Skip to contents
Stories

What’s in a name?

A few weeks ago, Skimm’d from the Couch, the podcast from, well, The Skimm, announced it was changing its name. The rebrand was pegged to a shift in content strategy: What was originally an interview show offering career insights to women — in which “the couch” refers not to lockdown activities but to the casual tone of the show, which launched in 2018 — will now be published under the name 9 to 5ish, with the new version aiming to more candidly address gender inequities like those exacerbated by the pandemic, particularly as more people return to in-person work. One way this rebrand — or any rebrand, in this current moment — could go over with listeners is that they take it in stride, particularly because, with our worlds having been upended by the pandemic, many of us now just take change as a given. And that’s nothing to sniff at, considering it’s not exactly rare for consumers to have negative reactions to rebrands.

Name changes can trigger confusion, complaints, or slow uptake from audiences. This, in turn, fuels a desire to get names right on the first try. In the particular context of podcasts — where, as this Eye on Design piece points out, your product can’t really be sampled by chance “in the wild,” the way a song could be overheard in a coffee shop — a listener also needs to opt into the product, which puts a lot of pressure on the name to do a lot of the work to hook that listener in the first place. For that reason, it’s helpful to think about podcast names as being the product of a specific calculation: One that balances how much to reveal and how much to leave out, with the goal of incentivizing people to tune in and learn more.

Here’s an example. Studio Ochenta, in partnership with TRAX and with marketing support from PRX, recently launched a show that seeks to weave mythological elements into stories that are aimed at tweens. Maru Lombardo, senior producer at Studio Ochenta, told me this of the team’s naming process: “Lory Martínez, our executive producer, knew that its adventure stories were framed with a broader purpose — exploring cultural expressions, folklore, mythology, and customs. That had to be expressed as straightforwardly as possible in the show’s title. But we also had to make sure we were communicating the existence of a whole new magical universe in which rules worked differently. So, we came up with a new name for these stories’ world: Cultureverse.”

Cultureverse is a sonically bouncy name. It sounds vaguely superhero-like, capable of sparking the imagination of someone in middle school. It’s also pithy, bringing to mind the sense that a more specific title was perhaps unnecessary in order to pique the interest of the intended audience.

Indeed, invoking the particular curiosity of a specific crowd is what also led to the name of another title: The Stoop. “We got together and thought about the places where conversations happen around Blackness, spaces where we feel free and light and open, and [co-host Hana Baba and I] both at one point said ‘a stoop,” says co-creator and co-host Leila Day. “It became very clear that there’s an abundance of Black joy that happens on a stoop, so we stuck with that.” As is the case with Cultureverse, the name of The Stoop doesn’t communicate everything, but it communicates enough to the intended listeners, identified and targeted as kindred to the shows’ creators.

For shows that aim to attract a broader swathe of audiences — but whose creators want to maintain some creative freedom and avoid heavy handedness in the title (no offense, An Oral History of The Office) — the colon does a lot of work. Whether potential listeners notice the text that follows a colon in a show title is another story (one that’s harder to measure), but some producers bank on the extra verbiage to seal the deal when a somewhat ambiguous — but cool-sounding — title doesn’t give it all away.

One show in the portfolio of audio producer Robin Linn serves as a good example. Its title, And Nothing Less, comes from a longer quote, one that served as the motto for a 19th-century newspaper called The Revolution, whose contents and mission in turn served as inspiration for the podcast.

Don’t know The Revolution? Neither do I. And neither, Linn figures, do many of the intended listeners of the show. The full phrase, “men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less,” was used to pressure lawmakers in the 1860s into instating gender equality, specifically within the fight for suffrage, and Linn says the shorter phrase “and nothing less” served as “a through line we kept in mind during all the episodes,” particularly when attempting to extend discussions to the experiences of people of color. All in all, though, Linn and her team assumed that the phrase, however fitting, “wouldn’t communicate much, which is why there’s a colon,” says Linn, hence the full title, And Nothing Less: The Untold Stories of Women’s Fight for the Vote.

There are, of course, show titles that say much less, and that do so on purpose. With these projects, it’s the ambiguity and the potential that lies beyond the title that’s precisely the point, even if it makes the show somewhat hard to market.

Jason Gots’ Clever Creature is a podcast that perhaps sits at the other end of the spectrum from, say, Phoebe Reads a Mystery in terms of what you’ll hear in consecutive episodes, but the prompt is always the same: Conceive a song and short story based on a random word. It’s a concept sure to be liked by improv fans, but one that’s not explicitly communicated by the show’s title or its bright, cartoony cover art. (Though Gots says both the graphic and name pay homage to the cuttlefish, a camouflaging animal whose adaptability he channels when creating each episode.)

When I asked Gots what he thinks the cover art, along with the ambiguous title, communicates to listeners he hopes to attract, he said at first, “I guess I was hoping the title and the avatar would provoke curiosity and interest, rather than giving away the literal shape of the show.”

Then, following up over email, he added: “It seems to me that the bigger these content platforms get, and the more people compete to game the system by second guessing what audiences are going to understand and respond to, the more standardized and boring the things we make (and the way we package them) can become. Everything I’ve ever loved in art, literature, music, storytelling of any kind, has been unapologetically, weirdly itself. So I try not to second guess anybody, or to think in terms of branding that will communicate x, y, or z — just to make the thing I think is beautiful and interesting and fun.”

Again, for Gots, being clear isn’t the point. He’s not trying to hook listeners with a straightforward or heavy-handed title — though, realistically, in order to capture such the show’s contrived premise, the title would probably have to be excessively long and descriptive. Instead, he embraces the unpredictable outcome. The ambiguity of the title mirrors the shape-shifting nature of the show, which in turn reflects his larger stance on art: that it should take the form it needs to take, regardless of its ability to be described.

The Michael Ian Black-hosted Obscure, another show that Robin Linn produced, serves as an additional, quite literal example. “[T]he first season of Obscure was Michael reading Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, so he/we quite liked that and took it and ran,” says Linn. Though the second season now has Ian Black reading Frankenstein, “the idea of obscurity was a big theme of season one,” says Linn, and it holds true in the host’s commentary that continues into more recent episodes, hence the keeping of the name.

“Michael talked a lot about coming to terms with his own obscurity — or lack thereof, depending on who you ask — and whether this podcast was even a good idea and if anyone would listen,” Linn says. “And turns out, he doesn’t care, and the loyal and devoted few that do listen don’t care, either. It’s a weird show, and we like it that way.”