How Did The Zero Hour Become the No. 1 Podcast Overnight?

I hope you'll forgive a small self-serving lapse and accept this rhetorical question:

How does a radio program become the most downloaded podcast on iTunes less than 48 hours after its official launch? That's what happened this week, when The Zero Hour beat all the competition in News and Politics (Hello Bill Maher, Rachel Maddow, and Glenn Beck) and then went on to become the most-downloaded program in all categories (hand wave to Adam Carolla, Car Talk, and This American Life).

The Idea

In our case, it begins with an idea. The idea was this: There are a lot of intelligent people out there. They still want to listen to the radio. They're idealistic, and not afraid to admit it. (To paraphrase Elvis Costello, "what is so funny about peace, love, and understanding?") They're disillusioned with a fair amount of what they hear on public radio nowadays, as corporate sponsorship encroaches on content and leads to debacles like NPR's misleading Social Security reports. (See here, here, and - regarding This American Life - here for examples.)

The idea is to serve that audience with news and opinion that is politically progressive without being didactic, intriguing stories on everything from the Big Bang to the "scientific" myths about mindfulness, and interviews with writers, musicians, thinkers, and activists who are making a difference.

The premise is threefold. First, we are at a pivotal moment in human history. What we do in this moment will affect the human future, and the planet's future, forever. Whether it's climate change, oligarchical wealth, or the accumulation of Big Data, we are reaching Points of No Return in a number of areas.

Hence the name The Zero Hour.

Secondly, most of what we see and hear around us reflects deeper underlying forces. Politics, economics, even pop culture and fashion - the trends and events taking place around us provide insight into more profound social shifts.

And lastly, our premise is that much of what takes place around us is interconnected, often invisibly, with other forces and events. We believe in activism, and are activists ourselves. But our thinking suggests that the best forms of activism are those which recognize this interconnectedness, and build on it. The great leaders of history have always acted on that premise.

The Breakdown

We began to execute this idea a couple of years ago with a program on We Act Radio called The Breakdown. We cut promos for the program which reflected this perspective and this premise, like the one which addressed our view of economics. It went something like this:

"Imagine, just for a moment, what would happen if money glowed in the dark. And imagine if you could view our planet from somewhere in deep space. Everything we see around us - political events, corporate takeovers, fashion trends, even the rise and fall of empires - would appear to us as eddies and swirls in the great flow of money across the Earth's surface ..."

We called that promo "The Flow," and it wasn't until much later that we were informed it was very popular with stoners. (We should have guessed, since the background music we chose for it was a minor key, pre-psychedelic tune by the Yardbirds called "Ever Since the World Began.")

We're told that radio - much less intelligent radio - is dead. But is it really? Drive-time radio may not be what it used to be, and the old business models for broadcasting are clearly changing. But new forms and models are arising. That gets us to the next step in the process: finding a sponsor.

The Sponsor

The folks at Social Security Works were the ideal sponsor. Co-Director Eric Kingson had co-written a book called "Ties That Bind: The Interdependence of Generations" which reflected a very similar view of the world. His partner in that venture, Nancy Altman, wrote a critical book called "The Battle for Social Security" which places that struggle within larger social values. And Alex Lawson, the organization's Executive Director, had as good an instinct about radio (and funky music) as he did about getting Social Security's enemies to reveal their true colors on camera.

So when Alex called to suggest bringing the show back under the sponsorship of Social Security Works, it made immediate sense. I could see why it made sense for them, too. They recognize that the values which gave rise to Social Security in the first place need to be renewed - values like community, social responsibility, and interdependence.

The Zero Hour assumed the slot at We Act Radio and the We Act network which was previously held by David Shuster and Take Action News. Then comes the task of picking a team. We chose Pete Callahan as Executive Producer, with Troy Miller as engineer and all-around facilitator (I call Troy the "Chief Science Officer," for his Spock-like calm). The Social Security Works team was tapped to provide invaluable support, along with relief players who step in from time to time as needed.

The Launch

We spent several months on a "shakedown cruise," working out as many bugs as we could, and then we were ready to launch. We chose May 1 - May Day, in case you hadn't noticed - and held a rollout event in Washington. The kind words directed my way (from Nancy Altman, Rep. Raul Grijalva, NOW President Terry O'Neill, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Thom Hartmann and others) may have been a little too kind, especially given the team nature of the effort, but they were certainly appreciated.

Then came one of the most interesting parts of the launch, one in which I personally contributed very little. We live in a world today where new media and old media can and must combine in new and powerful ways. We combined the use of activist networks, email lists, and old-fashioned social connections to get the word out about the show.

The Work

The launch event took place last Thursday evening. We recorded the show on Friday for Saturday broadcast. The audio version became available on Saturday as a free podcast. By Sunday morning we were number one in the News and Politics section of iTunes' podcast store. By Sunday evening we were number one across the board.

Like any overnight (or weekend success), this one took many months of hard work. Now the really hard work begins. Now we have to deliver a show every week that lives up to the promises we've made. That's a team effort too. The show comes out every weekend. We can't promise it will always be Number One, but we'll try our hardest to get there - without sacrificing any integrity to do it, and without disrespecting the intelligence of the audience.

We promise to bring you the best show we possibly can. We'll hope you'll listen.