Doing Less With Less
Dear friends,

I owe you an apology. In my last newsletter, I wrote a sentence that has been bugging me ever since I hit send.

Here’s the sentence in question:
"Whether it’s because we’re cramming our storytelling into our spare time, or working with budgets that get smaller and smaller every year, we all need to do more with less."
Am I allowed to call BS on myself? Because that sentence is a whole lot of bull____!

The first part is absolutely true. It has become harder and harder to actually make a living producing podcasts. And as someone who’s out there pitching a narrative series right now, I can tell you, money is tiiiiiiight.

But I fear that the second half of the sentence suggested that we all needed to sacrifice our minds, bodies and souls in order to offset the business failures of our industry. And that’s just wrong.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Yes, money is tight, but that doesn’t mean we all need to buckle down and work harder.

Work smarter, yes. Work harder, no.
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Look, there are two problems: costs and revenue. Podcasts – especially narrative podcasts – cost a ton of money to make. And they don’t bring in enough revenue to offset those costs.

The fabulous Mia Lobel is working on lots of smart ways to tackle the revenue end of things. She calls it her “big” idea. Check out her Substack. There’s a wealth of great, innovative thinking here.

But I was on a call with Mia a while back, and she admitted, “I still don’t know what to do about the production piece.”

So here’s my “little” idea. It’s not nearly as innovative as anything Mia has come up with…but it’s still worthwhile, I think.

Let’s do less.

That’s it. It’s really that simple.

If we can’t find a way to fund the big-budget productions, let’s find ways to make them smaller.

What do I mean by that?

When we think of the production cycle of a narrative podcast, we often think of something that looks like this.

  • 3-12 months - Research, story development, tape gathering.
  • 3 months - Writing, re-writing, and re-re-re-writing episode scripts.
  • 3 months - Sound design and mixing.

In all, your average serialized narrative takes at least a year to produce.

Mia has done the math for us (thanks, Mia. I am terrible at math!) and the labor cost alone for a year-long production cycle is about $395K. That's for ONE season of a seralized narrative.

And here’s the crazy thing…

Listeners don’t care.

About any of it!

They don’t care how much time you spend scripting. They don’t care how many revisions you make. They don’t care if you’ve found ALL of the archive tape or if you’ve spent WEEKS on incredible sound design.

Listen to the serialized narratives that have spent time near the top of the charts, and I think you'll hear it, too. Some of those podcasts are exquisitely produced. They took YEARS of hard labor to create.

And some of them were thrown together with fishing wire and duct tape.

It's sad, but true...I think. Listeners don't care about beautiful writing or immersive sound design or even masterful storytelling.

They just want to hear a good story.

And so…how do we actually figure out how to do less? Without making something that sounds like utter crap?

I think there are answers out there. And a lot of them are already being used by some very successful – or, more to the point, SUSTAINABLE – podcasts.

So here are some of the things you might want to consider when planning your budget.

Thing #1: Research/Preparation

We’re gonna begin with the thing that seems most non-negotiable: research and preparation.

You can’t skimp on that, right?


Well…yeah, you can. I’m not sure I would recommend it for most serialized narratives, but it can definitely be done.

Think of your average celebrity chatcast. The main expense here is the actual celebrity.

And, just a little aside. You can't just hire a celebrity host and <presto-chango> your podcast suddenly becomes profitable. That idea has been thoroughly debunked.

But anyway...

Not that long ago, I spoke to one of the hosts of a "celebrity" podcast, and he said that he tries to go into interviews with as little planning as possible – to keep the conversation free flowing and spontaneous. So his producer might give him 5-6 questions that he can refer to if he gets in a bind. But other than that, he’s just winging it.

And look, I don't want to knock it. Some of my favorite conversations have come about through exactly this approach!

I'm a dork, so I'm gonna plot this next part of my argument on a spectrum.

On one end, you have your average celebrity chatcast. And on the other end, you’ve got something like You’re Wrong About.

Celebrity Chatcast <--------> You’re Wrong About

You’re Wrong About still sounds relatively free flowing and spontaneous, but they spend a ton of time/money on research and preparation.

Hosts thoroughly research their topics and consider very carefully how to best present that information.

And that brings us to our next thing…

Thing #2: Scripting

You’re Wrong About spends a ton of time/money on research and prep. But the actual conversations themselves are very lightly scripted.

Bullet pointed and planned, yes. Scripted, no.

Now, I don't think You're Wrong About has actually lost anything in quality by scripting in a different way. In fact, lots of podcasts are now trying to copy that style.

Unfortunately, many of the copycats are doing it by heavily scripting fake spontaneity, which sounds fake and costs a ton of time/money. Can we all agree to stop doing that? Please?

Modifying the scripting phase saves a TON of time/money. Sure, it still requires labor. But you get to skip all of those endless edits and rewrites and debates about whether you should say “and” or “but” at the beginning of that sentence.

You get what you get, and you use audio editing and a few pick-ups here and there to help it all flow.

On the other end of the "writing" spectrum is something like The Memory Palace, which is thoroughly researched and planned AND heavily scripted.

You’re Wrong About <---------> The Memory Palace

But you’ll notice, The Memory Palace doesn’t generally use interview tape. Or sound effects. Or field sound. It’s just Nate DiMeo and his exhaustive research and beautiful, beautiful writing.

So beautiful.

And that brings us to…

Thing #3: Complexity

So, as we have established, The Memory Palace is incredibly well researched, planned and scripted. But you know what it’s not?

It’s not complex.

From a production standpoint, it is incredibly simple.

Beautiful… but simple.

Yes, the use of music is innovative and immersive. And that adds to overall complexity.

But from a tape gathering/tape utilizing perspective, The Memory Palace is very simple – especially when compared to something like Radiolab.

The Memory Palace <--------------------> Radiolab

Radiolab does all the things. Heavy research and prep. Intricate scripting. (Done through an innovative process that is even MORE labor intensive than traditional scripting!)

And of course, the complexity. Radiolab weaves together voices, archive tape, field sound and sound effects in ways that are mind boggling.

Radiolab’s complexity knob is turned all the way up to 11.

(That’s a Spinal Tap reference for the benefit of us old folks. The young’uns are gonna have to look it up.)

And because I am extra-dorky, I made a chart of what this all looks like:
And this brings us to the crux of our problem.

Everyone wants to be Radiolab.

But when I ask listeners about why they love Radiolab, they don’t mention the innovative way that show is scripted. They don’t mention the incredible sound design and flawless editing.

The only thing they remember is the story.

And that’s what we really need to focus on. So many of these “things” that we see as necessary are, in fact, somewhat optional. They don’t actually serve the story.

And if they don’t serve the story, they don’t serve the listener.

Think of it this way. The most popular podcast ON THE PLANET is a crappy chat-cast with a former celebrity has-been as a host. It’s not popular because of the amount of time and effort that goes into making it.

(And as I mentioned above, it’s not actually popular because the host is a celebrity. There have been a lot of podcasts hosted by celebrities far more famous than he-who-shall-not-be-named-in-this-newsletter, and many of them have been utter flops.)

The world’s #1 show is popular because the host found a group of people who feel like they aren’t being heard … and started speaking directly to them.

And, don’t get me wrong, I believe this world would be a better place if fewer people listened to that show.

But I can still learn from it.

Podcasts succeed or fail because of the communities they reach.

And, by and large, those communities don’t necessarily care about exhaustive research AND beautifully written scripts AND highly complex sound design.

They might care about one of those things. Or even two. But they don’t necessarily need ALL of the dials turned up to 11.

So the key is to figure out what your community needs … and then find the way to bring them that.

No more. No less.
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