This Blockchain-Powered Podcast Allows Listeners to Pay for Content That Matters to Them

Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant are experimenting with the tech in their latest effort

Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant's new podcast ZigZag will document their journey starting their own media company. Courtesy of ZigZag

Manoush Zomorodi and Jen Poyant have some experience creating shows that you can’t find anywhere else.

At the New York Public Radio station WNYC, Zomorodi, a former BBC reporter and producer, and Poyant, the producer behind the news show The Takeaway and pop culture and comedy hits 2 Dope Queens and Sooo Many White Guys, helped shape a tech program unlike any other: Note to Self.

The program had, since its 2012 premiere as New Tech City, grown into an often interactive exploration into how emerging technology was affecting how people live. In recent years, the show had produced some innovative listener participation experiments, including two separate projects gathering feedback about what it was like to dial back their smartphone use and screen time, and the program had recently assisted ProPublica on reporting on political advertisements on Facebook, with the participation of thousands of listeners.

But then in April, they decided to jump ship. And they want you to know that they’re not crazy for doing it.

There were lots of reasons to leave Note to Self and WNYC, they said in an interview with Adweek, including the #MeToo movement, which shook the WNYC studios and just about every major industry in the U.S. There was also the fallout from the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, which Zomorodi said felt like a validation of the tech stories she wanted to tell.

An offer of outside funding from a philanthropic organization in late 2017 made taking a risk easier to fathom, they said, and the duo got to work building out their own media company for the first time.

They named that media company Stable Genius Productions, a name that nods to a January tweet from President Donald Trump and winks at the people who figured Zomorodi and Poyant were out of their minds for giving up their stable jobs for the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

“For us, it’s about sustainability—companies who are keeping the long-term in mind for their customers, the planet, their businesses.”—Manoush Zomorodi

The ZigZag podcast, which premiered last week, is the first podcast from Stable Genius Productions, and it is a thoughtful and spunky documentation of Zomorodi and Poyant’s own journey leaving a media company and starting their own.

After their philanthropic funding fell through, in early 2018 Zomorodi and Poyant found a partner in Civil, the so-called “journalism marketplace” that is applying blockchain technology to the journalism industry, and Radiotopia, the podcasting and radio collective.

In a phone interview, Zomorodi and Poyant said that while they were at first skeptical, they are now full-on blockchain believers.

ZigZag is also the first podcast to launch on Civil, which is already supporting almost a dozen news organizations in its effort to establish an alternative business model for journalism. Civil uses blockchain technology—in which encrypted, secure information (like articles, for instance) are archived across a vast decentralized network of users’ devices—to deliver independent news that isn’t beholden to the whims of publishers or to advertising dollars. The thinking is that blockchain technology can help stabilize the journalism business.

As for funding the journalism, Civil plans to eventually launch its own blockchain-based cryptocurrency, which Civil says will enable readers to pay small amounts to securely pay for the journalism that matters to them. The funding model means that the publications on Civil won’t be beholden to the fickle world of digital advertising—that is, except for Stable Genius Productions.

There isn’t a way to deliver podcast episodes to listeners on mobile devices and RSS feeds entirely through Civil’s platform, so ZigZag does run ads. PRX, the Public Radio Exchange that operates Radiotopia, is doing ad sales for ZigZag. First up as advertisers on the first two episodes of the program: not-for-profit software community Mozilla, job candidate finder ZipRecruiter and mattress company Casper.

Zomorodi said that Stable Genius Productions will only accept ads from companies whose ethics align with the show’s.

“For us, it’s about sustainability—companies who are keeping the long-term in mind for their customers, the planet, their businesses,” Zomorodi said.

The first two episodes of ZigZag are peppered with confessional-style audio recordings, quirky explainers and conversations recorded in bustling coffee shops. The first two episodes of the program explore Stable Genius’ origin story and touch on motherhood, entrepreneurship and technology. Plus, there’s a deep dive into blockchain technology, complete with guitar ditties explaining how the technology works.

Zomorodi said she is inviting other people to join in on the conversation about technology, entrepreneurship and journalism. Future episodes will feature people like former Wall Street Journal reporter Jessica Lessin, who founded the subscription news site The Information, and Roman Mars, the radio producer and Radiotopia founder.

The name ZigZag refers to the ups and downs the two women have already felt in the rocky and unpredictable waters of journalism and entrepreneurship.

“We were experiencing this rollercoaster feeling, where one day you feel like you’re on the right path, that your goals are all aligned, and then all of a sudden you get bad news and have to go in a completely different direction,” Poyant said. “We were experiencing this at such a rapid pace ever since we left WNYC and started to do this on our own. And the show is really about tracking that course—back and forth, back and forth—but still working together toward that one goal.”

Plus, Poyant said, naming a podcast is hard—there are so many of them!

Whether ZigZag will be a success and whether Civil is the right place for a podcast to live remains to be seen. As Zomorodi and Poyant seemed keen on saying, it’s all a big experiment. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t stoked about trying.

“Launching something new is scary, but it’s also fun,” Zomorodi said. “And we know that so much of the hard work is yet to come.”

ZigZag’s third episode was released Thursday, and the program will run throughout the summer.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.