The Hollywood Messiah Is Never Coming

“Messiahs” are rarely what we want them to be or what we think we need, but most times they just don’t show up.

Welcome to Dispatch #12 of The Audio Insurgent

For those in the U.S., I hope you had a great Memorial Day weekend. For readers elsewhere, I hope you had a great...Monday.

Before I go further, over the last two dispatches, I’ve asked for your help to get my subscriber count to 1,000. It is really gratifying to see the number of people who pass this around or read it online, but the foundation benchmark for these newsletters seems to be subscribers (even when it is free).

As of this writing, I’m at 1,124--so way to go, overachievers. And thank you. For the rest of you, remember, you are also always welcome to buy me a beer

Today I have a few small things and one big thing: as podcasting has matured and professionalized, we routinely hear of companies bringing in Hollywood executives to take podcasting (or, more honestly, that company’s podcasting efforts) to a new unprecedented level. And I don’t understand what we all think we’ll be getting.

But first...

[FIRST SMALL THING: ASK ME ANOTHER...I MEAN, ASK ME ANYTHING] I have an idea that I’d like your help with, and it might actually be fun. I want the next dispatch of The Audio Insurgent to be ENTIRELY made up of questions from readers, “ask me anything” style.

I’ve set up a Google form, so you can easily go here to submit your question. The only thing required is the question--so you can be completely anonymous if you like.

And I’m game to discuss anything you want to ask about podcasting, audio, radio, and so on. The only "no fly" items are things I can't contractually discuss. Also, I don't mind analyzing the actions of companies, but I don't want to discuss individual people. Besides that, have at it. Give me something challenging!

Send in your questions and I’ll do my best to come up with entertaining answers.

[BIG THING: THE HOLLYWOOD MESSIAH] Recently there was news suggesting that a leading podcast company was hiring a new executive to oversee their original programming. According to the report, a senior executive at that company had given the instruction for the recruiters to look for someone with “Hollywood” on their resume. I’m not going to link to the article, mostly because the specifics don’t matter, as I’ve seen this same story played out at numerous companies, large and small: In order to make a splash in podcasting and demonstrate that we are serious, we need to bring in someone with movie and TV experience.

What happens is pretty consistent: Once he or she is hired, there is a big Deadline/Hollywood Reporter/Variety article announcing the hire and making big promises about what is to come once this Hollywood Messiah turns his or her attention to the podcasting industry.

Then...not much else happens.

This plays out time and time and time again. Big Hollywood hire, big promises made about transformative change, then...things go along pretty much as they would have. And yet companies continue to get sucked into the illusion that all they and podcasting need is someone who has previously made movies or television shows.

Rinse and repeat.

Now, there are a few exceptions to this. And it is very important to point out that there are some lovely and smart people working in podcasting who came from the film and TV industry, then made significant contributions to podcasting. Yet it seems the bigger the splash/buzz/expectations, the less the person actually accomplishes.

But let’s take a step back and ask why this keeps happening.

Weirdly, I think some indicators come from the book industry.

It surprises many to know how few copies of a book need to be sold to land on the bestseller list. Some weeks you can sell 10,000 copies of a book, across the entire country, and land a prime spot on The New York Times bestseller list. That isn’t a lot of people buying a book. You can find more people than that at a single 2021 reduced-capacity baseball game. The top TV show last week was NCIS, with 986 times more viewers than bought that best-selling book.

This disconnect between attention on books and actual sales figures for those books is because most of the attention about books comes from the coverage of those books in the media, not from people actually buying and reading them. How many times have you seen a news or television show driven by an interview or profile on someone who has just published a book? Now how many people do you know who actually read that book? (And please keep in mind that a fraction of those who buy a book ever eventually read that book.)

Podcasting has wrestled with a version of the same thing. While megahits tend to see millions of downloads, when you look at buzzy new podcasts, or those included on “Best New Podcasts” lists, their download figures are more in line with top selling books than with NCIS.

Back in 2016/2017, I wrote one of the annual “Predictions for Journalism” for NeimanLab where I suggested that podcasting would soon stratify into hard layers between the haves and have nots. I was a few years early, but we are definitely there right now. With all the acquisitions, podcasting has lost a great deal of its middle class, both economically and regarding levels of audience impact. It is getting harder and harder to break news shows, secure significant audience, and drive sustainable revenue. You are either in the .01% of shows that reach huge audience, or you struggle to make it work. 

While everyone gets excited by the yearly increase in podcast advertising, who is receiving all that new revenue? The same small number of networks who benefited from last year’s increase. In other words, that extra revenue is going to the same companies, not providing more revenue to more creators.

Podcasting can’t stay in that cycle. More people need to be more successful. New voices and new ideas not only need to be heard and delight in a bit of buzz and attention, but find a way to be sustainable and grow. And, as an industry, despite its previous growth, podcasting needs to be loved by a lot more people.

So, what is the answer? Apparently many companies believe that the answer is to seek out those who have experience reaching a lot of people: movies and TV. I get the initial flinch instinct to look in that direction, but there is one fatal flaw in that thinking: podcasts are very different than TV shows and movies. 

A story is a story is a story, right? That is the argument I’ve heard from many former TV and movie people who look at podcasting (and public radio before that) as simply movies without video. I mean, it is only hard can it be?

The disconnect is in understanding the appeal of podcasting. Sure, there are only two kinds of podcasts in the world: those that tell stories and those that share conversations...and most conversations are actually storytelling. So, okay, podcasts are all about stories. But that isn’t why people listen.

People watch TV and movies to be entertained and escape. They want a great story with compelling characters. Podcast listeners love great stories with compelling characters too, but they listen to be connected. Podcasting is a medium that establishes connection and intimacy between the listener and those speaking.

When I first started working on this dispatch, I wrote that we watch TV and movies to escape, but we don’t want to escape when listening to podcasts. But as I’ve thought about it more, podcast listeners do want to escape, but they escape in a different direction. In podcasting, the drive isn’t to escape away from other people, it is to escape towards other people.

And that is why the Hollywood Messiah is never coming, because they aren’t what we need. Hollywood Messiah candidates will continue to be hired. They will continue to make big promises and their arrival will get big attention. But they won’t succeed. The Messiah won’t save us, because what they are good at won’t drive the future of podcasting.

If companies really wanted to level up, instead of hiring someone with “Hollywood” on their resume, they should hire a psychologist. I’m actually not joking. I think a psychologist or therapist would make a terrific content guide and leader, because they are focused on listening to what people say and need--not on just repeating the same formula that brought them moderate success in another medium.

And someone who listens would understand that what will continue to drive podcasting is connection and intimacy. And they are deeply qualified to help build connection and intimacy, not someone who greenlit a reality series on the spouses of magicians for TLC.

Someone thinking about creating more intimacy and connection would make change worth noticing.

[ANOTHER SMALL THING: SOMETHING BRILLIANT I READ THIS WEEK]  This Twitter thread from Julian Shapiro on how to grow a podcast audience. Very smart. Very simple. (I always tend to gravitate towards things that are both smart and simple.) While I’d argue with a few bits of this, there is a lot of truth there. It is part of a string of threads on building audience using digital spaces.

[LAST SMALL THING: SERIAL IS THE FIRST SERIAL]  In the last dispatch of The Audio Insurgent I confessed that I wasn’t entirely sure what qualified as the first episodic non-fiction narrative podcast. An Audio Insurgent reader named Ira wrote back that same morning to weigh in.

He seems to know what he is talking about.  ;)

That settles it for me.

Okay, that’s it for this dispatch.

Remember to send in your questions for the next dispatch.

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.