Downloading a parallel world: Helen Zaltzman on what it takes to make a successful podcast

For over a decade now people have been making and listening to podcasts - it didn't all begin with Serial, you know.

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The beaches of Morar in the Scottish Highlands are empty in late November. Stomping across them, the sky and sea bleached of colour as the sand, I had been expecting a lonely walk, the isles of Rum and Muck and Eigg shading in and out of view on the horizon. And yet it wasn’t. More than once I had to stop for breath, I was laughing so hard.

The cause was a podcast, the 300th episode of Answer Me This, a fortnightly show where hosts Olly Mann and Helen Zaltzman answer questions sent in by their listeners. The conceit is simple, but over the years I’ve been listening I’ve developed a cosy comradeship with the hosts, strong enough to banish the wintry greyness of a deserted Scottish beach from my mind.

“It’s such a one-sided relationship,” says Zaltzman, when we met recently for lunch. “It feels quite informal to the listener because we’re talking right into their ears and they can move around with us. They’ve got a sense memory of us accompanying them while they go for a run or do the gardening.

“Putting on a podcast is a really good distraction, it really quells the rage in an unpleasant situation like when you’re wedged into a busy train. It’s very exciting that you can just take entertainment with you wherever you want. Well done the internet for giving us that.”

The idea of distributing audio online has existed for almost as long as the internet has. But podcasts in the form we now recognise first emerged around 2004, when iPods first became widely available. For more than a decade the form has been growing in popularity, attracting amateur and professional broadcasters alike.

Comedians like Ricky Gervais have used them as a space to be controversial, free from the cautious impulses of traditional broadcasting commissioners, while documentary radio shows like This American Life have used them to build huge international followings. Public broadcasters like NPR in the US and the BBC in the UK have embraced the format, making many of their shows available to download after transmission, as well as producing podcast-only material. (In fact, the BBC’s cornering of the podcast market is so pronounced that several people I’ve spoken to thought they were the sole purveyor of them in this country.)

Media interest in the form has waxed and waned. But in the autumn of 2014 coverage of podcasts exploded with the release of Serial, a journalistic investigation into a 15-year-old murder case in the US city of Baltimore, produced by the team behind This American Life. It was a great story, to be sure, but the fact that it was being told solely in podcast form put medium itself in the spotlight. The internet groaned under the weight of citizen journalists pursuing leads and commentators hailing the “podcasting renaissance”.

Zaltzman, who has been podcasting for eight years and now makes a living from producing her programmes, was a bit frustrated by the response.

“The years between 2010 and Serial’s arrival in 2014 was when the medium was really taking off. People were getting iPhones and iPads. You had some really big players starting up. The renaissance journalists were talking about was really a renaissance in their interest, not the medium itself. I'm very happy Serial happened and made people care but it wasn't the first podcast.”

She points out that the form has changed several times in the last decade or so - the biggest shift being when iPhones meant that people could download and listen to podcasts on the same device without having to involve a computer. “People who weren't tech savvy got them, as did older people, so our audience changed quite a lot because you suddenly didn't need any specialist knowledge at all to get a podcast.”

Zaltzman is one of Britain’s few full-time podcasters and one of the only women to host her own show, The Allusionist. Despite the appetite in the UK for podcasts, opportunities for funding or sponsorship are rare and mostly come from the US. “It’s quite a pain in the arse hobby,” she says. “It’s a lot of work and it feels like work not fun… It's a different job making a podcast when you come from This American Life than it is for the rest of us. But if Serial results in more people listening and more people making shows, I’m all in favour of that.”

The hard-work aspect to podcasting is something that Zaltzman is very upfront about. As with blogging, there’s a persistent myth that just because podcasting happens on the internet it’s a quick route to success and renown requiring less effort than something you might do offline. In reality, she explains, running a successful podcast involves a lot of unglamorous planning and scheduling.

“At the beginning of Answer Me This we put loads of work in, not knowing that was required. We went all out on it - got our musical friends to record us jingles, set a schedule - we were very diligent about it. And now I feel that if we hadn’t done that, we would have disappeared after two or three episodes. But then we could fall back on the work we had done in the early days once we were jaded.”

She is also very aware that the internet bulges with alternatives to her own shows. “I think it’s very, very generous of people to listen to me, so I have to reward them with something that isn’t a complete waste of their time.”

In turn, Answer Me This listeners trust her with their most serious and private problems. Everything from the recent murder of a spouse to teenage self-harm to whether to embark on an affair with a neighbour arrives in the podcast’s inbox, alongside more lighthearted queries about sexual dysfunction and Disney theme parks. And, Zaltzman says, “so many questions about poo”.

With such a range of material, editing is vital to keep the show tight. “I have decreasing patience, generally, for podcasts that are just a bunch of people in a room talking,” she says. “Things can always be shorter. Just down to one single noise, that's the dream.”

Zaltzman and Mann started their podcast originally in the hope that it would lead to other more traditional broadcast work: “We thought ‘we’ll probably get a radio show off the back of this in a few weeks!’,” she laughs.

In the eight years that Answer Me This has been running (initially weekly, now fortnightly), the world of podcasting has developed and shifted. Podcasts are no longer a means to an end, or a way of using up extra material from another outlet, but an end in themselves, both created and appreciated by fans of the format. “A lot of different jobs came about because of the podcast - radio work, a book adaptation, a series of videos for VisitBritain,” Zaltzman explains. “But the remarkable thing for me is that the podcast has become my job. It’s been a means to an end, but now it is the end in itself.”

The funding that has enabled Zaltzman to become a full-time podcaster has come almost entirely from the US. Answer Me This is sponsored by companies like Squarespace and Audible (familiar to many podcast listeners; they sponsor a lot of different shows). But unlike on shows like Serial or This American Life where the presenter will read out the text of the commercial, Zaltzman and Mann write and perform absurd and often quite rude original jingles that are completely in keeping with the style of the rest of their show.

“We tried to push it a bit. I think the companies that it’s worked for have realised that it’s not a bad thing to be irreverent because it makes the listeners think it’s cool and fun, whereas if you’re just reading out a script they’re just going to tune out - I don’t want to do anything that a bored-sounding person tells me to do.”

Others will soon be following their example, she reckons. “I think we’re going to see a shift towards much more personal sounding adverts in podcasts. I feel like that’s the direction things are going…We started doing it like that partly because of the embarrassment that we as English people felt about asking for and making money. I don’t think the American podcasters feel the same, though.”

The Allusionist, the documentary-style language podcast that Zaltzman has just launched, is supported by Radiotopia, the podcast network run by US producer Roman Mars. Radiotopia has been described as an “indie label” for podcasts, and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on Kickstarter to support a whole range of different shows.

Zaltzman’s show was included as a stretch goal once the original crowdfunding target had been met. “They want to get more women into podcasting,” she explains. “Also it's the first European show they've brought in, lucky me.

“Roman Mars came to stay with me last summer. After he'd started Radiotopia he'd been interested in getting Answer Me This in there, but it hadn't worked out. I took him for a walk around the park and was like 'I've had this idea for this show’! I feel like I pretty much railroaded him into letting me do it.”

Radiotopia encompasses a whole range of subjects, from The Allusionist’s light-hearted discussion of language and etymology to Strangers, a non-fiction story-telling programme, to 99% Invisible, Mars’s own incredibly popular show about architecture and design. This diversity is the single most attractive thing about podcasting. Whether you want a detailed discussion of the latest gadget, cerebral documentaries on architectural trends or episodic dystopian fiction in the style of H P Lovecraft, someone out there will be uploading it.

But the people making the podcasts aren’t always quite so diverse. “There’s very few women,” says Zaltzman. “It’s a shame because there aren’t that many women in British radio, and it's the same in podcasting even though the gatekeepers aren't there. There was a survey done a couple of years ago and it showed that only one in ten shows was hosted by a woman. I think I often get picked up by things as the woman who does podcasting in Britain. The one.”

Imposter syndrome plays a part in holding women back, she says. “I think also because it is such a terrible hobby, maybe most women are too sensible to do it! Or maybe it's that women are less comfortable with the sound of their own voices… Come on women - only you can fix this.”

The space is there, waiting for people to claim it. “It’s not like radio where you're if you're on the schedule it means someone else isn’t,” says Zaltzman. “We all exist in parallel on the internet.”

Helen is on Twitter @HelenZaltzman. You can find Answer Me This at answermethispodcast.com and @HelenandOlly. The Allusionist is at theallusionist.org and @AllusionistShow. I suggest you start with this episode about bras. If you want more podcast recommendations, do sign up for my newsletter, where I recommend a different podcast each Friday.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman. She writes a newsletter about podcasts.