Issue 168,  published July 10, 2018

Maximum Fun broadens its horizons

With its first scripted program, the Los Angeles podcast network tries some new things on the business side.

Last month, Jesse Thorn’s Los Angeles-based podcast network rolled out its first foray into scripted programming. The show is called Bubble, an eight-episode scripted comedy series that — and I’m quoting the pitch I got for it, which is pretty succinct and effective — is “sort of a sci-fi/alternate-universe comedy about a group of friends who live in a town protected by a (literal) bubble.” Having listened to a few episodes, I guess you could also call it a cross between Portlandia and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s super zany, is what I’m saying, and if you like Maximum Fun stuff, you’re probably going to like this: It has all the warm, loving, and fun sensibilities that you’ve come to know and love from the network, plus it features a bunch of the MaxFun extended family like Eliza Skinner and the McElroy Brothers.

Anyway, the thing about Bubble that caught my attention was how it presents a case study of a particular challenge that more podcast companies are — and should be — facing: Let’s say you want to push your creative boundaries. How do you think through the business side of that effort? So, in pursuit of that question, I reached out to Maximum Fun’s managing director Bikram Chatterji, and he was kind enough to write at length. I like this interview quite a bit, as he really lays out a good deal of the strategic considerations he deems to be important when breaking a project like this.

Hot Pod: Tell me about how MaxFun came to produce Bubble.

Bikram Chatterji: I think you could say it was entirely organic — Bubble was created by Jordan Morris, one half of Jordan, Jesse Go!, longtime friend of Jesse and the network, and one of the funniest people we know. Jordan had written the pilot for television and had taken a bunch of meetings on it — people loved the concept and the script, but were looking for a more tangible proof-of-concept (which would be tough to film because: monsters). We did a table read of the TV script last year with some friends — little/no production, small black-box theater — and when we released it in the JJGo feed it got a really positive response.Separately, MaxFun was interested in developing a scripted comedy — as a way of trying some new things creatively, production-wise, and in terms of marketing/business model. We’d had a few meetings but nothing had grabbed us.

Bubble presented a rich and smart premise with hilarious jokes, from a person that we and our community knows and loves, so it was an ideal first step. Also, as a step in a new direction for all of us, I think that the trust that we all had in each other went a long way in making it a smooth and collaborative development process.

Hot Pod: The show strikes me as a little different from what Maximum Fun typically produces. What were the challenges involved in the production, and what were the differences in how you approached development?
Chatterji: It is different! The main assets we had going into development were (1) we know what a joke is, and how to make stuff funny, (2) we have good relationships with very talented people who know, like, and trust us, and (3) we’re nimble and creative when it comes to making stuff sound good.For some aspects — developing a serialized arc for a cohesive season of the show, voice-directing for drama and comedy, and sound design/audio world-building, for instance — we worked with some very smart and talented folks who have done this before (in the three examples listed: Nick Adams, exec producer on Bubble, who works on Bojack Horseman and story-edited for New Girl, amongst other credits; Eric Martin, director for Bubble, hundreds of audio books, VO, directed Hoot Gibson: Vegas Cowboy for howl.fm, amongst other credits; Ben Walker, producer/editor/sound design, many credits for BBC Radio that, frankly, U.S. audiences probably don’t recognize).

There were other production/creative aspects that the team worked collaboratively on — a big one being, making a show that is visually rich and involves monsters/many cool fights work in audio. The writers introduced a narrator with some personality and, fortunately, Tavi Gevinson agreed to play this part, so we were able to do the whole “constraints = opportunities” thing.

Hot Pod: Tell me about the revenue end. How did you approach building a business engine around this project?
Chatterji: This was always envisioned as an investment with a long-term, slightly unconventional return profile. That is to say, we started down this road not expecting/needing to make our money back in a hurry. At a minimum, the near-term value was expected to be:

  • Stretching ourselves creatively a bit
  • Making something great that our community would appreciate and enjoy
  • Creating a kind of statement work for people who might not know us all that well, to start broader conversations about our capabilities

We’ve ticked all those boxes, which we feel really good about. That said, we are trying some things out on the revenue side as well:

  • Like all of our shows, we envision Bubble to be paid for primarily by listeners. [Note: For more on Maximum Fun’s audience-supported model, read this column.] Unlike our other shows, it’s a limited-run series, so we’re not asking for ongoing monthly contributions, but listeners can (and have!) made one-time payments at maximumfun.org/bubble.
  • We are talking with some folks about advertising as, midway through the run, we have a solid track record of downloads to pique advertisers’ interest.
  • The show is especially suited to some other revenue channels — for instance, merchandise. So we’re exploring those as well.

MaxFun has always been different from other networks in that advertising is a secondary revenue source for us. We don’t have anything against ads — they help our creators get rewarded for their work, and we sincerely believe that if done correctly, they provide our listeners with a service. One thing we’ve always insisted on is having the option to forego ads if something doesn’t feel right — because, frankly, as listeners we have experienced ads that feel wrong (two common problems: they are so frequent as to disrupt the listener experience, or they’re so subtle as to blur the line between what is content and what’s an ad). We know that there are a bunch of smart folks working on the challenge of making advertising work in service of listeners, and we’re paying attention to that; practically, though, our approach has been to not make anything we do contingent on getting ad revenue, because it’s easy to see that forcing us into an uncomfortable position.

Hot Pod: What else did you learn through this process?

Chatterji: I think the other piece that is fundamentally different from anything we’ve done before is marketing a limited-run series. We have put a lot of time and energy into this show, and we think it’s wonderful. I was (and am) well aware of other limited-run shows that have high production values but limited long-term impact. I didn’t want that to happen here.Philosophically, you can probably divide marketing strategies between creating a massive event (often at considerable cost in terms of time and resources) and relying on something more sustained/word-of-mouth based. We tried a hybrid approach — a big bang within our community, who we could reach pretty easily and who we know will be responsive to our messaging, and a longer, slower burn for the wider podcast audience. It’s still something we’re working on, and something that is in progress, but so far it seems to be going okay.

The main other thing that I’ve taken away from this is how — this could be obvious, but I find it gratifying — creative people love working on something really good. At the start of this process, I was a little apprehensive about whether we could bring aboard some of the big names to do this thing that was new to us and that, frankly, did not pay much money (relative to TV, etc.). I think the fact that we were successful attests in part to the great reputation MaxFun and Jesse have built up over the years, but also — and members of the cast have mentioned this at a few of the Q&As we’ve been hosting — that the same hunger for good shows that is out there from our audience exists amongst the creative people we work with as well.

That sounds like more of a creative consideration than a business one, but I think it’s something at the heart of our strategy, long-term: Make something great and the rest of your job becomes a lot easier.

You can find Bubble…well, pretty much anywhere you’d find podcasts, aside from those pesky podcast platforms with a big paywall blocking out the sun.