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June 8, 2022, 12:52 p.m.

You didn’t hear this from me, but Defector is getting a subscriber boost from its podcast Normal Gossip

The sports and culture website earns 95% of its revenue from subscriptions. When Normal Gossip launched paid subscriptions last month, the podcast gave Defector its biggest one-week increase in more than a year.

What’s the difference between journalism and good gossip? That’s the question I had after listening to the first season of Normal Gossip from the worker-owned sports and culture website Defector, where host Kelsey McKinney shares a juicy but anonymized story with a guest. Even one of the podcast’s taglines — “You didn’t hear this from me” — sounded like an off-the-record comment.

In one of the first episodes of the second season, released last month, Defector writer Kalyn Kahler confirmed my suspicion that the line could feel vanishingly thin.

“I gossip with men all day long,” said Kahler, who mostly writes about the National Football League but pinch hits on competitive Irish dancing and ice skating coverage, too. “Reporting is taking gossip and fact-checking it, essentially. I’m never going to report something that I haven’t gotten from several people … If somebody gossiped to me about some document, I’m going to go find it.”

Normal Gossip was born in early 2022, a little more than a year after McKinney first posted on Twitter about wanting to share colorful but (unlike much journalism) distinctly low-stakes stories about unfamous people.

“My colleagues at Defector were not mad at me, but they were like, ‘Kelsey, what if you didn’t tweet out your good ideas and instead, we just turned them into real things?’” McKinney explained on a recent episode. “And so we did.”

Three months after launching, Normal Gossip reached 500,000 listens. Six months in, the podcast sees around 100,000 downloads per episode. Tickets for the first live show — held last week — sold out in 48 hours.

Defector, which earns 95% of its revenue from subscriptions, currently has about 38,000 active subscribers. When the podcast launched paid Normal Gossip subscriptions last month, the show gave the media company its biggest one-week increase in more than a year. There’s also evidence the podcast is helping Defector reach new audiences; while 75% of Defector subscribers are men, 65% of Normal Gossip subscribers are women and roughly half are under the age of 34.

More than 500 people have signed up at either the Friend-of-a-Friend ($50/year) or Friend ($119/year) levels. Friend-level subscribers get all the benefits of a Defector subscription (unlimited articles and commenting privileges) along with podcast-specific perks, like bonus episodes, an entry into the lottery to be the guest of an episode, and access to Normal Gossip’s Close Friends list on Instagram, where McKinney and producer Alex Sujong Laughlin post behind-the-scenes material and bite-sized gossip.

Normal Gossip and the podcast Namedropping debuted after getting subscriber feedback through a pilot process helmed by projects editor — and former Nieman Lab staff writer — Justin Ellis. (Another podcast, The Distraction, operates via a partnership with Stitcher.) Ellis, though, credits McKinney’s original idea with the podcast’s success.

“I don’t think it’s crazy to say that there’s way too many shows with a bunch of guys sitting around talking about their basketball hot takes and their fantasy football takes. There’s obviously a market for that, but there’s also a lot of stuff that makes it more difficult to try to do something successful,” Ellis said. “Looking at Normal Gossip and Namedropping, these are two shows that are fun, that reflect some of the interests of the team, and that are different than a lot of what is already out there.”

The show has been described as evoking “the thrill of sitting next to chatty, high-drama strangers at a café, a rare feeling in these indoor-oriented times” (The New Yorker) and one of the best podcasts of the year (New York). The podcast mines friends, guests, and — now that the show is in its second season — its own audience for wacky, messy, often gasp-worthy material. The stories embrace conflict and misbehavior, but avoid darker themes like violence or sexual assault.

“Our general rules are that we want it to be juicy,” McKinney said. “We want the story to have some kind of twist. We want, ideally, for it to be a little unclear exactly who the villain is. The goal is never to hurt people or be vindictive or punch down. We want the show, first and foremost, to be fun. We want it to be surprising, if possible.”

McKinney gave a hypothetical example of how anonymization on the show works: “Let’s say, for example, that you told us a story about a musician you know who wasn’t actually playing their music live. Let’s say in reality that person is a pianist who lives in Los Angeles and is named Melissa. We would shift all of those things slightly. Right? So maybe now that musician plays guitar instead of piano. Maybe she lives ‘on the East Coast.’ Maybe her name is Kristen.”

Laughlin added that narrative podcasts, in particular, put an emphasis on achieving “a satisfying narrative,” but that airing even lighthearted gossip about strangers comes with responsibility.

“When you’re creating a narrative from someone’s life, the story can be so seductive that you forget the power that turning your microphone on has,” Laughlin said, noting the fallout from podcasts like Caliphate and S-Town. “Because our gossip stories can be so bizarre and juicy, it’s important for us to protect the real-life subjects of the stories, even when we don’t know who they are ourselves. The last thing we want is to create another West Elm Caleb or Couch Guy.”

The Normal Gossip team takes steps to ensure submitted stories haven’t been made-up. McKinney stressed, though, that the podcast itself is not journalism.

“I am a journalist by training. I know how to fact check. That is not what we are doing. It is important to us that these stories are true, and we do ask a lot of follow-up questions,” McKinney said. She added, “But we do not fact-check. Part of the point of the show, the heart of the show, is that the details can be embellished or changed or shifted and the heart of the story remains the same.”

McKinney, Laughlin, and Ellis all spoke about burnout and the often grueling reality of producing a podcast with such a small team. For Normal Gossip, they intentionally chose a season structure — rather than promising listeners a weekly podcast — despite hearing again and again that taking breaks would “decimate” their audience. They’ve just finished up recording their second season, and will take another break before diving into their third.

“We want it to be good. We are going to consistently take as much time off as we need to to make that happen,” McKinney said. “I can’t tell you how long there will be between seasons two and three because we aren’t there yet! But I’d rather listeners wait a little bit longer for a product that feels worth the wait than burn fast and bright and out immediately.”

Producing a podcast for the worker-owned Defector provides “a rare situation where we get to define what success looks like for us, and we want to envision a different future for what that can look like in media,” Laughlin said.

“I’ve worked on too many projects funded by Silicon Valley bros who are interested in growing bigger and faster at all costs — including employee burnout, literal health consequences in workers, layoffs, and more…The last several years have been hell — do you really want to spend the small amount of energy you have left over making something you aren’t proud of just to chase metrics?” Laughlin said. “We would rather make a great show with fewer episodes that gives people some reprieve from the hellscape outside, and conserve what’s left of our energy to care for each other, our loved ones, and our communities. Like Kelsey says all the time, we are not machines. We are humans!”

The episodes often include references to the show’s tiny team and the hours of writing, recording, and editing it takes to produce something that sounds as fun and casual to the listener as Normal Gossip. Laughlin called the decision to be so transparent “completely selfish,” but it’s not hard to see the team’s decisions as a response to industry-wide realities.

“As a producer, I’ve seen how the podcast industry has exploded over the last decade, and I’ve seen how the perception of podcasting as an ‘easy’ medium with a ‘low barrier to entry’ has resulted in shorter production timelines, smaller budgets, and a general lack of respect for and understanding of what it takes to make a great podcast,” Laughlin said. “The smartest, most creative, and resilient journalists I know are producers, and I see them burning out constantly because of the pressures the industry places on their output. Because Kelsey and I have so much creative control over this show, I saw it as an opportunity to be really honest about what it takes to make something great.”

Image of “Whispers,” a sculpture by Etta Winigrad, courtesy of the University of Pennsylvania.

POSTED     June 8, 2022, 12:52 p.m.
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