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Why do we podcast?

“Oh, come on, Andrew, I reckon half the people here have their own podcast or YouTube channel by now, so what do you think?”

To our surprise, the entry costs are actually very low

Actually, since “here” was the Chelsea Arts Club, and “now” was last summer, I reckon it was more like three quarters. Anyway, my old mate Andrew Lownie said “yes”, and our podcasting adventure began.

We launched in late November. Today, three months later and a couple of hundred pounds poorer, over 30,000 people have listened or watched what my kids astutely call “Dad going on about stuff”.

Back in 2006 I interviewed Christopher Hitchens for a Storyville documentary about this novel Internet phenomenon called “blogging, and he said, “Ah, yes, at last … the answer to the prayers of every unpublishable writer!” He’d have hated podcasting, too.

Yes, it does merge imperceptibly into what used to be called vanity publishing. You may think the world wants to know your opinion on this and on that, but by and large you’re going to have to pay the world to listen.

There’s always the dream that what you say will be liked, subscribed and shared to the top of the podcast charts — which I definitely check a mere ten times a day (alright, maybe twelve maximum … ).

Finding a distinctive niche in the pod and YouTube firmament, with so many others already out there, is a bit harder. First up, you need a brand. Many of our career highlights have been shocking stories, so we thought The Scandal Mongers was a good attention-grabber.

As late adopters we went right to the top: Gary Lineker’s Goal Hanger Productions, the home of the top history podcast The Rest is History and a growing stable of other top shows. They gave our “pilot” a listen, handed out some useful advice … then decided to grow their stable without us. 

So we went it alone with the help of the excellent producers at Podcast World — and to our surprise discovered that the entry costs are actually very low. You can make your own show out of a free zoom account or a cheap Zencastr subscription, editing is basically free, and the audio networks and YouTube charge you peanuts to “own” the digital space for your channel. 

After a while some adverts appeared on the YouTube episodes, and I got very excited — but it turns out that you only derive income from such ads when you pass 1000 subscribers. We’re at 410. We did make a commercial breakthrough last week: a whole two pounds of income from the audio accounts … and that’s per month. (No, I haven’t bought that holiday home in the Canary Islands yet.)

It’s just you and your mate, unfiltered and mostly unprofitable

So, why do we do it? I can’t speak for Andrew, but I enjoy the weekly drama of choosing a subject, picking a guest and making the recording. There’s also something pleasurable about discovering that listeners in far away places like what you do. It’s very personal — intimate even — when it’s your own croaky voice that people are choosing to listen to. I’ve made TV shows that have been watched by millions, but a single email from Kuala Lumpur or Adelaide about The Scandal Mongers delivers a true validating thrill. Vanity publishing at its finest!

We’ve found some great new friends also doing their thing in this eccentric universe of do-it-yourself broadcasters, making incredible creative work in bedrooms and garden sheds. One of our best guests was Mok O’Keefe, AKA the Gay Aristo. “I think it has brought me community and a sense of real purpose,” he said:

Some people have used my content to support their coming out or to support the coming out of others.  I did find myself beginning to compare my follower numbers to others and putting immense pressure on myself to keep active and post continuously.  But I gave myself a good talking to and reminded myself that I am doing this because I love it and because it needs to be heard.

Another great strength of the medium is that it can be — literally — anything. I’m going on a podcast called History Rage soon to be biassed, unreasonable and probably a bit sweary about the film Battle of Britain — something that on TV I’d have to be fair and balanced about. Then there are the eccentric fringe ideas that would never make it across a TV commissioning editors desk. Here Be Monsters is full of incredible stories about the unknown, weird folk art, trippy ambient music and all manner of strangeness. Where else could you learn how to summon a dream being whilst walking the dog? 

Speaking of niche, Marie Louise Plum was another brilliant guest, talking about the scandalous secrets of old London town that she digs up as a Thames mudlark. She’s “Old Father Thames” on YouTube and Instagram. Sometimes time-consuming research, scriptwriting and editing doesn’t align with audience expectations,” she told me:

But at least they like it, and, besides, what’s a little pleasure without the pain? The trick is to know how to stick to a manageable schedule that keeps engagement ticking over. I’m not sure I’ve managed this yet!

The immediacy of producing content, be it short or long format video, or podcasting, is what really gets me going. I love having, within reason, full creative control over what I’m producing, and can get it out there as soon as and when I choose.

As someone who worked for decades inside the hierarchy of a TV production company or broadcast network, I say “amen” to the last part of that.

That I think is the heart of it. It’s just you and your mate, unmediated, unfiltered and mostly unprofitable. Perhaps I should give the last word to Andrew:

I was unsure. We thought we’d give it a try for a limited period really for fun rather than a sense that we’d make any money. I liked the idea of exploring new historical subjects with experts, and that has proved to be the case with podcasts opening up subjects in which I never thought I would be interested. 

One of the joys, I think, of the podcasts is their serendipity and that we cover the unknown as well as familiar but always with people who really have insights to give. In under an hour whilst driving, jogging, doing the ironing or simply relaxing one can be taken into another world.

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