Adam Carolla has done the math. The comedian, actor, and multimedia ranter is studying what appears to be a trap door in the ceiling of the garage he personally helped build for his West Hollywood home. He's scowling.
Somewhere above the opening is his office, a glass box he added to the 1929 Spanish-style mansion he assiduously restored from near-wreck conditions. The office, a modernistic anomaly when compared with the rest of the house, was designed to do one thing: showcase one of Carolla's many expensive vintage cars, such as his 1969 yellow Lamborghini Miura. "My fantasy is that you walk in the house's front door and look down the hall and see the city lights, but the car is the center of attraction," he says while pointing up through the ceiling. "You won't know how it got there." Carolla, once a $15-an-hour carpenter, shares every detail — about the adjustable lights he installed, the platform he custom-fabricated, the way he measured the hole so that the floorboards above would all be precisely the same width, and the monumental effort to install the hoist that would ultimately lift the car through the ceiling.
There's only one problem. Eyeballing the hoist, he notes that there will be about a 3-foot gap between where it stops and the floor above. The mental image of a $600,000 car dangling in space brings a barely perceptible smirk to his face. "Yeah," he says, slowly describing a hazy strategy involving experimental safety harnesses, removable I-beams, nylon straps, and netting that he's devised to get the car the rest of the way. "For the most part, there wasn't a clear-cut plan," something he seems to say often. "Obviously, no one wants to see their priceless car get destroyed, and nobody wants to see their buddy get crushed. But I'm kind of in the business of working things out."
In just over a year, Carolla, 45, has used this same improvisational approach to lift podcasting from the realm of amateur audio and video blogging to an increasingly professional medium with real revenue potential. His daily talk show was an
immediate hit — more than 50 million downloads in its first year — and was named iTunes's best audio podcast of 2009.
By aggregating a devoted audience and then experimenting with new ways of interacting with it, Carolla is both taking advantage of an opportunity and creating one. Analysts at eMarketer predict that U.S. podcast listenership will approach 38 million by 2013, more than double 2008's audience. Meanwhile, traditional media has mostly used podcasting to repurpose preexisting TV and radio content — the same mistake newspapers and magazines made with the Web, opening the door to outsiders.
Watch Carolla struggle to do something as basic as finding the exclamation point on a keyboard to include in an email response to a publicist ("Oh fuck it, she knows I'm happy," he says, tapping send), and he wouldn't be your first pick to advance the cause of new media. But of course, Carolla has built his career on doing the unexpected. "I said to anyone who would listen, all arrows point to the computer — all music, all entertainment," Carolla says. "Why aren't we trying to get in front of that?" That's why Carolla is now building on his early success to launch an ambitious podcasting network.
As a comedian, Carolla is funny, crude, and distinctive. His voice has been immeasurably shaped by his improbable path to a career in the entertainment industry. He was a wrong-side-of-the-tracks North Hollywood high-school graduate who could barely read and who worked a series of menial jobs before breaking into radio and then TV. Carolla's radio career — 11 years as sidekick to Dr. Drew Pinsky on Loveline and 3 hosting his own
morning show — was peaking when he was abruptly fired. Podcasting was never his game plan, but thanks to its free form and lack of rules, it just may be the perfect medium for his skills. Listen to one of his podcasts and you know exactly what it's like to hang with him in his living room. It is this authenticity — along with his work ethic forged out of his drywall days and his torrent of ideas (including a sitcom he's developing for NBC this spring) — that has made Carolla and his nascent podcasting network the Internet's great talking hope. After all, his vintage sports car somehow made it through the garage ceiling and into his office. Why shouldn't Carolla's Ace Broadcasting Network ascend against all odds?
Carolla's first podcast, in February 2009, was a doozy. Just two days after CBS Radio unceremoniously ousted him from his popular morning-radio program — it decided to switch to a cheaper music format — Carolla recorded an hour's worth of material on a Sunday night so his fans could at least have the methadone of a Monday-morning podcast after the heroin of his four-hour show. It was Carolla's high-school buddy Donny Misraje, a veteran of past Carolla projects, who persuaded him to give podcasting a try. "It was a timing thing," says Misraje, who looks a bit like a long lost Bee Gee. "It didn't matter if we were ready or not."
Fueled by a fair amount of red wine, Carolla delivered a "State of the Radio Industry" rant, a withering critique of the medium. Program directors, he said, ask for "more 'cooch talk,' more 'Cocktober,' more 'Manuary' ... 'How about you give out the time?' And I was always like, 'Jack, don't you listen to the fucking show? All I do is make fun of the other idiots who give out the time.' " Almost a year later, standing in his kitchen, Carolla tells me, "Radio has a lot of rules that are set up to protect the foibles and weaknesses of the host." He names names: "Mark and Brian, Opie and Anthony are, like all radio guys, comedically second tier. I'm not putting these guys down; I'm in that group." But you're not going to find a Jon Stewart, a Stephen Colbert, or even a Jimmy Kimmel telling anybody the time during your morning commute. The rules enforce a sameness that eliminates any chance of something original happening. "Radio's about guys with subpar intellects killing four goddamn hours... . I'd like to connect for four hours."
Although most of Carolla's podcasts are interviews or conversations with friends, they're all platforms for Carolla's opinions. About everything. His mix of earnest minutiae and righteous rage is the secret to the bond he creates with fans. No topic is too small, such as how to use a nail gun properly ("Don't keep squeezing the trigger over and over; hold it down and slap it down — bap bap bap!" he tells me helpfully). Or too large, such as how government bureaucracy wears down the very taxpayer Uncle Sam should be trying to protect. Cue the anti-authoritarian: "They make you overengineer the shit out of everything," he says, referring to his own experience building his glass office, "so it will pass the city inspector, because the city wants you building Hitler's bunker. And they say, 'Oh, why not, better safe than sorry.' It's great for the engineer, the architect, and the city — everybody except the guy with the checkbook who is getting raped."
For a guy who can go on a five-minute screaming jag about the inferiority of cake versus pie, much less Los Angeles building inspectors, Carolla sounds uncharacteristically sanguine about his dismissal from terrestrial radio. "I don't take it personally," Carolla told me during a tour of the home he shares with his wife, Lynette, and their 3-year-old twins, Sonny and Natalia. "I got shit-canned and they paid me for 10 months. Every morning when my alarm didn't go off at 4:45 a.m. and I got paid anyway, I was grateful."
But with the launch of his podcast, Carolla quickly found himself dangling from a very expensive hoist, with no plan in sight. "We thought it would be easy and cheap," he says. A couple of mics, a mixer, and bandwidth fees — he figured the whole thing would cost $300 to $400 a month. "Within weeks, we were melting down the servers," Misraje recalls. As downloads kept rising to more than a million a week, Carolla was spending $3,000 and then $5,000 and then more than $13,000 a month on technology to host the show, which was staffed entirely by volunteer help and course-credit interns. "By September, we needed to look for advertisers," says Misraje, now Carolla's executive producer. A bit of fancy dancing was in order "to get around Adam's noncompete clause" with CBS. CarCast, a weekly show devoted to Carolla's love of cars — sufficiently different from Carolla's signature chat fest — was born.
And then something funny happened. CBS, which had fired Carolla just months earlier, did a little math of its own. The Aceman (Carolla's nickname) appeared to be on to something. "When we told CBS that we were going to start looking for advertisers for Adam," Misraje says, "they said, 'No, we'd like to get involved with you guys.' " In September, CBS quietly took over distributing the podcast and helped find the adult-products catalog Adam & Eve as an advertiser. Although it wasn't exactly the big brand name Misraje had hoped for, it was a start in figuring out a revenue stream. "We're trying not to be corporate radio, but we definitely need advertisers to make this work." (He has since hired commission-based salespeople.) For its part, Adam & Eve has been happy with the relationship. "We see sales from it even in weeks when our spots aren't running," says Brian Young, the company's media manager. "It's our priciest media buy outside of Howard Stern."
As their audience grows — Carolla now has 2.8 million listeners a month — he and his team have been testing a variety of ad formats. (CarCast's audience is easier to define; Ford signed on as an advertiser last October, and he recently added a major auto magazine.) DiggersList, an online construction-classifieds site, is building out a larger facility for Carolla's headquarters, a $100,000 value, in exchange for a physical banner ad, signage on the studio wall. "So could we get you to read an ad for Fast Company for $100,000?" I ask. "Oh, you can get a lot more than that for that price," laughs Carolla. He studies me. "But that's only because you're a friend now."
It's showtime at the world-famous Improv comedy club on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, and Carolla, the headliner, is late. He is booked to do two live podcast tapings. Misraje asks Ralph Garman, an actor-comedian who has a regular gig on the popular Los Angeles morning show Kevin and Bean, to stall. "People will often ask me, when they hear that Adam and I were roommates back when he was hanging drywall and I was a bartender, 'What was Adam like?' " Garman tells the sold-out crowd of 220 fans who shelled out $25 apiece. "Exactly the same. I'd come home at 3 o'clock in the morning, and I'd have to tiptoe into the house, because if Adam heard you, he'd come out and start giving you a take. 'Hey, Ralph, I'm glad you're up. You know what I don't like about Formica?' " Moments later, Carolla rushes in to peals of laughter from the audience, teasingly blames Misraje for his lateness, then launches into a rant.
The delighted crowd clearly would have waited longer. Contrary to popular perception, these were not "Carolla-tards," as fellow podcaster Marc Maron once dubbed Carolla's listeners. The casually well-heeled crowd includes couples and sparkly girls'-night-outers, a reasonably affluent and well-mannered throng that keeps the valet busy with their VWs, BMWs, and Toyotas, then waits patiently to buy signed T-shirts and DVDs. (Carolla's team has done research that shows 62% of his listeners are at least four-year-college graduates and 40% are in managerial positions.) "Adam is hilarious and really smart," gushes one fan. "And now I can get him anytime I want."
Live events like this one — a cross between a night of stand-up comedy and a rambling conversation between Adam and his friends — have quickly become a pillar of how Carolla plans to make money from podcasting. Of course, this just sort of happened. In May 2009, Carolla's former radio-show sidekick Bryan Bishop, known on the show as "Bald Bryan," revealed on the podcast that he'd been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. As the medical bills escalated for the specialized treatment he required, Carolla planned a benefit for him. "We rented the Wilshire Ebell Theatre," Carolla says. "It holds 1,200 and change. Somebody said, 'Let's sell tickets for $100 apiece and $300 for VIP seats, the first few rows. Maybe you'd get to go backstage.' "
Carolla's agent, James "Baby Doll" Dixon, was skeptical. "He told me $100 is way too much in this economy," says Carolla. "Hey, I have a lot of experience in this area," replies Dixon, who books for other clients, including Stewart and Colbert. "It has been tough out there." Carolla, typically, ignored the advice. "We sold out. With no advertising other than the podcast," he says.
The power of the podcast, it turns out, is formidable in drawing a crowd. Carolla's pull-through rate, the success a host has in getting an audience to complete a call to action, is 13 times the average, according to testing done by Madison Road, an independent marketing and branding firm. By comparison, Carolla cites his experiences as a frequent guest with Jay Leno in both late night and prime time. "I'd get a plug: 'Adam's going to be at the Irvine Improv,' " he says. "Jay Leno probably has 4- to-5 million viewers a night. You check back with the ticket guys. 'Yeah, we sold 11 tickets.' They could give out your phone number, and it wouldn't ring once if they're not your people."
The key, Carolla says, is having a focused audience. "What we're going to do is have a smaller, more educated, loyal group," he tells me. (Or, as he put it during his state-of-radio rant, "I'd rather have 10 smart people than a billion retards listening to me.")
We join Carolla midrant about the "Laughs for Bald Bryan" benefit. "Then we sold a podcast of the benefit for $1.99 a pop, and sold over 14,000," he continues. He does the math. "Made him another 30 grand." The total haul for the night, including a charity auction, approached $200,000.
And with this success came an idea for generating some revenue. Since January, Carolla has been rotating among the four Improv clubs in Southern California, presenting live podcasts one night a week, usually doing two shows. Tickets are $25, and Carolla takes 80% of the door revenue. So in Hollywood, the night I was there, Carolla grossed approximately $8,800, not including merchandise sales after each show. "Anywhere Adam goes in the country, he sells out," Garman tells me in the green room between shows at the Hollywood Improv. "This is a live strategy." Carolla has teamed up with Live Nation to put together a tour of his strongest West Coast markets — Seattle, Portland, Las Vegas — this May. Eventually, he hopes to tap the other cities where the 27-club Improv chain operates, such as Miami and Pittsburgh. "There aren't a lot of guys who can go out there the way Adam has without working the road and building an act," Dixon says. "We intend to grow this on many levels."
Carolla also stumbled onto another revenue stream. "People on our message boards kept asking why we didn't charge for the live-show downloads," says Carolla, who has been consistently candid with listeners about the expense of the podcast and its anemic revenue stream. "We thought, Yeah, why not?" A few days after I saw him perform, his team offered one of the live shows for $2.99. More than 3,000 people purchased the podcast in the first five days.
A 2009 compilation DVD with 270 hours (plus bonus material) is now for sale for $39.95. Carolla also sold a book last August, a collection of his rants, to be published this fall. He hired a good-natured comedy writer pal named Mike Lynch to listen to all of his podcasts — "I can't stand the thought of listening to them myself" — and collect his musings. Again, he's done the math. "All I have to do is get 150,000 to 200,000 daily downloads of the podcast, and tell everyone, 'Hey, man, in three weeks my book's coming out; go to Amazon and preorder it.' If I presell 10,000, it'll be on The New York Times best-seller list."
Carolla and I are running late to the "hangar," a 5,000-square-foot warehouse that functions as the business headquarters for Carolla's nascent podcasting network. Up front, a makeshift recording studio holds an eclectic array of old props and memorabilia, and a jumbo orange sectional sofa where Carolla and his guests do the podcast. In back is a playground of vintage cars where he and his friends tinker. When we arrive, Carolla's wife, Lynette, and his onetime radio-show news reader, Teresa Strasser, are taping their new podcast, The Parent Experiment, a breezy and candid chat about raising kids that strays about as far from standard mommy-blogger fare as you can get.
Carolla, it seems, is creating his empire by taking a ball-peen hammer and shattering his world into pieces, letting each one grow into its own show. So far, The Parent Experiment joins CarCast and Spider and the Henchman, a smart and funny take on sports and current events starring former NBA star John Salley and Carolla's writing partner, Kevin Hench.
Behind a glass window, Misraje manages a chaotic scene: volunteers pulling up news stories and photos, screening callers, processing the feed, posting the pods, managing the sound levels. The tech guru is Sandy Ganz, Misraje's cousin. And keeping things moving is Misraje's wife, Kathee, who has known Carolla and Misraje since high school. She's a Grammy Award — winning video producer, their secret weapon — and a true believer. "We haven't had any income since March ," she says without a trace of worry. "I know who Adam is. I know who Donny is. We'll figure this out."
The vibe is one part Dirty Dozen, two parts putting on a show in a barn. Carolla has worked hard enough to be himself that he's earned the right to wing it. ("You know, this could all probably be a lot better if I would just do something basic, like Google a guest and maybe jot down a couple of relevant questions first," Carolla says of his interviewing style.) As Carolla sits down to do his show with Strasser and Bald Bryan, he is interrupted constantly by a chatty, off-mic Misraje. "Donny, geez, would you shut the fuck up already?" he says.
Later, I ask Misraje if he thinks podcasting is truly ready for its close-up. "The technology and infrastructure isn't there," he says. "The Internet is like TV in the '40s and '50s." The laid-back Misraje wants to be the future of podcasting but pegs their efforts as being perhaps two years too early. "We're going to live-stream shows, like a TV network, rent space to talent, and develop others," he says, sounding as if they're wandering toward a digital Texaco Star Theater. "We're growing revenue and listeners every month, but we're still a bit in the red." And with Carolla's settlement checks from CBS having run out and the distraction of the sitcom pilot, Misraje needs to keep his star engaged.
But Carolla seems all-in. "I would have a hard time calling myself a pioneer, sitting around talking while Donny records it and puts it on the Internet," he tells me on the ride back to his house. But the outsidery angst that his fans adore is part of the equation. It's tough to be first. "Think of all those guys who played for the NFL in the '40s and '50s," he says, looming perilously close to a rant. "They made $7,000 a year and had to work at car dealerships in the off-season," he says, pulling into his driveway. "Maybe we'll spend a bunch of money and time, and 20 years later... ." He pauses, does the math. "Ashton Kutcher will get rich off what we thought of. I don't know."
A version of this article appeared in the April 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo by Jeff Minton; 02 / Photo by Jeff Minton;