Olly Mann is celebrating a professional anniversary. Here are just some of the many lessons that he’s learned along the way.
I've been a podcaster for ten years
Compared to the longevity of other people’s careers, this isn’t much to crow about: it’s hardly three decades down a mine, half a century manning a family business or a lifetime dedicated to the priesthood.
But when you reflect that, for the majority of those years, making downloadable radio programmes (when discussed at all) was chiefly considered a step towards some other goal (“Oh, he’s doing a podcast because he can’t get a radio show”; “Young people don’t want audio, they want mobile video”; “No-one makes money from podcasting”), it’s worth noting that, ten years on, I’m still here, making free podcasts, and more people than ever are listening. Go me.
So I thought it might be useful to share what I've learned
Rather a lot about microphones and bandwidth and compression and RSS feeds and hosting platforms and audio recorders...but that’s for the birds. (Or, perhaps, for the nerds.) Yet in my decade at the podcasting coalface, I’ve absorbed a few lessons worth heeding, whatever you do for a living.
Because, whether you begin as a bedroom blogger, YouTuber or indeed independent podcaster, you are, essentially, an entrepreneur. You may have a staff of one, and your product may be You, but there are plenty of practices transferable to any start-up business, club or society.
Lesson One: Self-promotion isn't evil
I’m not the kind of chap who enjoys walking up to people at a party, shoving a business card in their face and telling them how wonderful I am—no English person is. But, when you make your own radio show online, with no corporate backing, the only way folks are going to hear what you have to say is if you tell them about it. The competitive marketplace is no place for shy guys.
Lesson Two: Be alert to your own awfulness
This seems to contradict Lesson One, but the two are linked: hours of editing your own voice leads to an acute understanding of when your product is good (and therefore worth shouting about) and when it is below-par (and therefore needs to be re-recorded). I always advise people starting a new podcast not to tell anyone about it until they’re a few weeks into the series.
Attention spans are short, and if a new listener presses play on a dud episode, that’s it—you’ve lost them forever. Make sure the first time someone engages with your product, it’s the best you can muster.
Lesson Three: Trust your instincts
My new podcast The Modern Mann is a magazine show— and therefore, on the face of it, a terrible idea. Internet users expect a consistent experience, so why serve up an interview with a former Islamic extremist one week, and a woman touring the brown signs of Britain the next? Why plunge listeners from sex advice to our song of the week?
Because people aren’t robots, that’s why. They respond to stuff that feels personally curated, quirky and surprising. They enjoy being challenged. I had no data to tell me that this approach would work. I just made the show I wanted to hear.
Lesson Four: Listen to your audience
My panel-discussion programme The Media Podcast started life as Media Talk, a podcast made by The Guardian. They canned it because they felt the download numbers were too small to justify funding it—even though our listenership comprised affluent broadcasters, strategists and publishers; valuable to advertisers. Our listeners told us they wanted more, so we continued the show on our own, paid for via crowd-funding.
Lesson Five: Let your audience know you love them
My comedy podcast Answer Me This! revolves around interactivity: our format urges listeners to ask me and co-host Helen Zaltzman any question they like. But we never take such contributions for granted. We’ve been known to email people back with a personal response, even if their question hasn’t made it into the show.
If we’re doing a book-signing, live event, or spin-off album, we tell our most loyal fans first. In return, they’re even more connected to our show—baking us cakes, sending us donations, and, in one terrifying example, getting a tattoo of our faces on their boobs. (I think—I hope—that this was a Photoshop job.)
Lesson Six: Milk your friends
My shows have been at their best when I harness the skills of clever people I know, who write my theme tunes, design my graphics, sing my jingles and promote my content—very often for nothing more in return than one of Helen’s roast chickens. It’s amazing how your mates, who may have boring day jobs, will give up a weekend to indulge their creativity.
But by far the biggest lesson the last ten years has taught me is just how much can happen when you simply take the plunge and try something out. In 2007, I was a TV researcher with a secret longing to be a radio presenter; in 2017, I’m a full-time broadcaster. Was it worth it? Ask me in 2027.
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