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The Road to Relaunches, Revivals, or Whatever You Want To Call It

It was the summer, and John Moe was giving serious consideration to getting out of the game.

Last June, American Public Media announced that it was laying off a good chunk of its workforce, citing financial strain due to the global pandemic. Moe was among those who lost their jobs, and as part of that, the company also ended production on his show, The Hilarious World of Depression, which served up frank conversations with various notable people about mental health and drew a passionate following over the years for its work raising awareness around the issue.

When Moe learned about the dismissal, he figured the severance pay would offer him some runway to meditate on what comes next. A veteran on-mic personality who’s worked around the public radio system for over two decades, he was getting tired of the constant anxiety that the business brings.

“It was always nerve-wracking,” he said. “The idea of constantly wondering what the listener reports would say and whether that would be enough to survive, given all the things I probably didn’t know about a company’s finances… it just seemed like a sucker’s game.”

Granted, that kind of thing comes with the territory of any creative work, be it ticket sales or music streams or art gallery fees. He knows this, but still, the grind still takes a toll, and at his middle age, Moe wasn’t sure if he had the nerve for it any more. And so he considered moving on to another life, maybe get a degree in social work and become a therapist. Enough people knew him in the Twin Cities area, he figured. He could probably fill up a few appointments.

Ultimately, he decided against the new life, and last month, Moe’s new project, Depresh Mode, made its debut in podcast feeds everywhere.

Fans won’t find too many differences between Depresh Mode and The Hilarious World of Depression. The fundamental premise is essentially the same, as the new show features Moe once again delivering frank conversations with various notable people about mental health. Hell, it’s called Depresh Mode, in case any Moe fans harbored doubts that his dad humor sensibilities would remain intact. There are some changes, nevertheless: To begin with, the new show strives to broaden discussions out to a fuller range of common mental health topics. There will be some experiments in format, with Moe planning for half of his new episodes to be what he calls “issue episodes,” where the framing isn’t around a profile of a guest but a deep dive into specific issues, like workplace burnout or the long-term trauma effects of COVID.

But again, the underlying show is fundamentally the same, and the fact that Moe is having to basically start all over is rooted in what should now be a familiar imbalance: He didn’t own The Hilarious World of Depression. That intellectual property still belongs to APM.

Moe’s experience getting laid off by APM and subsequently navigating next steps in the podcast world is an interesting and informative one, particularly for any talent or creator who has a reasonable following but is by no means a major celebrity. (Sorry, John.) After all, show cancellations can happen anywhere to almost anyone based on variables far beyond a creator’s knowledge or control.

After news of Moe’s free agency went public back in the summer, he started receiving messages from people and companies throughout the industry interested in working with him. As he tells it, the outreach ran the gamut, ranging from bigger publishers to smaller collectives run by young people he was unfamiliar with. He decided to sign with an agent, CAA’s Josh Lindgren, who also happens to be the agency’s sole operator in the Twin Cities area.

Moe started having conversations with a few places, but a major sticking point quickly made itself known: Several publishers were interested in him and The Hilarious World of Depression as a bundle. This was a problem, obviously, because as previously mentioned, Moe didn’t own the rights to the show. APM did, and the company didn’t prove willing to move much on the subject of intellectual property ownership.

“I had figured I would be able to take the show with me, because it was certainly of no use to APM,” he said. “But they informed me that it wouldn’t be the case.” The company offered to license individual episodes from the archive for what Moe described as “a whole lot of money,” but the cost would significantly cut into the value of any bundle-oriented deal he could take. The final accounting often didn’t make much sense for him.

That took him out of contention for several deals, which were mortally dependent on carrying over the old show’s intellectual property. “I got pretty far down the road with one negotiation, and it just collapsed,” he said. Chalk it up to basic risk aversion: Being able to lean on an existing feed offers some amount of guarantee and predictability around listenership right off the bat, which means that the publisher can sell ads against the show from day one. Having to start a whole new feed means taking a bet that Moe’s following would actually follow him to his new show and, more crucially, migrate over at a pace that the publisher could make work.

Moe’s experience, of course, directly connects to an ongoing discourse dating back to the summer: one about the appropriate balance in value between creators and publishers with respect to intellectual property ownership and project investments. That discussion has typically been pressed forward within the context of race, as creators from underrepresented demographics tend to get hurt the most in existing deal or production structures. But it’s worth highlighting that these imbalances do stretch out to impact just about anybody without the same level of leverage as someone with considerable preexisting power going into the creation of those productions — like, say, a celebrity.

To be clear, I’m broadly familiar with the arguments on the organization side, in this case APM. Sure, they paid for the show’s development, infrastructure, and production costs over the life of the show, and so companies like them often view holding onto the feed and capturing whatever value it might generate over the long tail as something they’re entitled to getting to validate the investment. Further, not moving on ownership is also presumably a point of defense: They invested all those resources in Moe, so why should they let him easily take the product to a competitor without getting some balance in value back? I’m not altogether hostile to the arguments, but the question fundamentally lies in proportion and fairness: Is the long-tail value of that show really worth boxing someone they laid off out of certain economic opportunities?

(When reached for comment on the specific point of still owning The Hilarious World of Depression‘s IP, an APM spokesperson replied: “Under federal copyright law, APM still owns the IP rights to the podcast feed. We also addressed this in our letter to listeners that was posted back in June of last year.”)

In any case, Moe eventually decided to work with Maximum Fun, the Los Angeles-based podcast company. As is typically the case with that publisher, Moe owns Depresh Mode in its entirety, with the company providing production support and integrating the show into its primary revenue system, which revolves around a crowdfunded-membership model.

“We were among the many people who were bummed when his old project ended, and are grateful to be working with him on his next one,” said Bikram Chatterji, Maximum Fun’s managing director, when reached for comment. “We were thrilled to collaborate with John because his work has two of the qualities that are absolutely essential to how MaxFun works. First, it’s meant to help people, which is why we do what we do. And second, John’s work means a lot to his audience, which is how a crowdfunding model becomes sustainable.”

For Moe, the pitch was meaningful, as was Maximum Fun’s approach. “More than anybody else, Bikram over there said, ‘Having an established show is great, but we can make a hit show with you doing something just brand new. We think you’re the selling point of the show, not the show title,’” he said.

The new partnership has its demands. Most prominently, Moe will now be making forty-eight episodes a year on Depresh Mode, up from twenty episodes a year, which was the typical production order for The Hilarious World of Depression. It’s a bigger lift, certainly, but on the flip side, the increased load is more than balanced out by the freedoms and benefits that come with full ownership. If he wants to work on a book project, engage in adaptation talks, or indeed, end the show on his own terms, those decisions will ultimately be up to him — and he’ll get to enjoy the full upside of his own actions.

Those freedoms might not be a full panacea to the constant anxiety that the creative life brings, but you can bet it goes a long way.