Producer Download: Michelle Douglass

The challenges of producing National Trust podcasts out in the wild

The National Trust is an august organisation dedicated to the preservation of heritage sites and natural beauty in England - but despite the organisation’s more than century-long history, it’s still making strides to keep up with the changing needs and media consumption patterns of its members.

As part of this, the charity has branched out into podcasts, bringing its members audio content based on exploring the sites and landmarks that the organisation is committed to safeguarding. Michelle Douglass, senior podcast producer at the National Trust, is part of this effort, helping to lead the charity’s podcast strategy and creating its audio content, and she talked to PodPod about how she manages l;ong podcast lead times, and why her job is more about meetings than microphones. 

How many podcasts do you work on?

I work across two series at the National Trust. Our main series, which is called the National Trust Podcast, is all about taking people on immersive expeditions to remarkable places around the UK and telling stories that might surprise you. We work on history, we work on nature, we work on adventure, but the seam is always this idea of an immersive adventure and getting out to different places around the UK. 

The National Trust Podcast is a beast because we record on location. Each one will take weeks, if not months, to make and craft and to create this little immersive kind of mini-odyssey, so that takes up most of my time. Another series that we’ve launched with Fun Kids is a pilot series, the first National Trust Kids’ Podcast. We've released one all about nature and we've got one coming up about archaeology, making it exciting for kids. 

How many podcasts do you listen to per week?

I reckon about five podcasts a week. It used to be more, but as a parent of two small kids, I don't have a lot of spare time. The one I'm really into at the minute is Noiser’s A Short History Of, because I am at that time of life where now, I'm in my thirties, I just want all the knowledge very, very quickly! Time is really precious, so I always want to make good use of any moment. So that one's brilliant because in the space of an hour you probably get enough information where, if there’s a conversation about it, you’ll be able to contribute to that conversation and sound a little bit knowledgeable. 

What's your podcast app of choice?

I've got an iPhone, so I go to Apple. I do really like that app, because I like the way that they curate things. You can go into their ‘browse’ page and I like the way that it’s thematically curated, and they'll mix it up and they'll make it relevant to a particular day or season. It helps me find the kind of podcasts that I'd be interested in.

What are your three items of essential podcast equipment?

Some kind of microphone! The National Trust, because we go out and record on location, we have some high-spec stuff, the wind resistant stuff, making sure that we can be up in mountains in blowing gales and still catch a quality audio. But to me it's more about the story and capturing the moment – even if my sound design editor would absolutely hate to hear that! So any portable microphone. One of the little Zoom ones is ideal. 

Also, set up an ‘Ideas’ folder within Outlook, because I think if you're geeky like me, as I imagine most people in podcasts probably are, you're overstimulated constantly and think that everything could be made into a podcast! So I've learned not to bore everyone around me with just saying this constantly; what I do is I send myself a little note or an email which I then just flick into the Ideas folder. Then if I revisit it in a month's time and it's still of interest, I'll probably go down some kind of wormhole. It’s a way of constantly banking ideas. 

The third one is the obvious: get some editing software. We use Adobe Audition and I do love Creative Cloud. I think that all works together really, really well.

How long does the average podcast take to turn around?

I think the National Trust Podcast probably takes a bit longer than most. A lot of podcasts out there are studio chats; even a lot of the immersive ones are still studio, scripted, with immersive sound design. Ours are on location. So to turn that around, do the kind of research that goes into the story, there's quite a long research and development and treatment process, and then it's actually the coordination of getting the cast and crew out there. 

So you have your contributors, your presenter, the producer and our lovely sound designer, and then the edit takes quite a long time as well. Often on these days you’ll come back with a lot of tape and you'll be editing it down. So each one of those will take a couple of months to do. It's a very, very different offering to a studio.

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

Six months ago I moved into a senior podcast producer role. I still get to make podcasts, which is awesome, but it's essentially just bringing in everything, keeping an eye over everything for consistency. I’ve got a lot more meetings now than I used to! Now meetings will involve things like branding and thinking more about business, promotion. 

I guess it's gone from producing my own episodes and managing projects to managing things like people and strategies and brands, but each day is very exciting. It's very busy, but it always feels collaborative and creative and I think there's a lot of energy in the team, but also in the podcast industry as well. 

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

I would say respect your audience’s time. Time is so precious, and if you're gonna grab 20 minutes to an hour of their time, you should be working really hard for that. It's an active choice - it's not like they've got a radio station on, and you just come on as a bit of background music. If you're gonna start a podcast, have an angle. Is it going to offer something to the audience? During the lockdown there were quite a lot of celebrities talking to their interesting mates and I don't think that's enough to make a podcast, to be honest. 

Make sure the audience wants to keep listening throughout, and if you don't have their attention or if there's too much fluff, then I always say “slaughter your darlings.” If it's not moving the story along or adding some amazing colour or some amazing insight, it can probably just go.

What makes a good episode?

Having a purpose, thinking about your story, having a good range of voices. One that we're making is going to be about Corfe Castle and the producer of that, Pippa [Tilbury-Harris], her pitch was that it's going to be a true crime-style podcast from the point of view of a historical detective who's going to present it.So just have a think: what's your angle? What is your treatment? Whose perspective is it? 

If you want any tips in creating a world for your podcast, look to something like Pixar. They are brilliant at that. What's the tone? You can use music, you can use sound design, and then just be consistent with what you're trying to achieve throughout and don't lose sight of what that story is and what the audience are getting from it.

How did you get into the podcast industry?

With great difficulty, if I’m honest, and through some luck! I quite traditionally did a Master’s in broadcast journalism. I had an interview with the BBC, which I completely flunked - it was one of the worst experiences of my life, I couldn't even talk as I was so terrified! It was awful, but because someone had to leave very quickly because they’d become ill, they needed someone in the drop of a hat and they could see that I was unemployed. So he asked me to start the next week which was astonishingly lucky. 

So I I worked at the BBC for nine years and I did digital features, so across digital and radio and a little bit in TV, but I wasn't suited for that; I always wanted to be a speech radio producer. At that time it was really difficult to get a decent job as a speech radio producer because there were not a lot of channels and it was competitive. Then, when podcasts came along, I got a job and I've not looked back to radio. To me, podcasts are almost the rebellious younger sister of radio. I was very, very lucky in that I had enough experience as a radio producer to then move into podcasts, but I would say you don't need to come from that background to move into podcasts. Anyone can start a podcast, which is amazing. 

What was the last podcast that you listened to?

I really like that Wondery one, British Scandal. The last series I listened to was maybe the one about Christine Keeler. It's long form storytelling, but again, it's through story, you learn about a particular historical moment to a context of something about politics. 

I really like their format and their storytelling in taking a close-up lens of a particular moment. It's very character-led as well. So for someone like me, who always looks to film and theatre and TV for inspiration, that kind of character-led storytelling is always something that I'm going to be a bit of a sucker for.