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Marc Maron on the Past and Future of Podcasts

The medium pioneers have a wide-ranging conversation on ‘The Bill Simmons Podcast’

Marc Maron Photo by Randy Shropshire/Getty Images

Marc Maron from the WTF With Marc Maron podcast joined The Bill Simmons Podcast this week to discuss his history with the medium, past interviews, podcast monetization, and more in a wide-ranging conversation.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Bill Simmons: Here we go. Marc Maron is in my office. We've been circling each other ...

Marc Maron: For years!

Simmons: Somehow, we were like two of the pioneers [of podcasting]. Neither one of us would ever go on each other's podcast. Nobody ever turned down [an invitation], it was more like nobody asked the other.

Maron: It never came up. Always compared and brought up in the same articles, but [it] never came up. Different worlds. It is odd, though, isn’t it?

Simmons: We were like two ’70s rock bands that would tour the same stadiums, see each other like maybe in passing on a bus.

Maron: Not really in competition with each other but knew the other one was out there—and they did their thing, and we did our thing.

Simmons: Well, I remember [my podcast] started May 2007, and yours started two years after.

Maron: Right. Yeah, you were definitely ahead of the game, but it was because of yours—my producer, Brendan, was a fan of yours, and he was listening to yours like a year before we started. So when we had the opportunity, when it became an idea to do one, you were in his head. He knew we could do it.

Simmons: Oh, that’s nice to hear. I didn't even know that. The only reason I brought up the dates was it took me like two years to even figure out what the hell to do with it. Because initially I would come on and I would just talk NBA with Marc Stein. Then I had [Adam] Carolla on a couple times, and then after about a year and a half it was like, “This is cool.” And 2009 was really when I started tapping into the potential—into having weird celebrity guests and breaking down the JFK assassination, all this stuff. You came on, Carolla came on, and then all of a sudden, all of us started getting great guests.

And that’s when it got competitive a little bit. It’s just like, “Oh shit! Maron got that guy? Damnit!”

Maron: I guess I did that too. And then you sort of accept it, and then you realize like, well, we’re going to have some of the same guests.

Simmons: The thing is, our approaches were so different.

Maron: I know, exactly. And you didn’t listen to me, did you? I didn't listen to you.

Simmons: No, I listened to a couple. I listened to maybe two or three. I listened to the famous [Louis] C.K. one.

Maron: Oh, yeah. The two-parter.

Simmons: So I interviewed Louis a couple times and it was great, but my interview was completely different from yours. You’re coming at it from like—you were a peer, and you had all of this history, and mine was just I’m a comedy nerd trying to find out. And you were actually a comic. You grew up with a lot of these guys. And did it differently.

Maron: That’s right. I knew a lot of the people. But now I do more interviews like that where I get pitched people and I’m like, “Well that would be interesting,” or I think, “I would love to talk to Randy Newman” because I’m a fan. And I don’t know—how old are you? I think I’m older than you.

Simmons: I’m 48.

Maron: Yeah, I’m 54. So we probably like some of the same music and stuff.

Simmons: Oh, yeah.

Maron: So like when I get an opportunity to interview some of these old guys, I’m like, “Yeah, let’s do that.”

Simmons: Those are the best ones.

Maron: The fan interviews, yeah.

Simmons: I like the ones—I’ve done that sometimes with basketball, too. I nerd out. Have some old-school basketball dude [on and] just start talking about the ’70s.

Maron: I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and I don’t know nothing about basketball.

Simmons: I was jealous of that one because he doesn’t like me.

Maron: He doesn’t?

Simmons: No. I’m a Celtics fan. I might have taken some shots at him.

Maron: Oh, really?

Simmons: Yeah, I might have made some jokes.

Maron: What’s funny is I didn’t talk about basketball at all. He’s a very thoughtful guy.

Simmons: He’s one of the smartest athletes we’ve ever had. And that’s why when you had him on, I saw that and I was like, “Ugh.” That was a good one.

Maron: That sounds like you brought that on yourself.

Simmons: I know. It was my fault. Well you probably had a couple of people who won’t come on yours, right?

Maron: Is there? Not that I know of because of personal reasons. I think there are people who won’t come on mine because they don’t want to. There was a wild era after the Louis [C.K.] episode where people were like, “Do I have to cry? I don't want to have to cry.” And that was never the case, but I think some people began to be afraid to come on because they didn’t want to get that personal. And I’ll roll with the punches. I don’t need it to be that personal at all. But there were people who were nervous about the hour-long personal interview.

Simmons: Well sometimes you’ll—I'm sure you’ve tried to do those and the guest just wasn’t ready to go there and participate, right?

Maron: Well, you can feel that. I’m always going to be curious about certain things, right? So if it gets there, it gets there. Like if there’s a moment where I'm like, “OK, I'll follow that up and see if that gets us somewhere.” It's not a plan in my head. But you can just feel like it seems like there’s some heat there, or some juice there. And I’m not looking to sandbag anybody, but sometimes people just—they don’t know they want to talk, and they surprise themselves when they do. ...

Simmons: Originally I was doing a lot of [the interviews] on the phone, which is a totally different vibe.

Maron: Never did it.

Simmons: Yeah. And then when we built the Grantland studio in like 2012, [ people] started coming in. And I just felt like the whole format was different. You can read off people. You’re not worried about interrupting them. You can read the eye contact, the body language. All that stuff.

Maron: It’s much better. Never did any phone. Never did any longform phoners.

Simmons: I won’t do them anymore. ...

Maron: I’ll do like short ones, sometimes, if they’re friends who need a plug. Occasionally I’ll get on the phone for that. But never the big ones.

Simmons: How long did it take you to figure out what the actual format of the pod was? Because we should give a little background. I don’t know who doesn’t know this story at this point, but you’re on Air America, which was an idea that might be 12 years before its time?

Maron: Sure, maybe. ...

Simmons: Were you in radio because your comedy career wasn’t the way you thought it would go? Or you were just fascinated by the medium?

Maron: I’d never done it. I’d just moved to L.A., and I had been in a deal with Fox TV to write a show. It didn’t get picked up, so I’m sort of sitting out in Newhouse with a woman I was with at the time. And I got asked to do this thing. And I was angry enough—though not really that educated about politics—but enough of an angry guy and certainly to the left of things to want to be involved in something. And they were putting together this radio network, and I don't know. They—at that time there was money there. It was more money than I'd ever made in television or any other place. And there was an opportunity to do something new.

Simmons: I worked with Carolla on Jimmy [Kimmel’s] show, and we’ve been friends a long time. And he was coming on my podcast, and I could see his wheels turning with it. He was like, “Oh, all we do is talk for an hour, and then it goes out into the world and people hear it?” And really the moment he got fired, he was like, “I think I can do this podcast thing and I think I can get paid for it and I think it can be my career.” When did you hit that point?

Maron: Well, that was because he had the radio behind him—all those years of radio. I’d done a bit of radio, and then, by the time we started this, it was like the last version of Air America. They had very few shows on the air. It was kind of a ragtag group of people involved, and we were doing a streaming video show there—me and Sam Seder, we pitched it and I need money. … It lasted about a year. Nobody watched it.

Simmons: That idea was five years too early.

Maron: Yeah, it’s still a little early, in a way.

Simmons: [laughs] Five years early, right now.

Maron: And then we were fired and they didn’t kick us out of the building and I said, “What are these podcasts?” I know Carolla’s doing one. I know Kevin Smith’s doing one. I know guys like Jimmy Dore and Jim Pardo. And I didn’t know what [podcasts] were, but I was like, “Why can’t we do that?”

Simmons: Did you envision a world where you were going to get paid?

Maron: No, Brendan and I—I had been working with him since he was like 24 at the original Air America, and he came back in the fold after he had been at Sirius for years. He’s a real radio-production wiz. He’s really the brightest guy I know. I said, “Can you figure out how to put this stuff up?” And the only thing we knew was we were going to put them up Monday and Thursday, consistently, because we knew we needed it consistent to build.

Simmons: So when did the ad thing start happening for you? Because I remember at ESPN I was going crazy about them not being able to monetize the pod.

Maron: No one knew how to do it, and there were only a couple of options. You could either put a paywall up, but then you can’t build your audience.

Simmons: And your audience is going backwards.

Maron: Yeah, you can’t do nothing. And we didn’t really have any concept. For the first year or so, the shows were different. The first few we did in a hijacked studio at Air America after hours. And there were segments.

Simmons: You had more segments back then?

Maron: Sure. Some segments were evolving. There were multiple guests. Sometimes people would hang out with me in the studio. The first 12 or 15 it’s me and this guy, Matthew. It was a little closer to radio. And then once I got to L.A., the interviews started happening, and we had a third segment. There was a last guest who was usually an improv actor pretending to be somebody, like a Kaufmanesque, “Is it real? Is it not?” guest. We did a lot of those. And then it kind of just became this single person.

But the monetization—we carried over this coffee company that sponsored our streaming video show for free coffee, and they were the first sponsor we had. And they would send me coffee and a few hundred bucks a month. And then when I started using them, I blew their business up. It became clear to us—me and Brendan—that we could make money with advertising if we could figure out how to do it. Because I started plugging this coffee company with, “Pow, I just shit my pants!” I just made up this slogan. They didn’t like it, but it changed their entire business. Their online business blew up.