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Jessica Cordova Kramer is CEO and co founder of Lemonada Media. — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
This is an excerpt of a full interview from Podcast Perspectives. The show is produced by The Podglomerate (the podcast firm specialized in producing, distributing, and monetizing podcasts for high-profile clients including Freakonomics Radio, PBS, Harvard Business School, and more). In each episode, host Jeff Umbro, founder and CEO of The Podglomerate, tackles topics like IP and rights issues, ad tech, podcasting’s role in media at-large, and more.
Jeff Umbro: Lemonada Media is known as a hit-maker with shows like Last Day, Believe Her, Wiser Than Me with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and one of their latest titles, The Dough with X Mayo. Why start a network as opposed to starting just a podcast?
Jessica Cordova Kramer: We sometimes ask ourselves that on a regular basis. The truth is we were putting Last Day out there and pitching it out, trying to get a network to take us. [We’re] still waiting to hear back. It’s been four years. It’d be nice if someone would get back to me.
But I was at Crooked [Media] at the time and I had been there from day zero, and so I’d seen a company put more and more content out, and I said to [Stephanie Wittels Wachs], “what if we did it ourselves?” And as we were making Last Day, we were like, “man, there is so much bad stuff that we could be talking about that could help people in our sort of comedic, thoughtful [way].”
And so we just started to think: let’s go bigger. Let’s put Last Day out, but let’s have it be part of a slate. Let’s have it be part of a company, we thought [it would be] a small company that we own – things have gone much more quickly than we expected. But that was the sort of genealogy of Lemonada. We thought this was our barrel of lemons, but lots of people are struggling out there. And what if we had content that helped get people out of the bed in the morning at scale?
JU: You have expanded quite a bit. You literally started with the one show. You’re now at 50-plus. It sounds like almost 60, if you include sales and distribution partners.
JCK: We’ll be up 50 at the end of the year, including sales and distribution.
JU: Got it. That’s a lot!
JCK: It’s a lot.
JU: How do you scale without sacrificing quality?
JCK: You need incredible people. Our team is mostly made up of wonderful human beings who share core values with each other. Our core values are mission-aligned, honest, and empathetic. So those are the things that we are looking for in staff.
We’ve got about 55, 56 full time staff members now. The bulk of [those] are on the production [and] engineering side. And it’s a full suite network, so we’ve got a marketing department, finance, operations, sales, and development. We’ve got it all in house – and that is the kind of care we take with each show. So it’s really about people and paying attention, making sure you have the resources for them – for each other to do the work, and then for talent, because we work with people we care about and we want to make sure that their show is getting the attention that it deserves too.
JU: You also work with quite a few celebrities or well-known talents. We’re [at] a point in the industry where a lot of celebrity deals seemingly have not gone well. So how do you approach the idea of working with somebody like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and doing the show justice, but also putting out something that is meaningful as opposed to just a name?
JCK: Yeah, with any of our podcasts, there’s a few things that really need to be true before we either make them ourselves, find a host, or we bring a host onto the network to make it together: it has to be on-brand, and for us that means it has to “make life suck less” in some way. So a million things could fall under that category, but some things really don’t. And so it’s very clear where you’re like, “this is super amazing and super entertaining, and not for us.”
When it comes to talent, [with] Julia, look, I mean, she’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. We are the luckiest people alive. I wake up every morning and I pinch myself that I get to know this woman, collaborate with this woman… She’s an incredible talent.
But she was looking for a network – she had an idea about talking to older women because she felt like they hadn’t gotten the platform that they deserved after living remarkable lives, we believed in that vision, and she wanted a team that could actually help her bring it to life.
And so for us, working with celebrities, talent, well-known individuals, [the question is]: is there an authenticity and passion there? Is there a core idea that hasn’t been done yet in this particular way? And if you can find that space and make a beautiful show, it’s going to be a hit. So we’re just thoughtful, is probably the short answer to your question.
JU: So Wiser Than Me [with Julia Louis-Dreyfus] was, you said, a hit three times when I asked you about it before. It is a phenomenal show and it actually [has] a lasting retained listenership, which is not always the case with celebrity driven shows. How did you approach the marketing for that show in order to unlock that kind of success?
JCK: We have a recipe for hit shows, we followed it with Wiser Than Me, and we have a mega hit. And we’ve had a few mega hits. [With] this one, it’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. There are so few people whose voice you could put on with no context and be like, “that’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus.” We did the inventory – it’s like Barack Obama, probably the last few presidents, Julia, and maybe like six other people where you’d be like, “I know who that is.” So there’s just some magic there.
And we’ve had a lot of number ones. This is not our first number one. But it was sustained for the longest period of time. It’s still top on comedy and it’s still top 100 or 200 every week.
We knew we were going to make a hit show, no question. We were going to hit number one, no question. It was going to have millions and millions of downloads. Our marketing plan includes all of the Spotify work, all of the Apple work, all of the Amazon music work, and all of the other partnerships with other platforms, editorial, PR, earned media, you name it. So we had our recipe and we followed it with fidelity.
There’s no accounting for word of mouth. It’s the secret sauce. People would tell us that they were like standing in the grocery line and two women would be talking about Wiser Than Me. If I go to a party and there’s a bunch of middle aged ladies there – which is the only party I will go to – and I’m like, “hey, I produce Wiser Than Me,” – which I would never do – people would be like, “oh, you produce Wiser Than Me?” I mean, it’s a thing people are talking about at yoga studios, it’s a thing people are talking about at cocktail parties, and you cannot make that happen no matter what you do. The only way you can make that happen is to market a great show well and then pray. Iit is a phenomenon in that way.
JU: You specifically call yourselves an “audio-first” network. What does that mean?
JCK: It means the thing that we say we’re good at is making podcasts – making audio podcasts. We are not a video production house. We’re not pretending to be. If an incredible show comes to us and is like, “we think this is a webcast,” we’re like, “we do not have the skills to pay the bills on that. We just don’t.”
For the Sarah Silverman show, we’ve got some nice video cameras in the studio for her so we can collect clips at the caliber that she’s used to, but ultimately our bread and butter and our skill set is audio production. If you’re an audio producer, you’re a freaking audio producer. You’re not a video producer. Even the editing is different. So we are just really clear about that.
And every three to six months, we, at our executive level, are having a conversation about: is this the time that we’re building video capabilities. And, at this point, we have not decided to do that because the infrastructure for distribution, monetization, and all of that is just not where it needs to be for us to efficiently make video a big part of our work. So we are audio first. It’s just nice to be focused.
And a lot of our talent – they’re signing up to be on a podcast. They’re not signing up to be on a webcast and they don’t want to be videoed. We’re talking about hard stuff – people are like openly weeping. With Julia’s show, she’s like, “I don’t want these ladies to have to do hair and makeup to come on and talk to me about aging.”
Part of our core business is being clear about what we’re good at.
JU: With the general podcast market today, are you optimistic about what’s happening in the ad marketplace? How do you feel right now generally about the podcast economy?
JCK: I am so optimistic about audio. More and more people are listening to podcasting than ever.
Every industry has to go through growing pains, grow up a little bit – go from early stage media, to emerging media in the last few years, to something that is more standard. And all of these big [holding companies] at the agency level know what audio is. Audio budgets are becoming a more standardized part of every huge brand spend each year. So I’m super optimistic about that.
I heard a stat – don’t fact check this because this is just from my memory – I won’t name any brands, but a brand that spends about $4 billion a year on advertising is spending about $800,000 of that on audio right now. And that percentage will continue to grow as people understand the conversion in audio and how to access listeners in a more strategic way.
But it takes time and it’s been a tough year for podcasting. In some ways, the white knuckling is real, and people [are] trying to persevere through some of the challenges and find ways to make it work.
And I do think audio is here to stay for sure. I think it’s going to grow market share hugely. And there’s so much happening in media more broadly: Streaming is changing dramatically. Cable is changing dramatically. Linear radio is changing dramatically. And podcasting is just a big part of all of that.
JU: Thank you so much for joining us.
JCK: Thanks for having me.
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