Lessons Learned Producing ‘Missing Richard Simmons’

“In twenty years of experience (in journalism), I had never been involved with anything that had popped like that.”

“That,” is “Missing Richard Simmons,” the genre-defying podcast that became a popular culture phenomenon this past spring. The show chronicled host and creator Dan Taberski’s efforts to find the fitness star, who disappeared September 14, 2014. That’s when Simmons stopped teaching at his fitness studio Slimmons, cut himself off from his closest friends, and removed himself from the public eye.

Taberski revealed his experiences and takeaways during a Q&A with Midroll’s Lex Friedman at Podcast Movement 2017. He shared valuable lessons he learned as a producer, and shed light on podcasting’s growing influence on the culture at large.

Surround Yourself with Smart People

The production was a personal journey for the host, whom Simmons had befriended after he began attending classes at Slimmons. An accomplished filmmaker, Taberski said he started the project as a video documentary, intending to “make him a three-dimensional person again.”

He wanted people to see beyond Simmons’ iconic short-shorts, curly hair and excitable public persona, to the person who dedicated so much of his life to helping others, most of them everyday people, outside of public view.

He connected with folks he knew at First Look Media, the company behind The Intercept and the storytelling platform Topic, as the project transformed into a podcast. “I don’t think I would have trusted anyone else,” he noted, because he was convinced the show could, and should, be created in way that would not hurt Simmons. Then Pineapple Street Media–poducers of “Still Processing” and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 podcast “With Her”–and Midroll came on board.

“I was surrounded by people who bought totally into what I wanted to do,” Taberski reflected, but they were also willing to be critical editors, helping to carefully shape the final product.

“Surrounding yourself with smart people who will tell you, ‘no,’ is the way to go,” he advised.

Managing a Real-Time Phenomenon

Once the show debuted, Taberski acknowledged that he wasn’t prepared for how the story would blow up. Listeners, fans of Richard Simmons, and journalists all started writing and talking about it. The story “becomes theirs, too,” he said.

A particular challenge was making the show in real-time. Episodes were being released before the outcome was known—would he get to see Simmons again?

“It was incredibly stressful. You’re getting criticism and lots of attention, and love, while you’re trying to finish it. I had to turn off my phone and hole up in a hotel room to finish the series.”

When asked by an audience member about the process, Taberski hesitated to recommend doing it this way. “But for this, it was right,” he added.

To keep things on track, “We had a big grid about how each episode should play out.”

He tried to balance keeping the show tight and letting it be personal and conversational.

“I would write a transcript, and then write a script; it wasn’t to the letter. Then I would get in front of the microphone. I was writing what I thought I would say, but it could be fluid.”

Privacy, Publicity and Empathy

One persistent critique of the show was that it violated Simmons’ privacy — that the fitness guru just wanted to be left alone, not be the subject of a podcast. Taberski attributes that perception to the fact that he and the production team, “were showing the process.” “We played people the moment when I walked up to his door, and played the moment when I was sick to my stomach.”

By contrast, you typically don’t see or hear reporters bothering people. Taberski said that in the kind of television news he worked in, “the things that journalists do as serious journalism are way more invasive than anything I did with ‘Missing Richard Simmons.’”

Because Simmons gave so much love and support to so many people, Taberski said, “it was a chance to talk about empathy, and the cost of empathy.” He received a surprising amount of feedback from clergy, resulting in a relationship with one conservative pastor in Texas who understood how difficult it would be for Simmons to help other people if the star couldn’t help himself.

Balancing Art and Commerce

Friedman asked Taberski if the series was always intended to be just six episodes.

“Yes,” Taberski responded. “I realize this is frustrating for people monetizing the podcast.” That’s because a short-run series is a bigger bet for advertisers, who don’t have a long track record of episodes that demonstrate a show’s audience appeal.

Friedman, who oversees ad sales for Midroll, which sold spots on “Missing Richard Simmons,” acknowledged the tension. However, revenue has to be balanced with, “a level of respect for the content,” he noted.

Taberski said he asked to be insulated from business decisions. At the same time, “I’m ready to read ads, because they’re supporting the story I’m telling.”

As it turned out, the hit podcast was a sound investment for its sponsors.

“I’m Really Proud of It, Flaws and All”

With several months’ distance from the end of “Missing Richard Simmons,” Taberski concluded, “I’m really proud of it, flaws and all.”

He believes producing the show at this time was the right thing to do.

“If you think somebody’s in trouble and they’re not getting the help they need, when do you stop?”

The experience also taught Taberski to trust his own voice. “I’d been talking about Richard Simmons for years. And, so, I was like, ‘See! This is important.’”

Moreover, the experience was probably good for Simmons, too. “He, ironically, has a lot of opportunities he didn’t have before,” Taberski said. “There’s a new generation of people interested now who weren’t before.”

A Crazy Thing That Happened

What’s next for Dan Taberski?

“I’m working on another podcast that is important to me, but it won’t be to other people.

“It won’t be as successful,” he predicted.

“Is that OK?” Friedman asked.

“It has to be,” Taberski responded. “‘Missing Richard Simmons’ was, a crazy thing that happened, and I’m not sure that will happen again.”

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