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How an Idea Becomes a Podcast
"Audio producing is like taxidermy — you only think about the human behind it when it’s bad.
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Today is LAUNCH DAY for my new podcast, WORK APPROPRIATE, a production of Crooked Media (best known for Pod Save America, Love It or Leave It, Keep It, Hysteria, This Land, Wind of Change, and truly so many more podcasts). I’ve fielded a lot of questions about how it all came together, and I know that I myself had limited previous knowledge of how an idea becomes an actual podcast, so I thought I’d do a “how that podcast sausage gets made” post, with a bonus interview with the pod’s producer, Melody Rowell, detailing her sausage-making process.
But first, *here’s the link* that will allow you to listen on your preferred podcast app — and please “follow” or “subscribe” or whatever your preferred app calls it, because it helps with 1) charts, because truly all I want in life is to beat the podcast that *recaps* Joe Rogan and 2) making sure you’ll know when new eps are out every week. If you use iTunes, rate it — it really helps.
So how did this happen? A reader of this newsletter who also worked in development at Crooked emailed me. Her name is Alison, and she’s taken a new job outside of podcasting since then, but this podcast exists because of her.
We got on a Zoom call with some of Alison’s fellow development producers, and we talked about ideas — one of which Charlie and I had thrown around for a long time, in which listeners call in with a work quandary and the host + a rotating co-host attempt to answer that question, like a sort of Car Talk meets Ask a Manager. I knew they didn’t want to make, like, a Harvard Business Review podcast (neither did I) but I also knew that they didn’t want it to surface-level (and again, neither did I). They brought our idea to the co-founders of Crooked and got the greenlight to figure out a loose plan for a “season” of a dozen-ish episodes.
This part of the process took place over several months — we’d meet, then a week or two would go by, then we’d meet again. I was busy with the newsletter and the release of Out of Office, so it took a month or so to put together episode themes, descriptions, and potential co-hosts. (Some were more well-known names/journalists/thinkers; some are just people with work skills/knowledge and the ability to articulate that knowledge well). We went back and forth a few times refining the topics, which ranged from SHITTY CULTURE to DOING WHAT I LOVE IS GRINDING ME INTO A FINE PULP.
Next, I put together a Google Form to collect potential questions — and all of you readers helped enormously in providing them. I received several hundred “workplace quandaries,” sifted through them, and placed several as placeholders next to potential episodes. That outline went out for review, and after a few weeks, we got the approval to move forward with a pilot.
(I should note here: during this time, my agent was working to solidify a contract with Crooked. You get paid a “development fee” that’s approximately the same as writing a short feature for a well-paying magazine for doing all of the work to get to pilot, and then, if the show is picked up, you’re paid a flat fee per episode plus a percentage of the ad revenue that I still honestly don’t completely understand but I promise I will. The money matters, of course, but I’m also thinking of the podcast in conjunction with the work I do here, in this newsletter, as well as any future books I write about work, etc. etc. Plus it flexes a very different creative muscle than writing, and I love/benefit from that).
For the pilot, we wanted a co-host with whom I was already comfortable — and who had a good mix of warmth, real workplace wisdom, and humor as a gateway into the show. Put differently, we wanted Josh Gondelman. (If you’re not familiar with Josh’s work, he’s a stand-up, author, and former writer for Last Week Tonight with John Olivier and former head writer for Desus & Mero). We put together three questions from the big list, gave them to Josh ahead of time so he could get his head around some of his potential answers, and went for it.
Pre-Covid, I’m pretty sure everyone would be going to recording studios to do their end of the recording process — that’s certainly what I did whenever I went on a podcast pre-Covid back in Missoula, schlepping down to the local NPR affiliate on the University of Montana campus where I’d illegal park and cross my fingers. But now, hosts have set-ups at home. I have a decent mic and record in a small room, sitting on the ground with the laptop on the bed and the mic on the bed frame, with the curtains drawn and the dogs sequestered in another room. Co-hosts either have decent mics or can record on their cell phones, and Melody can make it sound pretty good if not excellent. (Most listeners have become accustomed to this new variable quality normal, too).
In podcasts like Work Appropriate, you generally don’t record the intro until after you’ve recorded the interview/podcast itself. I wrote a draft of an intro to the ep that had to do double-duty as an intro to the podcast as a whole and to me, its host. This was, as you can imagine, not easy. We went through many drafts, and then recorded, and went through many more drafts.
My struggle is finding that perfect spot between sounding like you’re reading something with great animation (like a bad book narrator) and ad-libbing, but ad-libbing with great precision. It’s a real skill, and I’ve gotten significantly better at it over the course of taping a half dozen episodes (and several takes of the intros for those episodes) but “significantly better” still means I have a lot of room for improvement. (It’s a very different skill, too, then being a guest on someone else’s podcast — after four book promotion cycles, I’m fairly good at that, but it’s rhetorically reactive instead of proactive).
The entire pilot-making process took several months. For the final pilot, we put some place-holder music in to make it sound warmer and vaguely approximate the feel of a real first episode. We also did a massive brainstorm for a title, which involved an hour-long zoom with a shared Google Doc where we wrote down every idea that comes to mind, and then went through and Googled to make sure there aren’t other podcasts with the same name (you have no idea how many podcasts there are out there, many of them with 1 or 2 episodes recorded in 2017, sitting on very good podcast names). We narrowed the list to around three, ran them all through a legal vet, and settled on WORK APPROPRIATE (somehow, I have totally memory wiped the other potential names, which I’m going to attribute to the excellence of W.A.)
More weeks passed, and about nine months after the initial Zoom, the show went up for potential green-lighting. I’m not there, phew, because that would honestly be very stressful, but I do get the call after that 1) they loved it and 2) want to make it an “always-on” — a show with regular episodes, pretty much every week, throughout the year, as opposed to a “limited run” series with the option for a second season. This is great! I’m thrilled! But now we have to start actually taping real episodes.
First things first: we need a permanent, dedicated producer. My development producers come up with a few candidates, and I meet with all of them. We collectively agree on Melody Rowell, who’s already working with Crooked as the producer for the legal podcast Strict Scrutiny. (Melody is a freelancer with her own production company; she (now) works for two Crooked shows but she also does other work).
Melody and I look at the “show map” I put together before the pilot, and she starts reaching out to potential hosts and previous-question-askers to see if they’d be willing to tape themselves reading their questions. (We also created a new, more secure Google Form that includes a legal disclaimer from Crooked; you don’t have to read your own question if you submit it, but it’s “good radio,” as they say, if you do).
I want to emphasize that it’s Melody who’s doing this organizational work — we sort through incoming questions together to figure out which ones work best, and we’re in pretty much constant communication, but she’s the one wrangling emails and schedules and putting together very detailed documents ahead of time to make my job easier. I’m emphasizing that she does this work because people often think producers are just editors — and in some cases, yes, they exclusively edit the actual podcast. But in cases like this, they also make the podcast happen.
Next came a flurry of recording — we wanted to have a bunch of episodes banked so that once the show launched, we could proceed at a sustainable pace of about one a week. We tape a new version of the pilot with Josh, which includes a new set of questions. We recorded Culture Study member Adrian Hon on mentorship and onboarding, Jessica Grose on systemic and specific problems with being a parent in the workplace, Jane Coaston on whether or not it’s time to actually quit, Melissa Nightingale (of this very popular C.S. Q&A) on shitty management, and Wudan Yan on freelancing/how not to be your own worst boss.
I can feel myself getting slightly better — at transitions between questions, at not forgetting to record myself, at trying to keep the total recording to 45 minutes instead of 60 (because it’s much easier to get to the optimal ~40-42 minutes that way), at doing the intros in a way that’s somewhere between over-enthusiastic camp counselor and droning high school history teacher (Melody’s instructions are basically to smile while reading like I’m Lea Michele in Glee; somehow, it helps).
THE FINISHING TOUCHES
Melody commissioned composer and tuba player Chanell Crichlow to compose the show’s theme music and interludes (again, have to strike a fine balance — not too out there, but not elevator music, either; it went through several iterations and I love it) and we worked with the Crooked design team to come up with ideas/aesthetic for the art (which also went through several iterations before arriving at its current form, which is intended to both express the overall vibe of the show AND pop in little box form when viewed on an app).
Now, after doing a lot of polishing of the first episode, we’re “in production” and basically overflowing with ideas for future episodes — but are always looking for more. If you have a work quandary, click here and scroll down to the form — and if you have an idea for a future co-host, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Before we move on to Melody’s description of the process, some quick answers to common questions, including some from the Culture Study Discord:
Do you get control over which ads you read on the air?
I don’t get to pick, but I do get a list of advertisers every week and can decline as needed.
What’s it like working for Crooked, are they nice, have you met Pundit the dog, etc.
Listen, if I were having a bad experience, I wouldn’t be asking myself this question in public in a newsletter. I am not inside the company so I can’t speak to the experience of day-to-day operations, but my experience as a contracted host has been very organized and very good. Also one time Pundit crashed a Zoom meeting by pawing at the door of a conference room.
How do you find co-hosts?
I ask people who are wise and compassionate about work. I don’t ask people who are LinkedIn influencers. I would always rather have a normal non-famous person with a lot of wisdom over a person with a billion Twitter followers. We have thus far had one white cis-het man on the show and we’re trying to keep that number low. Again, if you have ideas, send them my way or even just put them in the comments, and I’ll say again that being famous is not the same as having incisive and empathetic work advice.
Do you have much input on the final product?
I find it excruciating to listen to myself BUT I always listen to the first draft and offer notes, and so does our executive producer, Kendra James (mine are usually very minimal, like “HOW CAN I SOUND LESS CONSTIPATED HERE” because Melody is very good at her job).
Are there specific topics/industries you want to cover in the future?
Some loose ideas: an episode around weight-related micro-aggression in and around the office; an episode around organizing as well as difficulties with existing or old school unions; an episode on how to deal with the fact that your workplace treats some part of your identity as “a problem”; an ongoing series on toxic non-profit work cultures; episodes that focus on the very specific issues in various industries because people love highly specific detours into other people’s jobs (nursing, teaching, paralegals, coffee shops, religious orgs, HR departments in general, I have so many ideas). (Again, if you have a quandary that could be an anchor for an episode, here’s where you submit).
And now, because it feels very important to make the invisible labor of WORK APPROPRIATE as visible as possible, here’s my interview with the show’s producer, Melody Rowell.
AHP: Before you and I sit down and tape, you often do a pre-interview — especially if we’re talking with someone who hasn’t done a ton of podcasts. What do you ask in these pre-interviews, and what are you looking for?
MR: In my mind, a pre-interview is a combination of an audition and a dress rehearsal. I want to see if this person can speak on the topic we have in mind for them, and if they can do it in an interesting and engaging way. It also gives them a sense of what we want to ask them in the real interview, and a chance to think through or practice their main points.
Pre-interviews also serve as research! I usually do a rough, typo-riddled transcript of their answers as they’re speaking, which I share with you. My aim is that you’ll then have a sense of what you can ask them about, or provide background information that informs your questions, even if it doesn’t explicitly make it into the interview. Pre-interviews used to scare me, but they’ve become one of my favorite parts of producing because it means I get to talk to really interesting people about their passions.
While I’m fumbling around trying to make sure the flow of the conversation goes okay, what are you doing, besides thinking of how we could appropriately and legally use a clip of Taylor Swift in the ep? [AHP note: Melody is a major Swiftie; this has been a good week]
I mean, at least 50% of my brain is devoted to Taylor Swift at all times. But with the other half of my brain, I’m thinking about myself as your first listener, and as your developmental editor. My hope is that you get to be present in the conversation with the guest host, and I can chime in if there’s a promise we’ve left unkept, or if someone said something that could be taken the wrong way, or if there was a straight-up error. I’m listening to the conversation as it happens but also thinking about the pacing and structure of the whole episode, and monitoring my own expectations as a listener for what I want to hear. I’m also noticing if I start to zone out and mentally flag that for clean-up during post-production. When you and I first met, we talked about making a show that we’d want to listen to, and I take that very seriously!
When we’re done taping an episode, can you explain how you tackle the work of editing the raw files? You can get as nerdy as you want here.
I actually have a highlight on my business instagram for people who want the real nitty gritty! Basically, here are the steps:
Each speaker has their own audio file that, in an ideal world, is ONLY THEIR VOICE and not also the sound of their computer speakers. (Anne promised me we could talk about pet peeves another time so I’ll spare you.)
I use an editing software called Hindenburg, which was designed specifically for podcasters. It’s how I learned to edit audio, so even though I know other programs now using this still feels like my first language.
Each file goes on its own track, and you can see how the waveforms of each speaker will fit together like puzzle pieces.
Then, I start to edit! I’m listening for a hundred different things in this process. But my main goal is to edit for pacing, clarity, and ease of listening. I don’t like to cut out every single “um,” “uh,” and “you know,” because that’s just how people talk, and those “filler” words can also serve a linguistic purpose. But if it starts to get on my nerves — or if I think people will start harassing my female hosts for the way they talk — I start cutting here and there.
Part of what I’m doing, too, is creating the illusion that these two people were in the same room at the same time. I think a lot about pauses between speakers, or about the natural moment for laughter to occur, and I try to make it reflect the reality of the conversation. (I have a theory that being a choir nerd contributes to this.)
I’m also inserting clips when needed, and thinking about the timing and volume of music throughout.
Overall IT’S REALLY FUN and gives me the same satisfaction as arts and crafts.
What do you do when, say, someone just totally uses the wrong word, or their grammar is kind of weird because they’ve backed their way into a sentence…..is it salvageable? I guess another way of asking this is how do you make people sound smart and intelligible even when they periodically aren’t, because very few people speak smoothly without flubbing for an hour straight?
This is kind of hard to explain without showing you, but I call it wizardry. (There’s an example of this towards the end of that Instagram highlight!) There have been times I’ve been able to cut out the incorrect word/sound and replace it with the correct word/sound from elsewhere in the episode, and you cannot tell. It takes a lot of finessing! And I won’t do it if it sounds Frankensteined. And I would never do this in a way that changes the meaning of what someone said-- only to get them closer to the truth. It sounds way better and smoother then having them record a pick-up later in a different setting and likely a different tone of voice.
But also, I encourage people to pause and re-phrase something if they feel like they’ve flubbed it. This isn’t live, so we can take a few extra seconds to get it right!
I’ve also gotten to know my hosts really well and can anticipate their verbal tics/habits. Some of them have a long wind-up when starting a new thought (Ummm, okay, so maybe let’s talk about…) and I’m able to cut that out and just get to the meat of the thought.
ALL OF THIS TO SAY, I don’t want people to sound perfect! I want them to sound polished, but also human. And even the most compelling speakers stumble sometimes.
ALL OF THIS TO SAY, I don’t want people to sound perfect! I want them to sound polished, but also human. And even the most compelling speakers stumble sometimes.
Once you get notes from our executive producer Kendra and any others, what are the steps in creating the final mix that ends up in people’s podcast apps?
After I submit a draft, I get edits back that have time stamps attached. I start at the end of the episode to make those cuts and smooth them out, so that the time stamps earlier in the episode aren’t affected. I do another check to make sure everyone’s volume is at the right level, and then I export it all out into one mp3. That gets uploaded into our publishing platform along with show notes, and pushed into your feeds at the right time.
What’s one part of the labor of producing that you wish more people knew about?
Oh man, there are so many. I like to say that audio producing is like taxidermy — you only think about the human behind it when it’s bad. When audio/taxidermy is good, you’re like, yeah, that’s what that thing is supposed to look/sound like.
But mainly, editing audio is just really slow. I’ve been doing this for 6 years and have my process down, but it still takes me 3-4x the length of the audio to edit. (So if someone gave me an hour of an interview, that’d take 3-4 hours to edit. And that’s if nothing has gone wrong.)
It can also be really draining. After a day of editing I really can’t watch TV or listen to music or even FaceTime with my parents. (Sometimes it’s also hard to listen to a person tell a story IRL because I can’t stop hearing all the places I would edit if it were audio.) It’s hard to turn off my intense listening brain and just let something wash over me.
You can follow Melody on Twitter here and on Instagram here. I am enormously, spectacularly grateful for her every day, and hopefully we can do another Q&A down the road, when we have more episodes out in the world and she can definitively tell you which phrases I overuse the most, and which questions we’re seeing again and again in the submission box. And I hope you’ll give our show, WORK APPROPRIATE, a listen.
If you want to know how you can promote and assist my work, following, subscribing, rating, and/or telling your friends and family about it is the easiest way. I appreciate you beyond measure.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t guide you to my other podcast, TOWNSIZING, which is currently in limited run on HGTV, and also making me into a much better podcast host. As with WORK APPROPRIATE, this podcast would not happen without the extensive labor of the production team, and I am incredibly grateful for them. The latest episode is with Traci Thomas, the longtime manager of Jason Isbell, who’s moved to the small town of Florence, Alabama to spearhead Shoalsfest. She rules, and I hope you’ll listen.
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