S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: Oh, I’m a big believer that when something really blows up in in media, you don’t choose it. It chooses you, right? No one knows the secret formula for blowing up on YouTube. If they did, they’d be they’d be super rich. Right. So, no, I didn’t plan this. This happened to me.
S3: Hello and welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host. June Thomas June.
S4: For this week’s episode, you spoke to Internet cook Adam Ragusa. But before we get to that conversation, I just thought I’d ask, how are you doing?
S1: Well, there have certainly been better times in our country, but on the other side of the violence and repression, it’s also heartening to see change happening in front of our eyes. I actually feel pretty hopeful about that. What about you?
S4: I who right now am feeling the darkness and the fear, to be completely honest. I mean, I am heartened by the people turning out and fighting for a better world. It’s shocking in a good way that a Minneapolis city council member is looking for ways to completely defund the police in that city. Something that was completely off the table is unmentionable. You know, even a year ago, at the same time, I do feel the things that are terrifying and the things that are horrible. I think this is a week, obviously, when the outside world is particularly unavoidable. We have a pandemic. There are police across the country assaulting protesters who are peacefully trying to challenge police violence. There’s curfews in a lot of cities. And, you know, I’m from Washington, D.C. So to hear our president threaten to use the nation’s military to suppress the people of the nation’s capital, it hits particularly home for me and everything feels really bad. But at the same time, you know, this is a podcast called Working. And you and I both have our jobs that we do. And and, you know, I think one of the things that you and I are navigating, just as everyone is navigating, is how do you get your work done? Do you shut out the world? Do you let it into fuel? You do as a you know, actors say, do you use it in your work, you know? What about you, Howard? How are you approaching that?
S1: I feel like I’m maybe being a bit of a Pollyanna, but I swear, at times like this, challenging times are a great time to be a journalist. I haven’t been covering either the Corona virus or the uprisings, but I feel really motivated to contribute to the Slate project right now. And everyone is paying attention to the news. Everyone, let’s say everyone is listening, but people are more they’re paying more attention than they usually do. This feels like one of those ideal opportunities. Just the other day, in fact, the spirit really fueled me to tackle a really gnarly invoicing challenge that I’ve been putting off that maybe signs very, I don’t know, out of place. But actually, I mean, that was real. Like I’d been putting something off and thought, you know, we need to focus. And I actually find it really quite. It just gets me excited. And and that’s kind of part of the excitement of journalism, maybe in a weird secondary effect kind of way.
S4: Now, I have really struggled hard against paralysis and really struggled hard to keep moving forward. It feels strange to be writing a book about acting in the 20th century while all of this is going on at the same time. I don’t think that it’s actually possible to shut out the world and get your work done or whatever. Like, I don’t actually know what that would mean. And I think sitting with what’s going on and feeling what it feels like and not trying to deny or repress, that is an actual important part of the process of getting one’s work done. You know, particularly since, you know, there are still deadlines. There’s still this episode to record. There’s still my book to write. There’s still I’ve got to get my daughter ready for Zoome prekindergarten every morning or we or whatever it is. And deadlines are, of course, very, very helpful. Our guest this week speaks about the helpfulness of deadlines. And we should probably say this was one of the first interviews we recorded. Period. Slate’s offices were still open when you did it. So when you hear very little reference to our current events in this particular episode, it is actually because it was recorded in a simpler time when the Corona virus was just looming on the horizon. And so it may feel like it’s beamed from a separate planet. But in a way that can be heartening, I guess. I’m the guest that you spoke to is Adam Ragusa. Can you tell us a bit about Adam, who he is and what he does?
S1: Yeah. I first came across Adam when he was hosting the podcast, the pub, which was put out by Current, a trade publication about public media. No trade publication. Public Media. Those. Our phrases that typically do not get people excited. Pretty sure they’ve been patented by the sleep inducement industry. But the pub was lively and provocative and just really well put together. It was interesting. And that was clearly because of Adam. He had been a radio reporter in Boston. He was also a freelance writer, including for Slate. I should say, where he published eight pieces, including one I edited that was called Has paranoia about looking gay while posing in tiny trunks, ruined bodybuilding. He also taught journalism at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. But as we’ll hear in the interview, he’s given all that up in favor of making videos about food. And he’s doing very well from it.
S4: Well, that’s really interesting. I guess I’m going to try to shut out the outside world for about half an hour and take a listen to what he has to say.
S2: My name’s Adam Ragusa. I am an Internet cook.
S5: It’s funny that that’s the term that you use, because as far as I’m concerned, you’re a YouTube are a food tuber. Do you not see yourself principally as a YouTube?
S2: I suppose I am. I don’t. I don’t want to define myself by the platform. Right. As much as my business and success is intertwined with the platform. Huh. You know, platforms can change and, you know, things can go weird real quick.
S5: So an algorithm change, in other words.
S2: Yeah, exactly. Some nerd in California can, like, make one change to a line of code. And like, my entire livelihood disappears. Right. So I suppose I should have called that person a nerd. Love. Yeah. Love nerds. I’m a nerd.
S5: Does your food content appear in forms other than video and on platforms other than YouTube?
S2: I’m trying to focus more on my Instagram presence. The sponsors that I work with really liked to view your Instagram as kind of an adjunct to what they’re buying, and they will often want campaigns to extend over to your Instagram. So I’m trying to be more robust about that there. And, you know, and maybe some other things will happen in the future. I mean, I you know, this is the most gauche thing to say. I have a TV development deal. Nothing comes of ninety nine point nine percent of TV development deals, but maybe something might, you know, I mean, very, very smart young fellows is working on it. And maybe I’ll come up with something cool. I have no idea. So, you know, I’m just trying to keep my options open. I’ve been approached by some publishers about doing cookbooks. And those conversations just convinced me that traditional publishing is a terrible business and I should run, not walk away from it. But I should probably be trying to diversify my business because of said nerd in California. And risk of said algorithm being tweaked.
S5: Well, just one of the many surprises in what you’ve said so far is, you know, that you’re now focused so heavily on food because this is a really pretty recent change for you. Right? I mean, I first encountered you as a pod caster. You were the host of a public media podcast called The Pub.
S2: Yeah, it’s a trade publication for people working for public broadcasting.
S5: And you have been a you wrote some pieces for Slate. You’ve been a freelance journalist. You’ve been a radio journalist. You were a journalism professor. And relatively recently, you’ve made this change toward food. How did that happen?
S2: Oh, I’m a big believer that when something really blows up in in media, you don’t choose it. It chooses you. Right. No one knows the secret formula for blowing up on YouTube. If they did, they’d be they’d be super rich, right? Nobody knows. So, no, I didn’t plan this. This happened to me. Well, like you said, I mean, I’ve had a kind of a weird career. I mean, I. I started off in music school. I want to be a composer. And I was in grad school at Indiana University studying composition. When I, you know, like like so many people before me, wandering intellectual misfits who have no place in the world, you kind of stumble into the public radio station on campus and you’re like home. Right. One of the best things about that whole scene. And, you know, and that was great. And I had a terrific run in public radio that kind of led to a podcasting and some other things. And then I tried to say, you know, but I always I’ve always had, like, really diverse interests or that’s the, like, charitable way of putting it. I mean, I’m I’m sort of intellectually scatter brained. Like, I you know, I was very into music and I was decent at it. But I got part of the reason I kind of washed out of that scene was just that I was so interested in other things and I was bored getting stuck in this one thing and the job of being like, you know, a relatively low level general assignment reporter somewhere is like you get to become an expert in a totally different thing every day, go down a rabbit hole for a whole day, write your story, turn it in, come in the next day, do it again with something else. And that turned out to be a really, really great life for me. It was also a good life for me in the sense that I am I have terror. I’m a terrible procrastinator. And not because I’m lazy. I’m I’m you know, I’m what I am is I’m I’m indecisive. Like, I. I worry. Right. And so if I can delay having to commit to a decision, I will. And that’s very paralyzing. Right. But the great thing about like journalism and your daily journalism, which I worked in for years, is the deadline environment. You can’t you have to make a decision and go with it every single day. You know, the beast must be fed. And that turned out to be perfect for me because it completely neutralized like one of the biggest flaws of my personality, you know. So it ended up being really, really good for me. And then. But I’ve always kind of kept diverse interests and I’ve cooked my whole life. I love cooking very much. I’ve always wanted to do some cooking media. And when I got a job teaching journalism at Mercer University here in Macon, Georgia, where I still live. It was a very kind of converged media program. And my background was mostly an audio. I was not a visual person. I’m not a visual thinker. And so I just needed to kind of get better. Like, I got good enough on video that I could turn like a 90 second TV news package, of which I did many down here. But I just needed to get better in order to teach better. So about a year and a half ago. I think it was I just I brought some brought some gear home from school one day and was like, I’m going to give myself an assignment. Mean to give my may make a cooking video. Right. Because I just knew I’d be more likely to do it if it was something that would be fun for me. So I made two and I threw them on YouTube. They’re still there. I didn’t throw them on YouTube to, like, gain audience. I threw them there just to, like, as a place to host them. You know something? My friends and family could see them. And then Christmas break. 2018. I took the gear home from school and I made a pizza video. I’d been working on this pizza recipe for many years, very intensely. And I finally kind of made this video. It’s mostly, you know, again, just like to practice my video skills, but also just because my friends had not known that I had been working on this pizza video for a long time. And they were like, when are you gonna show us this? We want to try it. I was like, Yeah, I’ll just show you, you know, in a video. So I threw together a video, you know, but that said, like I I’m a media person, but, you know, that’s what I do. Right? So, like, I knew how to dot my eyes. It crossed my T’s and like, give it a title that was search engine optimized and give it meta tags and, you know, and give it a good thumbnail. And like, I knew how to kind of set it up for success, even though I did not expect it to succeed. I just almost had it habit. Just, you know, I did. Did it did a good job on it or hate it. And then, yeah, just randomly in March of twenty nineteen, I suddenly noticed that it was getting a ton of views and I was like, I know. Do you, can you have to like meet this kind of minimum view floor in order to get monetized on YouTube. That is to say when YouTube will they’ll basically a human being will look at your channel, make sure that it’s not, you know, illegal or awful or something, and then they will start selling ads against it and give you a cut of that revenue. You have to knit me a certain minimum view time in order to get monetized. And I’ve looked at it like, oh, I’ve way surpassed that. So I applied. And again, it’s a huge as a thing that a human being at Google has to do. So there was a lag. It takes about a month to get monetized after you apply. And while that was happening, that piece of video, like the views were just going up and up and up and up. Oh, my God, this is all like money that I’m I’m not going to get. You know, this is my one chance and. But, yeah, it’s turned out that there were know there were other chances. And yeah. And I just I’ve been I’m really I feel very fortunate. This is all kind of happened to me when I’m 37 and not 27 or God forbid, 17. Right. Like I, I, I’ve been around and had enough, I’ve had enough like kind of false starts on my career and, you know, individual pieces of content go viral like a couple of slate pieces, you know, where I know I know what this is like. And I know that when you all of a sudden have a global audience of hundreds of thousands of people like you, don’t you grab that bowl and you write it as far as you can. So I made another one and another one. Another one. And here we are.
S5: Has how you actually film and shoot and edit the videos. Has that changed since you first to come that equipment? Are you still using the same equipment?
S2: No, no, no, no. I gave it back to the university. Well, that’s right. It wasn’t yours. Yeah. And they will be getting some donations to reflect the the evalu that that they gave me with that. So from that you can tell that like, yeah, I’m still kind of approaching things from kind of a rugged DIY kind of method, you know, mostly just because I like that. And it’s fun and and honestly, it’s like dumb to spend much money on on camera and sound gear anymore. Like, there’s so much amazing stuff you can do with cheap stuff, right? Yeah, but I’ve upgraded a bed. I mean, I’ve got a I’ve got a nicer camera body and a few I mean. I mean here’s here I can sum up everything I’ve learned about video production in the following sequence of relative quantities. Lighting is more important than lenses which are more important than camera bodies. They it’s all you need to know. Good to know. Good lighting. You can make like awesome vids with your phone, you know.
S5: Yeah. Yeah. There is a long history of tricks that photographers and the creators have, like food TV shows used to make food look appetizing. There’s a specific set of tricks and tips and and you really don’t want food to tiddley kind of dingy. So yeah.
S6: So you need to put light on it. But at the same time, I have really tried to issue a lot of those traditional food lighting and filming tricks I don’t like. Porn or I’m not trying to do food porn. Football is actually awesome and like and there’s other people on YouTube like Jonathan Weisman is a great guy who, like, I don’t I’m not trying disparage him by saying that, like he’s doing food porn. I mean, he’s also doing really high value instructional content. But it’s also superfood. Pawni like lots of like super high frame rate shots that you slow down. You get these really sexy, you know, the the sauce, you know, drizzling across the food in a very sexual kind of way. Like it’s yeah. It’s like that’s that’s part of the appeal. I for what I’m doing, I’m trying very hard to not do that. And I’ve believed in my entire kind of creative life. That limitation set you free. Right. You should always embrace your limitations because they’re they’re what will kind of make you, you know, the ones that will force you to come up with creative solutions that that distinguish you from someone else. And, you know, an example would be like in my music, my my my illustrious music career. I know. I mean, like, I’ve I’ve done some tunes I’m pretty proud of and like. And one of the limitations that I chose to embrace early on was that like when I kind of transitioned from classical composing and did more kind of, you know, already pop songs. Was that, you know, we lived in apartments and, you know, I couldn’t have a drum set. Right. So I just got a whole bunch of tiny, tiny little hand drums. And I would make them really, really close with a large diaphragm. Mike and I would kind of tap on them just little teeny steps. And you, Mike, those real close with a with a big beefy diaphragm on your mike. And like, you get these really cool sounds. And I was really proud of and happy of the kind of different percussion sound that I got in my tunes that were because I couldn’t piss off my neighbors with a drum set. Right. Yeah. Like, I think that that kind of stuff is awesome. That’s where creativity lives. So I tried to embrace my not knowing that my not knowing my way around a camera that well. Right. And I’m not trying to write do like super sexy food. I’m trying to do really functional food videos, you know, sort of almost like clinical food videos that just show you honestly what the food will look like at its various stages so that you can do so, that you can cook what you want to cook.
S2: Right now, try to razzle dazzle you or make you think that the food is better than it actually is. Now, you still need to heighten reality a bit generally with just extra light, right? Just because you just you know, we our eyes adjust for for light in amazing ways. That cameras don’t. Once you start play around with a real camera, you realize how dark it is inside all the time. Yeah. Inside is so dark. And so you need some extra light. But I when I kind of play the lighting rig that I kind of ended up landing on is this kind of ringa light situation like the kind that like, you know, makeup, floggers. Wood used to hide their blemishes and make themselves look all gluey. The reason that I used that was because when I first sort of design my home shooting setup, I designed it to be something that I could use to shoot in my real family’s kitchen with my children running around while I was also working full time as a university faculty member. Right. So I wanted to be a single stick setup. Everything would be on one boom, right. So that’s why I went to the ring. Like as you put the camera into the ring light. Right. You don’t have like separate stands for separate four for the lights in a separate stand for the camera. Everything is on one stick. Right. So I designed it to be this one thing that that could then, you know, I just could throw in the corner when I was done shooting and I could bring it out really quick and shoot with it. And what that practical limitation ended up giving me was this kind of ring light look, that is unique. Like, I don’t think anybody else has that it puts this very unnatural glow on food that I find very kind of quirky and fun as opposed to super sexy. I really try to respect my audiences intelligence and time, intelligence and time. Right. And what Hardaway’s I should show that I try to show them respect for their intelligence is by not trying to razzle dazzle them. I try to show them respect for their time by getting to the fucking point. Right. And, you know, lots of YouTube guys who are there. So they’re very talented. They do wonderful things and a lot of them are way more successful than me. So what the fuck am I saying? But like, I still get annoyed by their stuff because they’ll they’ll turn on the camera and they’ll be like, hey, it’s like it’s best that subscribe button. Let’s flip that around. And and they’ll, you know, bullshit. And they’ll say, like, you know, some people was asking me to make a video about this. And I think that’s a really, really good idea. I was like, wow, what a good idea that would be for a video. So, you know what? Y’all were going to do that video today. So let’s do it. And then they hit the theme music a minute and a half into the fuckin video. All right. And then they come back and they start getting into the thing. Just go there. Don’t tell them what you’re going to tell them about. Just start talking about it. Just get there. Right there. All right. All right.
S4: We’ll be back with more of jeunes discussion with Internet cook Adam Ragusa after this.
S1: One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline. Send them to us at working at Slate dot com. And even when we can, we’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S4: Welcome back to Working. I’m Isaac Butler. We now rejoin June Thomas’s conversation with Adam Ragusa with a discussion about his writing process.
S5: So I’m wondering, do you do things like how much do you script or storyboard your videos? They sound very loose. You don’t appear to be reading from a teleprompter, but at the same time, they’re so tightly argued. I know you’re not talking on the flies.
S2: Sir, most people who study these things might believe that eating a big chip of Teflon would do nothing bad to you and just pass through your system. But what if they’re wrong? You can always find a dissenting opinion. And the scientific consensus has a history of being wrong. And I’m not just talking about.
S5: So to what extent are you scripted and storyboarded and and how on a general sense or in a average video, how much does the final product match up with the original script slash storyboard?
S2: Well, I sort of I have two basic recipes, right? I’ve got like original recipe, which is the the recipe videos that I do on Thursdays, and those are like straight up cooking videos.
S6: I don’t appear on camera. It’s basically radio with pictures, which is a very comfortable way. It was a very comfortable medium for me to kind of start with. All right. So when I’m doing a recipe video, the first step is just recipe development, which is its whole other process that we could talk about all of their creative process. Once I have the recipe, I will shoot it. And I’ve tried lots of different things. I’ve tried doing multicamera shoots of recipes. I’ve tried doing single camera, but cooking at twice or three times, which is, I think, how a lot of Food Network shows used to be shot was they’d like they’d shoot it once at a wide angle and then Rachael Ray would go and cook it again and they’d shoot it from a tight angle. Right. Interesting. What eventually landed on is like to keep it really simple. I do a single camera shoot on most things and I just shoot it once. I just go. I just plow through and I just move the camera a lot. And part of it is about like leaving myself as few options as possible. Edit because if I give myself a lot of options, I will be paralyzed with indecision and then I won’t make deadline. Right. Right. So that’s the process there is. I’ll shoot the recipe. I will then sit down and look at the footage and I’ll sort of scrub through the footage. And in scrubbing through the footage, I will write my script. Mm hmm. I will then go into my voiceover booth, a.k.a. my coat closet, where I’m talking to you now. And I will then read that script and and maybe that sounds kind of natural, but it’s totally red. I mean, it’s just, you know, I’ve been I’ve been reading scripts into a microphone my entire professional life. I’ve gotten reasonably good at it. Right. So that’s what I’ll do. And then I’ll go and then edit and edit the video to the voiceover. And that’s a pretty simple process. So that’s how the recipe videos come. That’s original recipe Ragusa Channel. Extra Crispy is the videos that I do on Mondays, which are videos that are about food but aren’t a recipe. And I really consider those to be journalism. Right. It’s yes, lots of things about food science and food history and food safety, food culture, you know, and that stuff is a little bit different, technically different, because I, I would never have enough B roll footage to, like, cover all my script. So I realized when I started doing those that I was going to have to be on camera and talk to the camera, which is super uncomfortable for me because I don’t you know, I haven’t I don’t have an experience with that. I don’t like thinking about my appearance. And it was just not not awesome. And I, I looked and not awesome in the first few ones. I think people often commented about my eyes looked very wide. All of my to all of my tension went straight to my eyes. My goodness. Wow. Because it’s really tough to like. You have to, like, stare dead into the lens of the camera. Yeah. Which. And it’s really tempting to kind of look to the side, to look at the LCD screen, to see how you look. Yeah. But if you do that, your eyeline will be off. Right. So you have to focus. It’s really it take a lot of discipline at first at least, I found to look dead into this black lens of the camera. Halfway across the room. Real tough. So when I do that, I am working from a script. I’ve written a script.
S1: Do you have a teleprompter?
S6: I do not have a teleprompter. I’ve explored some home prompter possibilities. I think they’d be more trouble than their words because they a they take a long time to kind of set up and tear down. Yeah. And I shoot in my family’s actual home kitchen. Right. Like, I can’t it’s not a studio. I can’t leave everything up. I set up and tear down every single time I shoot. Right. Yeah. So that was a problem. And then they also because I wear glasses. You end up getting some weird reflections in the glasses, which is a thing that you can see in a lot of YouTube who work with prompters. You’ll see some blue reflections in their glasses when they’re reading from prompter. So what I do is I have my script on my phone. I look at my phone. I try to internalize, memorize, you know, about two, three sentences at a time. And then I put the phone down and I deliver them to camera. And I try hard to rather than memorizing the specific wording, I try to kind of internalize the idea and then present the idea to camera. So sometimes it comes out with some different words a few times a special hindering science or health oriented videos like it’s there’s there’s a lot of very serious consequences if the word has a little bit off. So I really have to deliver those verbatim, right? Yeah. But in general, yeah, that’s what I’m doing as I’m, I’m sort of I, I do go a couple of sentences at a time. It takes me several passes to get it and then I pick up the phone again, internalize the next little paragraph and then repeat and it usually takes me for those Monday videos, usually takes me about an hour and a half to to shoot all of that talking head stuff. And it’s one of my least favorite parts of the job. I don’t like it.
S5: That’s generally about 10 minutes of you on camera, approximately Myia for a ten minute vid.
S2: Yeah, you’d have about 90 minutes of string. Wow.
S5: I’m curious about the extent to which you up. Demise of use, because, I mean, if a video’s about steak and pizza do best. Have you been tempted to only make videos about steak and pizza?
S2: Certainly whenever I do pizza, those things are huge. Right. Like another pizza video recently that got a million views in less than a week. Yeah. You know. Yeah. And so it’s tempting to do that. But I also think that you want to be careful how often you go back to the same. Well. Yes. And you want to show your audience respect.
S7: And what I find is that, you know, if you do kind of click Baity type stuff, you know, you’ll never believe what happened. When I did this time, I say. Right.
S6: And you tend to see your numbers will be really big at first. And like the first couple hours and then they’ll kind of what I find is that. And then they’ll fall off. Whereas if I give people an honest to God good piece of content that teaches them something that they actually want to know, they tend to reward me with their viewership.
S5: There have been times in, you know, recent history of journalism, first with the rise of blogging and then to a certain extent with podcasting. And some people said that you could live anywhere in the country rather than having to pay the insane housing costs in places like New York City. I’m not really sure that was true for the most part. It’s still a big advantage to be close to like places where there are movie screenings and events and people who you can meet with coming through. But it seems like you can do what you’re doing. I’ll short coat it as be a food YouTube or living in Macon, Georgia, which does not seem to be very much of an expensive place to live. So I guess my question is, Adam Ragusa, are you living the dream?
S2: It sure feels like it, man. How is this not the dream? I am talking to you from my mind. Absolutely beautiful. Restored Craftsman bungalow in Macon, Georgia, that I bought for one hundred forty five thousand dollars somehow. That’s my rent. And yeah. And like I mean, do you want talk money? I mean, do you want to live? Do you want to know. Yeah. So assuming the corona virus doesn’t completely wreck everything this year, I should make like six, seven, eight times what I made per year as a college professor, which is just crazy. Yeah. And now part, you know, you might think like, oh, my God, Adam, why are you. Why are you subjecting us to all this advertising if you’re making so much money? That’s way more money than people need. It is, especially in Macon, Georgia. But it’s precisely because, like, I think this is a very vulnerable career to vicissitudes in the market, shall we say. Right. Yeah. Like all of my advertisers are these like Silicon Valley companies that like I hope they I hope they do well when tough times come. But in the past, similar companies haven’t. Right. Yeah. So I’m know I’m just saving. I’m just saving, saving, saving, saving, saving. And so when the economy tanks and the YouTube, you know, advertising market completely tanks and all of your other favorite YouTube bears are like, sorry gang, I got to go, I’ve got to go get a real job. I’m going to not out. I’ll be here making videos for you. That’s why I’m making more money than I need right now.
S5: Can you say to what extent what division of your income comes from sponsorship and want from YouTube?
S6: Yeah, it’s about half and half comes. About half of my money comes from the ads that YouTube sells against your content. Those are like the pre roles that come before your video that you clicked on. And about half comes from sponsorships that I do inside the video that are sold by my agent, Colin West, who’s the best. And I was so lucky to fall in with an agent, I couldn’t imagine trying to do this by myself.
S5: I was gonna ask if you had a team. I mean, is Colin West the only collaborator that you have right now?
S7: Other than Lauren, my wife, who?
S5: Well, I was wondering about that, too, because you mean, as you’ve said, you work from your home, that’s your kitchen. That’s your wife. And when you’re making a Valentine’s Day dinner or sometimes she’s just in the videos, those are your kids. Do you ever feel like you’re sharing too much? I mean, is that one of the requirements for from making good money and making videos for you?
S7: Certainly, like my philosophy about how media has changed over my lifetime, I’ve often summed up with the single sentence, which is that authenticity is the new authority. People want to know you. And that’s how they come to trust you rather than simply relying on some artifice of authority that I’m so-and-so food magazine and therefore you should believe what I say. Right. Yeah. People see through that now because of the Internet. Yeah. So I think it’s important to show them a bit of who you are. I also think fundamentally, people like that I’m not somebody in a studio that I’m like a person in your kitchen just like you. And that’s why I don’t make pointlessly elaborate recipes that are all about razzle dazzling you. They’re like things that are supposed be practical for people living actual lives who don’t want to impress someone or, you know, just be dynamite with their food on Instagram. They just want to, like, have something good to eat and move on with their day, you know? Yeah. So I think that’s part of it. But I also I keep a lot of my family out of it, you know. Yeah. My my children’s faces are never in the shots, you know.
S5: Well, I have a question about comments. Mm hmm. It seems that comments are something that, again, has undergone a big transformation over the years in journalism at different kinds, like at various points in Slate’s history. We’ve had comments, some pages. We’ve we’ve had sections of pieces asking for like input from commenters. And then we’ve gone to other extremes, which might be nowhere like they’re there, but we kind of ignore them. We certainly don’t have any real incentives to engage with them.
S2: I didn’t ignore them. If anybody wants to dig up some dirt on it, go look at the comment threads on my slate pieces.
S5: I got into it with people, but on YouTube, it seems from all kinds of videos, not yours, but on the videos I hear people say, you know, they like they’re asking questions that they can’t possibly care about, like, what do you think about this? And so I’ve gleaned that the YouTube algorithm does still value engagement with commenters.
S2: And who knows? I mean, it’s it’s just a feedback loop in the end.
S5: But you I’ve seen you get into it with them. You know, it’s not a good thing, not a good habit. Not good for my wellness. Yeah. But you obviously can’t resist. Is that just like because you’re a journalist? When people say them stuff, you have to push back. I.
S7: I mean, there’s so much to say about that, a lot of it kind of connects to like my own just personal failings, you know, like I have an overly pugnacious streak and I have a very. Inflexible sense of justice. Right. There’s not a good thing, you know. Yeah, but it’s also like it gets to kind of bigger things, things that are bigger than me about the Internet, which is that like the best and the worst thing about the Internet is how it is empowered everyone to have a voice and be heard. Yeah. You know, that is the best thing about it and that is the worst thing about it is convinced everyone that their opinion matters when it doesn’t when they’ve often not earned an opinion. They haven’t learned enough about the thing or paid enough attention or watched the fucking video all the way through. Before you leave that shitty comment about something that is directly addressed. Yeah. At seven minutes and twenty three seconds.
S5: Yeah. What’s the biggest challenge you face while making videos or are in this new kind of food internet creator phase of your career.
S6: I don’t know. I actually haven’t found it that hard.
S1: All right. I have one. One of the final question.
S7: Do you think there’s there’s like there’s there’s a good answer there, right. Which is just that it’s like, you know, I’ve kind of been setting myself up for this, like a lot of people. I mean, like where, you know, where did this guy come from? How is he so good at this all of a sudden? It’s like, well, because I’m not good at it all of a sudden, like, I’ve done a whole bunch of things and sucked at them. You know, in various ways, in order to get the various skills that I’ve put together in the quilt that has allowed me to do this. And the one of the biggest ones there, when the biggest lessons I learned and why I’m so glad again that this happened to me at 37 and not 27 or God forbid, 17, is that I’ve learned that you the worst thing you can do in any creative endeavor is wait until you’re good enough is to wait. And so you feel as though you’re good enough because you’re never going to be good enough. And that’s why I like ultimately went nowhere as a composer. Totally. Aside from the fact that there’s no way I mean, even really talented composers can’t go anywhere as a composer anymore. You know, like, I just I would stress out, you know, I would I would not want to put pen to paper until I really, really had it, you know, and as a result, I just didn’t get enough reps. You know, I didn’t suck enough until if you just need to go out there and suck until you don’t anymore. That’s the that’s the most efficient way to get better. And so I’m 37 and I have this totally, you know, fully developed sense of self. And I don’t really care what, you know, people on the Internet think about me that much. That much. And so I got out there and I sucked. And most of my my early videos are kind of terrible. I think, you know, but because I was willing to kind of learn in real time and I’d gotten comfortable enough with myself that I could let myself do that. My learning curve was really, really steep and I got better really, really fast. And as a result, nothing about this has been very hard. It’s been pretty easy.
S4: June, one thing I found particularly fascinating about this conversation is how open Adam is about the commercial aspects of his work. A lot of people who make their living from their creativity really do not want to talk about that aspect of their lives. But it seems like it’s very front and center in his process.
S1: You mean about how well he’s doing, right?
S4: Yeah. Yes. Yeah. But also just about, you know, the business concerns of what does a brand want to see from Instagram, you know, integrating that with YouTube. How long the videos need to be. You know, like there’s a way in which his creativity is all about the Benjamins, but not in a way that feels necessarily crass.
S1: Yeah. No, totally. I mean, he really wanted to talk about how well he’s doing, and I appreciate that. I want people to get, you know, down and dirty with their, you know. How you doing? Well, I mean, that’s a really basic question. Do you have insurance like are you struggling? Those are questions that I think the answer is yes for a lot of creative people. So when someone isn’t struggling, when someone is doing well, I’m really glad to hear about it. He also, though, seems genuinely to enjoy the work that he is doing. That is also being so well-received and well compensated. I’ve always hated that thought that if you are making money off of your creative work, then you’re selling out. It’s bankrupt artistically and all of that. And, you know, when I watch Adam’s videos, especially the non recipe ones, they’re clearly, to me at least, pieces of opinion journalism. They sound they might know they have a visual aspect that his radio and podcasts work didn’t. But they sound very similar to the takes he used to offer up on the pub when he was, you know, given his opinions about public journalism. And now he’s giving his opinions about food and the fact that he’s doing well rather than facing this kind of ceaseless stress of trying to eke out a living from standard journalism. It warms my heart and the fact that he can do it from a low cost home base like Macon, Georgia. Well, I’m glad someone at least is getting to live the dream these days.
S4: Right. And yet on top of that, of course, being focused on those particular aspects of the job creates certain limitations. And he’s very open about that. Right. He said that thing that I hear a lot of artists say and that I truly believe myself that limitations set you free, that, you know, it’s within the box, that the real creativity happens. Although I’m guessing in our current moment, most artists in the United States feel probably a little too limited. But do you feel that in your own work that there’s a way in which limitations, like word count and budget and things like that actually help unlock your creativity? Should we impose more limitations on this show?
S1: Not too many, I think, are a self-imposed restriction that will be talked to. People with creative jobs, however liberally defined. That’s that’s tight enough for me. I mean, I yes, I have on a basic level, I think that’s true. You know, when you just say, well, what do you want to write about? Write a piece like that’s just a recipe for absolute paralysis. And I do think you have got to write three times a week. You have got to write this many words. You have got to write on this topic. It sounds backwards, but that can be quite liberating. It can really, you know, it’s a forcing mechanism, but it also really helps generate ideas in my experience. I have to say, though, I associate a love of limitations, especially with the world of theater. In other words, your world are restrictions on artistic love of yours, Isaac.
S4: I mean, yeah, when you work in theater, you have to learn to love restrictions because there’s so many of them from how many people can see your work in a given night. Too often what the budget is and, you know, a lot of the work of mine that I think back almost fondly is stuff done in a, you know, 40 c.D basement even? I mean, there’s believe me, there’s stuff that people spend more money on that I that I treasure as well. But that moment of I have to tell this moment in the story, but I actually can’t literally do what it requires because I don’t have that money and I have to figure something out that’s very joyful for me. I actually really, really, really I really enjoy it. And I often, as a freelance writer, feel the paralysis. You know, when an editor is like, yeah, pitch me something. I’m always like one with something. But something could be anything. And I think a big part for writers of the tyranny of the blank page is that you actually can do anything with that page. And that’s what’s scary. Whereas once you have a couple of pages going, you create this sort of frame that you have to be within. And Adam Ragusa is playing within a bunch of different frames. And one of them, which I think is really wild from a cultural criticism perspective, I guess, is YouTube. You know, you think like, oh, well, it’s a short video, but the platform actually creates this sort of genre that has to do with length limitations. In a relationship with your audience and certain you’re what a food video on YouTube is meant to look like, it’s not what any short film about foods meant to look like. It’s its own thing. Do you watch a lot of hours? Do you have your eye on the ball of kind of what’s going on in that world? Because it feels very foreign to me and I’m mostly just terrified of what’s going to happen when Iris discovers it.
S1: Yeah, I watch way too much YouTube for a while there. I was really hardly watching any television and just sort of sitting in front, you know, are you. I can watch YouTube on my, you know, through an app, on my make, you know, my big old TV. And I would just sit there and sit there and sit there. And, you know, it’s very niche. It’s can be very satisfying when there’s something that you’re craving. You can almost certainly find it on YouTube. I mostly watch crafting videos of one sort or another. I find them very, very soothing and right now very distracting, which again, I don’t know if that’s good, but it’s something that feels good. And I have to say that some of my favorites are works that are objectively failures as works of art. Definitely. But even as pieces of video, they do all of the things that Adam called out, bad YouTube is for. They waste a lot of time talking about what they’re going to talk about. They last too long. They’re poorly edited or not edited. It’s all I watch one recently where the person went to it to take a phone call and just like left the camera rolling and that didn’t edit it out. And I still sat there and watched it. But, you know, if they’re doing something I’m interested in, something I want to see, then I’m very forgiving because it’s all about the content, not the packaging. If I am curious about a topic, if I just am craving something, it scratches that etch in a way that more professional media doesn’t. I mean, YouTube will never beat the production standards of TV and video, but it is really about connecting and brisk providing stuff. You know, it’s like the old days at the Web as well as being this huge Google product that has a lot of evil stuff on it. But it really is. It just feels like you’re finding your people, whether that’s a few thousand people who are interested in paper crafting or five million people who want to know more about pizza.
S4: Well, Adam Raguse here has clearly found his people, literally millions of them. And it was really interesting to hear him talk about how he did that for today’s episode. So thank you so much for talking with them, Jim.
S8: It was a conversation I enjoyed, too, if you enjoyed this show. Please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus, members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast. Bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate dot com slash working plus.
S1: Thank you to Adam Ragusa for being our guest this week and enormous thanks to our producer Cameron Drewes.
S8: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Reman Alarm and comedian Cole Escola. Until then, get back to work.