This week, after eight months and nearly 70 episodes, the podcast “Binge Mode” will conclude its run discussing every chapter of the seven books in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The show’s hosts have amassed a cult following made up of newcomers to the franchise and superfans, appearing on Time magazine’s rankings of the best podcasts of the year in 2017 and 2018 alongside audio heavyweights like “Serial” and “Slow Burn.”
The show, part of the podcast network for the sports and pop culture website The Ringer, is hosted by the site’s executive editor Mallory Rubin and writer Jason Concepcion. The pair originally met while working for ESPN’s former website Grantland, where they emerged as the staff authorities on HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Following the shuttering of Grantland and the launch of The Ringer, its founder and chief executive Bill Simmons suggested Rubin and Concepcion create a “Game of Thrones” podcast in advance of the show’s seventh season. They settled on a unique approach, recording an individual podcast for each of the 60 episodes of the series and releasing a full season at a time, allowing for Netflix-style binges.
After finishing their run on “Game of Thrones” (and facing a two-year wait before the airing of the show’s next and final season), Rubin and Concepcion decided to turn their attention to Harry Potter.
I spoke to Rubin and Concepcion about “Binge Mode,” the show’s rapid growth and their plans for the future. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
How did you decide you wanted to continue “Binge Mode” beyond “Game of Thrones,” and how did you settle on Harry Potter?
JASON CONCEPCION We talked about Harry a lot in “Game of Thrones,” and got a lot of engagement from the people who listened to the podcast saying, “Oh my god, if you guys did ‘Harry,’ that would be great.” And it started to gestate in our minds. It just makes a lot of sense to do the two titanic fantasy stories of our lives. Why not?
MALLORY RUBIN I think one of the things that happened during the “Game of Thrones” run was really saying, “This can be about anything, but the heart of it is about fantasy stories”— the fandom that builds up around that, and the community those stories foster and inspire.
How did your partnership develop?
CONCEPCION We’re both extremely analytical people. We love talking about books, talking about stories, and drilling down and examining what it is that we love about the stories in a real lit-crit kind of way.
I think that’s one of the primary pillars of our chemistry. When I think about the way we approach the podcast, if either of us had hosted with a person who wasn’t quite ready to approach the material with the level of care and analysis that we each feel that it deserves, it probably would have been a real problem.
RUBIN Scary to think about. Not sure if you can tell, but we’re both slightly obsessive by nature.
How many times do you estimate you’ve read the full Harry Potter series at this point?
RUBIN Oh my god. I have no idea. Just in the time we’ve been working on “Binge Mode,” I think we’ve read them four times.
We read the whole thing through before starting, because we wanted to sketch out the episode breakdowns, what chapters would go where, viewing everything through the lens of theme. When we’re working on the episodes, we read each of the chapters, the chunks of chapters we’re working on, and then go back and read them again to actually outline.
I think for me, personally, my total is honestly probably in the thirties. Which is a lot!
Were you surprised by how quickly “Binge Mode: Harry Potter” found a dedicated audience, even separately from “Game of Thrones”?
RUBIN Well, people have done stuff on Harry Potter for a very long time. My freshman year of college, I was just walking around listening to The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet podcasts, all the time. Some of my first exposure to podcasting, was listening to those podcasts. So people have been doing this for a while.
We knew the appetite for coverage and thoughtful discussion about these stories was insatiable. People love them. The thing that means the most to us, and that we hoped would matter the most to other people, is finding somebody you can talk to about a story who really feels the same way about it that you do.
Did we know it would be like this? No. Of course not. But we knew there was the potential for an audience.
What kind of Harry Potter readers are listening to the show? Are they die-hards, casual fans, people coming to the books for the first time? What has been your experience engaging with the fandoms?
RUBIN I think all of the above. One of the coolest and most fulfilling things for us has been hearing from people who say, “I never read Harry Potter, and I’m doing it for the first time so that I can listen to ‘Binge Mode.’” And then those people come back and say, “Boy, Harry Potter is really great.”
Certainly most of the people listening to it have read the books, but even within that there’s huge variance. There are people who are obsessives and read the books every year, every few months. It’s everything in between, this whole swath of different experiences.
We spent a lot of time in the planning phase about that element, of, “How do we respect people who are coming to the story for the first time?” while doing the show in the way we wanted to do it. One thing that was not in doubt for us was that we wanted to talk about the story in its entirety from the beginning.
CONCEPCION Spoilers early. Spoilers right away.
RUBIN We both really admire J.K. Rowling’s very clear early vision, and how much of the groundwork was laid in the very beginning. When you’re reading “Stone” and “Chamber” [“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”] every three pages you’re stumbling on a bit of Horcrux foreshadowing. It’s unbelievable.
J.K. Rowling is on Twitter all the time. Do you think you’re going to get her on the podcast?
CONCEPCION That would be incredible.
RUBIN I would die.
What would you ask her?
CONCEPCION Honestly, for me, it would be a lot of the structuring questions. We went to see …
CONCEPCION One of the things I geeked out over was her outline map for “Order of the Phoenix,” which just had everything there. What is this character doing at this particular time, what is the theme, what is the sub-theme, what was the status of the mission, what’s the foreshadowing? She just had it all laid out on four sheets of paper.
I just want to know more about that, because I find it absolutely fascinating. To have that much laid out from the jump is really an incredible way to work.
RUBIN I think the themes, the pillars of the story are eternal. Love, choice, community, the family you choose. I think also — and this is the case for everything — the way that people perceive the story, or certain aspects of it, changes over time.
We noticed when we were at LeakyCon this year that a lot of the panels were about diversity in Harry Potter. A lot of the discussion in our Facebook Group is about how it’s harder for some people to accept or root for or align with Severus Snape as a character now than it was a few years ago, because of the way that society and culture and norms and acceptance and discussion shift.
When you’re creating a work of art, it lives in a moment, a time, but it also lives across time. The way people relate to it and respond to it will change. I’d be fascinated to hear what she thinks about that.
What should listeners look forward to from “Binge Mode” in 2019?
CONCEPCION “Game of Thrones” is coming, baby.