Producer Download: Sandra Ferrari

Message Heard’s head of production shares her hard-won insights

Message Heard has made a name for itself as production company creating both original and branded podcasts, with shows such as Power Linesand The Catch under its belt. Much of its recent growth can be attributed to the tireless work of Sandra Ferrari, head of production for the company, and the first hire made by founder Jake Warren.

From its humble starting in a shipping container in Brixton to a leading figure in the UK audio space, Message Heard’s story mirrors Ferrari’s own, going from working at the CBC to the UN, before moving to London and immersing herself in the podcast industry. We spoke to Ferrari about her day-to-day schedule, her favourite podcasting equipment, and what makes a good episode.

How many podcasts do you work on?

As head of production in a scrappy startup-turned-small-business, I'm pretty active in all of our productions to a degree - some more than others. We have 23 active productions at the minute. It sounds wild, but I'm basically with my team in the trenches. So I’m exec-ing, I’m head of production, often project co-ordinator at times; many different hats.

How many podcasts do you listen to per week?

Up until recently, not a whole lot. I didn't have much time to listen anymore, which is concerning to me. Actually, for the past few weeks I’ve made a conscious effort to do that more. Normally, if I hear something's trending, I'll listen to it for five minutes. I'm like, okay, cool, this is what they're doing and I pick it out and take that learning. But now I'm back to the joy of listening again. I have perhaps four on the go. Usually Saturday is my listen binge day.

What’s your podcast app of choice?

Spotify. I'm pretty basic like that. I listen to a lot of music to clean my palette a bit from talk podcasts and radio. Everything's in Spotify for me so it just feels easier. I have an Apple phone, but Spotify works for me.

What are your three items of essential podcast equipment?

A good-quality vocal mic is super-important. A favourite part of most of the podcasts I listen to – I grew up listening to CBC and NPR, North American-style production – is an intimate voice in my ear, so the ability to capture that with a good microphone is completely crucial to me. Obviously, there's moments where something a little scrappier or in the field works really well, but I like that close voice in my ear when I'm listening. 

And an adapter mic for my iPhone has been really cool. It's so cute and it works really well for field recordings – when you're in the moment especially as an audio enthusiast and creator and capturer of stories, it's nice to have something with you so you can get those moments where possible. iZotope’s RX software is great too. It just helps out, it makes engineering so much easier. You always need sound engineers, but I'm a producer first, and it gives people a little bit more agency in controlling the quality of their work a little bit if they don't have an engineer at their disposal, so it is quite a handy tool. 

How long does the average podcast take to turn around?

In radio when I started, I was working in current affairs, where a story turnaround – for the length of your average podcast, like a 20-minute segment or something, where there's a bit of mixing, a bit of interview, a bit of host-read – we’d do them in the day, because that's what you do. You just get it done. With a podcast, we generally work to fortnightly schedules. But it depends on how complex it is. It can be done in a day, it can be done in a week, it can be done in two weeks. But generally, we work to one to two weeks to turn an episode around.

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

From the beginning, it was always kind of me producing. Over the years, as we've gone bigger with more clients and more projects and more editorial strategy in play, with our own shows, I've had to release less and less, and that's kind of what I do. My day-to-day these days, because my team is so strong and they're so good at picking things up, and I've trained them well, I just do a lot of management of their time. When there's a problem, I put out a fire or I find solutions. 

I've had enough experiences, especially with Message Heard and the way we've grown, that I consider myself to be a bit of an encyclopedia of solutions at this point. But my role now is finding solutions to everyone's issues when they don't know how to solve them themselves in a quick way. So it’s meetings, lots of high-level thinking for the company's sake, lots of problem-solving with my team. And if I have to muck in, I'll do a bit of editing. It's a lot of that, a lot of looking for new talent, but sometimes working with clients on their ideas; a bit of everything, really.

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

Them being themselves is often enough to be good at hosting. Learning tips and tricks to articulate better or deliver better, or to be more engaging – those kinds of things are very important, but actually, trying to communicate authenticity is the most engaging thing for anyone to listen to. If you talk to a friend at a bar, you can hold their attention for 10 minutes. Why? Because they like you, because they know you, because they're listening to you, and you have to apply that same logic; because a lot of hosts - and we train a lot of people who haven't been behind a host mic before - try to put on some kind of character, and it really doesn't work – because it's not them, and people, even if they don't know them, will feel it.

What makes a good episode?

A narrative. I know everyone gets kind of stuck, quite rightfully, in the arc of the story, and every series has a higher-level arc to it, but every episode has a mini-arc within it, taking people on the journey within that episode and keeping them engaged. 

That's very important, understanding what your baseline is, what you have to keep coming back to. You can go on wild tangents that come back to that, you can have fun with the music, but come back to the main point of the story within that; we're talking about an interview show, a classic style, things having a focus to it, letting people know why they're there. Don't go off and meander, curate the words that you're saying, to a degree – that's a lot of the producer’s job, the editor’s job. Have a point, some focus and know who you're talking to. That's what makes a good episode: if people understand why they're there listening because the producer and host know.

How did you get into the podcast industry?

I went to school for print journalism and I had a professor who said, “You have to work for CBC – if you stay here, you're gonna be writing about cats for the rest of your life”. So I worked at CBC in radio, and podcasts were starting to become a thing, and I started editing those. Then I took this job as a media trainer with an NGO called Journalists for Human Rights, at a radio station in Ghana. From there I became head of the audio unit for a UN agency called the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. They were more focused on social media and video and were like, “Do whatever you want.” 

So I had a lot of free time and I started making a podcast. It was terrible, because there was no budget and I'm not a host. But the stories were beautiful and interesting and insightful. Then I decided it was time to move to London and try something new to get back into storytelling. I freelanced a little bit but I realised I needed a home, something to grow and work with other people on. Then Jake posted an ad for a producer - I applied and he sold me the dream. I've been doing podcasting ever since.

What's the last podcast you listened to?

I’m Not a Monster and Stolen are what I'm on right now. At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to hear about another true crime story, it's all a bit exhausting. The world's chaotic as it is. Do I need something happy? I'm not sure. But I kept listening and listening and listening, and the level of journalism just kicked in, and the story was so gripping and so important. And I was like, yes, actually, it is so important that there is space for stories like that, and that's why I'm listening to you.