Interview with Bryan Bishop, Podcast Host and Sidekick on The Adam Carolla Show
Bryan Bishop, affectionately nicknamed Bald Bryan, is the on-air sound effects guy/co-host/comedic foil on The Adam Carolla Show, a wildly popular daily podcast. In May 2011, the show became the Guiness Book of World Records holder for the most downloaded podcast ever, amassing 59,574,843 unique downloads between March 2009 and March 2011. Bishop and his effects often serve as a quick-witted comedic undercut for Carolla’s acerbic take on current events.
Before becoming an on-air talent, Bishop worked his way through various phone screening jobs at terrestrial radio stations, as well as game shows: he was a contestant on both Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (where he won $100,000) and Comedy Central’s Beat the Geeks. In 2009, Bishop was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor located in his brainstem. Doctors originally game him 6 months to a year to live. Today, his tumor has shrunk significantly and the prognosis is far more positive than it was two years ago. Here he talks about his beginnings in terrestrial radio, coping with his illness, and the future of the podcasting medium.
You started by studying creative writing at USC. How did you get into radio, and its production? I know you screened calls at K-Rock[a Los Angeles-based radio station].
I was never in production, so to speak, on the radio side. For a guy who pushes buttons and does sound effects I know shockingly little about the technical, anything, I couldn’t set up anything involving a radio station or a podcast. The sound effects are more of an extension of my creative side, and I don’t really have a technical side. I got into it because when I graduated it was May of 2000, and the Internet dot com bubble was bursting right at that exact moment. I tried to get a job, and got a job at a start-up, but then that went under. By the time I lost my first job, it was only six months later and the job market was terrible.
I needed a part-time job to pay the rent, so I got one part-time job and was looking for a second one when I came across an ad for phone screeners at K-Rock. That was interesting to me, and I always liked radio. I grew up in the Bay Area, and Howard Stern was syndicated out there and I loved Howard Stern. I listened to Loveline at night and I loved Loveline. When the opportunity came to have a part-time job at K-Rock, that was just the coolest thing in the world. Well, not in the world, but you know what’ I’m saying. It was a very cool thing. I took a job, and it was a very low-paying job, but it was cool to be around all that happening stuff, and go to concerts. About a year after I started at K-Rock working part-time, a phone screener spot opened up at Loveline and they asked me to do that. It was more money, not much more, but a little bit more money. I did that for a couple years. That was my first time being around radio, and learning how it works, being around it from the inside.
So how did you get involved with the Carolla podcast?
I was on the Carolla radio show when it was on 97.1 in Los Angeles, and it was on there from 2006 to 2009. I was the phone screener there. I had had a different job between Loveline and the Carolla morning show. When he started up the morming show, I was hired on to be the phone screener. I didn’t think I was going to do it for very long because it didn’t pay very well, but I just wanted to be around a cool radio show. When it was launched, it was kind of historic, so I wanted to be around for that. I was around for five months and a series of events led to me becoming an on-air sound effects guy, and that’s the job I’ve had ever since 2006.
When you started the show, did you have another job? As it has advanced and picked up advertisers, has it become your full-time job?
Well, as you know if you listen to the podcast, I’ve had some health issues. When the podcast came around, I wasn’t working at all. It was a very easy and fortunate way for me to get back into the working world. My wife and I lost our jobs at the same time right before I got diagnosed with cancer. We filed for unemployment for the first six months we were out of work. But we didn’t work for about a year, because I wasn’t capable of it and she was my full time caregiver. So neither of us really could work. We never filed for unemployment after that, partly because number one, it didn’t feel ethically right to us. I don’t know why, I mean, I’m sure we were entitled. But number two, I always had the goal to get back into the working world, and that’s just what would’ve made me feel like I was recovering, that I was getting back to work and doing something for a paycheck and for money. Even though I may have been entitled to some kind of compensation from the government or whatever, it never felt right. In a way, and it’s totally psychological, I’m not saying it’s this way for everyone, but for me it felt like giving up. It felt like throwing in the towel, saying, ‘No, I can’t do this on my own. I’m not gonna get better. I need help.’
So I didn’t have a job, and when the podcast started Adam called me up and said ‘Hey, we’re gonna do a full podcast. Are you interested?’ I was interested, and it was great because I wanted to get back into the working world, and it was a good foray into that arena.
How have you been doing health wise?
I’m doing good, thank you for asking. I feel good. I’m improving incrementally, little by little. A tiny, tiny little bit each day. You look back six months, and I think, I’m doing a lot better. I’m doing this that I wasn’t doing before. I’m excited to get better, and keep improving, and doctors are happy so I’m happy.
You guys joke around on the show a lot about how backwards things were at K-Rock. I see a lot of parallels between terrestrial radio and the newspaper industry, and how that’s going. Why do you think that old guard of media is so stubborn and hesitant, and so resistant to change?
I don’t know. I will say, to set the record straight, K-Rock itself is run fairly well. It’s a successful business, and they run themselves pretty well. Loveline was run in a very strange way. When Adam jokes and laughs about the way things are run, he’s talking more about Loveline specifically and less about K-Rock. For a radio station, they run extremely well. That said, now to address your question, I don’t know. I think there’s a lot of fear on the part of people that work in the industry.
For the most part, the people that have been there a long time and the people that think they have it figured out, the program directors and whoever, it’s a trade [for them]. You work in it long enough, and you think you have the rules down and you know how it works. You have the formula, and if you just apply the formula, you’ll have a successful product. But that’s not really the case anymore. Everything’s turning upside down. Are you familiar with the Portable People Meter?
No, I’m not.
It’s a way of measuring radio ratings. They used to do the Arbitron diaries, which is a really horrible and poorly conceived way to do it, but that’s the way it was done. Program directors thought they had it all figured out, how to manipulate the diaries with all the little tricks they had. There were just tons and tons of tricks to manipulate the ratings and what they thought worked. Then the PPMs came along. The Portable People Meter is a pager, essentially, that they have people wear. Instead of the people Arbitron selects to fill out a diary, saying ‘Oh, this is what I listen to,’ who rely on their memory, which can be a little fuzzy, they give you a little pager device that picks up any radio station near you or that you’re listening to.
Now, the obvious problem with that is if you’re at work, or at the mall, and you’re somewhere that plays light, easy listening or pop-rock, or something that’s just in the background, it’s going to pick it up just the same as if you were listening to The Adam Carolla Show or any kind of thing you would actually be listening to. It was no surprise that when the PPM came out, all of a sudden the oldies station was doing really well, and all of a sudden the pop stations were doing really well. That’s the music that’s in the background of your life, and it’s just there, and you’re not really listening to it, but it’s there. I guess the ultimate end of what I’m saying is, radio has a lot of old school problems with old school people who have their heels really dug in. The idea of the world changing, and podcasts becoming the new cool thing and the new way for people to listen, is pretty scary when your livelihood that you’ve committed yourself to for 20 or 30 years is being threatened. It’s understandable. We’d all be scared of that.
Where do you think the future of podcasting is? Where do you think it’s headed?
The problem with podcasting, as it currently stands, is… The major advantage radio has over podcasting is obviously the fact that it’s there like how you turn on your water and you have water coming out. You get into your car, press one button and your favorite radio station is there. Whereas if you want to listen to a podcast, it’s a barrier entry, which is what they call it in the marketing world. There’s a barrier to get into that world. If you’ve never heard a podcast before, you have to find that podcast, find out what it’s about, download it, sync it to your iTunes and your iPod or whatever else you’re listening on, you’ve gotta get an adapter to listen to it in your car. It’s a several step process.
When podcasts are available in your car as easily as your favorite radio station is, that’s when I think podcasts will sort of become the next accepted medium. For example, a lot of big advertisers are hesitant to get into the podcasting world. It’s hard to justify, if you’re a media buyer working for a big company like Nike or Gatorade or anybody, if you’re in charge of spending millions of dollars, you’ve got to go to your boss or your board of directors and say, ‘Hey, this is a good investment for our money because this reason and this reason.’ It’s hard to do when you’re talking about a new medium like podcasting. I think eventually, and I don’t think it will be long, podcasting will be the hot new, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta get into this game. If you’re in advertising, you’ve gotta get into the podcasting game.’ And you’re seeing that a little bit. We’re attracting more and more ‘legitimate’ advertisers, not that all of our advertisers aren’t legitimate, but the ones that as a casual consumer you would say, ‘Oh, I’ve seen their ads on TV. I’ve heard of this company. I’ve used this product.’ That sort of brand recognition that I think the average person has.
What I think is going to happen, if I had to predict, is it’s going to be… It won’t be a trickle, when the money starts coming in from the Nikes and the Gatorades of the world. I think it’s going to be a flood. It’s going to be, ‘Oh, the games over here, everyone move as fast as your can,’ like a game of musical chairs. That’s the way advertising works. It’s like head coaching in the NFL. You don’t want to make a risky decision, because your job is on the line if it doesn’t work. Someone can easily say, ‘Why didn’t you just play it safe and go with what we’ve done for years?’ But the first company to do it a little bit differently and have results, it’s going to be a great thing for the podcasting world.
Don’t you think that advertising would be easier to attract for podcasts, because the numbers are so cut and dried and easy to point to?
I 100 percent agree with you. It almost feels like a sales pitch when I say it, but the truth is, as a podcaster or podcast, we can tell you exactly how many people listened. We can tell you exactly, to the last number, how many people downloaded your episode. These are active, involved, engaged listeners. If you’re advertising on some random radio station that has high ratings, you’re spending millions of dollars based on, number one, an estimate, and number two, let me ask you a question: what’s the first thing you do when a commercial comes on a radio?
Everyone does. I did. I used to work in radio, and the first thing I would do would be to change the station. I’m not gonna listen to this crap. On The Carolla Show, the way we do it is we weave in advertising into the show, and he tries to make comedy out of it and make content out of it. Yeah, you’re being pitched a product or service or whatever, but we’re going to make it worth your time because your ears are valuable to us and we appreciate that you’re subscribing and listening. Just like radio, it’s free. We know exactly how many people are listening and engaged. I don’t know about you, but it’s the case for me and I assume everybody, but when you’re listening to a podcast a little bit at a time, you’re not going to tune out like when you get to work and turn off your car and walk inside and then you’re not listening to the show anymore. For me, when I get to work I turn off my car I put my iPod on pause and I come back and I listen to the rest of the podcast. Most people who listen to a podcast, I would assume, are listening to the entire thing. It’s people who want to be there and want to listen to what you want to say.