Producer Download: Zayna Shaikh

Why authenticity is the key to producing a hit podcast

Zayna Shaikh is not at all new to the audio industry, with 13 years of experience spanning a career in radio to currently producing an award-winning podcast series. Although she’s not often in front of the mic, Shaikh carries a lot of the work behind the scenes, from formulating the topics of the episodes to making sure it’s distributed widely and shared for fans. 

According to Shaikh, the most important factor in creating a good podcast is having passion and authenticity, because that’s what will keep drawing listeners in. PodPod asked Shaikh to share what she learned from working as a producer at the BBC and the advice she’d give to other podcasters. 

How many podcasts do you work on?

Right now I’m working on two podcasts: Scarlett Moffatt Wants to Believe, presented by TV personality Scarlett Moffat and her co-host and boyfriend Scott, and the other podcast isBrown Girls Do It Toowhich is the award-winning, ground-breaking sex and relationships podcasts hosted by Poppy Jay and Rubina Pabani

I love working on both the podcasts. I very recently also used to work on Not Even Water as well, but that is more of a time-specific podcast. We started working on that a couple of months before Ramadan and then it went out during Ramadan, and so that has wrapped quite recently. So I'm working on two at the moment, but that does change. 

How many podcasts do you listen to per week?

I listen to quite a few regularly but then I also like to binge listen, like I like to binge watch stuff on Netflix and whatnot. So some of the ones that I listen to on a weekly basis: I really enjoy The Girls Bathroom just because I love Sofia and I love Cinzia and I just find them so entertaining. I have recently just finished listening to Believe in Magic which is a BBC Sounds investigative podcast which I really really liked and it was fantastic. I also listened to quite a bit of religious faith-based podcasts because I just feel like it's a digestible way for me to learn more about the religion that I follow, and it's done in a really a very accessible format to me. 

What is your podcast app of choice?

I kind of switch between BBC Sounds and Spotify. The more chatty and discussion podcasts I find just on the BBC and on Spotify, but when I want something gripping and that tells a really great story, then I tend to head to BBC Sounds. 

What are your three items of essential podcast equipment?

I think a really great mic is important because you don't want poor sound quality, because a podcast is all about the audio. I think having a really good mic and a good sound setup is really important.

This is weird but I feel like passion is really important. I mean that in terms of whoever the presenter is, I think with the podcast you really need to be authentic. So, I think whatever the topic is, the presenter has to have passion about that, because then I feel like it really comes to it and it allows for a really great podcast.

The third item that I think is really important for a podcast is a script. I think just having a bit of structure or just knowing where you're going with something is really helpful, it helps give you focus.

How long does the average podcast take to turn around?

That kind of depends on what podcast it is that I'm working on. The whole process - from coming up with the idea for the episode, scripting, recording, editing, and then putting it out there - it kind of differs in time. So when we record one of the podcasts that I work on, we do two episodes back-to-back, then the other podcasts that I work on, we will just record on a weekly basis. 

So I think it kind of depends on the podcast that you're working on and how it's going out, but I'd say scripting normally takes me a couple of hours depending on the topic and then editing takes around the same time.

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

My role involves a bunch of different things. So, if I take Scarlett's podcast, for example, we cover all sorts of unbelievable topics on the podcast. So for that week, I do a lot of forward planning in my role; what's the season gonna look like? What kind of guests do we want to get on? There's a lot of research that goes into it, and then scripting as well. We want to make sure that whatever information, even if it’s about something like a mermaid or a unicorn, we want to make sure that it's factually correct.

Then I obviously prep everything for the recording, book the guest, send technical details over, record with my guests, make sure the visual and audio is all of the highest quality, and then edit as well. So my role is researching, scripting, recording, editing, and publishing, and then being across everything from the podcast, from initiation to being published on BBC Sounds. Everything that goes on behind the mic… that would be me. 

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

I think podcasting is very different from other means, because I don't think you can wing it with podcasting. It's quite an individualistic listen, right? No one really listens to podcasts in a group or collectively. You're either listening on a walk, or on a commute, or mostly with your headphones. So, when someone chooses to put on a podcast, they are giving it their attention. 

I think it's really important to do a podcast about what you're interested in as something that you really love. So, for example, if you love knitting, then you can talk about knitting for absolutely ages and ages and ages. I think that level of authenticity is really, really important and I wish people just knew that. Go towards what your passion is, talk about what your passion is, what you're interested in because that will give you longevity and that will keep people interested in what you have to say.

What makes a good episode?

I think, once again, it kind of depends on what the premise of your podcast is. So I work on an entertainment podcast and I think if in the recording I'm laughing at what my presenters are saying, then I think that makes a really good episode. I think it's important to just have fun with it, if you're making a fun podcast, or if you're making an emotional podcast, make sure you convey those stories with respect. Consistency is important, so it can be happiness, sadness, reflection, it can be positivity - whatever it may be, I think keep that in mind.

How did you get into the podcast industry?

I've actually been working in the audio industry since I was 18 years old. It's been a long 13 years now and I worked in radio for almost 10 years. I felt like I had done everything I could with radio and then during the pandemic, when we all moved towards remote working and working from home, I started going for walks in the park and I found myself just so sick of my music playlists all the time that I kind of ventured into podcasts myself anyway. I was listening to podcasts and then I just became really interested in them. So when the opportunity came up to work within the podcast team, I was very enthusiastic about that.

Also, in 2019, the BBC Asian Network which I was working at had just launched their first round of podcasts. And one of the first podcasts that they launched was called For Fast’s Sake, which was a Ramadan podcast. Initially, I was going to produce that and then they asked me to be a presenter on it so that was one of my first forays into being on the other side of the mic, which I haven't gone back to do since, although I really did enjoy it. So I've kind of always been in audio, and then I think just very naturally when podcasting took off, it was something that I was really keen to become involved in.

What’s the last podcast you listened to?

During The Podcast Show, I went to the talk that George The Poet, Georgia Catt, Josh Baker, and Jon Ronson did, and I realised that I had completely missed out on the I'm Not a Monster edition with Shamima Begum. So I've been listening to that, because I don't know how I hadn't listened to it before.