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Brian Baltosiewich

Hello, Buglers!

2-20-2012
<b>by Brian Baltosiewich</b>

Most Americans recognize comedian John Oliver from The Daily Show, or from his stand up. Hes the smart, witty, British comic who points out Americas faults while at the same time reassuring us that everything is going to be ok- that the same things that got us into trouble will get us out of it. You know what else John Oliver is? A former radio talent turned podcaster. I caught up with John in between shows at a Charlotte, North Carolina comedy club called The Comedy Zone. He was gracious enough to talk with me for nearly half an hour in between 90-minute stand-up gigs at the end of what may have been the longest four-day stretch of his life. More on that later.

I love podcasts he told me. I didnt really know what they were until we started doing it.That may be because he started podcasting in 2007, right about when the word podcast crept into the vocabulary of only the most technically savvy internet users.

To tell the story, we have to backtrack a little, and explain a little about how radio works in England. Youll recognize a few similarities. There is some corporate and community radio in Great Britain, but the bulk of the listening choices revolve around the BBC. It was on BBC 4 that Oliver found a home. BBC 4 is the current affairs/comedy outlet. He and comedian Andy Zaltzman were working on shows at BBC 4 when, as he put it, they canceled everything.

It was right before Olivers move to the US. We were in serious trouble. Showing foresight most American newspapers dont have, the web arm of The Times daily newspaper wanted to launch a podcast.  (The Times has been publishing under a couple different names since 1785, and since 1981 has been owned by a subsidiary of, downright ironically, Rupert Murdochs Newscorp.)

Oliver and Zaltzman were looking to do something together.  It was a perfect, if not somewhat odd, match. Times Online picked us up and bankrolled the whole thing for years. We didnt have to pay for anything. Oliver made his move to the US and The Bugle Podcast was born. Asked to describe what the Bugle is, Olivers eyes light up.

Its Andy and I talking about the stories of the week, in kind of the format of a newspaper in a very loose sense.  And then its Andy and I taking facts that have happened during the week and then lying about them. Its about as uninformative as you can imagine a podcast about the news being.

Its also tremendously entertaining and very, very funny. And its also, by Olivers own admission, a business model that just couldnt sustain itself at The Times Online. The beauty of podcasting, Oliver explained, is you can take everything down and just be two men talking into a laptop, but were using the old model of radio in this new non-monetized format-  where we need two studios, two engineers and an editor. Its ludicrous. Weve taken advantage of none of the new technology and yet all of the benefits of there being no money in it- so its a financial catastrophe.

After four years, someone at the Times Online apparently looked at the numbers in December 2011 and the newspaper pulled the plug on The Bugle. This left Oliver and Zaltzman with only a few weeks to pack up their stuff and find a new home. Theyve launched their own site, thebuglepodcast.com where they continue producing weekly shows, but Oliver says that may not be a permanent solution. We havent settled anywhere. In terms of adolescence were in our early awkward teens. We have no permanent place to go and no solid business model.  So you might think that sounds terrifying, and in some way it is. We want to continue, it will be interesting to see if we can.

Not to beat the dead horse again, but here comes the issue all podcasters face. Can you make a living doing this? Creatively, podcasting is fantastic.  Commercially, its the new frontier- because how do you monetize something people arent used to paying for and obviously, understandably, dont want to do that.

Listeners may not want to pay to listen, but for The Bugle they seem to be willing to donate. Since December, theyve come through with enough to keep The Bugle functioning in its previous completely financially ludicrous state. Weve been getting by on these arbitrary donations which people have been so generous with,  Oliver seems almost stunned that listeners have been willing to pony up even a little.  As a comedian youre kind of allergic to sincerity in many ways, but its been truly incredible. Its really knocked Andy and I for six. Which is a Cricketing term.

Other options may be on the table, but what? Andys looking and talking to people about a firmer business model, maybe a sponsorship, but with the kind of thing that we do, Im not sure thats the right thing.  I have no idea where were going to end up or what were going to do. Olivers energy elevates when he talks about podcasting. His passion is evident. I thought we could have talked all night about The Bugle, what were doing at Radio Exiles, and the business model itself but he did have that pesky second standup show to do.

One thing did come up, the success of certain podcasters in the UK and here in the US, specifically Ricky Gervais and Adam Carolla. Oliver calls them the Michael Jordan of podcasting and says its unfair to compare almost any other podcast operation to them. Not a good example Oliver told me, shaking his head. Its a perspective I really hadnt considered myself.  It really, really helps when youre one of the most popular and famous comedians in the world and everyone wants to hear from you. So (as a podcaster) you really dont want to pay attention to what theyve been able to do. You can never tell too much from the most successful example of something.  You have to look several hundred rungs down at the people who are clinging on at the bottom. Thats where Andy and I live.

How much does John Oliver love The Bugle?  I talked to John on a Saturday night, in between the third and fourth show of a four-show-in-24-hours run at Charlottes Comedy Zone. 72 hours earlier, Wednesday, he was in Africa shooting for The Daily Show. He wrote for The Bugle on his two flights back to New York Thursday, recorded the podcast Friday morning and got on a plane to North Carolina where he did the requisite publicity interviews, including a television appearance, and settled in at the club for six hours of standup in two days. 

He could have come straight to Charlotte and blown off the Bugle. Anyone would have understood his absence this week or, for that matter, if the Bugle had folded at any point along the way over these five years. For John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman, those options dont exist. I love doing it, he says. Find The Bugle podcast at thebuglepodcast.com, on Twitter @HelloBuglers and on Facebook  (The Bugle Podcast)

Brian Baltosiewich has been a broadcast professional for more than 20 years.  His podcast website, www.radioexiles.com features professionally-produced podcasts from radio pros who have lost their gigs. Reach out to him at brian@radioexiles.com or through their twitter account @radioexiles and on Facebook at radioexiles.com




(2/28/2012 12:15:17 PM)
Belgians. *shakes angry fist*

- Joan O. Arc
(2/22/2012 3:14:07 AM)
Waffles!

- Florence N. Ightingale

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