May 30, 2024

How They Made It: Industry veteran Jane Marie on making art in a podcast graveyard

Jane Marie sat down with us to talk about her time at This American Life, hosting The Dream, and making good podcasts when no one wants to pay.
May 30, 2024

How They Made It: Industry veteran Jane Marie on making art in a podcast graveyard

Jane Marie sat down with us to talk about her time at This American Life, hosting The Dream, and making good podcasts when no one wants to pay.
May 30, 2024
Zan Romanoff
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Jane Marie has been working in audio for more than two decades, and during that time, she’s done it all, from producing This American Life to starting a production house and recording studio, Little Everywhere, as well as creating her own critically acclaimed show, The Dream. Her most recent project is the genre-defying Finally! A Show About Women That Isn’t a Thinly-Veiled Aspirational Nightmare.  

Jane got very real with us about money and creative freedom, and why podcasting can sometimes feel like a graveyard—as well as how to bring it back to life. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Jane Marie headshot
Jane Marie

How did you decide to leave This American Life, and when did you decide to go into podcasting?

I'll tell you the whole true story. I was friends with Edith Zimmerman in the late aughts, and we had been talking about her starting The Hairpin. I was in a relationship where my partner wanted to move to L.A. at the time and I thought, I've been at This American Life [also known as TAL] for 10 years. It wasn't totally golden—it was like silver handcuffs. I never wanted to leave that job, but then there was this opportunity of like, okay, you could be an editor on this website, and your soon-to-be husband can live in LA and pursue his dream. And so I took the leap and became a blogger. 

So then I was blogging for a while, and I started doing a lot of like, sex and sexy content. One of my great friends is Dan Savage; we would go on shows together and talk about sex and all this stuff. I was like, Oh, I should do a sex show. So I called Gimlet,  which was a small company at the time. I was like, “Do you guys want a sex show?” They're like, “That's not really our brand.”

Then, two weeks later, they called back and they were like, “Just kidding. Do you want to host the Tinder podcast?” So I started doing that. And that led into me finding my voice as a host. 


DTR podcast cover art
DTR, Gimlet's Tinder podcast

‎I will say, the daily practice of writing—for 10 years I was doing it for other people. I was putting myself in, you know, David Sedaris head, or David Rakoff's head, or Mike Birbiglia, thinking, how would he say this?

And becoming a blogger forced me to try and figure out what I sounded like. And then having the Tinder show, DTR, I was like, Oh, I'm good at this. I can talk like a person on the microphone. 

If you listen to any of my old This American Life stories, I was just nervous, and I didn't feel like I had a mastery of the language or the way to present it. And then after years of blogging and finding my written voice, I could get in front of the microphone and be like, this is just how I talk. You're going to have to like it or not.  

Yeah, I feel like I’ve had a similar experience, now that I’ve been writing for so long, and doing a lot of interviews. At a certain point, you kind of know your own style, and you know what you can do. 

I mean, I write pretty conversationally. So my script is usually the way I would talk. But then in the moment I’ll be like, that's not the way I should say that. And then I say something else, or I make a joke or something. Giving myself permission to do that, to just be a total nerd and make some dumb reference that no one's going to get is what keeps me in it. 

Back in the TAL days we would say, the best stories are the ones you want to tell someone at the bar. But if I'm telling someone a story at the bar, it's going to be full of nonsense sentences and words. So I have my script. I'll do some riffs. We'll cut it all together. You're going to get the absolute best version of the bar story.

What was it like to leave TAL, which did have a lot of resources, and strike out on your own, and have to kind of DIY everything?

So if you look back 20 years ago, when I started doing this, there were like, the Mark Marons, who had a microphone in their garage. A lot of comedians had a microphone in their garage or their bedroom. They started this thing called Earwolf, and Earwolf and Midroll were a thing. And then Midroll became an ad sales, blah, blah, blah. So those are the people selling ads for that particular audience. 

Then Serial comes along, which, I did the music supervision for the first season. That show—It took years. Multiple people. It was millions of dollars, I'm sure, in the end, if you did the accounting. Millions of dollars, and it was released as if it's in relation to something Marc Maron did for free. I mean, not free, he has a producer or whatever. But they were presented as if they were in the same lane, and it was like, “This is what a podcast is.” People don't understand how expensive that was.

When I first got into podcasting, people would call me and say, “We want the Serial of this story. Can you make the Serial of this story?” And I'm like, do you have a million dollars and two years? Because I can totally do it. If we have a full staff, and a million dollars, and I have two years to do it. The Dream takes me a year, with a staff, and it doesn't make any money, at all. Like, it makes no money. 

I just got off a call with a partner of ours that I'm making a show for; they make television and movies as well. I was like, you do understand that this 15 episode season of this show we're making costs you half of what one episode of TV costs you? 

The medium still is in this weird in-between space where people don't… it's not entertainment in the way that television is, where it requires that budget. It's not reporting in the way that print journalism is to require that reporting. But to make anything substantial, that is how much it costs. 

Yeah. It’s really hard. And sometimes it feels like there’s no money anywhere—not in indie, not at companies, nowhere. But you did it anyway—decided to make this resource-intensive show, and figured it out. How did you start pulling resources together?

In the middle of hosting the Tinder show, I met Dann Gallucci, who became my partner for a number of years. He had—well, it was kind of a recording studio. It was a little, like, closet in the Grand Royal Building in Atwater Village. The Grand Royal Building was where the Beastie Boys recorded their LA music, and next door to this closet was an office with a basketball court in it. It was Mad Decent—I think it was Diplo's place or something. It smelled bad, and you didn't want anyone coming in there, but I would use it occasionally to record the Tinder show.  

Dan Gallucci headshot
Dann Gallucci. Source: Little Everywhere

And then Dann and I were sitting around, pillow talking and dreaming, and being like what if there was a podcast studio that didn't have, like, a cock and balls drawn on the table signed by some comedian? And what if we didn't make shows like that? What if we didn't do two guys who think each other's funny shows? 

That's how we established our brand. We wanted highly reported, well-written narrative non-fiction. 

We did an immersive experience at the Airbnb annual conference, where we were just taking stories from super hosts about their best experiences having people stay in their houses. It was really fun, and that allowed us enough money to open our studio and build it.  

And then we got a call from Laura Mayer at Stitcher. We had made one scripted show for them with Gabe Delahaye, and it went great. She called and she was like, “Do you want to produce this other show? It’s going to be about scams.” And I just didn't stop talking for an hour. She eventually asked me to host it. 


The Dream podcast cover art
The Dream podcast cover art

‎People want you to define exactly what you are every time you have a call with somebody that's pitching you something. Like, what makes you different? We ended up making a few talk shows. We did The Jump with Shirley Manson. We did Karamo's first run at a talk show. But they were all different, too. They weren't just two people sitting in a room.  

The Dream got picked up for the second season at Stitcher. And then it got canceled. And then Stitcher sold to Sirius, and I had to buy the RSS feed for $100,000 that I didn't have.

I owned 75 percent of the show already, but they wouldn't just give me the RSS feed. And I know plenty of dude comedy friends who just got theirs handed to them, but mine, no. Then we went to Pushkin. They partnered with iHeart for ad sales. They didn't make any money, so it got canceled again. 

The only thing I can guarantee a partner is, you will get good press off of the thing I make. Our latest show, Finally a Show About Women That’s Not a Thinly-Veiled Aspirational Nightmare—

I’m obsessed with it, by the way. I listened to the episode about the woman who runs Juicy Body Goddess and sobbed in my car. 

I feel so lucky that I got to work on that show. And what I can promise people is, it will get critical acclaim. We've had such great press around that show, and it really is kind of an extraordinary piece of art. Does anyone listen to it? No. Do I make any money off of ads? No. I got a production fee from our partners, but… 

How do you go about getting that kind of press? Do you approach journalists yourself, or work with publicists?

I have partnered with my friend Kate Gardner's PR company, Grey Horse, on maybe three projects now. It's a feminist PR company. They did the first season of The Dream, they're doing Finally A Show. They get us a lot of our press, and then a lot of it's organic. 

I've never been on the inside of the worlds that I worked in. So, for example, yes, my  office was smack dab next to Ira Glass for ten years. I spent a lot of time with him and I love him very much. Did I know a lot of people in the public radio world? No. I was hanging out with skateboarders and rappers. I wasn't part of that universe. I think if I was I'd probably have even more organic press, but at least I've met enough people that they hear something we're doing and they want to write about it.

The reason we hired Grey Horse for the first season of The Dream is we found out, I want to say six weeks before release, that Stitcher didn't do campaigns around new releases. They only did quarterly campaigns. And mine wasn't hitting on the quarter, so it was going to be like three months after it came out that they would start doing anything. And I was like, absolutely not. I have to go spend $25,000 of my own money to make people hear this show. So that's what we did. 

And it works great.  It's very nice to have help publicizing your projects. But now, in retrospect, I'm like, again, I didn’t make any money. Was it worth it?

Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, is this a dead medium? Am I just in a cemetery right now with a bunch of my friends, trying to make a thing that no one gives a shit about?

I mean, I don't want to say I make no money. I have a home, and my child goes to public school, thank god. 

Yeah, but I think I know what you mean. Like, you can make a living in the aggregate, on the margins of a bunch of different things. But you can’t look at an individual project—even something that’s as successful and well-known as The Dream—and say yes, that was profitable. 

I have never made more than $130,000 a year in my life. Never. Usually it's a lot less than that. And that is a lot of money—if I was in Owasso, Michigan, where my family lives, I would be balling out of control. But where I happen to live—which I didn't choose—is expensive. 

I want a wife so bad. All of my male colleagues that run podcast companies, they all have wives that do all the unpaid labor at home. I'm a single parent.

I really appreciate you talking about all of that, because I think a lot of aspiring creators come into this field without an understanding of what the money is actually like, and how many people do have a wife, a trust fund, a day job, whatever, supporting them. And then they work so hard and think, Why can't I make this work? What am I doing wrong? Nothing. You just don’t have these resources that other people have, that are often not being acknowledged. 

I would never have been in this field if This American Life didn't do a paid internship. I went to college late; I was a high school dropout. I wouldn't have applied at all for the internship unless it came with the, I think it was $2,000 a month. This was in like, 2002. It was the most money I'd ever made in my life, and I was so excited. I just felt so luxurious, like I could just go out to dinner or whatever. 

A lot of people don't have student loans that they're trying to pay off. Or they live in homes that their parents at least helped with the down payment. And I think they're allowed to have a little more fun in their work, because they're not just trying to struggle and survive.

It also makes it harder to take risks. I know people who've made a lot of money by taking a big risk, because they already have a safety net in place. And I don't, so I have to be much more cautious, which pays less. 

Is there anything that would make podcasting feel less like a graveyard to you?

I think we need differentiation. I do that when any new media that comes out—like when movies were new, it took 20, 30 years for people to be like, “Oh, maybe there are different kinds of this. Maybe there's a version that goes on TV—once TV was invented—and it's sponsored by an appliance company. One version of moving pictures is documentaries, and we're going to do this for the public good. And then we're going to make blockbuster films.”

Those things are all very different in our mind. Everyone understands that those are very different industries, very different pursuits. That hasn't happened with podcasting yet, so I walk into a room saying, it's actually $300,000 for eight episodes and they go, fuck off, because Joe Rogan costs a thousand dollars an episode.

I look forward to the day that the word podcasting gets split apart a little bit. Or maybe we go back to the olden days where it was called audio documentary. 

And the return on investment needs to be clearer from the people wanting to make these things. It seems to me that lots of big outlets, or people who are investing in the space, either want critical acclaim or they want numbers. 

Having a show that people love, that gets on the front page of the art section of the New York Times, is valuable. But then these companies look at it and they're like, ‘We didn't get our money back for that.’ 

I want to go back a bit—how did you learn audio editing?

I had gotten a job at my college radio station. I wanted a show, because I grew up listening to college radio and I was like, that's the coolest thing ever. I had a show called—this is so embarrassing—The Speakeasy, and it was jazz. The only people that listened were my dad and my sister. It was on Shoutcast, which no one remembers; early, early internet radio. 

I wanted to drum up some more business and get more hours at the radio station, so I went to the student union and was like, "We could run ads for our organizations; we could run ads for what concerts we're doing, or sports events."  And they were like, “Yeah, but how?”

So I went to this trade show in Chicago. ProTools was brand new to the public. I convinced them to buy a Pro Tools setup, and I started producing little segments for the clubs at my college and putting them on my show that no one listened to. But I at least got the practice of like, how does this work. And I learned ProTools.

I still do most of my own editing. I work tape-first. I don't write anything before I've cut the tape for it, so I need to be really immersed in the tape. 

Then I know what that person said; I know where there's a breath, and where you can do a pause, and where you can connect these two ideas. I do a lot of rearranging, which I don't find is very common in the people we collaborate with. They're not taking pieces of the story and putting them into different places to make the thing make sense. It feels like sculpting. 

My staff does do paper cuts. There are people who are skilled at that, but I really have to have my hands in the Pro Tools session for every piece. 

And then what about writing? What does your process for a script look like?

I follow basically what I learned at This American Life, which is, you pull the best pieces of tape. If someone's available to listen through with you, you can play it for them. 

I did not know what I was doing in the beginning at all. It really takes practice. Now I can hear the story as I'm reporting it. I can go, oh, I need them to say something like this, so I'll ask this question, but back then I had no idea. 

We would make these documents—they're called the structure. It would be like, Jane, say this here. Here's the piece of tape. Now Jane say this here. It wasn’t fully filled out, but that was my job as a producer, to say, “Make sure that the idea you're putting out has this at the very end, because here's the tape that's gonna come after.”

I was really used to making those sorts of documents when I started hosting my own show. And at this point, I have years and years of practice of thinking, What is a narrative arc? I spent so much time figuring out what a narrative arc is.

And, I know you’ve said there’s no big money in podcasting. But have you found any particular monetization strategies to be better or worse than others?

The Patreon model isn't bad, but it is so taxing. It is such a drain on a creative person's energy and output.

I remember when I quit This American Life and I told my dad what I was going to be doing. My dad's a dentist, so he's not an expert in any of this stuff. But I was talking to him on the phone and he was like, “Oh, you're going to have time to think.”  And I was like, that's right. I'm not just going to be thinking about somebody else's work. I have to think about my own ideas, and spend time thinking about them. And that costs money, right? Being able to have free space to drum things up. 

Patreon is a good model if you need cash, but it's not a great model if you want to create. It’s too labor intensive for the talent—people who do Substack and these other monetized content platforms, you can't get ahead unless you're doing bonus stuff.

So then there's the ad sales side. And ad sales people say over and over again, the only way to sell ads is to do a daily show. Which is also so much work. 

I think the next step is specific sponsored stuff, going back to the Serial days of MailChimp paying for the thing. They didn't pay for the entire production, but when the show came out they got this big sponsorship deal with MailChimp. I want to go back to that. I want Ford to pay for my show. I don't even know if they're a good company, I'm just from Michigan and everyone I know has a truck. I just want to sell trucks to moms. Ford, if you're reading this, I will sell your trucks to every mom I know.

There is the stuff that pays the bills. And I will say I've been very—lucky is not the word, because it's a choice I've made. I've made the choice to not do so much of that.  And just go into debt. And I probably will have to do more of that kind of work.  But then I'm in this position where I'm like, that's not who I've sold myself as. I'm not the one that you call for that.  

What advice do you have for beginning podcasters?

Go on transom.org. There's a really good resource on Transom about equipment, story structure, all of that stuff.  This American Life put out a comic book many, many years ago that tells you how to do story [it’s Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel and on my desk right now. -Ed]. Even if you're just going to do a chat show, it's important to know that there should be a beginning, middle and end to the story. 

The second thing I would say is you have to figure out what kind of editing platform you want to use for your audio. There's a free version of Pro Tools that you can get, but just find one of them that feels comfortable to you. Learn one of those, get your equipment in order. That kind of investment is under $1,000 for that whole setup, for the best equipment. But make it sound good, and read the stuff you need to read to get good audio.

I would focus on sound, and I would focus on learning how to edit. The storytelling part, or who your guest is and what you want to talk to them about, that's on you. But have some technical craft. Learn the craft. 

Also, everyone is so precious about their tape. People think their tape is so good all the time. Your show does not need to be two or three hours long, so just toss all your shit in the garbage. I probably destroy 90 percent of everything that I collect.

Zan Romanoff
Zan Romanoff is a full-time freelance journalist, as well as the author of three young adult novels. She lives and writes in LA.
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How They Made It: Industry veteran Jane Marie on making art in a podcast graveyard

Jane Marie has been working in audio for more than two decades, and during that time, she’s done it all, from producing This American Life to starting a production house and recording studio, Little Everywhere, as well as creating her own critically acclaimed show, The Dream. Her most recent project is the genre-defying Finally! A Show About Women That Isn’t a Thinly-Veiled Aspirational Nightmare.  

Jane got very real with us about money and creative freedom, and why podcasting can sometimes feel like a graveyard—as well as how to bring it back to life. This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Jane Marie headshot
Jane Marie

How did you decide to leave This American Life, and when did you decide to go into podcasting?

I'll tell you the whole true story. I was friends with Edith Zimmerman in the late aughts, and we had been talking about her starting The Hairpin. I was in a relationship where my partner wanted to move to L.A. at the time and I thought, I've been at This American Life [also known as TAL] for 10 years. It wasn't totally golden—it was like silver handcuffs. I never wanted to leave that job, but then there was this opportunity of like, okay, you could be an editor on this website, and your soon-to-be husband can live in LA and pursue his dream. And so I took the leap and became a blogger. 

So then I was blogging for a while, and I started doing a lot of like, sex and sexy content. One of my great friends is Dan Savage; we would go on shows together and talk about sex and all this stuff. I was like, Oh, I should do a sex show. So I called Gimlet,  which was a small company at the time. I was like, “Do you guys want a sex show?” They're like, “That's not really our brand.”

Then, two weeks later, they called back and they were like, “Just kidding. Do you want to host the Tinder podcast?” So I started doing that. And that led into me finding my voice as a host. 


DTR podcast cover art
DTR, Gimlet's Tinder podcast

‎I will say, the daily practice of writing—for 10 years I was doing it for other people. I was putting myself in, you know, David Sedaris head, or David Rakoff's head, or Mike Birbiglia, thinking, how would he say this?

And becoming a blogger forced me to try and figure out what I sounded like. And then having the Tinder show, DTR, I was like, Oh, I'm good at this. I can talk like a person on the microphone. 

If you listen to any of my old This American Life stories, I was just nervous, and I didn't feel like I had a mastery of the language or the way to present it. And then after years of blogging and finding my written voice, I could get in front of the microphone and be like, this is just how I talk. You're going to have to like it or not.  

Yeah, I feel like I’ve had a similar experience, now that I’ve been writing for so long, and doing a lot of interviews. At a certain point, you kind of know your own style, and you know what you can do. 

I mean, I write pretty conversationally. So my script is usually the way I would talk. But then in the moment I’ll be like, that's not the way I should say that. And then I say something else, or I make a joke or something. Giving myself permission to do that, to just be a total nerd and make some dumb reference that no one's going to get is what keeps me in it. 

Back in the TAL days we would say, the best stories are the ones you want to tell someone at the bar. But if I'm telling someone a story at the bar, it's going to be full of nonsense sentences and words. So I have my script. I'll do some riffs. We'll cut it all together. You're going to get the absolute best version of the bar story.

What was it like to leave TAL, which did have a lot of resources, and strike out on your own, and have to kind of DIY everything?

So if you look back 20 years ago, when I started doing this, there were like, the Mark Marons, who had a microphone in their garage. A lot of comedians had a microphone in their garage or their bedroom. They started this thing called Earwolf, and Earwolf and Midroll were a thing. And then Midroll became an ad sales, blah, blah, blah. So those are the people selling ads for that particular audience. 

Then Serial comes along, which, I did the music supervision for the first season. That show—It took years. Multiple people. It was millions of dollars, I'm sure, in the end, if you did the accounting. Millions of dollars, and it was released as if it's in relation to something Marc Maron did for free. I mean, not free, he has a producer or whatever. But they were presented as if they were in the same lane, and it was like, “This is what a podcast is.” People don't understand how expensive that was.

When I first got into podcasting, people would call me and say, “We want the Serial of this story. Can you make the Serial of this story?” And I'm like, do you have a million dollars and two years? Because I can totally do it. If we have a full staff, and a million dollars, and I have two years to do it. The Dream takes me a year, with a staff, and it doesn't make any money, at all. Like, it makes no money. 

I just got off a call with a partner of ours that I'm making a show for; they make television and movies as well. I was like, you do understand that this 15 episode season of this show we're making costs you half of what one episode of TV costs you? 

The medium still is in this weird in-between space where people don't… it's not entertainment in the way that television is, where it requires that budget. It's not reporting in the way that print journalism is to require that reporting. But to make anything substantial, that is how much it costs. 

Yeah. It’s really hard. And sometimes it feels like there’s no money anywhere—not in indie, not at companies, nowhere. But you did it anyway—decided to make this resource-intensive show, and figured it out. How did you start pulling resources together?

In the middle of hosting the Tinder show, I met Dann Gallucci, who became my partner for a number of years. He had—well, it was kind of a recording studio. It was a little, like, closet in the Grand Royal Building in Atwater Village. The Grand Royal Building was where the Beastie Boys recorded their LA music, and next door to this closet was an office with a basketball court in it. It was Mad Decent—I think it was Diplo's place or something. It smelled bad, and you didn't want anyone coming in there, but I would use it occasionally to record the Tinder show.  

Dan Gallucci headshot
Dann Gallucci. Source: Little Everywhere

And then Dann and I were sitting around, pillow talking and dreaming, and being like what if there was a podcast studio that didn't have, like, a cock and balls drawn on the table signed by some comedian? And what if we didn't make shows like that? What if we didn't do two guys who think each other's funny shows? 

That's how we established our brand. We wanted highly reported, well-written narrative non-fiction. 

We did an immersive experience at the Airbnb annual conference, where we were just taking stories from super hosts about their best experiences having people stay in their houses. It was really fun, and that allowed us enough money to open our studio and build it.  

And then we got a call from Laura Mayer at Stitcher. We had made one scripted show for them with Gabe Delahaye, and it went great. She called and she was like, “Do you want to produce this other show? It’s going to be about scams.” And I just didn't stop talking for an hour. She eventually asked me to host it. 


The Dream podcast cover art
The Dream podcast cover art

‎People want you to define exactly what you are every time you have a call with somebody that's pitching you something. Like, what makes you different? We ended up making a few talk shows. We did The Jump with Shirley Manson. We did Karamo's first run at a talk show. But they were all different, too. They weren't just two people sitting in a room.  

The Dream got picked up for the second season at Stitcher. And then it got canceled. And then Stitcher sold to Sirius, and I had to buy the RSS feed for $100,000 that I didn't have.

I owned 75 percent of the show already, but they wouldn't just give me the RSS feed. And I know plenty of dude comedy friends who just got theirs handed to them, but mine, no. Then we went to Pushkin. They partnered with iHeart for ad sales. They didn't make any money, so it got canceled again. 

The only thing I can guarantee a partner is, you will get good press off of the thing I make. Our latest show, Finally a Show About Women That’s Not a Thinly-Veiled Aspirational Nightmare—

I’m obsessed with it, by the way. I listened to the episode about the woman who runs Juicy Body Goddess and sobbed in my car. 

I feel so lucky that I got to work on that show. And what I can promise people is, it will get critical acclaim. We've had such great press around that show, and it really is kind of an extraordinary piece of art. Does anyone listen to it? No. Do I make any money off of ads? No. I got a production fee from our partners, but… 

How do you go about getting that kind of press? Do you approach journalists yourself, or work with publicists?

I have partnered with my friend Kate Gardner's PR company, Grey Horse, on maybe three projects now. It's a feminist PR company. They did the first season of The Dream, they're doing Finally A Show. They get us a lot of our press, and then a lot of it's organic. 

I've never been on the inside of the worlds that I worked in. So, for example, yes, my  office was smack dab next to Ira Glass for ten years. I spent a lot of time with him and I love him very much. Did I know a lot of people in the public radio world? No. I was hanging out with skateboarders and rappers. I wasn't part of that universe. I think if I was I'd probably have even more organic press, but at least I've met enough people that they hear something we're doing and they want to write about it.

The reason we hired Grey Horse for the first season of The Dream is we found out, I want to say six weeks before release, that Stitcher didn't do campaigns around new releases. They only did quarterly campaigns. And mine wasn't hitting on the quarter, so it was going to be like three months after it came out that they would start doing anything. And I was like, absolutely not. I have to go spend $25,000 of my own money to make people hear this show. So that's what we did. 

And it works great.  It's very nice to have help publicizing your projects. But now, in retrospect, I'm like, again, I didn’t make any money. Was it worth it?

Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, is this a dead medium? Am I just in a cemetery right now with a bunch of my friends, trying to make a thing that no one gives a shit about?

I mean, I don't want to say I make no money. I have a home, and my child goes to public school, thank god. 

Yeah, but I think I know what you mean. Like, you can make a living in the aggregate, on the margins of a bunch of different things. But you can’t look at an individual project—even something that’s as successful and well-known as The Dream—and say yes, that was profitable. 

I have never made more than $130,000 a year in my life. Never. Usually it's a lot less than that. And that is a lot of money—if I was in Owasso, Michigan, where my family lives, I would be balling out of control. But where I happen to live—which I didn't choose—is expensive. 

I want a wife so bad. All of my male colleagues that run podcast companies, they all have wives that do all the unpaid labor at home. I'm a single parent.

I really appreciate you talking about all of that, because I think a lot of aspiring creators come into this field without an understanding of what the money is actually like, and how many people do have a wife, a trust fund, a day job, whatever, supporting them. And then they work so hard and think, Why can't I make this work? What am I doing wrong? Nothing. You just don’t have these resources that other people have, that are often not being acknowledged. 

I would never have been in this field if This American Life didn't do a paid internship. I went to college late; I was a high school dropout. I wouldn't have applied at all for the internship unless it came with the, I think it was $2,000 a month. This was in like, 2002. It was the most money I'd ever made in my life, and I was so excited. I just felt so luxurious, like I could just go out to dinner or whatever. 

A lot of people don't have student loans that they're trying to pay off. Or they live in homes that their parents at least helped with the down payment. And I think they're allowed to have a little more fun in their work, because they're not just trying to struggle and survive.

It also makes it harder to take risks. I know people who've made a lot of money by taking a big risk, because they already have a safety net in place. And I don't, so I have to be much more cautious, which pays less. 

Is there anything that would make podcasting feel less like a graveyard to you?

I think we need differentiation. I do that when any new media that comes out—like when movies were new, it took 20, 30 years for people to be like, “Oh, maybe there are different kinds of this. Maybe there's a version that goes on TV—once TV was invented—and it's sponsored by an appliance company. One version of moving pictures is documentaries, and we're going to do this for the public good. And then we're going to make blockbuster films.”

Those things are all very different in our mind. Everyone understands that those are very different industries, very different pursuits. That hasn't happened with podcasting yet, so I walk into a room saying, it's actually $300,000 for eight episodes and they go, fuck off, because Joe Rogan costs a thousand dollars an episode.

I look forward to the day that the word podcasting gets split apart a little bit. Or maybe we go back to the olden days where it was called audio documentary. 

And the return on investment needs to be clearer from the people wanting to make these things. It seems to me that lots of big outlets, or people who are investing in the space, either want critical acclaim or they want numbers. 

Having a show that people love, that gets on the front page of the art section of the New York Times, is valuable. But then these companies look at it and they're like, ‘We didn't get our money back for that.’ 

I want to go back a bit—how did you learn audio editing?

I had gotten a job at my college radio station. I wanted a show, because I grew up listening to college radio and I was like, that's the coolest thing ever. I had a show called—this is so embarrassing—The Speakeasy, and it was jazz. The only people that listened were my dad and my sister. It was on Shoutcast, which no one remembers; early, early internet radio. 

I wanted to drum up some more business and get more hours at the radio station, so I went to the student union and was like, "We could run ads for our organizations; we could run ads for what concerts we're doing, or sports events."  And they were like, “Yeah, but how?”

So I went to this trade show in Chicago. ProTools was brand new to the public. I convinced them to buy a Pro Tools setup, and I started producing little segments for the clubs at my college and putting them on my show that no one listened to. But I at least got the practice of like, how does this work. And I learned ProTools.

I still do most of my own editing. I work tape-first. I don't write anything before I've cut the tape for it, so I need to be really immersed in the tape. 

Then I know what that person said; I know where there's a breath, and where you can do a pause, and where you can connect these two ideas. I do a lot of rearranging, which I don't find is very common in the people we collaborate with. They're not taking pieces of the story and putting them into different places to make the thing make sense. It feels like sculpting. 

My staff does do paper cuts. There are people who are skilled at that, but I really have to have my hands in the Pro Tools session for every piece. 

And then what about writing? What does your process for a script look like?

I follow basically what I learned at This American Life, which is, you pull the best pieces of tape. If someone's available to listen through with you, you can play it for them. 

I did not know what I was doing in the beginning at all. It really takes practice. Now I can hear the story as I'm reporting it. I can go, oh, I need them to say something like this, so I'll ask this question, but back then I had no idea. 

We would make these documents—they're called the structure. It would be like, Jane, say this here. Here's the piece of tape. Now Jane say this here. It wasn’t fully filled out, but that was my job as a producer, to say, “Make sure that the idea you're putting out has this at the very end, because here's the tape that's gonna come after.”

I was really used to making those sorts of documents when I started hosting my own show. And at this point, I have years and years of practice of thinking, What is a narrative arc? I spent so much time figuring out what a narrative arc is.

And, I know you’ve said there’s no big money in podcasting. But have you found any particular monetization strategies to be better or worse than others?

The Patreon model isn't bad, but it is so taxing. It is such a drain on a creative person's energy and output.

I remember when I quit This American Life and I told my dad what I was going to be doing. My dad's a dentist, so he's not an expert in any of this stuff. But I was talking to him on the phone and he was like, “Oh, you're going to have time to think.”  And I was like, that's right. I'm not just going to be thinking about somebody else's work. I have to think about my own ideas, and spend time thinking about them. And that costs money, right? Being able to have free space to drum things up. 

Patreon is a good model if you need cash, but it's not a great model if you want to create. It’s too labor intensive for the talent—people who do Substack and these other monetized content platforms, you can't get ahead unless you're doing bonus stuff.

So then there's the ad sales side. And ad sales people say over and over again, the only way to sell ads is to do a daily show. Which is also so much work. 

I think the next step is specific sponsored stuff, going back to the Serial days of MailChimp paying for the thing. They didn't pay for the entire production, but when the show came out they got this big sponsorship deal with MailChimp. I want to go back to that. I want Ford to pay for my show. I don't even know if they're a good company, I'm just from Michigan and everyone I know has a truck. I just want to sell trucks to moms. Ford, if you're reading this, I will sell your trucks to every mom I know.

There is the stuff that pays the bills. And I will say I've been very—lucky is not the word, because it's a choice I've made. I've made the choice to not do so much of that.  And just go into debt. And I probably will have to do more of that kind of work.  But then I'm in this position where I'm like, that's not who I've sold myself as. I'm not the one that you call for that.  

What advice do you have for beginning podcasters?

Go on transom.org. There's a really good resource on Transom about equipment, story structure, all of that stuff.  This American Life put out a comic book many, many years ago that tells you how to do story [it’s Out on the Wire by Jessica Abel and on my desk right now. -Ed]. Even if you're just going to do a chat show, it's important to know that there should be a beginning, middle and end to the story. 

The second thing I would say is you have to figure out what kind of editing platform you want to use for your audio. There's a free version of Pro Tools that you can get, but just find one of them that feels comfortable to you. Learn one of those, get your equipment in order. That kind of investment is under $1,000 for that whole setup, for the best equipment. But make it sound good, and read the stuff you need to read to get good audio.

I would focus on sound, and I would focus on learning how to edit. The storytelling part, or who your guest is and what you want to talk to them about, that's on you. But have some technical craft. Learn the craft. 

Also, everyone is so precious about their tape. People think their tape is so good all the time. Your show does not need to be two or three hours long, so just toss all your shit in the garbage. I probably destroy 90 percent of everything that I collect.

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