Telling the stories behind the headlines

A couple of months ago, I was one of the judges for the “Best New Podcast” category at the British Podcast Awards. In my opinion, this is one of the best judging gigs there is — you get to hear lots of shows you haven’t come across before, and evaluate what they’re doing with the podcast medium. This time round, one show stood out to me and my fellow judges immediately: The Tip Off, which tells the stories behind some of the best investigative journalism out there. (It went on to win the main prize for that category.)

In each episode of The Tip Off, producer and host Maeve McClenaghan (herself an investigative journalist) interviews a different person about how a major story came together. I was impressed by the show for lots of reasons — its production quality, the perceptiveness of its interviews, the diversity of the subjects —and have since become a regular listener. (A fellow judge also pointed out to me that a lot of McClenaghan’s interview subjects are women, which makes the show a good corrective to what is sometimes portrayed in the media and by pop culture as the somewhat male-dominated and macho world of investigative journalism.)

The more I heard of The Tip Off, the more curious I was about how the show had come to be, since it’s not a conventional media podcast by any means, and McClenaghan has made it largely on her own in her spare time. To find out more, I got in touch with her to hear about her process, and we talked over the phone. Here’s an edited and truncated version of our conversation:

Have you worked in audio before?
I have reported a couple of shows for BBC Radio, and also been involved with making a podcast for Reveal, which is made by the Center for Investigative Reporting in the US. I’d seen a bit about how it works there, with the story taking months and months and months. They were incredibly meticulous, and had this very particular narrative storytelling style that I quite enjoy, so I learned a lot from doing that. Then I cast my mind around for how I would do something similar in the UK, and realised that it takes a really long time to make something like Serial in your spare time by yourself! Finally, I came across this idea of interviewing investigative journalists and telling their stories as the story behind the headlines.

The Tip Off is your own independent side project, not part of your job?
Yes, exactly. It is a real passion project. I do it in my weekends and evenings. I work at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who have been hugely supportive of all of this, but yes, it's something I do as my own project.

What do you think people get from having this a podcast as opposed to writing it up each interview as an article?
What I really wanted to do with this show is recreate that feeling that Serial was so brilliant for, which was that ‘you're on the journey with them’ sense as much as possible, like you’re beside the detective and you’re hearing the frustrations and the twists and turns as you go along. I think podcasts in general are so intimate and lend themselves so perfectly to that kind of storytelling that you can get across some of that in way that you might not with the written page. Often I'm talking to journalists who have written their stories up so you can go back and read them and see what the finished outcome was, but hearing the frustration or the amusement or whatever it is in their voice is quite particular to the podcast world.

How do you select your interview subjects?
Sometimes, there can be a really fantastic piece of investigative journalism but the story behind it might not be right for The Tip Off. And other times, there’s less well known pieces or things that might not have made such a big splash, but actually they’ve got a really fascinating behind the scenes element to them. So it’s about trying to get a balance. Everyone we’ve had so far, and everyone we’re inviting, I'm huge fans of their work, so it’s also just a great excuse to sit down with my heroes and people I admire and learn from them.

In general, are people up for explaining how they work on these big investigations?
Yes, they are. Sometimes, I think women in particular say ‘oh it wasn't that big a deal, you should talk to other people in my team’, so sometimes they need a bit of convincing! But generally, after an investigative journalist has worked for six months or a year or longer on a project, you really really care about it, and I think you want to tell people that story any way you can, so it’s another opportunity for them to get their story out there, and to tell people of all the hard work that went into it in the first place.

Investigative journalism can be quite a lonely profession, right?
Yes, it can be. You go down rabbit holes, and often a lot of what you do doesn’t end up in the story, and people might not fully recognise all the work you did to get the exact decimal point in the thirtieth paragraph of a 5,000 word piece, you know.

Who would you love to have on the show who hasn't guested yet?
It's mostly because I haven't got around to asking her yet, but I'd really love to get Carole Cadwalladr on, and I think that will be a popular one if I do, because [the Cambridge Analytica investigation] has just been such an epic story. She's definitely high up on my list for people that I'm dreaming of having on the show.

Do you get a sense of who’s listening to the podcast? Is it people who work in the media, or just people who follow the news?
At first I thought this might be of interest to a handful of investigative journalists, but actually I'm finding it has quite a wide audience, both journalists from all different fields, but also just people who like a detective story, or like to hear stories in new and different ways. It's got much wider appeal than I thought, and that's reflected in its listening figures.

Do you want to monetise the podcast?
I hope that through sponsorship and things I can break even. As I said, I've been doing this all by myself, but recently I've been trying to bring on editors every now and then to help with editing the project, because that's not my forte or background, so my short term hope is to make enough I can pay some folks to do that and pay for the artwork and things like that. In the long term, I guess I hope that it continues to grow and maybe develop into something bigger.

A lot of true crime and investigative podcasts are coming out of America, aren’t they?
Yes, I think there's a gap in the market in the UK, because I love shows like Serial, In the Dark, Criminal — that was the show that most inspired me to make The Tip Off, because it was often telling stories that maybe had been told before in one way or another, but Phoebe Judge and the production team there are just so masterful in the way they can take you on a journey and tell that story, that I kind of used that as a blueprint for what I was doing. People in the UK are catching up, but there's still space to develop.

It always strikes me that US podcasts have access to a lot of stuff like police interviews and court recordings that we don't have here. Is that a challenge for you?
Yes, I think that’s definitely true. Like having cameras and audio recordings in courts, that’s a massive deal. Calls to prison here I think is a lot stricter, I've tried to do some stuff with that, making films with someone in prison, and we didn’t even manage to get the phone calls recorded because there were such tight rules. But then there’s always ways to be creative. Audible's West Cork series did something really interesting and that got incredible access in a different way to a cold case, so people are telling those stories, it just involves a different painting box that you have in the US.

Have you had any feedback from non UK listeners about some of the more British-centric stories?
We’re diversifying as we go, and I think there’s going to be two US journalists talking about international stories in this next series, but we have a good listenership in Australia and New Zealand and the US and there’s been nice reviews on iTunes from different countries, so there's really nice feedback but certainly the UK is the primary market for it.

To find out more, listen to The Tip Off in your podcatcher of choice, follow the show on Twitter or follow Maeve herself.