EXCHANGE: Screenwriters-Turned-Podcasters Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn

We caught up with Sam and Jim, Twin Cities restaurateurs turned screenwriters (and surprisingly successful podcasters), to get their take on the DIY media scene and their new proposal for a scripted, direct-to-audience show

1The faces of tomorrow's podcast hit sensation? Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn

introductionYou may remember Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn as the owners of the Twin Cities’ beloved restaurant, Table of Contents, or as the entrepreneurs behind the short-lived Red Fish Blue restaurant on Grand Avenue, or Dish in Minneapolis. What you likely don’t know about them is that these two long-time friends and partners have always wanted to be writers—Sam dreamed of writing the Great American movie script and Jim aspired to be the author of the Great American novel. What they did instead (like most of us with lofty dreams) was start families, build their business… But then they dusted off the old dream of writing, left the restaurants and Minnesota behind, picked up stakes and decided to try their hands at screenwriting in L.A. They’ve written as a team for Disney, sold screenplays, and have gained hard-earned wisdom on how things work if you want to write for TV or the movies. As a lark, they started a podcast a while back, just to try out this newfangled medium, recounting their travails in the business in the hopes it might connect them to other writers in the trenches; maybe they could build a small network, help each other out. What they didn’t expect was that the podcast would, in the course of just over a year, gain a devoted (and growing) following far beyond aspiring writers. In fact, they’re so encouraged about the podcast’s viral success in such a short time, they’ve started to take podcasting seriously enough to branch out with a scripted show of their own—bypassing Hollywood’s middlemen altogether. a+E caught up with Sam and Jim to find out more about podcasting, their up-and coming new online show Father Knows Jack, and the future of guerilla, direct-to-audience media as they see it.

What’s the current podcast, Sam and Jim Go To Hollywood, about?

SamIt’s the story of two guys, old roommates at Macalester and longtime friends, who want to be writers. So, they pack up their families, leave their jobs and move out to Los Angeles to try to make a go of it. Jim and I had pretty successful restaurants in Minnesota, but we got out from under them and decided to come out here to see if we could do it. We’ve had some success—sold a pilot episode, a bunch of features, and we’re developing some new shows. We figure that there are a lot of people out there who would love to do what we did, but there are some real misconceptions about how the process works—that you just go out there, sell a show and someone gives you a MILLION DOLLAR check! We’re just trying to offer a brutally honest perspective, as we’re going through it, giving some idea of what it’s really like to try and make it as a screenwriter—things we wish someone could have told us about.

Who is listening to Sam and Jim Go To Hollywood? Is it the same audience you had in mind when you started?

SAMWe set out to create the kind of show we would have been thrilled to find before we began—with how-tos, and who you should talk to, the craft of writing, and how the whole screenwriting thing works out here [in L.A.]. We expected that most of the people listening would be screenwriters—but we find there are just as many people who download each podcast who are listening because they’re connecting with Jim and I, our lives and our story. And those people have no interest in becoming screenwriters, they just listen to see what’s happened with us. I’d say it’s about 50/50, and we didn’t expect that.

How many listeners do you have?

samRight now, there are about 1100 people who download each episode faithfully. But the amazing thing about podcasts is, unlike radio which disappears after its broadcast, each installment lives indefinitely on the site. So, as people discover it, they can go back and listen to old episodes at any time. We’ve gotten comments from people who say, “I just discovered your podcast and I love it. I went back and listened to all 24 of the other episodes this weekend.” My first thought was, “Oh my God! We did the show, and even we can’t imagine spending something like 14 hours listening to the show.” But the numbers of downloads for the earliest episodes just keep rising with time—there are thousands more downloads for that first episode we did over a year ago now than there were in the weeks when we put it out.

Do you guys listen to any other podcasts yourselves?

jimNo. [laughing] I tried, but I had a really hard time finding any good ones. Just because you can do a show doesn’t mean anyone would want to listen to it. A lot of that stuff sounds like something we would’ve written a decade ago—it’s just terrible. Sometimes, there’s a clever idea, but it’s not strong enough to sustain a show; or worse, there’s just no thought put into it.

If there are so many bad podcasts, how can a listener find the good ones? Is there anyone filtering through all the chaff, highlighting podcasts worth checking out?

SamNot that I know of, and that’s the problem. Lots of people can use the technology now, and it’s easy to say, “I’m a funny guy, I’ll do a show.” But they don’t know how to craft anything—it’s crap. And there really isn’t a good way to find the decent podcasts out there yet—there aren’t really any filters that I know of. The best one I know of is Podcast Alley. But in spite of all that, somehow, people are finding our podcast—it’s crazy. We’ve done absolutely nothing to promote it, and still it’s ranked 300 (out of all the thousands of podcasts). It’s getting out there somehow.

jimIf right now it’s anarchy, and in traditional broadcasting it’s a dictatorship. What we really need is a republic. [laughs] Some government, some authority, but it’s still a democracy—something in between.

Then how are they finding you now?

jimI have no idea [laughing].

samThere’s a real distribution problem with podcasting now. It’s really difficult to find what you’re looking for.

jimLike looking for a needle in a needlestack.

What’s your plan for this new podcast you’ve been proposing, Father Knows Jack? Who’s it going to be for and how will they find it?

jimWe’re big fans of public radio. We’d like the show to incorporate something like the sketches from A Prairie Home Companionthe banter on Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me, and the first person stories from This American Life.

samIt’s a show about men, without relying on the simple-minded sex jokes of The Man ShowThere’s really nothing out there about men that’s smart. And we’re hoping that it’s for everyone, not cheesy but not full of sturm and drang either. My wife doesn’t even know when to get the oil changed in the car, but she loves Car TalkI want our show to appeal to everyone in that way—if it’s good, there should be something for everyone to connect with. We offered the pitch in a recent podcast, and so far, we’ve got about 15 writers who want to write for us. We’ll audition some actors, and, since people seem to like our banter, Jim and I will talk about our lives in each show, what’s going on with us. We’re going to solicit some first person stories from other writers… we just hope people will be entertained, and even more, that maybe they’ll be moved by what they hear. For people to find it, we’ll have to be creative about how we market it and get the word out.

It’s ironic that at the same time you’re planning this, you’re also pitching shows to ABC. Are you hoping to just cut out the middleman and take your ideas right to the public? Would you be willing to go the podcast route instead of the more traditional path of writing for TV?

samIf you could find the right business plan, I think you could make a living at this—if you got enough advertising to pay all the writers and actors. The possibilities are huge. As for podcasts, I think in the future all the media people watch or listen to will be self-selected. Things are definitely heading that way—even the big networks are starting to package their shows as individual downloadable podcasts. They’re just beginning to wrap their heads around the potential of this kind of media. Our biggest problem may just be that we’re too early—my parents have an iPod, but they can’t figure out how to download our show or burn it to a CD. It’s possible we’ll find out we’re just a little ahead of our audience.

Are you hoping that if the podcast gains an audience, that public radio might pick it up?

jimWe don’t even dare dream of that. We’d love for that to happen.

samThat would be wonderful if they wanted to run the show.

If it’s a race between going the old-fashioned route—pitching the traditional gatekeepers of TV and the movies in L.A.—or taking your chances with the radical democracy of online broadcasting… I’m interested to see which wins.

samMe too. [laughing] We just started this as a hobby—most of what we run now isn’t even edited. It’s just us talking about what’s been going on, what’s on our minds. The thing is, we just want to write fiction. We love scripted television and radio, and it would be great to find a way to do it that connects with people. Any way we can do that would be fantastic.

Curious? Listen to a sample of Sam and Jim Go to Hollywood for yourself. In this recent episode, you’ll find out why “Sam is half-empty… and Jim is half-full. We wish we were talking about a glass, not our uncertain job prospects.  It’s staffing season in Hollywood, and there’s lots of jobs out there — or not many at all.  It all depends on how you look at it (and just what’s in that glass you’re drinking).