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Podcast pioneer Bill Simmons on easy methods to keep related


In 2007, when Bill Simmons first began podcasting, he didn’t actually know what a podcast was. His company didn’t, both.

“It was like being on a primary date with folks. They had by no means performed a podcast earlier than,” the sportswriter-turned-multimedia magnate informed me this month. “So time and again, I’d have these individuals who would come on and we’d simply have these wide-ranging conversations and so they simply liked it.”

You most likely understand how this story panned out. Podcasts went from novelty to mainstream, and Simmons’s stature and fortunes rose on the similar time. After ESPN ditched him in 2015, Simmons went on to type the Ringer, his podcast community and web site, which he then sold to Spotify for $250 million* in 2020, as media corporations and traders poured billions into the podcast business.

Over the years, I’ve followed Simmons’s efforts to show his podcasts into one thing greater. This time round — pegged to the truth that Simmons is producing the 1,000th version of his namesake podcast this week — we recorded the dialog, and you’ll hear our whole discuss over on my Recode Media podcast. It is, as they are saying, a wide-ranging dialog, however I’ve pulled out some excerpts right here centered on the best way podcasting, Simmons, and the bigger media ecosystem have advanced over time.

Here you may see Simmons having fun with a victory lap, in addition to some lucky timing: He offered the Ringer simply earlier than the pandemic shut down sports activities after which society, however Spotify’s backing meant he didn’t have to chop employees or anything. And you too can see him itching to determine the following factor — in his case, determining easy methods to flip his long-form audio interviews into one thing that works in a TikTook world.

* That quantity comes from Simmons, who corrected me throughout our dialog after I pegged the sale value at round $200 million; after our chat, he additionally directed my consideration to this Bloomberg piece detailing the payout. For the document, Spotify’s filing says it purchased “Bill Simmons Media Group, LLC. for money consideration totaling roughly €130 to €180 million.” This wouldn’t be the primary time I’ve encountered a deal the place the vendor reviews the next sale value than the customer does. Also, since we’re within the weeds right here, I ought to level out that my employer, Vox Media, additionally runs the publishing service the Ringer uses to put out its site.

These excerpts of our dialog have been edited for readability.

“Anybody who’s ever going to be a visitor on a podcast would have performed a podcast by now”

Peter Kafka

When did you determine, “Oh, this can be a factor that lots of people are listening to and lots of people are going to hearken to”?

Bill Simmons

It wasn’t actually till 2009 — celebrities began asking to come back on. People began mentioning it to me on the road — you recognize, as a substitute of claiming, “Love the column,” they’d say, “love the podcast.” I assumed that was attention-grabbing.

Peter Kafka

How has your method to what the podcast is, the way you do it, and who you’re making it for modified?

Bill Simmons

I believe it’s turn into a bit extra reactive. I look again on the ESPN stuff, and the celebrities have been an enormous benefit for me again then as a result of there weren’t lots of podcasts. I used to be actually simply competing towards Marc Maron and that was it. It was at all times me and him getting the perfect company.

Peter Kafka

If they wished a long-form interview with somebody, they went to you.

Bill Simmons

It was like being on a primary date with folks. They had by no means performed a podcast earlier than. So time and again, I’d have these individuals who would come on and we’d simply have these wide-ranging conversations, and so they simply liked it. In 2015, we have been at South by Southwest and we simply had a bunch of company approaching. And one of many folks is Brian Grazer, the Hollywood producer. And he didn’t know what was occurring. He’s like, “What is that this? We’re doing an interview? Are folks going to listen to this?” So we did it and talked about his complete profession. I didn’t have notes. I’m going by his films, and afterward he was identical to, “That was a lot enjoyable!”

I believe that’s gone in 2022. I really feel like anyone who’s ever going to be a visitor on a podcast would have performed a podcast by now. You nonetheless have [exceptions] — I went to [Adam] Sandler’s workplace a pair weeks in the past and I did one with him. He retains a really low profile, proper? He’s solely been, I believe, on a pair pods. And we have been in a position to have a sort of an old-school dialog about his profession in comedy, the place issues are going. But now I really feel just like the visitor piece might be rather less attention-grabbing as a result of they’re so obtainable on so many various pods.

What’s extra attention-grabbing now could be: Something simply occurred. How can we react? Can I’ve the perfect folks, can I’ve the neatest take? Just being within the combine extra.

Peter Kafka

So now the Celtics play and also you go on that evening and document an hour or two hours or extra of study of the sport, and that goes up virtually straight away.

Bill Simmons

I imply, my spouse doesn’t like it. But you wish to be within the combine. I believe issues transfer so quick now. And that’s one of many issues that has modified since ’07, ’08, ’09 is simply the velocity that folks react and devour.

Programming tradition, and programming for the tradition

Peter Kafka

How a lot of your programming is intuition versus “we’re numbers and that is performing very well. Let’s do much more of that,” or “we thought this was going to work, however it turns on the market’s no viewers for this present or that film, let’s stop”?

Bill Simmons

I’d say it’s 90 p.c intuition. We have this benefit, and lots of it stems from the location — from Grantland after which the Ringer. What do folks care about? And it’s not nearly TV scores or no matter. You simply have a basic really feel — folks care about this, we needs to be there, you recognize? We take into consideration that loads. We launched The Prestige TV Podcast final 12 months, which has been profitable for us. One of the explanations we launched that was as a result of we simply felt like Succession was a factor. It wasn’t only a good HBO present. We felt prefer it was going to go up a degree. We may see it anecdotally with folks we talked to, the way it was being written about, folks catching up on it in the course of the pandemic, and we knew season three was coming.

We checked out it the identical method as we did with just like the NFL draft or the NBA playoffs or any of that stuff: We must be there, so how are we going to be there? We have to feed, we have to react to the episodes. We want to return over outdated episodes. We want deep-dive stuff in the course of the week, and we simply must be all-in on the present.

Peter Kafka

But it’s not a one-to-one with viewers, proper? Big Bang Theory when it was on was the most important factor on TV and nobody ever talked about it. You guys, I don’t suppose, devoted any time to it. Yellowstone is a big present …

Bill Simmons

We did Yellowstone.

Peter Kafka

But you’re not blowing it out. It’s bought a a lot greater viewers than Succession, and also you guys spend far more time on Succession. It looks like that’s half simply your private curiosity and half like there’s an viewers that can reply to it and possibly gained’t for Yellowstone.

Bill Simmons

Well, [Succession is] an enormous present. I imply, that at all times helps. It was most likely 15 million [viewers] by the point everyone caught up on it. But it additionally was probably the most enjoyable present to speak about.

One of the issues that bums us out — we have been simply speaking about this — was [the new season of] Stranger Things. I believe Netflix has made such a mistake. The binge mannequin is okay with sure exhibits. If it’s Outer Banks, I get it. My daughter [and] I wish to watch all of the Outer Banks in a row. That’s not an incredible present, however it’s a enjoyable present and also you simply wish to preserve going.

Stranger Things, they blew it as a result of if they’d simply put out two episodes after which one other one week after that, we might have gotten eight weeks of content material, discourse, writing, every part. We would have handled that present prefer it was the NBA playoffs. And as a substitute it’s gone in per week.

Peter Kafka

I hear you guys say that on a regular basis and I get it — out of your self-interest, proper? It is smart. You’d prefer to have eight weeks of content material as a substitute of per week. I do marvel if — and Netflix obviously is rethinking a lot of what they’re doing — I do suppose that possibly their goals and your goals don’t fairly converge, proper? Yes, you give them free publicity for eight weeks. But my son’s in center college. Everyone at his college watched Stranger Things within the first week. They have been all completely completely satisfied they watched it. I don’t suppose they’d be any happier in the event that they stretched it out over eight weeks. You could be.

Bill Simmons

It’s humorous, I fully disagree. I believe Netflix has so few water cooler hits at this level, for them to have the ability to stretch one out for eight weeks … like simply have a look at the distinction with Succession. Look at a present like [HBO’s] Winning Time. I believe if Winning Time was a Netflix present and so they simply dropped it unexpectedly, I believe that present dies. I believe folks would watch one episode or two and that might have been it. But as a result of it was on each week, I do know folks in my life who simply gave it a second likelihood or third likelihood, no matter. Stranger Things — to me it’s like, are you able to personal the narrative?

And they’re competing with all this different stuff that’s popping out, proper? Like inside per week, Top Gun’s in there, too. You’re competing for eyeballs and a focus. And I believe that present particularly, with all of the theories and the conspiracy stuff and all of the stuff that comes out, you virtually want per week to digest every episode. “What does this imply? Where is that this going? What’s that?” That’s a part of experiencing the present. I simply suppose they blew it.

“The 40 uncooked minutes have been higher than the 12 edited minutes”

Peter Kafka

You’ve performed TV just a few occasions. You have been on ESPN again within the day, and also you had a short-lived HBO present. Now you’re making lots of films and docs for HBO. Do you ever wish to be on digital camera once more?

Bill Simmons

The movie stuff has been one thing that I’ve spent lots of time on and I do really feel like we’ve created one thing actually cool. I believe we’re a participant in that house. From the TV aspect, I simply didn’t prefer it that a lot.

I look again at what occurred with the [HBO] present, and there’s one million issues I’d do otherwise, however in the end I went into that present with the mindset of “these interviews I’m doing on my podcast are actually hitting. folks love them. This ought to work as a TV present.” But the fact is podcasts have changed exhibits like that. And I believe by 2017, I noticed that.

I had Kevin Durant on the [podcast] the primary time in 2017. It was most likely like three or 4 months after my [HBO] show got canceled and we went to this restaurant, we simply talked.

Back then, it didn’t really feel as regular to simply have the most effective gamers on the earth sit down for an hour and 20 minutes and simply document it. And we ended up doing, I believe, six [interviews]. But that first one, that was after I realized: “This is simply higher than [TV].” Because I had him on my TV present. We did a very good section — me, him, and Nas — that we edited into, I don’t know, 12 minutes, however we went for 40. And the 40 uncooked minutes have been higher than the 12 edited minutes. So stuff like that made me suppose, “What is the upside at this level of a TV interview present versus a podcast?”

Just have a look at all of the discuss exhibits which have launched — all of the streamers have tried them. I believe possibly the final late-night present that launched efficiently was [The Late Late Show with James] Corden? Is that doable?

Peter Kafka

John Oliver?

Bill Simmons

Yeah, however John Oliver’s not a chat present, John Oliver’s a content material present. So take into consideration what number of profitable pods have launched with big audiences and so they’re on demand. I believe the long run for us with Spotify … is the video participant on their app. It’s an enormous differentiator. We must get that to the purpose that it principally turns into TV in your cellphone on the Spotify app. And that’s one thing no person else has. And we all know it. We have [Joe] Rogan and we’ve Alex Cooper and another folks. To have the ability to see what you’re watching — that’s what folks below 25 need. My son doesn’t wish to hearken to something. He needs to observe what he’s listening to.

“It’s like being on an enormous boat and also you simply by no means know what’s going to occur”

Peter Kafka

You offered the corporate in early 2020, proper earlier than the pandemic. Other than some huge cash — $250 million — why promote to Spotify? And stroll me by the way you went from not making an attempt to promote the corporate to promoting the corporate.

Bill Simmons

Two issues. One was, we didn’t have to promote. We by no means employed a banker. I wasn’t positive after we would promote it, [or] if we might promote.

Peter Kafka

You bankrolled this your self principally, proper? HBO helped out.

Bill Simmons

HBO helped out a bit.

Peter Kafka

Did you deliver on different traders?

Bill Simmons

I didn’t.

Peter Kafka

Okay. So it’s all you. Your name.

Bill Simmons

Pretty a lot. I believe we have been it feeling like we have been a mid-major in faculty basketball — that we may compete, we may get to the match, we may win some video games, possibly we may even make the ultimate eight. But in the end, till we have been aligned with anyone greater, it simply felt prefer it was going to be harder for us to draw expertise and retain expertise — not simply expertise on podcasts and writers and stuff like that, however folks behind the scenes. I have a look at the infrastructure we’ve now [at Spotify] — from a hiring standpoint, from a gross sales standpoint, all this stuff — we’re in a position to take that stuff off our desk so we will simply think about what we’re good at. That actually helped us.

So for me, competitively, I checked out Spotify and regarded on the trajectory of the place I assumed they have been going, that I assumed they’d an opportunity to be the chief in audio. I knew how I felt about audio and all of the alternatives there, and I felt like we have been in pole place with it. And it simply appeared like “this is smart. I really feel like I’m catching these guys on the proper time.”

Peter Kafka

Were people coming and saying, “Go with us as a substitute of Spotify; we are going to match that supply, we are going to beat that supply”?

Bill Simmons

We actually had folks kicking the tires on us the entire time. But I used to be so decided to be my very own boss and never must work for anyone else. After the ESPN expertise, I simply wished to be by myself. I wished to have my very own factor. I wished to be in command of it. … Starting most likely in 2019 vary, you begin going, “Is there a ceiling on this? What are we going to seem like two years from now?”

I imply, the pandemic. Jesus. If we had been on our personal for that, that might have been — I believe we might have been high quality. But it was loads simpler to digest being a part of Spotify.

Peter Kafka

So you spent a very long time working for Disney. You bought fired. You went and constructed your personal firm.

Bill Simmons

I didn’t get fired.

Peter Kafka

They didn’t renew your contract.

Bill Simmons

They didn’t renew my contract.

Peter Kafka

Which they announced in the New York Times earlier than telling you.

Bill Simmons

Yeah, as a result of they have been being dicks.

Peter Kafka

So now you’re working for Spotify and [CEO] Daniel Ek. What did you study from being an worker at Disney that’s going to alter the best way you’re employed for this firm?

Bill Simmons

Good query. Well, first, I’m older, which I believe helps. I positively look again at among the — I’m not saying I used to be innocent in among the ESPN stuff. I believe if I needed to do over an ESPN factor, I simply, I don’t know why I cared a lot about some of these things, you recognize?

From my standpoint, yeah, I possibly shouldn’t have cared a lot that this occurred or that occurred or no matter. Should I’ve cared that we didn’t have a social media editor 4 years into the location? Yeah, I ought to have. But I believe from a Spotify standpoint, I believe simply realizing that with an enormous firm, generally issues get clumsy, [and] you haven’t any management over it. Sometimes this individual will go away and that sucks or no matter — you simply sort of must journey it. It’s like being on an enormous boat and also you simply sort of by no means know what’s going to occur. When you’re accountable for your personal stuff, it simply feels extra serene, although it’s not. So far more stuff’s out of your management on the huge firm. You must learn to cope with that.

“I wish to see how the following 12 months goes for us”

Peter Kafka

How for much longer are you at Spotify? You offered two years in the past. Usually once you promote a startup, it’s a four-year deal.

Bill Simmons

I’ve a few years left.

Peter Kafka

And what occurs after that? Do you keep on as an worker? Do you have got an itch to make a brand new factor?

Bill Simmons

I don’t know. I haven’t considered it, and I’m not going to fret about it as a result of I really feel like we’ve grown. We’ve been in a position to develop the Ringer a lot. And I’m so pleased with all of the folks we’ve and particularly the best way among the folks behind the scenes have actually grown and brought on extra stuff.

And then from a Spotify standpoint, to even give it some thought after we’re simply going again within the workplace — like, we had a managers assembly on Monday and had I believe 30 folks in our workplace all collectively? We have like 150 staff at this level. And that was the primary time we’d had greater than 10 folks within the workplace since March 2020. So it’s onerous for me to consider what’s subsequent after I don’t even really feel like we’ve had a good likelihood at simply having a standard workplace and complete organizational scenario. So hopefully that can return to regular. I wish to see how the following 12 months goes for us.

“It’s actually robust to interview anyone who meant loads to you”

Peter Kafka

Who is your dream podcast visitor you haven’t had?

Bill Simmons

It’s David Letterman. That’s at all times going to be the reply.

Peter Kafka

He appears available, no?

Bill Simmons

I do know. It’s robust. It’s bizarre. I’d virtually be afraid to ask as a result of I wouldn’t wish to fuck it up, and I believe I’d be nervous. The solely time I actually had, like, nervous vitality for a podcast was Larry Bird, which we did in individual in Indiana. And it was humorous as a result of I did an Obama podcast within the White House, I believe inside most likely a month of that. And I used to be far more nervous for Bird. I simply didn’t wish to screw it up.

So I believe with Letterman, there’s a lot to ask. It’s actually robust to interview anyone who meant loads to you. Eddie Murphy could be one other one. He would by no means do the podcast. But the folks that I grew up [with], who simply had this profound affect on me.

[Jimmy] Kimmel goes the opposite method. Kimmel, like, befriends everyone that he liked when he was a child. He’s associates with Huey Lewis and Letterman and Howard Stern. He goes the entire different method. When I meet folks like that, I really feel like I’m a 14-year-old once more. So I believe the Letterman factor could be a great problem for us.

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