Helen Zaltzman is one of the hosts of the Answer Me This! podcast. The show’s 300th episode will be released on October 16, 2014. She also does the Sound Women podcast. Helen Zaltzman is also a very wise woman who Tweets things like this:
Women: make more podcasts! People: listen to more podcasts! People who write about podcasts: remember not all are made by white men!
— Helen Zaltzman (@helenzaltzman) September 17, 2014
As such, it seemed obvious that I should include her in my Women in Podcasting series.
When did you start podcasting? What have you been doing in podcasting from then to now?
My first podcast, the debut episode of Answer Me This!, came out on 2nd January 2007. A few weeks prior, at my flatwarming party, my friend from university Olly Mann said, “I need to talk to you alone.” This was rather dramatic, and I thought he was in some kind of terrible trouble – but instead he asked me whether I wanted to do a podcast with him.
Olly and I had done student radio together a few years before, and were both quite keen to get radio work but that hadn’t really panned out. We naively thought the podcast would net us radio jobs within weeks! Radio jobs did follow, but it took a LOT longer than that; and as far as I am concerned at least, the podcast is now an end in itself – I’m absolutely devoted to the medium.
We also hardly expected it to be able to keep it going beyond about three episodes, yet here we are, eight years and 300 episodes later. Our audience and revenue keep growing, and overall, podcasting itself seems to be becoming stronger and stronger.
What was it that inspired you to become a podcaster?
Nothing inspired me to become a podcaster so much as having no reason NOT to become a podcaster! When Olly asked me, I had only ever listened to one podcast (the cut-down Adam and Joe Xfm radio show), and barely knew what podcasting was; so, not knowing what I was getting myself into, and having no real reason to say “No”, I said “Yes”. I had no relevant experience, beyond the ability to talk, and no one to ask, because I didn’t get to know any other podcasters until I’d already been doing it for ages. So we just improvised and felt our way along.
Now, I’m inspired to keep being a podcaster by the incredible feeling of having hundreds of thousands of listeners around the world, listening to a show we make in my living room: that’s crazy! And thanks to the opportunities presented by the internet, and tech being ever more affordable and accessible, someone can have an idea, make that idea a reality, put that out into the world, and have complete ownership of it: I find that incredibly liberating. In fact, it has completely spoiled me for working in big structured systems (although if anyone reading this wants to offer me a job, I am totally available for hire).
Considering my focus here at Podcaster News, I’d love to hear more about the Sound Women Podcast. How did that get started? What’s the main topic? Who does it include?
Sound Women is an organization – sort of a lobby group – that was started up in 2011 by radio producer Maria Williams, to highlight the ridiculous gender imbalance in the British radio industry, off air and on. They published research last year that only one in five radio presenters is female, and that number doesn’t even show how many of those is just a near-silent sidekick, only there to giggle at whatever the male host says. Many big stations don’t have any female presenters AT ALL, just a woman reading the traffic or the news, and they think that’s enough – or maybe presenting one show a week, but never the high profile daily timeslots. And there are no female presenting duos to be heard. The stats are somewhat better behind the scenes, but still, it’s not a particularly hospitable industry towards women. And because the problem doesn’t directly affect the men in charge, they don’t have much incentive to remedy it.
Maria, who has worked in the industry for upwards of twenty years, found she had had enough of this sausage-fest. She has an awe-inspiring amount of energy, so directed it towards gathering together an amazing bunch of women to form Sound Women. I admired them from afar for quite a while, then eventually Maria befriended me and asked me to get involved. I have the very childish habit of shirking tasks that I don’t particularly want to do, eg admin, so rather than take on a role I’d be crap at, I offered to make a podcast for them. It also gave me the excuse to contact people who I admire and ask to interview them; I’ve met such interesting, inspiring people through the show. That’s one bonus of making podcasts – you can use them as a ruse to meet people!
What words of wisdom would you share with women who are considering getting started in podcasting?
The tips I’d give to people of any gender wanting to start a podcast include:
1. Decide a regular release schedule, and stick to it. Preferably as frequently as every week or every two weeks: it’ll help you build an audience; it makes you better, because you’re getting more practice and the lessons sink in quicker; it pushes you through the painful feeling that your show is not as good as you wanted, which can stop you from trying to keep going; and it forces you to do it even when you don’t want to. If you just podcasted when you felt like it, you’d probably never release a show, because – sorry to break it to you – podcasting is not a particularly fun hobby. I’m sure that if we hadn’t decided, at the beginning of Answer Me This, that the show would come out every Thursday, we would have foundered after three episodes.
2. Find a format that enables you to talk and helps you have ideas, rather than one that constrains you. Make that format one that can be summed up in a sentence, so that potential listeners can understand what your show is in an instant.
3. Recruit people you know and exploit their talents. If they’re good at music, get them to make jingles and bed tracks. If they take photos or do design, ask them to make you logos and website artwork. My husband had recording equipment because he’s a musician, so when we decided to make Answer Me This, we made him set up our mics and be our sound man. Poor guy.
4. Wait at least ten episodes or three months (whichever equates to more episodes) before asking critics or potential audience to listen to your show. You may be really keyed up after the first episode or two and be desperate to tell everyone, but over the next few episodes the show will DEFINITELY get better, so wait. Because if those people think the show isn’t very good to begin with, they’re not likely to try it again.
5. Put in effort. Podcasting is quite a lot of effort anyway even at its most basic, so you might as well put in a little extra effort to make the best show that you can. All the best shows I’ve heard involved a lot of effort. This doesn’t mean every show has to be very sophisticated and high-minded (mine definitely aren’t!), but just the best that they can be in themselves. Bear in mind that potentially the listener could be off being entertained by the entire internet, so repay their hard-won attention with something good! I am a fervent editing enthusiast: it keeps the shows tight, but also allows me a lot of freedom during recordings to go off down avenues which might turn out surprisingly great, but if they don’t, I can just delete them and nobody will ever know. And I find it much easier to have a finite amount of material to knock into the best shape possible than I do to create that material in the first place. Rule of thumb: put yourself in the position of a stranger who has no investment in you or your show, but is somehow listening to it: is what you’re giving them a good use of their time? And don’t outstay your welcome. It’s always better to be a little too short than too long.
6. Just go ahead and try it! Don’t be put off by me saying it’s a lot of effort. It can also be very rewarding. It feels fantastic to make something out of nothing. It’s extraordinary to make a show that ends up in the ears of people you don’t know – and who you might never connect with if you met in real life. And the more podcasts the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.