Start Up | Podcast Review | December 17, 2015 | By

Start Up #16: The Secret Formula

This episode of Start Up departs from its focus on the nuts and bolts of business to involve its listeners in podcast production and, in the process, unexpectedly sheds some light on how we think about creative skill.

Episode 2 of Start Up’s mini-season delves into an aspect of the business that, surprisingly, has been mostly absent from the show so far: the creation of their trademark “highly-produced, obsessively-crafted” podcasts.

If you’ve ever created anything from scratch to be shared with others—a painting, a pumpkin pie, a poem—the anxiety-tinged adrenaline of this episode will resonate with you. Alex and his colleague Caitlin Kenney (head of new show development at Gimlet) walk us through the process of producing an episode of their newest show Surprisingly Awesome, hosted by film producer Adam McKay and Planet Money’s Adam Davidson.

Their step-by-step narrative, while specific to podcasts, follows the basic structure of the creative process:

  1. Conception of great idea
  2. Brainstorming fueled by rush of inspiration
  3. Monotony of getting great idea to first draft
  4. Vulnerability of offering first draft up for critique

What I love about this episode is Alex’s breakdown of how creative talent manifests itself. “Things want to be bad,” he reminds us. “The only way to get that stuff good is with editing.” He goes on to note that while many of us can tell when a podcast isn’t working, and some of us can tell why, very few of us can identify how best to fix it—and this, not the ability to spit out a perfect first draft on demand, is where a creative person’s strength and skills lie.

This perspective opposes the trope we’re often fed about creative geniuses—that their innate talents diminish the need for revisions—but it’s so much more empowering. At its root, every creative process requires funneling our thoughts into a core question and presenting our response as clearly as possible. 1 That clarity can be developed through exposure and practice: we read clipped prose and learn to trim our own writing; we listen to a carefully synchronized symphony and hit our own notes with more precision. 2

Outside of these grand statements on creativity, it’s just plain enjoyable to observe this team’s editing process. As someone whose favorite part of writing English papers was printing out first drafts and editing them to death with felt-tip markers, I love the challenge of revising what you’ve said to what you’re actually trying to say. 3 It’s cool to see how that process translates to podcast production, and gratifying to listen to this team work through it together and improve.

Alex and Caitlin both express that it’s nerve-wracking for them to play their first edits for their listeners, but the “director’s commentary” effect it creates in this episode is well worth the exposure, and as a listener, it feels good to support a project spearheaded by people so clearly passionate about what they do.

  1. Maybe what I’m really trying to say is that everything has a thesis statement #Englishmajorproblems ^
  2. Related: this video animating a quote from an Ira Glass interview about creativity—watch for both Ira’s wisdom and incredible visuals. ^
  3. A TA once deemed my process “self-flagellation.” ^

About the Author

Meghana Kaloji is a writer at Audiologue where she covers StartUp. You can find her on Twitter @meghavolt or by email at

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