How BBC Sounds Audio Lab turned a podcast dream into reality

Tommy Dixon on how he shifted his career to become an award-winning podcaster

It’s safe to say that Tommy Dixon wasn’t at all prepared when he heard the name of his podcast Colouring in Britain called out at this year’s ARIAS as the gold award winner for Best New Podcast.

In fact, he was so unprepared that he wasn’t even sitting in the right section; instead of being with all the other shortlisted nominees in the stalls, with easy access to the stage, he was up in the nosebleeds, sitting alongside his mentor and Audio Labs programme leader Khaliq Meer, just happy to be there. 

It’s that sort of authenticity, passion and commitment to the art of podcasting that makes Dixon special. “I'm super-duper stoked to win this award,” Dixon told PodPod after the win. “I wasn’t expecting it, but I'm really, really happy that so many people listen to the podcast.” 

Making the decision to apply 

Five years ago, if you asked Tommy Dixon what he does for a living, he would have told you he’s an engineer. At that point, he was still a university student in his third year, completing his placement at a railway company and spending two hours commuting from London to Milton Keynes every day. 

Fed up with listening to the same music playlists over and over again, Dixon discovered podcasts on Spotify and fell in love with the medium, knowing then and there that he had to make his own. So when the opportunity came to apply for the first-annual BBC Sounds Audio Lab training and development programme, Dixon was all in.

The paid incubator programme provides creatives with the opportunity to transform their ideas to podcasts, with training, mentoring, and production support from the BBC. To apply, Dixon had to submit a five minute audio sample that reflected his idea for Colouring in Britain - a podcast about the “incredible lives and stories of Britons of colour, past and present”.

“I booked a week off work, and I was like, okay, cool, we're in competition mode,” Dixon says. “I worked for hours on getting my sample together.” 

Ironically, Dixon chose to focus his sample on award-winning British rapper Stormzy and the pivotal moment in his life in which he made the decision to quit his engineering job and pursue his passion - a path that Dixon himself officially followed last summer, leaving engineering to pursue podcasting full time.

“What I wanted to do was showcase pivotal moments in these people's lives that have shaped culture or history,” says Dixon. “I storyboarded [Stormzy] leaving his job in Southampton, coming to London and telling his best friends that he was quitting engineering to become a musician and then it sort of skipped a little bit to him winning his first award.” 

Bringing an authentic and personal message 

The four-episode series officially launched in August 2022, a little over six months after Dixon’s successful application to the Audio Lab programme. The podcast explored the lives of a number of influential figures including writer and dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah, civil rights activist Paul Stephenson, Bristol’s first Black psychiatric ward sister Princess Campbell, and founder of Britain's first commercial Black newspaper - the West Indian Gazette (WIG) - Claudia Jones. 

Dixon’s passion and dedication for the project didn’t just come from his love of podcasts, it was the message that came along with it. Having first come up with the idea after the COVID-19 pandemic, following the murder of George Floyd and the racist abuse that Black players faced in the 2020 Euros, Dixon wanted to create something that would show that history is made up of diverse influential people. 

“Seeing those players being stripped of their Britishness and that being down to their skin colour and absolutely nothing else - it just really hurt me, and I really wanted to do something to sort of challenge that notion of what Britishness is, what gives someone identity,” says Dixon. “When I saw Audio Lab, I saw an opportunity to be able to create something that would almost act as a Trojan horse… I wanted to unpack bits of British history, and show people that British history is world history.”

“Britain is made up of so many different people, so by showing you all these amazing people who've influenced and impacted the way in which we live our lives today, I wanted to show you that Britishness is always a wide array and is a collective.”

That personal touch can be heard in the way Dixon narrates the podcast and draws listeners in, using snippets of his personal life and experiences to relate to the people he’s talking about. Every aspect of the podcast is carefully curated in the way that it flows with the story - from the narration to the music and sound design, the direct interviews to the clips from live events and conferences, to acting out flashbacks and scenarios. 

In the first episode, Dixon interviews Zephaniah - whose sense of humour and story-telling skills make him a character in himself - and one scene in particular that sticks out is Zephaniah’s description of a incident of police racism he encountered, in which he was pulled over by an officer who didn’t believe he could afford the car he was driving. The segment featured a voice actor playing the officer as Zephaniah recaps the story, with somber music and more serious tone to enhance the audience’s engagement with the story.

Getting the right help 

Dixon says he wouldn’t have been able to bring the podcast to its current level of quality and professionalism without the help of Audio Lab and his mentors within the program: BBC producer and writer Alasdair Cross and BBC Radio producer Kieran Soraghan. Not only did they help Dixon make sure that his script was up to “a really superb level”, they continued to be there for him every step of the way to the launch of the podcast. 

“I remember there were days that Kieran basically gave up his whole day to help me go in the studio and record my voice over. He would come into the drama studio and would help me set up: how you should prepare to record drama and how you should thank your actors and speak to your actors and direct them,” says Dixon. “Alasdair would spend ages and ages and ages reading over scripts and giving me feedback.”

“I can't thank them enough. My situation was so different. I was doing a full-time job so there were only so many hours that I had and they really helped me make up for those hours. They did a fantastic job in terms of the technical stuff, and in supporting as well, checking in like ‘how things are things going? How are you feeling? Don't feel pressured’.” 

Although Dixon is the first and only Audio Lab alumni to win an award so far, the rest of the 2022 class also successfully launched their podcasts including Hamza Salmi who worked on documentary podcast Who Was Michael X, Hanna Adan with culture and history podcast The Museum of Bad Vibes, Adam Zmith on sound archive podcast The Film We Can’t See, Talia Randall on gardening podcast Blossom Trees and Burnt Out Cars, and Jade Scott on The Reset which explores the transition into adulthood. 

The new class of Audio Lab 2023 was announced last month, with the newcomers joining BBC Sounds at The Podcast Show wide-eyed and excited to follow in Dixon and the rest of the inaugural class’ footsteps. The new creators will all work at BBC Sounds as assistant producers and will be receiving a full-time salary with an eight-month contract and gain access to production, funding, promotion, design and more.

Each of the creators will work with an individual production company - either from the BBC, such as the BBC News Long Form Audio team in Salford, BBC Scotland Productions, and BBC Audio Speech & Music Podcasts, or independent podcast production companies like Mags Creative and Three Arrows Media.

“I wouldn't be where I am now if I didn't have the opportunity [with Audio Lab] - I wouldn't have had the resources, the assets, and the access… even having a BBC email really helped in being able to convince people that this was a project,” says Dixon. “I don't have a production company and I can be making stuff in my bedroom that I think is good, but it won't be industry level, or if it is industry level, I have to invest a hell of a lot.”

“There are talents out there who have the passion and want to do [a podcast] but don't have the means to, or don't have the direction - or know even where to even begin. If something like Audio Lab isn't around or if there aren't other versions of Audio lab, it's difficult to even know where to begin or see a future within it.. so something like Audio Lab is really, really important.”