Jacob Goldstein on the power of podcasting, the role of Bitcoin, and the future of money
Goldstein has hosted podcasts 'What's Your Problem?' and 'Planet Money,' and authored a book on the history of money.
How do you grow a niche business when a pandemic blows up your supply chain? How do you convince people to buy a home on the Internet?
Jacob Goldstein explores these questions in his popular podcast called ‘What’s Your Problem?’ Each episode gives listeners the inside scoop on how entrepreneurs and innovators are facing their business problems head-on.
Goldstein is also the former host of the popular NPR podcast ‘Planet Money,’ and he’s the author of the book ‘Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing,’ which The New York Times called “a history of currency full of astonishing tales you might tell a friend in the pub.”
In August, Goldstein participated in an hour-long, live "Ask Me Anything" with readers who are part of The Profile's members-only Telegram chat. (To join, consider becoming a premium member here.)
We discussed the elements of a compelling podcast, the future of money, and how he first heard about Bitcoin.
Below are the highlights of his Q&A with the readers:
Q: What are the elements of a compelling podcast?
GOLDSTEIN: The two things I look for in a podcast are insight and delight.
So basically some combination of learning things (insight) and enjoying the show (funny is my favorite, but shows can offer other kinds of emotional journeys as well)
When you wrote the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing,’ it consisted of a lot of history. What was that process like, and what would you do differently next time?
Writing a history book was ... pretty lonely. I basically sat in a room by myself for most of the year. Sometimes I called scholars, experts, and finance/crypto people. But mostly I read.
If I were going to write another book, it might be fun to do something that got me out into the world more (and out of my head a little more)
What about for the podcast? Any special preparation?
The thing I'm trying to do on the podcast is to link a big idea with practical reality.
The big idea is this: The way humanity gets richer over time — the way living standards go up for billions of people around the world — is by figuring out how to do stuff better, faster, more efficiently, more cleanly, etc.
The practical reality part is — every week on the show, I talk to the people who are trying to make those improvements in small ways every day. Like people who are trying to build cheaper satellites, use drones to deliver medicine in Africa, or people who are looking for COVID in wastewater.
You've delved deep into the world of money. What's been one surprising lesson or idea about money you've had that not a lot of people have (but you wish they did)?
For me, the big insight when I was working on the book is that money feels like this solid, physical thing. It feels kind of like part of nature.
But it isn't that at all. It's something people made up. And not just something people made up once. But something people have kept changing and reinventing.
And what that means is that the way we do money is this subtle, fluid thing. It's the result of all these choices we don't even realize we are making. And it's going to keep changing. It looks really different now than it did in the past, and it will look really different in the future
How do you decide which type of content gets presented in which type of format? (ie: What goes in a book versus what gets in the podcast? Do you have a framework you work with?)
Basically, after I worked at Planet Money for several years, I realized that there is this big story about money that was bigger than you could tell in a podcast, and that could make a really fun, interesting book (insight and delight). So I wrote a book about money.
And around the time the book came out, I realized that this other big, exciting idea about talking to people who are trying every day to make breakthroughs would make a great podcast.
So it's kind of case by case.
What’s your process for helping guests feel comfortable during your podcast? Are there any techniques you’ve mastered or picked up over time?
Basically, I make a lot of jokes. I am not afraid to play the role of the jackass. I laugh a lot.
In general, I find if the guest is laughing and I am laughing then things are going well.
(This is not always easy when you're talking about wastewater epidemiology or artificial intelligence or whatever.)
As you’re building a new audience in What’s Your Problem, are you more focused on catering to your desired demographic or focusing on your interests and letting a group of like-minded people grow from there?
What's Your Problem is a show about business and technology, and I consciously decided to focus on interviewing people who are building for-profit businesses. That is partly to give the show some focus and to attract listeners who are interested in tech-centered businesses.
But this is obviously a huge universe of companies, and within this huge universe, I basically pick people/businesses that seem interesting to me.
When you’re looking to learn a new topic, do you have a specific process you rely on?
It depends on the topic. But one of my favorite ways to prepare for interviews is to listen to previous podcast interviews my guests have done. (Obvious, maybe, but useful!)
I listen when I jog, and I stop to take notes on my phone, so it's a good excuse to take lots of breaks mid-jog.
If there is something that is particularly complex or high-stakes, I will sometimes do a pre-interview with some other expert to really get grounded and figure out what I need to know.
What's your day-to-day creative process like?
It’s kind of all over the map. Maybe the most important part of the show is figuring out who to book and it's hard to figure out how to do that. So I listen to lots of podcasts, read the financial/business press pretty closely, and also spend way too much time on Twitter. Not much of a "creative process."
How do you personally keep a community of other creatives that can inspire you and provide feedback, especially with things being more virtual?
I've been making podcasts since 2010 -- a long time! And I keep in touch with people I've worked with over the years. That is really fun. At this point, they are basically friendships more than professional relationships. But we talk about what we're reading and listening to, and particular things we've been impressed by.
What have you learned about the future of money after studying the history of money? And what role do you think Bitcoin will play in the world?
The big lesson I have learned about the future of money is that it is unpredictable. Money will change a lot, but probably not in the ways we expect.
I first did a story about bitcoin in 2011. We were shocked at the way the price of bitcoin was skyrocketing — it went from $10 to $20 while we were reporting the story. At the time, the idea was that people would use bitcoin to buy stuff. So we got a couple of bitcoins (not easy to do in 2011!) and went to a place that accepted bitcoin, and bought falafels and smoothies for lunch. This is of course a version of the bitcoin pizza story. Those falafels cost us $50,000 in potential future profits!
There are different ways to interpret that story, but one interpretation is this: Money is what you buy stuff with. So if you are a fool for buying something with bitcoin, it's hard to imagine it becoming money.
It might have other uses than money. People have compared it to digital gold, of course. This seems plausible. But gold is ... weird. There are deep historical reasons for its value, but it's still kind of weird. And it definitely isn't money.
With this context in mind, are you taking a “wait and see” approach with Bitcoin?
Back in 2011, I would have thought -- either this will work -- and people will start buying stuff with bitcoin -- or it won't work, and bitcoin will go away. And the weird thing is that neither of those outcomes happened. Instead, this huge wave of money rolled into bitcoin and related technologies, well before they really found the killer app. And I'm still waiting for the killer app.
At this point, to be honest, other parts of the crypto universe seem more interesting to me than bitcoin. The thing I hope crypto will do is to solve boring problems for people who don't care about crypto.
I hope someone will figure out how to make remittances or payment fees cheaper, or put real estate titles on the blockchain, or whatever.
Do you think you need to have built up an audience in order to have a successful book launch?
Publishers and agents definitely seem to think so!
That said, it does seem like there are more ways than ever to build an audience. Book Tiktok is huge, they tell me. (I haven't cracked it yet.)
What did you do for your book launch to make it successful?
When my book launched, I was hosting Planet Money, so that helped. But I also pitched myself pretty aggressively to lots of radio stations, podcasts, etc. Lots of cold emails, and also trying to find friends who knew people. I had the advantage of knowing lots of people in radio/podcasting, so I leaned on that.
What does the word “success” mean to you?
Success is subjective. For me, it is being able to do work that I like and believe in, and also having time and energy to devote to my family.
You’ve been a reporter, author, producer, and podcast host. What’s next for you?
At work, I'm pretty focused on building What's Your Problem, the new podcast. It's still new and growing. So please listen, and tell me how I can make it better, and who I should interview.