Marc Maron & Brendan McDonald reflect on the Ambies and 12 years of ‘WTF’

Via Artist

When Marc Maron and Brendan McDonald started working together in the mid-2000s, podcasting certainly wasn’t as viable as it is today, much less acknowledged by any sort of award, and the global ripple of Maron’s WTF brand wouldn’t make a splash for another four to five years. Now, more than 15 years after first teaming up, all three of those aspects are very much in play, and as the inaugural recipients of the Governor’s Award as a part of the first Ambies, Maron and McDonald have been acknowledged accordingly for their achievements in being trailblazers for the medium.

From comedy and film icons and legendary musicians, to even a sitting president, Maron has plastered his brand of unguarded curiosity and a penchant for meeting new people all over the map, which is only amplified by McDonald’s desire to produce nothing but the best quality shows — but it’s only one part of the empire these two have built, brick by brick, since starting out on the WTF journey in September 2009.

Vanyaland had a chance to catch up with the longtime creative duo to talk about the honor in receiving the new award, adapting the show’s intimate style of conversation to the world of video conferencing during the pandemic, and to reflect on what a long, strange trip it’s been from airport lounges and college radio stations to Maron’s garage over the past 12 years. Check it out.

Jason Greenough: Hey guys! I’m glad we could connect, especially for such a big achievement in the world of podcasting. How’ve you guys been holding up as we seemingly head toward what resembles a finish line of the pandemic?

Marc Maron: I’ve been okay. We’ve been busy doing two new shows a week, and we’re interviewing people as often as possible, sometimes more so than we would be doing without a pandemic. Aside from not being able to do stand-up, as well as some personal tragedy, the lockdown has been fairly busy. I shot a small movie during it, and I stayed pretty active, so I did everything I could to stay active and maintain my sanity, as well as stay engaged with the world, so I’m faring okay.

Brendan McDonald: Same here. The work has really increased in terms of our output. As Marc was saying, we’ve been able to get guests that we haven’t been able to get in the past, and we’ve done so many interviews with people in Australia, which is really wild to me. For a very long time, throughout the entire history of the show leading up to the pandemic, we insisted on people being live and in-person, but on certain occasions, we may have went to them if there was a scheduling thing where they couldn’t make it out to Marc’s place, or they had physical limitations, or it’s a situation where Marc had to catch Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio at the Arclight. That stuff was doable, for us, but the most important thing for us was to be in person, and once we adjusted to the confines of a video interface, it became really comfortable to the point where I think we had different six people that we were talking to in Australia at local time in Sydney, so it was, like the next morning for them while we’re talking to them at night. It’s been good, and it’s kept us engaged, that’s for sure.

Maron: Hugh Grant was in Istanbul, and how often do we get to see Keith Urban set up Nicole Kidman’s equipment properly? Technically, there were some challenges in adapting to what was happening in the world, and we had to figure out a way to do things in a way that we hadn’t really done them before in order to maintain the quality that we’ve gotten used to, and our listeners have certainly gotten used to. Obviously, they were a little bit more adaptive, because everyone was going through the same thing, but it was a little bit more work for Brendan in some cases in order to deal with the quality of the audio recordings, and make certain types of production decisions.

McDonald: Two words that anyone who does audio editing knows and hates are “tape sync,” and we’ve done a lot of tape sync because of this, but I’d only do it that way. We want the sound to be good, and we’ve gotten into the habit of that, and if it’s plausible and logistically possible, we’ll send a microphone to the guest, so that way we know we’ll get a good recording, but some people have also just gotten really good at recording on their phones, and it sounds good. Eddie Murphy did that for us, where he just recorded on his iPhone, and it was great. It sounded like he was in the room with us. 

Right on. The interviews over this last year have been a blast to listen to, by the way. We’ve also got a big achievement to talk about with WTF being the recipient of the very Governor’s Award as part of the inaugural Ambies this past weekend. What’s the overall feeling about being recognized in this capacity with this award?

Maron: Well, I’m glad to know that the way I would finally win a meaningful award was if they built an award around what I do. [laughs] That’s a rare thing to be a part of, where you’re in a new medium, and now this is the first legitimate award committee for our medium, and we get honored with this kind of legacy award. That’s what it took for me to win an award, and I’m proud to have won it, and I think having been there at the beginning of what could be considered modern podcasting, or the medium as it sort of evolved into a more marketable thing was exciting, and we had no expectations at the beginning. We grew up with this medium, and the medium sort of grew up around us as well with our influence and the influence of the people that were there at the beginning. It’s very exciting to be part of something from the beginning and be appreciated for your contribution to it.

McDonald: I know it sounds trite to call something like this “an honor,” because everybody says that, but I was thinking about it in those terms, specifically with the word “honor”. They’re honoring us with an acknowledgement that we helped blaze a trail for podcasts, and I think that’s super important and impactful, and also validating for both Marc and myself, absolutely. But also, I’m very cognizant of the importance of laying down the groundwork for the history of podcasting, and that was something that wasn’t really happening, and I was afraid that it might get away from the industry, considering how spread out and disparate it, and where the bar of entry is so low, there’s no real governing body for podcasts before the podcast Academy came along. It just ran the risk of becoming a kind of marketing thing for individual companies to say that they have awards you can vote for online. That has its place and gets fans engaged, and I don’t have any problem with that, per se, but in terms of it being an honor and being the honoree of that award is really important, and it’s important that it exists, and I’m very happy that they’re doing this. Even if it wasn’t for us, I’d be very happy to see how there’s a governing body out there acknowledging podcasts.

Now, you guys are coming up on 12 years of WTF. Looking back, did you ever expect things to get this big, and become this global community of sorts?

Maron: Dude, I was just hoping not to disappear. Either by my own hand or the industry that I didn’t quite succeed in. So when we started, Brendan and I had been working together in different forms of audio and early streaming for years, and ever since I was manning a broadcast microphone, he was producing me in some capacity since 2004. When we lost our last job at Air America, we were doing a streaming show before anyone was really able to stream properly, and we knew the writing was on the wall, but I told him there were are guys out there doing this thing like [Adam] Carolla, Kevin Smith, Jimmy Dore and Doug Benson and they were out there before us, so my idea was trying to figure out how to do this. 

The only real expectation we had was to keep creating, working, and for me, it was a way to keep my sanity. There was no real way to make any money out of it at first, so it was just a new thing that gave us an opportunity to have complete control over output, and I just wanted to figure it all out. So yeah, I’m totally surprised at the arc of our endeavor on all levels.

You mentioned Adam Carolla and Kevin Smith and how they had all been doing it before you. But in your own words, what do you feel separates WTF from the rest, and what do you feel made it such a trailblazer?

Maron: I don’t really come from anything. I wasn’t a Stern listener or anything, but I listened to some news, but mostly music on the radio, and even when I did radio, I didn’t really have a model in mind. I think the reason why our show became what it became was because of my intensity and desperation to connect with my community, and reconnect with life after a divorce and near bankruptcy, and my career stalling out, and I think the tone of my need to just sort of work through my amends, my apologies, and my personal problems with my peers, it created a very intimate and raw style of emotional engagement, because it seems like I have whatever gift it is to be appealing as a broadcasting voice, and integrated that into it. I don’t think that could’ve happened in any other medium, or with anybody else in charge. I don’t know what Brendan thinks about those last two questions, but in terms of expectation and what separates us, but I’d like to hear it.

Absolutely! What are your thoughts here, Brendan?

McDonald: It’s interesting, because everything that Marc is saying is absolutely correct. If you take a trip back to that period in time around 2009 or 2010, this is maybe five years after the advent of YouTube, and podcasts were still thought of as this sort of techie niche subculture. But there’s something at that time that was really becoming a cultural buzzword with a lot of cache behind it, and it was this concept of authenticity. Almost to the point where it started to lose all meaning, but coming off of a decade of reality television where there really wasn’t any type of authenticity, and you just started hearing about how people wanted authentic stuff. Marc is never trying for that. It’s just all he knows how to do. He can only be himself, and quite frankly, that’s the reason why I wanted to work with him before we started doing a morning show together in 2004. I bought in. I was fully in on this guy and what he brings to the table and how he can connect with an audience, and not unlike a lot of the things that have to do with our ascent in podcasting, it moved along with the trajectory of podcasting itself, and i just think at that early stage, there were people like Adam Carolla who were just doing what they were doing on the radio. He was the KROQ guy out in LA, and he just moved that into a podcasting environment, which was very successful for him, but it was his radio show. 

My thinking around our show was that it was going to be “Marc in your head,” and I don’t know if Marc consciously thought of it like that, because he was being himself. I really think that that was something that was innate in how we were going to do the show, and it wasn’t going to be any other way. Because of that, people connected to it and felt that it wasn’t like any of the things they were listening to, because it felt like you were an intimate associate of this guy Marc Maron, and that’s exactly what we wanted to get out of it. But at the same time, we were producing a very high quality show with a lot of production standards that we didn’t want to lose, and I think it all just kind of converged and turned into a thing with a good amount of momentum and a good audience behind it and all of that stuff snowballs until you have something that’s vital and self-sustaining, and we’ve been able to make a living on it.

With this partnership, how do you feel this endeavor has helped you guys in your respective fields away from the show, with Marc and his stand-up, and Brendan’s audio work?

Maron: For me, it affected everything dramatically because as long as I had been out in the world as a stand-up and for whatever I was appreciated for and how people saw me, I didn’t really have an audience. I couldn’t sell tickets. I had a lot of exposure, but I just couldn’t ever manifest an audience, and I think with the podcast, the few people we took over from our old show slowly diminished, and once our choice was to make it about me and life as opposed to politics or anything else, it just became a pure thing, and at a certain point, people really started to get to know me and an audience started to evolve. People didn’t really know me for my stand-up, so they started coming to my shows with the idea of “we should support him,” and that was really what I do. I didn’t need any charity or support or anything like that, but it brought in all these people who knew me very well from the podcast and it had them coming to stand-up shows and seeing that other side of me, which was very much intact and polished. I’d do an hour and a half set, and I’d have people coming up to me after the show and telling me how I did a great job, but also wanted to know how my cat was after I took it to the vet, so they had this relationship with me. 

And out of the podcast came the idea for my TV show on IFC, and that happened because of that, and it raised my profile quickly, and the podcast became kind of a destination for a lot of people, and they wanted to do the podcast. So whatever happened in that garage, initially, and whatever evolved out of it changed my career entirely. I mean, I’m living in a house, and I have money in the bank because of the podcast. It changed everything for me.

I also think it’s important to acknowledge, before I forget, that at the beginning of podcasting as we know it, there was definitely a real community. I was trying to reconnect, but there was a time where there were a handful of comic-driven podcasts or guys who knew each other were doing each other’s shows, and the business models grew out of that community. There was definitely a core group of us that made a lot of choices together to sort of grow this industry fairly organically on all sides, whether it be production, business or talent. It was a very interesting time, and i think that also affected my life, because we were all guesting on other shows, and getting excited about it, and God knows what we unleashed, but at the beginning, it was a good crew of us, you know what I mean?

McDonald: We even kind of pooled resources to fight back threats to the industry. There was this early dangerous potential precedent being set by patent assertion organizations, which is more commonly known as a “patent troll,” and you see it a lot in software development where someone will make claim to some type of old patent that they retroactively fit around a new piece of technology, and there was a guy who said he owned the patent for podcasting, and it was going to lead to a situation where, essentially, everyone who was going to do a podcast had to pay this guy a licensing fee, and we all just sat around and talked about how we were going to shut down if it happened.

Mind you, this is the early years before Spotify jumped in and there was backing from major broadcast networks. All of us, even Adam Carolla and Chris Hardwick who were building media brands out of this, we were all independent, and we were all in contact with each other and knowing where we were all at, it actually emboldened us to sit down together as a group and talk about how we were going to fight it. That was a huge achievement that goes largely unsaid because it isn’t a threat anymore, but that patent troll was beaten back, because through the work we did with a group called EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, they found what is called “prior art,” which shows that the development existed before this guy claims to have a patent on it, and now that can never threatened us again. That only happened because a bunch of people saw it as an existential threat to the industry, and we pooled our resources to see what would happen.

Maron: That’s crazy, man. Someone has to write a book about that. That was such a crazy time. I want to hear your answer to the other question, Brendan, about where [the show] took you, production-wise.

McDonald: Well, sure, but I think from my own end of how this thing has changed stuff for me, this is the central element of my career now. I was working in television news, and I was working at SiriusXM for awhile, and generally, anywhere that I had been, I had been on a pretty good career path, and it just so happened that these things were all rising at the same time, and I found myself overwhelmed from running this podcast for what I thought was going to be a side project. Instead, it turned out to be not just a full-time job, but a business. I never expected to be running a business, so this is really what I do for a living now. My life has fully changed because of the podcast. Not to mention, and because of Marc to his great credit, I told him I was in on it, and he asked me what I thought of it being a partnership. I told him he could do whatever he wanted to do, and he told me he wanted to make it 50/50, which I thought was just crazy and over-generous at the time. I don’t think that now [laughs], but I think because of that, it’s a huge thing that he trusted me like that, but I also think it was smart on his part to do that, because we have both invested in this as though it’s wholly ours. That 50/50 split of a partnership in this business means that we’re both going at this at the same level, and we really do. We work our asses off to do this show.

From a listener’s perspective, that passion and drive really shows.

Maron: We’re crazy, compulsive worker-type people. Also, it’s funny to think about how, I don’t know how many years we were in, but Brendan told he was going to do WTF full-time when he has a wife and kid, and I was like “Dude, you don’t have to do that. I don’t want to be left holding the bag of your life. If it goes down, I’d feel bad,” but then he told me he wouldn’t do it if he didn’t know it was going to be okay, and I trusted him.

Going back to the whole “patent troll” situation, it’s funny how you mentioned that someone should write a book about it, because as Brendan was explaining it, I was thinking about how a dramatic movie is in that story somewhere.

Maron: It was really kind of interesting and crazy, dude. A lot of people didn’t realize the true threat of it. We were all getting these letters, and most of the people kind of dismissed it, but there was this core group of us that, because of an interesting alignment we had with the EFF, had done some fundraising for them and brought it to their attention that it was within their purview to deal with this, we couldn’t have afforded, even as a group of us, to fight this thing, but because the EFF actually did pro-bono, non-profit work in this arena, they went in with an army of lawyers and made this happen. It was pretty touch and go, man. I don’t think anyone realizes how crazy that was, even when we talk about it, there are people who don’t understand it clearly, but it was definitely high drama.

McDonald: To the point where a false move on our part could have meant the end of the show. If we had just strategically played our cards a little differently, it could’ve been really bad.

But 12 years later, we’re here. I couldn’t imagine dealing wit that kind of thing in a journalistic realm. Like fighting someone who claims a patent on interviews or something.

Maron: It wouldn’t be interviews, but it would be something like “I own the patent on the letter ‘U’”.

With this award marking the acknowledgement of what this show has achieved, and what you guys have achieved with the show, does it have you guys thinking about where to go from here? Or is there a healthy level of contentment here?

Maron: I always tell Brendan that I’m going to keep doing this until he says to stop, and he basically says the same thing. The weird thing is, between this award and this realization through some recent accurate polling that  in the world of podcasts, [the show] is still popular and relevant, it’s still up there in the Top 20 in the United States, at least, and I don’t think we really knew that. You can check the numbers and see what’s going on, and Brendan certainly has a better sense of the scope of how the industry looks than I do, but it just turns out that between these two things, it gave us a sort of renewed feeling of “fuck it,” where we retain the same level of quality, and we’ve retained our audience, perhaps picking up a few, and we’ve out-survived a lot of people. It’s our primary focus and we both still enjoy doing it, and we’re starting to have people over again, and I love it. I still get something out of that because I love to meet people and talk to people, and on a personal level, it’s very nourishing for me, and on a professional level, it’s what we do. There’s nothing different in the approach or how we feel about it, and nothing has gotten stale for me, so it keeps going.

McDonald: I would echo exactly what Marc is saying about our relevance and our drive, but the other thing that has occurred to me a few times over the course of this pandemic is, like, the whole point of doing this is that we wanted to work in a way that we like to work, while making the type of thing that we wanted to make. Back in the day, there were a lot of restrictions on us with whatever terrestrial-based radio options there were out there for us to do, like doing the streaming digital video show we did that had a lot of issues. It was compromised, and we had a lot of problems with it. Doing the podcast was our option to do exactly what we wanted to do, and not get fired. We were in charge, and we were happy with what we were getting out of it, like donations from listeners, but we would do it based on the way we felt about it. That was how we felt about it when we started in 2009, and just from the last year, we were able to sit here while there’s all of this strife going on in the world and in our own lives, and still think about how our job is exactly what we want it to be. I can have relief from the fact that the world is crazy, and things in life are feeling uncertain and out of control, and I can go sit down at my computer and produce a show, and that’s exactly what I wanted to be doing. 

So, it’s the same thing as Marc was saying, where there’s no reason to think we’re on any trajectory other than continuing to move forward, but there is that feeling of ‘this is the lifeblood for me,” and I really think Marc feels the same way.

So, I’m down to my last question. Again, looking back 12 years ago, a lot of stuff has transpired both in terms of the show and the world in general. If you were to sit down with Marc and Brendan in 2009, what would you say to brace them for what was coming?

Maron: At the beginning, the only commitment we really made was that we would release a new show on Mondays and Thursdays, no matter what, and we’ve done that for 12 years. But, sometimes during the beginning, there were technical problems, or I’d be stuck in a snowstorm somewhere, and I was worried that I wouldn’t make it back to do the show in time. Like, there was this one time I was so panicked that I wouldn’t make it home to do the intro that I went to a local college in Buffalo, and tried to tell them who I was at their radio station so I could record the goddamn intro, and get it out there, and I wound up making it home to do it anyway. That’s happened twice. One time, I rented a room at the American flight lounge to do an intro for Billy Gibbons, because I didn’t know if I was going to make it home.

So, I think if I was to say anything to a younger me at the beginning of this, it would be to try and relax a bit. There was so much panic on my part because we both made this commitment to do this for the show, and for each other, and we’re both so crazy with honoring what we wanted to achieve. It probably wouldn’t have mattered that much if we missed one show, but ya know what? We didn’t, and it’s paid off.

McDonald: I’d agree with that advice, and I’d add “keep doing what you’re doing and don’t waver.” Not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but we were pretty much on the money from the jump on this thing. We really are essentially doing the same thing we’ve done since September 2009. It takes a lot of focus to nail that down, and we did, and I’m sure there were probably times where we thought it may not amount to anything, so maybe a little bit of a thumbs to tell us to keep going would’ve been helpful.