with Mike Carruthers (February 9, 2022)
Brad: Mike, it is so good to talk to you, I’ve been listening to your podcast for years and wanting to have this chat, so thank you for making the time.
Mike: Well, how nice of you to say. And thanks for inviting me, it’s an honor and a privilege. Thanks.
Brad: Oh, good. Thanks. You are the managing partner of Omni Cast, and we’ll get to that in a minute, but I know you best and probably many people do by something you should know, a top 10 Apple charting podcast and I think that’s what we’re mostly going to talk about, if that’s alright with you.
Mike: Sure, absolutely.
Brad: Okay, now, if I understand the history of this correctly, which is an extraordinary history, this audio brand, if we can call it that, this program started 28 years ago. Am I right about that? On radio. Tell me about that.
Mike: It’s actually longer than that. It started in the 80s. I had been working on an old radio show years ago called record report with Robert W. Morgan, and it was a daily, I think it was twice daily 90-second show about rock and roll artists. But I always had this idea that, “Well, what if you did in a 90-second show about information that people actually wanted and could use and using their lives and not hear the same old rock and roll stories from the same old artists. And that’s kind of where the idea came from.
Brad: Give me an example of one of those shows. What was in it?
Mike: Oh, it was things like how to talk to your doctor, or how to write a resume, or it was very self-help-y, very how to construct your day… How to be more productive, how to… And it was interviews with credentialed experts on those topics, and it would get condensed down into a 90-second feature, and sometimes it would be two 90-second features that would run on consecutive days, but it was just kind of the real gist of, here’s some nuggets of information that you could use four questions to ask your doctor kind of thing.
Brad: So the impetus to convey useful knowledge or as you call it now, sometimes fascinating intel, the impetus was really the same, just a very different format, and it was… You’re telling me it was 90 seconds, it was daily, and you booked guests on this thing?
Mike: We did phone interviews. All phone interviews, because with that many people, that’s 260 shows a year. Yeah, it was hard in the beginning to get guests, but it got pretty easy because the show got it on every list, every publicist and publisher, and so we got pitched a lot of guests so that we…
Brad: When you say we, what kind of staff did you have?
Mike: Actually, I started the show back with my first wife back in the 80s, and she helped me with that, and then as the business grew, then she moved on and the business grew, and I had people helping me, different people throughout the years who would help get guests and still have people helping get guests.
Brad: Well, I’m sure you do, and we’ll get to that, I’m really fascinated because it is now… It seems to be a pretty heavy lift. It’s a substantial show of nearly an hour, or three times a week, I think so, a bit later in this conversation, I’m going to ask you about the whole workflow of how you produce that.
Brad: But going back to those early days, so you did it in syndication, Who’s was your syndicator by the way?
Mike: We’d originally started syndicating it ourselves and asking radio stations to pay us money and that didn’t work… It worked out okay, but it didn’t work out well, and then I hooked up with media America, and they started selling it as a barter show, putting ads in the show and giving it away to radio stations, as long as they played the commercials, and that’s when it really took off.
Brad: Alright, so you ran along with this show while you were a DJ for part of that time, and then it… I guess then… Well, tell me when it occurred to you that there should be a stand-alone podcast, Where did podcasts stand at that point?
Mike: It started happening in around 2008, the economic turbulent time, but radio started changing, and part of the problem with the show… Well, it’s… The big problem was it wasn’t making as much money as it used to, we still had a pretty big audience, we weren’t losing radio stations, but it was harder and harder to get radio stations because of consolidation, it was hard to get a… Say an iHeart radio station to run it, because iHeart had Premier Radio and they had their own syndication company, plus we were a daily 90-second feature and features were kind of a thing back in the 70s and 80s. They weren’t so much a thing anymore, and stations that had the show loved it and stood by it, but it was hard to get new radio stations interested. They kind of thought of features as old-fashioned, and many of our stations were news talk stations and more older skewing AC stations, so our audience kept aging and it was aging out of the demo that our ads were sold in. When we were at 25-54 show in terms of ad sales, we had more listeners, 55 and over, and those listeners went un-monetized because the network we were sold in was a 25-54 network.
Mike: So all of those things combined, we kept losing money, we just weren’t making the kind of money we used to, and then this podcasting thing came along and I kind of kept my eye on it, but it didn’t really know much about it. It didn’t seem like it was much of anything back in the early days, as you, I’m sure recall. It was like, “Yeah, so what?” It was like almost like a poor man’s radio. It’s like, “Yeah, nobody’s making money.” But I was at the point in my career where I thought, “Well, I don’t think this radio show is going to last a whole lot longer, what else could I do? And podcasting look like something that could utilize the skills that I had as a broadcaster to some extent, and maybe it seemed like a gamble, but it was worth a shot to try to turn it into a podcast, and it’s so different than the radio show, but the concept is still the same in that it’s useful information. I think the name had some recognition, and so I contacted my old colleague, Ken Williams, who was the former president, a co-president at Dial Global and Westwood One when they merged together. I had known Ken for a long time, he had worked at Media America when I first brought the radio show over there, and I said, “What do you think of this podcasting thing,” and we got to talking, and the two of us kind of put together this idea of creating something you should know recreating it as a long-form podcast that it is today, and launched it on Labor Day of 2016 as a podcast while the radio show was still going on and it went on, the radio show went on for another nine months, the podcast was… We didn’t know what we were really going to do with it, so…
Brad: And at that time was it… I’m sure you didn’t launch a daily version of the show you had now, did you?
Mike: No, no, no. The podcast launched as it… As a long form, originally twice a week podcast, and then we added the third episode some years later, but it launched as a long form, much like it is… It’s pretty much the same concept and format as it is today.
Brad: Alright, on the business side, we’ll dive deeper into this later, but did you make money, were you monetizing it, did you sell ads right from the start?
Mike: What happened was, we launched it on Labor Day, and not much… The needle wasn’t moving much, and we didn’t really know. And we tried a lot of things, we tried different ways of promoting it in social media, and all, we didn’t… We were like so many people back then in podcasting, we didn’t really know what to do, but kept trying. What we did do was we were very consistent about cranking out the show, and we had a few other little tricks up our sleeve because we had guests, we were very careful and very consistent about asking guests to promote their appearance to their following on social media. So we launched on Labor Day in September of 2016, and then in December of 2016, we showed up on the Apple charts. And that’s the day everything changed, everything changed and how we did it…
Brad: I was going to say, what put you there the first time?
Mike: I don’t know. Because we tried so many things and we were trying them all simultaneously, it’s really had to pinpoint that, “Oh, this was the thing.” I think it was all the things.
Brad: All right, so let’s move into the present. This is a 50-60 minute show, I think three times a week. And as I mentioned before, for anybody who hasn’t heard it, it is substantial. It’s got at least one, and I think most of the time, maybe all the time, two fairly deep interviews in it. They’re…
Mike: Two. Each episode has two interviews.
Brad: Okay, yeah. Plus content in between those, we’ll get to the run of show in a minute, it seems like it takes research, you or somebody on your staff has to read one or two books for every show, I think, or somehow get up to speed with the author because it’s largely book authors. So, in fact, let me ask this question, What is the run of show for anybody who hasn’t heard it. Just march down the different segments that you produce for each episode?
Mike: The show starts with a minute long tease of what’s in the show… Coming up in this show, then there’s a break for a commercial, then there’s a little interesting news you can use kind of factoid thing that lasts maybe a minute, then we get into the first interview, and then we get into the second interview, and each interview lasts about 20 minutes… 20-22 minutes, and then at the end, there’s one other little factoid and then goodbye. So there’s basically five elements to it, the open, the two factoids on each end, the book ends, and then the two interviews in the middle.
Brad: So the biggest piece that you need to prepare for, I think, is the two interviews. Tell me how that happens. How do the guests get selected, how do they get invited, how do you prep for them, what kind of staff resources do you have to put this together?
Mike: Well, we have two people, Joanne McCall and Jeff Harvison who are experienced producers, and in Joanne’s case a publicist herself, who are out looking for people and they know what we… What we’re looking for, they know what our criteria are, and then they submit a list of, here are some people I think are… Would be good for the show, and we discuss and I say, “Well, maybe, maybe not, or I’ve already interviewed them or whatever,” and then they go back out and try to book the ones we’ve agreed to book, and same with Jeff, he does the same thing.
Mike: And then we are also pitched people pretty consistently by book publishers, universities and that kind of thing, professors, and then I get… I know a lot of people, so I’ll come up with an idea. “Oh, you know who we haven’t talked to in a long time,” and I’ll book somebody, so between all those things, we get enough people to come on the show.
Brad: In conducting the interviews, I can’t believe you read the entire book.
Mike: I almost never read the book, that it’s kind of the Larry King School of interviewing. I never wanna know more than the listener knows.
Brad: Oh yes.
Mike: Knowing it. I don’t want to go, “Oh, you know that thing you said on page 320.” I want to be curious like the listener and ask the questions that they would ask, so I try not to know too much, but I do look at the book and I look through it, and usually there’s press material that comes with it, and so I have a pretty good understanding of what we’re about to talk about. But I don’t prepare specific formal questions, it’s more of a conversation, it’s not a formal interview and that that process has worked for me, even when I was doing the radio show, so and all told we’re up to about 10,000 interviews since I’ve been doing this. So it’s kind of my style. It seems to work. It works pretty well. And that’s how I do it.
Brad: So that’s one key takeaway, I think for podcasters who are interested and who perform interviews on their shows. My observation of your interview style, your very effective interview style is that it’s un-rushed, it’s thoughtful, it pushes back on your guests when you find something to be difficult to believe or requiring more explanation, you’re not a placid interviewer.
Mike: No. I guess I’m not.
Brad: And you keep the spotlight on the guest. The guest does 90% of the talking. Those seem to me to be the key interview attributes that make your interviews so good. Are those correct? And do you have any others that people might be interested in?
Mike: Yes, you’re correct. I do keep the focus on that. We’re a topic-driven show, we don’t have people on because of who they are, we have people on because of what they have to talk about, and we’ve resisted being anything other than a topic-driven show. We’re also very careful, there’s that old expression in radio of, it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play, and there are a lot of things that we don’t touch because they’re done to death elsewhere. So we don’t have on like success gurus who tell you how you should improve your life based on their opinion, that kind of thing. We don’t have a lot of un-credentialed health people talk about, a lot of experimental healthy things. That we just we’re pretty conservative when it comes to health, and then probably… And one of the things that people seem to find very surprising, and it’s not by design, but I would say on it, in any given month, twenty percent of the interviews that I do for the show never make it into the show. We don’t…
Brad: Twenty percent? One out of five? Is that what you said?
Mike: Yeah, I would say… And some months, it’s 100% are fine. But I’d say on an average, about one in five interviews never makes it past the interview. And oftentimes I’ll do them over, I’ll offer to do them over again and coach the person and say, “Here’s… We’ve got to make this a little more exciting, a little more interesting,” and a lot of times they don’t want to do it, and that’s fine. But we don’t have people on just because they’ve done in an interview, if they don’t come prepared or the topic just doesn’t quite crystallize and sparkle that we just don’t… We just don’t use it.
Brad: So that implies to me, you must be pretty far ahead of your posting schedule in order to do that kind of cancellation.
Mike: You would be wrong.
Brad: Tell me. Tell me a tight spot you’ve been in?
Mike: We’re, well, we’re always in a tight spot when you’ve got… Well, when you’ve got three shows a week to get out, and the Saturday show is typically a re-run show from a couple of years back that people haven’t heard, that’s a real stand-out show, but still we’re doing two new shows every week, that’s four interviews. And sometimes if you have a dry spell or you’re not… You’ve got guests that are too similar, you don’t want to put them in the same show, we’re just days ahead of… We’re maybe we try to stay two weeks ahead, but oftentimes we’re just days ahead.
Brad: That’s kind of thrilling to know that. I’m going to be excited now, every time I listen to the show, they just got it out in time!
Mike: Yeah, well, it’s not as exciting as it sounds, but in the beginning it was really… It was tougher. I mean, we were right up against the deadline, but I made it a point because it was driving me nuts to stay far enough ahead where I could breathe, I could… If I had to… If I got sick or needed to take a day off that the world wouldn’t end. We’ve never missed a deadline. We’ve never missed a show. The show always posts when it’s supposed to post.
Brad: And it’s Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, is that right?
Mike: Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Mike: Midnight Pacific time is when the 12:03 is when the show drops.
Brad: I asked because we’re mid-week here. Is Thursdays ready to go?
Mike: Nope, actually, it’s half ready.
Mike: But this is one of those times the interview that I thought was going to go in there didn’t work out, and I just did an interview this morning that’s going to go in there and it’ll be up later today. Yeah, it isn’t. The real star, I think of the show is in the edit, that’s where the magic happens. And I know I’ve heard a lot of talk at podcast conferences and things about how we don’t like to edit … I don’t get it! There is no podcast that can’t be made better by editing, in my opinion. I really try to respect the listener’s time, and if somebody’s repeating themselves or they’re taking too long or they’re pre-ambling their answer, it all gets cut out. So the average interview is about 30-35 minutes, and it ends up being about 20-22 minutes.
Brad: I wholeheartedly agree with you about editing really in all media categories as a consumer and as a producer of them. Editing is where it happens, editing turns something so-so into something good, and something good into something great.
Mike: Right. Well, I’ve always thought like — Steven Spielberg doesn’t make a movie, and say, “You know, I’m not going to edit this, I’m just going to let it flow.” It wouldn’t make sense! Podcasting is ultimately entertainment, it’s story-telling, and it’s a beginning, middle and end. It needs editing for pace. Editing is magical. I hear a lot of podcasts that could be so much better with some really good editing.
Brad: Oh, yes. Do you have a dedicated editor on staff? What’s your production staff like?
Mike: I am the dedicated editor.
Brad: Good for you! What do you use? What’s your DAW?
Mike: Sony Sound Forge. I’ve used it forever. And in fact, it’s not even Sony anymore. I think Sony sold it, and I’ve always used it. I’ve tried Audacity and some of the other ones, Pro Tools and things like that are overkill for podcast, I think it was just so complicated and it’s so unnecessary, but I’m a stickler for audio quality, so we ask the guests, even though they’re remote interviews like this, we ask that they have a real microphone. We don’t have people talking into laptops because it sounds horrible.
We even have a video that we send to every guest, and we ask them to please watch it. I think it’s about seven minutes long, and it says, “This is what we’re expecting. We need you on a microphone. This what we want to get out of this. This is what I need you to do.” We try to give them as much information as we can, because a lot of times — and this used to happen with the radio show too, that people would say, “Hey, I wish I had known more about what you were looking for.” I felt — well, then why don’t we just tell them! I get more compliments and comments on that video of people saying, “Thank God, I wish more podcasts would do this.”
Brad: That’s great speaker prep. I want to get into ad sales and monetization, if you don’t mind, and if I ask anything that’s out of bounds, just push me back in bounds.
Brad: You are ad supported. Are you repped? Or do you do your own business?
Mike: We are part of the Cumulus Media Westwood One Podcast Network, and they are our exclusive ad sales rep. In 2016-2017, we were with Wondery. And then lasted I think two years, and then we went to a company called DAX, and then we moved to Westwood One and are very happy.
Brad: And what actually gets sold packages across. I mean, do you have minimums across several episodes or what’s the package?
Mike: Westwood One will vet us with… Will vet certain advertisers with us, we’re working with this company, this company, this company, would you accept… Would you do ads, host red ads, endorsement ads for this company? Then we also have… And this was a very deliberate decision we made going in, our podcast is very advertiser-friendly, we don’t swear, we don’t get into politics, we don’t get into religion.
Brad: You’re safe.
Mike: We’re very safe for advertisers and that was very deliberate, because there’s no reason for us to swear. We don’t get that upset about anything. So we don’t swear. We tried to keep it… It’s more like a radio show in that respect. We’ve had many, many big brand advertisers come in — GEICO, T-Mobile, Discover Card — and they’re most likely in search of podcasts that are brand friendly.
Brad: I hear you reading ads. Do you also get pre-produced spots sometimes?
Mike: Yes, we’re not often from Westwood One or from Cumulus. Podcast is hosted on megaphone, and we’re part of their ad sales networks. So in a nutshell, if there are commercial evals that Westwood One doesn’t sell, megaphone will sell them or try to sell them, and then those are always pre-produced commercials.
Brad: We had a bit of chatting before this interview, I’m just looking over my notes, so all of your ads are dynamically inserted is that right? They’re recorded host reads, when you do a host read?
Mike: Yes, there’s nothing baked in anymore, everything is dynamically inserted, and that’s just because it just makes more sense. I mean, if we’re selling something that has any kind of timeliness to it, and the commercial’s still sitting in the episode in six months, that’s not… We have a lot of back catalog listening and we don’t want old commercials sitting in there, and by digitally inserting everything, we can do, flights, we’re doing… I can’t remember who the advertiser is right now, but it’s an offer and the offer ends March 31st, and on March 31st that commercial will be pulled out and something else will go in and it just… It’s cleaner, it’s easier. And I don’t think for the most part, listeners they can’t really tell if it’s baked in or dynamically inserted, it’s just my voice stopping the show, doing a commercial and then coming back to the show.
Brad: Thank you for being so forthcoming with these detailed questions. For what it’s worth, I think your show, something you should know, is just such a persistently good idea, so beautifully produced, entertaining, and worthwhile to listen to. That sounds like I’m blowing smoke. What can I say? It’s one of my favorite shows. So I think and hope that you will continue for as long as you want to.
Mike: Thanks, Brad, I appreciate the kind words.
Brad: You’re welcome. By the way, what’s your dog’s name? I see you’ve got a dog back on your couch.
Mike: That’s Taffy.
Brad: Taffy! Come here Taffy!
Mike: She’s looking over… Now she’s upset that you woke her up.
Brad: I know, I’m sorry Taffy. Alright Mike — it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you. Thank you again.
Mike: Thank you, Brad. Appreciate it.
The Podcast Business Lunch is a weekly series of conversation webinars with leaders of the podcast industry, hosted by Brad Hill, and a RAIN News production. Go to www.rainnews.com/pbl for information and free registration to upcoming shows.