Behind The Scene: Osiris Media’s RJ Bee
“Ultimately, our job is pretty simple—we have to tell great stories about music,” observes RJ Bee, who co-founded podcasting company Osiris Media with Phish lyricist Tom Marshall in 2018. “On one hand, that seems simple but, when you get into it, that means every show has to be carefully considered. They all need to be well-produced with awesome sound, quality music and great storytelling.”
The Osiris CEO—who grew up in Toledo, Ohio—didn’t intend to build a media company when he launched the Helping Friendly Podcast in June 2013 with his longtime friend Brad TenBrook. However, after meeting Marshall outside a Phish show three years later, Bee realized that they shared a common vision, which they ultimately manifested in Osiris.
After initially aggregating a series of “community podcasts” that featured music enthusiasts in dialogue with one another, Osiris entered a new era with the debut of After Midnight—a narrative exploration of Phish’s Big Cypress event—in the fall of 2019. The growing company recently announced a number of new podcasts for the summer of 2021, building on its slate of original series with Beautiful Garbage, which focuses on the emergence of punk-rock; Mystery Mixtape, a trivia podcast; Sugar Maple, the company’s first fiction offering; and Alive Again, which harkens back to Osiris’ origins by examining Trey Anastasio’s solo career.
In certain respects, this all began with Phish. At what point in your life did you first connect with the band’s music?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I finally got a turntable after 30 years of being a music fan. It brought me back to my stepdad, who had every good classic-rock record ever made—The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zeppelin. That’s how I first started to appreciate the art of music beyond what’s on the radio. I always liked to listen to things from start to finish and I still do. That bled over into discovering jazz, the Grateful Dead and then Phish. I feel like listening to a live recording of a show is sort of the same experience as listening to an album—flipping it over and listening from beginning to end.
I started collecting Grateful Dead and Phish tapes when I was a teenager. I loved the experience of getting a fresh tape in the mail. Now, thanks to LivePhish.com, you can hear a show shortly after it ends and that’s awesome. But there was something special about receiving a tape of a show that took place a month ago that you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to hear. That experience really bonded me to collecting live music.
What initially led you to start a podcast in 2013?
Brad and I met in the seventh grade, and we were college roommates. [They graduated from Ohio State in 2001]. We would go to shows together and we would always talk about tape trading and all that stuff. Neither of us came from a production background or had even recorded anything before. But we came up with this idea to create a Phish podcast for people who wanted show recommendations. That’s kind of how it started. The early episodes were a little rough but we learned as we went. I think we were pretty good about marketing the show and pushing it out on social media, but we didn’t have any intentions for it to become anything more than just a fun thing to do every couple of weeks.
What were your initial challenges while you were finding your way?
I think the biggest struggle was just figuring out what we were doing so that we could connect with people. We would include large chunks of audience recordings in the early episodes, so our shows would end up being three hours long and the file sizes were really large.
But while there were struggles, we had some good guests and I would say, probably a year into it, we felt that we had created something cool. We grew our Twitter presence quite a bit through the help of some friends. Then once we started seeing people responding to us on Twitter, leaving Apple reviews and engaging with the content, we knew that we had something. We didn’t want it to be a one-way thing—we envisioned it as a dialogue with the larger community.
Within a year, we started doing some stuff at Phish shows—we would host these meet ups before a show or we would record an episode outside a concert. So we started trying to build a little bit of a community in person, which overlapped with the growth of the Phish Twitter community, which has become a thing.
Did you set any benchmarks in terms of how many downloads you hoped to achieve per episode?
By 2014, we had grown to over a thousand listeners per episode, which already exceeded our expectations. [By comparison, Bee notes that, these days, “Our goal is one million downloads per month across our family of Osiris shows.”] When we started, we would have been happy to have a couple of hundred people because, to us, that seemed like a lot of people listening to two strangers talking about Phish. It seems so crazy today because podcasting was a pretty nascent thing back then. [HFB debuted in June 2013.] We’re still in the early days in some ways, but this was the very beginning of when podcasts became popular. [For instance, Serial premiered in October 2014.] So having a couple of hundred people listen to a podcast of two guys talking about Phish was a big deal to us.
How did your partnership with Tom come about?
Tom and I have a mutual friend, who introduced us at the Mann in Philly during one of the summer 2016 shows because Tom had mentioned that he was thinking about starting a podcast. By that point, we’d been doing ours for a while so I offered to help out if he needed. So we actually met in the parking lot. Tom’s a really smart guy and fun to be around.
We started emailing a couple of days after that show—we both wanted to figure out a way to bring these existing music podcasts together. We wanted to try and pool our resources, in terms of building an audience and monetizing our podcasts. We both said, “If we can get a bigger pool of listeners together, then we can sell advertising, market ourselves and grow it.” That’s how our conversation started.
What was your day job at that time?
I ran a communications company that was owned by my boss. I was the second in command and we offered branding and communications services to foundations and non-profits that focused on progressive social justice work. When I joined, there were three or four of us and I helped build the company to where we had 20 people. I learned a lot about management, business development and branding. When Osiris came together, I had been there for 10 years.
When you finally moved forward with Osiris, what was your biggest initial hurdle?
We launched in February of 2018 with seven shows. That wasn’t a lot, but they were all things that had already built a following of some kind. I knew that we had something right away because people on social media were telling us how great it was to have a bunch of music content in one place. Two of our initial goals were cross-marketing and cross-promotion. We were successful with those but the monetization thing took a lot longer to figure out.
Our initial model was a revenue share with each podcast based on the number of impressions that they generated. But the question we asked ourselves was: “Can we actually get advertisers to pay to advertise across a number of different podcasts?” The idea of a podcast network was just becoming something that advertisers understood. So that was an early struggle.
We immediately started getting inquiries from shows that wanted to join. That was a great sign, but we had no process for thinking about what we wanted these shows to sound like. So it was a big challenge to figure out the actual voice of the brand.
Jumping to the present, I imagine that you must be deluged by podcasters interested in joining Osiris. Has that become overwhelming?
We get several submissions a day from people who have existing shows and want to join us. One of the things I’ve learned about running a business is that you have to keep your focus and keep distractions to a minimum. So, even though a lot of really cool people who have shows are reaching out to us, a few months ago we decided not to add any more “community podcasts,” which are shows made by music fans for music fans. There are a lot of them out there—and they could bring value to Osiris and help expose us to new listeners—but we have to remain focused on creating our own original content.
At what point in the process did Osiris become your full-time gig?
I wasn’t thinking about leaving my job when Tom and I started talking, but it became a challenge to really get things going while I had a full-time job. Then my wife and I had twins so, suddenly, I had three young kids, a full-time job and I was trying to make something happen with Osiris. It was a lot.
So after working half-time for the first part of the year, I left my job in June 2019. That’s when we started to shift our approach. Up to that point, we had just created a network of existing shows. It was probably the summer of 2019 when we started thinking about coming up with some original content and creating our own Osiris branded shows, which seems obvious now. The most powerful way to grow our own company was to have our own IP. So once we started looking at it slightly differently, the opportunities became much bigger than just bringing together a bunch of existing shows. So I left a secure, goodpaying, full-time job to run a startup, but my wife was super supportive.
It was terrifying, but I would never trade it for anything. It’s definitely been the most fulfilling experience of my life, so I’m glad I made the jump. I know a lot of people think about wanting to start a business or pursue a project and then, because of one thing or another, they end up not doing it. I didn’t want to end up regretting not going for it.
Is there a particular podcast that has elicited a fervid audience response to a degree that even you didn’t anticipate?
The first original show we created was After Midnight. It was a huge undertaking and something that I began talking about with Matt Dwyer, who’s our managing director of production, at the beginning of 2019. We were like, “This is the anniversary of Big Cypress. We should do something.” So we decided to do a five-episode scripted series. We got Jesse Jarnow to help us and we did interviews with some of the band and lots of other people.
After Midnight was so well-received by Phish fans that we were actually a little bit taken aback. It was really cool that our first original show received that kind of feedback.
Another show that we have is 36 from the Vault, hosted by Steven Hyden and Rob Mitchum. It’s about the Grateful Dead’s live-show series, and it’s unique because, though Steve and Rob are both Dead fans, they’re really indie-rock guys at heart. So their take on the Dead is totally different than most of what is out there. That can be grating to some Dead fans because they don’t love every song. It’s not like the Helping Friendly Podcast, where our attitude was, “Let us tell you how great this band is.” Steven and Rob take a critical look at the Dead and people love it; it’s one of our highest performing shows and one of the shows we get the most feedback about. That serves as a reminder that it’s really about having these new and different takes on music. It’s a little bit of a risk to take that kind of an approach to a band that fans hold in such high regard, but I think people are learning something from them. That’s been really cool to see because it’s generating a lot of dialogue within the community.
How did the pandemic impact your listenership?
We saw an initial dip from March through June of last year. We did a survey of our audience to try to find out what happened. Most people said that their commutes were interrupted so the portion of the day that had included podcast-listening was totally thrown out the window. Across the industry, people said their numbers were down like 10-20%. But then it started to move back up, when people started to establish new routines. So now we’re definitely seeing numbers that are above pre-pandemic levels, and that’s partially because we’ve grown and added more shows. I think people are used to getting into a new routine and have adjusted.
When we saw the dip at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn’t really know what was going to happen with the business, but we made a commitment to continuing to create new shows. We had a discussion about whether we should stop making new stuff for a while until it got resolved, and I’m really glad that we’ve made the decision to continue to produce new shows because they’ve allowed us to keep pushing forward.
Can you describe the balance you strike in maintaining your core audience while extending your reach?
I think about that a lot. I envision concentric circles of music fans. Our core is the jamband community, which is important to us and that’s our foundation. Then you get the next circle out, which is bluegrass, jazz, indie-rock, classic-rock. So we’ve started to move into those genres and then, the next circle out is country, pop, hip-hop and EDM. So the way I’ve been trying to approach it is that the genres that we touch have to have some kind of crossover into another genre that’s already been our focus.
A good example is Salute the Songbird with Maggie Rose—she’s a really talented singer-songwriter from Nashville. She’s well-known in the country scene, but she has also played a lot of festivals and has some reach into the jamband world. Also, many of these indie-rock bands actually grew up listening to the Dead and Phish, so there’s a natural crossover in their influences.
So some of that stuff is happening naturally, but we have to keep pushing ourselves into other genres. We just announced a series on the history of punk rock and we’re putting together a fiction show, which is going to be completely outside of the jamband world. A few artists, like the metal/ jazz guitarist Alex Skolnick, are helping us expand into other areas; we recently also added a podcast by Rhett Miller, who’s the frontman from the Old 97’s.
Our goal is to get out into other genres organically while still doing some jamband shows. It’s a balance for sure. We think about it a lot because we don’t want to abandon our core, which is what we’re passionate about and how we got to where we are, but we have to keep pushing outward to grow.
Earlier this year, you debuted Undermine, which combined three existing Phish shows: Helping Friendly Podcast, Tom’s Under the Scales and Beyond the Pond. What led to that decision and what obstacles came with it?
When I think about what Osiris looks like in three years, I want record labels, publishers, media companies and, of course, music fans to think of us as the place to go for music storytelling. In that mature vision of the company, we wanted to have one anchor show that combined the best elements from the various shows into one.
So that was the intention. The challenges were that we brought together three shows that had been operating completely independently of each other for several years. One of the executive producers, Brian Brinkman, got us on track by setting up these weekly meetings, helping with the workflow and creating a centralized recording processes.
Then, of course, there’s the fan expectations. A lot of people have said that they really love Undermine but they also miss the other shows. I think that’s totally fair, and we’re continuing to make this an even better experience so that people will remember the shows they loved but feel that this one is bringing more to the table. So for season two, we’re taking a different approach in terms of the subject matter. We’re going to do dozens of interviews, and the product will be great.
You mentioned a vision for three years into the future. Do you have specific goals regarding the number of shows you hope to offer or the genres you’d like to touch?
We definitely want to continue working with prominent artists who represent a diverse mix of different genres, but I don’t really think about the number of shows. The way we think of it is the same way that a lot of the musicians we admire think of it, which is you always have to be moving forward.
You can see that in the slate of shows we’ve just announced. Sugar Maple, our first fiction podcast, is super exciting because it’s a new format for us and a new form of storytelling. We have a lot of interview podcasts and we have a lot of conversational podcasts, but we want to keep exploring other frontiers. Don Hart is going to be the musical director for Sugar Maple, which is awesome. It’s definitely a big undertaking, especially having voice actors, but we’re super excited because we’re telling an original story with original music about the journey of a guitar.
We’re also starting a new trivia show called Mystery Mixtape, which is trying to push into a different format. We wanted to try a trivia show because a lot of the stuff that we do is really a deep dive into these different bands. Our ultimate goal is to explore a number of different styles of music so this is something different. People can listen and play for prizes.
Then, of course, we have the show Alive Again, which is an exploration of Trey Anastasio’s solo career. There’s been so much done about Phish, but the TAB story, and Trey’s solo story, is something that hasn’t been told in the same way that a lot of the Phish story has been told. So we’re honored to be able to finally tell that story.
So I would just say, in three years, I would like to have a slate of shows that represents the breadth of music, which sounds pretty ambitious but there are passionate music fans of all genres. I want to have shows that really communicate with fans of hip-hop and EDM and pop music and country music. We come from one of the most passionate fan bases out there and I want to keep creating content that appeals to the most passionate fans.