How the New York Times’ ‘Modern Love’ became a hit podcast

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(Illustration: Brian Rea for The New York Times)

(Illustration: Brian Rea for The New York Times)

Upon its debut last month, the podcast Modern Love topped the iTunes charts. Boston’s WBUR and the New York Times have teamed up to produce the program, which presents essays from the newspaper’s popular column about love and relationships, as read by the famous and talented. The podcast’s creators, WBUR Managing Producer of Program Development Jessica Alpert and Times editor Daniel Jones, recently appeared on our podcast The Pub to, yes, talk about their podcast. They told host Adam Ragusea about their strategy for success, after explaining the origins of the newspaper column:

Daniel Jones: That’s going way back, to 2004, and actually even going back to two books that my wife and I edited. They were called The Bitch in the House and The Bastard on the Couch, and they were collections of essays mostly about midlife marriage. The editor of the Styles section, at that time a man named Trip Gabriel, read those books. They did a story on us, and he had long wanted to start a column about that kind of material, that had intimate, real personal, revealing essays about relationships. He thought that we, as a couple, would be good candidates to edit that.

He hired us as a couple and — this was back in 2004. It launched in October of 2004, and by then my wife had actually already dropped out; she was working on a novel and didn’t like the job as much as I did. I pretty much had nothing else going on in my life, sort of underemployed, so I took it on, and it’s been going a little over 11 years now.

Current: What is the basic process that gets you through the given week in a column? Do you really have to go out there and solicit essayists to submit things, or are you just flooded with the stuff and you’re mostly saying no?

Jones: I’m flooded with material, and I’m mostly saying no. We get about 7,000 submissions a year and publish 52, and a lot of my time is spent reading those submissions, opening emails, responding to them. And then the rest of the time is spent editing and just the business stuff of contracts, interoffice email.

Current: Generally, how does “Modern Love” the column perform for the Times? Is it consistently in the top in terms of the web analytics?

Jones: Yeah, especially just in the last few years, it really seems to have reached new levels.

Jessica Alpert: Isn’t it the most-searched term on nytimes.com? Or am I inventing that?

Jones: It has been for years and years, and I’m not really sure. … You know, you think people would search for it for a while and then find it. Why that endured year after year, that it’s like the most-searched term … but it is.

Current: Jessica, when did people at WBUR start thinking, “Hey, we should make a podcast out of this”?

Alpert: Two years ago Lisa Tobin … this was her idea, and she, as I understand it, walked into the general manager’s office and said, “This is what I’m thinking; let’s try and make this happen.” And [after] two years of conversations and negotiations, here we are and here we’re thriving.

Current: Lisa is the person who was in your job before you, right?

Alpert: That’s right, and now she’s focused on other projects, but she’s the one who really gave birth to this, and we’re just carrying this along and making it into a reality.

Current: How did you approach Dan and the Times? It’s a little bit surprising, right? Because generally when the Times wants to collaborate with someone, they collaborate with WNYC or somebody else in New York. You’re some Boston guys — are you going to come down to New York and tell this New York guy what to do?

Jones: I can speak from my end. I just got a call from [WBUR General Manager] Charlie Kravetz a couple years ago, and I’m not even sure the word “podcast” was mentioned. It was just an early conversation about using “Modern Love” material in some way on radio.

To tell you the truth, I didn’t hear anything for two years. … I actually came into WBUR, and we had a meeting with several people just to toss around ideas, and then I didn’t really hear anything for a couple of years. That’s a process that I’m used to; people will often approach the Times about “Modern Love” or other things, and then it just sort of doesn’t happen and you never really find out why. Then this suddenly just resurfaced over the summer and all these things behind the scenes I guess had been happening. Over that time podcasts had exploded, and that was before we were talking about …

Current: Moving at the speed of public radio, right, Jessica?

Alpert: You said it; I didn’t.

Current: Jessica, why don’t you talk about how you guys are approaching this from a formal perspective, how you’re adapting “Modern Love” material for the ear.

Alpert: The idea is really to take some of the best and most compelling essays and turn them into a movie for your ears. This is a very close collaboration with Dan. We are always talking about, when you think of essays that would be great told, or people basically narrating them, what comes to mind? That’s also been a learning process for the two of us, to figure out how to communicate what makes good audio, what creates the suspense.

I think we’ve really come to a great understanding, and we’re coming up with these long lists of possible essays. The first step is to come up with the essays, and then we begin what I call the casting process, which is very much out of my wheelhouse but is now becoming the biggest part of my job. Which is figuring out who would be the best voice for this particular essay — not only voice-wise but personal experience–wise. Does this actor have experience with international adoption? Have they voiced some sort of affinity for such and such a topic? Those are the first two steps, and then begins my job of the hustle, which is literally making cold calls and asking people to be a part of this.

Current: Back up a second: What made you decide to go with having an actor, and often a very celebrated actor, voice a “Modern Love” essay, rather than having the author of that “Modern Love” essay voice it? Especially considering that the second part of the show is always host Meghna Chakrabarti and you and Dan interviewing the person who actually wrote the essay. So you’re in touch with the person, that person is coming on the show; why not just have that person read their letter?

Alpert: In some cases they are reading their own essays, for example, Jennifer Finney Boylan and Maria Bello. But it’s a really demanding exercise. It’s basically a 10-minute monologue, and it’s very, very challenging, and I think that we are looking for really, really exquisite reads. There’s such a high standard for the written column that the standard is even higher for the audio version.

Current: You mean not just anybody can sound great on the radio? I thought anybody could do that these days. It’s almost like it’s a skill or something — for which we should be compensated.

Alpert: When I’m in the booth listening to these actors — sometimes I’m there with them; sometimes it’s remotely — it’s just incredible. These people were born to do this type of work. It’s very clear to me that they are doing a beautiful job and putting so much into it. So far, what we’ve heard from the essayists is that they’re really happy that these people are just giving life to their essays. We’ve heard from people asking that question, Why aren’t you having them read it? And it is a really demanding performance.

Current: Well, let’s listen to a clip; let’s listen to a little bit of Jason Alexander, who everybody knows from Seinfeld, reading a bit of an essay that is about the impending death of a fish.

Jason Alexander clip: I gaze into the clear round bowl hoping for another performance of its darting dance of life. Instead I see only a creature is still beside the ceramic mermaid it leans against except for tiny gills that seem to be gasping. This is crazy — I know. The fish is well more than three years old and cost about $3 at the local pet store. It is the size and color of a Dorito. In the unnatural natural order of things, its kind are like disposable toys. We humans usually consider fish like this to be eminently flushable. I’m just not up to it.

Current: Dan Jones, What did you first think of when you heard that audio of Jason Alexander doing that really exquisite reading of a letter that is an old “Modern Love” letter? I think it’s from years ago; you had a long time to mull it over.

Jones: Great, I mean sort of the bar to clear for me is, while I’m listening do I forget that it’s Jason Alexander reading it? And you do, or at least I did.

Current: He’s a phenomenal actor — big surprise! — but he absolutely nailed the character.

Jones: But he made me cry by reading this. I really only know him as George from Seinfeld. I didn’t quite know what to expect, and it was such a great performance. He even sort of made his voice crack toward the end, which I don’t know if that was acting or authentic but was right at the right moment. To me, it’s just been so satisfying to see what these actors can bring to it. I didn’t really even expect that they could bring as much as they have.

When Jessica was talking earlier about why don’t we have the writers reading them, part of the reason is we want every essay to be available to us. I’m sure some writers could read them well; some would even want to. And we wanted everything to be available to us, knowing that we could match up with someone at some point who could really bring the best out of it.

Current: Jessica, who are some of the other voice talents that you have coming up in future episodes?

Alpert: We have Judd Apatow coming up. Sarah Silverman, January Jones, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Cho, Connie Britton.

Current: These are A-listers: How the hell are you landing these people, Jessica? I know you’re a good booker — we worked on a show together like 10,000 years ago; I remember you’re a great booker — but how are you landing these people? Are you paying them?

Alpert: We are not. I think it’s a combo of just really, really well-researched asks, showing that you really know this person’s work, and then also the column speaks for itself. People love it, people read it, they want to be associated with it, and it really gives them an opportunity to flex their creative muscle. Some comedians have asked us, “Give me something heavy. I have muscle. I have range. Let me show it.” It’s a really fun, creative project for them.

Jones: They really enjoy it, and a couple of them said, “I’ve never done anything quite like this before, and that’s why I want to do it.” They wanted to experience what it was like to read some story just audio, no visual.

Current: I want to figure out what factors came together that resulted in this brand-new podcast debuting at number one on the iTunes charts, which is completely insane. That does not happen, or at least doesn’t happen outside of the hands of a few very small number of producers like the people in This American Life or WNYC or NPR or Radiotopia. Those are the four players from public media who have been able to have the kind of success that you guys are now having. So I want to try to figure out how this happened, and I have I have a couple of theories.

One thing is that obviously you’re trading on a couple of known, highly valuable properties. You’re not coming in here with a totally brand-new product and trying to get people interested in it. You’re trading on the name of the New York Times and the name of the “Modern Love” column, both of which already have a lot of power. You’re already starting at the … God, I’m trying to reach for a sports metaphor but, Jessica, you know I’m not going to do it. So you’re starting at some yard line that indicates that you’re already really far down the field.

Alpert: You live in Georgia now and all the Southerners are going to kill me. I’m from Texas, so don’t take that literally.

Current: You’re right, I should have this nailed, but I don’t. So you’re already starting there — and that’s great. But another thing is that you’ve already got, as Dan mentioned, this backlog of essays — 11 years of essays — so while I’m sure you’re doing episodes with recent essays, you’re also doing episodes with essays that are four, five, six years old. You’ve already described the process in which you’re winnowing thousands of submissions every year into the 52 that run in the column every year — that’s already like the cream of the crop — and now we’re talking about the cream of the cream. You’ve got the very, very best to work with, and that’s a very enviable position for any program producer to be in.

Jones: I think the column has reached its tipping point that way, where it just accumulated enough of a sort of archive that it became really valuable all of a sudden. And some of these essays that we’re pulling out, I’ve forgotten about them completely. When I’ve been stumbling back through these archives — and we’ve been doing this together — and unearthing these things, and I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s a really moving essay.” So many years have passed that I’ve forgotten; that’s like discovering jewels in the desert.

Alpert: Judd Apatow is a great example because I was really working hard to find the perfect essay for him. I wanted it to be really smart-funny — maybe that’s the best way to put it. His essay — I don’t want to give away too much, because it’s just great. This is one from the way-back archives. I just was reading tons and tons of things; I don’t even know how many essays I’ve read. It’s about a date gone really bad, I mean emergency-room bad. Lots of blood on the floor bad. But it’s funny, it’s really funny.

I sent this to Dan, and he was like, “Oh my god, it’s perfect for Judd.” And we sent it to Judd, and five minutes later he’s like, “That’s it. That’s the one I want.” And I had sent him like five or six essays before, and that was it. It was just a perfect marriage.

So I think, Adam, you’re right on about your theories that we are working with an exceptional column and incredibly just delicious content. I can’t think of another word, but it just has so much range. When you’re already dealing with that level, not only do you have to bring it in terms of your work and your audio expertise, but you’re given a leg up in terms of name recognition, et cetera.

Current: There’s a really usable lesson here for everyone listening, because everyone in our world is trying to come up with the new hot podcast idea, and trying to create something brilliant out of nowhere. But, in fact, it’s a big world out there, and creative people have been doing wonderful things for a long time. There are lots of existing bodies of work out there that can no doubt be repurposed for the ear. You found one and you’re killing it with it.

Let’s talk about some other things that resulted in this incredibly psycho successful launch week. You guys did something super-smart, Jessica, which is that on your debut day last week you didn’t put out just one episode, you put out two episodes at the same time. And the result was that it effectively doubled your download numbers.

Alpert: Yes, exactly, this was a strategy that we were thinking about for a while. Not only did we have that in mind, but also we wanted to show the range of what we’re presenting this year, and hopefully many years to come. There was this Jason Alexander essay, which was more about the death of parents, and then there was an essay about what is very popular now, meeting people online, loving online, missed connections. We really wanted people to know we’re going to touch a lot in these next 48 episodes. Don’t put us in any box. If you want to put us in a box, put us in a box with lots and lots of windows, because you won’t know what’s coming next.

Current: What did you guys do in terms of marketing and promotion to set up this crazy-successful first week?

Jones: I just know what the Times did just in terms of online ads and print ads and a big social media push on their Twitter feed and Facebook in particular. This audience, at least the core “Modern Love” audience, is reachable through those channels. There’s a Facebook page just for “Modern Love” that has a really dedicated following. So that was a pretty easy build-up, to let all those people know about it and get them excited about it.

Alpert: We also created an audio trailer which we released I believe in early December. That was also an effort to get people talking, to get people excited. We were in the top 10, maybe at some point in the top five, just with a minute trailer.

Jones: That was a huge surprise, to me anyway. I think it went up to five and stayed there for a week.

Current: Is that changing the conversation at your respective organizations? Have you gotten attention from the C-suite that you didn’t get before?

Jones: Who?

Current: I was using douchey business-school lingo for the top executives: the C-suite, the bosses.

Jones: Yeah, I mean the word definitely filtered upward, and they are very excited about it. On launch day, or maybe the day after … it was an article that we used to launch it that I wrote that was sort of an introduction to the series that was run on the home page of the Times. People were very excited about it. Just the visibility it provides for the Times and, as the project developed and the people who are involved at the Times saw how talented the people at WBUR have been in putting these things together … They would send us audio samples, and we’d share them with the team at the Times that was working on it. People would just come to the meetings with smiles on their faces, but at the beginning they didn’t quite know what this project was going to be, and it just surpassed our expectations at every step. By the time that it was launching, there was an anticipation that it was going to do really well because everyone liked it so much by that point.

Alpert: We really love what we’re doing, and so it was super-gratifying to see the world agree, in a way, that this is quality content. But throughout this whole project we’ve received nothing but support from — as you call it — the C-suite here at WBUR. People are really, really committed.

Current: It’s the Charlie Suite.

Alpert: Yes, and Charlie is super-committed and just loves this project and has been really involved on every level and just loves to talk shop a little bit and, What do you think about this music and that bump? It’s fun to be able to engage in that kind of conversation with people across the organization.

Current: What’s the plan going forward?

Alpert: The plan is to keep on keepin’ on. People have asked, “You’re number one today, but what will you be tomorrow?”

Current: At the moment you’re number two behind Serial…

Alpert: Of course, but that just makes us hungrier. That’s good; we just really want to connect with listeners, and we’re really interested in what they think and how they respond not only to the actual episode but then to the Postscript, which is what we’re calling the conversation with the essayist. We’re just continuing to try and find the very best essays that translate into audio. I just want to say that some of the most compelling essays, and beautiful essays that Dan has put forth to us … we look at it, we think about it, we think there’s nothing we can do with this in sound. Some of them just are exquisite in print, but they just don’t translate. It’s finding that sweet spot of what is beautiful in print, but then just arresting in terms of audio. Finding that sweet spot and then finding those voices that can bring it to life and then getting Dan and Meghna together and just talking to that essayist and asking those questions that everyone is wondering about.