After building out an impressive podcast network chiefly comprised of conversational programming, The Ringer is now trying its hand at narrative audio storytelling. Next Monday, the Bill Simmons-founded digital media company will launch Halloween: Unmasked, a serialized podcast documentary that will dig deep into the making, phenomenon, and legacy of John Carpenter’s legendary 1978 horror film, Halloween. Amy Nicholson, the film critic and podcaster (The Canon and Unspooled, both with Earwolf), will host the series, which is set to play out across eight episodes. And since there’s a new Halloween movie around the corner — also titled, conveniently, Halloween — the podcast will also feature a preview of the upcoming film, giving the project a nice timely peg.
“We knew that we needed to challenge ourselves a little bit to evolve some of the podcast stuff we’ve been doing,” said Sean Fennessey, The Ringer’s chief content officer. “We’ve obviously had some success with the conversational, news-driven, enthusiastic-obsession formats, which we love doing and will keep doing them hopefully in perpetuity. We just wanted a new stripe, a new flavor.”
The Ringer’s push into narrative audio had its fits and starts. I’m told that the company had, in fact, explored the possibility of produced a serialized podcast as far back as 2016. Back then, they pursued an idea for a NBA documentary podcast that didn’t end up coming together — they couldn’t get enough principals, they couldn’t crack the story — and later on, when they began to explore the prospect of building a narrative podcast around a film, they encountered similar development hurdles.
“I wanted to do this with a different movie franchise and it fell through (not because of us),” Simmons wrote in a statement. “We were incredibly disappointed. Then Sean had the idea to try Halloween, so I called Jason Blum” — the Blumhouse Productions founder who is producing the upcoming film, and who guested on Simmons’ podcast last October — “and pitched it to him. We needed help getting key people like John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis or else it couldn’t have worked. And Jason is an awesome guy who loves movies — he wanted to listen to this podcast as much as we did. So he promised to help and we were off.”
To produce the series, The Ringer turned to Neon Hum Media, an Los Angeles-based boutique podcast production company founded by Jonathan Hirsch, the creator of Arrvls and, more recently, Stitcher’s Dear Franklin Jones. As for the choice to bring Nicholson in to host the doc: “She was kind of the perfect person for this,” Fennessey said. “I knew she’d written about horror, and she’s also a really good reporter, which is important because there are strong aspects of creative reportage that goes into a show like this… We’re trying to explore something in-depth and get to the bottom of why something became as powerful or resonant as it did.”
The hope is to create a multi-discipline podcast: part traditional making-of documentary, part critical analysis, part historical narrative. Fennessey was reluctant to cite any sources of inspiration that serve as direct models for Halloween: Unmasked — he didn’t work on the day-to-day of the podcast, so he doesn’t want to speak for the producers — but he did point to one potent frame of reference: “One show we did talk a little about, which I think is very different in execution but we have a ton of admiration for, is Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This,” he said, referring to the popular Hollywood history podcast that blends together deep research, analysis, and performance.
Thinking, again, about the recent developments in the podcast industry, I asked Fennessey about the state of podcasts at The Ringer. The network, I’m told, is profitable. “We feel really lucky that the strategy we’ve deployed has worked so far,” he said. “We’ve been really fortunate to land on a couple of really successful shows, and we feel good about the audiences for even our modestly-sized shows. We just want to keep growing.”
With the addition of Halloween: Unmasked, the Ringer Podcast Network will now contain 27 shows that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, collectively brings in more than 32 million downloads a month. That scale appears to be a direct consequence of a fluidity that the company imbues into its podcast operations: at The Ringer, they tend to execute and test on new show ideas really quickly. That fluidity, I’m told, is largely representative of the culture that Simmons has built. “He always pushing us to try new stuff,” Fennessey said. “He’s not afraid to say, ‘I know we’re still piloting this, but I think it’s good enough to put out into the world,’ and if it doesn’t work, that’s okay, it’s not the end of the world.”