Change in Programming
Plus: Pink Card, Audio DRAMA, and the Rise of Podcast Consultants
Warning: there are mentions of depression and suicide below. You can avoid them if you skip down to the first section break.
Today — actually, yesterday — I had planned on publishing a story about Podcast Magazine founder Steve Olsher. This was meant to be a follow-up to a piece I wrote about Olsher’s decision to sell his publication in last week’s issue. However, on Wednesday of this week, Olsher emailed his distribution list (and posted on Twitter and Instagram) regarding the suicide of performer Stephen “tWitch” Boss. Olsher wrote:
But it’s impossible for someone who isn’t depressed to truly understand what it’s like…
To be on the verge of crying for absolutely no reason at any given moment
To be in the middle of something beautiful, and be overwhelmed by negative thoughts
￼To have the constant chatter of negativity and pessimism, when there’s absolutely no reason to￼
To smile and be happy with every fiber of your being, and then the next moment, be ready to end at all.
So yes… Absolutely check in on those you love. Regardless of whether or not, they’re depressed.
They’ll love hearing from you.
But at the end of the day, when you suffer from depression, it’s an every day battle that only the person suffering from it can decide whether or not it’s a war they can win. ￼￼
Later that day, Olsher suggested via text that I take a look at his post as a way of getting to know “more about me” and yesterday he posted again on the subject of depression, writing that “December is especially tough for those afflicted.” I take these words seriously and want to be thoughtful about when I publish my story. With that in mind, I’ve decided to postpone publishing my piece on Olsher until January at the earliest.
In place of my story on Olsher, I’m republishing a piece I wrote for Hot Pod last year about the rise of podcast consultants. You’ll find it at the bottom of this issue.
(If you are having suicidal thoughts, please find help.)
I’ve been a fan of creator Shima Oliaee’s work ever since I listened to Dolly Parton’s America, a show that she co-created and launched in 2020. Back then, I had the great fortune to interview her about how she transitioned from TV writing to audio, and how she went about creating a podcast about a living icon. Now, two and a half years later, Oliaee has launched her own production company Shirazad Productions and a smash inaugural podcast, Pink Card (look for it in the 30 for 30 feed). I inhaled the entire series, which tells stories of women fighting for their right to attend soccer games in Iran, in a single afternoon. It’s riveting, personal, and timely, given what’s happening in Iran right now. Congratulations to Oliaee and her production team on their achievement: Homa Sarabi, Sayre Quevedo, Sarah Shahi, Ramtin Arablouei, Marisa Bravo, and Nesa Azadikhah (soccer star Megan Rapinoe also served as an executive producer on the project).
Regardless of whether you listen to Pink Card, I highly recommend reading producer Alice Wilder’s interview with Oliaee in the latest issue of of Starting Out, the newsletter she writes in partnership with Transom. This passage stood out to me, mostly for its brutal honesty about what it can be like to work as an undervalued member of a team in podcasting:
Shima: In 2017 and 2018, I was totally behind the scenes, uncredited many times for my work. I would report episodes or segments for the host with no mention of my name. The first time I was credited was on the series UnErased. Then I did most of the interviews solo and was erased from tape after — but this has been standard practice in most newsrooms, so I didn’t have a problem with it. I was just so thankful that I was reporting stories I found important. I didn’t care if my name was on it; I loved the work. The problem is, now I meet people in the greater industry who still have scars from their work being stolen from them 15 or 20 years ago. Saying, “It’s okay,” and shrugging creates a host-culture versus a collective culture where an audience thinks that just one singular person made something that they didn’t. I noticed the rest of my peer group starting to ask questions about these practices. Only recently have media reporters even been slightly curious as to who really made something. During the pandemic, so many podcast producers started sharing their stories online — you start to see that, you know, you’re not alone, and it opened new discussions about exploitation in public media especially, which continue to this day.
Alice: That’s so real. When you’re so grateful to even be in the room you will tolerate things. And then once you have a little bit more experience there’s a feeling of, “Wait, I found that piece of information, how come I don’t get to say it or get credit?” It’s a conversation I’ve been having with a lot of friends. Do you think it’s fixable?
Shima: I think things are fixable, but it takes time. If you hire a generous host, it doesn’t have to be that way. But most people who end up in positions do not get there by doing the right thing. It’s the way the system was set up. And staggeringly few are willing to speak truth to power — even in an industry that is purportedly rooted in justice seeking. I think a redistribution of power is helpful. I’ve also been noticing who is getting the hosting gigs right now — I look to see, are they people who have been producers or interns and have firsthand experience of what that’s like? Are they determined to set a new example? Or, do they cover up for those in power and use politics to get ahead? In the past two years I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing women of color who had to leave places where they were treated horrifically. I have a lot of hope though. When you do meet someone who walks the walk, it’s like finding treasure. You are even more appreciative. One great generous host is Avery Trufelman.
Alice: Oh I love Avery.
Shima: She had her own show at The Cut, and she shared her platform. She could have mimicked the leading men in our industry, but she didn’t. She did something different. The next gen gives me a lot of hope for the industry. Homa Sarabi, my associate producer on Pink Card, is smart and passionate. I also loved talking [about] documentaries and experiences as a “first gen” with my editor Sayre. My creative production team for Pink Card were all POC. There is a democratization happening in the field, even if it’s millimeter by millimeter. I do have hope that it’s going to get better, for everyone. But it takes a lot of work. It has been a lot of work, and it feels impossible most days. That’s one of the pieces of wisdom I learned from the Iranian women I interviewed in Pink Card. It took three generations of women diligently working for change to see what is unfolding today. I’m appreciative, for this moment and for the future.
When you’re done reading Wilder’s interview, check out this newly-released video of James Kim (Moonface, The Competition) interviewing Oliaee onstage at last October’s On Air Fest – it’s a treat!
Earlier this week, Newt Schottelkotte published a piece on Medium titled “Who’s Afraid of Alex J. Newall,” in which they wrote that Rusty Quill, a podcast production house that specializes in audio fiction, has a “history of financial failings and worker exploitation.” Here’s more:
It is a company that, in my opinion and that of those I spoke to, should not hold the power and influence in this industry that it does, and whose behavior should not be allowed to set a precedent in our developing industry. … My goal with this piece is to bring some of that information to light so that anyone, be they someone who is considering working with Rusty Quill, or supporting their company financially or otherwise, can make a fully informed decision about whether or not to do so.
Since then, Rusty Quill has issued a public statement, which begins:
As a rule, Rusty Quill tries to avoid directly addressing unfounded social media accusations, preferring to provide formal updates like any other business. In this instance however, we are being forced to defend ourselves from what appears to be a case of carefully timed, deliberate defamation from people seeking to exploit recent hardships for our staff possibly to sabotage our fundraising and reputation.
When the story originally appeared online, readers noted that Schottelkotte had not disclosed that they are employed by competitor Fable & Folly (his affiliation was later added). Yesterday, Schottelkotte’s employer published a public statement on the matter, which reads:
We note that this article was written in [Schottelkotte’s] personal time and released on their personal channel and does not represent the views of management at Fable and Folly. Independent contractors and producers represented by the Fable and Folly Network have the right to publish work on their personal channels. Representing independents means that we won’t always agree with everything the people we work with or represent create.
Last week I reported that Exactly Right severed ties with Sounds Like a Cult without explanation. The next day, my esteemed colleagues at true-crime-pop-culture newsletter Best Evidence wrote a piece that suggested potential long-term burnout at the production company may be partly to blame. In referring to this news as well as the whole Billy Jensen business, the newsletter’s authors wrote:
Very possibly it’s exactly that: they don’t care, they haven’t cared for a while, MFM started out as a lark and now it’s an albatross…but I suspect it’s a bit more nuanced. Is anyone else getting a strong whiff of depressive paralysis, followed by semi-destructive knee-jerk ‘action’ for the sake of ending conversations, from ERM in both these instances?
An older issue of Best Evidence led me to a piece from Vice titled “‘My Favorite Murder’ Fans Wonder If Their Hosts Will Ever Come Back.” If you’re looking for a “deep cut” on WTF has been going on behind the scenes at Exactly Right, Best Evidence’s commentary and the Vice piece are a great place to start.
The Growing Podcast Consulting Scene
This article first appeared in Hot Pod on July 20th, 2021
In 2011, Jeremy Helton, then a freelance audio producer, hired an accountant to help him file his taxes. “I think one of the first things he said to me was, ‘I don’t understand how you’ve survived; you’ve made so little money!’” he told me earlier this month.
To be fair, this didn’t come as a total shock. Over the years, producing audio for StoryCorps and forming an audio collective had brought Helton fulfillment and recognition, but little money. “After that appointment with the accountant, I decided that, while I loved spoken-word audio, I needed to find work that was a little more financially stable.”
After reaching out to his old employer, StoryCorps, and offering to do “any job that people didn’t want, literally the most tedious and egregious work possible,” he landed a six-month contract to organize a launch event for one of StoryCorps’s oral-history initiatives. Later that year, he joined the organization’s marketing team full time.
While Helton emphasized that he made the transition towards a marketing role for financial reasons, he insists that even at that early stage, he felt invigorated by the challenge. He was good at the work and, crucially, he enjoyed it. “It didn’t feel like I was having to sell my soul and do marketing when I’d rather be making a radio show,” said Helton. “It felt like a good change; I was excited about it.”
His success at StoryCorps led to a VP of marketing position at Audioboom, and in 2018, he made the decision to start his own podcast-marketing consultancy. “I had a hunch that there was a need for that kind of service,” said Helton. “But rather than just go on my gut, I asked people like Ben Riskin, Dane Cardiel, Nate Tobey, Rachael King and Sarah Geis” — some of his peers — “if they thought there was a pain point in the industry that services like mine could alleviate. I got a lot of insights and confirmation from those chats, and that gave me the confidence to get started.”
The consulting business took off pretty quickly. When he launched his consultancy in 2018, he had just two clients. This year, he’s worked with nearly 30 — and that’s just since January. (In June, Helton accepted an in-house position as Ten Percent Happier’s Director of Podcast Marketing, though he continues to run his consulting business on the side.) This volume of demand may sound high, but it squares with what I’ve been hearing from other people working as podcast consultants in the industry: there’s more work than they can handle, and they need help.
“We’re all stressed out because there aren’t very many of us doing this,” said Lauren Passell, who runs independent marketing-and-PR company Tink Media. “Somebody asked me about competition once, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, no. I need someone to come in and steal my clients. Like, go ahead!’”
The outsized level of demand has even translated into some burnout. Marketer Cindy Okereke told me that during acute moments of overload, connecting with fellow consultants on Zooms or Slack channels has helped keep her sane. During informal meetups, the group shares referrals, brainstorms ideas for clients, and lets off steam. “We’ll be like, ‘I’m so tired. I’m exhausted. I haven’t had a vacation since I opened this thing.’” In June, Okereke closed her independent marketing consultancy to accept a position with former client Strong Black Lead, a Netflix production, as its manager of editorial and publishing. She continues to work as a consulting producer for Therapy for Black Girls, another former client.
I’d like to take a beat here to acknowledge that there’s a bit of stigma around the term “podcast consultant,” historically speaking. For many, the term conjures up the image of unsolicited emails from a supposed podcast expert promising to “double your downloads in two weeks” or “get your show punching above its weight on the Apple charts.” These dubious proposals have become so ubiquitous that some have lampooned the strategy, while others have dug into how these services actually work. Against that context, I felt compelled to ask this seemingly new generation of podcast consultants how clients should distinguish between these two types.
“Any podcaster who gets a direct message out of the blue with promises of 100,000 downloads in a week should proceed with caution, if at all,” said Helton, who told me he never guarantees download numbers. Rather, he stressed that he customizes a plan for each client, which is based on their specific resources, content, and time constraints. “I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ marketing plan for podcasts,” he added.
Helton also warned that getting cold outreach can be a red flag in and of itself. At this point, the vast majority of his clients come to him as a result of personal recommendations from trusted friends.
Across the board, the podcast consultants I spoke with say they endeavor to deliver a high level of service: heavy on personal attention, light on outlandish promises. This approach appears to be working, as most are able to charge a premium for their work and pull in six figures per year. (Given my past experience as a publicist and marketer in a high-growth sector, I would imagine the financial upside for people who specialize in audio marketing will go up and up… and up.)
So, who is qualified to do this work? Helton recalled that his background and experience in audio helped him land clients, right out of the gate. As a former producer, he had developed a network of trusted contacts in a business often driven by word-of-mouth recommendations. He also understood the work that went into production, which gave him added credibility.
Similarly, industry veteran Rekha Murthy told me that the experience and Rolodex she gained from years “in the trenches with production” at NPR and later, in a series of director-level roles at PRX, gave her the confidence to know that it wouldn’t be hard to find independent work. Today, her clients include podcasts from Critical Frequency, WBUR in Boston, American Public Media, and many others. She’s also the lead curriculum designer for the Spotify Sound Up podcast training and is considered a founding member of its team, despite technically employed as a contractor. (When I asked why she didn’t stay the production course at NPR, she said, “I felt respected, but there just weren’t enough opportunities for people who were early in their career to advance. I wanted variety and opportunity.”)
On the other hand, Okereke, an English and creative writing major who started her career in book publishing PR, is proof that there’s room in audio marketing for people who bring experience from an entirely different field. “I didn’t come through traditional channels, but I can craft a story, identify themes, and build out an editorial calendar.” Her love of writing and storytelling is also an asset.
“This industry is still finding itself,” she continued. “There are a lot of creative ways to work in audio.”
Towards the end of working on this piece, I checked back in with Helton and asked him to reflect back on the earlier stretches of his audio career, when his professional life was a lot less stable and gainful than it is now. Does he have any regrets? “Luckily for me, finding stability didn’t require that I leave audio,” he said. “It just meant embracing a different role.
That’s all for me today! Happy holidays and see you in January.