Issue 183,  published October 30, 2018

The New Independents of Los Angeles?

Here’s a refrain I’ve encountered with some regularity: “New York is the heart of the podcast industry.” I’ve been hearing this for years, and I continue to hear it, still, from producers, podcast execs, would-be producers, would-be execs, and even New York City itself. Sure, it’s almost certainly true, given that it’s the home to many of the big companies we tend to talk about here in the newsletter along with a staggering proportion of working freelancers.

One should begin to properly contest the claim, however, and declare sonorously that Los Angeles is increasingly giving the empire city a run for its money. Long the heart of the comedy podcast world (and the birthplace of Earwolf and Midroll Media, pre-merger), the mega-city of Southern California has been rapidly expanding its influence over the industry for a good while now. The bulk of this, of course, comes from the rising involvement of the big talent agencies, which have been steadily reshaping how things typically get done around here, or so I’ve been told. But some attention should also be paid to the entrepreneurial layer of the Los Angeles scene, which is beginning to feature some pretty interesting activity.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been looking at four Los Angeles podcast ventures that strike me as expressions of a trend. All four ventures are independent studios — in the vein of the eastern Transmitter and Pineapple Street — that were founded within the past year or so based on roughly the same impulses. As a collective, they represent a new generation of teams capitalizing on opportunities and taking their fortunes into their own hands.

Jonathan Hirsch’s Neon Hum (link) is one such shop. Hirsch, who made Dear Franklin Jones for Stitcher last year and was once part of The Heard collective, started the company in April after noticing a pattern during his time independently producing shows for several media companies. “I noticed that I was being asked to ‘staff up’ with increasing regularity,” he said. “After a while I began to think it’s make more sense, at least practically, to start a production company.”

According to Hirsch, Los Angeles is home to a vibrant podcast scene that’s been quietly evolving beyond comedy and celebrity-driven fare. That scene has translated into a solid client list for Neon Hum. By the end of this year, the studio would have produced 14 shows for its partner base, which includes Wondery, with whom they worked on Dr. Death; The Ringer, producing the site’s first narrative podcast, Halloween Unmasked; as well as Nike and Uninterrupted Media on a popup podcast pegged to the 30th anniversary on the former’s Just Do It campaign. The studio is also handling production for Rachel Maddow’s new Spiro Agnew documentary series, Bag Man, and the Los Angeles Times’ two nonfiction narrative projects following up Dirty John.

“It seems to me that, as the audience and interest in podcasting continues to grow, there is a need for shops like ours: nimble and experienced storytellers supporting the creative interests of a variety of clients,” Hirsch said.

Ben Adair is a journalist who has done work for WNYC, Wondery, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, with which he helped create Reveal. Adair founded Western Sound (link) earlier this year as a response to frustrations he felt working as a solo producer-for-hire. “Working as a freelancer, I was lonely and often thrown in with teams that were not optimal, [and] being part of a network, you don’t own your stuff.” Adair said. “The main reason I started Western Sound was to create a team that I believe in and then make stories that are awesome and, potentially, have additional value as intellectual property.”

While happy with his new venture, Adair suspects the independent studio model is not for everybody. “The bummer part of having a company is that the business deals get much more complicated when you’re fighting for yourself and for your work as opposed to signing work for hire contacts or just letting others own your IP,” said Adair. “But for me, it’s worth it, especially as I build something I can believe in.”

Adair built Western Sounds with a familiar dual-business model in mind. On the one hand, the studio produces shows for clients, and on the other, it seeks to build its own original programming. The client list includes Stitcher, ESPN, and Hulu, and most of the projects in development are scheduled for release next year. There’s also some expectation of revenue from renting out their production studio, which is currently in its final phase of construction.

Also with a studio for rent: Little Everywhere (link). “Guests have said it’s so cozy they want to move in, and we’re pretty proud of that,” founders Jane Marie and Dana Gallucci told me over email. Alums of This American Life and Bullseye with Jesse Thorn respectively, the duo started the company after observing the lack of production houses with explicit podcast expertise operating in the city.

At the moment, Little Everywhere is perhaps most known for producing The Dream, an investigative documentary on multi-level marketing schemes, and An Oral History of the 1993 Tappan Jr. High School Talent Show, a scripted mockumentary, both published by Stitcher. But their full client list runs the on-demand audio gamut, with contracts from NPR, KCRW, Earwolf, Audible, and HarperCollins.

“For us, right now, being an independent production house gives us the flexibility of a freelancer with the resources of a network,” Marie and Gallucci noted. “Because we aren’t answering to anyone but ourselves, we can be selective about the projects we take on. But we also have a professional studio and partner with networks that offer us support (marketing, PR, distribution, etc.) we wouldn’t otherwise have as a small operation. At the moment, this feels like the best of both worlds.”

Rachael King’s Pod People (link) also seeks to combine two worlds, but of another kind. The venture fashions itself as a “hybrid production company and talent agency,” a mix tailor made for Hollywood. King, who previously ran her own boutique communications firm in the city, started Pod People after noticing an increase of inquiries from clients to help them start their own podcast initiatives.

“I’ve been a podcast fanatic for years so I loved the idea, and at first, I was just going to add podcast production as one of our services and then find some great producers/editors to work with,” King told me. “But when I looked around, I realized there was a larger business opportunity. There are so many talented freelancers looking for clients and projects, and so many companies who are now interested in podcasts — but they have no good way of finding each other.”

The way it works is the way it sounds, more or less: in addition to producing shows for clients, the company also facilitates a marketplace that connects various audio production operatives (producers, hosts, editors, sound designers, and so on) with potential projects that could be a good fit for them. “The client pays a consulting fee for us to help figure out the high-level show format/budget, and then a finders’ fee to match them with the perfect team to make it,” King explained. “It also works the other way — with this talented roster of audio producers, we’ve started packaging their show ideas and pitching them out to brands and networks.” She notes that, since launching in January, the company has drawn in almost 300 freelancers into its roster, and the production side has a client list that includes Medium, Samsung NEXT, Twitter, Brit+Co, and L’Oreal.

In an email to me, King also discussed another element to the opportunity she’s been prospecting: the need for a middle ground. In other words, something to meet a situation where clients have the money to spend, but “can’t afford the Pacific Contents and Gimlet Creatives of the world.” She added: “We appeal to companies who want to dip a toe in the podcast pond, but aren’t ready to spend hundreds of thousands to do it.”

Coastal Differences

Something that I’m generally curious about are the differences of running a podcast venture in Los Angeles as compared to New York. How does the Hollywood industrial-complex affect prospects and creative life at these independent studios? How do these studio proprietors view those differences themselves?

Jonathan Hirsch:

I used to live in New York, and I was very concerned with how my future life in audio would look across the country from the center of the action… but I continue to be surprised. LA has a very strong and vibrant audio community, with many of us out here quietly making a big impact on what people listen to nationally.

For sure the entertainment industry impacts the kinds of projects that are being made, although I wouldn’t say it dominates the work that we do. This is all anecdotal, of course, but I find producers and EP’s out here less concerned with what the more established outlets are doing in New York. This isn’t to suggest that producers here aren’t focused on national issues, quite the contrary. I just think the bullhorn of New York media is more like a distant echo out here.

Rachael King:

I grew up on the east coast and I’m in New York every other month or so, and my impression that NYC is really radio/journalism-heavy, whereas audio folks in LA come from all walks of life — radio and journalism, of course, but also from film production, creative writing, even sound designers or music composers who cross over to audio from the visual world, all of which I think gives us a massive advantage in terms of pulling different perspectives and voices into the medium.

LA has creativity in spades, and we’re never afraid to get a group of talented people together to try something new. I think the industry is starting to see the idea of what a podcast can be open up, and that LA will probably lead the way in terms of creativity (certainly with fiction/scripted, but beyond that too, I hope). That said, I do kind of hate this new trend of podcast to TV/film, and I hope that dies off quickly… otherwise LA will certainly be the home of it.

Ben Adair:

The LA scene is much different than in New York. Today, the entertainment industry is trying to figure out how to make it part of what they do, so, in an extremely short time, it’s evolved from a very grassroots, DIY scene to something with lots of agents, layers, and celebrities involved.

It’s all very strange for someone like me with public radio roots, but I suppose that’s the LA dream. Or something.

Or something, indeed!

Speaking of Hollywood: the television adaptation of Gimlet Media’s Homecoming debuts this Friday. There’s been a ton of press about the show, and with it, a bunch of revived takes on the podcast-to-television trend, but here’s the angle I’d pursue: Will this be the first adaptation that’s actually really good? I’m a huge Sam Esmail fan, so my money’s on a strong “probably.”

And while we’re still here, a quick shout-out to Welcome to LA, which remains one of my favorite listens all year.