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Every Second Counts
What The Bear teaches us about the craft of audio-making as well as the belief in the higher calling of radio
Welcome to Dispatch #48 of The Audio Insurgent.
Three items today of various sizes…all framed around different approaches to service as a component of our work as audio creators. They all weave together surprisingly well, which I didn’t anticipate. And I swear to you that I started writing this with the intention of this being a short and quick dispatch. Well, the best laid plans…
Our world today is a sea of niches. I used to say this about podcasting, but I actually think this increasingly applies to everything. Social media isn’t one thing, it is a collection of millions of tiny networks and groups of interest. Your real life social networks are the same. As a result of all this, it is easy to extend your world experience and think everybody does the things you do and has the same problems, interests, and resources. Everyone you talk to watches the same TV show, eats in the same restaurants, has kids in school, jogs, or their hair is turning gray. None of that is true for everyone, but it feels that way because we increasingly surround ourselves with people who are experiencing a similar journey as us.
A recent case in point has been the TV show The Bear. In my world, everybody has watched The Bear. In reality, very few people have watched The Bear, but to me, it feels ubiquitous.
I raise this because the main item today is something inspired by an episode of The Bear. If you’ve seen it, you’ll recognize the power of this episode. Most of you haven’t seen it, which means that you fall into two camps: the camp that isn’t interested in or doesn’t care about The Bear, and those who just haven’t had time for it. If you are in this later group, know that there is discussion about the seventh episode of season two entitled “Forks.” I hesitate to call this a spoiler warning, because nothing I’ll share really “spoils” the story–but it will be a discussion about a lot of what happens in that episode.
You have been warned.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: DOES RADIO WANT TO BE RADIO?] Earlier this summer I read a quote from Chris Lydon in an interview in Podnews/Podcast Business Journal. The occasion of the interview was the 20th anniversary of the first dedicated podcast recording (which, as I’ve written before, is not the 20th anniversary of podcasting itself, which was born in the fall of 2000 with work that led to the first podcast feed in January of 2001). Chris’s whole story of that day is great and very charming to read now, as no one involved really understood the momentous nature of what they were fumbling through that day (I tell the whole story in Make Noise where I tell of four incredibly important moments in early podcast history—that day was one of them).
As the interview went on, the conversation turned to modern day radio. The whole exchange is worth reading, but Chris then said, “I think radio has stopped believing in the higher calling of radio itself, and I think it’s a damn shame.” I’ve thought about this a lot since I first read this and I understand what he is saying, though I think this is not a terminal state of being and definitely isn’t true for everyone.
You get a lot of vibe from radio people that many of them think that either radio is a dying art form and/or they wish they were doing something else instead of radio: being a podcaster or a blog or a video site or a newspaper. Few seem really invested in the idea that radio still has a lot to offer a lot of people.
Here we skip back to that notion I talked about earlier–because “I” listen to less radio, or the people I hang out around listen to less radio, then everybody must be listening to less radio, right? Well, literally, that is true, radio is on a decline, much as it has been since 1983 (seriously). But even with this decline, more than 4 out of 5 people in the U.S. still listen to the radio every week–and they listen to a lot. Sure, some people aren’t listening as much, but not everyone. And to extrapolate the change in behavior of some people to apply to all people is simply not paying attention to data that presents itself. People who say these things are taking what they see in their world and applying it to the entire world. That isn’t being listener-focused. And it's foolish.
And all this is especially true when you apply this thinking to a more contemporary idea of what “radio” means–which extends far beyond FM broadcasting. “Radio” is a type of listening experience, increasingly not tied to traditional formats, platforms, or media. The point isn’t whether radio is “over” or not, but to understand how radio has changed, and for whom, and how that should affect what broadcasters and radio services offer and the audiences they target with those massive, powerful tools.
Perhaps Chris is guilty of this as well in making his original statement. I say this because, well, I certainly haven’t stopped believing in the higher calling of radio and a lot of others haven’t as well. Yet, while I do see that is true with some people, I’m equally not assuming that everyone is as excited by creating radio experiences for listeners as I am.
I texted This American Life host Ira Glass and shared Chris’s quote with him and asked what he thought.
“I can only speak for myself and my co-workers at This American Life but I definitely have not stopped believing in the higher calling of radio,” Ira wrote. “If someone’s not out to have fun, to invent something new, to get unheard voices on the air and to document things others have neglected, why get up in the morning? Why go to the trouble? Go get a job at Starbucks.”
I think Ira’s framing here is so interesting, and makes my point above about radio being an experience rather than a technology. His framing is so interesting because his “radio” show is much bigger as an on-demand digital product than it is as a broadcast program on FM stations. Yet he still, very much, considers his work “radio.”
Like for me, this quote tapped a vein for Ira, and he continued: “This is corny to say but I feel just as excited to do a good job for the audience as I felt when I started, and I think most of my co-workers feel the same. Our most recent run of shows includes this massive, moving investigative thing Susan Burton did for Serial, an AI story by David Kestenbaum documenting stuff about the new technology no one’s documented as well, a show on rats where we had rat co-hosts with voices pitched. It’s as ambitious as anything we’ve ever done.”
Ira continued, “There’ve always been people in public media kind of trudging from day to day. Sure. That’s not new. But I meet people all the time who are just starting or coming up and thrilled to be making stuff no one’s made before.”
I heard the rat episode, it was really interesting and charming and thoroughly clever. You should listen to it if you haven’t.
Later that day I was exchanging some email with Articles of Interest host Avery Trufelman, and she had a lot to say on this as well.
“Since we both started in radio, I see radio as much more service-oriented,” she said. “Some of this is by necessity. It’s because the listeners have less control: when you flip on the radio, you get what you get. In podcasts, and with the introduction of choice, there’s less of a need to appeal to the interest of a broad listenership, and it’s more about building a niche community that comes to you. That chooses to listen. I don’t think one is better or worse than the other–they're just different. And in that way, I think podcasting has a different calling than radio. I think the higher calling of radio is to serve the public quickly, truthfully, and generally. Podcasting... is still figuring it out.”
Just because others around you have lost their passion for “radio” experiences, or question its relevance, or perhaps YOU have seen your belief in that higher calling take a hit, well, that doesn’t mean that everyone feels that way. And, newsflash, it certainly doesn’t mean that listeners feel that way. Because there is still lots of evidence that they don’t.
[TODAY’S NEXT THING: SERVICE] Back to The Bear and what we can take from it as audio creators and distributors.
It shouldn’t shock anyone who has spent time with me or read my book or these dispatches that I approach everything in audio from the listeners’ perspective. I believe that the businesses that focus on serving listeners–regardless of whether they are for profit businesses or non-profit organizations–are the ones that end up winning the day. I coach creators, producers, operations staff, and the execs that lead them to always think about what’s best for the listener: what will surprise and delight them, what will help them see the world a bit differently, or serve as an escape from their day. What do they need from our work? That should always be a north star.
In The Bear, a young gifted chef named Carmen moves back to Chicago to run his brother’s rundown Italian sandwich shop, following the brother’s suicide. Carmy, who left a gig at a Michelin-starred restaurant in New York, has hopes to build The Original Beef of Chicagoland into a high end restaurant. In an episode from this summer’s second season entitled, “Forks,” Richie, the “front of house man” (for lack of a better term) at Original Beef is sent by Carmy to be a stage in Chicago’s finest restaurant, called Ever.
During Richie’s first week he is only allowed to meticulously polish forks, all day, every day. Richie is both perplexed and annoyed by this, poking fun at the restaurant’s fussiness and the attention to detail the staff pays to…everything (there is a great scene where the entire restaurant staff is fixated on who smudged the sauce on an outgoing plate–a move that put the kitchen an unforgivable 47 seconds behind). To them, polishing the forks is just one of thousands of examples of the importance of every detail and crafting an experience for diners that is exact, purposeful, and beyond expectations. To them, it is pointless to have great food if there is a spot on a fork or a napkin that isn’t folded perfectly and set on thumb knuckle’s distance from the table edge.
As the time goes by, Richie continues to watch the staff’s unflinching devotion to the experience of their diners. Over time, he is moved by it, and slowly transforms. By the time his stage service ends, Richie goes back to Original Beef with a completely different outlook on life and his work. As he says to Carmy, “I get it now.”
It is just stellar TV. Beautifully written and acted. And it's inspiring.
At one point, to drive home the importance of the staff to always be listening and paying attention, a server overhears a family in the restaurant bemoaning that their vacation to Chicago did not include a deep dish pizza. So the staff at Ever orders a deep dish pizza, brings it back to the restaurant, and serves it to the family as part of their meal (though the Ever chef recuts, plates, and garnishes the pizza to be more inline with the dishes at Ever).
During another scene, the staff is having their pre-dinner meeting, when the lead host gives the staff researched backgrounds on that evening’s reservations. The host says that a couple attending that night are high school teachers that posted their excitement on Instagram, saying they have been saving for this evening for months. The host tells the staff that this couple should be seated at the chef’s table, get a tour of the kitchen, champagne, and that the staff were to pull out all the stops and give them the experience of a lifetime. “And people, we are not going to let them spend a dollar,” he said. “No one drops a check on that table. I want to blow their fucking minds.”
I’ve thought about that moment so many times since I first saw it: the dedication to the experience, the dedication to service, the dedication to exceeding expectations. Even beyond that, it was an example of long-term thinking: they knew that couple would post and rave about that evening for years–sharing their excitement and enthusiasm for Ever to everyone who would listen. They would probably come back many times. After that evening, the couple would be life-long fans. Over the long-term, the value of that relationship would so exceed the cost of that evening’s check.
Now imagine how powerful it can be to take that same approach with our shows and our listeners. Setting the mark at exceeding their expectations and being so devoted to the idea of service. And applying that to every detail. The key to that is really our attitude and perspective.
While Richie is complaining about polishing forks and cracking jokes about the over-the-top-ness of the Ever staff, Garrett, the host supervising Richie, takes him outside and gives him a stern lecture about the dedication to service.
“Do you think this is below you?” Garrett asks Richie.
“I love this, Richie,” Garrett continues. “I love this so much. We have a waiting list that’s long–five thousand people long. Do you see their faces when they walk in here? How stoked they are to see us and how stoked we have to be to serve them? At any given moment, one of those people gets to eat here. They get to spend their money here. I’m sorry, bro, but we need to have forks that don’t have streaks in them. Every day here is the frickin’ Super Bowl. You don’t have to drink the kool-aid, Richie, I just need you to respect me. I need you to respect the staff. I need you to respect the diners. And I need you to respect yourself.”
Richie is stunned silent by this.
Every time we do an interview, outline an episode, launch a new show, or start an audience building campaign, we are given an opportunity. It is fresh and new every time. First, is the opportunity to do this amazing work that we love to do and is a privilege to have as a career. But the other opportunity is to serve those who will come to listen and love this show. Perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the 100th time. But they love it. And every moment of every show should be treated like the Super Bowl. We can’t expect people to love and support our shows if we aren’t willing to love and support them first.
It is a service mentality.
When I’m decoding my own biases about radio and podcasting people I personally like, I’ve found it confusing who I gravitate towards and who doesn’t interest me. Sometimes I make friends with people I have little in common with. I think I’m learning that I value people who approach their work as a service to listeners. Those who are in it for other reasons, well, they aren’t my people.
I do this work because it is a service–and I'm privileged to do this service. It is an honor. Even when we are doing something simple or goofy or irreverent–it has a role in the audience’s life and we should understand that. Even more, we should think of how we can exceed expectations, on everything. We have to care…about everything, every detail, every time.
In one of the final scenes of the episode, Richie comes upon Terry, the chef and owner of the restaurant, who is in the middle of peeling mushrooms. Why peel the mushrooms? Does it change the taste of the mushrooms? Not really.
“It’s just a nice little fun detail,” explained Terry (played beautifully by Olivia Coleman). “When the diners see it, they will know someone spent a lot of time on their dish.”
That’s a feeling listeners look to us for–to spend a lot of time on their dish.
Now go blow some fucking minds.
[COULD WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE, PLEASE? YES…AND NO…] During that episode of The Bear, Richie is seen before and after work alone in his apartment. Early in his stage work at Ever, he looks exhausted, uninspired, and filled with dread during his off time. But as he gets into the service flow of Ever, he starts to make use of those hours. In one three-second montage scene, he is seen reading a book, Unreasonable Hospitality by Will Guidara. I recognized this because I bought this book almost a year ago when it came out and never read it. Seeing it in that scene, and given how much I loved that episode, I pulled down the book and read it.
Like the episode of the show, I was so taken by this book. It is about how the highest ideal of hospitality can provide inspiration for many lines of work and industries beyond restaurants (if today’s economy is so service based, then hospitality can be a part of almost everything). The story behind Will’s principles is also pretty amazing.
At 26, Will was put in charge of Eleven Madison Park, a slightly above-average New York brasserie. Eleven years later, it was named the best restaurant in the world. What made it so? Well, the food obviously, which was the creation of Will’s partner, the now-renowned chef David Humm. But Will’s gift was that he wanted to take the care and attention placed into the food and apply that same attention to detail to everything. Literally everything. If the food was giving people more than they expected–then that same perspective should be applied to every touch point with their diners. The book is a fantastic read (though, like many business books, you can skip most of the middle, which is just smaller examples of applying the principles to situations). There are so many examples of this and many ended up being fodder for the episode of The Bear, but the one I keep thinking about is how every charger plate (the plate that is there at the table setting when you sit down) was positioned exactly so that if a customer flipped it over, the maker’s stamp would be upright and centered so the customer would not need to rotate it to read it. Why? They noticed that a number of guests, impressed by the plate, would flip it over to see who made it. After recognizing this, Will’s staff set every plate so it would be easy to read the markings, even though most people never did it.
The notion of setting out, every day, to give people more than they expect, to judge yourself by the excellence of the customer’s (or in our case listener’s) entire experience. It is so applicable and useful to the entire industry of journalism, radio, digital audio, and podcasting.
Think about your show, your network, or your own job and responsibilities. What is the high water mark of your work? The thing you do best and people love the most in your work? Now, what if you made every experience of your show reach that same level of excellence. And not only what someone hears, but the art they see, the quality of the metadata, the words it uses to market and describe itself…so that you make every second count?
Want an inspiring example of this, listen to the rat episode of This American Life that I mentioned above. Everything, even the credits, are infused with that type of thinking.
It’s an inspiring perspective and regardless of your specific job, you’ll enjoy this book.
[ BONUS EPISODE FROM AVERY TRUFELMAN] During Avery and my email exchange, she said something that didn’t quite fit above, but I still think is worth including here.
“I used to think that the higher calling of podcasting was about easing people’s relationships with time,” she wrote, continuing on about the difference between radio and podcasting. “I remember noticing that I was a much more patient person because of podcasts. I didn’t mind long bus rides, I didn’t mind waiting for late friends, I didn’t mind having to walk my parent’s dog. It just made me feel more at ease in the world, and with all the interstitial waiting times in society. Now I think Tik Tok does just as good a job with that time. I'm not quite sure what to think anymore.”
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
Make great things. I’ll be listening.