All of a sudden people are talking about podcasts. It’s only taken ten years but we’re now in a time where podcasts are being discussed openly on mainstream media and THE hot series of the moment is not a cool Netflix original TY production or some edgy Channel 4 thing but a podcast.
The podcast that has grabbed the world’s attention is Serial. It’s one woman’s investigation into a fifteen year old murder case. It’s enthralling. And fascinating. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, each episode is currently being downloaded 1.26 million times.
So what is it about Serial that’s so … sticky? Why did this podcast explode where basically every other podcast ever made didn’t?
I think there’s a few factors at play here that have created this “perfect storm”.
1. The pedigree.
Serial is an offshoot of the behemoth that is This American Life. The podcast was launched across all the This American Life platforms and the team that made the show are super-slick and experienced. They also launched with the backing of a quarter of a million Twitter followers and tapped into hundreds of thousands of greedy RSS feeds.
From the quirky Mail Kimp advert, to the opening montage, to the plinky-plonky music – it’s all on point. There’s lots of what Jad Abumrad calls the “little shit” – the rough edges of interviews and raw bits of tape that add colour and humanise a show. Everything is there and nothing outstays its welcome.
The website is also packed with extra stuff. You want to dig deeper into this stuff and try and figure it out? Go ahead, the website has plenty for you to get your teeth into.
3. The show takes real advantage of the format.
It’s a podcast and not a radio show so it can be whatever length it damn well pleases. Shows range from 27 minutes to 53 minutes long. There’s no real pressure here to squeeze things into spaces or to pad things out. They also deliver regularly and on-time.
4. The subject matter.
The show’s about murder. And truth. And solving a mystery. And who is right and who is wrong. All good “central to the human experience” type stuff. And Sarah Koenig is a charming and likeable investigator who explores all this material with her humanity hanging out. She’s confused and frustrated and troubled and we (the listeners) like that.
There’s a whole raft of moral questions we should be asking ourselves here. Is it right to be enjoying this stuff? Isn’t this all in bad taste? What good can come of it? I think these questions all add to the attraction here. After all, what is more exciting than involving yourself in something that – deep down – you know you shouldn’t be doing.
Serial has been advertised as a twelve-part series which means that (as I write this) we’re nearly two-thirds of the way to the end of our journey. It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the million or so listeners is at the end of this trip. This does not appear to be a story that will wrap up neatly.
I’ve just been reading John Myers‘ report into BBC Local Radio (find it here). I read it through the prism of being someone that used to work at BBC Radio Solent in Southampton and reading it made me think about my time there and reflect on what I think the issues are/were with BBC local radio.
I did a Masters degree in Radio Production at Bournemouth University (when the wonderful Seán Street was there) and afterwards struggled to find a job in radio. Eventually a friend working at Solent managed to get me in to “shadow” the Broadcast Assistant (BA) working on Sally Taylor‘s Saturday morning magazine show. This was a busy magazine show replete with studio audience and a live musical guest (a format later to be stolen by radio newcomer Terry Wogan for Weekend Wogan ). The show was a bit scattergun and nicely chaotic but it was great to be back in a radio studio again and I was excited to be behind-the-scenes at the (*stands up and salutes*) BBC.
Being stupidly keen I kept going in week after week (as nobody stopped me). I made coffee and tea. I took the audience members to the toilet. I carried the band’s equipment. I took phone calls. Standard how-I-got-into-radio stuff. After a few weeks the BA left and my friend who worked at Solent and I shared the (4 hours a week) BA job, each of us working every second week.
Still, being stupidly keen I would go in and help every week. It’s a 31 mile drive and meant giving up late Fridays and the first half of Saturday so it was expensive and required a fair bit of dedication.
But it paid off. My friend soon became less keen to work weekends so I picked up extra (paid) shifts and after a couple of months the Producer of the show announced that he was leaving. I believe there was a bit of behind the scenes chat but the upshot was that I got offered the job on a trial basis by the then Managing Editor Mia Costello (who had already been a figure of controversy for doing what she was told to do – bless her).
And then Mia left. I produced my first Sally on Saturday show on April 18th 2009 and on Monday 20th April 2009 new Managing Editor Chris Carnegy took over the reins at Solent. The timing here was a bit strange as Chris arrived with me already installed but essentially completely new (and pretty much completely clueless as to how to produce a show).
My philosophy for producing the show was DON’T CRASH IT! I wanted (initially at least) nothing more than to keep it running as it had been and not kill the thing by doing anything drastic or stupid. Which I think I did.
I was lucky in that the people I was working with were really fucking good at their jobs. I found an awful lot of this during my time at BBC Radio Solent. Sally was (and remains) a consummate professional broadcaster and I was able to be completely relaxed about the times she was in front of the microphone. Sally didn’t drive her own desk and that was great for me as it meant I could call on the expertise of the wonderful Rose Lyle or Jimmy Luff to help me sort out my impending panic (hopefully) without Sally noticing.
The show went along okay. As John Myers points out in his report on BBC Local Radio “the producers I met were good but again were often younger or less experienced than the presenter of the show they controlled” and this was true for my show and nearly every other show at BBC Solent. I was 38 when I started producing Sally On Saturday and although I was a great deal older than the show’s previous two producers I still found it a bit difficult to imagine exactly what my 50 + year-old listener wanted to hear. My strength lay in my (and my presenter’s) knowledge and love of music but when it came to jacking (that’s radio slang for “booking” fact fans!) stuff to do with lifestyle and food and the like I was hopeless.
The age issue with BBC Local staff is one that I don’t hear talked about within industry circles enough. The bulk of the staff at Solent during my tenure were younger than me. Every time I answered a telephone there the caller was older than me. Are people in their twenties and thirties really the best people to make content for listeners whose average age is 54?
What a 54 year old looks like
Another age issue relating to this is that the age of the average caller while I was at Solent seemed a lot older than 54. Rightly, there was always a drive to “get callers to air” but this was always a really tricky tightrope as when the switchboard lit up it tended to be the “usual suspects”: the listeners who listened all day, every day and who tended to be a trifle idiosyncratic in terms of world view. They also tended to be more mature than 54 years of age.
The Radio Solent Listeners Club
Why the disparity here? How is BBC Local’s average listener said to be 54 years old when every time the phone goes it’s someone who sounds 80?
Experience tells me that lots of Solent’s listeners are in their seventies or eighties so for the average listeners age to be 54 then there must be some young ones listening somewhere to pull that age down. I think they are listening to sport.
The sport team at Solent are magnificent. The enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge held there consistently impressed me. The sports shows always created lots of texts from listeners and when the phones rang the listeners were (mainly) male and noticeably younger than at other times of the week. The listeners to sport appeared to be an entirely different audience to the listeners of the rest of the output.
Sport on BBC Local radio is great, it’s really wonderful to be able to have partisan coverage of your local team provided for your courtesy of the usually painfully even-handed BBC. If you’re male and under 50 and listening to BBC Local radio then the chances are that you are listening to sport. The chances are that you also own a mobile phone and are quite happy to send your local station a text.
So sport has it lucky in one sense (that listeners seem keen to interact) and the sport team has it lucky in another sense (that the listeners to sport are closer to the ages of the team making it). No wonder the sport team used to sit in a self-satisfied corner of the newsroom slurping tea from their football mugs while the rest of Solent’s staff struggled to think of how to amuse and get decent, useable interaction from the more superannuated portion of Solent’s listenership. Certainly, audience interaction was minimal during the shows I produced…
The issue here is I think we were asking the wrong questions. Or the right questions in the wrong way. Or not enough questions. Or maybe we were being distracted with all the other stuff that was going on. Saturday mornings tended to be a lot of running around for me and my BA and (shamefully) sometimes the phone calls just didn’t get answered. 20/20 hindsight tells me this is a terrible indictment on my production regime.
As a producer I failed to make content that engaged the audience enough. I focused on jacking what I felt were quality guests and acts, rather than filling the show with stuff that would make the listener get involved. I (arrogantly) thought that 3 hours of great content would be enough to get people tuning in and coming back. I was (kinda) wrong.
Gratuitous picture of Charles Collingwood from The Archers
Now, as a new producer to the BBC, I kind of expected to be giving some sort of help with stuff like this. A mentor maybe? Or a weekly/monthly aircheck with a line manager? A bi-annual review of the show? But there wasn’t anything really. I had a couple of brief chats with the show’s line manager during my first six months (maybe 10 mins altogether?) but that was it. The received wisdom was that management “didn’t care” about the weekend programming and that was pretty much my experience of it.
So I made basic mistake after basic mistake. Too many to mention here (if you remember any please feel free to add them to the comments below) but the one really embarrassingly terrible thing was I merrily moved features around within the show to suit the guests. So one week we’d have one live band on at 10:30, the week after we’d have three live acts on at 8:35, 9:35 and 10:05.
Ah, the music. Sally On Saturday was the only show based at Solent that had live music every week (Sunday evenings on Solent had Phil Jackson’s South:Live – now Introducing: The South – a good outlet for Hampshire, Dorset and Isle of Wight bands but broadcast from BBC Sussex in Brighton). So, for the musicians of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight we were the show to know if you wanted to “get on the BBC”.
And, quite frankly, when I started producing this show we had inadequate equipment to “do” live music properly. And I had a very poor grasp on how to get a live act to air and make them sound anything other than rough as fuck.
Have a look at poor old Tiny Spark playing on the first show that I produced:
Yep, that’s right. I’ve got them to bring in one guitar and stuck an SM58 in front of all of them. Including (and this is my favourite part) the drummer who is playing his legs.
Boys, I’m sorry. And thanks for coming in.
Now, when the service licence for BBC Local stations clearly states that “it should provide opportunities for new and emerging musicians from the local area” shouldn’t it be a bit better prepared than this? Myers talks about facilities in today’s report and says that he was “genuinely surprised by the lack of investment in BBC Local Radio“. The station’s licence says it has to provide opportunities for musicians and yet it really had no facility for music apart from a large studio and a very basic 10 track sub-mixer.
Luckily, we did get better over time at producing music. Here’s the very lovely Owl In The Sun playing towards the end of my stint at Solent:
(NOTE: The audio on here is from the camera of an audience member not the mixed radio output)
AKG 414s mixed with SM58s. DIs. And lead vocal into a Rode NT1000 microphone that I bought myself. (I’ll put the ebay link up here when it’s time to sell it… most likely quite soon). Also by this time, thanks to Julian Moore of Georgia Wonder (talented duo and friends of the show) spending a bit of time with me and me persuading Malcolm the (superstar) engineer to buy a couple of cheap bits of kit we could do basic musical niceties (like compress things and do a bit of reverb). It made a real difference and the quality of the music we got produced on that show got better and better.
However, the figures for the show were never wonderful.
At this stage I had a short-term contract for full-time hours. I was working a (social) life-destroying split week of late shifts (8pm to 1am) Monday to Wednesday producing Paul Miller’s late night phone-in show and then late Friday / early Saturday producing Sally On Saturday.
About half way through my contract Alex Dyke joined the station and – as he was new to the BBC and had a “bit of a reputation” – my working week was extended a couple of hours (for no extra pay of course) to oversee Alex’s Bubblegum and Cheese show. Naturally, I was hacked off and I whined like hell about it to Chris Carnegy (and probably marked my own card at that stage). The extra hours also meant I took an instant dislike to Alex Dyke, which was a shame as he’s actually bloody good at making radio and appears to have the limitless energy of a slightly “touched” Red Setter. Ask me now and I’ll tell you I like the chap…
I’d been given the Paul Miller gig as a kind of fudged solution as the previous producer had left to look after his family (I think his wife had changed job and he was going to pick up the family reins). Like Sally, Paul was (still is) a proper professional broadcaster and this made it a bit difficult to make changes and again reverting back to my “DON”T CRASH IT” maxim we probably didn’t do enough with the show.
Anyway, my contract ran out, Chris Carnegy told me he wasn’t renewing it and that pretty much was the end of my BBC career (so far). As an extra kick in the nuts the previous producer was reinstalled on the Paul Miller Show. I got taught the first cruel lesson of my radio career.
So, after a wee bit of a fuss, I left Solent at the end of 2010 (I had a wonderfully symbolic final shift on Christmas Day 2010 – you haven’t lived until you’ve cleared your desk on Christmas Day folks). I don’t know if my departure had anything to do with it but Sally decided to stop doing the show soon after that. The (very good) show that replaced it is a different format and now there’s no live music every week at Solent.
Which is a real shame. And not just for Sally and myself…
It’s a belter, isn’t it? Polly lives in Bridport in Dorset. She’s a successful musician. She’s the only artist to have won the Mercury Prize twice.
If Polly was starting out today into the music business from Bridport in Dorset she would realistically have to travel to Brighton to play on Introducing: The South if she wanted to get onto her local BBC station. (Solent does still have occasional live music guests in Southampton but they tend to be sessions where there’s no tech set up, rather just a mic dragged down towards a guitar or whatever). For me, that’s a failure to deliver and a great disservice to the musicians of Dorset, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Bridport to Brighton: 134 miles
So, as you can tell, I’m very wise with hindsight and the perspective given to me by the passage of time. I’m no John Myers, mind…
In his report John Myers states that he found “too many people with management responsibility of some description” in the BBC local stations he visited. That was most certainly the feeling among my colleagues during my time at Solent. There was at least one member of management there that nobody really knew what their job role was (but they were always typing something).
Myers suggests that costs can be saved by “sharing” Managing Editors across regions (i.e. halving their numbers). This feels like a sensible place to start for me. Why not? Get them in two at a time, toss a coin and give one of them their cards. There’s not a single station going to drop off air as a result of that.
Myers says network across the whole fecking country in the evening (I’m paraphrasing now) and give the Indies a shot at it. Clever stuff. There’s certainly the talent, creativity, understanding and budgeting skill in the independent sector to make that work.
Myers says update the equipment. Get BBC local out of the dark ages. Hallelujah! I’m teaching radio just now (places still available for September 2012) and it’s always strange to train students on decent equipment and then have to warn them about Radioman before they go off to the BBC.
So, I agree with John. I’m sure he’d be delighted to hear that. Do what he says BBC and that’ll help financially.
How BBC local gets listeners back (especially those naughty 55 – 64 year olds) is another question though.
How on earth do you programme a station that has sport as it’s “trump card” but whose other output is a straight turn-off for sports fans? How do you attract new listeners to BBC local while you tighten the pursestrings? Why does BBC local not have a slew of 50-something producers making programmes that are on target for their 50-something listeners?
Actually, what does the BBC Local do with all those bright young producers?
Ah, of course. It lets them go and they become Quixotic blog writers and L-plated academics tapping away in the dark, forever tilting at windmills…
i watched Later with Jools Holland a couple of months ago for the first time in ages. i’d been purposely avoiding the show for ages (it always felt to me that this was the show you watched when you entered the phase of life where you stopped going to gigs and started staying in as it was comfier). i tuned in after i heard the continuity announcer say that Gillian Welch and björk were on the show. i bloody love both of them and i was two glasses of (pretty cheap) red wine into the evening.
björk was amazing. so amazing that i felt that i had to dust off this chronic old blog and add to it (and, yes, I just found this in my drafts folder having cleverly forgotten to post it at the time).
now, it’s in no way newsworthy that björk is amazing. björk has been consistently amazing for a long time now. in fact, i just realised that björk has been making new, challenging and truly fecking great music for all of my adult life.
i vividly remember the first time that i heard björk’s voice. it was on a saturday morning sometime in late 1987 on The Chart Show . they were running down the top ten in the indie chart (back in the days when charts made sense and actually seemed to matter a bit) and they played Birthday.
i had never heard anything quite like it before.
i ‘d be 17 then. idiotic, badly dressed, long-haired and skinny. voraciously consuming music (and lager when i could get it). that night i remember going out drinking in Dumfries ( the nearest halfway decent sized town to where I grew up) with a bunch of my mates, drinking the three lagers it took to get us absolutely shedded and us all walking down the road doing impressions of this crazy Icelandic girl we had all watched on telly that morning.
24 short years later and i’m back in front of the telly again, looking at the same crazy Icelandic girl (who this time looks like she’s been suspended upside down in a candyfloss maker).
and she’s still brilliant.
not only that, but she’s still difficult. and tricksy. and it’s that that is wonderful.
i’ve seen björk a few times over the years. i saw the Sugarcubes in 1988 at the Fife Aid Festival at Craigtoun Country Park. a weird festival (possibly the brainchild of David Bellamy) that made little sense on paper and even less when you actually got there. old punks (Captain Sensible), old hippies (Julie Felix), dodgy Scottish bands (Runrig) and my favourite band of the time (Marillion, yes, I know, please feel free to mock) headlining. and the Sugarcubes on in the middle of the Saturday afternoon.
The Sugarcubes played a great set of proper craziness and left the audience of sluggish Fifers bemused / amused. I’ve always had a soft spot for bands with a cute female singer and a mad male shouting person (Prolapse anyone?) but the combination of björk and Einar Örn Benediktsson for me was a formidable one. There was no going back now, I loved them.
The Sugarcubes didn’t last though. Nothing that crazy ever does.
but björk was only getting started. and 24 YEARS LATER she’s still going. and she’s still difficult and challenging and abrasive and annoying and frustrating.
and an inspiration to old duffers like me.
*runs off and starts making / writing / recording stuff*
it’s a strange thing working with sounds and in radio. i find that it’s very rarely that things actually come together in a way that really pleases. everything is a compromise or a fudge. things are close to how they should be.
out of all the things that i’ve been involved in making there’s only been one that, once it was completed, i actually really really liked. the norm is the clock runs out and you hand over something that you’ve worked with so long that you kinda despise it.
but when i was a student i was lucky enough to get involved in a couple of joint ventures. one of which was a piece called “embers” (a shitty title that i came up with and was never happy with) that i made with the awesomely talented eleanor mcdowall.
she asked me if i wanted to turn it into a script which i did. ellie guided me here and – thankfully – made me throw away my rotten first draft.
i lined up the lovely george tomlinson as actor for the piece. we spent an afternoon recording it (along with george’s patented clown-car hooter).
ellie and i spent some fun times recording lots of our own sound effects. we close-miked up chairs, kettles, pill bottles, doors, keys, etc etc. we recorded lots of different lighters. i made ellie smoke. there was a lot of giggling and we over-recorded like a fury.
we decided to put some music in there. so – and probably hugely against the artist’s will – we added in a few bits of lovely digitonal.
i had some other recordings lying around that i’d done on a field recording in the city course one night in London with chris watson and we threw some of that in there. that’s the haunting drunks singing “wonderwall”…
we also added a bit of a recording of a visit i made to a (not very good) psychic. and some automated speech. and some other music.
and we (really ellie) mixed it overnight.
it was very strange to hear it complete at around six in the morning, the previous night’s gins and stir-fry wearing off. it sounded good – which surprised me – but i remember mainly being taken by how quickly our random assortment of sounds had come together to actually make something that i liked.
and – to be honest – it’s not a feeling i’ve had since.
looking back on the piece now i think the script’s pretty flawed.
that was the bit i did.
my son (god bless him) likes it though. the other day he said to me “daddy, that smoking thing you made was very creative”.
he’s my favourite critic.
here’s embers. ellie and i made it and it’s alright:
i have something good to post though. i think you’ll like it.
i make radio every week. the very talented steve lanham and myself make a film show called film 102.8.
it’s fun to do and (we think) it’s funny.
we do it for our local community station which is a one studio operation at the moment.
as you can see there’s a whiteboard on the studio wall there. that’s for important information like who’s covering shifts and talk-ups and stuff like that.
however… steve and i like to be a bit naughty so we would – on occasion – write silly stuff on there. i don’t know about steve but i was writing purely for my own amusement and that of the breakfast DJ who would follow us into the studio the next morning.
and it is awesome.
can you spot the bit that she’s reading off the board?
sure, that’s a hellish banal thing to say but both of the two “real” jobs that i’ve had in my life (working in a record shop and now working in radio) have been almost completely about sound.
i’ve been messing about with sound in a lazy, inconsistent, cack-handed way now for a wee while and i thirst to learn more as i continue to pootle around life waiting for my “eureka” moment.
as a young cocky idiot-man i disregarded education as a complete waste of time, choosing instead to believe in my own inherent abilities. what a putz.
now i find myself craving knowledge and understanding, actively wanting to learn things in a desperate bid to try to function at my maximum capability. and – i reckon – if your interested in learning about sound and especially about recording natural sound then there’s no-one that does it quite like Chris Watson. the man is a legend.
i’d been on a couple of recording courses with Chris before but last month I attended the first WildeyeAdvanced Wildlife Sound Recording course. i was a bit out of my depth. I felt like everyone had loads of experience of recording awesome stuff or doing awesome jobs. i had extreme kit envy.
what advanced wildlife field recordists look like
the course was a practical one that focussed heavily on not consuming too much red wine before bed, sleeping for what felt like somewhere between 6 – 10 minutes and then charging out into darkness to go try and record the thousands of geese that hang-out at The Wash.
day one was spectacular as the geese failed to show up. on day two the geese did show up but they were accompanied by a ferocious wind. it made recording difficult.
i heartily recommend the course though. i’d like to practice lots, save up and get some better kit and do it all again. i really would.
here’s a bit of my recording. it’s geese. i think they’re pink footed. it’s not a great recording and nothing happens apart from geese. but i recorded it. in norfolk. lying in the long grass to try and get out of the wind. at stupid o’clock in the morning on a cold november day. so i reckon it counts for something. doesn’t it?
pinkfoot geese, the wash – wednesday 18th nov 2009