From the Archives: Regarding The Talk Show

Since John Gruber abruptly announced that The Talk Show would move from 5by5 to the Mule Radio Syndicate a few months ago, many have speculated as to the reasons behind this sudden and unexpected split while both John and Dan remained, for the most part, silent. Twitter exploded with questions, theories, and, in some cases, anger; bloggers wrote long articles filled with speculation; Philip Elmer-DeWitt, writing for CNN Money, even entered the conversation with an uncharacteristically unemotional article for the topic; however, to this day John and Dan are the only two who know the actual cause for the split. Here I will aggregate the most common discussions and the strongest theories in an attempt at discerning the underlying cause for this unfortunate rift, using this topic as a manner through which to discuss the Mule Radio Syndicate of which I have many opinions on. I originally intended to incorporate this discussion into my post 5by5, but following the announcement that both Hypercritical and Build & Analyze would close their doors before the year’s end I chose to pause, step back, thank Dan, Marco, and John for the excellent work, and give a brief history of 5by5 and its impact on the podcasting industry. Separating these two articles also gave me the opportunity to fully explore all the possibilities of this unfortunate happenstance.

In preparation for and throughout the time I spent writing 5by5, I attempted to learn more about both the history of The Talk Show and the Mule Radio Syndicate in order to possibly better understand the reasons behind John Gruber leaving 5by5. While I was able to find information regarding The Talk Show relatively easily through its page on the 5by5 wiki and answer many of my questions by recounting the life of the podcast on 5by5, information on the Mule Radio Syndicate has continued to elude me. Aside from a passing mention in the occasional news article and what little information regarding the network is provided on the website, few facts regarding this network are publicly available. Opinions, on the other hand, are in no short supply. Take these comments in response to John’s announcement that The Talk Show would be moving, for example: from reader DDA: “Wow, this sucks. I was hoping to avoid any[thing] related to Mule Design, given the sexist comments from Mike.” Another user, Tim, continues analogously: “Ugh, that guy Monteiro’s schtick is so old and tired. ‘Dig me, I’m that ironic, rude, 80’s indie music guy from Philly’.” Although I cannot speak to the personality of Mike Monteiro as I do not know him personally, based on the tweets he made in response to the widespread negative feedback in the days following John’s announcement — many of which can be found in the May 19 update here — I would tend to agree with Mike’s critics.

So why, then, did John leave 5by5 after more than ninety episodes and nearly two years, not including the show’s previous incarnation of which Dan Benjamin was also a part of? McGruber theorizes that the move was a result of another podcast — namely Hypercritical — beating The Talk Show in weekly downloads; no longer the top podcast on the network, McGruber proposes that John moved his podcast in order to be #1 once again. Of the more nefarious explanations I consider this one of the less likely as I do not believe Gruber to be quite that petty; however, I cannot discard the idea as an underlying motivation behind the move. Possibly the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.

Jonathan Poritsky of The Candler Blog made a number of posts to his website regarding The Talk Show’s departure from 5by5, the first of which, Why Did John Gruber’s Talk Show Leave 5by5?, delves deeply into some of the possible causes behind the falling-out, of which he is sure was the cause of the egress to the Mule Radio Syndicate. Before I begin to dissect those arguments though, I would like to point out a particular observation in Jonathan Poritsky’s assessment of the controversy:

The Talk Show always had two hosts. Dan Benjamin helped keep the show on track when Gruber would wander off and riff. This new show lacks that structure and is instantly less enjoyable to listen to. I’ll certainly give the new Talk Show a chance, but Dan will be sorely missed. The show didn’t really hinge on either of them; they made a perfect team.

I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, as many others do. Having struggled through a few of the first episodes of The Talk Show’s third incarnation, I can provide first-hand evidence regarding the validity of this statement: without Dan, the show is certainly less enjoyable to listen to. Whether because John is much more apt to go off on a tangent, because there’s just no spark, or because John butchers the ad reading, the absence of Dan is palpable — the elephant in the room. Jonathan’s article originally ended with that sub-par review of the latest Talk Show, though since then it has been updated numerous times to include further discussion of possible motives behind the divorce.

The Awkward Sign-Off #

Many people have cited the “awkward” ending to the last episode of The Talk Show on 5by5, episode #90, as a hint of the split announced roughly two weeks later. I disagree with this theory. The Talk Show often ended as it began: abruptly; further, John was never one to prolong goodbyes or provide a prelude to them, just as was the case in this episode. Although in hindsight this ending could be considered as a precursor to the split, viewing it as anything other than a normal Talk Show ending is reading into it too much. Joshua Almanshofer of “You Call That...” shared a similar point of view in his article A Breakup.

Money #

One very common theory explaining the fallout between Dan and John states that it was the result of a disagreement over money. Some say that the manner through which 5by5 handles t-shirt sales, which is to sell different shirts at intermittent intervals throughout the year, clashed with John’s production strategy, thereby creating some friction between Dan and John. Others speculate — and Jonathan Poritsky mentioned this in his article as well — that the release of the new 5by5 Radio app under “Benjamin Productions” rather than through “5by5 Productions” could have created some tension not only between John and Dan, but between Dan and some of the other hosts at 5by5 as well. Although the app description has since been updated to name 5by5 Productions, LLC as the seller of the app, when announced on May 11th — one week before John made the post announcing that The Talk Show would leave 5by5 — the description did indeed name Benjamin Productions as the seller. Initially I disregarded this theory as ridiculous, but the more I considered it the more convinced I became that this was not only a plausible explanation, but also a likely one. This is why — and keep in mind, this is based on speculation, not hard facts: Dan released the official 5by5 Radio app through what we can probably safely assume to be his personal account. Being his personal app developer account, all revenue from app sales — which are driven, mind you, by the popularity of the shows he co-hosts — would have been deposited into his personal bank account. Once the money was deposited into his account, there was no guarantee that any of the other hosts shared in that revenue stream. As an anonymous Quora poster stated in a comment regarding the move, “I don’t believe any hosts are receiving a cut of that money.” Given Dan’s friendly, easy-going attitude I am hesitant to even speculate as to the possibility of such an act, but the possibility does exist and could very well have been one of the reasons John moved to the Mule Radio Syndicate. Discrediting this theory is the fact that the Mule Radio iOS app is free, meaning that John does not benefit any more from app sales at the Syndicate than if Dan had refused to share the revenue with his co-hosts. Given the possibility of Dan refusing to spread the app revenue between his co-hosts though, leaving 5by5 could have been John’s response to that decision based on the principle of the matter rather than simply due to the loss of what would have undoubtedly been a meager source of income, which clearly is not a deal-breaker as illustrated by the Syndicate offering their app for free and John’s wholehearted participation in that network.

It is worthwhile to note that today the 5by5 Radio app’s description names “5by5 Productions, LLC” as the seller, leaving us to wonder if availability under “Benjamin Productions” was a temporary arrangement until a developer account could be set up for 5by5. Alternately, the creation of an app developer account belonging to 5by5 Productions could have been in response to John’s reaction; if that’s the case, we are then left to wonder if Gruber was the only one to raise an objection to the handling of this situation, or if his argument had the support of other 5by5 co-hosts as well.

Some also believe that sponsorship revenue could have been a sore topic between Dan and John as well. To reference the anonymous Quora user once again, “Gruber posts a list of the talk show sponsors on Daring Fireball each week. This is worth almost as much as the daring fireball sponsorship which he currently sells for $7500 a week.” We can safely assume that since these sponsorship slots and their prices were posted shortly after The Talk Show’s departure from 5by5, this figure was close to or slightly less than the going rate for an ad slot while the show called 5by5 home. Raising the price would have made little sense especially giving the change in networks, and John had no reason to lower the price as he was apparently operating under the assumption that nowhere near as much backlash and negative press would follow the announcement. I will discuss this assumption shortly. Unfortunately for Gruber though many did respond negatively to the announcement, a large majority of which were bloggers of varying calibers who decided to write about the move. For the most part, they were not kind in their opinions.

The result of all this is that now sponsorships on The Talk Show sell for $2500, a $5000 decrease per ad slot. This decrease means that in any given episode of The Talk Show’s third incarnation, John earns, on average, $10,000 less. That’s a huge amount. Maybe someday we will see that figure back at $7500 per slot, but, as I will explain shortly, I believe this to be unlikely.

Before continuing, let’s discuss the reasons that The Talk Show’s move to The Mule Radio Syndicate may have initially solved the problem of sponsorship revenue between Dan and John. As I said earlier, John began handling sponsorships for the new Talk Show just as he does sponsorships for his website: by posting open slots and prices on Choosing to handle sponsorships in this manner rather than through the Syndicate’s website as they are handled now indicates that John may have wished to handle the sponsorships of his podcast personally rather than leaving it to Dan. Additionally, posting prices and open slots on his personal website also indicates that Mike may have not shared in the ad revenue of The Talk Show. Part of the agreement between John and Mike could have outlined a deal in which Gruber came to The Mule Radio Syndicate in name only as a manner through which to raise the notoriety of the network. In exchange for releasing his podcast through the Syndicate’s feeds, John would keep the sponsorship revenue from his podcast rather than sharing it with Mike as the podcasting business model Dan built and other podcast producers adopted dictated. With the unexpectedly strong negative reaction and accordingly large drop in popularity, however, John and Mike apparently re-negotiated this deal to place Mike in charge of sponsorships in return for a share in the ad revenue.

Compensation #

Some question exists as to whether John made Dan and the 5by5 network fanatically popular, or whether the reverse is true for John and through The Talk Show and 5by5. Given the notoriety of John Gruber and his blog even back when The Talk Show was brought to 5by5 in 2010 compared to the popularity of Dan’s fledgling 5by5 brand though, John was undoubtedly one of the main driving forces behind the network’s growth in popularity, especially in the first few years. A popular explanation for the divorce between Dan and John theorizes that John asked to be compensated for his exceptional contribution to 5by5’s success, and that Dan refused. Some say Gruber wished to be compensated with a larger paycheck than the other hosts received, while others speculate that Gruber asked for a stake in 5by5 in return for his help bringing the network to success. As the previously cited anonymous Quora commenter states in his post, “It’s very possible that Gruber said that since he played a major role in the current success of 5by5, that he should be compensated more than any of the other hosts. I also believe Gruber asked for a percentage stake in 5by5 and Dan refused.” It is worth pointing out here that simply due to The Talk Show’s popularity Gruber would have received a larger paycheck than most, if not all, other hosts. However, Gruber may have asked for greater compensation not due to his show’s popularity but instead due to the integral role he played in 5by5’s success. The anonymous commenter continues: “Gruber approached Mike and said give me a stake in Mule, and I’ll do for you, what I did for 5by5.” The general consensus is that while Dan may have agreed to the former, he rejected the latter; as a result, John left 5by5 for the Syndicate, where Mike Monteiro offered Gruber the one thing Dan would not: a stake in the network.

Dan was not totally in the wrong though. Suppose he had given Gruber a stake in 5by5 in return for helping to craft the 5by5 brand. Supposing Gruber would have been satisfied, The Talk Show would have remained on 5by5. Now suppose that a month later Hypercritical, continuing its trend of growing popularity, surpassed The Talk Show as the most popular show on 5by5. After a month in the #1 spot, John Siracusa approaches Dan and asks for a stake in 5by5 as well, given the extreme popularity of his show and the growth is has contributed to the network over the past month. What grounds would Dan have for refusal of this request? Gruber was undoubtedly one of the main reasons 5by5 has grown to such stature in the past three years. John Siracusa could argue the same point, saying that his show has contributed equally to the profitability and growth of the network. Having given Gruber a stake in 5by5, Dan would have little choice but to comply with John Siracusa’s hypothetical request. Fast-forward another month or two, and Back to Work is vying for the top spot on 5by5. Another month passes, and Back to Work beats Hypercritcal out of that top spot, and then the cycle repeats once again with Merlin. I do not mean to say that either John or Merlin would intentionally put Dan in this position, but as the co-hosts of two of the most popular broadcasts on 5by5, the possibility exists both for these two hosts as well as hosts to come. Using stake in 5by5 as a reward for facilitating growth, regardless of how large, is impractical; Dan was in the right to refuse.

Unforeseen Effects #

Now that we have examined some of the more popular theories attempting to explain John taking The Talk Show to a competing network, it is time to discuss some of the effects this move has had on 5by5, The Talk Show, and The Mule Radio Syndicate. First of all, I do not believe the loss of The Talk Show was a crippling blow to 5by5. Granted the announcement obviously took Dan by surprise and the move almost certainly took with it a certain number of listeners, but given the overlap between listeners of The Talk Show and at least one other 5by5 podcast, it is unlikely that 5by5 lost a significant number of listeners with The Talk Show’s departure.

I titled this section “Unforseen Effects” because I believe John jumped ship without fully considering a number of things. I believe he assumed that he would be able to do for The Mule Radio Syndicate what he did for 5by5 in the early years using the established Talk Show brand: make it extraordinarily popular. I also believe he underestimated the general dislike of Mike Monteiro and The Mule Radio Syndicate. These two errors are grave indeed, and have cost The Talk Show popularity and John a significant amount of money.

The podcasting industry was a different place two years ago when The Talk Show moved to 5by5, seven months after Dan began broadcasting. Back then the market was nowhere nearly as developed as it is today: podcasting was a fringe medium; there were no established podcasting networks of note; what Dan and John were trying to do was revolutionary. Other podcast producers began to take notice as 5by5 began growing in popularity, proving the viability of Dan’s business model and as a result, podcast producers began following Dan’s lead. Today the podcasting industry is not the same as it was two years ago. 5by5, 70 Decibels, and The Mule Radio Syndicate are all established broadcasting brands. The defining traits that made The Talk Show so popular — exceptional audio quality as compared to other podcasts of the day, the chemistry Dan and John had, and the format of the show — are now expected throughout the industry. In other words, The Talk Show is no longer a novelty. As such although the move to the Syndicate undoubtedly thrust Mike’s network into the spotlight, the move did not and will not result in the level of success The Talk Show on 5by5 did.

Mike’s history with 5by5 is an interesting one. From the aforementioned Quora post: “Mike originally had a show on 5by5 before he moved that show to his own network. Mike actually paid Dan to have that show on 5by5. I believe the figure was $1000 a month. It was advertising for Mike. He paid Dan and got tons of earballs. Then when the show got some traction, he left 5by5 and started Mule. Very slick move. Devious, but slick.” This was indeed a very shrewd business move that deserves either criticism or praise. In a perfect world, Mike would have started Let’s Make Mistakes on 5by5 and rather than leave the network once his podcast became popular, stay with 5by5 because it made his show popular, and in doing so he could give something back to the source of his success. However, the arrangement between Mike and Dan seems to have been designed as impermanent from the beginning. In other words, Mike came to 5by5 with the intention of growing successful and then abandoning the network, and Dan was aware of that — and accepted the deal. Now, another 5by5 podcast moving to the Syndicate rubs many people the wrong way. Given that fact, on top of the general dislike of Mike Monteiro and his attitude, I am left to wonder as to whether Gruber considered the possible effects of associating The Talk Show’s brand with both this figure whom many hold in some level of contempt and this network many see as inferior to 5by5.

This all goes to say that while Gruber’s move of The Talk Show to The Mule Radio Syndicate will undoubtedly bring with it a certain level of attention, without the profitability and popularity of The Talk Show’s previous incarnations John Gruber will not be able to reproduce the same results he did for 5by5 throughout the last two years.

We Should Care #

To close I would like to address a particularly chastising article Gabe Weatherhead of Macdrifter posted to his website in response to the multitude of speculatory blog posts and “personal attacks” published following the announcement that The Talk Show would change networks. Jonathon Poritsky responded to this article with a post of his own titled They Write About Podcasts, Don’t They?. The gist of the argument, from Gabe’s point of view, is that the listeners of The Talk Show have no business speculating as to the reasons behind the split. He went so far as the say the following in his article: “How can anyone without personal connections to and personal knowledge of the network switch have any opinion? Further, who gives a shit.” He continued further in the paragraph: “I had to resubscribe to a podcast on a different feed. Big deal.” I believe this final sentence fragment conveys the most profound and telling fact of the entire article: Gabe, despite being a self-proclaimed podcast evangelist, understands little about the medium, and nothing about the people that partake of it. This is a strong statement, so let me begin its explanation with the comment made by scheeko on the Hacker News thread following the announcement of The Talk Show’s move: “5by5 was the house we visited to listen to John (with Dan) and we show up and he’s not there...” The words are tinged with melancholy, an emotion Gabe obviously does not understand, nor does he understand the origins of. In addition to the analogy of a house, many also compared the breakup to a divorce, to which Mike Monteiro had this to say: “I am concerned at how many of you are comparing someone switching podcast networks to your parents’ divorce. Please please please get help.” He followed that tweet with another: “Seriously, the next time one of you leaves AT&T for Verizon I am going to go ballistic and stick my dick in your eye sockets.” Apparently neither he nor Gabe fully understand the medium: listeners have spent nearly six full days — right around 140 hours — over the past two years listening to The Talk Show since it moved to 5by5. Prior to that, another thirty episodes from the previous incarnation add another couple days. The point is that these listeners have spent an impressive amount of time listening to Dan AND John on The Talk Show; it has become normal — the way it should be. Illogical or not, these listeners expected that the relationship would never change. Now that it has and in such an abrupt manner, they are left confused and lost. That’s why they needed to write about this. That’s why some lashed out at Gruber. And that’s why we speculate.