The Brains Behind 30 For 30

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Jody Avirgan runs and hosts 30 for 30 Podcasts, part of ESPN Films. He oversees the production of two seasons of original audio documentaries each year, and hosts conversations with filmmakers and others in between seasons. He also developed FiveThirtyEight Podcasts, where he continues to host, report, and edit. As host of the FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast, he covered the 2016 campaign and the rise of Trump, and was host of What’s The Point — a show about how data affects our lives.

Prior to arriving at ESPN, he was a producer at WNYC radio, and has worked with shows such as On the Media, Marketplace, Freakonomics, and many more. He serves as a podcast judge for the Webbys, a mentor for the city of New York’s podcast certification program, and recommends podcasts as part of the Sunday Long Read newsletter. On the side, he hosts the comedy and storytelling series Ask Roulette.

PBJ: Tell us about your work at WNYC?
Jody: I was a producer mostly for about seven years. Over the course of my time there, one of the things I made a priority was collaborating with a lot of different shows. I worked at the newsroom on a bunch of different shows they produced. My home base was the daily Talk call-in show that happened at 10 every morning, The Brian Lehrer Show. I was able to bounce around and collaborate and do some reporting. I did find myself on air from time to time and I started to do some more reporting and taking on some hosting. 

PBJ: How did you land with ESPN?
Jody: My path to ESPN was through 538, which was owned by ESPN until recently. I have a background in political and news journalism. I started talking to 538 about launching a podcast. I spoke to Nate Silver and they brought me on board. I helped launch podcasts at 538, including a political podcast which I still continue to host. Then it really is as simple as we share a floor with ESPN Films and 30 for 30. I got to know them and we started talking. Libby Geist, who runs ESPN Films, said, “We always wanted to start a podcast, can you help us develop it?” I said, “Sure.” When someone comes to you with a brand like 30 for 30, which is so beloved, and asks if you want to be a part of this, you jump at the chance. Our initial idea was Can we take the audio from the films and repurpose it for a podcast? I said, “Let’s try that,” but in the back of my mind I hoped we would try it and everyone would realize that doesn’t work, then in order to do it right we would have to do original stories. That’s basically what happened. It’s a different medium that deserves its own stories. I worked out an arrangement that I could split time, but more and more 30 for 30 has taken up the majority of my time.

PBJ: What are your thoughts on the podcasting space?
Jody: I think we’re frankly finally reaching a point where there’s a lot of really good stuff being done. For me, much of 2017 was spent looking around saying, This is the podcast boom. There were not that many great shows or things being done. 2018 has felt like there’s finally really good new ambitious stuff coming out. The creative output has matched the hype for the first time. I’m really inspired and it’s great to look around and see all this work being done. From an industry perspective, the industry will continue to grow walking the same path other media have walked. You can see the pattern of something starting small and then starts to grow. Then more money comes in and the big legacy media companies try to figure it out. Advertisers get involved and there is a push for metrics.  All of this stuff happened a few generations ago for the film or TV industry. I think that will be good and bad. The good is when there is real money and ambition the most creative people, who maybe two years ago would have decided to do a Netflix show or TV show, now will decide to do a podcast. Inevitably, as more money comes in and advertisers demand more, it will crowd out the independent producers and I’m worried about that because that’s where the most inspired work comes from.

PBJ: What will it take to get more advertising into podcasting?
Jody: Better metrics. It’s still a bit Wild West for metrics out here. So far every push for standardized metrics has reinforced what the promise of podcasting has been all along. There was a big fear when the Apple metrics started to come that it would show listening habits that didn’t match up with what podcasting has been saying for a long time, which is people are super loyal and will listen even to the ads because there’s a deep connection. It turns out that’s true. The actual data shows that. Generally, I’m encouraged because the data is backing up what we said. The other answer is finding new audiences. Ambitious podcasting comes out of a public radio ecosystem. It naturally brings in more creators who are thinking from a different perspective and will be finding new audiences in a targeted way. That is new formats, new age ranges, and new demographic groups. That will make it more attractive to advertisers, and when there’s more money there are more resources to do stuff that breaks out the silos that podcasting is in right now.

PBJ: Most podcasters start off with a microphone and hosting company and topic in their mind they hope will be successful. You have an established brand to incorporate your ideas?
Jody: This was like being tossed the keys to a Maserati, so my main job has been don’t drive this into a ditch. I’m aware of how beloved and successful and creatively ambitious 30 for 30 has been. It has been nice to have, as my main ambition, to do justice for the series and capture what makes it great on film, and do something that feels new but up to that standard. In terms of working with a legacy brand that has been mostly known as film, it does help recalibrate a little bit of the understanding of what podcasting is. Most people think it’s two people getting in a room and they talk with a microphone. It’s that talk show model. I don’t really like the name podcasting because it doesn’t do a good job of capturing the wide range of the medium. I end up using “audio documentaries” because I am trying to emphasize there is podcasting that is long-form narrative which takes months and months to make and takes tons of resources. There is a wide spectrum between two people talking about what happened last night in terms of what we do, which takes lots of resources and time. In a sense, starting from a place that has made films so there is a basic understanding these things take time and money, has been really beneficial. I have been able to stay, from a production and resource standpoint, closer to a short film than what you have in your head as to what a podcast is.

PBJ: How are the 30 for 30 podcasts being produced?
Jody: We do a mix, producing some in-house and working with outside production companies. The films model tended to be outside production companies and directors who do the film. We on the podcast side do more where we make them all in-house. We have reporters and producers on our team. For an internal production that’s what we do — we gather the interview, which is tons of time, travel, multiple interviews with our subjects. I always contend the most important step is the editing step. That’s not sitting in front of a bay and editing in that sense, but story editing, writing, cutting, trimming, trying different stuff. All that process that makes something really refined. I’m looking at scripts that will come out in a couple of weeks and its version eight, script 13. That gives you a sense of how many rounds of edits we go through in order to get these things to a compelling level.

PBJ: Do you think there’s enough commitment from ESPN being that it is so much work. Not many companies are dumping all of those resources into podcasting. 
Jody: We are really privileged to have the support of ESPN, the enthusiasm,  financial backing, and human resources. We are coming from 30 for 30 and that means ambitious, in-depth stuff, cutting through and above other sports journalism. If we weren’t doing this under the 30 for 30 banner we might have encountered questions like, “This is going to take that long and how much is it going to cost?” 30 for 30 is there to do this kind of work. It has benefits for the company which go beyond the raw bottom line. I like to think our podcast does other things for this larger ESPN brand and our ability to tell stories.

PBJ: In your opinion, what makes a successful podcast?
Jody: Whether it’s a Talk show with two people talking or our narrative, it has to feel intimate. You are connecting with a story or person. That’s the nature of the medium. You put headphones on and go the rest of your day. We are the only thing there when you are brushing your teeth or working out. Podcasting works its way into your routine and makes the deep connection that you don’t see in other mediums. The best shows recognize that and hit that note. For a Talk show, great chemistry and high production value. I have no patience for crappy mics, bad phone lines, or sloppy editing. You need good sound quality and editing.

PBJ: What is your favorite podcast that you produced?
Jody: My favorite thing about our series is the range we show. We can do serious stories such as the Miami Heat doing a protest about Trayvon Martin or a boxer in prison. We have done two poker romp type stories, or about the UFC which was about crazy characters. I want, in every season, for there to be a mix — weighty, serious, and romps. 

PBJ: What advice do you have for new podcasters?
Jody: The things that will elevate a podcast are not that hard. Get a good mic, make sure you have good sound quality, record in a quiet room. Think about your format. Put effort in before you record. Editing takes podcasting to the next level. Take the time to go back and edit. Be critical and give yourself the time and space and rigor to cut it and edit. That will differentiate you. For young people starting out, find mentors who can help you and you can learn from. Contact people you want to collaborate with as you go. Podcasting is very collaborative and if you can find a few people your age who you are sympatico with, that will pay off. 

Listen to samples of 30 for 30 podcasts HERE.