While many people find themselves in podcasting after starting their career in radio, Lily Ames’ journey was a little different, in that she wanted to get into podcasts since university. Now working as head of production and culture for Shoreditch-based podcast firm Chalk and Blade, Ames trained as a radio producer with the specific goal of eventually moving from broadcast production into podcasting.
We sat down with Ames to discuss her thoughts on why visual tools are one of the most important elements of her toolkit, the flexibility that’s required for working in a small production team, and why self-indulgence is the enemy of good podcasting.
How many podcasts do you work on?
I oversee, in one way or the other, all podcasts in production. So we generally have, on average, maybe six podcasts going on at a time. I will be involved on a granular level, usually, with one or two, and then oversee other ones in various capacities, even if it's just really light.
How many podcasts do you listen to per week?
I probably listen to three regular ones and then I’ll be testing out maybe five other ones per week, so just kind of listening to the first episode of, like, five different podcasts.
What’s your podcast app of choice?
I use Pocket Casts, but I’m now increasingly splitting my time evenly between that and Spotify.
What are your three items of essential podcast equipment?
My favourite new toys of podcasting are the visual elements, so our new cameras are my new favourite toy, and then our set in our recording studio. I don't know if that's equipment, but I'm going to kind of extend the theme of visualisation. And then something really, really basic, which is just extra monitors. If I could, I would have three screens; I only have two but I would have three.
How long does the average podcast take to turn around?
We often work on a weekly schedule with our regular podcast episodes. But that wouldn't include time spent on development, or pre-production.
What does your role involve on a day-to-day basis?
My role really is to help set up the podcast and make sure that it's running smoothly. So I would work closely with the development team, and they would kind of hand over the vision to me, and I would make sure that all the expectations are managed and set with the client, even if that's an editorial client like the BBC. I make sure everyone is on the same page with the editorial vision, make sure the team is all in place and everyone on the team knows exactly what they're doing - because each podcast team looks different. And then depending on the team, I will kind of slot in on a different level.
So sometimes I’ll slot in on a showrunner level. and sometimes I’ll say, okay, this team doesn't need me; I’ll just make sure everything's going smoothly. And then sometimes there could be a team where maybe someone is a little bit more junior, so I might work alongside them as a co-producer. But at the end of the day, we're also a small team and if someone's like, I'm just up against it, I'll do anything to help them. And that's everything from editing to writing briefs to chasing guests. So, I would say day-to-day, producer roles are not necessarily in my job description, but I have to be able to do everything a producer would do, if someone needs me to do it.
What's one thing that you wish every podcast host knew?
A lot of hosts, if they're just starting out, they think that you have to, like, whisper into the microphone as if you're whispering into someone's ear. But you need to treat the microphone as if you're actually talking to someone a few meters away. Even though podcasting is really intimate and it's going right inside people's ears, please don't whisper into the microphone as if you're whispering directly into someone's ears. I say, don't be afraid of the microphone; give it all you got.
What makes a good episode?
I guess really respecting the listener in a way where you are really taking into account how to hold the listener's interest and think along every step of the way, you should have the listener at the heart. Anytime you're getting too self-indulgent or selfish about what you love, you really need to revisit: is this interesting? Is this captivating, is this serving the listener first?
How did you get into the podcast industry?
I always wanted to be a podcast producer, but unfortunately, when I went to do my master's, podcasting school didn't exist. So I'm one of those people who listened to podcasts in 2007. And so when I heard This American Life when I was in uni, I was like, this is it; this is what I want to do. But I had to train as a radio producer first. And there were many times where I was like, I want to tell these quirky everyday stories, and here I am reporting on news. But the guidance was you really need to know those elements of journalism and broadcast journalism in order to tell even the quirkiest, most artistic stories.
So I went to journalism school, and then I started working for the CBC in Canada, in radio news. And then I went to The Third Coast in 2013, and I met all these British producers who were working for really cool places like Prison Radio Association and I just thought, Okay I need to move to the UK to work at places beyond CBC. It just so happened that I moved to the UK in 2014, which I believe was the year that Serial came out. So I could finally work in the podcast industry.
What's the last podcast you listened to?
The last podcast I listened to was Vanity Fair's Dynasty and I highly recommend it! It's the perfect tonal translation of Vanity Fair, as the reporter hosts provide extremely well-researched context to the Royal Family, with a splash of salacious fun.