Cymbals strapped to my knees

Hello and welcome back to this Tuesday podcast mailing. Today we have the first in what I hope will become a regular feature of this newsletter — interviews with interesting people involved in audio who have something to say about the future of their industry.

In my job, I come into contact with a lot of producers, writers, editors and presenters who perhaps always aren’t working in roles that get a lot of attention (read: they’re not Ira Glass or involved in My Dad Wrote a Porno), but are doing fascinating work and handling the realities of the “podcast boom” with aplomb.

This time, we’re hearing from James Shield, an award-winning freelance producer here in the UK who I got to know when he was doing some work at the magazine where I used to be an editor. He’s always been a great supporter of this podcast-writing endeavour, and has recently made the transition into working full time on audio.

I think his new role at the RSA in London is fascinating (he explains more about what it involves below). Like many getting into this industry now, he’s not working full time for a broadcaster or traditional media company, but rather for a different type of organisation (in this case, a historic arts society) that wants to use podcasting as a means of communicating with its audience. He’s the first person at this organisation to be making original podcast content, and has to deal with all of the challenges of starting a new endeavour within an established workplace.

I hope you enjoy his interview. Make sure to follow him on Twitter @jshield and check out his website. And if there’s anyone else that you’d like to hear from in this slot, make sure to hit reply and let me know.

C: What is your job, and how long have you been doing it?
J: I’m the head of radio — we can get into what that means! — at the RSA (our full old-timey name is the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), and I joined the week before Christmas last year.

I have an acute sense of imposter syndrome because this is arguably my first proper job in audio, although I’ve been producing podcasts since 2015, working mostly for think tanks and publications during weekends, evenings and days off. My day job before this was as a senior policy analyst at a big health charity, and the NHS before that. It was only when my producing work started to pick up awards at the end of 2016, and then I started to get offered bits of freelancing on BBC projects, that I thought I might seriously have a shot at doing this for a living.

Before you joined the RSA, did they have any audio publications?
The RSA runs about 100 public events a year — talks, debates and lectures — and since 2015 you’ve been able to download the unedited audio on the RSA Events podcast. We’ll keep doing that. Then last year they commissioned a series of 10 (to be honest, quite dull) episodes of a podcast called RSA Radio, a kind of Start The Week-ish, In Our Time-y roundtable situation*. I don’t have plans to continue that. There are already a few versions of that sort of show out there, and instead of funnelling everything we do through a single ‘RSA Radio’ podcast, we want to make a few very distinctive shows that cater to different audiences.

*for readers who don’t listen to BBC Radio 4, these are long running, old fashioned interview shows, often featuring academics with books to promote

Your job title is “head of radio” — how do you interpret that?
The RSA has always been a platform for progressive ideas, and podcasts are another way for us to do that. I’m here to help the RSA understand how to make use of strengths of the medium, figure out which podcasts we could and should be making, develop those ideas into formats, be the in-house producer, then deal with all the design and marketing and distribution that goes along with getting a podcast out. For the time being I’m a one man band with cymbals strapped to my knees, but maybe over time we’ll grow a little team. And it’s a long shot but I’d also like us to see whether there’s a way we can do something in traditional radio.

On the semantics of podcasts vs. audio vs. radio — I’m still not sure what the best word is. You could argue that in the same way as ‘cinema’ and ‘film’ are the words we use for a 100-year-old medium even if they’re not always literally the delivery mechanism any more, maybe it’s helpful to use ‘radio’ to remind ourselves that what we’re doing has a long history, even as we break some of those conventions. But that sounds like a question for Helen Zaltzman.

What was it like, joining an existing organisation with little track record in audio?
Normally when an organisation decides to get into audio, it’s the result of someone doing a lot of cajoling of senior management until they see the light. That wasn’t the case here. 

The RSA’s chief executive, Matthew Taylor, is also a broadcaster who loves radio and podcasts. He’s presented quite a lot for the BBC (he’s a Moral Maze panellist, sometimes presents Analysis and other documentaries, and has a new series of The Fix later this year). And it runs in his family — his dad Laurie has presented Thinking Allowed for 20 years. Investing in podcasts was Matthew’s idea so there is huge support for what we’re doing.

The team that produces our events and animations also has an amazing knack for good content, so we’re not starting from scratch on that front. I am a one-person audio production team at the moment though. And podcasts are still a new phenomenon for a lot of people: some of my colleagues are massive fans of dozens of shows I’ve never heard of, but I’ve also been asked whether that big hit podcast was called Serial or Cereal. Then there’s the practical stuff — I had to explain to our IT department why I couldn’t get by on just Microsoft Office.

What have been the challenges involved in creating audio for an organisation without a track record of doing it?
I’ve only done a tiny bit of freelancing on proper BBC productions, but my experience of those is that it’s very valuable to have other producers around — either the exec on your programme or people working on other projects — who’ve worked in the medium for a long time and have good judgement. I’m the only audio producer here so I have to lean on friends and people I’ve met in the industry to sense-check what I’m doing.

The RSA also does such a breadth of stuff that it has taken a while to narrow doing all the possibilities to a few ideas worth piloting. The freedom to make almost anything is great, but the range is huge. We’re a fairly heavyweight think tank researching universal basic income, how to regulate companies like Uber, the future of food and farming, we’ve got a partnership with Google’s DeepMind on the ethical implications of AI. . . Then there’s the public events programme, with most of the big non-fiction authors and public intellectuals coming through the door every week and 600,000 YouTube subscribers. And we’re also a membership organisation with 29,000 Fellows. You can even get married here.

You're running pilot seasons of several new shows — what's the thinking behind that?
I was keen that we didn’t just dive in and make something that was poorly thought out. So we spent a while putting a lot of thought into the audiences we wanted to reach, what the RSA’s biggest assets are when it comes to podcasts, and what’s already out there. Now we’ve got 3-4 ideas we think are strong that we want to try. Some of those are from a sort of informal pitching process internally. You can talk an idea to death but until you make it you can’t know for sure whether it’s any good, whether you can get access to the right people on a regular basis, or if it’ll find an audience. So we’re going to do a few ideas, try to really do them properly, and see what sticks. The first one I’m launching is Polarised, which is all about the political and cultural forces driving us apart, and what we can do about them.

What can podcasts do for an organisation like the RSA?
Podcasts could be another way for people to get to know us — the first time I heard of the RSA was probably when I watched this animation in about 2010 — but they’re also an end in themselves. We want to be wherever people are looking for help to understand the world and find interesting new ideas. That’s part of our charitable mission. So we’re not just making branded content that’s ultimately about turning the listener into a customer. 

What would you like to see happen in podcasting in the next 12 months?
I’ve read about Google’s podcast strategy, and including podcasts more prominently in search is a good thing, but I still just want them to make a half-way decent podcast app and install it on every Android user’s homescreen.

What is missing from the UK audio scene at the moment?

  1. A better way to get people into the industry who can’t afford to work for free or low pay on precarious contracts in London, and whose parents can’t give them £8,000 to do an MA at Goldsmiths. Podcasts are a great way for people to demonstrate their potential without waiting for someone to give them a job, and we have awards now to help identify talent — but then what?

  2. I like Acast but I worry there aren’t enough alternatives. I’d like someone to set up a Radiotopia for the UK, with a strong element of crowdfunding and a community-oriented mission.

  3. We don’t have a Gimlet. Why not? Do we need a Gimlet? Who will be our Gimlet? I don’t know. On the other hand, at least we don’t have an Alex, Inc.

The podcast recommend

Jessica writes in to tell us about her podcast, Scenario:

“The podcast is about personal and hidden stories from the behind the camera. The most recent episode follows a photographer whose sibling is transitioning from her sister to her brother. Other episodes include an artist who's taking landscape photographs for her penfriend on death row in the US, and another follows the trail of a photographer and an anecdote told by her father, which leads her down a rabbit hole, on an unlikely quest, 14 years after his death.”

If you make or listen to a podcast that I and the rest of the PodMail readership should know about, tell me about it in this handy submission form.

The podcast links

  1. In the golden age of television, can narrative podcasts compete?Guardian

  2. Political Foes Turned Podcasting FriendsRoll Call

  3. EFF has comprehensively killed the bullshit podcasting patentBoing Boing

  4. 5 steps to podcast magicMedium

  5. The Kerfuffle About Podcast ChartsEdwin van Beinum

That’s everything for today. Thanks for reading! Don’t forget that you can subscribe to get two extra emails about podcasting from me every week: I do commentary on industry news on Thursdays, and playlists of great shows to listen to on Sundays.

Coming up this week — I look at what the Audioboom takeover news means for the UK podcast scene and a playlist of Brexit podcasts that aren’t. . . awful.