Inside ESPN’s ’30 for 30 Podcasts’ Launch

Decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson in 1992. The pair are the subject of the first episode of the 30 for 30 Podcasts. (Tim DeFrisco / Getty)

When Jody Avirgan was asked to transform ESPN’s widely-praised 30 for 30 docuseries into a podcast, the producer, who has created podcasts for WNYC and FiveThirtyEight, mused whether the easiest solution might be to convert the documentaries wholesale. That notion quickly faded. “If we are going to uphold the standard and approach journalistically and aesthetically that 30 for 30 films have set, we need to think of these as original audio documentary efforts,” Avirgan told me recently by phone. “It’s not two guys in a room talking sports—it’s reporting original new stories that fit for audio.”

This was Avirgan’s dilemma for 30 for 30 Podcasts, which launched its first season in late June with an exploration of Reebok’s marketing build-up for the 1992 Olympics, a campaign built around decathlon favorites Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. Sports is a visual medium. We consume sports live, often on high-definition televisions — and soon, possibly, in VR — and conveying the intensity of a tackle is difficult to translate through audio. That’s why even though we are in the midst of a podcast renaissance, there are few devoted to sports.

“I want to see Barry Sanders break five people’s ankles in a row, I don’t want to hear about it,” explains Avirgan. But buoyed by the docuseries’ success, the podcast has found an active audience: While download data isn’t readily available, the inaugural three episodes of the podcast have been ranked consistently in iTunes’ top five downloads, which include producer Rose Eveleth’s episode on the first all-female trek to the North Pole, and Julia Lowrie Henderson’s episode on the bootleg T-shirt industry that introduced the world to the taunt “Yankees suck!”

30 for 30 has been very successful for ESPN. Why launch a podcast?

Over the last four years, the question “how will this brand expand?” started to be asked in all sorts of different ways. There had been 30 for 30 short films and collaborations, and it naturally came up there should be a 30 for 30 podcast. But in a sense we were the last ones to come to that conclusion. I was already part of the ESPN family, doing podcasts at FiveThirtyEight, and I was asked about a year ago to think through what a 30 for 30 podcast would look like.

We tried to adapt a few of the existing docs to a podcast format, and it worked as well as you could imagine it worked. The brand 30 for 30 had built in its nine years of existence represents more than what happened on the field — it includes the larger connections of what happened to society, to politics, to race relations. Audio is much better equipped to deal with that kind of storytelling than video. It’s intimate; you can take time and you can slow things down.

Did it worry you, since sports are so visual, that some of the most vivid and intimate descriptions would leave much to be desired?

There were some stories we looked at that just wouldn’t translate. In our first episode, Dan O’Brien talks about failing in the pole vault, and he needed to be able to describe every moment in a compelling way. Andrew Mambo was the producer on “Dan and Dave,” and he did all this legwork. He really got to know them, did tons of pre-interviews with them, got a ton of tape, and then he went back and got more. And when we realized three weeks ago that we need the story told in a slightly different way, we went back for another interview. By the end we probably ended up doing four, three-hour interviews with Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson.

In a film, you could cover any holes with slowed-down video, interviews with other people, or archival footage. We have to go beyond compiling facts and anecdotes; we need interviews where people can paint the picture by themselves, because all we have is their words.

Because there aren’t many sports-only podcasts, how did you approach that freedom within the medium?

We tried to let the story do the work. In a lot of other podcasts, the host or the narrator is much higher up. I wanted to just find a great story and get out the way, lean on the archival tape or interviews, a little bit of music and sound design. Below all of those things on the list is the narrator. This has had implications for the stories we choose. For other audio documentaries, you could take a story and have a heavy host presence to justify why it matters and move it along. I feel we need to find the right stories that have that depth already built in. This is hopefully something semi-new in the podcasting world.

Did that influence what stories you chose for the first season? It must have helped to have archival audio from a broadcasting legend like Bob Costas to use in the Dan and Dave episode.

It is always nice to have an iconic voice like Bob Costas or Joe Buck set the scene for you. It also highlights what we are trying to do differently. In a typical podcast, if you think about the turns in a story, a scene ends and then you as a listener are moved forward in time or to a different location. That turn happens in copy. Someone wraps the scene for you, tells you why it matters, takes a beat, and then keeps talking with a little essay of what happens next.

That doesn’t have to happen with sports podcasts. We try hard to do these turns with archival audio. When you want to take someone to the 1996 Olympic trials, it is very helpful if Costas can set the scene for the listener rather than myself as the host. I don’t want to do the work to tell people why we are here. I’d rather keep the story going.

It almost seems like planning the 30 for 30 podcast series might have been a bit harder than planning for the docuseries.

Well, podcasting could use more sports stories, and if we are going to explore sports in this different medium, we have to look for new angles. The podcast industry is very much like the film industry three generations ago. Maturation will happen, but right now it is still pretty small. Sports documentaries have a lot to learn from the podcasting world, just as I’m interested in the ways filmmakers bring their wisdom to my public radio conventions We get to re-evaluate, rethink, and learn from each other.