Talk/Talk: Laura Mayer & Mythili Rao
Given the podcasting boom of the last few years, it sometimes seems that every huckster with a mic and a pop guard is attempting to launch a show and make a fast buck. But what's all this doing to the audio industry? A new series by US producer and host Laura Mayer, Shameless Acquisition Target, takes aim at the subject – part tell-all, part ex-girl-boss memoir and part inquiry into “value creation”. It's also brilliantly funny. We asked Novel managing editor Mythili Rao – a former colleague from WNYC days – to catch up with Laura and find out how her quest for shameless acquisition is going.
“There’s no record book for this sort of thing, but it’s possible I’ve created, produced, launched, or developed more successful podcasts than anyone else in podcasting.”
So begins Laura Mayer’s new show, Shameless Acquisition Target, “the podcast that sells itself,” as she puts it. After years of watching other audio professionals earn big payouts after their podcasts were acquired by big corporations, this show is Laura’s shameless bid to get her piece of the pie.
Or so it seems. The six-part series, currently halfway through, also comes with an explicit invitation to listeners: Don’t just listen. Buy. Buy advertising time, buy merch, or even better flat-out acquire the show so Laura can accomplish two personal goals. First, buy the grey house down the street from her flood-prone rental apartment. And second, make a big enough donation to the pet shelter where she got her cat, Hector, to have a crate named after him (“Hector’s Place.”)
It’s a bold proposition – and a departure from Laura’s early days as a public radio producer at WNYC in New York. After that, she made podcasts at Slate’s Panoply Media, then ran all manner of things podcasts at Midroll, before joining Sony production house Three Uncanny Four.Now she’s trying something new again – going independent, telling her own story, and inviting the money to come and find her. To quote her show’s theme song, a parody cover of the 1970s song “Money”: “All the best podcasts are free, but free won’t give me house money.”
Mythili RAO: First, the show is really great. And that’s not just my opinion. The reviews are in, the tweets are in, Poynter has weighed in. People love Shameless Acquisition Target. And listening to it, it sounds to me like you’re genuinely having fun. After years of doing this kind of work on many other people’s shows, how does it feel to have your own story, told in your voice, out in the world?
Laura MAYER: It’s funny you asking me this. My therapist asked me this. A lot of people have asked me questions specifically about putting my story front and centre. Maybe this is just the narcissist in me, but actually that’s been the least challenging part of the project.
Mythili: It doesn’t have to be challenging! It could just feel great.
Laura: There are challenging parts of this project (and I will be getting into those in just a moment), but I’m definitely having fun. You know, it’s a stunt: I would love to buy the grey house, but I’m also realistic in that I’m looking to have some other company or people invest in me and my abilities to make stuff. And to do that, I decided that the way to present myself was as authentically as I possibly could.
And putting my story out there in this particular way has been gratifying, because what I’m trying to do is find work that I can do sustainably and well and make money for other people and make money for myself. I’d like to live in a place that’s not a dump and where my baby daughter can, I don’t know, have a room where she can grow into an angry adolescent and blah, blah, blah. Laying myself bare to some degree isn’t the thing that’s been challenging.
The thing that’s been challenging is attempting to prescribe myself the same production medicine that I’ve been prescribing so many people for many years. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 years or so creating rules for other people to follow. I was like, “OK, cool, cool, cool, I can take the things that I’ve learned and apply them to myself. And it will be a seamless production process, yada, yada, yada.” But instead every episode has been a lot harder to make than I ever thought it would be.
Mythili: Why has taking your own production medicine been so hard?
Laura: I’m used to working really collaboratively. And I have a wonderful producer, Marina Henke , but it’s really just Marina and me. We’ve never met in person. Marina lives in Maine; I live in Brooklyn. And so maybe part of it is that so many of my “methods” have been based on rallying a production team.
At the beginning of this project, I almost hired (as a joke) an ex-Survivor finalist, who has become an accountability coach to just yell at me and tell me to do things based on my production schedule that I had given them. And then I decided, in consultation with my husband (who said, “That is the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!”) that perhaps I could use that money better. But I miss having the sort of natural momentum that exists with other people.
Mythli: Did you try to find a corporate partner or distributor for the show? Or were you against that on principle? Knowing how collaborative this kind of work is, what was the appeal of making this by yourself in your apartment?
Laura: It was completely on principle. I did not seek outside partners. I wanted to see, just as a business intellectual exercise, truly what it was like to make something independently. If I’m trying to get shamelessly acquired, I want to have as few ties to other people so as to make my deal – which I may or may not get, we will find out! – as seamless as possible.
Mythli: Like you said, the show is a bit of a stunt. But it’s also a bit more serious than that. Who is your target audience?
Laura: The first answer is people in podcasting who may have had similar situations to me and can maybe hear themselves in it and realise they’re not alone.
More broadly, outside just the podcast sphere – and this is probably cliché-city – I had all these ideas about what work was going to be like when I was a working mother, and the plan was always to be like, “Oh, I’ll have a kid. It’ll all be cool. I’ll go back to work.” One thing that I kind of hoped would happen when I had my kid, was, “maybe if I have this kid, I’m going to care way less about work, and it’ll make things so much easier.” I really thought that that might happen!
But nope, that baby was born, I recovered, and I was like, “so where are the 15 podcasts I need to worry about?” So I think the second big audience that I’m interested in is people who like to think about work, who care about their work, but then also maybe want to see someone trying to do something different. Maybe that can be something that’s inspiring to them whether they work in podcasting or not.
MYTHILI: The whole point of Shameless Acquisition Target, obviously, is to get shamelessly acquired, so you can buy the grey house. But if you don’t succeed in this very specific way, what would the best form of failure look like for you?
LAURA:This is a side note, but my husband and I met because he heard me on a podcast: he heard me do an essay that I had made for Benjamen Walker’s old podcast, Too Much Information. And I think I really felt like myself during that period of time. And I don’t think I really realised how much I missed that version of myself until I started making the show. So if I don’t get acquired shamelessly, I think that the best form of failure is actually something that I’ve been trying to regain for the last 10 years, which is myself. That’s corny. I will probably use that in the last episode. Amidst a gimmick of me, like, talking to my accountant about how I can set up an LLC to buy my own LLC back.
MYTHILI: How about the opposite scenario, where you do get shamelessly acquired? You buy the house, you fund “Hector’s Place,” Joanna has a bedroom where she can grow up to be an angry teen. What do you do next? What’s the next creative mountain to scale?
LAURA: Well, if I have some of the financial things covered – house, food, water – I would like to make some more silly shit. This could be hosted by me, or ideally I could work with other people to make a small (and I’m talking like very small) empire of silly fun-to-listen-to shit in this particular vein. I'd like to help people tell voice-first stories about trying to accomplish things, perhaps against the odds, perhaps things that other people don't care so much about, but which they care about ... a lot. I want to make fun, buoyant shows that feel human, which people can react to with humour and care. Care for the host and humour for the situations the hosts have put themselves in. That sounds like fun.
MYTHILI: I think that’s a great answer.
LAURA:Yeah, I think I haven’t thought about it, so thank you. I feel like I should send you a cheque because you’ve helped clarify my life.