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The People’s Maximum Fun

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Here’s a positive (and fascinating!) piece of news in what’s otherwise been a particularly rough stretch for the audio business: Maximum Fun is taking steps to become a workers cooperative.

The announcement was made on Monday, with founder Jesse Thorn — who has owned the Los Angeles–based Maximum Fun with his wife and One Bad Mother co-host Theresa Thorn since its formal incorporation in 2011 — doing a round of press this week to discuss the shift. Thorn told the Los Angeles Times that the decision was driven in large part by burnout: Managing the operation through the speculative podcast boom, and later the pandemic, had extracted a heavy psychic price. Faced with the choice of risking his health by keeping things as they were or risking the livelihoods of employees and partners by selling to a larger company, Thorn opted for this instead. It’s an alternative that allows for greater self-determination among everyone involved, marking a nice counterpoint to the consolidation wave of the past several years that left a handful of people very rich, some people slightly rich, and most others basically the same or worse off. He’s scheduled to pop up on Recode Media to talk with my guy Peter Kafka more about the whole thing sometime this week.

Maximum Fun has always been kind of idiosyncratic. As the lore goes, the company has been around for almost as long as podcasting itself, first coming to life as a container for Thorn’s college-radio show, The Sound of Young America, which later became Bullseye, currently distributed to over a hundred public-radio stations across the country by NPR. Along the way, Maximum Fun expanded its function to become a home for a variety of independent podcasts that remain completely owned by their creators. There’s a good chance you’re familiar with at least some of its active roster, which includes the McElroy brothers’ The Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother, and MeFANTIDr. GameshowBeef and Dairy Network; and Depresh Mode with John Moe, among others. (As someone who only intermittently plays video games and much prefers hearing people talk about them, I’m particularly fond of Triple Click.) You’re also almost certainly familiar with some of the shows that Maximum Fun has supported before, like Mission to Zyxx (now retired), Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness (now with SiriusXM), Song Exploder, and The Memory Palace (both now with Radiotopia). As the podcast biz completely changed around the company, Maximum Fun has pretty much stayed true to its original incarnation, both in practice and in spirit.

So what does becoming a workers co-op mean? First of all, I should note this: If you’re reading this newsletter, you might already be familiar with one such entity. Defector Media, which publishes Normal Gossip, is perhaps the most prominent example of a media company operating off this model within the podcast world. When I spoke to Bikram Chatterji, Maximum Fun’s managing director, about the plans a few weeks ago, he told me that the structure more systematically spreads the benefits and burdens of ownership across the new class of worker-owners. (As part of this shift, Chatterji and Thorn will both become worker-owners.) The upsides: Every worker-owner gets a vote on the board, which in turn means they can exercise a more direct influence over management and the company’s direction, and, over time, they stand to directly participate in future profits. (Maximum Fun is said to be profitable.) The downsides: “It comes with a sense of responsibility, so you have to show up to at least two owners’ meetings a year,” said Chatterji. “You have to vote on things. It’s a good thing to be in control, to feel in control, but you have to pay attention to everything.” On that note, becoming a worker-owner is optional, and according to Chatterji, results from the latest internal survey suggest that at least 16 out of MaxFun’s 23 full-time employees have expressed interest in ownership. The process of conversion involves the company taking out a loan, establishing a trust, and pricing ownership buy-in at an appropriate level for interested workers, who aren’t expected to put up much cash up front. Chatterji notes that little about daily operations will be affected by the shift. “Nothing about salaries will change,” he said. The management structure, as well, will stay the same. The company worked with a Bay Area group called Project Equity to facilitate this process, and they expect to complete the conversion over the summer.

A few readers wrote in with the same request for clarification: What does it mean for Maximum Fun to be a co-op when the company’s shows are owned by their respective creators? In my opinion, the best way to think about this is to view MaxFun as not dissimilar to a standard podcast network, which serves as a platformlike layer providing various business support to shows affiliated with the company. A podcast like, say, Depresh Mode is fully owned by John Moe, who focuses entirely on the creative output, while Maximum Fun handles everything else from revenue, marketing, distribution, and so on. Individual podcasts benefit from the company’s services and the aggregated value of being part of a bundled portfolio. Maximum Fun makes money by taking a cut of the revenue that’s primarily generated through memberships, which the company facilitates, but also through ads and live shows, which it also supports. Through this framework, what’s being converted into a cooperative is the underlying entity providing those business services.

Chatterji emphasized how the point of this transition is to fully transform the relationship between the company and its workers. “There’s this hackneyed thing in hustle culture that’s like, ‘Think like an owner,’ which is in fact nonsense — because most people don’t actually own their companies — and is typically used to defend employers who overwork and abuse their employees,” he said. “But there’s a kernel of truth to the idea: You think about your job differently when you own part of your company.”

Chatterji added, “Everyone who works here does so for a reason. They believe MaxFun is different, that we care about different things: a sustainable workplace and business model, an ethical workplace. To me, this is a natural extension of all these values realized in a way that’s practical. This is MaxFun naturally becoming what it has always been.”

Our conversation turned, as it usually does whenever we catch up, to talk about the bigger industry picture. I asked: How does he feel the shift sets Maximum Fun up to be stronger in the face of everything else that’s been going with the podcast business? “First of all, I think it’s a sustainable model for independent media in general,” he said. “I still believe there’s a lot of value in individual creators collectively getting access to some sort of scale, but the way that has manifested in the last few years — you know this — is people getting bought for scale. And in many cases, bad things happen in the wake of those acquisitions, because a lot of those opportunities were given on the basis of financial engineering or technology strategy more so than the value of the work being created. We believe the work created is valuable, and the people making that work are valuable, and we want to honor that.”

Miscellaneous notes …

➽ As I flagged a few issues back, Maximum Fun’s newest project is Sleeping With Celebrities, a John Moe–led sleepcast spinoff that’s produced by Laura Swisher. The latest episode features, fittingly, the author Neil Gaiman.

➽ Shout-out to an old MaxFun limited-series project that I loved: The Turnaround, in which Jesse Thorn interviews interviewers about interviewing.

Dark Times at The New Yorker

Illustration: Vulture

After a brief and surprising cancellation, In the Dark is officially back in business — as the first narrative-podcast series published by The New Yorker, no less.

Condé Nast, The New Yorker’s corporate overlord, announced the acquisition last Thursday, stating that the show will sit within Condé Nast Entertainment (CNE)’s audio division, which is led these days by former Stitcher and WNYC exec Chris Bannon. As part of the deal, all six In the Dark staffers — Natalie Jablonski, Rehman Tungekar, Catherine Winter, and Parker Yesko, plus creators Madeleine Baran and Samara Freemark — are moving in-house, with Condé Nast taking over ownership of the show’s assets.

In the Dark was originally launched and produced through APM Reports, the investigative unit at the American Public Media. The first season, which revisited the 1989 abduction of Jacob Wetterling, came out in 2016, and was hailed as exceptional for its reporting, depth, and sensitivity. We named it the best podcast of that year, a scorching bright spot in what was a saturated true-crime genre even at the time. But it was In the Dark’s second season, released in 2018, that thrusted the podcast firmly into the limelight. That investigation, which uncovered significant prosecutorial misconduct in the case against a man named Curtis Flowers, ultimately resulted in his freedom after six trials, four death sentences, and 23 years in prison. The season also made our “best podcasts” list that year (behind Caliphate, lol), and the show as a whole racked up accolades, including two Peabody Awards, a George Polk, and an Edward R. Murrow.

All of which is to say In the Dark was a widely and deeply admired operation. Indeed, it shouldn’t take much effort to find someone in the audio community who’d make the argument for it being the best true-crime podcast of all time — which is why American Public Media’s decision to cancel the show last summer was so surprising, and why the move felt like a glaring abdication of APM’s responsibility as a steward of public-service journalism. Baran, Freemark, and the team had been hard at work on the third season when word of the podcast’s cancellation went public.

“We made the strategic decision last spring to integrate and realign some elements of APM Reports into MPR News,” said Duchesne Drew, SVP of American Public Media Group (which includes APM, Minnesota Public Radio, and Southern California Public Radio), in a statement when reached for comment. As was reported at the time, that restructuring led to the elimination of APM Reports and several jobs. At least some remaining APM Reports staffers were reallocated elsewhere on the MPR News team, and to its credit, the organization has continued producing audio documentaries — including, most notably, Sold a Story, Emily Hanford’s investigative series on a crisis in early-stage language-acquisition education. That project, by the way, has been charting routinely well after wrapping up in November and seems to have picked up quite a bit of buzz along its run … well, among civilians, at least. It’s one of the few new shows non-media people talk to me about.

To be fair, investigative journalism is really expensive relative to what it’s typically able to generate from a dollar-in-dollar-out standpoint, and I won’t be the first one to tell you that it’s been a rough economic run of it for media companies in general and public media specifically. (Though not if you’re the New York Times, apparently.) Hard choices are what they are, but at the same time, there’s been a constant drumbeat of criticism that American Public Media hasn’t really acquitted itself of all that well for several years now. As last summer’s restructuring played out, Racket, a digital alt-weekly serving the Twin Cities, raised a question that’s been on a lot of minds: “What, exactly, the hell has been going on over the past decade at Minnesota Public Radio?”

Anyway, as I understand it, after Baran and Freemark were laid off from APM last July (Laid off! This team! Crazy!), they had a couple of conversations with a few places, as you do. The New Yorker side of the deal perked up when Bannon took the idea of acquiring the show to Condé’s mergers-and-acquisitions team. Together with Mike Beyman and Quyen Du, both senior-ranking suits on the corporate strategy and development team, they developed a plan and brought it to CNE president Agnes Chu and New Yorker head honcho David Remnick. Both backed the idea, and Roger Lynch, Condé’s CEO, signed off. Baran and Freemark were flown to New York to meet the execs, and that was that.

Short of securing an infinitely wealthy benefactor, this is the best possible outcome for In the Dark. To begin with, it’s a great brand fit, and what’s more, CNE appears to be positioning the team for more beyond simply producing the one podcast. While they’re currently working with New Yorker editors and Remnick to finish the third season, once that wraps, I’m told they’ll also likely feature in the development of future narrative-audio projects across the Condé portfolio, which includes brands like WiredVanity Fair, and, most importantly (to me, at least), Architectural Digest. But, of course, all that’s a little further down the line.

Should we expect more podcast acquisitions by The New Yorker? After all, the magazine has long had a foothold in the audio biz through the New Yorker Radio Hour, co-produced with WNYC Studios. More recently, it revamped and expanded The Political Scene, which now publishes several times a week. The answer, I’m told, is some version of maybe. “We’ll always be interested in opportunities to acquire shows that are a good fit for our publications,” said Bannon in a written reply to my inquiries, which is another way of saying, “Eh, it depends, we’ll see.”

Understandably, Baran and Freemark couldn’t tell me much about what happened with APM — or much at all about the upcoming season. They don’t have a release date just yet, and they’re unable to share what the new season is about, other than that it’s “an incredibly ambitious story.” They did, however, state that they expect the transition to be seamless. “In many ways, our team will continue to work as it always has,” said Baran. “Our team works really well together, and so there are no big plans to change how we work.”

Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, y’know? It’s grand to see someone making a real go at narrative podcasts in this industry environment. Shouts to everybody for a bold, interesting move, at the very least.

Elsewhere …

➽ Wrote a longer review of The Atlantic’s Holy Week.

➽ NPR’s Louder Than a Riot returned last week, and the new batch of episodes shifts the direction of its inquiry. Where its first season explored how hip-hop was marginalized by American culture, this new season focuses on who gets marginalized within hip-hop — kicking off with an episode about misogynoir in relation to the Tory Lanez trial. NPR Music’s Sidney Madden and Rodney Carmichael return as hosts.

➽ Speaking of NPR, the public-radio organization is making layoffs this week, a month after formally announcing that it’s planning to make cuts to 10 percent of its staff. Frankly, this is a distinctly crappy way to go about doing this; keeping everybody in suspense for a month, then a week?

➽ Flagging this post from Mary Annaïse Heglar and Amy Westervelt, who hosted the climate pod Hot Take, which details the context behind the recent sunsetting of the show — and what they argue were the negative experiences with Crooked Media that drove the outcome. The post covers a lot of ground, plus several specific claims of corporate chicanery.

The duo writes, “Beyond our specific petty grievances, of which there are many … we also see our experience as pretty illustrative of how large media companies deal with climate and with ideological differences in ways that desperately need to change.”

When contacted for comment, a Crooked Media spokesperson wrote back: “We have many successful shows here at Crooked that represent a broad range of views and experiences, and we very much wanted Hot Take to be one of them. Unfortunately, the show wasn’t connecting with a wider audience so we made the decision not to move forward. It really is as simple as that.”

➽ Relatedly, Westervelt’s reported climate true-crime series, Drilled, returned for a new season last week.

➽ You Must Remember This returns next week to finish off what it started last year with its Erotic 80s miniseries, which is to raise the question: What happened to sex and sexuality in the movies? Erotic 90s extends Karina Longworth’s study into the, well, ’90s, with the analysis cutting across a pretty wide array of works in film and television. The season will span a whopping 21 episodes, and if you’re based in Los Angeles, take note: Longworth has partnered up with the American Cinematheque to program a weekly film series accompanying the season. Fun! Almost makes me wish I lived in L.A.

➽ Also coming back: The Lazarus Heist. The first season of the BBC World Service, which came out in 2021, took a subject that could’ve been prohibitively difficult to pin down — an ornate system of cyberespionage, criminality, and political intrigue anchored by a group of North Korean hackers — and made the whole thing tangible by running the narrative through the story of a single megaheist. The podcast, once again led by reporters Jean Lee and Geoff White, returns to keep tabs on what’s been going on with the group since.

➽ Been catching up on This American Life: Don’t miss this Chenjerai Kumanyika special, and this Miki Meek story about an OB/GYN leaving North Idaho due to the state’s growing overreach with anti-abortion laws.

➽ Gonna leave this tweet from my colleague Joe Adalian here: “Sort of a homecoming: @DawnOstroff, former head of CBS-owned UPN and CBS co-owned The CW, will be joining the board of directors for Paramount Global in May.” Ostroff, of course, held the chief content role at Spotify until her departure in January.

➽ Succession is coming back soon (with its final season!), which means HBO’s official Succession companion pod also returns soon. In the meantime, you should pregame with this Joe Pompeo sit-down with the legend Frank Rich over on Vanity Fair.

➽ Is this me once again linking to One Heat Minute Production’s experiments with the film-podcast genre? Why, yes, yes indeed. I’m thoroughly enjoying its attempt to pull together an oral history of Master & Commander, the Russell Crowe naval-core flick that just turned 20. Boats! Uniforms! Cannons! What’s not to like?

➽ Speaking of film podcasts … I’ll never get bored with efforts to March Madness–ify everything. It’s a good gag! I’ve been feverishly keeping tabs on the Blank Check and Filmspotting brackets.

The People’s Maximum Fun