I am struck by many things: The quaint concerns of both parties at the time (The Republicans were worried about the deficit and about the morals of our President; with time, let’s just say those concerns have been revealed to be not truly embedded in the DNA of the GOP). The cruelty of many of the players involved, who may not have understood that they were destroying a young woman’s life, but were certainly willing to take that risk. Mostly though, I realize how we’re still dealing with many of the same issues today as back then, not to mention many of the same actual individuals. If anything, politics and political coverage have been revealed to be even more venal than we could’ve imagined back then. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Good One – Not a narrative show, but this podcast by Jesse David Fox makes for insightful listening about the nature of comedy. It’s basically Song Exploder, but for jokes. Where else can you find an analysis of the Totino’s pizza sketch on SNL and the “Juan Likes Chicken and Rice” episode of Documentary Now?

I hope you have a chance to check these out. I’d ask for your recommendations, but I have too many other podcasts on deck already to possibly finish them all… (e.g. In The Dark, Caliphate, Serial Season 3, etc.). That said, if you have any must-listens, send them my way!


Some more links from the week:

Big Bezos Energy

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Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

500

As of this week, I’ve hosted and produced 500 episodes of the Slashfilmcast. You can listen to our 500th episode here. In this episode, my co-hosts and I reflect on how the show began, how the industry has changed, and what our favorite moments and films from the past decade have been.

The podcast has had a profound effect on my life and it seems to have had a strong impact on the lives of others as well. I’ve made so many friends and had so many wonderful conversations and experiences this past decade. It was nice to take a step back and just reflect on how unusual and interesting this entire journey has been.

I had a wonderful time making this episode and hope you enjoy listening to it.