Interview: Jody Avirgan of ESPN’s 30 for 30

30 for 30 Jody Avirgan

Jody Avirgan is Host and Senior Producer of 30 for 30 Podcasts. Through its first two seasons, 30 for 30 Podcasts has applied the tradition of ESPN’s long-running documentary film series to the audio form. The series has covered stories ranging from a boxing match fought inside a state prison to the history of the Madden video game franchise. I spoke with Avirgan after 30 for 30 Podcasts’ appearance at On Air Fest in Williamsburg. At On Air, 30 for 30 Podcasts premiered the trailer for its third season, titled Bikram, which will be available in its entirety May 22.

When you first started doing this, narrative sports podcasting was rather unchartered territory. What were you looking to for models?

Avirgan: We were really lucky to have been handed an amazing model in 30 for 30, which is a longstanding video documentary series. I’ve found more often than not that the model that we look to is really the film series. And I’ve talked a lot about how one way of looking at our show is, to use a shorthand, This American Life but for sports. But I also want to be 30 for 30 but for podcasts.

Really, the way I see our method is to find a great story and get out of the way. So you pick a great story that has depth, that has great characters, that has a great archive, and you’re there to just let it ride. That’s what I really love about 30 for 30 films. You know, they tend to not be first person, they tend to not hold your hand. And in podcasting the stance has often bit a little different. It’s often been that the narrator is your guide; it’s often first-person. Stakes are established through a narrator telling you why they care. Some of my favorite shows are that way, but I felt there was maybe a space to do something that’s a bit more like, “This is about the story.” We’ll interject if we need to, but we often don’t. And that’s because I think we’ve chosen stories that are deep enough for us to just let them do their thing.

30 for 30 had already been a beloved institution for nearly a decade when you started the podcast. Do you ever have an idea that you like but doesn’t feel like a 30 for 30 story?

30 for 30 is such an expansive lens that it’s rare that I’ve thought, “Oh, there aren’t enough good stories.” We tend to tell historical stories, we tend to tell stories that have a lot of archival. The historical aspect is key because what happens over the course of time — let’s say 10, 15, 20 years — is first that an incident that was high-profile at the time gets reduced to one sentence in the collective memory. And so you then get to go back and rediscover all the layers. Another more practical thing happens which is if you’re telling a story about something that was very fraught 10 years ago, at this point people have usually moved on. A lot of 30 for 30s couldn’t have been done in real time because people simply would not talk about it.

And as I said onstage, we’re always looking for things that have a bigger world impact. A lot of people pitch 30 for 30s and they say, “This game was crazy,” or “This moment was amazing.” And yes, it was, but so what? Is there a bigger impact, is there a bigger story we can tell? Because with 30 for 30, yes, they’re sports stories, but they’re really about the characters and the ideas and the real world implications.

One thing you mentioned on your panel was deciding whether an idea should be a film or a podcast, and intimacy came up. When do you find out in the process whether a story’s going to be intimate enough for the podcast form?

Often it’s pretty far into it. We’ve only been doing this for a year but I think one of the main lessons I’ve learned is that the story selection process is one of the most important things we do. In my ideal world we go pretty far down the line reporting a story before we decide whether we’re going to do it or not, because we need to know if our characters are going to take us there, if we’re going to have that intimacy. You only get to answer that question once you’ve spent time with someone and gotten a bunch of tape already. And especially because we’re handing our story over to the characters who lived it, and we’re letting them do the majority of the work.

I’d like to think that the best ones that we make are the ones where every big idea, every moment of emotion, every spark is introduced into the story by one of the characters, not from us imposing an idea or emotion. So there’s a lot of boxes that you need to check in terms of the tape you have to get, and it takes a long time to do that. That’s why my job as a managing producer, along with our amazing development team, is to try to have as many stories going at any given moment so that we can kill stories, delay stories, move stories up that are ready. And that actually happened with this Bikram story. I’m really proud that we were in a position to make that decision, and say, “this could be one episode of last season, but that’s not what it deserves.” It deserves more time, and we were able to logistically find something else to pop into last season.

Was there a moment in researching the Bikram story where you realized it had to be longer?

I could show you the 5,000 word email that Jules [30 for 30 producer Julia Lowrie Henderson] sent us making the case, which I read once and was like, “yes.” But no I don’t think there was a specific moment.  We’re not going to tell any story unless we think that there are layers. So we already knew that there were layers there, but maybe we thought there were three layers and now we realized there were 10. We knew from the start that through this story we could tell the story of a yoga community, of a cult of personality, and of these allegations. We knew those three were there. But as we reported we realized that we could also tell the story of fitness in America through this, we could tell the story of how a community deals with sexual assault — and the #MeToo movement was starting as we were reporting, and we realized the story resonated in all these different ways.

We probably could have crammed all those layers into one hour, but we realized it needed more space. We were getting good tape too, and you just follow the tape. All of a sudden Jules is coming back from interviews being like, “I spent three hours with this person and they gave me these amazing stories.”

How did you decide to release it all at once, rather than sequentially?

We made that decision fairly recently. We were originally thinking of going week-by-week. A number of things went into that decision. One was that when you’re releasing something week-by-week, you inevitably have to do things to hold a listener’s attention. And I don’t think we were going to necessarily succumb to these pressures, but nevertheless the notion was going to be there to have a cliffhanger. And this just isn’t that kind of story. We’re trying to bit-by-bit build a nuanced world. We’re not trying to yank the listener from salacious thing to salacious thing, so we felt uncomfortable with the way the week-by-week release would apply that kind of pressure. So now for the listener, we hope they’ll then get the full range of the story: all the good, all the bad, all the nuance at once and they can listen to it at their own pace.

Do you have a dream story?

No, there’s just an infinite number of stories out there. I do watch sports now through a different lens. I’m like, “Oohh, I’m going to put this on my list and hopefully I’ll know where I hid this list 10 years from now and we’ll get to do it after a little bit of time.” This isn’t a specific example, but one way you can think of 30 for 30 is whatever year we’re in now, subtract 15 years and go back and look at what was a big deal in sports that year. Often that’s a good starting point. You want a story that either elicits “Oh, wow, I’d totally forgotten about that,” or “Wow, I never knew that.” We’re lucky enough to have a dedicated team whose job it is to nurture ideas and do a lot of the development that we talked about. So there’s no shortage of ideas. I want to do more international stories. And I’d like to think that one of our hallmarks is the range of stories we can do, so I want to do the small weird stories and the big superstar stories as well. I’d like every season to have a mix of that.

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Jake Greenberg is a culture writer based in Brooklyn. He has written about music and film for The Mac Weekly, and blogs for RealClearLife. Feel free to email him at jgreenberg45@gmail.com