The Obama Interview and the 21st Century Horatio Alger Myth

At the end of the San Francisco City Hall 100 weekend, I found out that one of the things President Obama had been doing in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles on the morning of June 19, 2015 was sitting down for an interview in Marc Maron’s garage for Maron’s WTF podcast.


Marc Maron is a notable figure for these times. A 40-something comedian/talk show host who suddenly found himself in 2009 without a steady radio gig and not exactly in demand by the rest of show business either, Maron took to podcasting at a time when it was strictly the purview of amateurs. Out of his garage, Maron would record himself twice a week, usually griping about his toxic personality, his two failed marriages, and his ongoing parent issues. He’d often invite friends from the comedy world over to sit in on the fun, all against the backdrop of the economic collapse known as the Great Recession of 2008. It was a time when 25-year old tech workers were doing fine, Wall Street people were safely ejecting from the wreckage they caused, and everybody else watched their economic security free-falling to oblivion.


Somehow, in the intervening years, Maron’s WTF podcast became the juggernaut of the podcasting world, garnering the kind of listenership that brought bigger and bigger names into the garage for a 60-minute sitdown, and led to a resurgence in Maron’s career that included not only a busy touring schedule, but also a successful TV sitcom bearing his name, now in its third season.


As the nation crawled back to economic recovery, Maron’s roster of celebrity guests kept expanding. In June 2015, he went on the NPR radio program Fresh Air and did something that had never been done: He turned the tables on host Teri Gross and interviewed her on her own show. That’s big news in the radio broadcasting universe. But that was nothing compared to the coup Maron was about to stage–landing none other than the President of the United States himself, Barack Obama, to come into Maron’s garage for his first ever podcast.


This certainly meant a lot for Marc Maron’s career, but it might mean even more for the medium of podcasting as a whole. The ongoing tech revolution hasn’t just meant that highly paid young IT workers are competing with lower paid artists for the same living spaces; the astounding leaps in technology and social media mean that commercial artists and creatives of all types often don’t even have work anymore. We’ve seen what’s happened to the newspaper and magazine industry. Remember Newsweek? The San Francisco Bay Guardian?


We saw what happened to the music industry. Why pay top dollar for pennies worth of plastic when you can eliminate the middleman and share the music files for free?

No one has much pity for the record industry, but what about the artists and especially the songwriters who were counting on some quarterly residuals to help pay the bills?


Of course, that is a discussion for 2001, not 2015.


In 2015, people can generate, mix, and distribute music with nothing more than their cell phones and a couple of apps. Why pay musicians at all when we can generate our own symphonies with the swipe of a finger? And if you make or repair actual guitars, violins, or accordions for a living, suddenly you’re looking for work, too.


And what about concert photographers? Very few got rich from that endeavor, but they provided a service and a product that people would pay for. It was possible to make a modest living with a camera in such a way. But today, who needs concert prints when you can take selfies of the shows you attend and share them instantly? The camera phones just keep getting better, and so do the apps that let you edit the photos and videos like a pro.


The book industry is in trouble, too, and it isn’t just bookstores that are shutting down. Like music albums, why pay for a hardcopy of a novel when you can share a digital file for free? Publishers, editors, proofreaders, there was once a whole industry that offered jobs to the literati, but now they’re having to use their English Lit PhDs to wipe down the counters at Starbucks because there aren’t even Borders or Barnes & Nobles to work in anymore.


Even the mighty Hollywood movie and TV studios are feeling the crunch now, never mind radio stations. You get the picture. This new technology is transforming entire sectors of the economy, abolishing jobs that until now required human minds and bodies to perform. Soon, we won’t even need cab or bus drivers. Is there anything a robot or an app can’t do that people can? Haircutters and massage therapists might be the most stable professions at this point.


But I digress. All that is years, possibly decades, into the future. For now, it’s mostly still just the creatives who are feeling the crunch. And yet, new technologies provide new creative opportunities. Podcasting may be the best example of this. For the media consumer, podcasts are a game-changing revolution. Your choice of shows, uncensored, on demand, commercial-free.


Howard Stern made a big deal of going to satellite radio in 2006, describing it as the death of “terrestrial” radio as we know it. For just $15/month plus several hundred dollars to purchase a clunky satellite radio receiver, you could listen to Howard Stern uncensored from anywhere in the country, regardless of whether a local radio station carried his show.


That was meant to be a media revolution, but almost immediately after Stern’s arrival, the technology of satellite radio began to be rendered obsolete by the technology of podcasting. And Howard Stern didn’t get it. As much as he lauded the game changing nature of satellite radio and mocked the squares who didn’t grasp it, he was utterly blind to the game changing nature of podcasting, sneering at it as a fad for hobbyists in their bedrooms rather than something legitimate and revolutionary.


By 2009, a critical mass of professional comedians had jumped aboard the new medium and started their own podcasts. Adam Carolla was probably the biggest name in the pack. Carolla had been selected as the terrestrial radio replacement for Stern’s syndicated show when Stern left for satellite in 2006. Carolla was fired in early 2009, and the very next day he started podcasting and never looked back. Today he earns more than his previous seven-figure annual radio salary and maintains total autonomy over his shows.


Other comedians are succeeding at it, too. It turns out podcasting is the perfect medium for stand-ups. They already know how to talk into a microphone for an hour straight, but in traditional radio the best they could do was compete for guest appearances on morning zoo shows. Now, they can do their act from their living room, uncensored, and put it out there for whoever wants to hear it. They can appeal to their target audiences without having to worry about maintaining the baseline of mainstream acceptability that kept traditional radio so homogenized.


We’ve seen the same dynamic in the cable (and now Netflix) era of television. No single TV program will come close to the kind of total viewership that shows got when there were only three networks to choose from, but because programmers no longer have to worry about appealing to such a broad audience, television has never been better.


Popular music is a different story. Rock musicians too will never see the kind of sales they had in the pre-Internet days. But unlike television, few people are saying that rock music is better now than it was a couple of decades ago. There could be many reasons for that: The professional studio system ensured a baseline level of competence across the board for recording, engineering, songwriting, postproduction and distribution. Plus, the barrier for entry was so high that the acts that did get selected to record in the big studios had probably already proven themselves on some level.

Of course, bigger didn’t always mean better in rock and roll, quite the opposite really. At its essence rock n roll was always about flouting the conventions of the music industry and taking them down a peg. Rock and roll’s great second act was punk rock ungilding the lily and stripping the tour van back down to primer.


The 90s “Alternative” renaissance was all about getting rid of the costuming and pageantry of 80s rock and bringing it back to something more essential. It worked for awhile, but then at some point rock’s preeminence began to recede. Certainly the collapse of the record industry played a huge part in that. But other changes happened as well. Since the mid-80s, Middle America had grown up with rap and hip-hop artists being equal to rock stars. As computers made home recording easier and more accessible in the 90s, guitars and amps seemed a less necessary part of the mix. And here we are today. Great genre music is still being made. But the fan base is aging. Rock is certainly not dead, it has just come down to earth. Rock musicians are more like jazz and blues musicians now, playing for smaller audiences rather than masses of screaming MTV-fed teenagers.


The bottom line is it’s getting harder and harder to be a professional creative artist (or writer), but much easier to be an amateur creative artist. The economic value of a service is whatever someone is willing to pay for it, nothing more. People who spent their lives training for a certain task that can now be replicated by technology are learning this the hard way. And this is a trend that will continue into every facet of society, so we might as well start facing it now.


For creatives in these challenging times, Marc Maron represents the Horatio Alger myth, the proof that despite the ever-dwindling odds of making a sustainable career in the arts, just by being yourself–as Marc Maron does–the world will reward you somehow. The fact that there are at last count something like 500,000 different podcasts on Itunes with more being added everyday doesn’t really factor into the equation. This isn’t about numbers. This is about faith. Every generation needs its Horatio Alger figure, and always has.


We’re born to die, and we’re alone in the void of an expanding universe, clinging to the surface of a rock that is spinning fast enough to kill us all if we ever let go. And yet somehow, most of the people most of the time are able to maintain the faith that it’s all happening for a reason and that it’s taking us somewhere good.

Because after all, what’s the alternative?

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