The Interestingness of Everyday Experiences
I think it’s time for me to pivot.
“Sometimes disengaging is the best way to engage.” That’s a quote from Rick Rubin’s new book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, which I can’t recommend highly enough. Before I actually sat down and started reading it as a book, I would flip to a random page and read just what was on that page—and I actually think that with this particular book, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to approach it. First of all, the chapters are short—some are only a page or two—and between them are little one or two line quotes like the one I just shared and honestly, there have been a ton of these little thoughts and ideas that have sent me down rabbit holes or connected the dots between things that I have already been thinking about. While this particular quote connects in some ways to all of the creative work I’m doing at the moment, it especially connects to some thoughts I’ve been having around podcasting, which I think I need to take a step back from—at least in the way I’ve been doing it.
But before I get into that, I’d like to share a quick story that might give you a little context around where I’m coming from. A week or so ago, Adrianne and I were walking Cooper down our street and I noticed a car that I didn’t recognize parked against the curb opposite the entrance to the park. Now, to be fair, I don’t recognize every car that comes and goes on our street, but this was a car you just don’t see very often anymore. It was a beautiful black Porsche 928 and as we got a little closer, a man who I assumed was the owner got out and went around to the back and popped the hatchback. Just as an aside, I love the 928. I know it was never really as popular as the 911, despite the fact that it was designed to replace it. My dad actually had a 911 in Viper Green that was stunning and a blast to ride in. But I’ve always had a soft spot for the elegance of the 928. Anyway, as we got a little closer, I commented on what a beautiful car it was. “Thanks,” he said. “It’s even better when it runs.” I introduced myself, told him that Adrianne and I lived just up the street and asked if there was anything we could do to help. He said his name was Michael and thanked us for the offer but told us that his wife was on her way with some jumper cables. We ended up talking for about 10 minutes or so. He told me that he had wanted a 928 since he first saw Risky Business at 13 and when he could afford one, this was the one he bought. Adrianne had never seen one before and while I was telling her about some of the features, like how the headlights pivoted up out of the hood, Michael got back in the car and demoed them for her. We talked a bit more, shook hands, and I thanked him for his time and told him that if he was still there when we finished the little loop with Cooper that we’d be glad to help get him sorted. As we walked away, Adrianne looked at me, smiling, and said something like, “You just can’t not talk to people, can you?” Nope. I can’t. And that’s an important realization.
By contrast, if you told me I had to quit painting tomorrow, I could absolutely do it and not lose a bit of sleep. The same goes for taking pictures. But being interested in and talking to people I meet out in the world is absolutely, as Adrianne put it, something that I just can’t not do and I’ve done it for most of my life.
When I recorded my first podcast in 2009, I was hooked and I’ve been recording conversations with creative people ever since. But podcasting was different fifteen years ago than it is now. A decade ago, less than 10% of Americans listened to podcasts. Today, podcasts have become an important part of the creative economy. In fact, ad revenue from podcasting is expected to top $2 Billion this year and two movies that we’ve watched in the last month featured podcasting as part of the main plot. Podcasting has gone mainstream. Sure, I could go on and on about how the sheer number of shows have changed the podcast landscape or go off on a rant about how celebrity and big-budget podcasts have made it that much more difficult for smaller independent podcasters to gain traction with listeners, but that’s not the whole story. While those things are true and I’ve struggled with how to respond to some of those changes, the fact is my why is not the same as it was. Let me be very clear, I wholeheartedly believe that there’s a place for smaller podcasters within the changing podcast environment but for me, it’s first and foremost about reclaiming and reframing my own joy around it. Part of that means shifting away from thinking about Podcasting with a capital P as a commodity or product.
For example, there was a period of time between 2013 and 2015 when Bill and I were doing On Taking Pictures that we were able to pay rent from the ad money we made doing the show—at least I was. Then, seemingly overnight and without warning, our network changed the terms of our deal and our revenue dropped by about 90%—and it never recovered. We kept doing the show until 2018 but, honestly, I was bitter about it for a long time. The quality of our show (our product) hadn’t changed—in fact, our numbers continued to grow—but the value around it had. The whole shell game was changing, especially around CPM and monetization. Fast forward to a couple weeks ago when I got an email from a a marketing firm who said they just loved what I do and wanted to talk to me about some sort of partnership, as long as my downloads were above 50,000. Ironically, even though I’m statistically in the top 10% of podcasts in terms of metrics, my downloads are nowhere near that. Even if they were, there would likely be another bigger—but no less arbitrary—number that I would have to hit in order to be considered “a success.”
Satisfaction often feels like a moving target and my sense of success or failure has for quite a while been more acutely tied to the idea of doing individual shows and measuring download stats, rather than simply focusing on recording and sharing the kinds of conversations I want to have. Figuring out what those conversations are, and letting go of the fear around “what if nobody listens?” is the season I’m in right now.
At the end of last year, I started thinking about rebooting Process Driven, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I feel that the time for that show has passed, for a couple reasons. A big part of my joy in doing PD was always in the discovery of talking to people who either weren’t as well known—at least to me—or if they were, they didn’t do a lot of interviews or self-promotion. For example, when I first recorded with Gregory Crewdson, he wasn’t doing many podcast types of interviews. Nor was he sharing much of his process of making pictures. In recent years, however, Gregory has done a number of terrific interviews and now has a fantastic Substack where he shares a lot of the things that I would normally want to talk to him about, at least with respect to photography. He himself is now filling a gap of interest around his work and process and he’s answering some of the questions that I and other podcasters would want to ask. If we could get away from his photography and talk about something completely different, like maybe his favorite black and white films or why he chose to buy and convert a church into his home, that would be something different and arguably more enjoyable to talk about because it’s not in his regular rotation of conversation. I know that there are some people who only want to hear about the work, and that’s great. There are plenty of those types of shows to listen to. But at some point, those stories get told and retold so many times that, for me, the spark or spontaneity of the conversation gets lost.
My approach to podcasting is not about chasing down the biggest name or the latest influencer in order to draft off of their audience—and actually, it never has been. And just as it is with my art, I can’t control who will or won’t like it. What I do have at least some control over are the kinds of conversations I want to have and the types of people I want to have them with. If I’m being honest, with very few exceptions, it’s been shifting away from “creatives” for quite while and towards people I happen to run into as I’m moving through the world. While I love the process side of making, both in my own work and in the work of others, the cool kids will always have people waiting to talk to them and I will happily listen to those conversations. But what about the waitress at the diner, the security guard at the museum, or the guy whose beautiful black Porsche 928 breaks down at the end of your street?
I think it’s time for me to pivot my podcasting away from the familiar domain of process and accomplishment and instead explore the interestingness of everyday experiences.
Regardless of whether you’re a podcast maker or a listener, what makes a great podcast for you?
For David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, Panavision developed a special 482mm lens to film one shot of Omar Sharif’s character emerging from a mirage. The lens hasn’t been used since.
If you enjoyed this Iteration, consider subscribing so you don’t miss the next one.
Before I kick off, I'm sure you have heard this a bit recently but thanks to you and Bill for letting us back into the OTP conversations. I never unsubscribed, not out of laziness but more a case of reluctance to sever the link to that time and the community.
Signal to bandwidth is probably the key factor for me in choosing a podcast. Like you, I'm well aware of the passage of time and need to squeeze as much juice from it as I can. I break that down further into two categories;
- runs the background while I do other things and I can tune in or out as needed.
- dedicated listening with note taking, as part of my commute but with working from home and more recently, semi retirement, this has become less structured.
I want to pick up on the thread of moving away from speaking with "creatives". I see myself more as a maker, although I have had formal training in the arts, and spent 13 year working for Kodak, I never really held a creative job until I became a digital restorer in the mid 90's. For me the creativity was in solving various problems/obstacles to done as they presented themselves. That seems to be a recurring theme for you too, the main difference being my source of problems was more external and there were often options to defer or delegate.
I wonder if those individual approaches to doing/making could be a theme for you to explore in future conversations?
Whatever you do, I will be sure to listen intently.
I love these talks you do. I'm new to listening to podcasts so have little experience but while the written works are great, listening to you adds that connection of it being you almost having a ( one sided admittedly ) conversation.
You seem to always have so many ideas and work in progress and while I'm a mere clicker of camera buttons do find the creative side of all your work inspiring. Please do keep doing what pleases you though. Keith