Behind the Scenes: 200 Episodes of Cold Call, Harvard Business School’s Flagship Podcast
A look back at the beginning of Cold Call, what it takes to produce episodes, and the people behind the scenes.
26 Apr 2023  

By Shona Simkin

McDonald, Passias, and Kenny in the studio.

It’s 3:15 pm and there’s laughter in one of the basement studios in Harvard Business School’s (HBS) Klarman Hall. Brian Kenny, chief marketing and communications officer; Robin Passias, director of digital media and marketing projects; and Craig McDonald, digital content producer, sit around a table. Headphones are on, microphones are recording, and the digital audio feed lights up the display. The banter and camaraderie between the host, (Kenny), producer (Passias), and audio engineer (McDonald) is genuine and infectious. “You’ve been listening to Cold Call, an official podcast of Harvard Business School and part of the HBR podcast network,” says Kenny, and they nod and smile at each other—it’s a wrap on one of the five bonus episodes of Cold Call airing this week in celebration of their 200th.

Cold Call, named after the famously nerve-racking question asked at the beginning of class to open a case discussion, launched in 2015, two years after the School’s first podcast, The Business, which featured executives, faculty, and alumni discussing a range of management topics. Kenny pitched changing the podcast to one that would stand out from other business podcasts in the rapidly growing medium. A focus on the case method, which anchors the HBS pedagogy, he thought, would be perfect. Each episode would feature a different faculty member discussing the lessons behind a case they’d written, frequently accompanied by the case protagonist. Eight years and 200 episodes later, Cold Call has a monthly audience of more than 160,000 and ranks in the top 3 percent of management podcasts.

“I knew that our alumni, all 89,000 of them, have experienced a cold call and would immediately get the concept of the show, which would help to build an audience,” said Kenny. “By bringing cases to life in the podcast, we can demonstrate the efficacy of case research while at the same time, humanizing the faculty. As soon as you put a voice to a name and hear how animated, funny, and relatable they are, it helps people to connect to the School in a more visceral way. I wanted to achieve both of those things, and I think it’s working.”

Initially Kenny had to do a bit of convincing to get faculty on air. He’d send an email introducing the concept, a link to a recent episode, and the case of theirs he thought would work best. Nowadays, it’s sometimes faculty who pitch him—a welcome sign of the podcast’s reach and legitimacy.

Cold Call is one of seven podcasts created and/or produced at HBS (see listing below). The show became part of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) network in 2019, a move that resulted in listenership rocketing from roughly 7,000 to more than 100,000 in a single month. (HBR has built a strong following in the podcast community over the past 15 years with IdeaCast, one of the top management podcasts in the world).

To produce the biweekly podcast, Passias books episodes a full year ahead. Selecting the 24 cases, scheduling the 24 professors and protagonists either remotely or in the studio, aligning subject matter with relevant events and with an eye for diversity—it’s an ongoing process, she says.

“We peg some episodes to national events or certain themed months, so I search through all our cases and current faculty research to find matching subjects—thankfully they tend to remain enduring and relevant. In May we have cases bringing attention to mental health awareness; we recorded with Mihir Desai for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre in 2021,” said Passias. “As a school we're working very hard to write and highlight cases with diverse protagonists. I think it’s a big initiative to ensure that our students see themselves in these leaders that make up the business world.”

Each recording begins with Kenny’s intro and opener: What is the central theme of the case, and what is your opening question to start the discussion in the classroom? McDonald mans the adjacent control room, monitoring audio levels and giving remote instructions. After roughly 35 minutes of recording, the raw file is exported and sent for transcription, which Passias reviews and edits for clarity and flow. The files are then handed back to McDonald for final edits, a keenly detailed process that the self-professed audio geek relishes.

“Speaking is music to me. I’m an audio engineer, so I love music, but speaking also has rhythm and cadence,” says McDonald. “I listen to every single second and make rhythm choices and take out dead air and breathing, work with fading and other minuscule things, then add music, tighten it all up, and it’s a complete episode.”

With 200 episodes in the books, the team is well versed—and opinionated—on what makes Cold Call both popular and enduring. For Kenny, it’s all about relevance; Passias says it’s a good story; McDonald insists it’s high-quality audio. In true host form, Kenny sums it up with a laugh, “A good, relevant story that’s easy to listen to!”

Whatever the secret may be, we’re all staying tuned for the next 200 episodes.

Other HBS/HBR podcasts:
  • After Hours
  • Climate Rising
  • Deep Purpose
  • Disruptive Voice
  • Ideacast
  • Managing the Future of Work
  • Skydeck
  • Women at Work
  • ShareBar

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