Creator Download: Matthew Bannister

The man behind the podcast that reveals folk music origins while journeying through historical UK landscapes

Broadcaster and former senior BBC executive Matthew Bannister has found a way to combine his love of folk music, walking in nature and story-telling with sound through his award-winning musical podcast Folk On Foot

Each episode, Bannister joins top folk musicians on a walk through a landscape pathway that has inspired them in their musical journey, talking about their career and playing their own music on location. Past guests have included Johnny Flynn walking across Hackney Marshes, Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow at the Colne Valley Folk, The Unthanks at the Northumberland Coast, and many more. 

The podcast has received numerous awards and nominations since its launch in 2018, including silver for Best Specialist Music Show at the Audio and Radio Industry Awards 2022 and silver winner for Best Arts & Culture podcast at the British Podcast Awards 2019.

“People have often said to us about it feeling like a ‘virtual escape’ to go for a walk with us in the country,” said Bannister in an interview with Folk Radio UK. “Even if you’re in the middle of a city, you put your headphones on and you are taken into the countryside by us.” 

We asked Bannister to tell us how he created his podcast and what are the things he has learned along the way. 

Why did you start your podcast?

It brings together three of my lifelong passions: folk music, walking and telling stories in sound. We create evocative episodes that combine a powerful sense of place with beautiful music, interspersed with the personal stories of the artists we walk with. It is a magical experience to stand by a river or on a hillside and enjoy an intimate performance shared only by birds and wildlife. We try to convey that magic to our listeners. After over 40 years in broadcasting I've finally created my perfect job. 

What advice do you wish you’d been given when you first started?

It would have been really helpful to have a source of wisdom about all sorts of things, like which hosting service to use, how to post a universal link to each episode on social media, how to monetise consistently across different distribution platforms, how much to charge for extra content, the best duration for an episode, and so on.

The internet is sometimes helpful, but sometimes a search leaves me feeling more rather than less confused. I also learned that you need to devote at least as much time (if not more) to promoting and marketing your podcast as you do to creating episodes.

How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?

Me as the host, a guest musician, a producer who records and edits the episode and a filmmaker. We pride ourselves on the quality of our audio production; our talented producers get the most wonderful results in the most unpromising circumstances. Have you tried recording live music on a cliff-top or beside a fast flowing river? It’s not easy, but our producer Natalie Steed won the Gold Award as Best Music Producer at the 2019 Audio Production Awards for her work on Folk On Foot

We decided early on that the experiences we have walking with top musicians in spectacular landscapes would make great visual as well as audio content. But we never forget we are making a podcast, so audio comes first and the poor film maker has to run around getting whatever footage they can as we plough on with our walk. We use the film footage to promote the show on social media, on our YouTube channel and as a reward for our Patreon subscribers.

Do you monetise your podcast (and if so, how?)

All our income comes from our Patreon subscribers, who can choose from three levels from £3 to £10 per month. There are different rewards at each level, ranging from a badge and a thank you in our newsletter, to the chance to be part of an audience of just 10 people at exclusive online gigs and access to our ever-expanding online video archive of songs filmed on location.

I’m not ruling it out, but so far we haven’t taken advertising or sponsorship as we are not yet convinced that the amount of money we would get would outweigh the disruption to our listeners, many of whom really value us as an escape from the commercial world. I love the direct relationship I have with our growing community of Patrons.

How do you promote your podcast?

We use social and traditional media as well as appearances at Folk Festivals and support from artists. Our monthly Official Folk Albums Chart Show counts down the best selling folk albums and is streamed on YouTube as well as our podcast. During the pandemic lockdowns we created four Front Room Festivals – each seven hours long – streamed on YouTube and with highlights podcasts. They raised £327,000 divided between the charity Help Musicians and the scores of artists who took part who had lost their main source of income as they couldn't play live. The Festivals also brought us thousands of new listeners.

Who listens to your podcast?

Most of our listeners are in the UK, although we have groups in many parts of the world, including mainland Europe, the USA, Australia, Africa, India and the Middle East. Our listeners are folk music fans, often looking for new music, nature lovers and people who want to experience what the Daily Telegraph called ‘a restorative breathing space in sound’. Often listeners tell us they put their headphones in and go for a walk alongside us as they listen.

What have you learned about yourself since starting your podcast?

I’m not sure I’ve learned that much about myself – except that I am at my happiest walking in beautiful countryside with good friends. But I’ve learned an enormous amount about history, natural history and human creativity and – as I hoped when we started – I’ve visited parts of the UK and Ireland that I’d never have gone to otherwise, from the beautiful remote white sand beach at Sandwood Bay on the north-west tip of Scotland, to the picturesque village of Kinvara on Galway Bay, and from the historic Hartlepool Headland which traces its roots back to the early days of British Christianity to the industrial past of Scunthorpe. I came to this podcast as a fan of walking and of music – not as an expert – so I am always open to learning from the people I walk with.

What was the last podcast you listened to?

The Rest Is Politics – I love the interplay between Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart – proving you can still have civilised and informed debate between people from different political viewpoints.