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Rob Cesternino on Survivor, spoilers, and RHAP’s origins

In February, Survivor will turn 30, and former Survivor contestant Rob Cesternino’s podcast will turn five. This is no small achievement. Like blogs, podcasts are frequently created and quickly abandoned, and few reach the level of success of Rob Has a Podcast. As I discussed in part one of my interview with Rob, RHAP is very successful, thanks to its founder, the community he’s built, and the work he puts in.

“It’s really hard to podcast. I think people think it’s really easy to do it, but there’s a lot of work,” Rob told me when I talked to him in Los Angeles last weekend. He said sometimes people create a podcast and say, “‘it’s not going to suck like Rob’s show’ or whatever, but they never keep it up. It seems very easy but there’s so much work that goes into it. I’m still learning more and more about it; I go to a couple conferences every year to try to learn and get better at my craft. It is harder than it looks.”

Rob takes on a lot of that work himself, though he’s learned about his limitations, including running his site. “I used to dick around it with myself, but I’ve become smart enough to know that it’s over my head,” he told me. “When I first started my WordPress site, I used to hack my way through it, but now I wouldn’t even touch it because I’m afraid I’m gonna break something.”

In the same way that hosts for other RHAP podcasts have emerged from the community, Rob has even found community members who help out with WordPress development. Someone even developed an app for the podcast. Rob is now in a place where his community sustains what he’s built, and that’s all the more impressive considering that his journey began with a reality TV community that didn’t do so well.

The beginnings of RHAP

A decade ago, post-Survivor, Rob Cesternino moved to L.A. to work for The Fishbowl, an online home for post-reality TV stars. It was founded, he said, because “networks find these people, they make them household names, and then like a paper cup, they just throw them away.” At The Fishbowl, “we tried to do a lot of different things,” Rob said, including pre-podcast Internet radio shows. Rob hosted 200 or 300 of those shows, “similar to what I do now.”

Although it was online, The Fishbowl produced its own reality series. The E! show Kill Reality was a Project Greenlight-like series that emerged from a simple question: “How do we make money from this? We weren’t making any money on the shows. We had t-shirts and stuff like that, but we weren’t making any money and it was expensive.”

The economics of the Internet are different today, so while The Fishbowl failed, Rob can run his own podcasting empire today because “my overhead is very low,” he said. “Even if it was bringing enough money, which it probably wasn’t, you had nine or 10 people you were trying to support financially. Even the ways I monetize now I just don’t think existed in 2005, and plus it was much more expensive to do it in 2005 because of things like bandwidth and hosting, all things where prices have come down and become very affordable. Even when I wasn’t even making any money from the podcast, I was still able to afford to make the podcast.”

To try to make money, The Fishbowl sold Kill Reality. Despite having star power and a fun premise, the series, alas, had “middling ratings” and “we never were able to get distribution on the movie [The Scorned]. Ultimately, it didn’t work out,” Rob told me. It did, however, feature the iconic moment of Jonny Fairplay shitting in a Real World cast member’s bed. Rob called the series “a little bit ahead of its time,” considering the current interest in populating reality shows with former reality stars.

Rob kept working with the same people, including on the first original MySpace series, but shifted his focus. “I ultimately just completely got away from reality for four or five years. I had no reason to keep doing it. We weren’t doing anything with reality people; I wasn’t making any money.” He even gave up on watching Survivor, saying, “I was a little burnt out at that time.”

Back to Survivor

Then came the Survivor 10-year anniversary party, which brought him back into the fold. “I wish I hadn’t been so away from the community for so long before that, because I would have had a lot more fun at something like that,” Rob said.

Rob is not among the group of cast members that reunites frequently at events that use their names and faces to draw paying fans. “I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m very much a hermit. I like to talk to all the reality stars, I like to hear what they have to say, but I’m not a big drinker or a partier or anything like that,” Rob said. He’s attended Gillian’s Reality Rally, “but it’s only an hour away. I wouldn’t get on a plane to go anywhere.” He added, “I think that’s really for the singles. That’s where you want to go and hook up.”

Despite interviewing and being connected to former and current cast members, Rob avoids spoilers. “I’m very upfront with people: I don’t want to know anything, I don’t want to know anything,” he said. “I don’t know why anybody wants to know. It’s like recording Jeopardy ahead of time, then put on the DVR: ‘Oh, I know all the answers.’ I never understood anything like that.”

Spoilers about game play nearly always come from cast members themselves, and it’s usually returning players who talk. “You have the returning players, and the spoiler people know who to call, and that’s how it gets out,” Rob said. “The two seasons I felt like I dealt with the most people being spoiled was that season where it was Tyson, Monica, and Gervais in the final three, and also the season that Cochran won. … The good thing about the last couple seasons of not having returning players is that they haven’t been spoilers. When you get your spoilers, that’s because you have the returning players who went there, who didn’t do well, who come home and be like, ‘This season is stupid anyway; Tyson’s gonna win.'”

“I’m in favor of new players; it keeps everybody honest,” he told me.

Long before the flood of returnees, and before Survivor‘s 10-year anniversary, Rob was “just messing around with podcasts,” but in 2010, for Survivor Heroes vs. Villains, he said, “I wanted to talk about that, and I wanted to talk about the last season of Lost. I just started doing that.” Those podcasts were “always something that was on the back burner while I was trying to find work, and something I would have walked away from had I found work,” he told me. “There were so many times when I went on a job interview or something like that where I would have had to stop doing the podcast had I gotten the job that I thought I wanted.”

Thankfully, he never had to make the choice. A year ago, “I made the decision: Let me do this full time and see if I can make a living doing the podcast,” Rob said. At the time, he thought he would “try to pick up freelance jobs here and there, but really I’ve never had to. The podcast has just occupied my entire” week.

A diplomatic balancing act

The monthly donations he receives from his patrons allow him to podcast full time, as they are “the biggest share of the money I make,” Rob told me–but signing on with Patreon wasn’t something he automatically jumped at. “I got approached by them last fall; I didn’t really know if I wanted to do that.” He set a goal of earning $1,000 a month; now, it brings in more than six times that. “I was really overwhelmed with how many people wanted to support me,” Rob said.

Those who offer financial support have access to content that others don’t, including a patrons-only podcast. On those episodes, Rob said, “I try to much more forthright about things. I try to be forthright about things on the podcast, but I have to end up being a little more political because of the number of people that hear that show versus the other shows. I can be a little more candid about certain topics that I’m not completely able to get into on the podcast.”

I asked him about how and why he strikes that balance, whether it’s about maintaining access to cast members or something else. “I don’t ever want to be a jerk to people if I can help it. I just try to be fair about things,” he said. “There are certain things I can [joke] on certain people for, but I don’t ever want to get into personal attacks and stuff like that. There are certain times I need to be more political just because I think, ‘Is this going to create more problems for me?’ It really comes down to trying to be political about things but also trying to cover things fairly.”

RHAP's The Evolution of StrategyOn his new project, The Evolution of Survivor, Rob and Josh Wigler are recapping and analyzing every single season of the show. I was surprised by Rob’s episode-one comments about Jeff Probst, which were more direct than usual; he says something about season-one Jeff Probst making him sad, because it’s such a different Probst from today.

“He’s just such a departure from who he was–but everything’s different from 29 seasons ago. They’re trying to figure stuff out on the fly, and it’s really fun to go back and watch how different the show is and how differently the people who are playing the game approach it,” Rob said.

Today, The Evolution of Survivor will release its 13-hour chapter on Survivor Amazon, the season on which Rob first appeared. “It’s really fun to watch how the show changes over the course of time. I really thought that by this time in the process of doing the Survivor rewatch, I’d be really worn out, but it’s still going well.”

Rob watches two or three episodes in a row, and then will record one of each chapter’s parts for about two hours. “The part is typically the limit our bladders and voices can go,” he said.

For all the podcasting he does, Rob’s television-watching is efficient. “There’s really nothing that I’m watching that I’m not podcasting; there’s no wasted energy,” he said. He said he does watch some half-hour comedies on Hulu, such as Review, because they’re “just long enough that I’m not going to fall asleep.”

Part of Rob Cesternino’s world

Rob does a lot more than watch TV, and he’s learned from others as he’s built RHAP. “I’m a big Howard Stern fan, and I feel like he does the best job out of everybody with this stuff,” Rob told me toward the end of our conversation. “I just think he’s the best ever to get his community feeling like they’re part of this world.”

That’s certainly what’s happened with RHAP, and Rob’s community is very involved. On Twitter, besides adopting the hashtag he suggests on individual episodes, or the one that represents his entire universe (#RHAP), people have also taken on personas related to the show, such as Rob’s bell.

“I don’t have any control over some of these people. They’re not sanctioned,” he said, but “if someone wants to go on Twitter … and be my bell or Nicole’s martini,” that’s okay with him. However, there is a clear line. “There’s a couple of them that I don’t encourage; somebody is my kid on Twitter,” he said.

Those few transgressions aside, Rob said, “I just find it to be fun; I’ll play along. I’m happy when people want to be part of the fun. … It’s just really fun to me to create this sandbox, and have more and more people play in it.”

Ironically, the one thing that might stop him from doing the podcast is the thing that first earned him fans: Survivor. “I don’t want to say I would never do it but I would not be super interested at this time. What are the chances that I would even win?” He thinks that at some point, he might have been able to return because “people would have forgotten that I was a threat. But I think now, I think I’m a threat for a different reason. People think, Oh, he talks to everybody. Or, I’m still mad at that thing he said about me that time. Oh, he thinks he’s so great. I’d definitely be targeted.”

More significantly, Rob pointed out that going on the show would probably mean he’d have to stop podcasting temporarily, and thus “I would be risking everything that’ve done of the last couple years. For what? A spin at the roulette wheel? Part of me is like, Are you thinking scared? But I think I’m thinking rationally.”

His current job allows him to enjoy the show he loved, and still play the game, though in a very different way. “It’s just fun to second-guess and play Monday-morning quarterback with everything. There’s so many Survivor people that are just so caught up on, ‘I gotta go back on the show,’ and it really is kinda sad, some of the people living for the day that they get the call to go back, and they’re never going to get that call. And they just can’t move on.”

“I’m very lucky that I’m able to do all this,” Rob said. “I really don’t want to go back on Survivor because I feel this is the better gig than being on Survivor, so I’m appreciative.”

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About the author

  • Andy Dehnart is the creator of reality blurred and a writer and teacher who obsessively and critically covers reality TV and unscripted entertainment, focusing on how it’s made and what it means. Learn more about Andy.

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