The coronavirus has changed the mood of America in just a matter of weeks, and that means podcasters have needed to adjust ideas on their drawing boards. Will Pearson, Chief Operating Officer at the iHeartPodcast Network, said at his company they’re having conversations around what sort of podcasts they felt people would crave while they were home-bound during the pandemic.
“There was some of the obvious ones – we knew we needed to put out something around meditation and mindfulness,” he said on a webinar last week. That led to iHeart launching a trio of short-form, daily podcasts, including Stay Calm with Bob Roth, a longtime advocate for transcendental meditation who has coached celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Lady Gaga. The company also debuted The Way We Live Now, a podcast geared toward keeping listeners company while forced to remain six feet apart, and the self-improvement podcast The New Corner Office, which focused on how to more successfully work from home.
“We also needed to realize we need to put out shows that would put a smile on people’s faces and would help them laugh and get their minds off of everything going on in the world around them,” said Pearson. He said iHeart was already having conversations with actors Zach Braff and Donald Faison about creating a TV re-watch podcast featuring them going back to the very beginning of “Scrubs” as the sitcom marked 20 years since its launch. Pearson said not only was the project greenlighted, but iHeart decided to launch the podcast they titled Fake Doctors, Real Friends earlier than expected.
“When the quarantine first happened, Donald and I thought we couldn’t do it because we always pictured that we would do it in a studio,” said Braff. But after a quick lesson from iHeart on how to record the show at home, the podcast launched March 31.
“Now it’s become even more pleasureful because we spend so much time alone, it gives us this time to connect and genuinely tell stories from the week. Everyone out there is longing for human contact that’s not whomever you’re quarantined with,” said Braff. “There’s so much feedback from the medical community and just from people in general about how this is helping them cope with this insane time, which is obviously not anything we thought was going to be part of this.”
Faison, who records his side of the podcast from a closet to escape the family chaos of six kids stuck at home, sees benefits on both sides. “This is an escape for us too,” he said.
The friendship that binds the two actors has struck a chord with listeners. The podcast has quickly become a big enough hit for iHeart, attracting write-ups from magazines like GQ, that Braff and Faison have begun recording two episodes a week, which are published on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Braff said the “Scrubs” re-watch component is “the spine” of the podcast, often welcoming former cast and crew members on the show. But the two friends often go off on tangents in the way they would normally talk if millions of people weren’t listening in. “Now that there’s so many listening, Donald and I are involved in the editing – now it’s our baby and we’re really precious about it,” he said.
Podcasting has opened actors to directly pitching products, in a way few are willing to do on television, Braff and Faison concluded. “As an actor, it always feels gross when you feel like you’re selling something that you don’t have any connection to,” said Braff, who has directed TV commercials and done voiceover work in the past. He said they told iHeart they only wanted to include sponsors whose products they could genuinely support. “What I like about the world of podcast advertising is that you don’t have to feel like a fraud. We can say we genuinely use this, and it just feels natural,” said Braff.
“I find that in the podcast world, creativity is way better way to promote something than just saying a generic,” said Faison.
Braff agreed. “We both feel more comfortable when an advertiser gives us some talking points and then we riff around it. Whenever we slip into reading copy it feels less organic,” he said.
Getting Intimate With Fans
For a pair of actors like Braff and Faison who are used to being seen, the Fake Doctors, Real Friends podcast is new experience since they now solely perform in the theater of the mind.
“It feels more intimate, because you’re not focused on looking at us” said Braff. He said they get a lot of social media feedback about all the places people listen to their show, including when they’re on a walk, doing the dishes, or breastfeeding their baby. “It’s kind of like you’re on the phone with your friends,” he said. “We have a lot of requests to put a visual Zoom call on YouTube, and maybe one day we will, but I think right now I’m liking that it’s just audio. Plus, we don’t have to get dressed.”
Faison thinks the podcast is also challenging any preconceived ideas that fans may have about the actors. “The audience is definitely getting to listen to who Zach and I really are,” he said. “When they watch us on television or in movies, we’re playing characters. This is the real us and our real friendship that they’re listening to.”