The Art of Conversation
Podcasting is a media revolution happening in garages and lounge rooms across the world. Ben Mckelvey talks to some of the medium’s most compelling voices.
In 2009, Marc Maron had been a respected stand up comic for twenty years, but he’d never managed land that long-term lucrative TV or radio gig.
As a result, he was a forty-five year old guy who spent more than a hundred days a year on the road. He was divorced, recovering from an alcohol and drug addition and lived in the outskirts of LA with his cats.
“I’d done some jobs I hated myself for doing. I’d taken the money and compromised and it seemed that no one wanted to hear my real voice, and I was depressed, man.”
If you’re a listener of his podcast, WTF with Marc Maron, you’d know that Maron has a capacity for depression like Bruce Banner has the capacity for anger.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was wondering if I had it in me to keep going.”
Partly for his own amusement and partly to generate interest in his stand up dates, Maron started interviewing his comic friends in his garage and posting the interviews on iTunes.
They talked about the comics life- the depressing nature of motel art and the happiness of a perfect turn of phrase. They spoke about their lovers and told stories about how Johnny Carson and Lorne Michaels had launched and buried careers. The conversations were funny, but also very honest.
Each episode had it’s own contained, often biographical, story but for those who tuned in every week, there was also an over-arching narrative about Maron’s life, which was slowly being redeemed with each interview.
The show was listened to by a handful of dedicates until the twentieth podcast, where Maron’s guest was Zach Galafinakis. The pair had history and sparks flew. The numbers started to jump.
A few months later, Maron interviewed Robin Williams and they spoke about open-heart surgery, divorce and drug-relapse. It was a long way away from the performances Robin Williams produces when doing the radio and TV rounds in the promotion of a film. A few weeks after that, WTF was one of the most popular podcasts in iTunes.
Soon people were approaching Maron to be on the podcast, people like Conan O’Brien, Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller and Chris Rock.
“What really happened is that the comedy community decided to come together to help me, to support me,” Maron says.
Maybe, but maybe these kings of traditional media also wanted to speak to Maron’s now huge audience in a medium unhindered by marketing, editing and interference.
Podcasting was almost unheard of until Apple defined and popularised it 2005, but like the iPod and iPad before, the foundations for podcasting had existed for years.
In February of 2005, USA Today did a short business piece about the possibilities of podcasting, or ‘time-shifted internet radio,’ but said it really needed Apple’s market dominance and format uniformity to help it off the ground. They saw Apple’s refusal to be quoted in the story as an indication that they had no interest in being involved in this sort of ‘democratised media.’
In fact, the reason Apple hadn’t commented is because they were just about to announce software updates for iTunes and Garageband that would create a complete end-to-end solution for podcasters and listeners alike. Two days after announcing the updates, Apple reported a million podcast subscriptions.
The first blockbuster podcast on iTunes new podcating directory was The Ricky Gervais Show, in which Gervais with friend Steven Merchant would pick the brain of Karl Pilkington, an audio-tech the pair had worked with in the UK.
Pilkington’s personality was so detached from regular media voices, people assumed he was an actor being fed lines by Gervais and Merchant. To date, Pilkington has been heard on 250 million downloads.
The next unusual voices to boom out of iTunes were those of filmmaker Kevin Smith and his friend and producer Scott Mosier. The pair started recording podcasts after finishing a studio film that they felt they were losing control of.
Like Maron, Smith says he wanted a place to have his unadulterated voice heard, and the resulting SModcast podcasts- which were usually absurd and bawdy, but also sometimes touching and sad- were soon the most downloaded on iTunes.
With The Ricky Gervais Show and SModcast getting audiences in the hundreds of thousands of listeners per show, traditional media outlets like BBC, ABC, Austereo, ESPN, The New Yorker, and Public Radio International started their own broadcasts, but it seemed the indie voices were just as popular, if not more so.
In Australia, Hamish and Andy’s Austereo podcast was the most downloaded, but self-devised shows emerged too, including TOFOP, hosted by friends Wil Anderson and Charlie Clausen.
“If we had one policy, it was that we didn’t want to be commercial radio,” says Clausen. “We wanted the conversation to go on a natural path. We wanted to be able to go from the obscure to the genuinely sincere, because that’s what real conversations do.”
Like WTF and SModcast, TOFOP worked because of a commonality and a fluidity of conversation. Wil the comedian naturally told jokes. Charlie the writer naturally deconstructed those jokes. The friends ended up naturally talking about the most important facets of their lives.
“Maybe it’s because I grew up in a big family, but I always found good conversation really relaxing. Getting into a good podcast is like getting into a good book. The characters start living in your head.”
Charlie and Wil knew that they were getting about 20,000 downloads each episode, but had no idea how engaged and dedicated the audience was until they planned a live show in Melbourne last year, having to change venues twice to larger rooms.
“The people who came were just so enthusiastic, and because we never watered down our conversation, we ended up with incredibly like minded people. I think that’s the difference with a podcasting audience.”
This year, Charlie and Wil had to put the podcast on permanent hiatus, after Charlie got an acting job with a family-friendly soap whose producers suggested he might want to discontinue his all-too-frank broadcasts.
Despite TOFOP being possibly the least lucrative job Wil and Charlie have had in years, they cried in the final recording.
TOFOP, like most Australian podcasts, was done mostly for the love of conversation but in the US, Podcasting is become an increasingly important part of show business.
In 2010, stand up comic and actor Chris Hardwick launched The Nerdist podcast with friends Jonah Ray and a Matt Mira.
Ostensibly, the podcast was about geek culture, but like most good podcasts it was also about the lives of the three men- Chris’s break up with his long-term partner and recent sobriety, Jonah’s burgeoning stand up career and Matt’s weight and self-esteem issues.
“I’d just done some jobs that I didn’t really love and when I started the podcast, I was going to do something that was me. It was me, and my friends and if it was good and popular, great, if it wasn’t, well fuck it.”
It was good and popular and soon The Nerdist was being downloaded 700,000 times a week.
Last year entertainment power broker Peter Levin approached Chris Hardwick, about an equity partnership of The Nerdist. Hardwick says the deal would be as follows-, “I would bring a bunch of content, while he would bring a bunch of, like, business-ey stuff.”
In a year, the pair has leveraged the podcast audience into multiple TV series, live shows, and a You Tube Channel with almost 200,000 subscribers.
“I read Richard Branson’s book three years ago and he said the thing about the Virgin brand is that it doesn’t matter what we’re doing- trains, cellular, airline- when people see the sign, they know they’re getting the same user experience. Nothing establishes a user experience like hundreds of hours of conversation. If you’ve listened to the podcast, there’s no question what our user experience is.”
A few months ago The Nerdist was bought by Legendary Entertainment, the company that produced movies like The Dark Knight, The Hangover and Watchmen, installing Hardwick as the president of their digital entertainment division.
Kevin Smith also parlayed his podcast success into a series of other profitable ventures, including television shows and even an independent film, Red State, which was released under the banner of ‘SModcast Pictures’ and was promoted via the podcast and Smith’s Twitter feed.
"I had no idea, but that would become the fucking centre of everything I'm doing now," said Smith speaking to CNN earlier this year of SModcast.
"The ultimate freedom that allowed me to walk away from the heroin of the movie business -what gave me the strength to walk away - was fucking podcasting."
Marc Maron too has reaped the benefits of a successful podcast. Not only does the WTF have a steady sponsorship revenue stream, but Maron’s also been signed to do a ten-part TV series about his life, and, for the first time, he’s even contemplating having a child with his girlfriend.
“I hesitate to put it all on the podcast, and hate the podcast as therapy thing, but I can’t completely discount it. Real talk- truth, humour, sadness, darkness and light- is a powerful thing. We all have the capacity for it but sometimes we don’t recognise that until we hear it.”