What I have, and haven’t, learned from podcasting

Sometimes, the way I am currently doing journalism, podcasting, can get me down. The very fact I am writing now is a sign I’m taking a brief time-out.

But I am fundamentally grateful for the opportunities podcasting has given me and the challenges I envisage. I am also grateful for what I have learned, and — trickiest of all — what it has shown me I haven’t yet learned.

The impulse to start was as follows: they can’t stop me! I had had a number of pitches to newspaper editors turned down, and it would have been easy to get discouraged. “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said Dr Johnson, but there are no such strictures on podcasting. This fundamental posture, of being responsible for everything you do can be not just a hard lesson, but properly exhilarating.

So early last year I made a documentary podcast about how Vladimir Putin came to power. Made means researched, wrote, recorded and edited. The research alone was quite daunting, and it was occasionally dispiriting to read yet another new and crucial Russian name. But I also remember repeatedly sitting down at my desk, and not getting up until 90 minutes later, knowing that while the progress could not always be measured, I was moving closer to publication.

Since then, I have been interviewing people, which has been a joy. There are plenty of people with, not just interesting, but vital stories and insights (such as Guido Preparata, Emma Blake Corrigan, and Tim Coles), who are not properly being listened to. Here is some wise advice from Shimeka Williams (published in Gary Leland’s book 100 Great Podcasting Tips from 100 Great Podcasters): “If you perceive that attracting guests will be a problem, then it will be. However, if you are always on the lookout for potential guests, then you will find them everywhere.”

Lots of motivational books tell us not to be afraid to approach people with an idea or proposal. All I would add is that from my experience potential interviewees are generous, happy to talk, and easy to get in touch with: if in doubt, send an email.

After some time, I was feeling a little unrewarded. Of course, producing fascinating material (I think so anyway) was rewarding. But I am neither getting a huge audience, nor raking it in. I hope that doesn’t sound like a simple whinge: it just felt like there was a disparity between the effort I put in and the life-progress I want to make. And again I am actually extremely grateful, because a number of people have been extremely generous in becoming my Patreon donors. It has been a lesson in the wisdom of asking for help. My Patreon donors, a small number of people letting me know they care (and giving me a few bob!) have been a huge source of hope. Thank you all again! The intelligent advice, praise and dispraise of all listeners who have been in touch has been equally important.

I have to be honest and say that the donors so far are all people I know. And it is still a puzzle to me, whether my podcasting will make the difference I wish it to make. The questions come thick and fast: Is the material too boring?Am I too boring? Do people want this kind of interview in the first place?What about the fact that the technical side is not my strong point? Am I a good enough marketer? Am I doing too much research?

I haven’t got answers for all these questions. Sometimes I wish I had my own total obsessions, but then I remember the privilege of sharing in someone else’s, what George Steiner called “the privilege of carrying the mail”. I know I need to keep an eye out for people who I can work with in future. I look forward to getting other editorial perspectives. I am pretty sure I could make my life easier when it comes to technology, but at the moment it feels like I can’t even afford to ask what I should do. It can feel like doing intense research for a podcast in which I won’t be saying much is madness. But it does mean I can ask the right questions, and it’s also just me.

Just me! Really I would have been glad to have a title for the podcast other than The Rory O’Connor Podcast. Theoretically, it would be best to have a focus, a clear market. (People have agreed with me about this: but on the other hand: The Tim Ferriss Show.) Being amusing on Twitter seems to be a passport to popularity, but I just don’t care.

And I can’t help being interested in topics from diverse experiences of life. And I intend to throw a few curveballs in terms of topics and interviewees in 2018. If all that works against me, at least I will have been true to myself.

So I take heart from Christopher Gronlund’s words (also in Leland’s book): “Do the podcast you’d still do if only 10 people listened. That’s the show that’s in your heart.” Really it never occurred to me to do anything else! Call it the square-peg feeling. I want to report that for the first time in years, I have the feeling that I know what I’m doing. And that is invaluable, so I will keep going for a while yet.

That feeling, which probably not everyone needs in their work, but everyone needs in life, encourages me to have faith in the project. Learning as I go. Really, it’s the same feeling as knowing I would finish that first podcast.

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