Q&A With ESPN ’30 For 30′ Podcast Producers Jody Avirgan, Rose Eveleth, & Julia Lowrie Henderson

Originally launched in 2009 as a series of sports documentaries for ESPN, 30 For 30 premiered with “Kings Ransom,” a look at Wayne Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Not specifically focused on a particular sport, the award-winning series has since notably featured the XFL, Tonya Harding, Bo Jackson, Henry Hill, and the University of Michigan’s Fab Five among its episodes. The show features major stars as its narrators and directors, including Judd Apatow, Johnny Knoxville, Barry Levinson, Ice Cube, and Michael Rapaport.

Earlier this year, 30 For 30 went a step further by expanding into the podcast world. A joint production between ESPN Films and ESPN Audio, 30 For 30 Podcasts incorporates the top-notch reporting that the TV series and documentaries are known for but manages to do in an audio setting. Season 1 of 30 For 30 Podcasts launched on June 27 with a look at the 1992 Summer Olympics’ beloved “Dan and Dave.” The inaugural season wrapped with “The Fighter Inside,” which aired on July 25. Season 2 has already been announced, although few details are currently known about what is to come from the 30 For 30 team.

To learn more about the podcast series, I spoke with producers Jody Avirgan, Rose Eveleth, and Julia Lowrie Henderson on behalf of the Inquisitr. More on 30 For 30 Podcasts can be found at www.30for30podcasts.com.

How did you first become a listener of podcasts? Were you attracted by a certain show or episode?

Jody Avirgan: I’ve been listening to and making radio since high school, and many of the shows I gravitated towards were the more documentary-style, in-depth shows that lend themselves well to podcasts. So the transition was natural. My favorite radio show in college was American Routes, and like many, I remember exactly where I was when I listened to This American Life‘s “Giant Pool Of Money” episode that helped explain the 2008 financial crisis. That was also a moment when podcasts were first becoming widespread, so it was a totally clarifying moment.

Rose Eveleth: For a long time I thought I was going to be a scientist, not a journalist. I started listening when I started doing research on krill, spending hours and hours every day looking through a microscope to identify, measure and tally thousands of tiny shrimp-like creatures can be mind numbing. Listening to podcasts — mostly Radiolab, then This American Life at the time — was the way I stayed sane.

Julia Lowrie Henderson: I’ve been listening to public radio since as long as I can remember, which is how I initially discovered podcasts. It sounds cliché at this point, but in all sincerity and like so many other people, This American Life gave me my first understanding that audio could be a supremely-powerful storytelling medium. The rise in popularity of podcasts converted me from a theater maker — which was feeling increasingly like it had a discouragingly high level of entry in terms of cost, to both make and to consume — to an audio documentary maker, where I could make something and distribute it, theoretically, widely at no cost to my listeners. And while the latter may not always remain completely true, there still feels to be something revolutionary, exciting, and uncharted about the audio and podcast landscape that has me hooked.

In putting together a podcast episode of 30 For 30, what is the process like? Does it begin with a pitch like TV shows?

Jody Avirgan: Yup! We sit around and bat around ideas. The first level of scrutiny is very similar to the TV process — does this feel like a 30 For 30? Does it have depth, and great characters, and a larger impact beyond just what happened on the field or court? But then we evaluate if it’s best suited to audio: is it intimate, do we have deep access to the key players, is there great archival sound…? Things that will make it work as a podcast.

Rose Eveleth: Since the podcast is new, we’re still sorting out exactly how ideas flow through our shop. For the first season, some stories we pitched ourselves internally and some were ideas already floating around with the film’s team. In the future, we’ll start taking outside pitches, too.

Julia Lowrie Henderson: The process of making one of these 30 For 30 podcast episodes starts with a pitch. The difference there is that we were finding, exploring, researching, and pitching ideas for this first season…and then reporting, producing, and making them in-house. 30 For 30 films operates off a model where they work frequently with outside production companies who help their directors realize their visions. That’s a model that is still in its nascent stages in the podcast world, so Jody and the visionary heads of 30 For 30 — namely Connor Schell and Libby Geist — decided to hire a team of producers to get the ball rolling on podcast production. Past the pitch, the process involves researching, tracking down subjects, stress testing the story, getting interviews on tape, logging and sifting through tape, going back and getting more interviews on tape, and ultimately storyboarding, scripting, and building out the piece. All told, the stories in season one, “Yankees Suck” included, took about eight months from start to finish.

What is the biggest challenge of working on the podcast? Is it the deadlines? The research? Compiling everything together to fit a certain number of minutes?

Rose Eveleth: I think you might get a different answer to this question from each one of us. Putting together deep and thoughtful documentaries is hard! And everybody has their own individual strengths, which is what makes the team work well together.

I think for me the most fun and the most challenging part is knowing when to stop reporting and which pieces of the story should stay, and which should go. Deep down I’m a reporter at heart, and I want to know everything there is to know about a story. I love reading court transcripts, interviewing everybody who ever breathed near a story, and reading every book, newspaper article, diary entry and scrap of paper that there is related to a story I’m trying to tell. I think this all comes in handy ultimately because I know what the universe of the story is. But sometimes it also means that I want to put a lot more into the piece than we actually have time for. So if any listeners want to talk extensively about Phil Ivey’s court cases, or the North Pole women’s trip, I have plenty of stories that didn’t make the final cut to share with you!

Jody Avirgan: I think it’s the development process. It’s making sure that you find an idea and have access that lets you really go deep on a story. That takes a lot of time and effort before you even get to the point where you say “okay, we’re going to do this thing.”

Julia Lowrie Henderson: Deadlines are a big challenge, no doubt. I was coming from a weekly show, Studio 360, where I was used to quick turnaround and compressed production cycles, but when crafting a 45-minute long form narrative story, eight months flies by. But, really, the biggest challenge of translating the 30 For 30 documentary brand to audio is the absence of visuals to help describe moments or events or things that are visual in nature. There’s no b=roll of a time lapse sky over Texas or a long gauzy shot of the football field in audio documentaries. Everything you need to say and show has to be there in audio, whether its narration, tape, sound design, music, or archival. The bar is pretty high to get compelling and descriptive tape from interview subjects and to uncover archival gems. And related to that is delivering something to an audience that has come to expect the visual element, and getting them onboard with listening and using their ears and imaginations in new ways.

Do you have a favorite episode of the podcast so far?

Jody Avirgan: Nope! One thing I’m really invested in is making sure each season has a great range of episodes — some more straight-ahead sports stories, some smaller stories, some ambitious sound design-y episodes…I’ve been really happy with that diversity of stories, and that listeners seem to be responding to all of them equally, and also appreciate the range we’re trying to show.

Rose Eveleth: This is like asking us to pick our favorite kid!

Julia Lowrie Henderson: I don’t have a favorite. Is it totally uncouth to say that I really like “Yankees Suck?” For the record, this might be the first time I would admit to really enjoying anything I’ve made, I’m terribly hard on myself as a critic. But that rivalry is something I’ve known my whole life and when I listen back to the episode, it all rings true and familiar to me. I will also say that I have a super special place in my heart for “On The Ice” because so much of sports and podcasting still feel like a male-dominated arena, and here we have the story of 20 ordinary women who did something completely extraordinary, and to this day are so humble about it.

Did any of you work on the upcoming Ric Flair episode of the TV show? Might there be a podcast component to that episode?

Jody Avirgan: Nope. That one was well into development by the time we got going. But in the future, we are definitely planning some more collaborative efforts where we tell one story across both a film and a podcast.

Julia Lowrie Henderson: None of us worked on the Ric Flair episode, and I am not sure if there’s any tie-in that will happen with the podcast, but I am super-excited to see it!

What is coming up for the series? Any particular episodes or developments that have you excited?

Jody Avirgan: We have a second season coming this fall, so we are right back at it. Details to be announced soon! One thing I can tell you I’m excited about is the possibility of finding a story that is rich enough to do in multi-parts — perhaps even devoting an entire season to it.

Rose Eveleth: We can’t reveal our secrets, of course, but the next season will be full of delight and surprise!

Julia Lowrie Henderson: I don’t think I am allowed to mention specifically anything that is in the works for Season 2, but I will say I am incredibly-excited about Season 2. I am working on a story that is both historical and investigative and I cannot wait for people to hear it.

When not busy with 30 For 30, how do you like to spend your free time?

Jody Avirgan: Well, I also host the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast. Not sure if that’s free time, but it’s fun! I’m one of those people who take Ultimate Frisbee way too seriously, so I do that. I try to see as much live music as possible.

Rose Eveleth: I’m also the host and producer of a podcast called Flash Forward, which is about the future. Every episode tries to imagine a different possible — or not so possible — future scenario and then really overthink what it would be like and how likely it is. People have called it a cross between Black Mirror and Planet Money.

Julia Lowrie Henderson: Wait, what is free time? Just kidding, sort of, I have lived, slept, and breathed 30 For 30 since last fall. But when I do find free time, I often spend it working on my house in upstate New York — turns out I am pretty good at sanding and staining floors — and playing in my garden. And this summer, floating on the Delaware River and pickling onions have crept onto my frequent activities list.

Finally, any last words for the kids?

Jody Avirgan: If you’re interested in podcasting, just do it. Find some people you like to work with and go make radio. There’s no excuse not to.

Rose Eveleth: One thing I’m hoping we can do more of on the podcast side of 30 For 30 is telling what might seem like “smaller” stories. 30 For 30 has grown into the kind of place that can make an incredible seven-hour documentary about O.J. Simpson, which is amazing. The films tend to take on people and events that are famous, full of really big name players or people. Which is awesome! My interests happen to lie in the more obscure — as you can probably tell by the two stories I reported and produced, about a North Pole expedition and a casino scheme. And in my personal opinion, I think that the audio format is where a place like 30 For 30 can do those “smaller” stories. It’s a more intimate medium, you can really sit with people and get to know them deeply. Fewer highlight reels, and more quiet conversations with people who might not be in a Hall of Fame, but who have done something really extraordinary. That’s my kind of sports story, and I think that the podcast is a great place for 30 For 30 to tell them.

Julia Lowrie Henderson: Last words for the kids? I hope that people who aren’t sports fans, or don’t know they’re sports fans, continue to find our stories.

[Featured Image by Jennifer Cingari Christie]