WBEZ hoping comedy podcast will also be popular on radio

Marc Maron Steve Johnson

Originally published in Chicago Tribune

On the podcast “WTF With Marc Maron,” extraordinary things happen. Gallagher, the prop comic who we learn is bitter over never having gotten his own talk show or sitcom, storms out of the hotel room where the interview is taking place when the questions from Maron get a little too tough.

“We were having a good conversation,” listeners hear Maron plead as his interview subject’s voice, moving away from the microphone, fades. “Oh, come on, Gallagher.”

On another episode, Robin Williams gives one of the most revealing interviews you’ve ever heard from him, the familiar shtick stripped away to reveal the man, a product of Maron’s insight into the mind of a fellow comic, no matter the imbalance between their relative levels of fame.

Ira Glass, the “This American Life” host and one of Maron’s few non-comic interview subjects, is so impressed by the show and his experience on it that he lauds it on his blog as “the New York Times of comedy podcasts, and by that I mean the definitive comedy podcast of record.”

“WTF,” which has come to rank consistently near the top of the iTunes charts in its almost two years of existence, is starkly honest and surpassingly human, in large part because Maron is forthright about his own shortcomings, from divorce to the many bridges he has burned.

“I’m the guy who apologizes,” the 47-year-old, Los Angeles-based Maron explained during the opening monologue on one of his shows. “People come and they talk to me, and I get to apologize to them, and we talk about the past, and we bury the hatchet, and we learn things about each other, and everybody is entertained, and it’s human and it’s good.”

Now his show can claim exceptionalism in another area. Although you’d think this would have happened more often by now some seven years into the podcast era, “WTF” is a pioneer of sorts in being offered for pickup by public-radio stations — a move that is purely coincidental to Garrison Keillor announcing he’ll soon retire.

“The whole thing is overwhelming to me because I never had a plan other than to do two of these shows a week and to see what happened,” Maron says in a recent telephone interview. “When I started this, I was broke. My career was in the (toilet). I was in the middle of a divorce. I really was just looking for another way to find my voice and to express myself, and it turned out to be the most honest thing I’ve ever done, and the most gratifying.”

The first of 10 “WTFs” crafted for public radio from Maron’s back catalog of almost 200 shows aired on Chicago’s WBEZ-FM 91.5 Sunday, in the 8 p.m. slot where it will reside through most of the summer. The public-radio version of the podcast — featuring interviews with Conan O’Brien, alternative comic Maria Bamford and filmmaker Judd Apatow — has also been picked up by New York and Los Angeles stations, among other places.

At KCRW-FM in Los Angeles, it helped that public radio superstar Glass made a call to plug the show, says Jennifer Ferro, the station’s general manager.

But KCRW knew Maron, too, and had already been looking for a way to work with him more. “He’s got something really unique and authentic in the way he interviews people and the way he presents those interviews,” Ferro says. “I think he’ll do well. He’s not completely out of the public radio spectrum but he’s enough away from it” to sound fresh.

Although it might seem natural for radio to be raiding the podcast ranks for talent, it’s harder than it seems, Ferro explains. Schedules have little room for flexibility, and a program needs to run weekly to have a chance to find an audience. The big example of a crossover success she could think of was “The Moth,” first a storytelling event in New York City, then a popular, if infrequent, podcast, and now a big presence on public radio.

Chicago Public Media, WBEZ’s parent and the producer of “This American Life,” is hoping the same will happen for “WTF.” CEO Torey Malatia was so impressed by the show, and by Glass’ belief in it, that the organization provided some seed money to help pay for the editing necessary to make the shows work in the new format.

“Ira has always been attracted to people who have this ability to make a radio disappear,” Malatia says. “That’s why he’s a big Howard Stern fan. Marc has it, too. You completely forget you’re nowhere near this person. You’re right there with him.”

Glass (who was traveling overseas this week and couldn’t be reached) put it this way on his show’s blog: “Being interviewed by Maron reminded me of an old axiom about interviewing: that an interview is a party you’re throwing and your guest will mirror your behavior. Marc is an insanely intense guy, and stares into you as you talk — it really feels like his eyes are piercing inside you — and then when he speaks he reaches inside himself and talks in the most heartfelt way possible. In a room with that, you’d have to be made of stone not to respond in the most soulful way you can summon up.”

Before the podcast, Maron was probably best known for his work as a morning host on Air America, the failed but well-chronicled attempt last decade to get a liberal radio network off the ground.

A couple of stints there — plus a syndicated radio show in between — produced acrimony with his bosses but also the belief that he was good on a radio mike. “My manager at that time sat me down and said, ‘No one wants to work with you. I can’t get you an agent. I can’t get you bookings,’” he recalls. “So do I quit? Do I kill myself? It was a dark time.”

So, in 2009, he invested about $1,000 in equipment — two microphones, a mixing board, some software and some cables — and, in Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney fashion, started putting on a show.

As the podcast evolved, it did a lot more for Maron than keep him working.

“Before it, I was sort of an isolated artitst,” he says. “I was respected within the standup community, and obviously I knew a lot of people, but I didn’t know them well. And sort of through my own attitude and my own insanity, I saw myself as a marginalized character.

“The arc of this podcast is really me reaching out to my peers for help. I’ve sort of come into my own voice in a way that I never was able to on the stand-up stage. I’ve integrated myself back into the community that I’m part of. I’ve learned how to laugh again and be engaged and listen.”

What it hasn’t done is paid the bills. The show earns “a little” money, he says — an online marital-aid retailer has been a sponsor — but he, like the many fellow comedians who have podcasts, is still trying to figure out a workable financial model.

And the new radio venture, he says, is, for now, more about what he calls “the honor” of appearing on public radio, which he says he listens to almost exclusively.

But where the podcast really has helped is in turning around his standup career. “I was unbookable two years ago, and now I’ve had to turn down work,” he says. (He’ll be in Chicago Aug. 4 and 5, at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park.)

“I’m overwhelmed and forced into a sort of humble gratitude about the whole thing,” he says in the interview. But he is also someone, he has pointed out on his show, who, when things are going well, starts asking himself a question: “How am I going to (screw) it up?”