Jonathan Pinnock on moving from page to podcast.
Are you fed up with sitting in front of your computer waiting for inspiration to strike? Are you looking for yet another way to avoid actually writing something? Do you have opinions? Then podcasting might be for you! It’s a great way of wasting time and you might even convince yourself that you’re raising your profile in today’s competitive literary market. What’s more, you don’t even have to look good! You can have the perfect face for radio and no-one will give a monkey’s as long as your voice is vaguely intelligible.
Interested? Then let me tell you my story. I decided to set up a podcast at the start of 2021. I can’t remember exactly why, although I suspect it was the usual toxic mixture of boredom and vanity. But I did have an idea of what I wanted to feature. As a writer who specialises in funny stuff, I have a bee in my bonnet the size of a morbidly obese vespa mandarinia about the way comedy is – or rather isn’t – regarded in the literary world. There definitely seemed to be a gap in the market for a podcast that discussed the techniques of comic writing.
A simple format soon presented itself. Each episode, I would invite a guest to pick a suitable book and we would spend half an hour talking about it and another half hour talking about their own work. I felt this would be popular with my guests because the two activities most favoured by writers are (a) talking about writing and (b) talking about themselves. I reckoned I could turn one around every couple of weeks, drawing guests from a pool of friends, fellow Farrago authors and people I’d bumped into on Twitter. So I tentatively approached three writers who I thought might be up for it and, alarmingly, they all readily agreed. This was looking like a real proposition.
I needed a title. I wanted something snappy, so I initially hit on ‘PlumPod’, being a play on PG Wodehouse’s nickname. I ran this past my daughter, who looked at me with her head on one side and sighed. ‘Ah,’ she said, ‘so it’s all about Dead White Men, is it?’ I abandoned the idea. Instead, I went for ‘It’s Lit But Is It Funny?’, which had the bonus of the alternative meaning of ‘lit’, as in ‘hot’. I am so down with the kids.
Next, I needed a logo. I have no graphic design skills whatsoever, but I am not the kind of person to let that stand in my way and I got to work using Canva and constructed the monstrosity you see here.
The final bit of preparation work was to create a theme tune. Once again, I saw no reason to let any shortfall in the relevant skillset hold me back and I plunged into Apple’s GarageBand app. I’m quite fond of the result, but no-one else has commented at all so I suspect that everyone is a bit embarrassed on my behalf. (If you don’t feel like creating your own, there are oodles of free music libraries lurking around on the internet.)
The main thing you need to know about the worldwide podcast infrastructure is that it is split down the middle. At the front end, there are the companies like Apple, Spotify, Google and a dozen or so others that listeners use to find and subscribe to podcasts. At the back end, there are the hosting companies that podcasters pay to manage their MP3 files and distribute them to the front end on demand.
So I was now at the point where I had to part with some cash. I had a brief look at the available hosting options I make my wine choices on a similar basis – don’t judge me. The annual fee was $108 (about £80), which seemed par for the course. I was now pretty much ready to go, so I threw together a short trailer using Audacity (of which more later) and uploaded it to my Podbean site. I now had to set up the connections to the front-end services, which was slightly daunting but it turned out that Podbean provided the tools to make this as straightforward as possible. I imagine that other hosting providers are similar.
“…the two activities most favoured by writers are talking about writing and talking about themselves”
Having published my trailer, I duly hyped the hell out of it on my social media accounts, although I wasn’t able to hype it on its own Twitter account because, brilliantly, I hadn’t bothered to create one, having decided – wrongly – to associate the podcast with my own brand. I’ve set the account up now (@LitButPod, since you ask) but it’s inevitably lagging behind. Anyway, apart from that glitch, everything was good to go, and from that point on I fell into a kind of routine.
In the time leading up to the recording, I do my background research before sketching out a plan for the episode. I have a scripted intro and outro, and some notes in between that I can use to nudge the conversation. I also dig out any old personal anecdotes that I can use, partly to spice things up a bit but mostly to stroke my ego. I often end up playing over how the interview might go in my head, and my brain seems to find that a particularly convenient time to do this is between the hours of 3.47 and 4.29am.
I record the interviews using Zoom. As it happens, I have a Zoom licence anyway, but if you don’t, you can still use the app, although you will be limited to 45 minutes of recording time. Other apps are available. I use a cheap Bluetooth headset in order to reduce external noise interference at my end of the conversation, but I haven’t invested in anything more expensive because I’m still at the mercy of whatever my guest is using at their end. I ensure that video is turned off during the interview, partly to increase the bandwidth available for sound but mostly to avoid being distracted by the weird thing in the corner of my guest’s room - and wondering whether it will need feeding soon. I live in fear of getting to the end of a really interesting chat and realising that I have forgotten to press the ‘Record’ button. This is why the very first line of my script is always ‘CLICK RECORD, NUMPTY.’
After the interview, the next job is the edit. I use the free Audacity app, which enables you to manipulate the recording graphically. This mostly involves removing the words ‘um’ and ‘er’, and you will quickly learn the shape of your own and everyone else’s versions of these. You can also snip out those awkward moments when neither of you could think of anything coherent to say or where you went off at a complete and possibly libellous tangent. You can even add in a bunch of stuff that you’d forgotten to say altogether. The worst part of the editing process is that you end up listening to each episode three times: the recording, the edit and the final check. I have grown to loathe the sound of my voice.
Once that’s done, you’re ready to upload and watch the listeners pour in. One quirk of the split between hosting and podcast subscription services is that you never get an accurate idea of how many subscribers you have. Your stats come from the hosting service and all they know is the number of downloads for each episode. You can get a rough idea from the size of the surge every time a new episode is added, although you can never really be sure if this comes from the interviewee pestering their social media followers to listen.
So what have I got out of all this? Well, I haven’t made any money, if that’s what you were thinking – at least not directly. But then again, it may have raised my profile a nanometre or two, so who knows? I’ve gained some valuable experience in the art of interviewing people, some of whom have been complete strangers to me at the time of recording. It’s certainly nudged me out of my comfort zone, which – depending on where you stand on the ‘things that don’t kill you making you stronger’ debate – is probably not a bad thing. Most importantly – and slightly unexpectedly – I think I’ve actually learned a few things about what makes good literary humour, so it may indeed inform my practice as a writer. (Did I really write ‘inform my practice’? Yes, I think I did.) My only regret is that I didn’t start doing this years ago. It’s such fun.
Pinnock’s podcast picks
I’m not the most faithful of podcast listeners; I subscribe and abandon with barely a backward glance. But there are a few I’ve stuck with.
Feels like you’re sitting in on a wise and witty literary conversation that leaves you both entertained and feeling slightly brainier. Terrible for the TBR pile, though.
Rare example of a successful single-voice podcast. Grimly erudite, but delivered in a soothing, almost ASMR voice.
Rule of Three
Fascinating for anyone interested in how comedy works in general, and therefore a perfect complement to It’s Lit But Is It Funny? (Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?)
You’re Wrong About
Consistently interesting, both on subjects you thought you knew inside out and on some you’ve never even heard about.
The Missing Crypto Queen
Irresistible combination of true-life crime and the mad world of cryptocurrencies.
Jonathan Pinnock is the author of the Mathematical Mystery series of comic thrillers published by Farrago Books, the fourth of which, Bad Day in Minsk, was published in April 2021. His website (described by a fellow author as ‘cavernous’) is at jonathanpinnock.com and he tweets as @jonpinnock.
Illustration Ⓒ Jang / Adobe Stock