How ESPN’s ’30 for 30 Podcasts’ Season 6 Pushed Boundaries to Be More ‘Culturally Impactful’ Than Ever

“The first three episodes sound very different to anything listeners have heard before and are very different to each other,” host and producer Jody Avirgan tells TheWrap

Last Updated: December 6, 2019 @ 7:55 PM

Following in the Oscar-winning footsteps of its namesake film series, the sixth season of ESPN’s “30 for 30 Podcasts” is “more global and culturally impactful than ever before,” according to the voice of the series.

“We’ve started to push the boundaries a little bit. The first three episodes sound very different to anything listeners have heard before and are very different to each other,” host and producer Jody Avirgan tells TheWrap.

Using sports as the unifying backdrop, each story looks at a larger event beyond the field or the court — tackling abduction, natural disaster, international cheating scandals, and even the murder of a suspected Russian double agent.

While the podcast series continues the “30 for 30” legacy of quality storytelling that was launched by Connor Schell and Bill Simmons a decade ago, the audio episodes often require different approaches to their film siblings.

“It is almost the same criteria for topics — it needs to be a story on multiple levels with twists, turns and bigger themes,” Avirgan explained. But as podcasts don’t have a visual element, “it really means that our characters have to do a ton of work.”

The fascinating characters profiled in Season 6 include kidnap survivor and former biathlete Kari Swenson, WNBA stars Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, and Chilean goalkeeper Roberto “El Condor” Rojas.

All four episodes of “3o for 30 Podcasts” Season 6 from ESPN Films and ESPN Audio are currently available, for more information visit 30for30podcats.com.

Read the full Q&A with Avirgan below:

TheWrap: How has Season 6 evolved from previous “30 for 30 Podcasts”?
Jody Avirgan: I am really proud of the tonal variety of this season as that is at the heart of what we are trying to do. There is a lot of true crime, serious, heavy podcasting out there — and while we’ve taken that on as well, what I try to remind myself is that we also need to have episodes that are fun and easy to listen to, where you can just go along for the ride even if they still involve serious characters.

How does ESPN decide if a story will make a better podcast or film?
It has actually been really nice to start this podcast series after 10 years of people like Connor Schell asking the question: “What is a good ’30 for 30’ story?” I have just been a sponge for that kind of thinking. Now, we are really nicely integrated with the “30 for 30” team. When an idea comes in that we recognize as a good story, we ask “what is the best way to tell that story?” There has been a number of things that got pitched as films but ended up being a podcast. “The Good, the Bad, and the Hungry” is one we initially pitched as a podcast but became a film, so that was the other way around — in part because I was concerned about people hearing all that chewing in their ears!

Part of the appeal of “30 for 30” is that even the darkest topics — like in “O.J.: Made in America” — have light moments, and vice versa.
I like that mix of finding kooky and weird moments but also asking what is the soul of the story and why does it really matter? I enjoy having that experience myself, of going into a film thinking it is one thing and then saying: “I can’t believe I cried during that competitive hot dog eating film!” That is life and the human experience as we can have multiple emotions at any given time. But it is also a luxury that we have in this genre, as we have the space, time and depth for long-form storytelling. If it was a nine-minute feature about one of these topics then it’d be hard to express that range of emotions. It also means that the bar for the stories we tell is really high. It can’t be just one beat or emotion — they have to take multiple twists and turns, or have characters on multiple levels.

What are the production challenges in telling a story aurally rather than on film?
One thing is that we have fewer tools at our disposal as we don’t have a visual element. In a film, it is often an amalgam of what someone is saying, the emotion on their face, information on the screen, archival visual shots … For us, it really means that our characters have to do a ton of work. One of the things I’ve learned is that when we are interviewing a character, we almost have to get them to tell a story on two tracks. Oftentimes we’ll do one interview where we ask “what happened? Tell us beat by beat, moment by moment.” Then go back and get them to do that exact same thing but talk about their emotions during those events.

That means we need people who will open up and be back in the moment, then have the eloquence to describe it. We ask a lot of our characters, especially when they’ve been through a traumatic experience like Kari Swenson in “Out of the Woods.” Without doing two interviews, it wouldn’t have been as compelling and would feel more like a Wikipedia entry.

I always feel more personally connected to podcast characters than those in documentary films as I feel like they are talking directly to me — does that impact production decisions?
You definitely want to have topics where there is a level of emotional depth. I am really proud of “The Fall of the Condor” but it’s not one where you have characters that you really get to know — it’s more of a great, head-spinning story. But I think in general we have a bias towards someone needing to be the main character who you can connect with. In a film you can have someone pop up, say some interesting stuff, you can put a byline on them and then they can disappear.

In a podcast, when you introduce a character, you have to get to know them, understand who they are, and they should have an arc that comes to a satisfactory conclusion. Usually, we’ll have three or four characters but when you look at a film of the same length, there could be 12 different people.

A lot of documentaries use subtitles but obviously you can’t do that in podcasts, how do you get over language barriers such as in “The Fall of the Condor” when most of the characters are Chilean or Brazilian?
We use a mix of approaches. There are moments where you hear someone talking Spanish and I, as a narrator, will then tell the story in English without doing pure translation. But I also wanted there to be moments when the listeners just heard Spanish. Then for our central character, the Condor, we have a voice actor to do that. So it is hybrid translation work … there are little tricks of the trade you can play with and it’s an interesting challenge, but we think got it right.

“Condor” is a crazy story and one of those where you can’t quite believe it happened. It was huge in Chile and Brazil but no one knew about it here. It was very much about one person’s actions, but is also tied in with this bigger culture of Chile and how the country’s hopes and dreams came down to this one team, so the players really felt that pressure. We’re seeing that again as Chile is in the midst of a civic disaster and their soccer team has refused to play some games in protest of the government. That just doesn’t happen in the United States.

Podcasts weren’t even a mainstream storytelling medium when “30 for 30” films first launched in 2009, but the genre has just had a watershed year. Why do you think they have become so popular?
You can’t discount the impact of availability. We all have phones in our pockets, those phones have apps, we are always on the go and it is a handsfree medium that lets you listen from anywhere — those things matter. I also think that companies like ESPN realize that terrestrial radio is going away so they’ve placed bets and devoted resources into podcasting.

What do you predict for the future?
There’s not been a huge audio documentary heritage in the U.S. outside of a few little pockets but it’s starting to change. It feels like podcasting is coming of age, and all of the stuff that’s going to blow us away is still around the corner. In the last six months, I’ve seen a lot more quality podcast programming out there. There is an audience for true crime, but it is low hanging fruit and definitely the genre that is most cookie cutter. It’s the same with TV, look at the lineup on any primetime network after 8 p.m. — it’s mostly shocking true crimes. On the sports side, I feel like we [“30 for 30”]  are the only ones trying to do what we’re doing. We are starting to see more top talent in podcasting — right now the Dan Gordons (“Hillsborough,” “George Best: All by Himself”) of the world are making documentary films. But the next Dan Gordon or Alex Gibney might make podcasts.