Aaron Lammer, The Art of Podcasting No. 5

In 2010, Aaron Lammar and his partner, Max Linsky, began longform.orga website that culls the very best longform journalism from around the web. These days, the website is a huge hit and has spawned an equally popular podcast that regularly features some of the biggest names in journalism. Recently The Timbre‘s Eric McQuade got a chance to talk with Lammar about building an empire like Longform, booking top tier talent, the shift toward other forms of media, and the pride of being a This American Life completist.

 

THE TIMBRE

When you and Max started Longform, were you guys fighting about which direction it would go?

AARON LAMMER

I wouldn’t say fighting, but I think it took a certain amount of feeling out our sensibilities. Max is from a more journalistic background, so he had stronger feelings about how it related to the world of journalism and I was a bit more interested in the user experience. Like, ‘What does this mean for reading on phones and where is that stuff going?’ I think both of us fought hard for what we thought was the important part and the final product is mostly a mixture of the things we felt strongly about.

THE TIMBRE

The reason I brought up the aspect of fighting is that I was reading this Twitter origin story that I actually found on Longform, and I was like, ‘Gosh, companies are so fraught with discussion over direction.’ Because when you’re successful, these things are easier to work out. Day one, you guys can’t develop a really nice product like you have now.

AARON LAMMER

No. Definitely not. When we started we were really barely able to put together a website. We were quite naive. I would say Longform is either the second or third site I ever made.

 THE TIMBRE

You started in 2010?

AARON LAMMER

That’s right.

 THE TIMBRE

The podcast goes up in 2012.

AARON LAMMER

That’s right, yeah.

 THE TIMBRE

So, you first go live with Longform. What was that like?

AARON LAMMER

We started Longform for fun. Two people doing it for fun. We did not think it would be–I don’t even think we thought it through, actually. I was going to say that we didn’t think it would as successful as it was, but that’s not really true. We didn’t really think about it all. I would not have bet on it lasting more than a year. At first, we were just kind of juiced that people were into it at all. The audience that came just kept getting bigger and bigger without us doing much. Which was awesome.

I think that during the first year we started to realize that you had to do work to keep a website online. We started just kind of learning how you run a website from scratch. We really learned as we went along. When we’re done with one challenge, we move on to the next one. And I think that’s sort of where the podcast comes from. We want to keep being ambitious and keep doing things that our audience is into.

 THE TIMBRE

What was your thinking when you launched the podcast?

AARON LAMMER

Our thinking was that there were people who were coming over years. When we first started, we had a singular vision. And as people stayed with us over the years, and we stayed with it, you see the same names, the same writers, and you start to build a relationship with them as storytellers. As we got deeper, our curiosity grew. “Who are these people who write these stories? How do they write them? What are there motivations? What are their careers like?” You have all these unknowns because it’s not like people who are journalists are celebrities where you can read lots of interviews with them.

At the same time, I think both of us were big fans of the Marc Maron WTF podcast, and I think that show is really educational as to what the life of a comedian is really like. It’s not just, “How do you write jokes?” It’s a lot about staying in weird motels and touring the country–what the life is actually like. It felt like there was a value to really asking people how they did their job. And that’s really all the podcast concept is: You write nonfiction. How do you do it? Why do you do it? What’s important to you? It felt like we needed a lot of interviews to represent all the different kinds of voices out there.

THE TIMBRE

You’d mentioned that you and Max were fans of WTF because it was like an education, a 101, in how to be a standup comedian. I think what that podcast does is similar to what the Longform Podcast is achieving. There’s a line between that and longform journalism in that I think we’re allowing the person, the focal point, to just live in that moment and tell their story.

AARON LAMMER

I agree. People’s lives are really interesting. That’s something most journalists agree with. The human condition and the details of the lives of individuals are worthwhile and interesting. And that’s certainly the starting point for us. Even if you’re the most objective, detached journalist, you’re still a human being. I think it’s valuable to interrogate to see how different people approach that because that’s another thing you learn very quickly: Not every journalist lives the same life. People are very unique and different–even two people who have the exact same job.

I think people don’t know things like, “Am I supposed to get paid? Am I not supposed to get paid? Is it bad to do this?” There isn’t a lot of communication, even living in New York City, which is probably the greatest concentration of journalists in America. I meet people and they’re like, “I’m not friends with anyone else who writes. I don’t have anyone to talk to about this stuff.” I don’t think that just following people on Twitter really gives you an impression of how they work.

THE TIMBRE

I totally agree. I actually think what might be my favorite podcast of your series was the one that you just did a couple of weeks ago. The Anand Gopal one. It’s just a great episode. I really connected with it.

AARON LAMMER

I thought it was great. We’re sort of gambling. We can’t really poach good interview subjects from other people because I had never heard Anand Gopal on a different podcast. But when someone comes in and they’re like, “I was a physicist, and I just quit. I went to Kabul with fifteen hundred dollars in my pocket,” that is exactly what I want to hear at the front of a podcast.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> Absolutely.

AARON LAMMER

Someone who’s led an interesting life and made decisions that maybe other people wouldn’t make–that’s great. I’m always hoping it’s going to be someone interesting, but you don’t really know until you’re sitting there talking. That one was just start to finish really fascinating. Some people who are younger don’t have as much material, which can pose an issue. You know? It’s a fairly long format show. Sometimes for a person who’s, say, in their twenties, it’s difficult to do an hour of discussion. That was not the case for him even though he’s a fairly young guy. He’s been living in Afghanistan traveling around in a motorcycle. There’s lots to talk about.

THE TIMBRE

When you’re staying at a hostel in Kabul for a dollar a night, you’ve got some stories.

AARON LAMMER

Yes, absolutely. I think good journalists avoid a lot of “I” in their writing. He doesn’t tell you, “I reported this book by living in a hostel in Kabul with migrant workers.” That’s not in his book at all, even though it’s almost as interesting a story. I love a guest who’s kept his amazing story out of his writing because that means there’s this equally interesting flipside. I look for someone who, when I read their stories, I’m like, “How the fuck did they do that?” I have no idea how they were able to write this. That’s a good starting point for an interview.

THE TIMBRE

With the recent passing of David Carr, I’m curious if you guys ever tried to get him on the podcast?

AARON LAMMER

David Carr was supposed to be on the podcast the night he died, actually.

THE TIMBRE

Oh my god.

AARON LAMMER

It’s very sad. He basically cancelled because he was going to do that Snowden event, which I went to.

 THE TIMBRE

One of the writers you guys turned me onto was Ta-Nehisi Coates. He’d worked for Carr at the Washington City Paper in D.C.

AARON LAMMER

He’s awesome.

 THE TIMBRE

He’s amazing, and I love the podcast he was on. When I heard it, I was like, ‘Man, this is what you’re achieving.’ There’s a world out there–and some of these writers are not connected, but in that instance it was made real for me. I felt like I was in the dialogue. I know Ta-Nehisi Coates now. I know David Carr. It was really interesting to draw that line between them. I wouldn’t have known that without your podcast.

AARON LAMMER

It’s a small world and lots of people are moving jobs more rapidly than before. I think there’s going to be more of that kind of thing. ‘Oh, this person was edited by this person here, gave them their start there.’ It’s a really an interpersonal game.

 THE TIMBRE

Do you guys ever battle over who you get to interview? You guys landed an interview with George Saunders. I feel like I would come into the office with a gun every day and dare anybody to take that interview from me.

AARON LAMMER

<Laughs> There is conflict. We embrace a concept of book your own. Basically, if your goal is to get the best guests, then you should log the most time trying to book guests. Which is a virtuous cycle that helps people stay active, right?

 THE TIMBRE

For sure.

AARON LAMMER

We don’t have one person booking them, and then we divvy them up. If you want to get George Saunders, you’ve got to email George Saunders and convince him to do it. It’s a good kind of a competition for the show because I’m looking over my shoulder. I’m like, ‘Oh man, I better send that email or Max is going to send that email.’

THE TIMBRE

Podcast to longform.org: What do see you the relationship as? Is the Venn diagram mostly overlapped? Is the podcast bringing people in and just keeping them in that podcast? Or do you think they’re migrating to the site and vice versa?

AARON LAMMER

I think it goes both directions. I think early on the website was very useful in getting a seed group of listeners, you know? It would have been hard to start from scratch. That said, most of those people, after they saw the fifth or the sixth or twelve episode on the site, they were either going to try listening to it or they weren’t.

We try to treat everything we do as a sort of a two-way promotion. I know that the podcast gets taught in some journalism and writing programs where people use it. Stuff like that is a great way for somebody to hear about it–here’s a podcast and they know the name Longform. And then maybe they eventually come to the site. I think that’s a reason why many organizations will try to branch to different forms of media in that way. You’re able to access different audiences that might never come across a website, but they are shopping for podcasts to listen to.

THE TIMBRE

I started listening to your podcast a few months after you went up. As I recall, you guys always had advertisers. Was it hard finding advertisers? Did they seek you out? Did you seek them out?

AARON LAMMER

Since we’ve started doing it full time, we’ve felt that it was important to have advertising and to have sponsorship on the site. That’s the cost of having that time to put into it. We need to make money to pay our bills and to pay ourselves enough money to live. I think a lot of people have the impression that we’re a nonprofit or something because we have a .org website name, but that’s not the case. We view it as a business, and we’re excited to make it work as a business and to see how far we can take it as a business.

The majority of the advertising and the sponsors on Longform are inbound interests. They are people who contact us who are fans. We’ll have something happen like: We noticed a guy was a fan of the app who worked at EA Sports as a marketing director.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs> I was going to bring this up.

AARON LAMMER

We used to run this out of my loft, and we would play FIFA an hour every day. So, we were like, “You’re fans of us? We love FIFA.” At that point, I was like, “Maybe he’ll send us a free game. That would be awesome.” You know what I mean? And he was like, “Cool, do you guys have advertisers?” And that’s where a lot of advertising has come. Just from interpersonal relationships with people who like what we’re doing and think that their audience would like it, too. We now work with Midroll. I’m assuming you’ve probably come across them a lot?

THE TIMBRE

Yeah.

AARON LAMMER

That means that even if we aren’t able to go out and sell an ad, maybe Midroll has an ad for us. They help us push what we’re doing out to a larger pool of potential advertisers. If you have the opportunity and you do a podcast, I definitely would recommend ad networks. They’re a no-brainer. They’re not exclusive, and you’re still allowed to sell your own ads. Why would you not want to hear more ad opportunities, I guess?

I love doing ads on the podcast. I think they’re very effective. People get their money’s worth. They’re fun. I think it’s the most effective advertising tool that I’ve come across. Sometimes when we have sidebar ads, I’m like, “Who’s going to click on these?” I never click on sidebar ads. But on the podcasts I listen to, I can tell you who the sponsors are. All my favorite podcasts, I’d be able to tell you in a second who sponsors them. I think it’s a smart format that’s probably going to grow.

THE TIMBRE

What was the decision to have Alex Blumberg on the podcast? He’s clearly more of a podcaster than a longform writer.

AARON LAMMER

Starting with the narrowest definition of what we’ve been doing, we’ve always pushed to be broader, broader about our definition. Some people reacted negatively when we even had reporters who don’t do true investigative journalism, who are just writers. You know, essayists who don’t report. They were like, “That shouldn’t be on the podcast.” Everyone kind of has their own gauge of how narrow to be. We’ve always tried to be broad in our approach to what someone might want to read, so I think we’re trying to be broad about podcast guests, too.

Eventually we see audio and video as part of the same storytelling continuum that we’re currently covering. I don’t think it’s out of the question that we’d be covering those kinds of works as well. Having someone like Alex Blumberg is like dipping our toe into that. There’s great cross-pollination of people, too. Joel Lovell works in our office. He was an editor at The New York Times Magazine for a really long time, and now he’s working for The Atavist, who helped do the podcast with us. And he’s story editing Serial. So, when you start to see the same people sort of jumping those lines and working across media, then we should be covering it that way. I think that’s how we look at it.

THE TIMBRE

It feels like these things are intertwined even though on the surface they might not be. Listening to podcasts, I feel like a lot of longform journalists appear in that world. Listening to your podcast specifically, I feel like a lot of these people are like, “I used to be a fiction writer. I went to an MFA program. Now I’m in this.” You see these backgrounds, and you never know where they’re going to go. There’s a fiction writer that becomes a longform journalist. There’s an English major who becomes a podcaster.

AARON LAMMER

Absolutely. I think that’s absolutely correct. I think you see a lot of people coming out of something like a fiction MFA or a nonfiction MFA and going into things like radio. Or doing video pieces for someone like Vice, who’s doing reported video. There aren’t quite as many programs in these newer media formats. I think it makes sense that people who are interested in pursuing that kind of work start off there. Then it’s like, you’re just going to try to get a job. And if that job is at This American Life, or that job is that The Verge video department, I don’t think people view it is a true career change. It’s a different kind of work. I assume that people who are enjoying employment are going to keep pursuing those different skills. There will be even more. You know a lot of the budgets are shifting towards video. And lots of people, in the wake of the success of podcasting, are putting money into podcasts. So you assume that people will follow it.

THE TIMBRE

Speaking of cross-pollination, what was it like working with PJ and Alex on Reply All?

AARON LAMMER

Oh, man. It was awesome. We bitch about how it’s a bunch of work to do a podcast every week, but comparatively our podcast is so easy. It’s just a long interview. It has to be edited, but it’s not like truly cutting together a bunch of different voices. The experience of working with Alex at Reply All was that I was just blown away that they’re able to produce that stuff so rapidly. When you go to their office, you see how hectic and crazed it is to hit that production schedule. It’s wild. When you go over to Gimlet, everyone looks like they haven’t slept in days. It’s a very ambitious schedule that they’re on. It was really cool. But, at the same time, you realize that Reply All is a top ten podcast, and the tools are exactly the same. They’re just sitting in a little room with a boom mic. There’s nothing stopping anyone from making a show just as good as Reply All.

THE TIMBRE

What podcasts do you listen to?

AARON LAMMER

I love WTF. I love How Did This Get Made? What else do I listen to? I’ve really been enjoying Reply All and the other stuff that’s coming out of Gimlet. This question always stumps me, which is sort of embarrassing as someone who produces a podcast. I like the BS Report. I like Dan Savage’s podcast. I listen to The History of Rome podcast quite a bit. And of course, This American Life. 

Before we even started Longform, I remember they had torrents of the entire run of This American Life. This was up until like 2008. I downloaded a torrent right around when I moved to New York. Maybe 2004, 2005. I downloaded the full This American Life torrent, and I listened to every episode straight through from number one until the present. I’m very close to being a This American Life completist.

THE TIMBRE

One more question. I’ve read things online, and I feel like you get asked this too many times: I know that you’re not an active writer, and that’s been on the record.

AARON LAMMER

<Laughs>

THE TIMBRE

Do you think that Longform is making it more likely or less likely that you will become a writer?

AARON LAMMER

I guess that depends on what your definition is. I find it very unlikely that I’m going to start doing nonfiction, narrative reporting. I can say pretty definitively that I’m not going to do that, but I wasn’t doing that before. It’s not like I would have otherwise. I’ve never really been involved in journalism. If I were to be involved with journalism right now, I think I would be starting a site. I wouldn’t be out doing reporting. I think it would be problematic for someone who was doing what I did as a job to also be a reporter. I think we’re trying to create a little bit of distance there. I would probably shy away from that.

THE TIMBRE

When you hear the Anand Gopal interview, doesn’t part of you go, ‘Man, you can just do this. It’s possible.’

AARON LAMMER

Yeah. It’s certainly inspiring, but what it inspires me to do is not do what Anand Gopal does.

THE TIMBRE

<Laughs>

AARON LAMMER

What I’m inspired to do is to try to be fearless and ambitious in the things I’m working on. I’m a very scattered person, so I’m always wanting to start something new or do something different. You know, when you hear something like that it’s inspiring, but I don’t know. I’m probably a little older than you. I’m past the point in my life where I’m going to pack up and go to Kabul. If I’m going to do something crazy, it’s going to be on my laptop from my apartment. That’s the scope of my crazy plans.

If Longform ended tomorrow–which it will not–I would want to do another project of this scope and try to build something because it’s really interesting. And you pick up a lot skills along the way. I mean, that’s the main thing I’ve really felt about doing this Longform thing as opposed to what I was doing before. Generally what I was doing before, I would do things that I already knew how to do and that I could get paid for. In doing Longform, we’ve had to figure out a lot of things on the fly, like how to do an app and how to put out a podcast every week. I don’t think we’re experts at it by any measure. We are kind of amateurs in all things, but having to figure that stuff out has given me a lot of skills and experience. I don’t think I ever would have started a podcast on my own. And now I have like ten podcasts that I’d like to do.

THE TIMBRE

What are your other podcast ideas?

AARON LAMMER

I’ll keep them under my hat until I’m able to execute them.

 

 

Author Description

Eric McQuade is co-founder of The Timbre and a former-programmer-turned-writer. He has lived in D.C., Texas, North Carolina, Minnesota, New Jersey, Colorado, Argentina, Cayman Islands, and the length of the Appalachian Trail. Right now he hangs his hat in Memphis, TN.

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