I had the pleasure Interviewing Adam Davidson. Adam Davidson is the cofounder of NPR’s Planet Money podcast and a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he covers economics and business. Previously he was an economics writer for The New York Times Magazine. He has won many of journalism’s most prestigious awards, including a Peabody for his coverage of the financial crisis.
Thank you so much for your time Adam! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Greenwich Village, New York, in a building called Westbeth. It’s special housing just for artists, so nearly all the grownups I knew as a kid were artists. My dad is an actor. My mom acted, directed, and ran various nonprofits.
It was a fascinating place to grow up, filled with passionate, wild people. 1970s Greenwich Village was pretty crazy. But I joke that I rebelled in the only way I could. I became a financial/economic journalist. Nobody I knew as a kid cared about money or business or finance. Which made me fascinated by this mysterious force.
I went to University of Chicago. When I graduated, in 1992, I knew I wanted to be a journalist. I got an internship and then a producing job at the local NPR station, WBEZ. Luckily, for me, Ira Glass soon developed This American Life there and I got to know him and, eventually, did stuff for his show. I also liked writing, so I wrote for many magazines in my 20s.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I was 24 or so, I had been producing live talk shows, which means I found guests and convinced them to show up at the studio on time. But I wasn’t doing serious writing or editing. I wanted to create more documentary-style work, where I would record a lot of interviews, edit them, write scripts. So, I got in my head that my first project should be a three-hour documentary about the history of Chicago. It was an absurd idea since I didn’t know what I was doing. It was an unfocused mess. I gathered hundreds of hours of recorded interviews but was completely overwhelmed by the project. I just remember boxes and boxes of cassette tapes. I finally gave up.
I always tell younger people: start with something small and doable. In the case of audio, that means a simple 3 minute or 5 minute story. Get good at that and move on to 20 minutes. Don’t start with something massive.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I would say This American Life, though I listened and, eventually, did pieces for the show long before podcasting existed. But Ira Glass, Julie Snyder, Nancy Updike, Alix Spiegel, Alex Blumberg, and the rest of the team that created that show in my early working life — back around 1995 to 2000 — had defining impacts on how I think about my work and how to tell a story, etc.
I’ve been working in podcasting since then, which means it’s hard for me to just listen to a show without the critical podcast producer/host/businessperson voice.
I do remember first hearing Marc Maron and loving how emotionally urgent he was. He does something I’ve never done — long, meandering celebrity interviews. But I was impressed with his emotional honesty and presence.
There are many books that have made major impressions. It’s hard to pick just one or even just one hundred. One book I read recently: The Content Trap by Bharat Anand.
I really love Reinventing the Bazaar, by John McMillan. It’s a history and a future look at how markets work. I think it helps me understand how business works better than any other.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
My co-founder, Laura Mayer, and I made a bunch of decisions early on that I am very proud of. We agreed that we believed in our purpose more than in making money. To be clear: we want to be a very successful business and we want to make a lot of money. But we agreed that we would much prefer a company with integrity and purpose that failed than a wildly successful company without purpose.
Between us, Laura and I have worked with almost every major podcaster and there are many, many great ones. But as the medium grows, we feel that there are too many shows that lack a feeling of urgency. Why does that show HAVE to exist? Why does that host NEED to talk about whatever it is they are talking about?
So, in a sense, our purpose is to create shows with purpose. For us, purpose is not a synonym for important. A show can be important and lifeless — a sober, dull documentary about some important issue. And it can feel urgent and necessary and exciting and about something small and, to many people, silly. We believe that when someone or some group of people tell stories or have a conversation about the things that matter to them it is good for humanity.
Another purpose is to help podcasting reach a much broader audience. I am as classic an audience as possible: a Brooklyn dad who drives a Volvo and worked at NPR. I want there to be thrilling, necessary podcasts for a lot more people.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Listeners, listeners, listeners. Or, more broadly: customers, customers, customers. We want to create content that some group of people will love. And not just love as a temporary distraction. We want them to feel deeply engaged in our shows, that they can’t live without them.
This might seem trite, but from the world we come from, this is a radical statement. It is a common thing in public media, where I come from, to look at pleasing an audience as a bad thing. It’s what top 40 stations do. Serious media only cares about their mission, not their audience numbers.
I disagree. I think that creating great work and developing deep connections with an audience can go hand-in-hand. It’s the only way to survive, long-term.
It’s surprisingly hard to keep customers on top. Every day, as a CEO, I face a constant flow of very urgent needs and questions from our staff, our partners, vendors, etc. Our audience — and, especially, our future audience who doesn’t know about us yet — isn’t in any of those conversations. So, I have to force myself to remember them. Laura and I need to be their advocate.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
My greatest challenge is trying to help my 8-year-old son, Ash. It’s just lousy to be 8 and not get to play with kids. And it’s been a real struggle having daddy at home but unavailable much of the day. It’s very hard to have to tell him that he is the most important thing in the world but this phone call I am about to get on is more pressing right now.
He’s been amazing and has grown a lot. But I hate that I made him grow in his ability to accept my absence for much of each day. I did carve out a firm hour every day at 1pm to play with him. And then an hour or so in the evening. Sometimes we would talk about “feelings,” which he hates. But I do think those talks were helpful. Probably more helpful was talking about minecraft and whatever else he is interested in that day.
I wish I could say I conquered being a dad during Covid-19. I definitely feel I didn’t. And the first few weeks were really bad. He was regressing a lot and I was working all day, every day, leaving the burden on my wife. But I do think we did a good job of adjusting.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have never worked so hard in my life. I keep saying I can’t wait to go back to work so I can work less.
We had to deal with the immediate issues of shifting to decentralized work. Then we had to undo all the shows we had planned for this year — because every one of them required people gathering and traveling and doing things.
Then we had to come up with a whole new slate of shows.
But I would say the biggest challenges are not the loud, obvious challenges. The biggest challenges are the quieter, smaller things that are so central to a company. I’m in meetings all day long, but those are purposeful, task-driven, agenda-driven calls. I feel like I don’t have enough time to just chat, to get to know the staff better, see how they’re doing. Or just have aimless nonsense conversations.
We are doing “water-cooler” talks to try to have spontaneous, unstructured time. It can feel absurd to schedule a remote meeting to have an unstructured conversation. It’s not how people are used to interacting. But we keep at it, because it stops feeling awkward and becomes more normal.
I think it’s key. I was talking to an economist I know who said there is a lot of data about how spontaneous conversations — the unplanned remark, the accidental chat — are so central to business success. They also are essential for helping younger folks make an impression and learn from others.
So, I want to double down on that. I want more of our days to be unstructured. The problem is there is so much stuff that I need to do that I have so little time.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
For sure, talking about the stress and the pressure and the fear is necessary and helpful. But also talking about other things, silly things, small things is as important. Our lives are not just COVID.
I was a war reporter and spent time in Iraq and also in crisis situations in Haiti and elsewhere. I notice that people who have lived through profound, long-term trauma, are very good at finding moments to laugh, to be silly, to talk about nonsense. I remember when the TV show, Friends, first came to Iraq in 2003. Iraqis were so psyched. As their country was falling into chaos, they wanted to talk about Ross and Rachel. I, personally, never want to talk about Ross and Rachel. But I do like talking about other things. The Tiger King, for example. I think I have a heightened respect for the essential need for diverting, enjoyable stuff that has nothing to do with anything real.
That’s a big learning for me. I covered the war in Iraq, the Tsunami in Indonesia, the financial crisis, the Haiti earthquake, the Trump presidency. So, I’m all for serious coverage of major, scary things. But only some of the time.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
This is somewhere between a prediction and a wish: the era of hyper efficiency-alone is over.
The core engine of economic activity since, roughly, 1880, has been mass production and scale. Making more and more, faster and faster, cheaper and cheaper. That’s not, inherently, a bad thing. The average person anywhere on earth has access to more food, medicine, clothing, shelter, etc., than even Kings did in past centuries.
But that scale has come at the cost of intimacy, of deep engagement. When everyone on earth is accessing the same small set of consumer goods, media outlets, etc., none of us is getting that special, weird, wonky thing that works wonderfully for ourselves and doesn’t work, at all, for most others.
I want efficiency. I want companies to come up with better and cheaper medicines and cameras and computers. But I also want more inefficiency. I want parts of my life that require some work to discover and find the right thing.
I love stationery — I can obsess over pens and inks and paper. It’s a huge waste of time, in one sense. I could easily buy a dozen decent pens and some perfectly good pad of paper. But I love the time I spend researching how I write. It’s a joy and it makes writing more pleasant.
I feel the same about wine and books and podcasts. For me, I’m happy with whatever generic soap or pasta or seltzer water is available. I definitely spent more time picking some pens than I did picking my car — I don’t care that much about cars.
This can seem frivolous. But I think it might end up being a profound shift in our economic lives. For much of the twentieth century, unique, bespoke goods were only for the very rich or, oddly, for the very, very poor, who had to make them themselves. I think we are going to see a hybrid system, in which people do buy mass produced, scale goods. But also choose areas where they want deep engagement, where they want the slow, inefficient process of finding just the right product, just the right service provider.
I think that is a huge opportunity for a wide range of businesses. That’s what interests me. I’m not interested, that much, in hobbyist crafts and I’m, personally, not that interested in massive billion-dollar-plus startups. I like the $5 to $500 million a year solid business built on creating a special product or service that serves real needs for real folks, but doesn’t do everything for everyone.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
First off, it will have a multi-generational impact. I think my 8-year-old son will be forever changed as will everyone who lived through this. I liken it to the financial crisis. Our innocence is over. Forever. The guardrails are more wobbly, the range of bad possibilities are wider.
I expect it will change where people live, how they see their friendship and family groups, how they save and spend. It’s probably going to have impacts that will be quite surprising. I was certain that the financial crisis of 2007–9 would have a huge impact on society, long-term. But I definitely was not predicting that the impact would be to bring to power extreme anti-regulation right wing parties around the world. (The anger towards immigrants was, sadly, very predictable.)
So, I want to be modest about my predictions, knowing I’m not able to see whatever will end up being the biggest change.
But I do think we have no choice, now, but to recognize that some of our relationships are far more important than we realized. That knowing who we can trust, who can spend time with, when we need to only be with those who are behaving in a way that matches our values, is literally life and death. I would expect to see deeper relationships — not just with friends and families, but also with local shopkeepers, restaurants, civic institutions. By necessity, I think, this means we will have fewer casual relationships, less reliance on generic, anonymous, big box kind of providers.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I deeply believe in our mission and I believe it is more essential now because of Covid-19. I think that people want content that feels authentic, trusted, and worthy of devoting time to, that they want a deep engagement with.
My expectation is that we might want to produce content that is a few degrees less dark, a bit more hopeful.
It feels to me we are in a No-B.S. period. People don’t want to spend their time on stuff that is cynical, whipped together, and easily forgotten. Well, that’s not entirely right. There is a ton of content that is cynical, lazy, data-targeted to provoke short-term intense feelings. Of course there is. That’s a growing trend. But there is another, countertrend that is exciting: more and more people are aware of these techniques and the dissatisfaction that come from engaging those short-term prods. So, I think there is a huge space for products and services and content that truly engages people.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think of the twentieth century as the great time for the middle. It was great to be middle class, it was great to have a mid-quality company serving a mid-sized audience. You could be a perfectly adequate but unexceptional accountant, wine maker, chocolatier, ad agency, bank, whatever and there would be an audience — probably a geographic one. People went to the perfectly fine service provider nearby. In today’s terms, it was the 4-star economy — it was good to be fine.
Today, we are seeing the death of the middle, the death of the adequate but unspectacular. We are seeing what some economists call the barbell effect — things are moving away from the middle. Local and regional banks, accountants, beer makers, wine makers, etc, are collapsing. Success is at the far ends. You need to choose: intimacy or scale.
Scale is a great choice if you want to be a billionaire. The best way to become wildly wealthy is to take over an entire industry with massive automation. But most of us don’t want that. And most who try fail. So, I believe that the best choice — the new choice — is intimacy. Focus on a small product or service that you can do uniquely well and seek out that audience that loves what you provide. Don’t worry that 99% of people won’t get what makes your thing special, won’t want it, or won’t be willing to pay enough for it.
Intimacy! That’s the key. It’s a multi-step process that can take a while. You need to figure out what you can uniquely do. That took me well into my late 30s to sort through and, at 50, I feel like I’m still learning. Then you have to match what you can do to some sort of market out there. If your deepest passion and greatest skill is some obscure thing that literally nobody wants and you aren’t willing to adjust in any way, you might not get to have a business centered on it. Though, I’m pretty sure that nearly everybody can maintain integrity and authenticity — even deepen it — while simultaneously engaging an audience.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I think of two Eugene O’Neill quotes. He is, by the way, a terrible guy to use as inspiration. He was a brilliant playwright but a depressed, miserable drunk. But he spoke, often, about the need to keep pursuing your dreams, keep seeking to do better. He felt that a person who fulfilled all their dreams is a tragic figure. What more do they have to live for?
So, the two quotes from him are:
“A man’s work is in danger of deteriorating when he thinks he has found the one best formula for doing it. If he thinks that, he is likely to feel that all he needs is merely to go on repeating himself…so long as a person is searching for better ways of doing his work, he is fairly safe.”
I have seen people who achieve a fair bit and then ride that success for the rest of their days. I find that depressing. I like the many people I know who have accomplished a lot — creatively, professionally, financially — yet continue to strive for better and better. Adam McKay, Julie Snyder, Ira Glass, Nina Tottenberg, David Remnick, and so many others.
Another quote from O’Neill gets at a key idea in the Passion Economy: it is not about happiness. It’s not about feeling safe. Pursuing your dreams, pursuing real intimacy with your customers can be hard, emotionally hard, psychologically hard. It means your work really matters to you. It means failure will feel even worse. Worries will have higher stakes. I think Passion is the right thing, working with purpose is the best way. But it ain’t easy. Or, as O’Neill said:
“One should either by sad or joyful. Contentment is a warm sty for eaters and sleepers.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
I’d love them to buy my book, The Passion Economy and subscribe to my podcast, The Passion Economy, and to my newsletter.