Video games are an art form, despite what Roger Ebert would tell you, and like any art form, they’re a product of their cultural surroundings. For many people, magazines like PC Gamer, GamesMaster and Official Xbox Magazine were a foundational part of nurturing their love of gaming, and the scrappy, gonzo attitude of these titles helped shape the industry into the juggernaut it is today.
That’s the thesis behind The Back Page - a podcast which focuses as much on the idiosyncrasies of games media publishing as it does on the video games themselves. Co-hosts Samuel Roberts and Matthew Castle, both veterans of the UK games media scene, shed light on the joys and stresses of running a games magazine, as well as looking at the highs (and lows) of the titles they’ve written about.
We spoke to Roberts about the genesis of the podcast, how he and Castle fit it in around full-time jobs, and the best ways he’s found of building an engaged audience.
How would you describe your podcast?
It's primarily a video games podcast, but it also touches on the craft of writing about games. My background is in games media and so is that of my co-host Matthew Castle, and so it kind of explores both at the same time. It explores our interests, and how those interests link back to how we covered those games professionally.
Why did you start your podcast?
I left games media in 2019 and missed it quite a lot. It was the pandemic, late 2020, and I felt strongly that myself and Matthew had very good chemistry and that if we started a podcast, we could have a slightly different angle on video games podcasts than the others that existed at the time. So I created it to scratch the itch of games media that I missed and to celebrate the good bits of games media, while also talking about obscure older games that myself and Matthew enjoy l that we could celebrate in our own way.
What advice do you wish you’d been given when you first started?
I don't know if I would have done anything differently, honestly. We sort of figured out what we were doing creatively as we went and I think that with any podcast, it's good to allow yourself breathing room to do that. You never know which episode might be someone's first. They might jump on because they like the title of a particular episode and get on board that way. And we took such a scattergun approach to content that I think it took us a little while to figure out what it was we were good at. And then from there, we could build up our plans more confidently.
Perhaps I should have thought more about an eventual monetisation plan. I definitely just did it for the love to start with. We waited 18 months to launch a patreon, which is now supported by over 500 people which we're very grateful for. I would maybe have thought a bit more about the long-term side of things than I did.
How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?
Two people; we share editing duties. My co-host, Matthew, knows more about audio than I do. So he will smash the two audio tracks together. We record using audacity, and then he'll just put the two files together. And he'll either send me an MP3 or he'll edit himself and then we'll just stick it up. The exception is, we will rope in an additional editor when we produce Patreon episodes, because the workload is slightly too much to do six episodes a month. But the basic four that we do for the free tier, we do that between us. So just two people.
Do you monetise your podcast?
We haven't explored monetisation beyond Patreon; that's more nerves on my part and not wanting to alienate the listenership. Obviously I encourage all creators to monetize their products however they see fit and whatever suits them. But part of me now is so paranoid that if we switched on ads we'd alienate the paying listeners we've already got. So it's a bit of a challenge. It would be a very different deal though if podcasting was my full-time job.
How do you promote your podcast?
So we primarily use Twitter, although now Twitter is in a position where perhaps its future is in doubt among my peers. I would say from the off, we were very fortunate in the sense that a lot of our peers who like us and support us would retweet the podcast, and make sure it got into people's feeds and spotlighting this cool thing that we're making. So that was a really great avenue for promotion. Then honestly, you kind of depend on word of mouth.
I really wish there was a better way of getting people involved, but the best way I've found of attracting new people is to have super accessible episode ideas; we do these episodes that are the best games of different years. So if we do the best games of 2012, say, that will get more people listening to it than something that's maybe a bit more specific to us, like our favourite magazine covers of yesteryear.And then, yeah, we are largely dependent on word of mouth because I don't know how to promote a podcast.
Who listens to your podcast?
We've attracted an audience of people who used to read video games magazines 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And I think our tone matches those magazines quite well while also not having some of the more outdated content that those magazines are also synonymous with. So I think that has led to a bit of word of mouth, where people who used to read those magazines will tell friends who also used to read those magazines to listen.
We also have a Discord with over, I think, 560 people on there now. That's pretty active. It's basically making people feel like they can engage with us personally as a way to kind of keep the podcast in their affections, I think.
What have you learned about yourself since starting your podcast?
That I really do make the same five or six jokes over and over again throughout my life. And I think I've learned that there are limits to my expertise. That's why I think when we expand the remit of the podcast and bring in guests, I think it adds a necessary richness to the overall content mix that we have. You can only lean on yourself so much to keep the podcast varied and I think that guests just allow you to expand the remit of what you’re discussing so much, and that's incredibly valuable.
I think as well, it's learning when to set boundaries with the podcast and to make it easier on myself if I need to, rather than setting four episodes in a row that require me to replay say, eight games from 20 years ago. That's too hard, but maybe doing one episode like that per month and then three episodes that are not necessarily filler but are a lot easier to make. Very early on, I think we were much more in the intensive mindset of play as much, talk about as much as we can. Now, we're much more in the broader mindset of, how can we do this sustainably, rather than trying to pack everything into our first 20 episodes.
What was the last podcast you listened to?
I'm a huge fan of The Big Picture, the film podcast from The Ringer. I think that’s quite a big influence on our podcast in terms of how they ideate. They come up with different episode formats. Like they'll do a Hall of Fame where they'll pick one actor and then just pick the best movies of that actor's career to summarise their career, we ripped that format off for game studios.
The other big format of theirs we ripped off is the movie draft, which they'll do per year or per genre. So they do the best movies of 2003, for example, across six to ten different genres. And I think that they've got such a strong sense of camaraderie, and you can really feel the friendship on those episodes. They're slightly anarchic in a way that I wasn't necessarily expecting for a US podcast, but I really love that about it. I feel very much like I've developed these parasocial relationships with the hosts that our listeners probably develop with us, so that and The Rewatchablesfrom The Ringer are just fantastic podcasts.