Obama Garage Podcasting

You probably heard. On June 22, 2015, President Obama dropped by comedian and postcaster Marc Maron's garage in LA for a recorded one-hour conversation for Maron's WTF podcast. There were no ground rules.  Maron could ask whatever he liked. Obama was in California for some of those high donor fundraisers and a meeting with Governor Jerry Brown.  Listen to Maron being interviewed by NPR's Terry Gross about what it was like to have the President in his garage.

(Side Note: Obama sighting. Last Saturday, I actually saw Obama as he was leaving a restaurant three blocks from my apartment.  He was in NYC with his daughters for a weekend getaway.  I just happened to be walking down to the Union Square green market and intersected major police activity on Park Ave South and saw him for a second as he exited Upland restaurant.)  

The president being interviewed in a garage - file that under a dramatic example of how media has changed over the last decade. A few days ago, I finally got around to listening to the podcast as well as the follow-up conversation Maron had with his producer Brendan.  I listened on my MotoDroid while flying from La Guardia to Atlanta  - yet another example of media evolution. With podcasts, you subscribe, shows automatically download, and you consume the media wherever and whenever you like. 

Podcasts are just over 10 years old - an expression of the digital age depending on more powerful mobile devices, compressed audio technology, high speed transmission, and so on. So, just over a decade ago, these elements began to come together and a new medium was born. 

There are all kinds of podcasts. Some are repackaged radio series like This American Life and others are hybrid programs or "radio hours" from TED or THE MOTH. Serial is an excellent of an entirely new genre - an in-depth investigative series produced only as a podcast. But tens of thousands of podcasts are original regular or irregular conversations / interviews / monologues - following no specific rules with no gatekeepers, editors, censors, produced at minimal cost. Maron's WTF falls in this category. 

Launched in 2009, Maron uses his soundproofed garage as his studio. He is a fairly well-known stand-up comic, popular on late night shows, and at one time on radio with the liberal network, Air America. Maron also currently is the star of his own comedy show on the IFC network where the his role as podcast host is central to the story line.

Maron's podcast highlights the central role of both new media and old media. I think this is important to note in this on-going debate about how old media is dying or gone and new media rules. It's funny because some people suggest that podcasts are old hat in the age of Instagram and 15-second videos.  Podcasts are not old hat and "old" media is still very much alive and kicking.
In terms of content, Maron's podcast is old school as it gets.  On this digital platform, Maron has long in-depth 60-minute or more conversations that are personal, at times intimate, and frequently reflective and insightful. His guests are not there to promote their latest film for five minutes. This is actual personal wide-ranging interactions - the exact opposite of Twitter, Instagram or the one-minute elevator pitch. He really takes his time. Millions are tuning in and the audience is growing. 

Not every form of communications and storytelling these days is reducible to 140 characters or 90-seconds of fast clips on YouTube. Maron is much more like slow cooking than fast food, like a fascinating dinner party than a superficial networking reception where no one really connects.

On his latest podcast, Maron talks with comedian Wyatt Cenac, spending 15 minutes discussing Cenac's early childhood, the murder of his father, and how he handled it. It doesn't get more personal than this and at no time is anyone hurrying to get to the next point. No one is tweeting in the back of the room. This is authentic connection which you are never going to experience in one photo with a caption with six hashtags.  

Another point. Maron monetizes his podcast through advertising - but this is also old school. He personally reads the ad copy for his sponsors which include promos for comedy shows, films and some kind of new better underwear.  Reading the copy himself is like old-time radio. I bet that Maron does this because if he is going to accept advertising, he feels he should stand behind it and do it himself. But what makes this 21st century is that unlike radio, with podcasts there are no overseers or censors, so Maron and other podcasters are free to say anything they like.  If the advertisers find it not to their liking, there are free to go elsewhere. Advertisers don't call any shots - at least not with Maron.

The garage setting for the podcast is not some stage set or gimmick or a fabricated marketing device thought up by a digital branding firm. He started in his garage and it still works. At this point, I assume he's making good money and so could move into a fancier recording studio and probably buy a bigger house, but that's not his style. The atmosphere does make a difference which is why the President of the United States came to his garage.  Authenticity has some clout.

So back to old media vs. new media. First, as a communications professional, I do help clients and campaigns create short videos and social media strategies.  I urge focused messages and determine ways to tell simple stories. And, of course, I am on Twitter and have thousands of "friends" on Facebook, but it's important to realize the limitations of any specific platform. It's a much more varied and interesting media world out there and storytelling is still king and some people want slower, more in-depth connections.  Check out "Nine Podcasts for a Fuller Life."  Also, TechCrunch's report on the future of podcasting.

Sometimes you just need to slow down and take the time and really listen - with no hashtags.