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Booksmart Studios and the Substack Deal

Around this time last week, Axios exclusively reported that Substack, the venture-backed newsletter publishing platform that doubles as a synecdoche for a certain strand of digital media anxiety these days, has given out its first official “Pro deal” in the audio world. The recipient is a new podcast network founded by public radio veterans Mike Vuolo and Matthew Schwartz called Booksmart Studios, which will be getting a “six-figure advance” to help fund its first year of operations. According to Axios, the money will be enough to cover “the salaries of the two full-time co-founders and their five part-time producers and hosts.”

To my eyes, there are two notable threads to unspool from this story. The first has to do with Substack’s trajectory. Prior to this development, the company’s “Pro deals” — that is, upfront payments meant to incentivize prominent individuals to use (and by doing so, evangelize by proxy) the platform’s newsletter publishing tools — has been given out almost exclusively to talent associated with text-based publishing: Writers, journalists, bloggers, and so on. With Booksmart Studios, Substack appears to be taking its first substantial step across mediums, thereby setting the stage for a potential expansion of how we might think about the startup’s long-term ceiling.

It should be noted that this isn’t Substack’s first engagement with audio. The platform has been providing tools for paid podcast publishing since early 2019, and while those features have remained rudimentary at best, they have attracted some podcast-first usage to a point where Substack co-founder Hamish McKenzie is able to claim, in the Axios report, that some audio teams are making “hundreds of thousands of dollars a year through the platform.” When asked for specific examples, McKenzie could publicly confirmed just two: Useful Idiots by Matt Taibi and Katie Halper, along with Krystal Kyle and Friends by Krystal Ball and Kyle Kulinski. McKenzie also noted that there are “many other” six-figure-generating Substacks in which audio is just one of that creator-publisher’s many publishing lines.

The second notable thread has to do with Booksmart Studios itself. The “podcast network” has fallen a little out of vogue as an operational unit in the audio business these days, and so the question here is whether this new venture will represent a new path forward for the model.

Booksmart appears to be starting out broad, with its press release naming five shows as part of the launch slate:

  • The language podcast Lexicon Valley, hosted by the linguist and academic John McWhorter (the show is moving over from Slate);
  • Banished, hosted by the historian Amna Khalid, which purports to “report on our present-day obsession with what we’ve come to call cancel culture”;
  • The Direction Is Sound, hosted by All Songs Considered creator Chris Mandra, about “the miracle of recorded sound”;
  • Unprecedented, a show about the First Amendment hosted by Vuolo and Schwartz that’s moving over from WAMU; and finally…

… Well, not to bury the lede, but here’s the last and most noteworthy detail about the launch slate: Booksmart Studios is also the new audio home of Bob Garfield, the former co-host of WNYC’s On The Mediawho was fired in May for a “pattern of behavior that violated New York Public Radio’s anti-bullying policy.” (Garfield has denied allegations of bullying.) His new show is called — wait for it — Bully Pulpit. Some context to note: Mike Vuolo, Booksmart’s co-founder, has a long professional history with Garfield. He was once a WNYC staffer who worked at On The Media and had co-created Lexicon Valley with Garfield, which the two hosted for Slate for several years before bringing in John McWhorter to take over the mic.

There is, of course, a lot to unpack here. So I reached out to Vuolo and Schwartz, and we spoke over the phone last Friday where we touched on, among other things, the Substack deal, creating Booksmart Studios, and, obviously, the situation with Garfield. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.

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Hot Pod: Let’s start with the Substack deal. How did that come about?

Mike Vuolo: So, as you might know, John McWhorter has been hosting Lexicon Valley for the past several years — I had started the podcast with Bob Garfield a few years before, until we thought it was time for an actual linguist to take over the show — and John had told me, prior to this year, that he felt like he was getting towards the end of his run. He didn’t want to get stale, and he was thinking about stepping down as host this summer.

John had also started a Substack newsletter in the past six months or so, which was doing really well, and he mentioned to them that he was thinking of leaving Lexicon Valley. I think they must’ve said something to him about, “Well, why don’t you put us in touch with Mike?” — because I own the show — “Maybe there’s a way we can bring it over here.”

We were put in touch, and eventually, I brought Matt into the conversation of us creating not just one podcast for them but a number of podcasts. We said, “You know, this is an opportunity to create a network right here at Substack.” They were immediately intrigued, and the more we talked about it, the more it made sense. We had another conversation, and then another, and it snowballed from there.

HP: Did the plan to start a podcast network predate the conversation with Substack?

Vuolo: Yeah, Matt and I had talked about starting a podcast network for a couple years now, but it was never the right moment because of one thing or another. Then the pandemic happened, which I think, like what happened for a lot of people, really crystallized our ability to see that it’s important to seize the day. So, when things started clearing up a little bit, and when we both started feeling comfortable with us actually being in the same backyard as each other, we started resurfacing this idea of a network. We felt it was the right moment to take the chance and do it.

Schwartz: Mike and I met at Slate working on a different podcast, and we had been pretty sympatico from the beginning. We came up with an idea for a First Amendment show, Unprecedented, explaining how the Supreme Court decides what “freedom of speech” actually means, and we were actually in the middle of reporting for the second season of that show, which had been at WAMU, when the pandemic hit and all the projects got canceled. After that, as we regrouped to look for something new, we knew we wanted to keep working together. So when Substack called, everything just sort of came together at the right time.

Substack is fantastic. They’re on board with everything we want to do. They’ve helped us out so much. We’re a two man team running this. We have other people working with us, but there’s a lot for us to do personally, and it can get a little overwhelming. Substack put us in touch with a graphic artist who made the wonderful logos for all the shows, and they’ve been helping us with technical stuff on whatever we need. They say they’re going to get their engineering team working on this. They’ve had podcasts [on the platform] before, but this is their first major foray into really intentionally building a podcast network. They want Substack to be a natural place for people to bring podcasts. They don’t want it to just be an afterthought.

HP: Are you able to speak more about the terms of the deal itself?

Schwartz: We don’t want to go into specifics, but it’s a six-figure investment. It’s not really an advance, because we don’t have to pay a penny of that back, but we couldn’t do this without the deal because, as it turns out, hosts don’t like to work for free, and neither do we. So in order for us to really make a go at this, we’ve got to be able to pay everyone. They cut us a check, and the way it works is that for the first year, they take 85% of whatever subscription fees we bring in, and then in the second year, we take 90% and they take 10%.

HP: Why launch as a network? Why not start small with one show, and expand from there?

Schwartz: Basically, we want to entice subscribers. It’s just a bigger value proposition for them if we can offer more content, especially with so much competition out there. Everyone seems to have a subscriber deal these days — you know, “pay $5 a month, $10 a month, and you’ll get stuff” — and so we felt that to be more competitive, we have to offer more content from the beginning. I mean, John McWhorter: One man, one show, and a few extra segments… is that going to be enough? I mean, it would have been successful, but I don’t think it would have been successful enough to grow the network as much as we wanted. But if we started with five shows, five hosts, five different sets of hosts, putting out more specialized subscriber only content — I think subscribers are going to get a lot of value for the money they’re putting in.

That was the calculation, and I think it was the right calculation: Our numbers are going up. We had several thousand free signups and several hundred [paid subscribers] even before we launched anything. Now I’m looking at the graph and I see that the hockey stick is starting to form, and we’ve only released one episode from one show so far. So, hopefully, that hockey stick is just going to keep getting more vertical. The sky’s the limit, but I think only if we put out a lot of content.

HP: Let’s talk about Booksmart itself. How would you describe what you want to do as a network?

Vuolo: For me, the idea of us calling it Booksmart, part of what I wanted was to feature really erudite people. People I thought were really smart. Not necessarily academics, but they could be. People who were rigorous in their treatment of their journalistic approach, and who could take really difficult, abstruse topics and make them accessible. Because, to me, that’s the essence, right? It’s the holy grail of learning, of feeling like you’re getting something.

I knew John was that person, because I’ve known him and worked with him for years. I sometimes wonder if he’s actually human, because I just don’t know how he accomplishes all the things that he does in the time that normal human beings do things. John was the one who recommended we get in touch with Amna [Khalid, host of Banished]. I had known of her, but I didn’t know her, and we had a couple of conversations and it just clicked.

Then, of course, I immediately thought of Bob, who was still working at WNYC at the time, and as far as I knew would be for years to come, and I just said, “You know, Bob, you’re a columnist without a column right now. You’re one of the best column writers I know that I’ve ever encountered.” I used to read his Ad Age column, not because I was particularly interested in someone’s take on advertising, but because Bob wrote it and was just so damn good. And so I said, “There’s no reason why you can’t do that in audio form.” You don’t have a column right now and you need a column…

HP: I’m just going to step in here and bring up the elephant in the room. Bob Garfield was fired in May for an alleged “pattern of behavior that violated the station’s anti-bullying policy.” What is your understanding of that situation, and how does that affect or inform your decision to continue working with him on Booksmart?

Vuolo: Bob and I already had a verbal agreement prior to me knowing anything about that. Prior not only to it breaking publicly, but also prior to me having any inkling whatsoever that there was any investigation or trouble or anything like that. I haven’t worked at WNYC in ten years. So, although I’m friends with Bob and I talk to him, he never talked to me about any of his issues that he may or may not have had at WNYC.

I worked there for seven years. As far as I knew, it was always a functionally dysfunctional place — WNYC writ large, and individual shows too. I mean, everything is once you get close to it.

So, he called me up shortly before it went public and said, “You know, I think something’s afoot here. Something seems wrong. Certain people are not as responsive with me as they typically are, and I just want to let you know that.” And I said, “Okay, well, what is this about?” And he said, “I’ll tell you in a few days. Let’s just see. Let me try to figure out what’s going on.”

Then it all happened. He called me the night before it went public, and I said, “You know, Bob, I would like to know what happened here, because this makes me really, really concerned.” He told me what he could. As you probably know, it’s been reported in the news that there’s litigation involved here, and to the extent he was able to tell me part of what was going on, it made me feel like I could not renege on our verbal agreement at that time.

I still feel that way. I don’t know all the details of what went on, but you know, things will continue to come out. So I said, “Look, Bob, you know, this is obviously a very thorny situation, but I am reluctant to break up an agreement with someone. That’s not who I am. That’s not what I want to do.” So, until and if I learn something that makes me feel like this agreement needs to end, then I’m okay with moving forward.

Schwartz: I don’t have a working relationship with Bob. I know Bob through Mike, who had worked with him for years and vouched for him. When I heard about this, I was a little bit concerned just because, you know, you hear “violating anti-bullying policy” — I was bullied as a child, I don’t do well with bullies, and I’m like, “Mike, is Bob a bully?” Like, I don’t think so. He seems like he’s a good guy.

We’ve worked with Bob now for the last couple of months. He’s a lot of things: He’s passionate, he’s cantankerous, he’s a little bit crotchety. He’s not a bully. He’s just… you know, I wouldn’t work with somebody who was a bully, so I’m not concerned about this. I think that his show, when it drops, when people hear it, they’ll hear that his show is thoughtful and funny and his personality really comes through.

It’s unfortunate that he was let go from WNYC under the circumstances. But I think it’s ultimately going to be good for Booksmart. It’s a new venue for Bob to really show his true personality in a way that he maybe couldn’t have done at On the Media. It’s unfortunate what happened, but I think ultimately it’s going to be a good thing in the long run.

HP: At the same time, though, his show is called Bully Pulpit. Feels like there’s a little something on that title.

Vuolo: Well, you know, there’s no better defender of Bob than Bob, and certainly, I’m not here to defend Bob’s choices. I was reluctant to go with that title, but when he explained to me that he was fired under the anti-bullying policy and that he felt humiliated by the use of that word — because he was not fired for bullying, but that is, of course, the word that has stuck. I think Bob wanted to kind of take ownership of that word and turn it into something different. And frankly, like I said, we had already had a verbal agreement at that time, so we had been brainstorming titles, and while Bully Pulpit per se was not one of the titles that was on our list, there were things on it that were not far from that. You know, this idea of a man who had a public radio show in which he has to be relatively staid, as staid as Bob can be and live within the legal confines of the FCC, and suddenly he was free to not have to do that.

That’s part of why I wanted him to do this for us, because I knew that Bob was brilliant, and I knew that he had a profane streak, that he has a kind of black and blue humor streak to him that wouldn’t be able to have full airing on public radio, certainly, but would on a podcast. And he is sometimes at his funniest and at his wittiest and at his cleverest when he is free to write in that way.

So when he brought up the idea of naming the show Bully Pulpit as a way to kind of take ownership of that phrase and turn it into something that maybe was more positive for him, he just said, “It’s a really damn good name,” because Bob has quite an affinity for Teddy Roosevelt. You know, Bob fancies himself a political progressive, and always felt a political kinship with Teddy Roosevelt. And he said, “Look, I even want to put Teddy Roosevelt in the opening of the show, every episode will have Teddy Roosevelt’s voice.” That is, I think, what Bob thinks of when he thinks of Bully Pulpit. He doesn’t want people to think of him as a bully, because of course he doesn’t think of himself that way.

Schwartz: The original name we were probably going to go with before all this happened… Bob suggested Bob AF, which I think is pretty funny. A lot of people liked that. But then once all this happened, he really wanted to take ownership of it.

By the way, we’ll be putting an FAQ on the website, because a few people have asked about it. We’re getting that language finalized. It goes into more detail about that.

HP: I want to go back to something you said earlier. So, pending further information, you’re comfortable continuing this relationship with Garfield. Just to confirm: If, let’s say, as more information comes out, something comes to light that hypothetically changes your perception of what happened at WNYC, do you reserve the right to sever that relationship?

Schwartz: That’s one of these questions where politicians respond, “I don’t like to speculate.” [laughs] I don’t anticipate anything so nefarious or awful coming out from whatever investigation that would cause us to want to change this relationship. He’s been great to work with. The show is great. It would take a lot. I guess anything is possible, but at this point, we’re pretty confident. Mike, would you agree with that?

Vuolo: I mean, look, if anything came to light tomorrow about my own seven-year-old son, I would consider breaking off that relationship. [laughs] In all honesty, that’s what you do in relationships anyway, right? In every relationship you have with another human being, you evaluate them based on what you know of the person.

We all have things we conceal. I don’t know what anybody’s concealing. So, as far as I’m concerned, Bob was telling me the truth. I’ve never known Bob not to tell me the truth about anything. It’s never, ever been the case in our relationship. So for me, I have no reason to not believe him now. Like I said, I worked there [at WNYC] for seven years. I was in meetings with Bob every day for seven years. Did I witness him and other people on the show get upset and raise their voice? Sure, yeah. That happened. It wasn’t crazy where it could happen. [But] it didn’t happen frequently. I probably raised my voice at times too.

Schwartz: Can I say something here? This is an unrelated thing, but I wanted to talk about raising your voice. I haven’t run this by anybody and I’m telling it out loud to a reporter, but it’s an interesting story.

I was at NPR a couple years ago, and we were doing some training. A diversity training, or something like that. One of the hypothetical prompts was “under what circumstances is it ever OK to yell at an intern?”, and everybody said no, and I was like, “Yes.” And they said, “What?” And I said, “I can think of a scenario in which maybe we’re live on the air, and the intern is about to walk into the studio and doesn’t realize the on-air sign is on and you can yell at the intern to don’t go in there.” And they really didn’t like that answer.

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if there’s a lot of sensitivity today where you can’t yell at all about anything, or what. But I can understand how a guy like Bob, who does get passionate, might run afoul of some policies which prohibits yelling in any circumstances. I don’t anticipate us breaking up the relationship because Bob likes to yell sometimes. What he brings to the table is so much more than that.

HP: Let’s end with this. In your press release, there’s a line that says, ”Booksmart believes that intelligence should be unapologetic and conventional wisdom interrogated.” Tell me more about what you mean by that.

Schwartz: I go back a lot to what Jon Stewart famously said on Crossfire years ago: “You’re doing nothing for culture. You’re perpetuating division. You’re opposite camps basically yelling at each other from your side.” I see Booksmart as a way to try to bridge those divides, to try to remove the fog of emotion and to try to look at things rationally from all angles. We’re not going to agree on everything, but we can at least agree on where our differences are as a society and figure out how to move forward.

Vuolo: I wrote a piece that we published yesterday that said, “Don’t be afraid to own ‘book-smart,’” in which I defended this idea of the word book-smart, because it’s often used as a pejorative to imply that somebody has a lack of worldliness or a cosmopolitan kind of awareness. As a studious kid, I always thought of myself as somebody who was proud to be book-smart and didn’t think that that should be taken away from me. I kind of wanted to take ownership of that word again.

There’s this strain of anti-intellectualism that runs through our political discourse, you know, more so every four years when people are running for office, because they’re trying to appear folksy. But that, to me, has always been a lamentable thing. We strive to be smart for a reason, because we want to figure this world out and we want to figure this society out.

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The Substack page for Booksmart Studios can be found here.