Personal Lessons I’ve Learned from Podcast Consolidation
Or: “When Two Men Bring You Into a Conference Room and Say ‘This Is How It’s Going to Go’ — That’s a Bad Sign!”
I’ve worked in Big Podcast for as long as one can work in Big Podcast (I think?). This isn’t something to brag about, but it’s true. An old boss called me the Zelig of podcasting. But I prefer to think of myself as the Beetlejuice of podcasting. I’ve been hanging around my model graveyard for the past 10 years, waiting for someone to say my name three times. After that happened, I’d show up to work at your company. And many of you, thank you, have come calling.
But before Big Podcast. Before my well-tended graveyard. Before the anxious period as I waited to show up at your podcast company: I was 14 years old, burning audio onto CD-Rs from the website of WBEZ Chicago, my local public radio station, and listening to episodes of This American Life while shelving books at my local children’s library — a job I got after winning the children’s reading contest for as many years as it takes to get a job from winning the children’s reading contest. These were stories told from Chicago, near where I was. But, these stories, piped directly into my impressionable ears, were one of the first pieces of media that made me feel like there was a world outside of the small one that I knew. A world that was — without getting into it — a hard one for me to live in.
I even, somehow, made it into a Prologue of a This American Life episode during this time. TAL was, to me, it — in terms of story-telling, but also in terms of a way out of the circumstances I was born into.
Lesson Number One: The Whole Cliché About Audio Being the Most Intimate Form of Media? It’s True.
And it has changed my life. Not to mention the listening and the being heard. That shit is real. That’s what I decided to devote my entire life to. I met my husband because he heard me on a podcast, too. It was great — I literally didn’t have to do anything!
When I was 22, I left Chicago and moved to New York. No one in my family lives further east than Indiana. I didn’t know anyone. I had $700 and I wanted to figure out how to get a job at WNYC, New York Public Radio. I somehow got one of those freelance jobs that turned to permalancer that turned to, miraculously, a full-time job. When I was 27, I heeded my first call out of my podcast Beetlejuice graveyard, and got a job as the first employee at a then-new podcasting network.
Lesson Number Two: You Are Not What You Do.
Because I was actually making a living wage and because I finally had dental insurance, I quickly determined that my entire life would live or die based on how I performed at this new podcast job. My entire identity quickly formed around my ability to answer emails at all hours, to attend meetings even if I was in the hospital (and to be scolded for not attending in person, after revealing my whereabouts), to come to work the day after getting married to record a podcast, etc.. To be invaluable. Not valuable, but invaluable. I needed this job more than it needed me, I thought, and literally couldn’t afford to lose it — financially, but also from an identity perspective. And after all, my then-bosses reminded me, you were the first employee. You were invested. I was also literally vested in some type of phantom equity no one quite understood. And, I had a lot of it, as the first employee.
Lesson Number Three: You’re Invaluable to Yourself, Not to Anything Else.
I’d worked myself into a tailspin. I wasn’t able to listen to podcasts — literally my only hobby — because I was made so anxious by the prospect of the making of the podcasts. I told my bosses — the ones who reminded me of my loyalty — that I needed help getting work done, that they needed to split my position, that I couldn’t do it all alone, that I wanted to have a family someday. They ignored me. Trump got elected. I started losing weight and losing my hair, deciding the way to grow it back was via these shark pills I heard about on the only podcast I could listen to, Bitch Sesh, which was made by a different network. The shark pills worked, but my pleas to help make this job workable fell on deaf ears. In retrospect, why would they want to improve the situation? They were getting multiple people’s jobs out of me, paying me one wage, and paying me the free lip service of how my loyalty would eventually benefit me. I spoke to an older colleague at the company about the issue, who said “they have a women problem.” I went out, got noodles, and started looking for another job.
Lesson Number Four: Pay Attention to the Stuff You Choose to Pay Attention To.
In addition to introducing me to the pills made of shark that helped my hair grow back, listening to the podcast Bitch Seshwas like mainlining the saltine crackers I needed to convalesce, to remember why I left my entire family and all of my friends to try to work specifically in podcasting in the first place. It nursed me. I felt like I was hearing people who I’d want to be friends with — an expansion of my world, the experience that brought me to podcasts in the first place. I reached out to the head of content at the company that produced the show and told him that I thought that Bitch Sesh is what it is: a revelation. I applied for a job at the company that made it. I got the job. The fact that I was able to listen again, after several years of not listening, was all it took for me to know that this was where to go.
Lesson Number Five: When Two Men Bring You Into a Conference Room and Say “This Is How It’s Going to Go” — That’s a Bad Sign!
It was my 30th birthday. I had a job offer at another company, one that seemed to be staffed with enough producers where I wouldn’t be the one person managing everything. I’d told my original boss about the job offer the day before and he stormed out of the building — left for the day. When I showed up to the office the next morning, the CEO of the company was in town from DC. They told me to come into a conference room. “This is how it’s going to go,” they started. I was to tell the staff — the majority of whom I managed — that I was leaving for personal reasons, and that I had great faith in the company’s future. Then, I would pack up my things and go. And oh, because I’m going to a competitor, I’d be stripped of the phantom equity that was allotted to me. “Procedure,” they said.
We go to the conference room. Everyone in the company is assembled — in person for those in New York, over video chat for those elsewhere. The staff knew it was my birthday. Some thought this was a birthday celebration. The CEO and my boss started the meeting by saying: “Laura has some personal news.” And then I did what was expected of me. I said I was leaving. For personal reasons. I have great faith in the company. The CEO said to the room that I’d be around for the rest of the day. As I exited the conference room he said, to me, “I think it’s time to go.”
I left the office carrying birthday gift bags from many of my colleagues. I slammed back a gifted ginger ale and threw the rest of them in the trash, in the subway station, and never returned to that subway stop again.
Lesson Number Six: Do Unto Podcast Others As You’d Have Them Podcast Unto You
I grew my hair back. I gained back the weight I’d lost. At my new job, I inherited a great production team that I tried to encourage, that I tried to inspire towards making Good Shit. I hope I did an okay job of that. I really tried to.
We worked with an incredible production team, Little Everywhere, to help make the first season of The Dream, a show about Multi-level Marketing — a show about women and work and the lies women are told about freedom and work, among other things. A topic I got pretty interested in after my last job. Jane and Dann made the show into something that, if I had heard it as a teenage library book sorter, would’ve changed my life. I learned from people I respected. I hoped people learned from me. I started listening to podcasts again and enjoyed them.
Lesson Number Seven: Invest in Stuff That’s Yours
Two years ago, I got the opportunity to start my own podcast company with a journalist. A 50/50 split down the middle. That journalist, Adam Davidson, believed that our partnership needed to be equal in order for us to build a company that fit our values. This was a shocking turn of events! Since then, we’ve hired people who I’m proud to work with every day — I try to do unto podcast them as I’d have them do unto podcast me. We’re trying to make shows that sound new, and human, and that need to exist. I fail every day. I try to do better. I apologize a lot. People (usually men) tell me to stop apologizing, but why would I stop acknowledging my mistakes? That seems like an important thing to do.
Lesson Number Eight: Take Your Lumps and Stick Them Into a Furnace to Fire Your Way Toward Victory (or Something Like That)
I owe a lot to the company where I worked, where I totally lost it, and then gradually found what mattered again. Recently, the company sold for a vertiable shitload of money (add a bunch of zeros to what you’re thinking). They made an example out of me, in stripping me of the phantom equity for going to a competitor (as far as I know, I’m the only one they did that to). For asking for what I needed. I will admit that I did some math this morning that made me sick to my stomach.
The last ten years of Big Podcast created a new focus for me, a new meaning for my life. One of trying to create a better example for people I work with. That life has to be — has to be — more than work. That you must be able to be yourself to make stuff that matters. That, even if I will forever feel like Beetlejuice in my model graveyard, at least I’m making new buildings and not just waiting for someone else to call my name.