Great kickoff for NXNE on Day 1, with such highlights as a keynote by comedian and podcaster extraordinare Marc Maron, and a party for musicians and press last night at the Edward Day Gallery.
At Maron’s talk I unexpectedly found myself seated on a couch between Christopher Roberts, director of NXNE, and Michael Hollet, who founded the festival twenty years ago. Maron, passing by the couch, jibed it must be the “couch of royalty.” I demurred, replying it was actually a sign of democracy, since I had just walked in and sat down at the spot. Maron, with a reputation aas an intense guy, paced the front of the low stage, waiting to get started.
I first heard Maron’s voice when he was a radio host on Air America in the early 2000s, so even before his podcasting began, I knew him to be an edgy, self-deprecating commentator, which seemed to afford him the right to deprecate others. Stepping on to the stage, he began by sharing a video of what he called a really embarrassing moment, one he couldn’t watch again, though he asked everyone in the room to do so. In the early days of the Internet during in standup routine he unabashedly derided the new technology, comparing it to CB radios in profane and broad-brush words. Wincing as the video ended, he addressed the several hundred people in the hotel conference room: “I coudn’t have been more wrong about the future… .I know nothing, and had no fucking idea how to use my computer. But podcasting has changed my life… . I’ve been a comic 25 years. I was depressed. seeking the spiritual reprieve of the faithless. I didn’t really fit in anywhere.” Perching on the edge of his stool, he explained that when Air America collapsed in the mid-2000s, he caught on with another lefty media start-up, but they ran low on funds and let him go pretty quickly. His personal difficulties only grew when he and his wife split up. Though fired from the job, he was told he could continue using his office and the studio for a while. It was during this period that he created the first 12 podcasts of what has since become known as WTF. They were so under the radar in his former employer’s building they had to ask guests to take the freight elevator, lest his former bosses discover what they were doing. “We had no idea what we were doing, and had no expectations.” Maron’s now done more than 500 podcasts of WTF.
After the inevitable exit from the more professional studio, they moved the operation to the cluttered gararage of his two-bedroom house in Los Angeles. He said, after working several years in political commentary, he no longer wanted to work in punditry, as he’d realized his interests and priorities were more existenital. There was pick-up on the early podcasts, with 1200-1500 downloads of each epsiode. He offered simple technical advice for anyone taking up podcasting: “Get good mics.” He said the first 100 interviews were mostly him asking famous people to help him out. hey had no business model in place, and no way to monetize what they were doing. But he took refuge in consistency—they put out two episodes per week, releasing them each Monday and Thursday. Robin Williams came on for a very candid conversation, in what became one of their first big deal episodes, producing a breakthrough for WTF.
He later did a two-part interview with Louis C.K. Then, the manager of the comedian known as Gallagher called and said the comic wanted to come on the show. Maron pressed Gallagher about racist and homophobic bits in his comedy. Gallagher, who’s been known to smash a watermelon with a hammer while on stage, walked out with the mics still on, shouting That’s not a hammer, that’s a cross.” Maron confessed, “I did sandbag him a bit. He’s an asshole.” In an interview with Carlos Mencia, the guest, often known as a “pathological joke thief,” saw a chance to reinvent himself. At first, Maron let him get away with it, but then thought better of it, and called him on his prolific thievery. Freworks ensued.
He said, “The medium grew with me. I hope I’m giving you the details you want… . The podcast saved my life… . My partner keeps the numbers: 120 million downloads overall, 3.4 million per month, 20 episodes have more than 300,000 downloads… . I lucked out w/this medium, I Just wanted to keep busy. It’s not an empire, it’s a garage. Keep it as intimate as the medium allows, no cameras, no video. Most people listen with headphones, gives me a direct line to their brains. You want to be relevant, not just get a laugh.” On making money, he said, “I don’t want to gamble, just hold on to what I’ve got.”
They now use an app and iTunes to monetize the podcast. The most recent 50 episodes are always free, then the 51st and so on are available via a fee for one-time purchases or via a full subscription. About making money, he said, “I don’t want to gamble, I just want to hold on to what I’ve got.” He didn’t give any figures, but by his own measure, he seems to be succeeding. They also have ads in the podcast, through an ad network I think he called Mid Roll.
During the Q&A I asked Maron about one of my favorites among his podcasts, his conversation with John Fogerty. He said it was challenging because of a bad contract the musician signed when Creedence Clearwater Revival was just starting out back in the ’60s, leaving him without copyright him unable of his own songs for decades. Knowing it could cast a shadow on the conversation if he asked about it, Maron declined to bring it up directly. Finally, Fogerty brought up near the end, creating a memorablly poignant moment in the podcast.
Maron’s closing line was among his very best expressions: “I don’t have a demographic, I have a disposition.” After robust applause, Maron stuck around and shook hands with everyone who wanted to say hello. The fellow ahead of me in line, a comedy booker from a club in London, Ontario asked me to take a picture of him with Maron, which I did, and then the booker did the same for me with my digital camera, which I’ll download and share later.