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July 24, 2018, 9:57 a.m.
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Netflix helped propel this podcast from a canceled show to a six-figure success

Plus: A big fat Leonard Lopate debacle at WBAI, “podcasts by women, for everyone, no creeps allowed,” and publishers are building teams around smart speakers.

Editor’s note: Hot Pod is a weekly newsletter on the podcasting industry written by Nick Quah; we happily share it with Nieman Lab readers each Tuesday.

Welcome to Hot Pod, a newsletter about podcasts. This is issue 170, published July 24, 2018.

Curiosity, with a side of luck. I’m nowhere near the first person to say this, but it’s nevertheless worth shouting out loud: Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness is exceptional listening. The chief reason why is right there in the title: the Queer Eye star is a vivid interviewer whose curiosity is sharp, sprawling, infectious. That’s a real and rare gift, and its depth is further expressed by the strength of the show’s archives. A cursory glance at the list of previous episodes reveals a vast scope of the world, with interview subjects that range from gender bias in film scoring to the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims to the definition of cults to, of course, the lives of his fellow Queer Eye costars. (The consistent quality of the podcast’s growing catalogue also reflects the effective wielding of another uncommon skill: smart booking. Getting Curious often builds experts around the subject being discussed, and almost everyone who’s been brought on has been perfectly engaging in front of the mic.)

Van Ness is a natural on-air interviewer: he listens, collaborates, vibes. He gamely leans into the give-and-take of effective conversation, deploying biography to cultivate trust and a permission structure for the interviewee to open up. He’s also damn fun, and damn funny. Binge-listening to Getting Curious episodes additionally serves as a reminder that as much as interviewing is hard, interviewing as a performance is so much harder.

Anyway, I’m not writing about Getting Curious today just because I think it’s an exceptional interview show. There’s also a pretty interesting story to be told about its production history, one that has something to tell us about the nature of celebrity — or, more accurately, on-the-verge-of-celebrity — podcasts.

Here’s how the story goes, as told to me by various sources on the network level: Van Ness originally developed and launched Getting Curious in December 2015, foremost as a passion project. He had, by that time, gained some popularity for his work on Gay of Thrones, the Emmy-nominated Funny Or Die parody web series. With the help of producer Colin Anderson, a BBC alumnus who was then working at Maximum Fun whom Van Ness had connected with through mutual friends (podcasters Erin Gibson and Dave Holmes), the podcast began publishing on a biweekly schedule. At the time, the podcast was an official Maximum Fun production.

About a year into publishing, in late 2016, Anderson left Maximum Fun for Midroll Media. A few months after Anderson’s departure, Maximum Fun wound down its arrangement with Van Ness. “We started Getting Curious with Jonathan because we believed in his incredible, incandescent talent, and that never changed,” Jesse Thorn, founder of Maximum Fun, told me over email. “As the world is now getting to see, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, thoughtful and hilarious guy. We worked really hard to bring Getting Curious to a larger audience, but were never able to get enough folks to check it out to sustain the production, much less pay Jonathan what he deserved to get paid for it. Ultimately, we gave the show back to him in the hopes that in future, circumstances would change.”

And then, of course, they did. As the story goes, the day after Maximum Fun cancelled Getting Curious, Van Ness booked Queer Eye.

The Netflix series wouldn’t premiere until February 2018, and for a number of months in the run-up, Van Ness continued to publish Getting Curious without the backing of an official network. Anderson, now the executive producer at Earwolf, helped produce the show in his spare time. “He’s a friend, and I love the show,” Anderson said, by way of explanation. After Queer Eye debuted on Netflix, well…the podcast took off.

These days, Getting Curious is “hitting well into six figures” per episode, according to Midroll VP of marketing Amy Fitzgibbons. The show was officially brought into the company’s comedy brand, Earwolf, back in May, and as Queer Eye continues to capture the imagination of TV viewers across the country, it appears to be effective in pushing more and more people to the podcast. “We’re seeing tremendous growth, and it’s actually hard to give a precise number as even older episodes are continuing to grow quickly,” Fitzgibbons notes. Another Midroll spokesperson claims that many of the new listeners report being new to podcasting altogether.

It’s a fascinating story, but what, exactly, does it tell us? Three views:

  • Amy Fitzgibbons argues that a major key to Getting Curious is its original nature as a passion project. She extends this analysis to the celebrity podcast genre more broadly. “When it’s not just for the paycheck, and when they devote their energy to really making a great show, the listeners can tell,” she wrote. “[Van Ness is] also super engaged with his fans on social media, and that helps. A lot of celebrities have large followings on social, but don’t successfully pull those fans onto other platforms like podcasts.”
  • Colin Anderson: “It’s been a spectacular combination of a compelling show, a host who was a star even before he was famous, Queer Eye being a breakout hit, Jonathan’s skill at building and nurturing his own fans through social media, and his continued commitment to the podcast even as his TV career took off.”
  • Jesse Thorn: “Getting Curious is a show format that’s tough to get people to check out when the host isn’t a famous person (no matter how talented he or she may be), and a lot easier when the host is famous,” he wrote. “These days, Jonathan is famous. Deservedly. I’m sorry we weren’t able to make the show work for him (or for us), but I’m sincerely glad it’s such a success today. Jonathan deserves it.”

Personally, I’m sympathetic to Thorn’s argument. There isn’t much of a compelling reason to try out a new personality or celebrity-driven podcast if you didn’t have much of a prior relationship with the individual — something that seems increasingly true in a podcast market that’s becoming even more competitive, even saturated. Thorn is probably right: Getting Curious is a show format that’s hard to get people to check out if there is no alternative work being produced by the core talent. Even with a really good show under the hood, it truly takes a whole lot of luck.

Something else I’m thinking about: just how much my experience with Queer Eye informs my experience with the podcast and vice versa. Indeed, the two shows consumed together convey a Van Ness who’s infinitely more interesting, and I’m pretty sure the opposite would be have been true if the podcast weren’t as exceptional as it is.

Conference watch:

  • The Third Coast International Audio Festival opens registration later today. Programming announcements will begin trickling out soon. As always, the conference will be held in the great city of Chicago — go Cubs — and will take place on October 4–6.
  • PodCon, the Seattle podcast conference launched by VidCon founder Hank Green, is coming back for seconds. PodCon 2 is scheduled for January 19-20, 2019, and its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign is now live with a $300,000 flexible goal.
  • Podcast Movement is happening this week in Philadelphia.

Show notes:

  • Slate’s Slow Burn is coming back for its sophomore season on August 8. Fans of Leon Neyfakh’s noir narration, rejoice! Here’s my write-up on Vulture.
  • ICYMI: the Boston Globe announced another major podcast collaboration last week, this time with WBUR. Called Last Seen, the project is a limited, ten-episode true crime series about the unsolved 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum art heist that saw thieves escape with 13 pieces totaling around $500 million in value. This is the second podcast collaboration between the Boston Globe and WBUR. The first was the daily sports podcast Season Ticket, which I’m told ended its run in February.
  • Radiotopia launched a new podcast last week: Everything is Alive, a quirky improvisational podcast led by How to Do Everything’s Ian Chillag. This is Radiotopia’s second new show launch in two months, following the rollout of Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant’s ZigZag on June 14.
  • Scene on Radio is back with a new season. Following up last year’s Seeing White series, host John Biewen partners with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Celeste Headlee to examine a most distressing topic: Men.
  • Axios is now dabbling with podcasts. The rapid-fire news organization with an eye toward concision is adapting its finance vertical, Pro Rata with Dan Primack, into a short-form daily news podcast. Episodes are meant to be ten minutes long. Publishing begins this week.

Smart speaker operatives. Over at Digiday, Lucia Moses has a piece that, among other things, sheds some light on how a few publishers have been building teams around figuring out the voice-first platform:

NPR has six people who are dedicated to voice assistants and is in the process of creating an editorial position that will be dedicated to them. The New York Times is advertising for a voice editor to help define the Times on voice-enabled devices. The person will be part of special projects and work on prototypes and the publication of its first set of voice experiences on these platforms, according to a job posting.

Al Jazeera just appointed a senior producer in editorial to decide what of its existing news to put on the devices and is working on content that’s specifically created for them. The Washington Post has a six-person audio team in the newsroom, which it split off from audience development early this year, to focus on home assistants along with podcasts and other kinds of audio storytelling.

Bloomberg Media has two to three people who work getting content like its Market Minute on the Apple HomePod, Echo and Home — a “substantial” number, said Julia Beizer, chief product officer there.

Pair this with the latest edition of Edison Research and NPR’s Smart Audio report, which dropped last Wednesday.

“Podcasts by women, for everyone, no creeps allowed.” Over at Vulture, Megh Wright has a story on how three women in Los Angeles — Amanda Lund, Maria Blasucci, and Priyanka Mattoo — are launching a new podcast network where “the people making decisions about what shows are interesting and deserve a chance are women.” The network is called Earios, and the trio launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this week to fund its formation.

The WBAI debacle. This one’s a big, fat, complicated mess, and though it isn’t directly related to podcasting, it continues a story that’s been tracked in this newsletter: the workplace culture crisis at New York Public Radio.

Last December, veteran WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate was one of two key individuals dismissed from New York Public Radio following an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior towards his female colleagues. As you might recall, Lopate’s dismissal took place amid a broader imbroglio consuming WNYC — sparked by an exposé from the journalist Suki Kim centering on John Hockenberry, the former host of The Takeaway — that saw a reckoning with the station’s management style, which was deemed to have manifested a culture that allowed for bullying, harassment, and discriminatory behaviors that have especially hurt women and people of color.

The complications from that crisis seems to have jumped across stations within the city. Lopate returned to the airwaves earlier this month after he was approached by WBAI, the Brooklyn progressive non-commercial radio station where he started his career over three decades ago. Lopate is now on a six-month contract with the station, and his new afternoon show, called Lopate at Large, started broadcasting on July 16.

WBAI’s hiring of Lopate was met with protest from within the station, as the Columbia Journalism Review reported last Tuesday. The CJR piece quoted several WBAI producers and hosts who openly questioned the station’s decision, and the hiring has resulted in several notable resignations or publishing breaks: Jay Smooth, who has hosted the hip-hop radio program Underground Railroad for almost 29 years; Jeannie Hopper, whose dance music show Liquid Sound Lounge has aired on Saturday nights for over 25 years; and Rebel Diaz, the hip-hop duo whose radio show airs on Wednesday nights.

Another detail worth noting: WBAI exhibited some truly bizarre behavior over Twitter when the station came under pressure last week. The station’s Twitter handle retweeted an anonymous account comparing Lopate to Jackie Robinson (those tweets have since been un-retweeted), cited the lack of “proven sexual or physical allegation by WNYC” as justification for Lopate’s hiring (that tweet has since been deleted), and publicly lashed out at Smooth’s criticism with a snarky financially oriented tweet (that one is still up, apparently):

Just so we’re clear: this is insane.

The station’s leadership spelled out the motivation behind Lopate’s hiring in pretty clear terms. In an email to CJR, WBAI general manager Berthold Reimers phrased the thinking as follows:

You know at WBAI, I don’t think we have 5,000 people listening for the whole week… once we have all these people listening to us for him, this is ultimately an easy form of marketing. There should be no question that our numbers go up for all the other shows because of their quality that no one knew about.

As conveyed in the CJR report, WBAI is an operation on the backfoot. In 2013, the station let go most of its staff to cover basic operating costs. Its owner, the Berkeley-based Pacifica Foundation that’s known for its progressive bent, is on the edge of bankruptcy. Station producers are largely volunteers these days; they are not paid for their work producing, and even hosting, their shows. Reimers is portrayed in the CJR report as a general manager distinctly focused on increasing the station’s visibility as well as its ability to apply for CPB funding.

From that vantage point, you can broadly see the cold logic governing WBAI’s choice: despite the allegations against him, Lopate is believed to have a loyal following that could potentially aid the ailing station’s performance. And so the decision was made to bring on Lopate, at the expense of a workplace environment primarily staffed by mission-oriented workers with significantly less power. The fact that the station is paying Lopate and his producer, as Reimers confirmed to CJR, while many of the other station workers continues to go unpaid, is further consistent with the station’s cold strategic thinking. (WBAI’s Twitter behavior, however, remains unfathomable.)

It’s a strategy, and it’s a tragedy. These are times when moral leadership feels vanishingly distant — past sources keep being swallowed by chaos, corruption, or death, as it seems to increasingly be the case these days — and so the story of a progressive community radio station throwing its values under the bus for the supposed purposes of survival not only stings, but seems depressingly fitting for where we are right now. What’s the point of fighting for another day when you’ve compromised what you’re supposed to stand for? It’s a timeless question, but one that has never felt more timely than it does today.

On a related note…

Career spotlight. This week, I reached out to Jen Chien, a reporter, producer, and editor primarily based at San Francisco’s KALW station. She wrote about her extensive professional past before getting into audio, how she views her work as an editor, and the differences between a story editor and a mixing editor.

Hot Pod: Tell me about your current situation.

Jen Chien: I’m currently the managing editor for the news department Crosscurrents at NPR member station KALW in San Francisco, where I also host and lead an arts coverage/live event/community media training project called Sights & Sounds. I also edit for the independent podcast The Stoop, and earlier this year took on editor/managing editor duties for a new podcast from Lantigua Williams & Co launching at end of August called 70 Million. It’s probably too much work at the moment, but I am excited and stimulated by all of it, and all of the projects are things I believe in: lifting up and amplifying under-heard voices, journalism as public service, working with and for badass women of color… I also currently have a kid in preschool, which is much more expensive than I thought it would be, so having “too much” work right now is financially the right move.

HP: How did you get to this point?

Chien: Before I was doing all this editing, I was a reporter/producer for KALW, and for Making Contact, an independent syndicated half-hour show made in Oakland and distributed to radio stations all over the place. I’ve freelanced a little bit, too. Before that, I was a postmodern dance theater performer, a massage therapist, teacher of yoga, dance and creative writing, an art model, bartender, bunch of other things. I didn’t get into radio/audio until my mid-thirties. I always like to say I fell into journalism through the side door. I was an obsessive public radio listener for many years, and would sometimes fantasize about having chosen a different path and gone to journalism school etc, but it always seemed completely unrealistic. Then one day (almost a decade ago), I was in rehearsal for an aerial dance performance and learned that there was a radio reporter there to make a piece about our show.

It’s funny, I now work with this person at KALW — she’s the great reporter and editor Lisa Morehouse (shout out to her awesome new podcast, California Foodways). Back then, I had never met a real person who worked in this field, and I was super excited. She asked to interview me, and I asked her if I could interview her back, about her job. I found out that she also hadn’t followed a traditional path, and had learned her skills through internship opportunities. That conversation made the whole thing seem much more real and achievable, so shortly thereafter I started an apprenticeship at KPFA in Berkeley, then started volunteering at KALW, then the amazing Holly Kernan, then news director at KALW, offered me actual paid work at it, and I just kept putting more and more into it, until suddenly I was a journalist. And now I’m in management. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been afforded, but up until a couple years ago I still sometimes would think to myself, “What am I doing here?”

HP: What does a career mean to you, at this point?

Chien: As I said, I kind of feel like this career happened to me just as much as I made it happen. I feel like I’ve just been “following my bliss,” as we like to say in Northern California — or at least following my intellectual and creative interests. I am lucky to have had supportive family throughout, chose to live in my hometown of San Francisco, and somehow been able to make enough money even with the less lucrative work choices I’ve made. I feel like even though what I do right now doesn’t fit my previously held identity as an artist, making audio is an inherently creative and collaborative endeavor, and I love those aspects of it the most. So I make sense of my varied jobs and experiences through that lens — that I’ve consistently chosen work that is collaborative, creative, that allows me to constantly learn new things, and to hopefully put something good and useful out into the world.

HP: When you started out, what did you think you wanted to do?

Chien: I definitely wanted to be a reporter producer, wanted to make the stories, interview the people, have my voice be the one on the air, etc.

I actually didn’t understand the role of an editor in making audio work at first. I had come from the world of dance and performance, where you might bring in an “outside eye” for one rehearsal right before the performance, just for some final notes that you might listen to or might ignore completely. The hands-on editor-reporter relationship was hard to get used to, but ultimately I found it transformative. I loved the feeling of support and teamwork, and having someone who was also invested in making the piece good, but was holding the big picture while I worked the details. I wanted to have an editor to edit my life!

HP: Could you walk me through a little more about what it means to be an editor?

Chien: I’m both a story editor and a managing editor. The first part means I work on individual stories, usually 5 to 30 minutes in length. Generally I’m working with sound-rich, multi-voice reported features, sometimes non-narrated. They range from more hard newsy to arts-focused to personal storytelling. The managing editor part means I also have to do things like manage schedules, calendars, sequence of stories within a particular show (for radio) or a particular season (podcasts), a little bit of HR-type stuff with reporters, help with making new hires, help determine big picture coverage/assignments, and send and receive shitloads of emails.

Being an editor is not the sexy part of making radio/audio. It’s like when people dream of being in a rock band, they don’t want to be the bassist, they want to be the lead singer. Once I started editing, though, I found such great satisfaction in the work. Even if we don’t get the glory of the byline or being the literal voice in the listener’s ear, we help form the backbone of the process of making great audio. I enjoy problem-solving and troubleshooting narrative structure, I like getting perfectionistic with line edits, I love the feeling of satisfaction when a reporter feels like the story is becoming what they dreamed it would be, but couldn’t quite get to on their own. Being a parent of a young child, I’ve also found it more practical to be an editor than a reporter, as I’m not beholden to interview subjects’ schedules or having to go record something exactly when it’s happening. I get to help shape the story with a little more control over my own schedule (usually).

The metaphor I like to use (I’m not sure, but I maybe stole this from another excellent colleague, Julie Caine) is that of the midwife. If producing a radio story is like giving birth to a baby, my role is somewhere between the hardline, technical focus of the doctor, who’s only thinking about getting that baby out on time, regardless of the mother’s comfort or desires — and the gentle, client-focused approach of the doula, whose mandate is to ensure the mother has the best, most comfortable experience possible. As the story midwife, my overarching concern is to ensure a healthy baby, happy parents, and that everyone involved is able to achieve their highest potential. Sometimes compromises have to be struck, and the midwife is the one having to make the tough decisions when it comes down to the wire. I like being both a hardass and a nurturer, often in the same meeting/edit.

One thing that I think people often don’t understand is the difference between a story editor and a mixing/engineering editor. There is a difference between being able to do something like cut a single interview down for content, versus shepherding a possibly longform, multi-voice, multi-scene, complex narrative feature story through ideation, reporting, scripting, mixing, giving feedback on draft mixes, etc. The skills are definitely related, but I think with the explosion of single interview-based podcasts, the term “editor” can get fuzzy. My definition, or the one that I think captures what I personally do, is more of a traditional public radio feature editor role.

HP: What should I be listening to right now?

Chien: There are too many things I really like and admire to list them all, but beyond things I mentioned above, here’s a short list off the top of my head: Offshore, The Intersection, On the Media, Reveal, How Did This Get Made?, Stuff Mom Never Told You, Studio 360, The World According to Sound, The Treatment, Reply All, Off Book: The Improvised Musical Podcast, Racist Sandwich, Heaven’s Gate, Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air.

You can find Jen Chien on Twitter here, and here’s her KALW bio page.


  • The New York Times has announced the team that’ll be working on The Weekly, the organization’s Showtime-bound video documentary series that’s said to be a genetic descendant of its daily news podcast, The Daily. Here’s the announcement, and here’s some background.
  • And speaking of the Times: it ran a curious profile on the complicated and controversial Michael Rapaport, the comedian and sports podcaster whose show, I Am Rapaport, is said to be averaging “one and a half million to two million monthly downloads across multiple platforms, according to the show’s producers.” For those doing the math, it’s worth noting that the podcast averages about ten episodes a month. (NY Times)
  • “Everything has a podcast these days, so why not first ladies?” Vanity Fair publishes a quick look at the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s podcast on first ladies.
POSTED     July 24, 2018, 9:57 a.m.
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