Podcasts can be a wonderful tool for mental health, in addition to compelling sources of entertainment. They’re becoming increasingly popular ways to open up conversations around challenging topics, and for Natasha Miller, host of the Bitter/Sweet podcast, podcasting offered a way to process her grief in the wake of her mother’s passing.
The podcast blends memory, sense and food, giving Miller and her guests a space to explore the impact of meals on our emotions and sense of self. She told us about how her approach to the podcast has evolved, the process of learning how best to record it, and why a wide network has been crucial to its success.
How would you describe your podcast?
Bitter/Sweet is about how food connects us to our deepest memories. In each episode, a guest shares their most evocative meal, and they then go on to explore the impact of that meal. It starts off with a personal story from myself, which is kind of like a mini-memoir, which covers my experience of grief and also relates to the story shared by the guest.
Why did you start your podcast?
So the inspiration for the project was my concern that I would forget my mum after her sudden death, and looking at ways to remember. Although I'd already been quite interested and curious about this relationship between food and memory, I realised personally that it could be a catalyst for me to remember through food; when I thought about the food that I had, everything seemed a lot richer and more vivid.
I decided I wanted to bring more of myself to the project; rather than just being an interviewer who asked questions of others, I kind of put myself in the hot seat. At that time I was experiencing profound grief, and this became an outlet to express that grief. If I could stand true to my experience, hopefully that would help someone else stand in theirs. It just felt like a desire to be very raw, but very true to the experience, and not water it down in any way.
What advice do you wish you’d been given when you first started?
One thing that really stands out for me; I'm always reflecting on my journey - what I'm learning, what I've learned, what I would do differently - and so when I started out, I asked lots of people about how to achieve the sound that I wanted. I wanted an intimate sound experience which could be controlled and repeated.
It turned out that the studio seemed to be the best environment for that. And I had a studio engineer, and the first recording that I did, although I had a studio engineer, it’s terrible. You can hear the fridge in the background. Now, I didn't know you needed to wear headphones to hear it and I wouldn't know what I was needing to hear, anyway - but I think what I've learned is wear some headphones and also take some control. It doesn't have to be in the hands of a studio engineer. If you’re hearing something and it's not right, don't start that recording.
How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?
So I've been fortunate that I've worked with a number of people for the pilot episode. I had a mentor, Neil Sandell, I had colleagues, Taufiq Bakiranze and Georgie Vestey - who's actually a British Podcast Award Gold winner. I had spoken to Sarah Miles, Eleanor Kagan, Dennis Funk on Twitter - so I had a few people helping me at the second stage of the project. I know what I want to say, but as someone who's inexperienced in the craft of audio storytelling, there are going to be a raft of people who are experts in this, and I would welcome their insights.
Georgie introduced me to Kate McAll, who is the executive producer for the project. It really helped me tremendously; it lightened my load because someone else could see the bigger picture and help me orchestrate. Earlier on, I worked with a friend and producer, Linda Debrah-McSteen, who helped me plan the structure. And then also, I worked with John Biddle, who does the mixing and mastering.
Do you monetise your podcast?
Storyteller Emotions: No - it's a labor of love. It’s something that I would explore, but I think, for me, I wanted to focus on the quality. I'm banking on myself, I'm banking on this idea and it's me driving it. So if it's not up to a standing that I'm happy with, then I couldn't put that in front of potential sponsorship opportunities or advertisers. So no, I don't monetise currently - maybe in the future but not currently.
How do you promote your podcast?
I've been trying to spread the word starting with people that I know, and fostering my own community, so we did a launch, but I think the wins have come from me reaching out to the media. I was fortunate that the Guardian and the Stylist have written about it, which has been really helpful. And the Observer Food featured it in their newsletter. So that has helped to create opportunities for more people to hear it to then decide if it's something that resonates; I appreciate that.
Some social media presence - but I have to say, I haven't focused on that as much as I would have liked and I would like to be more consistent there. Oh, and one thing I do want to explore and had started to explore is feed swaps. I've done that with one person, but I'd like to do more of that. And then seeing if there any opportunities to guests on other people's shows as well. I also need to spend some time on my website and looking at search engine optimisation.
Who listens to your podcast?
So, I'm trying to understand that. It's a whole exercise now, to understand my audience more deeply. I had a look at my figures with regards to visits, so I think a lot of my listeners are from the UK, and I also have a US audience as well.
I have to say, at this stage, I still don't know who my audience is, but there was one woman who had lost their mother, and could relate to my experience. I think my audience will appreciate something that feels quite genuine and personal, and something that will encourage them to think more deeply. But I'm still working that out.
What have you learned about yourself since starting your podcast?
I love learning. That's what I have learned about this. It's a puzzle creating podcasts; thinking about the audience and their journey, how am I helping them to understand and come along? And sometimes you come across these puzzles in the creation of the episode. I prize working to a high standard, to do the best I can possibly do. It may not be the best but it's what I can possibly do and I'll try and call in resources to do that.
I’ve had people talking about my voice; they're so surprised, even people with my circle, like my family and friends, they talk about my ‘podcast voice’. I mean, the other day, my brother said to me, ‘I want you to talk to me how you talk in your podcast’. Apparently, it's more velvety and smooth, so that's quite intriguing.
What was the last podcast you listened to?
I've been listening to a few this morning. The one that stands out is my trusted one; it's called Ghost Of A Podcast, which is about astrology. And then also, I listend to a Wondery podcast this morning about what's going on with Twitter and Elon Musk: Flipping The Bird. That was nice to work to.