After 3 years of making the Double Shift Podcast and running it as a small indie media company, I’ve decided to pause the podcast aspect of the venture and pivot (I hate this word!) my energies to my newsletter, the growing Double Shift community, writing more often for high profile news outlets, doing more speaking and exploring other opportunities and projects. You can hear me and Angela Garbes in our last (for now) episode here.
There’s no revelation quite like admitting that you’ve been lying to yourself. Lying to yourself is so easy to do when you are passionate about something. For three years I’ve lied to myself and said, “I’m going to have time to do other projects in addition to making a high-quality journalistic podcast on a tiny budget with no institutional support in a fiercely competitive media landscape. I can make it a part-time thing.” This project has taken a vast majority of my time and creative energy. I have not had the bandwidth, while parenting three young children against the backdrop of two years of a deadly pandemic paired with constant, massive social disruptions, to “take on more.” It feels good to be honest with myself.
The focus of this newsletter is the forces that shape family life in America, and there is no greater force in this realm than capitalism! Today I’m dissecting some of my own career experiences and how capitalism, motherhood and the pandemic have shaped my path. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Success and failure are in the eye of the beholder: When I first came up with the idea of The Double Shift podcast, success to me looked like partnering with a big network who would fund the show and let me create and host it. I’d have resources to make this my full time salaried job and the support to grow the audience. Even though I was a veteran journalist, reading this now in 2022 this vision seems incredibly aspirational. It was, but not quite as far-fetched in 2018 as it would be now. A couple big networks did actually consider this, but turned me down for various reasons, including telling me that “there wasn’t enough that was interesting about being a working mother to make a whole show about it.”
That original version of success never happened. But the first season of the show was a hit, we got critical acclaim, strong downloads, and lots of buzz and momentum. We got attention for telling stories people hadn’t heard before, like from moms who work in brothels, or who are shift workers using a 24-hour daycare in Las Vegas. I got a “building the plane while flying” crash course in podcasting, business, and the podcasting business. (I cried in front of QuickBooks multiple times.) Afterwards, I was crispy fried from the non-stop effort. And in between our first and second seasons I got pregnant... with twins. I knew I wanted to continue with everything we’d built with the show, but I also knew the journey would not be linear. I knew I’d have to take some large chunk of time off from the show in 2020. I felt self-conscious talking to partners and making plans for the future. Having a second kid when you make a show about motherhood seemed like NBD. Telling people I was having twins felt like a punchline, a decidedly unserious twist of fate for a “serious” businesswoman. I felt confident in my abilities but unconfident in how my 2020 would go. (How prescient!)
In my early views of success, I was always focused on what my experience would be, but by the end of 2021, I started to understand that a metric for success I hadn’t valued enough in my calculation was the impact on listeners. Hearing from listeners that the show had changed how they saw motherhood, or was the soundtrack to their pandemic isolation, or had meant so much to them that they claimed, “The Double Shift is my best friend.” Perhaps the most tangibly satisfying impact of the show was reporting on how a group of women advocated and got better paid leave at the New York Times. I was beyond thrilled when more than a year after it aired, I started hearing from listeners that the show itself actually was a catalyst for them advocating for changes in their own workplaces. To quote listener Karli McNeill, she listened and said, “hot damn, I could do that!” Listeners pushed for real world change and got it. We even made a followup episode about it. Seeing that kind of tangible impact of the work makes me understand how narrowly I understood what success was when I started.
2. Not all great ideas are going to be profitable under capitalism. Let’s debunk some ideas that aren’t questioned enough. There’s a glossy myth in American entrepreneurship that if you have a great idea and work hard, it will become a “success.” And many define success as measured by exponential profits and growth (or even just the potential for it on paper.) Most small businesses fail from a financial perspective. Value and profitability are not the same. Originality and financial viability are generally not even related. Most “successful” businesses in media and beyond have huge financial runways. The people who run them can have years of cushion to figure out how to make them “work.” Worthiness of an idea and access to capital are also not related. Black women receive 0.34% of the total venture capital spent in the US. Yet, these guys seemed to have no trouble raising $100 million for an untested (and unsuccessful) podcast platform.
3. Accept there are forces beyond your control and don’t take it personally.
When I returned from my “maternity leave” (if you can call quarantining with newborn twins and a pre-schooler during a catastrophic pandemic a “leave”) I very much wanted to show up for listeners during this ongoing crisis for mothers and families. But not only was my personal life more demanding than ever, I along with everyone else was trying to survive and process a pandemic without vaccines, massive social unrest around racial injustice, and the 2020 election followed by an attempted coup... you know, nothing to create any stresses or distractions that might detract from “productivity” and business clarity.
In addition, it was pretty clear to me that the podcast industry was changing rapidly, and plenty of seeds I saw that were in the mix in 2018/2019 were now fully planted forests. The venture capital and big money fire hoses were on full blast. Companies were consolidating. New shows were flooding the market with $30-$50K marketing budgets so they could flood existing popular podcasts with ads to capture new listeners. Due to the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, some advertisers were skittish about spending, and massively increased inventory and improvements in ad technology meant we were making far less on our ads than we were in 2019..... A trend that only continued into 2021. Even though there was more funding than ever for new content, it was generally only for four types of shows:
- True crime that might have a strong chance of being optioned to become a movie.
- A chat or interview show hosted by a high profile celebrity (or podcast celebrity) who would bring their own audience, and have other celebrities on the show, usually about safe topics like business, women and business, personal growth, or advice.
- A deep dive reported show with high production values, usually about some forgotten/fascinating person/thing in history or cultural oddity, that would have a strong chance of being optioned to become a movie.
- Podcasts created by big corporations/institutions that were part of a “brand extension.”
While quirky, indie shows that don’t fit this mold and were well-established with big audiences before these trends fully took hold might be able to hang on or thrive with robust member donations a la Chapo Trap House, that wasn’t where we were with The Double Shift. Over the course of 2021 it became clear to me that the podcast industry wasn’t a sandbox I had the resources to effectively play in, and having a show that was decidedly not one of these categories (nuanced, feminist stories and commentary on motherhood with no celebrities involved) made it hard to catch any of the cash raining down on podcasts. (Although some well funded shows DID advertise on The Double Shift. Thanks, trickle down economics!) My commitment to my vision made it basically impossible to take advantage of industry trends. I’m OK with that. Maybe that makes me a “bad business lady.” But I don’t think these forces of capitalism equate to a personal failure.