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Podcaster Interviews

Interview with Lauren Ober of Spectacular Failures

If you enjoy listening to shows that give you that warm Schadenfreude feeling about   business failures big and small, then Spectacular Failures is your jam. Featured in edition #45 of the newsletter, this show is all about the fantastic adventures of corporate crookedness, family business feuding and half-baked decisions by some of the largest companies in the world. Curious to find out more, I had the chance to interview host Lauren Ober. Here is my interview with her.

The joke in 2020 is that practically everyone has their own podcast. So, amongst the now nearly one million active podcasts, what makes Spectacular Failures unique?

LaurenI guess my answer to that would start by noting that there are ~500 hours of video content uploaded to YouTube every minute. So podcasting has a long way to go before the number of shows starts to blot out the sun. In my opinion, getting and retaining listeners is not a question of uniqueness; it’s a question of appeal. One need only look at formulaic courtroom procedurals on TV to see that uniqueness isn’t necessarily what creators are striving for. 

What I hope with Spectacular Failures is that we present the stories of big business collapse in a novel way that allows listeners to digest the information in a way that sticks. We are unique in that there is no other show that sounds like ours. There are practically no narrative business shows and very few female hosts in the business genre. But more importantly we are telling stories in a way that has an impact on listeners. And the stories help us better understand our economic system and the forces that drive it. Also, we’re super fun.

Tell me about your process and the things that go into producing each episode?

LaurenI mean, honey, how much time do you have?! Our process is that we operate with machine-like precision. Each of the episodes take about a month to produce. We are exacting researchers and we talk to at least eight to 10 people for every episode. So we are extremely organized and efficient. Before coronavirus, we traveled a lot for the show, but now we’ve had to get very creative about creating scenes and having real interactions with people… at a distance. There are two producers on the show — Whitney Jones and David Zha — and we three divide up the bulk of the work. We have an editor, Phyllis Fletcher, who also works with us once each episode has been scripted.

The reason there are far fewer narrative shows like ours is that they are very time-consuming and expensive (relative to chat shows) to produce. And the amount of research hours that go into getting everything right is astounding. We’re not just printing a Wikipedia page and reading it into a microphone. We’re pooling articles and books and archival tape and court documents and original on-the-ground reporting and we’re using all of those to create the most complete picture of each failure that we can. 

What have been the most challenging aspects of producing the show?

Lauren: Trying to get in touch with academics during the summer. And getting people to talk about their own failures. Not unsurprisingly, a lot of ex-CEOs aren’t too keen to talk about what they did wrong.

From a personal standpoint, why do you do the show? What do you get out of it?

LaurenI don’t have an MBA. I’m not a business reporter. I’m just a journalist who likes to tell human stories. And business stories are just human stories with a lot more money involved. What I get out of hosting and producing Spectacular Failures is the satisfaction of telling these stories in a way that allows people to hear them. We’re not CNBC or Fox Business. We tell stories in a way that people can engage with them and understand the impact that all these big corporate entities have on our world. 

This is important information — why did the Trump casinos fail and what does that say about his leadership abilities; how has private equity been allowed to gobble up main street and what does that mean for the future of low-wage work in America; how have systemic inequities in housing destabilized neighborhoods around the country while lining the pockets of corporate giants? I take a good amount of pride in being the conduit for those stories.

Do you ever think about the lasting impact of your podcast? What would you want it to be?

Lauren: No, I do not. I imagine that at some point some scholar will create a definitive podcast canon. It will include the likes of Serial, This American Life, Radiolab, The Daily, etc. Our show will not be on that, and that’s ok. We are not defining a genre but rather refining it. My hope is that people listening to Spectacular Failures come away with a deeper understanding of our economic system and an appreciation for the ways in which we step outside the boundaries of traditional business journalism to make manifest that understanding. We have given a fresh new voice to a historically dry genre and so if nothing else, I hope that shows other podcast producers what is possible with challenging subject matter.

How do you promote your show? What have you found to be the most effective?

Lauren: We have a great audience engagement editor in Kristina Lopez. So you’d have to talk to her about that!

What advice would you give to a podcaster just starting out?

LaurenAsk yourself why you want to have a podcast. If you want to make money from it, ask yourself why you feel like you need to make money from it. If you feel like you have something really important to say, ask yourself what that something is. Do all of that before you try to start a podcast. Because making creative work is hard. So be clear about your intentions and motivations before you dive into it. 

And then once you make the show, don’t take it seriously. We’re not curing Covid-19 here. We’re just making some fun/interesting/engaging media. And keeping that in mind is important.

What do you think the future of podcasting holds? More walled gardens like Spotify and Luminary or open RSS feeds?

Lauren: Honey, if I knew this, I’d be the one with the golden ticket! Everyone wants to know this! I’ll leave that to the people who get paid to prognosticate about such things. All I know is that the medium will evolve a million times before it comes to rest. And even then it will get disrupted again and again and again. Such is the nature of media in the 21st century.

Aside from your show, give me 3 of your best podcast recommendations.

Lauren: Shows I pretty regularly listen to: Las Culturistas, Song Exploder, NPR Politics Podcast. But I am obsessed with serialized narrative shows like Wind of Change, The Other Latif and Intrigue: Tunnel 29

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