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The Niche Freelancer: Stories in Sound, From NPR to Podcast Producing

Podcasts provide individuals and brands with the opportunity to conduct storytelling by audio. Savvy podcasters develop a standard program format for their shows, similar to radio, to create consistency and routine from episode to episode to help listeners know what to expect and entice people to come back.

Podcasts are the hottest media trend of the moment, and people who like smart entertainment couldn’t be happier about it. Every category on podcast platforms, from booze to news, humor to true crime, is seeing hundreds of new concepts launched monthly — some of them featuring the super storytelling that we thought was extinct thanks to Buzzfeed and Instagram. Turns out, a lot of people still prefer NPR-style content to listicles and selfies.

Podcast listeners

This is exciting news for corporate content marketers as well, since podcasts are relatively inexpensive to produce compared to video — and infinitely richer in story than a series of social media posts. However, since everyone is getting into the podcast space, brands need to do it well in order to find an audience. And, between the technical production aspects and the challenge of getting guests to thrive on the microphone, that is not a job for amateurs.

That’s why we found Joel Patterson, a former NPR producer with major corporate credits and a print magazine background, to tell us how he transitioned from the written word to audio storytelling. And also, to share how he helps major companies and legacy institutions find their voices.

Why is podcasting the fastest growing trend in content? Former NPR producer Joel Patterson breaks down why - from audacious audio to storytelling strategy to how the most powerful of podcasts can lead to incredible “driveway moments.”… Click To Tweet

Q&A With Podcast Producer and Writer Joel Patterson

How did you get into audio producing and storytelling?

A decade or two ago, someone gave me a “Best of” type CD from a radio program from WBEZ in Chicago that I’d never heard of called ‘This American Life’. I think many of us who find ourselves working in or around podcasting today start at TAL. It was storytelling like I had never heard on the radio. The voices were real. Pauses and silence was emphasized. The stories were edgy and compelling. And once I’d heard that, I completely lost interest in commercial radio. I found NPR, and it became part of my life.

I worked as a print editor for 15+ years (including a stint as the Editor in Chief of SURFER Magazine), but in 2010 a friend introduced me to the people at ‘Marketplace’, the public radio show out of Los Angeles, and I got a tour of their offices, including getting to sit in the control room while a woman named Millie Jefferson directed a live broadcast of the show. She was conducting an orchestra of engineers, producers, and Kai Ryssdal with the confidence and control of an air traffic controller on an aircraft carrier in stormy seas.

At one point, she looked at a producer who ran frantically into “her” control room and said something like, “Never run.” I thought, “I want to do that.” So I forced my way into ‘Marketplace’, taught myself audio editing and producing in real-time, and eventually got to fill in for Millie on a couple dozen broadcasts.

What did your career look life after the switch?

I spent seven years in public radio, including at ‘Marketplace’, KPCC (the NPR affiliate in Pasadena, Calif.), and WHYY (the NPR affiliate in Philadelphia), and, in January of 2017, I left the system to help organizations tell their stories and find their voices in the podcasting space. I work equally as a producer, editor, and content strategist, and I’ve helped The Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, the Wharton School, and soon the Fox Chase Cancer Center to understand their slice of audio storytelling.

Are there differences between producing for radio and for podcast? If so, what are the main ones?

Yes and no. Both mediums are always trying to maintain authenticity and stay true to their missions — be that journalism, fictional storytelling, or comedy — and producers are the gatekeepers.

The work is largely the same: thinking up angles on topics, finding ways to tell that story, and then ushering (that’s the nice way of saying “forcing”) the process of telling it. A good producer has carrots and sticks, and knows when to use each. Where radio and podcasting producing diverges is in the details:

Differences in producing radio versus podcasts

Radio is a small box with lots of guardrails, and it’s controlled by a clock that determines the flow of a story, which makes this work easier for those who work better in systems and harder for those whose process is less orthodox.

Podcasting is a bigger, blanker canvas, with more room too roam, which suits some, which others see it as trying to climb Everest five times a week.

As radio comes slowly to the realization that digital distribution of on-demand content is the future, and podcasting continues to hire all the good producers away from public radio, the two forms seem to be merging.

How have you seen the space change over the past three years?

Dramatically. Think Netflix in 2014 vs. 2017, and that isn’t an exaggeration. Audiences growing by multiples, advertising revenue seems to be doubling annually, and, on the creative front, podcasting is where the growth and action is. Where once repurposing broadcast radio was the only genre, now there are 400,000+ podcasts in the Apple Podcasts platform, nearly three-quarters of which are active and churning out content. No idea if it’s a bubble or not… But would you call what’s happened with Netflix and Amazon a bubble?

Why do you think podcasting is having such a “moment” right now?

Maybe because it’s reacting directly to market forces, creating what people want, and helping companies and organizations find new audiences and customers. Because podcasting is growing up with social media as its bigger, more-annoying sibling, there is also a much more direct connection between podcasts and their audiences. And if you have binged ‘Serial’ or ‘Slow Burn’ or ‘S-Town’, or you’re tripping on the Paris Review’s first offering, or you’re just obsessed with the New York Times’ ‘The Daily’, you’ve realized that the cream of podcasting can sustain you.

What niche of podcasting do you think is the most interesting in terms of quality and breadth of content?

Many would say ‘True Crime’. There’s also a coming wave of kids programming that could be meaningful. But, for me, it’s news. I have two young children, so much of my free time goes to them, so I rely on podcasting for a connection to the real world. But I think the niche with the most potential to grow and blossom is content created by brands and non-traditional storytelling organizations with interesting prospective and access. Branded podcasting is an active, interesting place right now.

What type of podcast segments do you enjoy producing, and why?

I’m best suited to interview segments, where I can help craft the angle, influence the direction and the questions, and then edit the audio to make sure the point of the conversation is clear and seamless. I have also really enjoyed producing in the field, but the thing I’m being sought out for is more 30,000-foot type stuff, helping organizations understand what they could do in the audio space, what their budgets will buy, and how to translate their voices in authentic ways.

What’s your process for learning as much as you need to about the content complexities of topical niches (i.e., medical) when developing a podcast in that area for the first time?

I’ve been lucky to work in a number of topics — from healthcare and technology to economics and business to space and science — and what I’m learning is that it’s all connected. So it’s not like you need to go get a masters degree each time you get a new client. Audio is better at humanizing than mainlining information.

Stories in Sound: Audio is better at humanizing information than lining it out

For example, a five-minute NPR feature typically touches on one tiny corner of a topic, whereas a five-page Economist article could potentially be encyclopedic in scope. But, odds are, the NPR piece will make you feel more connected to the subject in a way that’s hard to describe. I attribute that to the power of the human voice and its ability to broadcast layers and layers of information in just a single sentence. Want proof? Read MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech… Then listen to it. Tell me which one inspires you more.

How do you think podcasting is going to evolve as a medium over the next year?

I think it’s going to continue to become more and more relevant to our conversations. For all we know, ‘The Daily’ may just topple a President. Watch this space.

In what unexpected industries do you think brands are well served (PR-wise, or for consumer education) by self-producing podcasts?

Healthcare comes to mind. It’s a yawn-inspiring industry, but it’s a bottomless well of humanity and incredible stories. I think of it like this… I don’t want to hear another story about the fate of the Affordable Care Act, but I’ve had some incredible driveway moments listening to stories about young people who weren’t insured. But the medium is so malleable, for all we know, McDonald’s will produce the best podcast of all time.

What’s one trick you always teach newbies about how to tell great stories in audio?

Don’t force your agenda. Allow others to tell you their experiences and be willing to go where they want to go. But maybe that applies to all mediums? As far as producer advice goes… Never run in a newsroom. Thank you, Millie.

Are you an aspiring freelance professional? Claim your CV Portfolio and put your work samples on display for the world to see now. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Lena Katz

About Lena

Lena Katz's credits as a development producer, casting producer and locations manager include cable TV (WEtv, Revolt, HGTV), and digital-first productions (WhaleRock, mikeroweWORKS, Tastemade). She worked directly for major brands including Suzuki, Hormel and Brown-Forman. Learn more about her company at Variable Content.

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