The following Q&A is part of a pair of interviews I conducted with Joel Zammit, founder of Melbourne comedy podcasting collective Sanspants Radio, for a feature article I wrote about Australian podcasting in The Age’s Livewire lift out last week.
The interview with Joel is one of a series of podcasting-related Q&As I’m publishing on this blog in the next few weeks. The overall conversation will focus further on the culture, aesthetics, economics, production and technology of podcasting as Australian podcasters contemplate how to capitalise on what’s widely been dubbed a “podcasting renaissance”, in the wake of blockbuster podcast Serial.
ME: Was there a particular event or experience that was the inspiration for establishing Sanspants Radio?
JOEL: I was teaching a La Trobe University first-year subject about audio documentaries and there’s this really nice studio at the university that’s under-utilised, so I really wanted to bring back a radio/podcast network to La Trobe because they used to have a radio station before my time, and I wanted to start that up again.
At that stage, were you conceiving of it more as a podcast or a podcast collective?
I think more as a podcast, just to see what we can do out there. We’d tried to do a podcast about a year or so earlier but it fell by the wayside.
I did a media course and my passion was in audio entertainment. I was wanting to create a little space where people got used to using mic, behind the mic, as well as editing things together to see where it could take you.
There wasn’t really any sort of idea of what I wanted or where we wanted to go initially. Because I was teaching a lot about This American Life and Freakonomics, and using those as examples of what you can do now.
There is a slew of podcasting stories out there referencing the breakthrough impact of Serial on podcasting. It's obviously a good news story but has the associated "podcasting renaissance" hype linked to Serial had any discernible flow-on benefit for Sanspants?
On the peripheral, maybe. Serial's success owes a lot to the fact that it was pitched on This American Life, which had spent so much time to accumulate a million downloads an episode.
Ira Glass (host of This American Life), I think, gave interviews where he came out and said, 'Serial is one of the first podcasts to hit a million downloads.' You know, it took This American Life four or five years to get to that point, or longer, whereas it took Serial a week, and that's very good and all but it has This American Life listeners to bounce off.
So the success of Serial, not to take anything away from it; well done for putting it (podcasting) more in the public eye, but I don't know, it just seems like, 'Yeah, but it was kind of like an offshoot of This American Life, which already had an audience inbuilt.' So, well done, but it's not as great as everyone said.
What's the background of Sanspants getting featured on iTunes?
We went from maybe 500 people listening to 10,000. We can guess and put some theories to how it happened. We used to have one feed for all our shows and then we eventually moved over to a different website, which enabled us to split the feed so we had different shows in different feeds and then we re-uploaded to iTunes.
From there,we pestered and bugged our family, friends, cohorts and friends on Facebook etc. to kind of go in download, subscribe, rate and review, and maybe that bumped us to the top of the queue or made a bit of a blip in iTunes' radar.
From there they sent an email to ask us to send some art work because they wanted to feature us. And then we were on the front page of iTunes a week later.
What are the quintessential elements of an aesthetically pleasing podcasting experience for you?
A lot of podcasts out there are very much just two people with a microphone in a basement or a lounge room.... and that is one of the first things that will turn me off listening. Same if not a lot of care has been taken in the editing process.
I’m the primary editor for everything we put out and there’s a lot of care that goes into making sure what we put out there is listenable. It can be as simple as cutting out a one-second pause and making it .5 seconds. Or getting rid of some of the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and ‘likes’; all these mannerisms people have when they speak that don’t make for the best speech.
Yeah, the beauty about podcasting is that anybody can do it; we’re doing something that a lot of radio stations can’t do; we don’t have censorship and we can talk about anything we want to talk about, which is great, but that the same time, you can put a bit of care into what you’re doing.
So generally for me, it’s the sound itself but also what people are talking about and if it makes sense. I don’t want to have to hear a rambling story.
One podcast I listen to a lot is called Lore, and also the Mythology podcast, and they’re very similar in what they do. They’ll have one person speaking and have soundscapes behind them to make it sound a bit more interesting and dynamic.
But then you have something like Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. Being a comic book fan, I’m like, ‘Oh great, this is fantastic. This is two people who love the comic book talking about the comic book and making lucid observations.’
When people see this as not just as a hobby but as a hobby they also put a bit of time, care and love into it, I think that can show through in the podcast.
What makes podcasts so conducive to binge listening for you?
You can kind of do it while you’re doing something else. Generally when I’m listening to podcasts, it’s while I’m doing the dishes, driving, walking and that kind of stuff.
It doesn’t require a lot of time and focus.
The particular podcasts that we produce aren’t as timely as other places. Because we’re not a news program and we’re not relying on what happened this week, so you can listen to one after the other. But I think bingeing on something that might be a news program is a lot harder to do.
To what extent do you think the “stickiness” of podcasts complicates things for dedicated music fans trying to navigate their way through a really crowded audio entertainment space? Are they complementary to or competitive with one another?
I know when there’s a good audio book out I tend to lose a few weeks in terms of podcasting. It’s interesting that you have a certain amount of audio real estate and something comes along and it takes up a lot of time.
With podcasting, we get these emails from people every now and again reflecting this idea that the podcasts help get them through a tough time. If you’re in that headspace where you might be a little bit alone or wanting to turn your brain off and let some other people chat, you can do that a lot more easily with people chatting than you can playing music in a way. Yeah, music is great and you can have those moments where you can just tune out but, at the same time, if you’re missing that human contact or connection and you want to listen to people have a chat about comic books or films or whatever, you can do that.
I think that might be why, for a certain group of people, podcasts are reigning supreme, particularly over music.