Personality Subject Moment…
This person, talking about this thing, at this moment in time. Years ago, I once was asked what were the base elements of a successful podcast..and that was my answer. Do I still believe that?
Welcome to Dispatch #24 of The Audio Insurgent.
At the end of the last dispatch I said this next dispatch would come out in several weeks and be about podcastings disappearing (and arguably non-existent) middle class. Neither of those pieces of information proved accurate, as here I am, eight days later, talking about something else.
Also, a confession…I often get a tiny bit nervous/anxious when we decide to hire people. I do so because we think of it as a big commitment–and a bigger responsibility. We are very cautious and deliberate hirers. And as you’ll see below, we’ve decided to add a few team members and are opening those postings today.
Image by jpellgen via Creative Commons
[TODAY’S BIG THING: PERSONALITY, SUBJECT, MOMENT]
I recently got a note from TumbleMedia CEO Lindsay Patterson (who produced a terrific podcast with me several years ago called Extra Credit). Lindsay said that Adam Ragusea had started a new podcast (titled The Adam Ragusea Podcast). Episode 1 opens with Adam recalling some advice I gave him about leaving his then-current podcast gig and starting another show (he thinks this conversation happened while I was at NPR, but I’m pretty sure it happened shortly after I started at Audible).
According to Adam’s podcast, this advice, which was meant to encourage him to think broadly, kinda messed with his head for a few years. You can listen to Adam’s recollection of the story here (starting at 3:56), but, basically, when Adam asked what I thought about him leaving his then-current show, I riffed to him that he needed to keep in mind that there were three necessary elements to a successful podcast: personality, subject, and moment. This person, talking about this thing, at this moment in time. A personality people want to spend time with, a subject they’re interested in, and coming at exactly the right time when it will resonate. Change any of those and it probably wouldn’t work, or at least work as well.
As any reader of this dispatch can tell, I spend a lot of time deconstructing things. That is how I learn. I become a student. I try to learn everything I can find about something, then I spend a lot of time trying to unpack it. What makes it work? Why did it happen? What can I take from this? What are its elements or components? Can I connect it to other things? Is there a pattern? Then I try to boil down what I learn to its simplest form.
Those who have read Make Noise may recall that I devote the first chapter about the importance and power of “Story, Character, and Voice” (as the three common components of successful podcasts, regardless of genre or format). I think it’s very likely that those concepts in the book probably got their start in that improvised rant with Adam on the phone a few years earlier.
To be honest, I had completely forgotten about that conversation with Adam and the idea of “personality, subject, and moment” until Lindsay pointed the episode out to me. I recall it pretty well now–and I couldn’t help but wonder if I still agree with myself. ;)
To me, now, and despite having published a book advocating for the “story, character, and voice” construct, “personality, subject, and moment” strikes me as a more interesting and elastic approach. “Personality and subject” are kinda the same as “story and character”--implying that it is the combination of story and the people/characters in it that make the difference. While it is obvious for narrative storytelling (and “character” not only refers to the characters in the story, but the character of the person telling it too), it equally applies to conversation/interview/chat podcasts as well. Everyone you hear in a podcast is a character–and your podcast will be stronger if you take time to define each of those characters and their role in your podcast. Think of your favorite roundtable podcast–every host and regular contributor is a character with a role to play.
But the really interesting component of that original conceit was “moment.” I don’t think many creators think about moment–they think of their ideas as static–always “good” or “bad” regardless of what is happening in the world. Musician and artist Brian Eno once suggested that you never hear the same piece of music twice, because there are so many environmental factors that change when you listen that it alters the experience in small but significant ways. Perhaps the same applies to podcasts: listening to something while on a train is different than listening in the car. Listening while walking is different than listening while doing chores.
And taking that to a macro level, look at the erratic listening patterns in the spring of 2020 as the pandemic took a hold and changed so many of our listening routines and environments. A podcast that resonated and made sense before the pandemic may be completely neutered afterwards. World events change. Life events change. And whenever the world changes, our needs and taste change slightly too. So, for no clear and apparent reason, something we were interested in before doesn’t maintain our interest. Or something we never thought about before becomes fascinating to us now.
When I talk to radio programmers who are confused why once popular programs suddenly lose or gain audience, I tell them that just because something worked last year doesn’t mean it will work this year–everything except the program has changed, and, thus, so has the audience’s appetite for it. Same applies to podcasts–just because season 1 worked, there is no guarantee that the world wants season 2. Just because an idea made sense at one time, it may not click when produced two years later.
As audio creators, we rarely think like that. We think our ideas have permanence. They don’t. In fact, it is the opposite. As I mentioned above, the show may stay the same, but everything else changes–that impacts its ability to connect with a significant audience. When I’ve mentioned this before, people point to shows with a lot of longevity, such as Radiolab and This American Life. I think both of those are terrible examples. When you really look at both shows, while they’ve both been around for decades, they have evolved and changed during that time. They haven’t been the same show but a number of different approaches to the show housed under one title.
Perhaps that is one reason why I never get upset when projects end, shows get canceled, or new seasons don’t get renewed: everything has a span of time when it resonates and it is okay when that period ends. The “moment” passes–and that’s a natural thing to have happen. And most importantly, just because something stops working, that doesn’t mean that it was a bad idea or never had tremendous value. That time is just over.
In his recollection of our conversation, Adam wondered if I was subtly telling him that just because he was successful in his first podcast, that didn’t necessarily mean he’d find the same (or bigger) success with a new podcast. He was right, that was exactly what I was trying to tell him. Many talent believe that if they hosted something successful once, that their future projects will be equally successful. Well, not necessarily. Sometimes it can be less; sometimes more. It is great that personality has continuity, but you have to have an equally resonant new subject, and it has to come together at the right moment in time. If one of them is off, don’t be surprised that it doesn’t meet your expectations. And perhaps the new will have more resonance, and exceed what you thought would happen (that happens too). Just don’t expect things to remain the same. That’s probably good advice for life, generally.
When we kick off new projects, we often start with a roundtable brainstorm/workshop where we answer a number of simple questions–and keep hammering on the question until everyone around the table agrees with the collective answer we land on. One of those questions is “Why now? Why does this podcast need to exist in the world today?” It is often a surprisingly hard question to answer. Like many of the questions we ask, the first answer, that pops up in the first few minutes, is kind of generic and lacks a clear connection to the present moment. So we push harder to understand the real moment.
Perhaps you can ask yourself that question too.
[TODAY’S SMALL THING: WE’RE HIRING]
From Day 1 of Magnificent Noise, we’ve put a lot of thought into who we want to work with. Some days, we arguably spend more time with our colleagues than even with our families, so they’d better be people we like being around.
I always say that the best way to understand our company culture is to ask those who work there. Some of our people have worked for Jesse and I at three different companies. We hire carefully, invest in people, do really fun and demanding work, create a fair work/life balance, and largely, as a result, people rarely leave us.
We don’t open jobs often. We often craft jobs with specific people in mind and don’t make them public. But periodically we do post open jobs, and now is one of those times.
Jesse and I have decided to make Magnificent Noise a little bigger this year, so we are looking for some more co-conspirators to join us. If you follow The Audio Insurgent, you know we make a lot of ambitious stuff at Magnificent Noise. We do the hard stuff, which also happens to be the really fun stuff.
I’d encourage you to pass the listings below to those you think might be interested–or perhaps apply yourself.
We’ve listed a few positions we are opening up (and may hire multiple people under several of them).
Senior Audio Producer (Podcasting) “You will have both the ability to understand the vision for and take a leadership role in the projects we produce as well as bring fresh thinking to guide their development and creation. You excel at pushing beyond what others think is possible.”
Audio Producer (Podcasting) “The role requires a creative and inclusive approach to storytelling who can shape the vision and execution of ambitious podcast projects. The ideal candidate is a talented writer/storyteller who has a proven track record for producing high-quality narrative content, innovation, problem-solving and is experienced working in a deadline-oriented environment.”
Production Manager “You will keep the trains running: organize the production process, help set schedules, keep track of budgets and costs, solve problems, and spot ways where we could be more efficient in our work. ”
Feel free to share. Can’t wait to see who applies.
Okay, that’s it for today.
Next dispatch of The Audio Insurgent will be about podcasting’s “middle class”--or apparent lack of one. Coming to your inbox…for reals this time.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
And while this is free, you are also always welcome to buy my book or (even better) buy me a beer.
Make great things. I’ll be listening.