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Q&A with legendary podcast producer Matt Hill

Q&A with legendary podcast producer Matt Hill

By Claudia Besant |

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Matt Hill is an award-winning podcast producer, head of production company Rethink Audio, and co-founder of the British Podcast Awards. He has over fifteen years experience in podcast production and consultancy, working with huge broadcasters and publishers including The Guardian, News UK, BBC, Channel 4, BAFTA, Private Eye, Haymarket, MBI Media and more. Matt has also created a host of independent shows, such as The Modern Man, Happy Place, and For F1’s Sake.

What was it that motivated you to start producing podcasts and how did Rethink Audio come about?

I’ve always had a love of radio, but my career started in theatre. I really enjoyed devising and voicing shows for people, and that’s how I got my degree in theatre. I really wanted to get into audio drama, but the issue was that the kind of dramas I wanted to make weren’t really being commissioned in the UK. You had outlets like Radio 4 and Radio 3, but their demographics were older and often female as well. So you ended up in the situation where there was no outcome for you and as it happened at that time, the internet was still focused on visuals, but podcasting was starting to become a thing around 2005 and 2006. And so I got together with some friends who I’d met through fringe theatre and we started making it a drama serial, and that became the first iteration of Rethink Audio, which was like a daily drama series.

From that we got a Sony nomination, a radio academy nomination, for best internet programme, and that kind of just set me off on a path of meeting other podcasters and audio enthusiasts who weren’t just making things for the BBC but making them through other outlets. So I ended up working through The Guardian, making shows for them, taking a step away from fiction into making documentaries and magazine shows, and it was really through working with The Guardian that I met a lot of other publications who were interested in podcasting. So I started freelancing and making shows for different magazines and newspapers, and that became a company called Rethink Audio.

According to your Rethink Audio bio, you have been in the podcast industry for fifteen years. How has the industry evolved over this period?

We’ve definitely been riding a wave of podcast growth over that time. A lot of the work I did originally in newspapers and magazines was very much the building blocks of the UK podcast industry, so I spent a lot of time working with print journalists who mainly wrote copy, helping them go from writers to be read, to writers to be heard.

Then we got involved with the second wave, when the agency YMU, a big talent agency that represents a lot of TV presenters, got in touch and asked if we wanted to help develop a show with Fearne Cotton, and that then led to Happy Place, which became really one of the first big celebrity interview shows. And that became, in this country, the second wave of podcasting, which I found fascinating; the first wave was sort of building on the original journalism of newspapers and magazines, but the second wave was more about producing long form interviews that you couldn’t hear on the radio. Most radio interviews, say on Radio 1, would be about three or four minutes, and on Radio 4, at the absolute limit, would be about twenty or twenty-eight minutes. But podcast interviews would tend to be thirty-five to forty-five minutes, it was just giving an interview the time to breathe and go into a little bit more depth and people really appreciated and enjoyed that. Then alongside that we built our own shows and started our own self-commissioned shows, which are more entertainment based, whether that’s making shows for children or for comedy, it’s getting bigger, and I think that is the next wave of podcasting and where we’re kind of heading now.

Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place podcast is great! She’s published quite a few books inspired by it too, hasn’t she?

Yes! Interestingly, Fearne’s podcast is independent, it wasn’t commissioned. If anything, she actually struggled to get this idea of her talking about mental health across to commissioners as they associated her with music journalism and BBC Radio; they hadn’t quite seen that the idea of wellness and positive mental health could be a thing and that she could be a spokesperson for it, or be there to integrate it. So, I think that’s been the thing through my career, that there are commissioners and they have choices to make about what they’re going to fund and put on that spectrum, whether that’s TV or radio, and so often giving people a shot at something different is a bit risky for them, so they don’t do it. But that’s one of the advantages of podcasting, you can self-publish, and the industry is full of new formats, new ideas, and new voices that in TV and radio just wouldn’t have arisen.

What has been a professional highlight for you over the last fifteen years?

I think it was when we met Hilary Clinton, the former secretary of state, for Happy Place. I mean, the fact that she was doing a podcast interview at all in the UK was fascinating to me, and that she chose Fearne’s podcast is a real badge of honour. I can’t pretend to have been involved in the booking of Clinton but the amount of work that went into that from Fearne and her team just shows how much they were invested in the show and wanted it to happen. And the fact that they said ‘yes’ suggests that the medium I was working in and had been banging on about to people for many years, was a really big and interesting thing, and an art form in itself. So, I think that was the moment I was really proud of and really made people sit up and notice.

As with books, there are millions of podcast shows available for listeners to choose from. How do you make sure that a podcast stands out from the crowd in such a saturated market? What qualities make a great podcast versus an average one?

The cynical part of me knows that to really have a built-in level of success, it is helpful to have a built-in audience. Now, the most cynical bit is, well, that’s why there’s lots of celebrity podcasts, because they have followers on social media from their broadcast experience that can drive audiences to their podcast. But, actually, depending on the size of the audience you’re trying to target, that is also true for smaller shows or for shows without a profile, as long as you have some sort of existing relationship. So, for companies that might be about having mailing lists, or doing things through a club, or social events, and being able to target those people, because they’re the perfect audience for your show, and that’s the main building block, that’s the start of your podcast.

The opportunity in podcasting is to build from your existing audience through word-of-mouth; you have a built-in audience to start with, and as long as you are still creating great content, then you encourage [people] to talk to others. [If] you’re subscribed to a podcast feed and you’re putting out new material on a regular basis, that can empower an audience to then tell their friends, ‘you know what you should listen to this episode, you should listen to this series, I think you’ll get as much out of it as I do.’ And that’s how shows are built. Everyone starts at zero – how you get to your first thousand listeners is a question of how much time you’re willing to put into building that audience. But by and large, because the audience is in growth, your audience doesn’t really go down, it only ever goes up – your old episodes still exist and put on new listeners because people explore your back catalogue. So, it’s a really exciting place to be because nothing ever disappears, unlike in radio where you put it out and it disappears into the ether if you don’t hear it live, in podcasting you can put out an episode five or ten years ago and it’s still there. You can build an audience over an amount of time. The most sustainable shows are putting out high-quality, regular material, and building an audience week by week.

It’s really interesting that you stress the importance of an existing audience, that’s part of why whitefox believes podcasters would create such great self-published authors, as they already have that built-in audience and platform to be able to market their book and offer something else of value to their listeners.

Well, if you listen to someone like Emma Gannon who does Ctrl, Alt, Delete, that show had a book associated with it and she carried on making the podcast after the initial publicity of the book had died down. Then, by the time she had written her second book, she could tell people about it on her podcast, because they probably bought the first book and listened to the podcast, and then they were almost legally obliged to buy the next book. So, she was kind of keeping her audience warm. I wouldn’t be surprised if her second book did better than her first and that continues. She’s an author first, and a podcaster second; they work so well together that you can really keep giving your audience something between books, which is really important for keeping people interested.

What are the key stages behind creating a podcast? And what are some of the challenges you often have to face during the production process?

One of the first things you want to do for your podcast is to understand the philosophy of the show. So, regardless of whether it’s an interview show or drama or comedy, you want to have a really clear idea of what your audience is going to get from it and how they are going to bond together to form a community, because the best podcasts are ones where you feel like it’s your secret thing, and that you’re part of a community that listen and only you get it. So, what are the values that really bind your audience with your podcast? That might be outrageous humour or a certain belief in humankind, whatever it is, you need to have a clear sense of that.

Also, early on, once you’ve set an idea, say it’s an interview show, it’s very important how you cast it. The casting of your show will help to define the voice of it. So, not just in terms of the presenters, but in terms of the ‘hit list’ of [podcast guests] for your first series. What’s the mix of people that shows the range and diversity of perspectives that you’re going to have on your programme? It’s also important, before you’ve even booked them, to work out what the order of the show and series might be – so you might start with someone famous in episode one, but why not have a curve ball in episode three that’s a person that just has a really interesting story? But ultimately, you don’t know, because the power of podcasting is that once you hit subscribe you are basically creating a contract with the presenter that you are going to be delivered every week or every day or every month, really interesting stories that take you out of your humdrum life and into someone else’s shoes – and to do that, you need to surprise listeners. You need to give them different perspectives and views that you wouldn’t necessarily hear, so that it doesn’t get too repetitive.

The other thing that becomes even harder as the years go by, is coming up with a title that clearly defines your show and is not replicated elsewhere. It gets harder every time because there’s so many podcasts out there. Being able to have a podcast title that tells you what the show is straight away, is welcoming to audiences who don’t know who you are, it isn’t going to be confused with something else, and is also future proof, in that you can ask for it on your smart speaker and go straight to it without the device getting confused. All of those things are really important, and really worth spending the time researching and trying out different titles with people and making sure that it really hits the audience that you need.

Nowadays anyone with something to say can create a podcast, whether that’s journalists, business owners, politicians, artists, comedians, authors – the list goes on! Why do you think the number of individuals and brands creating podcasts has seen such immense growth? What is the benefit for the creator?

This last year there have been a lot of people sitting on their hands wondering what to do. I suspect a lot of podcasts have been funded by furlough as people take to the medium as a way of articulating how they feel during these ridiculous times. The real benefit of podcasting is that there are very low barriers to entry – all you really need, as cliche as it is to say, is a smartphone and an internet connection and that’s your podcast studio. Obviously, I would always suggest that you get a decent kit to make your audio sound fantastic and you can always do with an edit, nothing is as good without an edit, but I think the opportunity to play in the medium and find your feet and find your voice – it’s never been easier.

So, being able to set up on a platform and start a series, you could say, is the easy bit, the trick then is being able to carry on, to find an audience, and putting out [content] regularly. Your first episode is always going to be a bit embarrassing, once you’ve done a few episodes you’ll look back and go ‘well, we didn’t really know what we were doing’, even if you really thought you did, but by episode fifty or sixty of the show you’re really in your groove, you’ve found your audience and you’ve connected. It’s just about hitting those milestones. It becomes quite addictive, not just for the listeners, but for people making it as well [because] they want to improve each week to make really great episodes. Ultimately, it’s the ease in which you can get into it that I think really helps, so the fact that you can fit it around every day work life, that makes it simple for people to get involved.

How profitable can podcasts be and what are the monetisation options?

The profitability is getting better and better and the options are getting more diverse as well. So, just to give you a headline figure, you can see publicly on the Patreon for the Redhanded! podcast, which is the biggest UK true crime podcast, how much they get from their patrons every month – I think the figure now is ten or maybe fifteen thousand pounds a month, and that’s not advertising at all, that’s purely from people who have reached out and want to invest more in the community, they want to support what the hosts are doing so they can continue their podcast long into the future.

If you look at a long running show that recently finished like Answer Me This! which had been going for fifteen years, they started that show at university and managed to build careers from it, and pay the mortgage. They were selling their own advertising, [not] through a third party, and making connections with start-ups like Squarespace – they were getting advertising well before anyone else. Those connections though, and that relationship, is not actually dissimilar to starting a theatre company – you book the tours, you find the funding streams, you market the shows, you make the shows, you turn up, you do the publicity, all of that stuff. It’s a medium where you could do as much of it as you want in a way, and the rest you can pay someone else to do. But effectively you’re your own sales house, if you want to be, and the benefit of that is that you can set your prices, and if you know anyone that’s connected with your interests, a company that you’re relatively close to that want to reach your audience, then you can charge a relatively decent amount for that.

For example, there is a podcast taking off at the moment that’s about black entrepreneurs, an interview-led show where they talk to an entrepreneur each week, and the BBC basically became a sponsor for them because Mastermind wanted to reach out and find more contestants from a BAME background – they were desperate to find and speak directly to their audience, and so they charged them a pretty penny for it. I think that’s really important, that you don’t have to be a really big show to make money from it, you just have to have an audience that a sponsor is willing to find. So, your level of success could be [that] it’s enough money to make the show, or it’s enough money to pay the mortgage, or it might be enough money to pay a PA or marketing person to help make the show a bit bigger, or to do the editing for you. There are different degrees of how much revenue you get in, and it really depends on what size operation you want to build, but the truth of it is that podcasting can definitely sustain itself and it can be reasonably profitable. It’s about building formats and shows, and finding audiences, or a combination of the two, who are willing to pay to continue making that dream for you.

Over the last 10 years, whitefox has observed first hand the emergence of the creator economy, how writers want to take more ownership of what they put out into the world, bringing with it greater options, tools and monetisation routes. For whitefox this has meant adapting from servicing publishers to supporting writers and brands directly via self-publishing. Is this something you are also observing in the podcast sector with its creators? And if so, how is the industry adapting?

There are a greater range of tools now to help you make your podcast than there were even a year ago, and that’s partly brought on by the pandemic. The advantage of even just software like Zoom has made it a lot easier to approach and record people that you wouldn’t have dreamed of doing. Even for Happy Place, we used to do face-to-face recordings and now we do a lot more remote obviously, but it has broadened the guests out, so we have a lot more guests from the US now than we used to because they’re easily accessible and, over the pandemic, were also very available, which is very handy. But those tools are available to everyone, which has really helped in terms of the range of guests that people have on their shows.

Also, software like Descript, which is an all-in-one transcription editing service, has really changed the game in terms of that it allows people to get involved in the editing process, so it’s a pretty collaborative tool where you can upload an interview or a voiceover, and it will transcribe it for you, and then can edit the audio via a word document effectively. So you can edit the transcript and it will edit the audio accordingly, which is fantastic. It just means that whole groups of people who would have been cut off from editing if it was done in a traditional sound software like Audition now have the tools to do that, and it makes the whole thing a lot easier for them, which enables a greater accessibility in the future, so people who are hard of hearing certainly have much more access to podcasts than they could have done before. So, it’s a really exciting time in that it will enable more people to try their hand at podcasting and do things in a different way than we’ve done before.

That’s really interesting. I’ve never heard of Descript before, I’ll have to look that up.

It’s fascinating. [However], there was a fear at one point that it might put me out of my job, [but] obviously I’m a great believer in a well-edited show, it needs to be nicely smoothed out and made properly for the work that we do at Rethink Audio. But actually, what a tool like Descript means is that we can bring in our clients to the editing process a lot sooner, and they can support their vision as well. We recently made a show with the Imperial War Museum where we looked at a different conflict each episode. Now, I did not pass my History A-level, however, they have quite a lot of fantastic curators who are well-versed in the subjects that they’re now doing in the museum, so to be able to allow them access to the edits, through text, in a way that they can get involved, to know what inaccuracies to remove, what would be the best phrasing for the voiceover, and have them a part of that first initial paper edit, is really important to us now, and it means that they’re more invested in the podcast and really proud of the output.

Spotify and Apple have both recently launched Podcast Subscriptions, enabling creators to place their podcasts behind a paywall. What is your stance on this and how will it affect listeners and podcasters who offer their content for free?

This is probably the best shot at paid for audio that the industry has ever had. The reason for that is that there have been many attempts to create paywalls in audio to generate revenue that wasn’t so reliant on advertising. But largely what happens is that no matter how famous you are, you go behind that paywall and then you don’t pull many new listeners because it’s very difficult to find you.

What these subscription models with Apple and Spotify allow you to do is continue your main offering, your main podcast, but you also then buy into ad-free versions at the lowest tier, or bonus material, or early access to things, so it’s not a replacement for most people, it’s kind of an add-on, and we know that around 2% of podcast audiences, as a rule of thumb, are willing to engage and pay money for additional merchandise or content. So, what Spotify and Apple allows you to do is to [purchase add ons] within the apps that you’re listening to shows on, which is a bit of a game changer because up until now you’ve had to go through a third party like Patreon, so that is a really useful new tool in the arsenal. We’ve not, at Rethink Audio, started to use it yet but we’ve got a couple of shows that we’ve earmarked for that as and when it becomes useful to us. So, it’s early days but I suspect that it will be quite well-used by podcasters of all shapes and sizes.

You co-founded the British Podcast Awards in 2017 which celebrates podcasts from a range of genres, styles and backgrounds, whether that’s “big brands to bedroom publishers”. The BPAs must play a crucial role in supporting new and emerging podcasts. What is the benefit of the awards? And what is your advice for anyone starting out?

It’s a lot about what I said before, that you have to come with a philosophy for your show and […] that your first episodes will always be embarrassing but you’ve got to do them to find your voice. The benefit of the awards is to resurface, six to nine to twelve months down the line, the really great shows that people may have missed in the constant uploading of episodes every week. So, once your episodes are out, once your first series is out, once your second series is out, once your favourite episode of the year is out, if it only hit a hundred people, or four-thousand people, or fifty thousand people, all is not lost, there is more that can be done to help people hear that episode.

So, don’t give up publicising old episodes, and do enter the awards because as we found this year, there are shows that passed under the radar, as there are every year, that find a new lease of life – people have built careers out of winning gold awards with us. Probably the best example in recent years is George the Poet, who is everywhere these days, but when he started his first series he went out with under five thousand people listening. He won pretty much everything at the awards that year, and the BBC picked him up, now he’s on his third season and he’s won a Peabody award. He is a remarkable story, a hugely talented person who just hadn’t found his audience yet for the podcast and we helped him do that, and we’re immensely proud of the role we played in that.

Would you also say that the consistency in which you release your podcast episodes, whether that’s daily or weekly, is an important element as well?

Yes, definitely. If you are an entertainment, comedy or interview show, any less than weekly is really hard going. What we normally say to the people we work with is ‘you need to be in people’s lives more than you’re not.’ So, because audio is happening for you, you need to have something to do while you’re listening, you can’t just sit there on the sofa a listen like it’s the 1950s, you’re either going to be doing household chores, or going for a run, or cooking – you’re going to be doing something, so you want to be able to fix that podcast into your life in a way that makes sense, whether it’s the Friday commute or Saturday hike, people associate a podcast with an activity – weekly is pretty handy for that, daily is also really good now and people are starting to listen to daily podcasts. But as soon as you go past weekly and into fortnightly, you’re not around enough to be able to fit into their life as much, so it’s harder to find an audience. And similarly, the run of your series, if you’re not going long enough that people forget you have a start of the series, that is tricky. You want to aim for at least eight episodes in a run, ideally more like twelve, and then you could afford to take a break. So, being able to format your shows so you can sustainably make them, and you’re not then exhausted or sick of doing it after twelve episodes, but you can take a break and people will still be there when you get back – that’s really important.

And finally, what can we expect to see in the next 15 years? Will podcasts be a format that last thousands of years just like the humble book?

I hope so. I think that with all technology, any kind of technological format, there is the risk that it will be superseded by something else – [maybe] the MP3 disappears or is unable to be read in fifty years, we just don’t know how that is going to work, but I think the fact that something I made 10, 12 years ago is still available on the internet to be heard through the same platforms that existed 10, 15 years ago, suggests that this is going to be around for a while. 

I think there will be more fragmentation of the market, we’ve already seen it with Spotify getting quite spendy in the last couple of years, buying up different audio platforms to create a rival to Apple podcasts, and as soon as you can only get [a podcast] on one app and not another app, like you can get certain shows on BBC Sounds but you can’t get them on Spotify or Google Podcasts, there’s going to be issues about how everyone plays together in the way you can on the radio, you want it to be a level playing field for everyone, but I hope that continues as long as possible. But it’s very important that the very simple mechanism, what’s known as the RSS feed, the free bit of software that allows you to listen to episodes by subscribing, that is so vital for independent media, that is the entire bedrock of the podcasting system. So, I really hope it continues to be a big part of the industry, but we’ll have to wait and see.

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Matt Hill alongside fellow British Podcast Awards co-founder Matt Deegan at this year's awards.

Matt Hill alongside fellow British Podcast Awards co-founder Matt Deegan at this year’s awards.

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