"Rapport Is Probably The Most Crucial Ingredient In a Good Podcast": Interview with Jacob Salamon

To celebrate the release of the RØDECaster Pro Podcast Production Studio and PodMic at the tail end of 2018, we decided to kick off 2019 with a bang by launching the inaugural edition of My RØDE Cast, our new podcasting comp!

One of the judges who will be deciding on the winners of the $150K prize pool is Jacob Salamon, Founder and CEO of media powerhouse WISECRACK. A collective of podcasters, filmmakers, comedians and academics, WISECRACK produce a slew of hugely popular podcast and video series that reach some 50 million people every month, with a total of over 400 million video views since their conception back in 2014 – it’s clear they are doing something right.

We had a chat with Jacob about his career as trailblazing media entrepreneur, how to produce a winning podcast, and where he thinks the format is heading.   

Hey Jacob, tell us a bit about a bit about WISECRACK!

I started WISECRACK with my close friend and college classmate, Jared Bauer. For both of us, our ethos and connection to the brand changes every week. But ultimately, we’re most excited to promote critical thinking with our fans, especially through the lens of the things they already love – like movies, TV shows, video games, books, comics, music, pop culture, and more. We absolutely don’t want to tell people what to think, but rather how to think. In doing so, we’re able to explore fascinating themes and touch on some of life’s most profound questions, all while invoking lessons from literature, philosophy, psychology, history, and more.

You’ve been involved with lots of different mediums and creative formats in your career. What drew you to the podcast format?

That’s a great point. I actually started in software marketing before WISECRACK, and before that I dabbled in graphic design, e-commerce, and even a brief stint as a magician! But getting back to WISECRACK: Jared and I absolutely wanted to make movies. We were in love with the collaborative process of crafting stories and characters and bringing them to life in video form with a talented team. And there was certainly a ‘high’ to creating something new, which is why in our early years we just created as many shows and formats as humanly possible. 

In our first year or two working together, we created Bubala Please, Thug Notes, 8-Bit Philosophy, Pop Psych!, Boss Bitches of History, Earthling Cinema, and others. Once we found success with some of those early formats, we realised it was more important to nurture the shows that had traction and fans than to keep creating new formats. So we spent the next couple years taking our popular shows from 3 or 4 episodes to 30 or 40 each – and in the case of Thug Notes, over 100! 

We started producing podcasts for the first time when we adapted Thug Notes into an audio series with the launch of Thug Notes: GET LIT. It was a fun project overall, but it was also a gruelling process: tons of research, writing, directing, production, editing, and sound design. These were all things we were familiar with on the video side, but audio wasn’t a medium we were particularly comfortable working in. Not to mention, Jared had never really heard a podcast in his life up to that point! 

WISECRACK really hit its stride with podcasting with the launch of our Rick and Morty podcast, The Squanch. Our Senior Editor in New York, Alec Opperman, had been nudging me for months to launch more podcasts. When Season 3 of Rick and Morty premiered, we had a perfect opportunity to start breaking down every new episode of the show as it was released. I had such an itch to create something new, so I jumped at the opportunity to produce the show – to invest in the equipment we needed, figure out how to get remote guests like Alec on the showand figure out how to promote a new podcast from scratch. Even though we didn’t have a lot of experience with a roundtable discussion podcast, the show was a hit! The show drew an audience of around 150,000 listeners in its first season. From that moment on, we were hooked on podcasting!

As you mentioned, the WISECRACK team produce video as fervently as you do podcasts. In what ways do you see podcasting being superior to video?

Podcasting allows for ideas to form organically and on-air, as opposed to having to be fully fleshed-out, scripted, and polished beforehand, as they need to be for video. Early on, Jared was sceptical that anyone would want to listen in to our half-baked conversations about movies or TV shows, but it turned out our audience loved the casual, imperfect conversations. They’re more real, and they allow for various perspectives and opinions to be discussed and debated in real-time. Given our ethos of wanting to promote critical thinking, my opinion is that our fans can actually learn more about the process of forming an opinion or perspective by listening to those ideas develop than watching a video with all the false-starts and failed ideas edited out.

Also, some of our best video ideas are now born out of the long-form conversations we have in our podcasts. We might have a great debate and discussion on the podcast, that eventually gives us the inspiration or angle we need to make a great video. We can’t emphasise enough the value of this sort of development time – it’s invaluable!

The engagement on podcasts is also unreal as compared to what we see on Facebook or even YouTube. For example, our average podcast fan listens to every single episode we release, and most subscribers listen for to our shows for hours per month. We also get fantastic, thoughtful emails and voicemails from our podcast listeners each week.

All in all, podcasting seems like its own very tight, very special community. For all these reasons, Jared and I are completely in love with podcasting – we just wish we had the time to do it more!

What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get into podcasting or who is just starting out? 

Readers are going to think I’m getting paid to say this, but I’d say it’s important to start with the right equipment and room to ensure your sound is good. Just like in video, sound is crucial, and it’s often the most important, most overlooked detail. 

When your show is audio-only, it can be quite unforgiving. Poor audio quality - a thin voice without presence, bad room echo and so on - can all ruin your production value. There are plenty of great tools and affordable pieces of equipment to give you great sound without breaking the bank. The RØDECaster Pro is truly impressive at the price point and includes tons of features to give you that compression and low-end in your voice for presence. I’d recommend dynamic broadcast mics like the Procaster or NT-USB. I’d also consider additional processing — like compression and slight EQ — in your workflow. There are lots of great resources and tutorials available for this sort of stuff online.

But before you go too far down the rabbit hole with equipment (which, admittedly, is my favourite part!), make sure you have a solid idea of what you want your podcast to be about. Have a perspective and point of view, and do some work casting your show. Who will the characters and hosts be? If you have several friends or people in mind, record some dry runs and see how it goes. Listen particularly for chemistry. I’ve found that rapport is probably the most crucial ingredient in a good podcast.

And finally, I’m probably speaking for Jared here, but I’d say make sure you have a great outline going into your podcast recording. Do your homework and research, have great notes prepared, and have a clear outline of how you want the show to flow so you can guide the conversation with your co-hosts and make it easy for your listeners to follow along.

You guys have produced six podcasts so far. Where do your ideas for new shows come from?

Most of our podcast ideas have inspired as companion shows to our favourite series – Rick and Morty, South Park, Westworld. We also launched a movie podcast (Show Me The Meaning!) so we could dive into our favourite films and have a show that doesn’t have the seasonality of TV.

We also prototype shows and new formats all the time. Jared prototyped one with some of our contributors last week, and out of that experiment came a new idea Jared and I are really excited about. Maybe we’ll launch that one soon!

In your opinion, what’s a winning formula for a podcast?

It depends on what sort of podcast it is, but I think ultimately host chemistry, great sound, a solid structure, fan engagement (if possible), and interesting conversations are the most crucial elements. Jared got the idea to open up a voicemail line (we use Google Voice) for our fans in the last 3-4 months, and I think that made all the difference in the world for our shows. It’s so fun to hear the voices and opinions of our fans on-air, as opposed to simply reading their emails. Little touches like these make a show so fun to be part of.

For podcasts that focus on storytelling rather than roundtable conversations, the ability to tell great stories is, of course, paramount. I recently helped some friends with a podcast they’re producing. I think the instinct was to simply record some conversations and string them together on the timeline and call it a day. I encouraged them to think about the story. How could they instead lay out the very same elements they had in an intriguing and more compelling way. No matter what sort of podcast it is, it’s still show biz. It’s our job to put on a good show.

Where do you see podcasting heading in the next 5 years?

I think the recent news of Gimlet getting acquired by Spotify for a rumoured $200 million is fascinating, not to mention Spotify’s declaration that they plan to spend an additional $400-500 million on further acquisitions. I think this is quite telling. From what I can gather, Spotify is committing to do for premium audio what Netflix did for video. Spotify likely wants to amass a library of spectacular audio content to become the go-to destination for podcasts, many of which will likely become exclusive to Spotify. 

Additionally, I’ve been hearing more and more about audio-focused content businesses and start-ups in the marketplace. Entrepreneurs and investors are bullish on the opportunity, so podcast-based businesses will likely undergo quite a surge in the next 5 years. 

Time will tell how audio will fare against video in the war for peoples’ attention. But there are a few factors in the podcasting space that excite me — primarily that there is not yet a single platform or algorithm controlling the distribution or monetization of content. Conversely, in the world of online video, YouTube completely dominates, and creators are ultimately beholden to its algorithm. That’s not to say the distribution technology (RSS) and major players like Apple and Spotify are perfect, but there’s still lots of room for the market to be invented and figured out. I’m excited to see where it goes!

So, what’s currently in the works over at WISECRACK?

We’re always so busy cooking up new ideas. We’re working on a new podcast now (which I mentioned above) and we’re ramping up our newest format, Deep or Dumb? We’re also dabbling with a new show format called Shut Up and Watch _____, where we introduce fans to movies they’ve probably never heard but would likely find fascinating. Fingers crossed!

And finally, we’re working on building Wisecrack Courses, where we create badass classes to teach lessons in writing, filmmaking for YouTube, developing your ideas, and more. We’re so excited to get this project out to the world. We should have more info on this soon.

Entries to My RØDE Cast are open now and close at midday (AEST) March 12, 2019. Find out more about the comp and WISECRACK via the links below: