This is how I start all my pitches:
“My name is Kara McGuirk-Allison. I’m a long-time public radio and podcast producer currently working on my own projects.”
You can interpret “long-time” any way you wish, but to give you some context, I’m 46 and filed my first story when I was 19. It was for an AM radio station in my home-town of Newburyport, Massachusetts. I sat through the City Council meeting, went home and wrote the story at the same desk where I had done all my homework in previous years. I called it in to one of those phone systems that automatically started a reel to reel recorder at the station. I thought that was pretty high tech.
I’ve never been a great writer. Even though I enjoyed putting pen to paper, or typing a poem on my old Royal, I didn’t fare well in creative writing or honors English. It’s because I write like I speak….fast, and expressive, not always grammatically correct and displaying a mess of tenses. Turns out, that style works pretty well for my podcast.
My definition of a solo podcaster:
Creating, reporting, producing, writing, editing, hosting, mixing, scoring, distributing, marketing a podcast without external help or partnership with another media organization.
In my career as a producer, I made other people’s ideas come to life. That doesn’t mean I don’t have input, or creative options, or story pitches. But it does mean that my work must fit into the purview of another host and media organization.
I began Platform Media LLC in 2018 as a podcast consulting firm. It quickly became obvious that my extensive experience with media was a perk for those hiring me. But it did NOT enable me to relate to the challenges of creating and producing a podcast without a media organization.
How do you make a podcast without editors, engineers, studio space, producers and reporters?
I decided that I needed to find out, so I created The Ghost In My Room….a look at folklore, legends and ghost stories and the people who try to prove they are real. A solo-podcasting project. Me, doing all the things. I traveled for a year with a paranormal team to historic locations in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and created an 11-part series that launched Sept. 1 2019. This is what I learned.
There is an under -appreciated luxury producing for a radio station or media group.
I’m not saying that working for a company is without challenges. That’s for another essay. But here’s what I really missed.
· Human contact. Working solo is hard. Working solo from HOME is even harder. I cannot underestimate the creative opportunities that arise from being surrounded by people smarter than myself. To be able to bounce an idea off another producer, run some sound by an engineer, search for the right word with an editor. At NPR the entire building is filled with brilliant, creative people. You could be eating lunch in Soundbites with folks from all different departments, and walk away feeling full AND fulfilled. That constant interaction is good for mental health but it also keeps you in check. Everything you produce at NPR must be the best it can be and no less. Trust me…people will tell you otherwise. And that’s a good thing.
Conversely, while solo podcasting is a creative’s dream come true, every episode I produced could have been better if I had a team. I will fully admit that being beholden to myself and one funder was in a way, delightful and a ton of fun.
· Infrastructure: never again will I dismiss the ability to book a studio to connect with a guest in another studio to have pristine quality audio. I bought my equipment a few years ago when I started a podcasting camp. Ebay and Reverb were great resources for used equipment. The cedar closet in the house was my tracking studio. It’s not great but it will have to do.
I assumed that most people would be comfortable recording themselves on their iPhone (Those mics are pretty darn good!) but that wasn’t the case. So yes, I once held a microphone up to a speaker phone to do an interview. Cringe.
· Solo podcasters also miss the opportunity to work closely with marketing, PR, event planners and others who support the podcast. Hiring a marketing or PR firm is out of reach for most solo podcasters. Paid social media becomes the closest thing to advertising.
NO one will support or love your podcast as much as you do.
This is crucial to understand. While you may think that family and friends and guests will spend every day sharing your episodes on social media, that the NYTimes will want to write about you, that Apple will add you to New and Noteworthy, that PR firms will be anxious to add funders to your pre roll….NONE OF THIS IS TRUE.
FINDING AN AUDIENCE FOR YOUR PODCAST IS HARD WORK!
Now, having said that. I am particularly fortunate to have a huge support system of friends and family who in fact DID help spread the word about my scary stories. But you can’t depend on that alone to gain listeners.
Early on, I sent several pitches to tourism groups to look for underwriters. I quickly heard back from a PR firm who had been tasked by a client to promote all things creepy in Pennsylvania. They in turn pitched ME a story about Pittsburgh becoming the zombie capital of the world. The PR firm would help me get some press about the story and the three other Pennsylvania based episodes I was already producing. And, in addition, the same client wanted to have a funder in the series. Seemed like a win-win and also a scenario that probably wouldn’t have worked in a media organization.
The zombie story turned into one of my favorite episodes, but any press I received for the podcast was generated on my own and none of it was generated from the PR firm. Point in case, NO ONE will work as hard for your podcast as you will.
I was also surprised how many guests did not share their episode on social media. Several did, but a few with wide-reaching audiences did not bother to help spread the word. After each episode I sent the guests an email with links, graphics, simple easy ways to share their episode.
I would receive positive feedback “loved the episode!” but no love in terms of twitter, facebook or Instagram shares. Those who did help me share the podcast forever have my gratitude.
Get over it, you’re going to have to brag about yourself.
“From award-winning producer Kara McGuirk-Allison….”
Blech. Gross. How tacky. How boastful. How braggadocios.
It got easier as the months went by. The first time I wrote that phrase “award-winning” I instantly wanted to apologize to someone, anyone for having put those words in a sentence describing myself. It’s not that it’s not true…I have been fortunate to win several awards with NPR shows. I just didn’t know how to wear the PR/Marketing hat. But I quickly realized in the competition for ears, I needed to do anything I could to differentiate myself from the dozens of other haunted podcasts.
I do believe that it helped me get press, which in turn helped me find listeners. A Washingtonian article for example doubled my downloads in a single day. I’m not so sure if the reporter would have replied to my email if I hadn’t had those describers in the press release “Award-winning.”
Let’s talk about listeners.
YOU ARE GOING TO HAVE TO WORK REALLY REALLY HARD TO GET DOWNLOADS.
At the time of writing this, at the end of 2019, I’m aware that there are well over 700,000 podcasts in Apple Podcasts. Things have really changed.
Two years ago, I produced a podcast for a public media related non-profit. I emailed my contact at Apple Podcasts (whom I had met in person at NPR when creating Hidden Brain) and asked him to share us in New and Noteworthy. No problem!! And up we went in New and Noteworthy.
This year, I sent the same contact a similar email. Hey! Working on a new project would love to be on New and Noteworthy! Received this back:
“Would love to learn more. Can you send some more info on the show, your marketing plans, and specific links and screenshot which will make it easy to get a quick picture of things.”
A very gracious email, but this time requiring a bit more information. I admit to giggling at “marketing plan” because my plan consisted of social media ad space. I had priced out public radio and local magazine ads but for season 1 it was just too expensive. So I sent screen shots of all the social media with #ApplePodcasts, and any facebook ads I had purchased up to that point.
Nothing appeared on New and Noteworthy. In fact, I never heard from Apple again despite several more emails.
One day when browsing the iTunes app, there, tucked into the far-right side, was a category called Scary Stories. You had to swipe several times to find it, but there it was. And IN Scary Stories was The Ghost In My Room. I was elated!!! I screen shot the list and sent it to anyone I considered a stakeholder. The funder, the Pennsylvania PR firm, guests. I put it all over social media so our listeners could be proud that our podcast MADE AN APPLE LIST!
And the next day.
Gone from the Scary Stories List.
Right. Before. Halloween.
I was devastated.
I wrote my contacts panicked….surely this is some mistake! I just told everyone about this! How could you take us off before Halloween?
I have no idea how long we were on that list because we were never notified. I don’t know if we made it on because of the jump in listeners from the Washingtonian Article. I don’t know why we came off the list. It was frustrating because I couldn’t learn from the experience.
Look, I know it’s two people at Apple who curate these lists. And I think one might be on maternity leave. I don’t envy their job. But I also don’t know if Apple realizes how their lists, rankings and reviews affect small podcasts.
Let’s chat about reviews for a second. I hate review culture. One time an anesthesiologist sent me several texts and emails after a surgery so I could post a review about him. Seriously? I don’t remember much about the experience dude! So I guess that means you did a good job?
Apple reviews and ratings are a breeding ground for trolls. Everyone knows there are people who just go through podcasts to give one- star ratings. And if you only have 20 ratings to begin with, that’s gonna hurt.
But to me, it’s the description of the ratings themselves that draws my ire. Have you ever taken a closer look?
“I hate it.” Didn’t your mother tell you that hate was a bad word? You don’t hate anyone or anything, she would say, except Hitler. Podcasts are like art. They are subjective. But they are also creations reflecting someone’s best work, or their opinions, or in my case, my craft and career. Now, I am used to feedback. You can’t be in this business for so long and NOT know that someone is genuinely going to be disappointed in your efforts. But for every hater, there will be 5 people who love what you do (not an actual statistic.) And the truth is, with so many podcasts to choose from, listeners can be choosey. If you don’t like a podcast, simply move along.
But no, Apple gives people the opportunity to spread hate. And when the ratings go down, so does the possibility of getting on a list, and finding new listeners. The general public cannot be trusted to be civil, this is why organizations like NPR have deleted the possibility for commenting on web sites, but kept commenting on social media where it belongs.
I challenge Apple to rethink its ratings and review system. With more and more solo podcasters joining the ranks, you need to think about how your system affects more than the top 20 podcasters.
AVID is on my shit list.
This seems like a natural segue into a bit of a rant. And it is ironic since I just pleaded with Apple to not perpetuate hate culture. So I shall try to be as diplomatic as possible when describing my experience with the behemoth that is Pro Tools.
Avid will be receiving a carefully recorded play by play of my experience in the near future. But I shall summarize here. I’ve been using Pro Tools to edit since the early 2000’s. I edited a weekly NPR acquired program on it, and all of my freelance work. A few years ago I loaded the free version, Pro Tools First on my computer and produced a 17-part series.
But this year, I had my first horrifying experience with the Avid Cloud. Without going into details, I will summarize by explaining that Avid lost my entire group of podcast audio sessions… twice. Of course the original audio was backed up in three different places. But the sessions are located on Avid’s cloud storage system. Notes:
* I was not the only person to have this happen.
* Avid did not retrieve my sessions for me either time, so I had to rebuild the episodes twice.
* Avid did NOT pay for the $600 version of Pro Tools I ended up buying in a desperate attempt to get my podcast out by launch.
* The Pro Tools First facebook moderator is an incredible human being who was powerless to help me.
* On the last week of the season, I was notified that Avid IT recovered one of my episodes for me. They could have recovered my work the entire time but were too busy supporting the new version of Pro Tools.
Again, another challenge for the solo podcaster. No IT help down the hall, no fancy account with Avid that would demand action. Granted, your average solo podcaster is NOT using pro tools to edit. But the fact that I was an “award-winning producer” on deadline meant absolutely nothing to AVID.
And yet, I still use Pro Tools. But never any kind of mandated cloud system storage again.
Things I still don’t understand aka “Sexy Selfies.”
In my world of haunted podcasts, there are big hitters like Haunted, and there are tons of individually produced ghost podcasts. The kind where two friends sit around a kitchen table and tell ghost stories. And some of them, do better than my highly produced podcasts. Why?
· They produce weekly shows. The more shows you do, the more downloads you get. It’s why when podcasting at NPR got into gear, Fresh Air was always at the top of the charts (and it’s an incredible show.) But these low-production haunted conversational podcasts come out all -the- time. The more episodes, the more downloads.
· They master social media. A lot of these conversational podcasters are really great at branding. They create communities of followers who act like groupies. They hang on every word, clamor for branded swag, and respond to every post.
· The “sexy selfie.” And there are a few haunted podcasters out there who use social media to promote themselves in a way that has nothing to do with the content, or storytelling or “journalism.” They are selling themselves…..and it works.
Some things I learned about myself.
· I’m not as good at handling a mic as I thought I was. Our tapings were late at night and lasted several hours. I followed a team around rambling historic buildings, in the dark. Of course I was wearing headphones, but still managed to occasionally get some mic handling pops. I finally figured out to invest in a boom. After so many years in radio, I’m still learning.
· I don’t hate my voice anymore. I’ve done my share of work in front of a mic, but I’ve always preferred to be behind the scenes. This podcast allowed me to play around with writing and reading a script. The best results came when I was rushed and just needed to get it done. Sometimes overthinking how we sound can result in stilted and forced delivery.
· I have good ideas too.
· I can still surprise myself.
· I laugh too much when I talk. It’s not that I’m nervous, I’m just that happy to be interviewing you.
The best thing about podcasts, is anyone can have a podcast.
The worst thing about podcasts, is anyone can have a podcast.
90% of the client requests I receive for consults fall into the category of “two microphones around a kitchen table.” In fact, I would say the majority of people on the Podcast Movement facebook page fall into this category. This set up is so popular, that companies are now marketing hardware and software to these conversational podcasters. It’s not radio equipment, it’s “podcasting gear.”
I struggle to advise these potential clients, and in fact to date have not taken any solo podcasters on as a paid client. I can talk to them about audio quality, how to hold a natural conversation, how to use paid social media to build audience, but that’s about as far as my skill set goes. The truth is in THIS world of podcasting, audio quality isn’t a top priority, neither is journalism or storytelling. Maybe that’s ok because they aren’t journalists, and they shouldn’t pretend to be. They’re more like bloggers. People who think they have something important to say, to share with the world, and they want to use this “new” medium, podcasting to accomplish that.
The truth is, I thought my podcast would receive more listeners because of my background. Because I knew how to produce. Because these were stories told out in the field, with multiple interviews, big production value and scoring.
I WAS WRONG.
After this year-long experiment, I don’t know where I fit in. I’m not with a big media organization, and I’m not producing a simple podcast. I’m somewhere in the middle, and getting lost. I think my best bet would be to partner with a larger group, but I’m unwilling to let go of the fun that comes with complete freedom to do whatever the hell I want. So maybe I ride this out for a while, and see where it goes. We are starting to organize Season 2 of The Ghost In My Room. It will be a smaller season so I can take on other exciting projects. I’m grateful to be in an industry where I can still learn something new every day.