Producer Download: Jack Howson

Peanut and Crumb's head of audio talks art, inspiration and acoustic engineering

Like many podcast professionals, Jack Howson’s career started in radio, with almost ten years at the BBC among his numerous roles. Most recently, he was an executive producer for audio production company Reduced Listening, working on a number of projects including Radio Assembly and Decode, before moving to a new role as head of audio for production firm Peanut and Crumb.

Howson has won a number of awards, including picking up Silver for Best Music Producer and 'Highly Commended' for Producer Of The Year at AudioUK's Audio Production Awards 2022, and winning the former in 2021. His initial goal of becoming a theatre director is reflected in his passion for documentary and arts podcasts, and is deeply committed to the podcast medium. 

We spoke to Howson about how he got his start in podcasting, what defines his day-to-day, and how his podcast listening habits reflect and shape the work that he does.

How many podcasts do you work on?

That's a good question. I've just switched companies; previously, I was working at a company called Reduced Listening. I was producer/showrunner/executive producer on a number of podcasts: Decode, Manchester International Festival, Serpentine, and also a podcast for CERN. I've joined Peanut & Crumb to set up their audio arm. So at the moment I'm in between producer and exec producer, depending on the show. 

We have a classical music podcast called Just The Tonic, which is about music and mental health; we've got quite a successful podcast called Get Birding, which won the first-ever Climate Award at the British Podcast Awards. That's presented by Hamza Yassin, who recently won Strictly Come Dancing, which is pretty cool. And we're just launching a big podcast called Create The Future with the Queen Elizabeth Prize, which is an engineering prize. That's being presented by a few different people, but mainly Young Engineer Of The Year George Imafidon and Roma Agrawal, who is a brilliant engineer – she was involved in constructing the Shard. We've got a lot of things in the pipeline.

How many podcasts do you listen to per week?

The only one I pay for is the Second Captains’ podcast, which is sport with a little bit of politics. I would say per day, I probably listen to three different podcasts in terms of three different strands. So over a week that probably adds up to about 10 different strands, because there's a bit of repetition in there.

What's your podcast app of choice?

I listen to a lot of stuff through BBC Sounds because I'm kind of an old man and I still think of the BBC as being this great institution – particularly for the cultural podcasts I want to listen to. But I use Podcasts Addict on my Android phone.

What are your three items of essential podcast equipment?

We try to interview people that are not necessarily in the media landscape and they might be from far-flung places. So someone’s smartphone taking the place of a microphone if you want to interview them – I'd say that's a number one. 

And then in terms of making podcasts, I always go to the idea development stage. My two other essentials for making podcasts would be Google, and then I'd also go to public transport rather than the library, because I find that you get a lot of good ideas chatting to strangers!

How long does the average podcast take to turn around?

It depends. In terms of the crafted textual stuff that I like to make, which is more in the documentary style, you're looking at kind of at least 15 days’ applied work. I'm into long form and documentary style with layers of sound and music. But I guess one of the joys of podcasts is that you can turn around a really interesting conversation in a day – the things that I like to listen to are probably turned around in a day or two days, but the things I like to make are probably turned around in a lot longer. The thinking time is constant.

What does your role involve on a day-to-day basis?

My initial dream was to become a theatre director and sometimes I use that analogy for a podcast producer. Or maybe another analogy could be an orchestra conductor, because you are in control of every element of it, from the music to the voices, the length, the pace, from the idea development all the way to that final product. You are the only person that has an eye across the whole thing. So you know you might commission a composer or you might outsource an interview, but you're the only one who can see the whole.

That's how I explain it to someone who doesn't understand it. And I always say that a podcast producer or an audio maker is a good job for a control freak who doesn't want their face or their voice to be front and centre. You can hide behind the curtain.

What's one thing you wish every podcast host knew?

I don't think there is one rule, but just keep in mind why the audience is there. Maybe the audience is there to hear their personality coming through every single moment, but I think for the most part people listen to podcasts because they're interested. The host is the window to the guests, but you're there for the conversation, or for the dynamics of the humour between several guests. 

What makes a good episode?

The reason that I like podcasts is the same reason that I like reading: learning something that you didn't know; the joy of words being put together. One of the joys of podcasts is the joy of words being put together in ways that stimulate you. So a good podcast episode, for me, is one that will turn a little switch in my brain and start me thinking about something in a new way. And, I think, just the joy of the company, of hearing voices and hearing words.

How did you get into the podcast industry?

I wanted to work in theatre but that translated itself into writing a little bit for television. I think you can communicate in television in a similar way that you can in podcasts, but I didn't find my kind of tribe in the TV industry. I did a couple of weeks’ work experience at BBC Radio 6 Music and I felt like there was a real sense of collective creativity, you could do it yourself and you could have a purpose. It seemed to have more of a creative and communicative purpose than TV, where there was a bit of dumbing down and it was a bit competitive. 

What was the last podcast you listened to?

The last episode that I listened to was Novara Media’s podcast series called Downstreamand it was an interview with Chris Packham, the conservationist. Really good conversation!