Transcript: Time travel with Manoush Zomorodi on Podcast Business Lunch


Brad: Manoush Zomorodi, thank you so much for joining me today.

Manoush: Brad, I am grateful for the invitation. Thank you for having me.

Brad: Oh, what a nice thing to say. Well, good, I’m looking forward to this conversation. You are the host of the TED Radio Hour, and that’s both a radio show and a podcast. In fact, it’s a top 30 Podcast according to Triton Digital’s Podcast Report for the US. It’s a top 10 podcast in some of the Apple lists. So there’s that.

Manoush: Yeah.

Brad: And also, you have charted a path through audio that has taken you from a big network involvement in content creation into start-up entrepreneurship and back again. And so my intent today, if you’re willing, is to drag you through this and learn as much as I can.

Manoush: Okay, let’s do it.

Brad: On the business side. All right, so let’s get started by time traveling back to, I think about 2011, and you developed or co-developed a show at WNYC where I think you were employed, called New Tech City.

Manoush: Yes.

Brad: What was that? Was that a podcast, partly?

Manoush: So, this was me going out to lunch with an old friend who I had known when I was at the BBC as a producer and a reporter, and he was at ABC News. We were going out to lunch, and he had a new job as the business editor at WNYC, and I was like, “Well, you guys, why aren’t you covering the tech scene, there’s this whole burgeoning tech scene, you should be covering it.” And he was like, “Well, I don’t have anyone on staff to do that. Why don’t you do it?” So he and I figured out, we piloted a sort of seven minutes slot that went into… Right up to the top of the hour. I remember there was this one slot, and he’s like, “I think I could get that once a week if you would do a little something for that.” And I did, and the station was really into it, and frankly, they needed more women on TV, and they definitely needed… Uh, not on TV, they needed more women on the radio, and they needed more tech coverage, and so they were like, “What if you did this more regularly? And what if we turned it into a podcast as well?” So that’s how it all sort of started.

Brad: And it was about technology businesses in New York?

Manoush: It was really about the sort of shift of the economy from being purely Wall Street focused to being… Trying to compete with Silicon Valley, that seems… Here we are a decade later, and it feels a bit dated, that’s not even necessary since we are, as we all know, dispersed across the country working from anywhere, and New York has definitely become number two, I would say, or three in the tech world, so it feels a bit regional in retrospect, but at the time, there was a lot happening. And there was a big debate over what sort of role the city would play and what kind of technology would be built here, and how this city was going to change as an urban center as well in terms of integrating technology into 8 million people’s lives who live so closely together.

Brad: Well, also it was WNYC, why shouldn’t it be about the city?

Manoush: Totally, exactly, that’s right, yes.

Brad: All right. So you turned it into a podcast, that was foresightful, wasn’t it? This was 2011 or 2012 before what we might consider the modern era of podcast.

Manoush: Yeah, it was 2012-2013, and I really think that was Jim Schachter who was head of the newsroom, so that was sort of the radio component, and then it was Dean Cappello and Laura Walker who were I think very much on the whole podcast thing before it was a thing, and just thought, why wouldn’t we do that? Well, this is how we need to start making shows that they are for both podcast and for air.

Brad: Right. Now, so was this show pioneering that or had WNYC already made some footsteps?

Manoush: That’s a great question. I don’t actually know. Probably one of the first, if not the first. I mean, On the Media, I think is the first podcast ever, so also made it WNYC.

Brad: Sure. Okay. And then came Note to Self.

Manoush: Yes.

Brad: Tell me about that.

Manoush: So, what ended up happening was I had an idea for an interactive project with my listeners, this was a project called Bored and Brilliant, which was about asking the audience to experiment with their digital habits to see if they could actually get bored more often and ignite their creativity.

Brad: You’re an advocate for boredom as a creative catalyst.

Manoush: I love boredom.

Brad: Yes.

Manoush: Yes, yes. I ended up writing a book about boredom. I ended up giving a TED talk about it, all sorts of things. But in the process, this project just exploded within 48 hours, 20,000 people signed up for it, which at the time was unheard of, this was 2015, and there was a sense after the project that New Tech City, that name was limiting in many ways, it kept us very regionally focused, it kept us very much on the financial business sort of side of it, when really what the audience was telling us was we need help navigating this new world, our relationship to technology, how it affects our beliefs, how we get our information, all kinds of things.

Brad: So it’s about digital lifestyles?

Manoush: Yes, all of the above, basically how technology was changing community. Yes, so we changed the name.

Brad: And nobody ever accused you of failing to think big?

Manoush: No, no, no, but it’s hard to name something ’cause everything is taken and Note to Self was not, and the idea was being reflective and cognizant of how technology was changing us, each of us individually, our communities, the global community, and it was really I think the first show to do that. Now there are tons and there are great ones, Kevin Rouse, over at the New York Times with Rabbit Hole, lots and lots and lots of shows about technology and the effect it’s having on people. But back in 2015, there was still a sort of sense that tech was great, this was really cool, this was amazing, and not the sort of understanding of how all those hours spent online were changing our brains, how our data was being collected, and so we went on to do subsequent projects as well, interactive projects. One was about information overload, called Info Magical, we had 30,000 people sign up for that. No, 40,000 signed up for that, and then we did another one about… Called the Privacy Paradox about digital privacy, and that was… You wouldn’t… This is coming crazy, but 50,000 people signed up to do a week-long boot camp on understanding where their data goes. So pretty cool, it was great.

Brad: Yeah, all right. This was early days of podcasting still. And tell me about the metrics, whether you paid attention to the metrics, the monetization of the podcast side of it, how was… Was the podcasting portion of this a separate business component for you?

Manoush: Well, I should say that at the time, there was very much a line between the makers of the content versus the people selling the content, it was… That has changed significantly, and we can talk about that, but there was sort of, don’t worry about how it gets monetized, concentrate on the making the thing, making the thing, and we’ll take care of the rest. I don’t think…

Brad: So this was… Sorry to interrupt, but this was WNYC, and this was both a radio show and a podcast?

Manoush: Yes.

Brad: So on the radio side, is it NPM that handles the national sponsorships for this?

Manoush: No, WNYC has its own ad sales, for WNYC Studios, which had not been created yet, but then there was… I believe we had an on-air sponsor, the person who sponsored the seven minutes slot, weekly slot, and then ads… I don’t even know how it worked in terms of serving up ads, ’cause I don’t know if there was dynamic insertion then, probably not, it was probably all baked in, would be my guess, I’m not really sure.

Brad: Yeah. I think so, too.

Manoush: Yeah. But for me, I had big eyes, big ideas, big eyes, and really saw that this needed to be… We had a huge newsletter for before newsletters were big, I think we had 60,000 subscribers at the time. We would sell out events at The Greene Space. Like I said, I ended up writing a book on the project, and so to me, I really felt that this show what could be a multi-media property, and that was really what I was hoping to build at the station.

Brad: Okay. Yeah. Now, how long did Note to Self run?

Manoush: I left in 2018.

Brad: And it was going that whole time, all right.

Manoush: Yes.

Brad: And you left this presumably comfortable and comforting network environment where they told you, don’t worry about the business, just create the content, and you left as a start-up entrepreneur with a partner, Jen Poyant? Is that accurate?

Manoush: Yes, that’s right.

Brad: Yes. Okay. To create ZigZag Studios or ZigZag.

Manoush: Yeah.

Brad: And I have a feeling I’m getting these facts wrong.

Manoush: No, no, you’re good so far, I can fill in some blanks. I’m impressed.

Brad: Okay. Stable Genius Productions?

Manoush: Yes.

Brad: That was the name of the company, and ZigZag was the name of the podcast. Is that right?

Manoush: That’s right, yeah.

Brad: Okay. So, at the start as you leave the comfortable and assured position for something new and unknown. Were you scared?

Manoush: Oh, yeah, terrified. But I should say that I was very angry when I left. The Me Too issues at the station, I was not… I did experience nothing like that, but I was very frustrated with the way that the station executives handled the situation. I felt they weren’t very forthright, and I also saw the writing on the wall that I was not gonna be able to spend as much time making the thing that I loved because all of us were gonna be drafted in this sort of rehab, as it were, of the culture of the station, and I felt like, “Well, that’s not what I wanna do right now. I want to continue to make content that changes how people think about their relationship to technology in the world.” And that’s my focus right now, and I wasn’t… I didn’t think I’d be able to do that at the station anymore, and I also felt that, you know, the station had a lot of other things to deal with, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to concentrate on building that show into that multi-media brand that I had envisioned. So yeah, we decided to go, Jen and I [chuckle] and start our own thing, and we were definitely inspired by Alex Blumberg and Matt, and sort of thought, “Well, if those guys can do it, why can’t we?”

Brad: You’re talking about Gimlet.

Manoush: I’m talking about Gimlet, the founders of Gimlet, and we… By chance, I had lunch with a friend of my husband who put me in touch with someone else who said, “We’re pulling together a bunch of independent journalists as part of the thing on the blockchain.” Heard of the blockchain, kinda rolled my eyes at the blockchain, [laughter] but…

Brad: Are you still rolling your eyes at the blockchain?

Manoush: Yes. Because of what happened. So we got a massive grant from Consensus, which is a blockchain company that is owned by one of the creators of Ethereum, which I feel like I used to say that and people would be like, You are… What language are you speaking? But now I feel like people actually know what that means.

Brad: I do, so therefore, everybody does.

Manoush: Therefore! So Joe Lubin, a multi-billionaire, decides he wants to use blockchain to create a better model for journalism, one that isn’t dependent on clicks and eyeballs, and one that isn’t at the mercy of Facebook and Google. That was super appealing, really spoke to the public media side of Me and Jen, and also there was cash money. So we thought, “Well, this is gonna be a crazy ride, whatever it is, so why don’t we just make that our first project? Why don’t we make a documentary podcast about two moms who quit their public radio jobs and a bit of anger during a Me Too crisis and go and join a mysterious project that they don’t quite understand, but then use that project to explain blockchain and tokens and all the things that everyone is talking about now, but were not as much in 2018.

Brad: Yeah, learn about it yourself and…

Manoush: Exactly.

Brad: And inform your audience at the same time. Okay. So this says to me that you didn’t have any funding when you left WNYC, you just left and then you got it?

Manoush: In very close succession, yes, yes.

Brad: Okay, good. What happened next?

Manoush: Well, we also joined Radiotopia PRX. So our thinking was, let’s keep one foot in the podcasting world in the sort of more traditional ad-based world, but then let’s also have our other foot in this new futuristic world where we are issued tokens and who knows what’s gonna happen. So Roman Mars, Cary Hoffman, the PRX crew over there, it was really lovely to be part of the Radiotopia community, a great group of creators. We loved that, sort of had a collective feel. And then also we were part of this Indie journalism group on Ethereum, another sort of collective journalism deal. So the show got a lot of press, Financial Times, New York Times, Adweek, Bitcoin Magazine, if you read that. It came out of the gate hard, and we… It was… We were doing pretty well. We were also making a bunch of other things, too, eventually. Note to Self ended up having a reprisal. I forgot about that. So no, it kept going. WNYC was approached by Luminary and… Which was about to launch, and said, “Do you think you could bring back the show?” And so WNYC came to me and said, “Could you and Jen make it again for Luminary?”

Brad: As an exclusive in Luminary?

Manoush: As an exclusive for Luminary. So we started making Note to Self again, and I was also brought on to host IRL for…

Brad: Oh, I remember that!

Manoush: Mozilla, yeah.

Brad: Yeah, you were the second of three or four hosts that they’ve had.

Manoush: That’s right, yeah. And that was produced by Pacific Content, the wonderful people at Pacific Content. I’m a big fan of them.

Brad: Me too.

Manoush: So yeah. So very, very busy. Lots going on. I had a book come out also. Had just had a book come out, so that was busy as well and, yeah, we were making a lot of things. And then we got to a point… Where were we? At the end of 2019 where the crypto project failed, full-on failed. And…

Brad: In what way? Did the traffic drop off?

Manoush: No. What happened was, there was a token offering, ICO, initial coin offering, just as that whole market was crashing. So the initial coin offering, there’s an episode where you hear how awful the whole thing goes, and what could have been worth millions of dollars was worth no dollars. And our funding, we were told that was gonna be the end of our grant experiments. And then when it came to the ad dollars we were getting from being members of Radiotopia, they just weren’t enough. They weren’t enough to cover what we were doing. So it kind of came to the point we’re like, “Okay, we need to figure out… We need to pivot clearly.” And that is when we went to TED and said…

Brad: Oh yes, you’re part of that collective.

Manoush: “We’re looking for a new home. We need… We want a different… We can’t live month-to-month with ad dollars. It just isn’t gonna work for us.” And they were starting the TED Audio Collective, and we were, I think, one of the first to join. And then the coronavirus hit. [chuckle]

Brad: Yes.

Manoush: So that takes us to March 2020.

Brad: That’s right. Okay. Now, right now, where do Stable Genius and ZigZag stand? Are they existing entities?

Manoush: Yes. So, here’s what happened. You’re keeping track of all of this? God, it’s a lot that happened.

Brad: Fortunately, I’m recording this. [laughter]

Manoush: So, what happened was that fall before the COVID hit, NPR and TED reached out and said, “There’s going to be an opening. We would love to invite you to apply,” and I know a lot of other wonderful people who were also invited to apply. So I wasn’t sure that this was gonna work out, but I had always been a huge fan of TED Radio Hour and, of course, NPR. And it felt kind of like a sweet spot for me. And so they ended up offering me the job. So the plan was going in… Before COVID hit, the plan was genruns, ZigZag, Stable Genius, with TED funding, Manoush is on most those shows, but also is the host of TED Radio Hour for NPR. Everybody’s happy. COVID hits, and as you know, everything was just paused. That was when we were supposed to be lining up our first big sponsors with TED, and they just… Nobody was committing to anything at all. My first episode of TED Radio Hour debuted the same day that the school system shut down here in New York.

Brad: Uh-huh.

Manoush: And timing was not auspicious, and then Jen was offered a really great job, and I think the financial insecurity of our whole proposition, it just wasn’t tenable for her anymore, and I certainly don’t regret that at all. We recorded a break-up episode, which was really sad. But she got a great job…

Brad: And so did you.

Manoush: And so did I. But I have kept doing ZigZag by myself in a much smaller entity, but kind of an interesting entity. So I’ve done a season each year because I think it’s important for me as somewhat, as much as I love interviewing people who are doing amazing things, I need to have my own creative projects as well, and be doing my own research. And TED has been really supportive in that, they are turning my last season into a TED course, which is debuting in June.

Brad: Oh, look at that.

Manoush: I know, keep trucking and things happen, is what the moral of the story seems to be.

Brad: All right, so now we’re in the TED Radio Hour era.

Manoush: Okay, yes.

Brad: We’re going to address this as a hybrid radio and podcast.

Manoush: Okay.

Brad: As a content as we have all through here, so that began just as COVID started?

Manoush: Yes.

Brad: How has that affected production, is it harder to get guests? Is it harder… Actually, let me back up if I might.

Manoush: Yeah, yeah.

Brad: Where is it produced?

Manoush: So the plan was for me to go down to DC every two weeks. And then that didn’t happen. Everybody dispersed, our whole team went remote, and in fact, our Senior Producer moved to Boston, another producer moved to California, and we remain remote. To this day, we are a remote team. I think our first…

Brad: Worth pointing out, I think, that you were going to produce it, I imagine in the DC Studios of NPR.

Manoush: I was also going into the New York Bureau, and I also…

Brad: But you were gonna go into a building, which was a facility for producing audio

Manoush: Correct, correct.

Brad: And now you’re not.

Manoush: Correct. Well, I should show you, if you don’t mind, I’m just gonna turn this computer– [Display shows an in-home audio recording studio.] Here’s my, I like to call it my spaceship.

Brad: Oh, nice.

Manoush: So I was also doing some of it here in my office as well, so it was sort of a… I said the NPR was very cool. I was like, “Look, I have a husband who works in a very New York-centered job. I have two kids in school, I cannot move.” And they were like, “We’ll work it out.” So they were willing to figure out the remote thing from the very beginning, and I think of all the teams at NPR, we really have the easiest time transitioning ’cause I was on Zoom every day with them anyway, you know?

Brad: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. So now are the interviews conducted… They’re conducted remotely, using Zoom?

Manoush: They are. We have just switched to Riverside.

Brad: Oh, yeah.

Manoush: Which people seem to love, so… Yes, and as you hear in the first few months of the pandemic, things are a little ropier, there’s not that beautiful, crisp audio. I lived in New Jersey for a little while and recorded out of a closet, we thought it was gonna be temporary, so you just kind of made do with what you had, but we’ve now doubled down to… We do multiple audio tests with the guests before we actually record the interview. My booth has been upgraded several times, if it’s going to be a very long interview, we make sure that we send them a mic.

Brad: Yes.

Manoush: We need to maintain that high fidelity sound that is crucial to the show. It’s really important to the show, and I know some shows, it doesn’t really matter, but for our show it does.

Brad: Sure. Yeah, so is the plan that this will permanently be remote or are you seeing what happens with COVID?

Manoush: I think whoever wants to work in the office in DC can, eventually, hopefully. But the show runners, Naz Mashkinpo, she’s gonna keep being in Boston, and I’ll keep being here, and James Dalhousie, one of our producers, is out in Huntington Beach now, so we’re still in the midst of figuring it all out, but every time we feel ready to pull the trigger on the next step, we seem to have a Omicron or…

Brad: Yeah.

Manoush: B2 or whatever. So, who knows? I wonder, there will be, I think some people say, “Can I please come into a studio?” They don’t wanna be home anymore, there’s a dog there, there’s a noisy partner who shuffles around, you know? I think there are some people who prefer to be in more professional circumstances. And then I think there are other people who we will say, “Can you please come into the studio?” And they’ll say, “I’m sorry, I don’t do that anymore.” So we’re definitely entering new terrain. For me as a mom, the flexibility is huge, and I’m sure a lot of people feel that way too.

Brad: Now, I think of the TED Radio Hour primarily as a podcast because that’s how I pick it up. I’m sure some people are the same and others think of it as a radio show. How do you think of it?

Manoush: Is it a cop-out to say both, Brad? I really, really do.

Brad: [laughing] No, that’s the expected answer.

Manoush: [laughing] Okay. But I really do. And let me explain why.

Brad: Okay.

Manoush: I love a clock! I think that we do better work because of creative constraints, like having limits.

Brad: Yes.

Manoush: I think people get very self-indulgence with their edits if they can make it as long as they want. I don’t want to listen to a three-hour podcast. No, thank you. So there’s something to the rigor of a clock that I think actually makes the podcast better. I listen to both. I’m of the Gen X generation, so I listen to both, I love listening to the radio, I grew up with the radio, my first job was with BBC Radio. I cut tape with a little nice knife, X-ACTO razor blade so… And then I think podcasts like the convenience… It’s awesome. I worry sometimes that Radio Hour is intimidating to some listeners, but who knows? Joe Rogan is three hours, so there you go. [chuckle]

Brad: What can you tell me about the business side? Now, how is this show wrapped? Does NPM handle this show on the radio side?

Manoush: Yes. So there is a partnership between Ted and NPR. I have to say, I have never seen a creative partnership run so smoothly. There is a real… It’s been going for 10 years now, so there’s a real trust and a bond and an understanding of what both, each party brings to the table, but NPM does ad sales and distribution for this property.

Brad: On the radio and the podcast side?

Manoush: Both, yes.

Brad: Oh okay.

Manoush: So my understanding is we are picked up by 600 plus stations, which is great. That’s really wonderful. And then podcasting, as you said, top 50, I believe, according to… I read that same thing, the latest trending podcast ranker and… Ad-wise, I don’t know how it works with what gets served up where. I read a lot of ads, which I don’t, I don’t love, but… I don’t endorse anything, and I will rewrite an ad if it makes it sound as though I think something is amazing. But I also understand we, the podcasting world has exploded and we need to pay the bills. We have a big team relatively, we need to be able to pay them, and I will draw the line at certain advert lane… Or I won’t do certain ads if I feel that the company is disreputable or whatever, and I won’t endorse anything. But, look, I want public radio to survive, I want public media to survive, and this is how we’re doing it right now.

Brad: Can you give me any information about CPMs or over all the money making of the property?

Manoush: I do not know about the money making. I don’t ask, they don’t tell me, but I do know that we have a several 100,000, half a million downloads per episode, like the day that it drops. And then I don’t… And then there’s an accumulation obviously, as it goes on. But… But look, when I first got into podcasting, I knew every single person in the Apple top 50, right? Personally knew every single person, and that’s not… We’re in a different world, so I think our expectations for growth have to be realistic and tempered in a world that, where everyone is screaming for everyone else’s attention. So to me, I’m gratified to be able to say that we have a younger, more diverse audience than many NPR properties, and my hope is to continue to grow that portion of the audience, and I’m doing something like… I can’t even believe it, Brad. I’m doing an Instagram reel series.

Brad: Okay, good, good. I’ll wait for that.

Manoush: So you know, gotta be where the young people are, but also brand awareness. What is NPR? We gotta be in the places where people are…

Brad: Yeah, it’s cool. There’s no reason you should be doing that, really.

Manoush: [laughter] Good thing. Some people would roll their eyes, but I’m actually having fun. I was a TV reporter once it’s…

Brad: That’s right, yeah before all this.

Manoush: Yeah.

Brad: Oh okay… Well, I think we have successfully completed our time travel tour.

Manoush: Oh excellent, good. I hope I didn’t bore everyone with some of the universes that we visited. We’ve been on many different orbits.

Brad: Fascinating from start to finish. Thank you so much for making the time to do this. It’s lovely to see you again, and I’m so happy to talk to you.

Manoush: Lovely to see you, too. And again, thank you for the invitation and your support of me and the show, it’s really… I’m very grateful for it.

Brad: You’re welcome! Have a wonderful rest of your day.

Manoush: You too!


Brad Hill