For comedians disillusioned by their quest for Hollywood opportunities, podcasting is the ideal format. No more listening to executives or producers tell you what’s funny or chip away at your voice until you don’t recognize yourself anymore. On a podcast, a comedian can do exactly what he or she thinks is funny, with no compromise, no concessions to rating or demographic considerations. They’re a way to grow an audience that loves your humor, and they have the potential to boost a comic’s career. Not only does word of mouth grow the host’s audience, helping him or her book get bigger club and theater bookings, but it can also lead to TV opportunities that are a better fit: IFC turned Scott Aukerman’s “Comedy Bang! Bang!” into a show and let him keep his improvised, meta sensibility because that’s what his fans expected. Tonight at 10 p.m. EST, IFC premieres Maron, a single-camera semiautobiographical comedy about the podcast-host life of Marc Maron of “WTF,” and it’s far more honest and, well, Maron-ish than any network sitcom he might have landed.
Every day it feels like another podcast launches: interviews, sketches, game shows, often featuring a large community of comedians rotating as guests of each other’s shows. But are the out-of-the-Internet successes of Maron, Aukerman, and future post-Conan talk-show host Pete Holmes viable models or anomalies? And can this Wild West format continue to grow without being corporatized, an evolution that has historically diluted creative freedom? And without corporatization, will podcasting ever become a viable business, or is it just a passion-project means to an end? To explore where this relatively new form is going, we set up a conference call with two of podcasting’s success stories: Maron, whose comic-to-comic interview show “WTF” has become one of the most popular and influential podcasts online since it debuted in 2009, and Vulture pal Julie Klausner, whose “How Was Your Week?,” filled with interviews and pop-culture riffs, has built up a strong following (as evidenced by its sold-out Brooklyn live shows) since its debut in March 2011.
Why did you both start podcasting?
MM: I’d hit a wall in my life, emotionally and career-wise. I had very few options and happened to be doing a bit of radio for a couple of years [at Air America]. When I got fired [in 2009] and they didn’t kick us out the building, I knew other people who were doing podcasts, and I liked the medium of the radio, so I thought, well, let’s [me and my producer] go ahead and break into the studio with our security cards and come in at night and do a show. I didn’t really come to it with much expectation, other than to see what we could get out of it. I made a few decisions initially, which was to get out of politics completely and we made a commitment to posting episodes Monday and Thursday, no matter what. Then I started talking to people I knew, you know, comedians, and in the beginning there would sometimes be other people in the room on the mike, and it slowly evolved into the show that it is now. I did it because I wanted to continue doing something, and I felt like my career was at a standstill.
JK: Because Patton Oswalt publicly humiliated me into doing it. [Laughs.] He was listening to me on Tom Scharpling’s “Best Show” — I would love going on Scharpling’s show, and I had so much fun and it was just one of those things where you experience joy and then the time has passed; that doesn’t happen when you’re writing and that doesn’t happen when you’re doing stuff that feels like work. Patton was sending me e-mails, like, “You’re so funny on the ‘Best Show,’” and then one day, I guess it was around a couple of years ago, he tweeted something like, “Why doesn’t Julie Klausner have a podcast?” I know that sounds a little hokey, but it really did plant the idea. I hadn’t really thought about it, but when he suggested it, I did my research and I listened to Marc’s show because at that time, I wasn’t, like, a podcast person. I looked into what podcasts could be, and it was a question of checking stuff off: Well, I know I am not going to do a podcast where I play a character, and it’s not going to be this and that, and part of me was scared because I am not a stand-up and I didn’t want to do it alone. That was my motivation for having a conversational interview in it. The fact that I’d have a collaborator, at least conversationally, for a good portion of the show seemed like a good way to go into it, feeling like my hand was held. But ultimately I just figured out the format that worked after a couple of trial-and-error kind of situations, and now I stick to a monologue and two guests.
NYM: Was it completely a creative endeavor, or did you have any endgame in mind, like, “This would be a great way to showcase my talents in their purest form and might lead to something else”?
MM: There wasn’t any agenda. I just knew that I was tired of politics and I really liked the intimacy of the radio medium. No one was really clear on how to make money doing this from the get-go, but we did know that we were in it for the long haul … Obviously I wanted to see if we could build an audience, but I had no other expectation; the business of “you would think that since we’re putting our life into this, maybe we should earn a couple of dollars,” that came later. I think everybody stumbled through their own way of doing that.
JK: From my point of view, the endgame was consistency. I just wanted to see “Can I do this weekly?” It’s almost like exercise in a way. Is this something that I am not going to give up on and, within that, get better at? The big part of the goal of launching it was to be more comfortable talking to myself on a mike, and develop broadcasting skills that I’ve always admired, and as a performer figure out exactly what my voice is. As someone who grew up as a fan of people who are legitimate broadcasters like David Letterman, Howard Stern, Scharpling, Marc, these are people that are able to keep you company with their voices and their minds and their thoughts, and that’s something that I had a strong attraction to. As I realized that this was something I was comfortable with, I realized that that is sort of what I’ve always wanted to do.
MM: That’s an amazing moment. I was up against the same wall, even in doing the small amount of radio I did for a couple of years, and the people that were always amazing to me were the people who could sit there with a mike and just talk. I was like, I have to learn how to do that, and that’s a tremendous obstacle to overcome, but once you nail it, it’s like that moment where you’re trying to juggle and all the balls are going.
JK: It’s almost like, as a performer you’re reaching the mental-health state of being able to keep yourself good company. That’s a concept I’m working on in my therapy, and I would love to learn in my personal life, but artistically the closest that I’ve come to it is talking to myself and being successful and feeling good while I am doing it.
MM: It’s funny, when you talk about being good company for yourself, I think if Tom [Scharpling] or myself ever actually became good company for ourselves, that would be the last day we did a radio show or a podcast. [Laughs.]
JK: Well, that makes me feel better.
MM: You might want to just keep that in your personal life because as soon as you’re good company with yourself on the mike, you don’t know how many people are going to relate to you. It’s like for me, so much of my disposition on the mike is a struggle, and I am okay with the struggle. So I keep company with my struggle.
Do you think a strong business model will ever evolve for podcasts? Or will the rewards always be primarily creative?
MM: There’s definitely money to be made, it’s just figuring it out. As terrestrial radio contracts, there’s a big hole in terms of where do these advertisers go and what do they do? We started out with a donation model, basically an NPR model, that was doing fine with different tiers and with schwag. And as time went on, we introduced some advertising into it that were all self-reads [ads read and given a personal touch by Maron]. Many of them initially came from our server, and we also had some merch going, so it was really just trying to figure out how to make it relevant to advertisers.
The difference between radio and podcasts is people who are in charge of marketing in radio stations spend all their hours spinning these random and very inconsistent Arbitron numbers into something that is appealing to advertisers. Whereas in a podcast it’s like, “I know exactly how many people download this, these are the numbers, you know the show, this is the type of thing we talk about, if I can get behind something and make it work, let’s give it a try.” We’ve found some success with that and also with our app, and we also show selected single episodes on iTunes, and then there are live performances. If you’re creative about it, there is definitely a way to earn. I don’t know how corporations are going to ruin it; there seems to be a lot of talk of platforms and when is somebody going to put something in a car that enables people to select podcasts … I imagine all that’s on the horizon, but it’s not really my business. There’s definitely money in it, it’s just figuring out how is it going to come your way and how many different things are you going to get going to work on that? We’ve been doing okay with it; it’s been very gratifying and encouraging because it feels like an honest model to me.
JK: I’m a total jackass in this department. I have donations, but beyond that I am not in a position where I am making money on it yet.
NYM: Marc, how do you balance the fact that you started these podcasts as a creative endeavor, but the more successful it has become and the more independent you remain, all these ancillary aspects gobble up a lot more of your time? You’ve become a businessman.
MM: My partner is the production guy. I do all the booking and the recording, and he deals with the editing and the uploading and with the advertisers, and I have a part-time assistant that helps out. So yeah, it gets a little overwhelming. And then in terms of advertising [where I read all the copy], the conversation is, can I sell this, can I get behind this? And also, how many ads do you really want to have in a show? … But I’ll tell you one thing: I never really understood it because I was never a businessman; I was always a creative person, and I just wanted to get me out there and do what I do, but there’s a strange satisfaction you get from earning money on your terms. It’s pretty amazing, I never quite understood all this talk about entrepreneurship or any of that other stuff because it was never in my wheelhouse, but it’s kind of exciting to have your own business and to see it working. And that was something I never anticipated saying or doing.
Julie, when you hear that, do you feel like, “I gotta get into a business mindset!”?
JK: I gotta get the e-mail of Marc’s partner! This might just be me, being my own terrible manager, where I feel like I might still be in a position where I have to pay my dues — so it’s just me being like, “I don’t deserve to be paid! I’m having too much fun!” Then there’s also a misplaced punk-rock-like credibility gone horribly wrong. I need to figure this stuff out.
MM: But a lot of it, too, is coming up and being primarily “talent” … We sort of grew up having corporate benefactors to facilitate our creativity.
JK: We grew up with mommies and daddies!
MM: Right, and that’s very real; there’s a fear to taking control of that — it’s overwhelming. I’ve been in a position where the expectation is different. If you get a book deal or a TV deal and they give you some money, part of you on some level is like, I didn’t even earn this money. I’m a chip on a fucking board; they’re rolling the dice with me. And it’s a very loaded dice, because if it doesn’t pay off for them, then all of a sudden you’re the person who didn’t make money for this mommy or daddy, and you can judge yourself along those lines. When you start thinking about DIY — if you really want to honor that punk-rock thing — basically who you are answering to is a bunch of inconsiderate douche bags who expect you to do everything that you do for free because the Internet should be free. At some point, you’re like, I’ve worked half my life to become whatever the hell it is I am, and quite frankly those people are going to figure out a way to get it for free either way. I hate to break it to you, Julie, but the people that appreciate you, at this point in our lives, are probably grown-ups. And grown-ups understand grown-up things, and they’re grateful and willing to show their appreciation financially if you frame it the right way.
Were you surprised by what money came in when you were doing a donation-only model?
MM: Yeah, I was. People were very supportive and it seemed like a pretty good way to go, but it becomes a little weird. I think some people who are accustomed to NPR and its donation model understand it … but it’s hard to grow that business. And also, there are a lot of people in the world that, if they don’t have to pay, they’re not going to pay. And you’ve just got to decide, do I want to beg for money every few months in a creative way and offer people a T-shirt, or do I want to get into the game and see if I can provide a service or create a different outlet for the show that would generate some money? What’s more noble? Every few months, dedicating several shows to “Hey, guys, we haven’t met our goal yet, but we really appreciate it,” or “You want to buy flowers for your girlfriend?” What’s more shameful, really? What can you live with?
There is a recurring cycle when it comes to a new type of media, and it usually ends with it getting watered down. FM radio started as the outlaw alternative to bland AM radio, and eventually FM got taken over by Clear Channel and other corporations and became bland and predictable. Do you think big businesses will come sniffing around to podcasts and eventually take it over and turn it into what FM is now?
MM: There are definitely people trying to do that, and I don’t know what success they’ll have. But generally the way corporations are set up is one way or the other they’ll figure out a way to fuck us. We’re enjoying a certain freedom right now, so I don’t know how it’s going to come. Recently several of us podcasters were targeted by patent trolls [who demand license fees because they have a patent on an aspect of the podcasting process]. This is reality in the tech world, but if that is happening, then that to me is a portal into figuring out a way in to pilfer and control the gates of what we do, whether by relatively ethical business standards or completely unethical business standards like these predatory extortionist patent trolls. That’s going to be the real test of punk-rock DIY culture, if we can maintain a certain sense of autonomy. But there are also people within the podcasting community who are creating networks. There are people who have those kind of organizational skills, like Adam Carolla or Chris Hardwick and Jesse Thorn or Jeff Ulrich over at Earwolf, who are setting up a business model based on what is essentially a network/production company of podcasts and creativity that you can run ads through but also launch other things from.
I think that, not unlike what Julie’s talking about, there are a lot of people who’d like to do podcasts who don’t want to figure out what mikes to buy or how to upload it. So [these networks] provide that parental model that we were talking about before, like, “Hey, yeah, we’d like to have you on the network. All you’ve got to do is come down to the place; we’ll assign a time slot you want.” That’s more appealing than just working for someone who is clearly just mining our talent to generate a lot of money for themselves. It’s nice our peers are doing it.
With new people starting podcasts all the time, is there a risk of a glut?
JK: That’s natural selection, that’s the Internet. Podcasts themselves cannot exist without the Internet — in a way they are a microcosm of the Internet. You could say the same thing about web videos five years ago; God knows the shitty ones of those disappeared into the ether. It’s a nice time to have the natural selection of things in place where good stuff is talked about and the good ones are listened to.
MM: I agree. The glut thing is ridiculous, because the bottom line is we’re all still figuring out how to bring new listeners to this medium. If you look at the ceiling of the podcasting audience, it’s pretty low compared to almost any other type of mainstream media fare. Ira Glass says his most listened to episode was the Mike Daisey contrition episode, and that had 800,000 [downloads], and “This American Life” is the No. 1 podcast, so that is the most that any one podcast can get. I don’t know what that makes the bigger number of all podcast listeners, but I think ultimately what we all would like is for more people to have access to this and realize they’re easy to get. So it’s what Julie’s saying: People are going to pick what they’re going to pick, and if there is a lot of weird shit to find, those people will go out and find it. But ultimately, there’s consistency and quality, and what will rise will rise, but to talk about a glut is doing a disservice to the medium because in the big picture, there’s not a lot of people listening, and we’d all like more of them. So whatever glut there is, whoever’s bringing more people to this medium is helping us out.
JK: The shows that you do are the ones that you do. You can’t blame any of the bad parts of them on network help, because these are the shows that we want to do, period. Anything that rises, you have a sense of self into it because ideally you have complete autonomy over your content.
MM: Who knows what the magic is? Who knows what magic Julie Klausner has? It’s uniquely hers. But it’s a gift, Julie, it’s a gift!