hot pod

The Podcaster’s Journey to Hollywood

Homecoming season 2. Photo: Ali Goldstein/Amazon Studios

Selected Notes

➽ eMarketer, the research service arm of Insider, is projecting that podcast listenership on Spotify is set to surpass Apple Podcasts this year. Specifically, it’s forecasting that Spotify podcast listening will grow 41.3% while the latter will more or less remain fairly flat. Keep in mind, though, that this is just one projection, though it does run with the conventional thinking.

➽ A group of Clubhouse-centric creators have formed a company, called Audio Collective, described as a “dedicated studio and creator initiatives in the live, interactive audio space.” As the New York Times reports, part of its work includes “event planning, brand consulting, and support and community for creators working in the field,” but it will involve organizing work around pushing Clubhouse for “stronger moderation policies, better insights and performance metrics, and monetization tools.” Really interesting model to watch here.

➽ On a related note… Here’s the BBC: “Why popular YouTubers are building their own sites.”

➽ The Verge’s Ashley Carman has been on the Podcasting Mark Cuban beat, a.k.a. “What the heck is this Fireside thing?” Last week, she got her hands on some screenshots of what the “next-gen podcast platform” is supposed to look like, and apparently it looks like a cross between Anchor and Clubhouse? In any case, The AirSpace prevails.

➽ Crooked Media has announced its first projects with Jason Concepcion since he joined from The Ringer: Takeline, a weekly sports podcast co-hosted by former WNBA player and activist Renee Montgomery, and ALL CAPS NBA, a weekly NBA-centric video series that’ll likely inherit DNA from Concepcion’s Emmy-winning NBA Desktop video series. Takeline will debut on March 16, while the video series will follow shortly after.

➽ Apple Podcasts is collaborating with Common Sense Media, the advocacy organization built around promoting “safe media and technology for children,” on a new Kids & Family experience that will curate kid-friendly podcast offerings. The experience is only available in the U.S. and will be updated on a monthly basis. You can find it here.

➽ On a related note… Kids Listen, the advocacy organization for high-quality kids audio content, has new survey research that dives into “questions of listening habits, technology usage, advertising preferences, and discovery methods, among others” within the genre.

The Long and Winding Roads to Hollywood

By Skye Pillsbury

In November 2018, Amazon Prime Video released the first season of Homecoming, a ten-part series helmed by Sam Esmail and headlined by Julia Roberts and Stephan James. The psychological thriller was critically lauded, banking a few Golden Globe nominations and a second season renewal. Not a bad showing for one of the first major podcast adaptations to successfully hit television screens.

The story around Homecoming’s journey to television streaming has become the stuff of podcast industry lore, in part aided by a behind-the-scenes audio companion released by Gimlet Media prior to the show’s TV debut. Gimlet, of course, was the publisher behind the original fiction podcast series, and with Making a TV Series, the podcast company was playing up the Hollywood romance angle to help market the adaptation. Tinseltown clichés aside, Homecoming’s evolution from fiction podcast to Glitzy Streaming Miniseries did, indeed, seem vaguely like something out of a fairytale, at least in the context of the brutally difficult world of film and television. The televisual version of Homecoming appeared on the Amazon streaming service less than two years after the podcast began its run, making it something of a unicorn among adaptation stories.

“It seemed crazy, but it seems crazier now — now that I’ve seen how things normally work,” said Eli Horowitz, who co-created the podcast and later became the co-showrunner (along with co-creator Micah Bloomberg) on the Amazon version. “It was nothing we expected or were looking for. We had zero thought or plan or even hope of it being a television show.”

But it did, and it also contributed to the beginning of a now-notable trend. Within a few years of Homecoming’s streaming service debut, articles proclaiming that podcasts have become “a Hollywood gold mine” became commonplace to a point where one could be forgiven for picturing podcast creators giddily stashing tinsel-laden thousand dollar bills beneath their freshly installed Casper mattresses. But by and large, this impression was largely as fantastical then as it is today.

“A lot of things have gotten optioned, but it’s still a huge crapshoot in terms of what actually gets made and what that process looks like… maybe the most unusual thing about Homecoming was not just that it was a podcast, but how fast the whole experience was,” said Horowitz, who eventually left Gimlet to develop his own projects.

“I have a couple of TV and podcast projects currently in development — whatever that means,” he added with a laugh.

Let’s take a beat to unpack what being “in development” means, in case you’re unfamiliar. It doesn’t mean a show is actually being made. An optioned work can be “in development” for years (or even decades) as agents, creators, and producers do their best to entice big-name actors, directors, and distribution companies to attach themselves to the project, raise money, and then actually make the thing. (In industry parlance, this is called “development hell.”)

A critical step during this period is finalizing an agreement with the company optioning your intellectual property. Unfortunately, this usually involves potentially soul-crushing conversations with lawyers and business executives who might not really care about or understand your work. Sarah Rhea Werner, whose hit fiction podcast Girl in Space was optioned by a well-known production and distribution company, says it took a full calendar year to finalize her contract.

“I guess that was normal… and even a little bit fast,” Werner told me last week. “We were going back and forth on property ownership — who gets book rights, who gets graphic novel rights, who owns the merchandise, who gets profits from that.” Her agent also advised her to fight for an executive producer credit and a co-writing credit on the pilot, both of which can translate into considerable payouts. The agent eventually got that agreement in writing, and Werner signed on the dotted line.

But not all was well on the production company side of things. “Everything was constantly in flux,” she said. “I had a director, and I lost the director, and then I had another director. People were getting fired, and businesses were getting acquired, and people were getting hired.”

Eventually, Werner’s original development team at the production company was reassigned, and just like that, her deal fell apart. “You’re just in a tsunami that you can’t control,” she said. As of this writing, Girl in Space remains in development, but Werner and her team are searching for a new production company.

When I asked Werner what it felt like to put so much work into something and have it disintegrate seemingly overnight, she was surprisingly upbeat about the experience. “I came away from it knowing how to write for TV,” she responded. “I have knowledge of all of these different people in the industry. I have an open invitation from certain people to submit things to them. So I’m crushed, but I’m also weirdly okay.”

Paul Bae can probably relate. Nearly three years ago, his popular podcast The Black Tapes — which he and co-writer Terry Miles had originally created in 2015 to call attention to their screenplay of the same name — was in development at NBC. After the deal went public, many publications toasted Bae’s success, with headlines that ran the gamut from announcing the show was “in the works” to claiming it was already on its way to “becoming a TV show.” Today, The Black Tapes hasn’t yet been greenlit, but Bae has been pitching other ideas to the networks and revealed to me that he has at least two original television projects in development. Interestingly, neither project originated from a podcast.

Bae explained that, in retrospect, The Black Tapes ended up being the perfect calling card, with the podcast’s popularity giving him the opportunity to get his foot in the door. “Now it’s at the point where I’m fortunate enough to have developed a reputation where people know that if you get a pitch from Paul, you might not buy it, but you’re going to have a good time,” said Bae.

On the other end of the spectrum from Bae’s and Werner’s experiences is Wondery, which holds what I think could be argued as the highest podcast-to-Hollywood success rate in the business. But when I spoke to Marshall Lewy, the company’s Chief Content Officer, he seemed to go out of his way to avoid that positive assessment. “I think there’s a little bit of a misconception that we’re like an IP factory,” says Lewy. “Our goal is to make podcasts that reach a wide audience and are successful on their own merits.” (Taking a quick beat here to say that this strikes a bit of contrast with statements previously made by ex-CEO Hernan Lopez, but it’s a new era at Wondery, and so I’m rolling with it).

Lewy credited Wondery’s track record in Hollywood to the way in which its producers and sound designers inject each show with cinematic flair. By way of example, Lewy pointed out that Paul Rudd and Will Ferrell signed on to the adaptation of The Shrink Next Door before they even had a script. “They just heard the podcast and were so taken by those two characters that they became involved with the project right there,” he claimed.

In contrast, Hrishikesh Hirway had been turning down calls from Hollywood types who saw TV potential in his hit podcast Song Exploder. “It didn’t seem that appealing to me,” says Hirway. But when musically themed video properties such as The New York Times’ Diary of a Song started popping up, he figured he should take a meeting. But still, he recalls that “nothing anyone was saying was making me feel enthusiastic.”

It was only after a buddy in the business encouraged Hirway to reimagine what the show could be like on his own terms that his temperament shifted. “I took a few days and reconceived what the show could be, and that’s when I got excited,” he said. With help from his agent, he pitched Netflix, and the team was receptive. It felt like things were moving in the right direction, but as these things go, everything suddenly went silent.

“For months I was like, ‘are they making an offer or not?’” he recalled. “I just kept waiting for a day when it would be like, ‘It’s on!’ And honestly, it didn’t happen. I never had the day where I was like, ‘Oh, it’s really, really happening.’” In fact, the creator first learned that his show had been greenlit from a Netflix staffer that he ran into at a party.

In any event, Hirway finally got his yes. What followed was a period that involved figuring out how the show would look and feel, in practical terms. Throughout my conversations for this story, one thing I kept hearing over and over again — aside from “if you’re serious about a career in Hollywood, get an agent” — was “know what you want, but also be flexible and collaborative.” Being rigid with your ideas, Bae told me, “is a good way to shut yourself out of Hollywood right away.”

Hirway went into the adaptation process with one stipulation: The TV version had to retain the intimate feel of the podcast. In the original version of Song Exploder, the artist(s) reveals the construction of a song in first-person narrative. You rarely hear Hirway’s voice, which he believes is critical in creating a feeling of intimacy between the artist and the listener. So he was surprised when Morgan Neville — who, along with Hirway, executive-produced the series and directed one of its episodes — suggested he appear in the TV version. Neville insisted that by removing himself, the result would make for a less intimate experience for the viewer. And while Hirway did eventually agree to the shift, the prospect of seeing himself on TV still took an emotional toll. “I wasn’t comfortable,” he said. “But being in the show allowed people to have a sense of like, here is this person who does this thing. I’m more than just a name in the credits. And I appreciate that.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Hirway told me that his Netflix contract for Song Exploder has run its course. He’s produced the eight contracted episodes and said he’s excited to move on to other projects, which I naturally took to mean making music — he’s in a few bands — and/or new audio projects.

“No no no,” said Hirway. “I’m working on a new idea for TV.”

Looks like podcasting’s collective romance with Hollywood is here to stay.

In tomorrow’s Servant of Pod On the show this week is Mariah Smith, reality TV expert and the host of Spectacle, Neon Hum Media’s new podcast series on the history of reality television.

Listen: I friggin’ love reality television. Yes, I know it’s exploitative. Yes, I know it’s trash. Yes, of course I know the word “reality” in the name is a misnomer, but also, in many ways, it’s not. Yes, I’m a gigantic hypocrite who clutches my pearls with the prospect of true crime yet am absolutely okay with all kinds of chicanery and exploitation that happens with the notoriously brutal reality television industry. (Presumably, the internal differentiator is death.)

Anyway, given my deep affinity for the television genre, it was my great pleasure to speak with Smith about Spectacle, her thoughts on the history and significance of reality television, and the growing relationship between reality television and podcasting.

You can find Servant of Pod on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or the great assortment of third-party podcast apps that are hooked up to the open publishing ecosystem. Desktop listening is also recommended. Share, leave a review, so on.

Class Is In Session

By Aria Bracci

Last week, I wrote about Chelsea Ursin, who entered the audio scene to find its taxonomy not only unintuitive but unintelligible. Her experience underlines how that lack of categorical specificity poses a problem for potential listeners, whose lack of familiarity with the medium could benefit from some clearer signage.

This week, another story in a similar vein: signaling when a podcast will ask something of you.


What jumped out at me in the email I received from Jenni Gritters, co-host of The Writers’ Co-op, when reaching out to her for this piece was this one line: “We’re basically a school.”

That self-description is really interesting to me. Indeed, the show that Gritters created and hosts with fellow journalist Wudan Yan can’t be described easily, though their website attempts it with “audio career handbook.” Yes, it’s a series of interviews with freelance writers meant to elucidate their work for listeners by giving explicit tips — and talking, even more explicitly, about money — but that’s just the start of it, just like formally delivered lessons are just a slice of a semester-long curriculum.

The setup of the The Writers’ Co-op show, and everything that lies beyond it, came out of a simple assessment of demand. In 2019, Gritters wrote a blog post about making six figures during her first year of freelancing as a writer and editor, which drew considerable attention from fellow (and would-be) freelancers. Yan had a similar experience: She had written about tracking and pursuing late payments, which also got her a lot of attention.

Gritters recalled getting inquiries from people poking around for free advice — you know, the ones that go, “Can I pick your brain?”

Both Gritters and Yan were interested in helping, but they weren’t certain about the best way to go about doing it. More blog posts? Long threads on Twitter? At any rate, Yan was certain the approach wouldn’t be “giving ad-hoc advice one on one,” as that wouldn’t be terribly scalable for two freelancers who needed to stay on top of their own work (and, in Gritters’ case, take care of a newborn).

That’s when they started thinking about using the podcast format. They figured that, on top of podcasts generally being free, that format could also provide an intimate experience that felt slightly more tailored to writers, since the basis of the show was basically attending to the same kinds of questions that Gritters and Yan had gotten accustomed to receiving in their inboxes.

“This just seemed like the right place to offer free advice,” Gritters says.

But they knew, intimately, that there was much more to excelling as a freelancer than hearing other people’s stories of doing so; one had to strengthen particular muscles, though, if the pair had wanted to continue spending unpaid time coaching others through career decisions, they could’ve kept reiterating the kinds of things they’d already written. So the duo behind The Writers’ Co-op sought to provide offerings beyond just the podcast, and to help finance all that work, they applied for and received several grants. They also turned to the Patreon model, which they attached to the podcast as an organic way to ask for something in return.

This is where “audio career handbook” starts to make sense: The Writers’ Co-op podcast is part of what Gritters describes as a “learning company,” one that just happens to contain a podcast as a core component. The episodes are the lessons; the Patreon offerings are the coursework.

When you subscribe to The Writers’ Co-op on Patreon, you don’t just get bonus episodes — depending on the tier, you get group coaching, worksheets, and email templates for requesting late fees. For those intrigued but not able or willing to commit to a monthly cost, there are now also “à la carte” e-courses.

As it stands, the swapping and sharing of knowledge that happens out in the open on the show is already an enormous resource; I’ve personally listened to every episode. According to Gritters and Yan’s Patreon page, and similar to the goals of editor Tim Herrera’s advice-sharing project, Freelancing with Tim (which has alluded to Gritters and Yan’s work on several occasions), “the take-aways from each episode are meant to give aspiring and current freelancers tools they can use immediately.” Similarly, I’d argue that you’d learn a fair amount from showing up to a regular lecture, even if you didn’t commit to sharpening your skills after hours; that’s the appeal of many podcasts in general, right?

As noted, the Patreon model allows individual people to opt in to compensate the team behind The Writers’ Co-op in exchange for tools they believe will be useful in their work. Freelancers at large comprise about one third of the global workforce, but the percentage gets noticeably smaller as you look at just writers, then just writers who are TWC listeners, then just listeners who subscribe to their Patreon.

The relatively tiny listenership therefore makes sponsors nearly impossible to secure, Gritters says. But since people who choose to listen to the show and explore the options beyond it are after something beyond Gritters’ and Yan’s one-off essays, it’s made having sponsors all but unnecessary: Even though The Writers’ Co-op has only about 250 paying members (monthly membership options start as low as $3), these members — including those who pay upwards of $120 — contribute a cumulative $2,500 a month. It’s actually more lucrative, says Gritters, for them to offer products and services than it is to sell ads, so they just… don’t.

“We weren’t trying to replicate other people’s models,” she says. “We dreamed this up out of our own brains.”

And what they dreamt was something akin to the titular co-op model. “When I think about a co-op, I think there’s so much learning from each other,” Yan says. Both she and Gritters have been freelancing for years, but that doesn’t mean they don’t, too, have things to learn (“there’s so much interesting stuff in here,” you can hear Yan say in response to an interview Gritters did with one of their guests); further, what’s almost certainly true is that listeners can learn not only from The Writers’ Co-op’s guests but from one another, in real time — just as teachers and classmates could learn from you, a student, in a traditional classroom — and to this end, tucked away among member resources is also a Slack channel, which allows information to flow more than one way.

“When we describe The Writers’ Co-op, it’s complicated now; we can’t just say it’s a podcast,” Gritters laughs. “I say it’s a membership program — or a collaborative community.”

And so Gritters and Yan continue to respond to new needs, including those of people who can’t (or who have chosen not to) pay into their model. In fact, each episode in the podcast’s third season will be a recording of an actual coaching session one of the hosts conducted.

Until then, they will keep offering a kind of homework to their members: reviewing contractual red flags, making a business plan — take your pick. And, in that spirit, I have some homework for you: to think deeply, once again, about all that a “podcast” can be.

The Podcaster’s Journey to Hollywood