Game of Thrones is the most popular show on the planet, and likely the last consensus show that becomes appointment viewing. A show with tons of depth, layers, and subtlety that plays almost as well on Reddit and other messages boards as it does on HBO every Sunday night. That’s why it comes as no surprise that Game of Thrones podcasts have never been more popular, people can’t consume enough.
Probably the most aggressive of these podcasts is The Ringer’s Binge Mode which produced a deep dive podcast for every Game of Thrones episode starting a mere six weeks before Season 7 premiered. Releasing a full season, 10 full episodes, every Monday leading up to the premiere, Binge Mode was diving into a new consumption format, more akin to Netflix than anything else. Would listeners alter their podcast consumption habits to fit this into their schedule?
Adding to the lofty undertaking, there is already a surplus of Game of Thrones podcasts out there. Binge Mode needed to be different, more appealing, better. The margin of error is minuscule. Any wrong fact, incorrect date, misreading of a line of dialogue, unpopular theory prophesizing, and the rabid fans of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire would tune out, criticize, and ultimately the podcast would lose credibility to other more-researched shows.
Fascinated not only about the subject matter but also with the unique testing of the roll-out schedule and how they were able to make it work behind the scenes, I was fortunate enough to get to speak with The Ringer producer Zach Mack. Along with Binge Mode, Zach produces other Ringer podcasts including The Watch, Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air, and The Big Picture.
I wanted to understand how he got started producing podcasts, the differences between the various formats of podcasts he produces, and to better understand the grueling recording schedule that led to the success of Binge Mode. Below is a transcript of our conversation lightly edited for clarity.
Discover Pods: First things first, can you tell us what you do and the podcasts you’re responsible for?
Zach Mack: I am podcast producer at The Ringer. The podcasts I’m currently responsible for, overseeing and producing, The Watch, Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air, Binge Mode, The Big Picture which is a new podcast with [The Ringer Editor in Chief] Sean Fennessy and I have been developing on Channel 33. That’s a new podcast, probably the least present, but I think it has a lot potential. Sean’s a big movie buff and interviews directors. We had Jordan Peele who directed Get Out, we had Barry Jenkins who won for Moonlight. We’ve had a ton of great guests for a show that’s fairly new.
DP: How’d you end up at The Ringer producing podcasts?
Mack: Yeah, so, I have been a longtime podcast/radio addict. I’ll try to run through this very quickly. I had a radio station at my high school. I was in a radio course my senior year. I also was tapped to announce the basketball and football games for some reason. I don’t know why I was tapped to do that. I started to get into the broadcast booth, journalism, and radio class.
Then I went to college and I was a radio, TV, broadcast major. I graduated in 2009 before podcasts were a thing. No one was a podcast producer as a job. Podcasts had been created, but no one was making them like they’re making them now and nobody was getting paid. So when I graduated I had no idea what I wanted to do since the job I wanted hadn’t really been invented yet.
I had a lot of other jobs in various fields while I figured out what I wanted to do. And during that time I remember listening to podcasts for the first time. Even though I’d been in radio for a period of time, I hadn’t really been listening to podcasts. I started listening to Terry Gross, Adam Carolla, and Bill Simmons since those were the people putting out a lot of content in the early days. I had a very boring administrative job, so I basically had this very close relationship with Bill Simmons even though he didn’t know me. I had a relationship with him and his content and was obviously a fan.
Eventually, I really missed radio and got involved in a community show in San Francisco with a friend. I was working full time at a nonprofit, then decided to quit to pursue radio full time. I still wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I bounced around. In the Bay Area in 2013, there wasn’t a lot of options — I knew I didn’t want to Power 105 or Kiss FM kind of radio — so I started doing news reporting for NPR affiliates. I have a lot of love for public radio. Then I moved to New York doing grad school and working on other podcasts. I was with WNYC doing Death, Sex, and Money. I worked at Pandora for a bit.
I was living in Brooklyn and published a podcast for the Sierra Club called No Place Like Home, and I was helping out on a political show for Mic and the Economist. I wasn’t looking to move to LA, but I saw The Ringer was hiring. That was literally the only thing that would have gotten me to leave New York. I got the offer and moved across the country for the opportunity to work with people I had been a fan of for so long. People I truly admire and respect working on content that I’m really passionate about. My first day was actually the day after the election, a very strange first day.
DP: Were the Keepin’ it 1600 people still around then, or had they branched off and created Crooked Media?
Mack: They were there for the first month or two, they were around. I got to work with them once or twice, but somebody else was producing the show. They would just come by for an hour twice a week or so.
DP: What’s your typical day like between recording, editing, and the rest of the behind the scenes action? Do you help book guests?
Mack: I get in, and there are various amounts of preproduction that range from interesting to not at all interesting. Like sending ad reads for the talent, highlighting subjects they can discuss with guests. Every host has a little different approach.
[The Watch’s] Chris [Ryan] and Andy [Greenwald] are like set it and forget it. They’ve been doing the show for so long, they have it down. All I do is chime in and make suggestions. I’m not in the muck of creating their content as much as I am with a few of the other shows.
Basically, I do whatever I can do for the show running today or tomorrow helping assist the host prepare. Whatever that takes. Crafting the approach or narrative. When Sean is interviewing directors we’ll talk a day before and talk about where the interview will go and what we want to get out of it.
The hosts are usually on top of it.
Then there’s a lot of recording. For Binge Mode, the editing has been a lot more extensive. Binge Mode is edited and fact checked a lot more than the others. In the beginning of Binge Mode, we were a lot more conscious of time so we were actively trying to stay around that 30 minute mark. As it went on it became apparent people just wanted more. The fanbase didn’t want someone that just glossed over the topics, but rather go deeper. So going an extra 15 or 20 minutes was what we did.
Production meetings range from podcast to podcast. For Binge Mode we were in constant contact – we were calling, texting, we had Slack group, a shared doc – throughout the day and night. We spent every weekend together. That was nuts. That’s been my life for the last couple months.
DP: I chuckled when you mentioned time because in one of the later episodes in the outtake you mention you’re at 80 minutes and Jason and Mallory just bust up laughing.
Mack: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite outtakes. That recording specifically was already like 9:00 pm on a Monday and everyone was getting loopy because we were all exhausted.
Just hearing them burst into genuine laughter in that way erased any raw feelings though. They had such a great time recording it. It was such a beast to record so many, but it was such a fun time.
DP: Can you tell us a little bit about the recording schedule? Would you knock out 10 episodes at a time or space them out through the week?
Mack: So we actually started recording early. The decision to make Binge Mode was made several months before it came out. The roll out strategy was already determined. It actually turned out to be one of the best things about it, it was really well packaged. The roll out was so unique but worked well.
Our strategy was relentless, here’s 10, here’s 10 more, here’s 10 more and so on. Production-wise it was a beast, a death march, but rollout and idea-wise it was great.
For future Binge Modes, we’ll set up more lead time. But for this one, we recorded seasons in advance. I think we had gotten through 3 seasons when season 1 came out. But Mallory and Jason had to leave town along with working full-time jobs. It’s not like their other work just stopped. They’re both like scholars with this too. They didn’t want to get anything wrong, so it was a lot of studying and research on their end.
A funny story was, when Mallory and I originally wanted to start to do this, we knew it would be this massive undertaking needing as much time as possible. So there was a big day on the internet when Game of Thrones was announcing their release date. I think it was either July 1st or July 16th, everyone wanted the earlier date since they were chomping at the bits to have the next season start. So when it was announced the later date we celebrated because we knew we had a couple extra weeks. I think she was even in tears.
DP: Unleashing the entire seasons every Monday for six consecutive weeks really puts the “binge” in Binge Mode. I wrote earlier I wasn’t sure if the format could succeed. Were you skeptical about how the bulk would be received?
Mack: When I first heard the plan, I thought it was a little nuts. It was insane. That’s not how I listen to podcasts.
I know there are a million other Game of Thrones podcasts, so how could we bring something new to the space? Would people be willing to revisit an analysis of old episodes that have been out for six years? How are we going to do this well? That was my biggest concern.
But Jason and Mallory are true pros. They know this stuff inside and out. They’re perfectionists.
But we got it done. I’m genuinely so proud of it.
But yeah the rollout strategy was just crazy. But since I’m a podcast nerd, whether I like something or think it’ll work or not, I’m so pro just playing in the space. It’s the wild west. So little is defined. I love working at a company that’s just down to play around with different formats and ideas. We’re not so rigid. If you have a good idea or want to try something, it can be done. I love that at The Ringer.
I love that people are trying different things. I just listened to this musical podcast, it wasn’t quite for me, I’m not a musical head, but I’m really into the fact that they did that and they’re playing around in the space. So whether it’s Hannibal Buress screwing around with auto tune live on his podcast, to it being a musical, or a radio drama, or putting out 60 podcasts in 6 weeks. So any break from the norm or tradition is positive. Podcasts are so new there shouldn’t be a norm or tradition.
DP: Ok, I’m going to do some rapid fire questions now, ready? Do you think we’ve reached peak podcast?
Mack: No way. I think there’s so much room to grow. Until this weekend I had never heard of a musical podcast.
DP: Favorite guest?
Mack: Barry Jenkins was really great when he came in. It was really cool to see him before the Oscars as all the buzz started up. He came in and was so humble, personable, and a truly charismatic person.
DP: Did Mallory and Jason convince you to finally read A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones)?
Mack: Haha, no way. I really love the show. I’ve found when I read something and see the movie or show, I fixate on the differences between the two. So I think without reading I can just focus on the show and enjoy it.
It’s also hard to read the book when any question I’ve ever had I can just ask either one of them.
DP: What is your favorite non-Ringer podcasts?
Mack: Reply All is incredible. Also, I really miss The Champs with Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher
DP: What biggest difference between producing Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air and Binge Mode?
Mack: Wow, they’re so different, hmm. Larry’s show is just such a different beast. I think the biggest difference is the formality. Jason and Mallory are meticulous with details and outlines whereas Larry is much more free-flowing with his outlines and conversations with guests.
DP: Do you want to host a podcast of your own someday or would you rather stay behind the mic?
Mack: I got into radio being on the mic, I’m very used to being on the mic. Ultimately, when the right opportunity or scenario comes up I would love to be back on a show. That being said, I really do love producing. I’ve also gotten really into show development, Binge Mode was the first project I was on from the inception.