It’s been a minute! Thanks to Jake for taking over the newsletter while I was prepping for Hot Pod Summit LA. I had an awesome time, and I hope those of you who attended did as well. We had some great conversations on the evolving relationship between podcasting and Hollywood. Many thanks to our sponsors Amazon Music, Wondery, and AdsWizz, as well as our partners at work x work and KCRW.
Today, some tidbits from last week’s panels: why scripted podcasts are not more of a thing, how the left can combat the right-wing talk machine, and why podcasting is replacing late-night comedy.
Scripted podcasting still hasn’t had its “Serial” moment
In discussing how podcasts have fared in the Hollywood development factory, the entire panel agreed (to my surprise) that it is much easier to sell studios on a TV show based on a nonfiction series than scripted fiction podcasts. They pointed to success stories like WeCrashed and The Dropout as examples of how showrunners can use a podcast as source material while still creating an entirely new script and vision. With an already-scripted fiction podcast, that’s harder.
“You want to justify the medium,” said Meghna Rao, head of film and TV at Pushkin Industries. “If you already have a beautifully crafted story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if you’re just going to make a carbon copy of the same thing, you’re not going to attract an audience.”
There is also the fact that there are far (far) fewer fiction podcasts than nonfiction and even fewer that have made an impact. Oren Rosenbaum, head of audio and partner at United Talent Agency, said that scripted podcasting has not yet had its “Serial” moment where one show dominated the cultural conversation. Part of that is the fact that unscripted shows are cheaper to make and can rack up more ad money with a higher output of episodes over a longer amount of time.
“The current business doesn’t set up creators to want to make a lot of scripted shows,” Rosenbaum said. “We need the Spotifies of the world and different platforms to say, ‘This is a priority for us, we want to make more of these.’”
Julie McNamara, head of talk studios, said that the company is in fact interested in expanding its scripted slate and has done so with recent hits like Case 63 and Batman Unburied. But, she said, creators don’t always have an ear for what scripted shows are appropriate for audio.
“We hear a lot of pitches that are clearly busted pitches for streaming shows,” McNamara said. “They barely change the type on the cover page to say it’s an audio presentation of some sort. And that’s no good. It doesn’t work. It has to feel very much like it’s centered around it being an audio.”
How Crooked Media combats the right-wing talk machine
Less than a week before the midterm election, I got to speak with a few executives from Crooked Media, the most successful liberal podcast network in the game. While Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It are big hits, political podcasting is still dominated by conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Charlie Kirk. And while right-wing talk radio has successfully made the jump to podcasting, the left has no base of radio personalities to draw from. Crooked Media had to start from scratch.
“Conservative talk radio existed for decades — the Rushes, the Hannities, the Laura Ingrahams — and they have passed a tradition of building an audience making that very specific kind of talent and content case,” said Sandy Girard, who leads programming at Crooked Media “We’re behind the cycle, but there’s clearly an audience for this content. And I think more needed to be built there.”
Crooked Media, which was founded by former Obama staffers Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Jon Favreau, emerged following the election of Donald Trump, when people on the left were desperate to make sense of the new political reality. Having already hosted a political podcast for The Ringer, the trio saw an opening to combat the right’s powerful talk networks. “I think our theory of the case is, you’re never going to be able to get rid of that infrastructure they have on the right. If anything, Facebook and Twitter is exacerbating the problem,” Vietor said. “So you have to build out your own infrastructure, your own voices, and your own media.”
But podcasts don’t run on good vibes — they needed to find a way to make money and find advertisers that were not wary of political content. Plus, listenership ebbs and flows with election cycles, so they needed to build out other offerings — limited series, a daily news show, more general chat shows — that would be more consistent.
“We wanted to show that you can build a real business on it, and you can make it a success,” Vietor said. “I hope other people jump into the same space. I think they slowly are.”
Because the company has an explicit political agenda, money is not the only measure of success. It’s also about political impact. Crooked developed a political arm that would help turn listeners into volunteers. And while most of those listeners are in coastal urban areas, they have found listenership in some unlikely places.
“There’s a lot of people in southern states — you know, is it as many as in New York? No — but they have built community around this because they don’t feel heard. They don’t feel like there’s anyone who cares that there are a bunch of progressive liberal progressives living in these red states,” said Crooked Media’s VP of politics Shaniqua McClendon. “And those are the people who are flooding into our volunteer programs.”
Why late-night comedy shifted to podcasting
It may be too strong to say that late-night comedy is dying, but it is definitely going through a transition. Trevor Noah and James Corden recently announced they would step away from their nightly shows, a move that would once have been unthinkable for comedians in their prime. Streaming channels’ attempts at late-night talk shows have floundered. Team Coco joined me at the summit to discuss how Conan O’Brien and his team saw the writing on the wall and made the leap to podcasting.
Mike Sweeney and Jessie Gaskell, longtime writers for Conan who host the Inside Conan podcast, said that late-night shows can no longer compete with the news cycle. In the later years of O’Brien’s TBS show, which ended last year, their team would have to compete with comedians on Twitter, who could get their jokes out in a matter of minutes. By the time the show aired at 11PM, the joke cycle based on the news cycle would already be over. And that was if people bothered to watch it that night, as opposed to clips the next day. “I think that it’s just tough when people aren’t going to consume it that night,” Gaskell said. “It just loses its value.”
The traditional format, too, seemed to have outlived its usefulness. Even with O’Brien’s trademark quirkiness, his show’s formula was the same one talk show audiences have seen for decades: a monologue, a celebrity guest, a musical guest, another celebrity guest. Moving to podcasts has provided the space for longer, more freewheeling conversations that can react quickly to the news cycle.
“Tastes have changed or evolved to where people are craving a more authentic conversation,” said Adam Sachs, president of Team Coco. “Not that late-night conversations, the interviews are not authentic. But there is an element of it being more publicist-driven and in three-minute blocks of conversation.”
One producer last week told me that traditional late-night comedy is like a vestigial organ — it will continue to exist but with no clear purpose. Sweeney, who started writing for O’Brien in 1995, seemed to agree. “It is amazing how late night seems to be contracting,” he said. “I have been wondering lately whether with all these old late-night clips, will people watch them like they do Sonny & Cher clips from the 1970s? Is it going to have that same antiquated feeling?”
But if podcasting feels like a fresher alternative to late-night TV, it still has drawbacks. “From a production standpoint, it’s appealing to have something that requires way smaller staff, a lot less paid crew. I mean, on Conan, there were hundreds of people that were employed for years,” said Gaskell. “But that does mean that there’s going to be a lot more Hollywood crew and writers that are out of work. And I would have to think the quality would reflect that, too.”
That’s all for now! I’ll be back next week with the latest.