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“Podcasting needs to be all voices” With David Raphael, of This American Life, Serial, and the Joe Rogan Experience

I want to see podcasting represent a cross section of the U.S. population. I don’t think we do. I think we need to, as I mentioned…


I want to see podcasting represent a cross section of the U.S. population. I don’t think we do. I think we need to, as I mentioned initially, increase content that’s ethnically diverse and gender diverse. We also need to keep in mind that podcasting does have a liberal bent. I’m not going to get political — those who know me know where I stand — but the fact of the matter is, is that it needs to be all voices. You know, I’m not talking about hate speech, but if you’re somebody who may be more conservative, whether it’s fiscally or politically, it’s fine to have a voice in the podcast space. If you’re somebody who is incredibly good, say you’re a libertarian like Joe Rogan and you want to talk about legalizing marijuana, you should have your space too! The idea behind this is that podcast creators have to create content and put it out there for people to listen to; that’s [highly] unusual unless you’re talking about You Tube or social media. I don’t think in the audio space this has ever existed before: where anybody could actually make something and share it with the world so easily. That’s one thing I think we want to be able to do. Have voices, have the ability to be heard. I think that as the leaders of this industry we need to make sure that with make sure everyone gets  heard.


I had the pleasure to interview David Raphael. David is President of Public Media Marketing, an independent podcast sponsorship rep firm. His firm represents This American Life, Serial, The Moth, Radiotopia, Maximum Fun, and more. They are also responsible for the marketing success of Serial, S-Town, the Joe Rogan Experience, Ana Faris’ podcast, and a host of others, including the upcoming “Phil In The (Blanks)” from Dr. Phil.


Yitzi Weiner: So, David, it’s a real delight to get to know you. Could you tell us your “back story” or the story that led you to this career path? Particularly we would like to know the back end story of how the podcast “Serial” came to be. Was there anything that we don’t know yet?

David Raphael: I’m happy to share with you how I ended up in the industry. I’ve been in the media business for my entire career of over 20 years and I started in radio, so I’ve always been in the audio space initially.

Then I spent almost a decade at Fox selling syndicated television, which is a fancy way of saying I sold reruns. Then from there, I decided to take a break from TV. Candidly, I was traveling 42 weeks a year and needed some time off the road. So I went into radio and I very intentionally and very fortunately found a position at WBEZ in Chicago, which, as you may know, is the presenting station for “This American Life”; while selling local and national sponsorships for WBEZ programs I identified a need for independent rep firms shows like “This American Life” that didn’t have (and didn’t really want) their own internal representative team specifically for sponsorship and to generate revenue.

We built an independent rep firm eight years ago — PMM — to represent independent shows like “This American Life” and many other of the largest podcasts in the industry . We also sell The Joe Rogan Experience and Anna Faris’s podcast as well as Dax Shepard’s podcast called “Armchair Expert” We’re selling a new show with Dr Phil in January.

Yitzi: Can you share the most interesting behind the scenes story that happened since you got into the podcasting producing industry?

David: That’s a great question. I mean, I think one of the most interesting stories, since you had asked specifically about “Serial” — and “Serial” is the most amazing thing to happen in the history of podcasting. It was impeccably produced and it was destined to be a hit, but there were a couple of key things that happened right around the launch of “Serial” that helped it make history and part of the zeitgeist.

When the team sat down to figure out how to position “Serial” for sponsorship the team at This American Life had the ability to promote Serial in their hit podcast. One thought was what if we could convert half of the audience to “Serial” listeners — that would be a runaway success! Not only did that happen, it also became the biggest hit and most downloaded show in podcasting.

So we missed the mark a little on the projection. (Grins.) There was something that was going on in the background that we didn’t know at the time, which was that Apple had released the Podcast app that was native on every iPhone and every iPhone software upgrade and that little purple icon became something that was on your home screen. That, combined with the unbelievably amazing content that Sarah Keonig, Julie Snyder and Ira Glass produced in “Serial” was the perfect storm of delivering listeners in a way that we never knew was even possible in podcasting!

It was really funny because when we went to take the show to market and we brought it to Mailchimp. We asked them for what at the time in podcasting was a considerable sum of money and they said, we will take a chance on this with you and at the end of the day they got a great reward, but they also were the first ones who wanted to take that risk at the launch of this new never before heard series. So it was really kind of funny to see how we just saw something grow in a very organic way that we didn’t think the heights had reached were even possible at the time that we started helping to market the show.


Yitzi: Can you share a story of a mistake that you made that in hindsight seems funny, and what lesson you learned from that?

David: Well, I think I don’t even want to call it a mistake. I think its the point in the end of the story that I just shared with you about Mail Chimp. It’s about the fact that Mail Chimp got the best deal in the history of podcasting and I think that we, as a group, just didn’t anticipate what the show producers and the industry were capable of and what the listeners’ appetite was for content — and specifically for the best content available.

And you know, from that, what did we do? Well, we sold “Serial” season 2 in an incredibly differently way. Instead of one or two sponsors as we had at the beginning of “Serial” season 1, in season two we went with many sponsors in rotation. What we did was use dynamic ad insertion a newer technology at the time to us to deliver impressions differently than we had before and we said, well we can deliver this — because everyone wanted in on season 2 when it launched. We thought we could basically take this pie of impressions and slice them into bite-sized pieces so every brand could be involved. So that’s what we did.

Yitzi: Have you been able to boil down the the uniqueness of “Serial” into a formula, and say the reason why this stood out so much is because of the following few factors.

David: I think there are a couple of factors. First of all, I think that Sarah Koenig’s ability to tell a compelling story is superior to that of most podcast producers. So from the very beginning, there was a level of perfection that comes out of the studios of “This American Life” and “Serial” that I think is unmatched and content is — well, it’s king and that’s most important thing (in podcasting). I think they win every time with that. I think the other thing is that they had was they stumbled on two things that were new.

First was content. The second was the ability to break that story in a very compelling way, and make it serialized because (at the time) no one was telling serialized stories for the most part in the podcast space and so to introduce what is not a new concept, but a tried and true concept from television and a throwback to early radio, has worked incredibly well for the listeners. In fact, it was one of the most interesting things that they were able to do at “Serial”.

Yitzi: Super. Are there things you would recommend to your colleagues in order not to burn out?

David: Take Chances and Break things. If what you are doing seems too easy it probably isn’t very good. Serial was a huge chance, “S Town” was an even bigger chance. “S Town” was originally a story lead for “This American Life” when they received and email from someone in rural Alabama who asked them to look into an alleged murder. Once S-Town Host Brian Reed started to head down to Woodstock Alabama, to explore what that story. He realized that there was a series and more than he’d be able to share in an episode of This American Life. I think a lot media of organizations would have been like, well, this guy’s not really somebody we want to talk to and they said, no, this is an interesting story. It developed into what was the most downloaded podcast in the shortest period of time ever with 40 million downloads in one month.

The first thing I would say is take chances and “risk brings reward”.

The second thing I would say is: The reason a lot of producers get burned out is because they feel they have to… they feel this constant deadlines in delivering the show and that’s true the most, one of the most important things that we always who deliver on a regular schedule, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a regular schedule of 52 weeks a year. You know, there’s no reason why if you have a 10 episode story, tell it in 10 episodes. Maybe it’s a 20-minute episode or two and half hours like Joe Rogan and Dax Shepard do. You know, it doesn’t matter, you know, but that’s one of the things that we always tell people is if you have a great idea, definitely see it through but there every great idea may have a sunset! And that’s okay It’s fine to take a hiatus, regroup, plan your next hit while you do that.

Yitzi: That’s profound. This is a little ancillary, but I think it’s relevant. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person that you’re grateful towards that helped you achieve the success that you have today? And can you share a story?

David: Absolutely. I was working at WBEZ, the head of the station at the time was Torey Malatia. He’s also the co-creator of “This American Life”. While I was on his staff, Torey was also head of the board of directors of PRX the Public Radio Exchange. He was the one who said initially to me while I was selling some National WBEZ programs, you know, there should be somebody repping these independent shows. They are some great programs within the portfolio of PRX as well as some other independent programs. I said, well, I’d like to sell these shows. I wrote a business plan and formed the company.

Torey helped us get our first three shows. He was supportive, and amazing even though he knew I was going to leave his organization. That’s how we were able to launch PMM.

So there’s no question. He was an influence but that wasn’t just for me. Torey is one of those leaders who was a proponent of risk-taking. If you look at the content and talent that came out of WBEZ while he was leading it, some of many of the people who worked in that building are running among the biggest podcasting and media organizations now. There are many others of us too. It was a great environment and he was a really powerful mentor.

Yitzi: Wow. Ok, amazing. How do you think your success brings goodness to the world?

David. You know, as a boutique firm, we are very selective about the partners that we work with and those we represent. We try to do it through our portfolio. We have what I think is a very well-balanced portfolio. We constantly seek out as much diversity as we can, both gender and ethnically. One of our biggest concentrations is to bring more strong female voices to the space. We’ll have some great stuff coming in 2019. The industry has a lot of middle-aged white men in it. So you know, there’s nothing wrong with that — they are hit makers, producing great content that has mass appeal. There are a lot of who are in that demographic and certainly plenty of listeners, but at the same time, my partner and co-founder Nina is a woman.

She’s been saying since the day we started, we don’t have enough shows hosted by strong women. It’s one of the reasons why we are so thrilled we have this opportunity to partner with Anna Faris. She’s a strong female voice. She has a great following both in podcasting as well TV as she is a lead on the CBS sitcom “Mom.” We had the opportunity to make a big splash with that show and we said, let’s do that and you know, we have a couple of more hosts, and content creators that are women who are going to be producing some great new shows that are headed into next year. The advertiser demand for female hosts and audiences is most certainly there. So are we going to be able to change and make this completely balanced? No, but can we bring some more diversity? Yes. Can we bring some more female hosts with powerful voices into this space that will deliver female listeners? Absolutely — and that’s what we’re concentrating on.


Yitzi: Ok, fantastic. Do you have favorite life lesson quote that you often refer to in your life?

David: A favorite life lesson quote: Two things that I say all the time and one of them is from Bob Ross, the painter from PBS: “There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”

“Do the Work!” I storm through the office saying that all the time and anybody who works here will tell you this. I feel there are no shortcuts; you have to do the work. Somebody bought me a picture on my wall that says “Do the work” because there’s no way not to. Hey, if you want to do this and you want to make an impact, no matter what this is, you have to do the work and I preach that to the office. I tell my children, as well, that it’s something they should know. It’s a mantra that I have. There is no escaping it, you know?

Yitzi: If you had a 16 year old niece and she said, “David, I want to start a podcast series, what are the five things I need to know? How do I advertise/market it, How do I increase downloads? How do I get good guests? How do I produce it in a professional way? How do I monetize it? What would you say to her?

David: Let’s assume you have an idea, right? So we’ll start from that point where you said 15 years old. My 15-year-old niece has this [great] concept and she’s got an idea and the idea is good. So we’re going to start with assuming those couple of assumptions.

The first thing you need to do is lay out the show, know where you’re going, and have a directional path because you don’t want to actually do that while you’re doing the show. You know, everyone gets better while they do the show, but at least you want to know where you’re going. Have the headlights on while you’re driving — so that’s the first thing.

Second thing: It is basic and simple, which a lot of people don’t get this right believe it or not: Invest a couple of thousand dollars and get some decent audio equipment because there are some shows that I’ve attempted to listen to that are really good concepts and great ideas and they’re telling great stories, but they sound horrible and, that is the simplest and easiest thing to solve. Also (Laughs) the fastest way to turn somebody off is when at the very beginning of the show, you have [bad] sound. So get some equipment, get an engineer and start with really good sound. You know, that’s one of the things that we preach all the time because it’s not television. That’s the good news. You don’t need a quarter million dollars to get rolling — really. You can get some top-line equipment for a couple of thousand dollars. That’s one of the first things that we always tell people.

What’s really important is that we worked with the team at Apple Podcasts for a long time and they’re the ones who brought this lesson to us, which is your show art is your forward face. Work with a designer, come up with something cool and different that catches people’s attention. It’s true that their first interaction with your show before they hear your voice is going to be based on that image.

I compare it to a wine label. Lots of people buy mediocre wine because the label is cool. At least they’re getting noticed — that’s the same thing we want to use, we want to use show artwork for that as well.

Yitzi: So if a person has a podcast that gets 5000 downloads, but he plateaued and is looking for a way to go further. What would you say he should do to increase downloads? Should they try to change up the content? Should they try to try other gimmicks?

David: if you speak in terms of listenership, it’s probably for a reason. One thing you can certainly do is tweak the show content, maybe reformat the show. That’s one thing that we’ve seen work.

The other thing that we know is tried and true is to go be a guest on other podcasts! That is, reach out to other folks, either ask them to do a promo swap with your show, where you can run a promo from their show and vice versa or actually go and be a guest on their shows. You know, that’s one of the reasons that standup comedy is such a huge category in podcasting is because they have guests from other shows, which is just an amazing platform for them to promote their standup and show dates. As a real promotional tool it’s incredibly effective for them as well. Traditional media promotion as well is key, or swapping promos in other podcasts.

I don’t think I have all of the answers that I would never claim to, but as an industry, one of the things that we need to do is to find a place to bring in new podcast listeners. It’s great that we’ve taken the average number of podcast episodes listened to on a weekly basis by podcast listeners from five to seven. That’s great. People are listening to more podcasts. Terrific. We also need new people listening to podcasts. There are not enough people actually in the space, so we’ve got to welcome people into the tent. It’s one of the reasons why I mentioned Dr Phil and his podcast. We’re going to have the access and ability to promote it across by running podcast promos on the top rated daytime TV show, no one’s ever done that before to the scale that we’re going to be able to deliver will be huge.

It’s going to be really interesting. And my hope for [podcasting] is we bring in a whole crop of new listeners who can then listen to five or seven episodes a week themselves. This is about growing and expanding the space. My advice to that person is get on other shows and talk about your show. Then you get a new crop of listeners. Let’s think bigger and just getting people who are [already] in the podcast space to listen to one more show.

Yitzi: Ok, super. Here’s the last question. You’re a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that will bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? Because you never know what your idea can trigger.

David: Again, it leads back to an initiative that we’re working on in a very small scale here. I want to see podcasting represent a cross section of the U.S. population. I don’t think we do. I think we need to, as I mentioned initially, increase content that’s ethnically diverse and gender diverse. We also need to keep in mind like podcasting does have a liberal bent. I’m not going to get political — those who know me know where I stand — but the fact of the matter is, is that it needs to be all voices. You know, I’m not talking about hate speech, but if you’re somebody who may be more conservative, whether it’s fiscally or politically, it’s fine to have a voice in the podcast space. If you’re somebody who is incredibly good, say you’re a libertarian like Joe Rogan and you want to talk about legalizing marijuana, you should have your space too!

The idea behind this is that podcast creators have to create content and put it out there for people to listen to; that’s [highly] unusual unless you’re talking about You Tube or social media. I don’t think in the audio space this has ever existed before: where anybody could actually make something and share it with the world so easily. That’s one thing I think we want to be able to do is to have voices, have the ability to be heard, and I think that as the leaders of this industry we need to make sure that with make sure everyone gets heard.

Yitzi: This was really inspiring. Thank you so much for your time, David.

Originally published at medium.com

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