Q&A: Ira Glass Comes to Cannes in Search of Brands That Appreciate Great Storytelling

A journey to build on Serial's success

Headshot of David Griner

CANNES, France—After the unprecedented success of investigative podcast Serial, one might think potential sponsors would be lining up in droves to get involved with the show.

But public radio icon Ira Glass, one of the driving forces behind the addictive audio series, says there's still a lack of awareness among brands about the past year's tremendous surge in popularity for podcasts.

More importantly, he says, potential advertisers don't seem to realize that podcast sponsorships can be tremendously effective for business, generating some of the best brand recall of any ad option today.

So this week, he and the creators of Serial will be taking their quest for more sponsors into the thrumming hub of global advertising itself, the Cannes Lions.

In addition to Friday's Cannes session featuring Serial host Sarah Koenig, co-creator Julie Snyder and producer Dana Chivvis (moderated by panel sponsor McKinney's CCO Jonathan Cude),  Glass will be milling around the festival all week to rally sponsor support for shows like This American Life and a few other podcast projects in the works.

We chatted with Glass about his plans for the week and his goals for Cannes: 

Adweek: Are you going to be presenting on stage at Cannes with Sarah Koenig and the Serial team?

Ira Glass: No, I won't.

You're just going as support?

I'm going really on a similar mission as they are. Both they and I feel we're in a situation where we're looking for brand partners.

Serial is the most popular podcast anyone's ever made, with 7 million people downloading each episode. But in most normal weeks, This American Life is the biggest podcast out there if you look at iTunes. Most days, we are the No. 1 podcast, and that's been true for years.

We're looking at starting new shows and new podcasts in the coming years, and it seems like it'd be a good chance to meet people who might want to be our partners as we do that.

It seems like it's a very finite pool of brands and startups that really put money into supporting podcasts.

This is exactly our thinking, actually. You hear the same brands over and over. Those brands, honestly, have been great—and great to work with. But we wonder why aren't these bigger national brands discovering this yet?

The news has yet to hit a lot of people of how large podcasting has gotten, and even just in the past year, how much it's changed. I think there are still CMOs who haven't heard that there are podcasts getting audiences of 7 million people.

When we do surveys of those people, people have incredible recall of the brands that are being named on the podcasts. It also tends to be a more affluent audience and very desireable. So I feel like the job is on us to get the word out there, and that's why I'm going to Cannes.

It feels like people are waiting for the next Serial, for the next proof of concept that this isn't just a one-off success. What's been your perspective of this past year?

It's been an exciting year. Honestly, though, there have been shows since Serial that have done amazingly well.

Invisibilia, which NPR produced, had something like 5 million downloads per episode in the first month it was out. There's a company called Gimlet Media, which is our former colleagues here at This American Life who started a for-profit company to make podcasts. They've put out three shows now, and they're great. I feel like it's slowly climbing.

We feel like podcasting can be TV. It really can. But still there aren't that many people making things at the quality of great TV. I feel like that's going to slowly come up in terms of audience numbers, in terms of where it can go.

Last fall, two things happened. One was technological: The iPhone put a podcasting app on the home screen as part of every iPhone people buy. So for the first time, people weren't asking: "How do I get these things? What do I have to do?" It suddenly became, "I push this button, I can see what the Top 10 podcasts are." Suddenly it became way easier.

There was the jump in numbers the Edison Group saw, from 14 percent to 17 percent of all Americans having listened to a podcast now. That's just going to keep climbing.

So part of it was technological, and then part of it really was Serial. After Serial, all the big podcasts experienced a jump. I know for This American Life, we gained hundreds of thousands of people in the wake of Serial's success. Serial was such a phenomenon and got so many people listening to podcasts who hadn't listened before.

What's it like for you, as someone who spent your career in public radio journalism, to see it suddenly being held aloft on this international stage as something everyone should look at?

I'm really glad. It's exciting to see it roll out this way.

I'm a public radio lifer. I started in public radio when I was 19 years old in 1978. When I started as an intern in Washington, I had never heard of NPR or heard it on the air. Most people hadn't. NPR only got created in 1971 or 1972 as a national system, so my entire career in public radio has been watching, slowly, the rest of the country catch up to what we do, watching it become mainstream. This is just the next step in this evolution.

The fact that we would end up at Cannes and be seen this way, it's good for public radio. It's good for public media. And it would be good for us for more brands to join brands that are having success working with us.

Are there certain kinds of brands you're going to be looking for?

What we're looking for are brands that can connect with the idealism of what we're doing. What we do is independent journalism, but we're also trying to invent stuff. If you think of what Serial is, what we're trying to do on This American Life, we're trying to invent the next thing people might want to listen to and create something new.

The brands we think are our natural partners are the brands who like that, who want to be near that. And also for the brands who think a smart audience is exactly what we want.

A lot of CMOs still don't quite know they can buy ads on public media, on public radio, on these podcasts. They don't necessarily think of the little 15-second announcements that we do as ads. But they're ads, and we sell them, and they can be bought. Even something so simple as that, we're trying to let people know.

When you first did the show announcing Serial, I literally stopped it right there and said, "If it's going to be that good, then I'm not going to start and wait a week or two weeks." So I waited and binged through eight or nine episodes in a row…

Wow, that's hard-core.

It became some sort of test of endurance in our office since everyone was literally downloading it as soon as it goes live.

Are you doing that with your TV shows, too? Are you like, "I'm going to wait until Game of Thrones finishes the season to find out what everyone was yelling about this week"?

I try to buffer a few episodes, and with Serial…

I've never heard anybody use the word "buffer" as a word to describe something they themselves are doing. "I'm buffering." (Laughs) I'm totally going to steal that. "I'm buffering some shows for the airplane."

What I'm curious about is, when people would ask, "Why is Serial so good?", it was hard to describe. To you, what is the true creativity of Serial?

There are two things. One is that Serial was an attempt to create a podcast that would be structured and have the feeling of a great TV show. That was really the model that Julie Snyder, the senior producer, and Sarah Koenig, the host, had for it. Can you create something that people will start listening to and get involved with the story and the characters in the same way they would with any great show on HBO or Netflix?

So there were structural things in the way they designed it that make it more like those shows and less like any other podcast or even a show like This American Life.

The other thing that I think is original is Sarah and how she reports the story. Part of what you're following is her developing understanding of the story and her tentative conclusions along the way. Partly, what we're interested in is her in a way that's not so traditional for a piece of investigative reporting that does into such depth.

And then partly, it does what very old-fashioned stories do, but in a new format. In any effective story, there's usually some people at the center of it and you just are trying to understand them, in the way that listeners of Serial were trying to figure out what to think of the convicted killer in the case, Adnan Syed. That's a very old kind of story move to do, but in this totally new package and totally new form.

If you're going to take a lesson from Serial, whether you're a professional marketing storyteller or you're looking to make your own content, what is the lesson you'd want people to take from it?

For content creators, the lesson is there's still something to invent. It's still possible to make new forms that can be popular. For journalists, what Serial says is that you can do a piece of journalism in great depth and an audience will stay with you if you handle it in the right way.

In this moment where people fret so much about what's going to happen to journalism, and funding journalism, and keeping independent journalism going, I think that's still something that bears saying. Serial demonstrates that there's an audience that will go for these things and is already going for these things.

Podcasts for years have been in the position of world music. It's one of those things everyone expected, "someday this will be popular." Everyone likes it who hears it. But it never takes off. It always stays fringe. Podcasting was always this thing that was about to happen.

A lesson from Serial for marketers is, it's happening right now. Now is the time to notice and look at the numbers and see if it's right for you.

Is it having an impact on you and how you balance the formula of This American Life with wanting to evolve and keep experimenting?

It doesn't change any of that. From the beginning here at This American Life, we've constantly been trying to invent new things to do. The show is now 19 years old. The most interesting shows we do are the ones where we try to reinvent the form and do new things.

Sometimes it's as simple as, "Let's do an entire episode following car salesmen as they try to meet their monthly quota," which is an hour that we did. Or an entire episode that is the awful pitches that our relatives give to us at Thanksgiving. Or we take a show where we take real stories, real pieces of journalism, and turn it into an opera, a musical.

Serial definitely came out of that impulse. That's built into what we're trying to do all the time here, for our own amusement as well as because the mission of public broadcasting includes innovation.

I'm curious how you respond when you see people poking fun at the structure and the way these shows are built. How do you take that kind of parody?

There are two parts to it. One, the part of me that runs the business of This American Life, I feel glad there's someone out there marketing for us by saying our name. So I appreciate that part.

Then there's the part of me that's a human being who doesn't want to be made fun of. I would like to say I'm above feeling a little twinge, but I'm not above feeling a little twinge. But I feel like it's fair game and we're out there.

Some if it's funny, and some of it I just can't listen to. Like, somebody did a fake sex tape of me and Terry Gross. And you know, Terry Gross is my buddy. You know what I mean? So I've never listened to it because that feels weird. That's totally good for the business, I guess. But I don't need to hear it myself.

Ira Glass is host of This American Life and editorial adviser for Serial. On Friday, June 26, Serial will be highlighted at a Cannes Lions presentation featuring host Sarah Koenig, executive producer Julie Snyder and producer Dana Chivvis. The session is sponsored by McKinney and will be moderated by agency CCO Jonathan Cude.

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."