Servant of Pod What Does a Podcast Producer Do?
Wed, 5/12 1:38PM • 28:40
producer, podcast, laughter, people, narrative, host, emmanuel, industry, writing, intern, production, experience, skills, job, interview, places, gimlet, voice, shops, tape
C.C. Paschal, Andrea Asuaje, Emmanuel Dzotsi, Nick Quah
Nick Quah 00:01
Hey, everyone, quick heads up: we recorded this conversation before everything went down at Gimlet and Reply All, and as I track this, there's a lot about the story that's still live. So that's why you won't hear mention of it in our conversation. And you can find me reporting on those stories in Hot Pod and Vulture.
Nick Quah 00:26
So, what exactly is a podcast producer?
Andrea Asuaje 00:30
Hey, Nick, can you try that again, just like 50% happier?
Nick Quah 00:34
Okay. So, what exactly is a podcast producer?
Andrea Asuaje 00:40
I love that. Let's keep going.
Nick Quah 00:42
It's hard to pinpoint exactly what a producer does. The title seems important and authoritative, and it's implied that producers make a lot of decisions.
Andrea Asuaje 00:51
Could we swap this music out?
Nick Quah 00:58
So what does a podcast producer actually do? And how do you become one? From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: a conversation with podcast producers C.C. Paschal...
Andrea Asuaje 01:12
She's got a tape sync setup, so we're good to go.
Nick Quah 01:14
...And Emmanuel Dzotsi.
Andrea Asuaje 01:15
And I just sent him the invite for the recording session.
Nick Quah 01:19
More in a minute.
Andrea Asuaje 01:22
Could I get a few options on that?
Nick Quah 01:24
More in a minute. More in a minute. More in a minute. More in a minute.
Nick Quah 01:42
This conversation examining the role of a podcast producer is one I've been thinking about for a while, because it's a question that lots of people have. So I was lucky enough to chat with two great producers who have found tremendous success in this field, and who face the challenges so many of their predecessors had to endure. But they're also working to build a more equitable space for new and up-and-coming producers. C.C. Paschal is an independent podcast producer, editor, and consultant who's worked for shows like BuzzFeed's Another Round, Gimlet's Uncivil, and NPR's Louder Than a Riot. And Emmanuel Dzotsi is a producer and co-host of Gimlet's Reply All who's also worked for Serial--he co-hosted the third season--and This American Life.
Nick Quah 02:30
So let's start off with the most basic question: how would you describe who a producer is? C.C.?
C.C. Paschal 02:37
A producer is a creative problem solver, I think, at its heart. It's like, you have a thing to get done and there's no prescribed way to get from here to there, but you have a set of restrictions, and you have to figure out how to navigate that--often on a deadline.
Nick Quah 02:54
So how would you describe those those restrictions?
C.C. Paschal 02:57
Things like booking, schedules, tools and materials available--everything that falls under the heading of resources--skills of your teammates. Is there a good collaborative structure that allows people to actually efficiently be able to do their job in the environment, or is it kind of like navigating a gauntlet maze or something, you know? Those things also matter, I think. It's like a relay race, you know? And so like, producer, you do have independent producers and lone wolf, sort of, producers, who are just out here in the wild, kind of like myself. [Laughter] But I once ran with a pack. And when you work in a production house, that's what it's like. You have a wide range of technical know how as well as editorial skills to be able to direct a vision from an idea or a pitch into some sort of plausible sense of ideation, you know? An episode, a digital companion piece, whatever the end product is going to be that is part of your podcast package.
Nick Quah 04:04
So Emmanuel, you run with a pack now.
Emmanuel Dzotsi 04:07
Nick Quah 04:08
I think you have for a while now, so how would you describe--let's say to a person who is new to audio and podcasts--how would you describe what a producer does?
Emmanuel Dzotsi 04:18
Huh. I mean, I think it's easiest to talk about what a producer doesn't do. But I mean, I guess what I would say is like, in every possible facet, or part, of making a podcast or making a show, whether that's administrative, whether that's idea generation, whether it's actual organization, and actual sort of like showrunning, producers are the lifeblood, and the foundation of, absolutely everything a podcast does, basically. I think that's the way I like to think of it, is just like, if you are constructing a podcast like you were building a house, the people who are really your foundation, but also somehow your supporting beams, producers are there doing the things that make everything work on all of our shows.
Nick Quah 05:01
Yeah. So there's a possibility that you can equate a producer to being both the architect, the contractor, the person driving the trucks, like that's basically...
C.C. Paschal 05:11
Nick Quah 05:11
The foreman, exactly, yeah. [Laughter]
Emmanuel Dzotsi 05:13
C.C. Paschal 05:14
All the things. [Laughter]
Nick Quah 05:16
So how did each of you get started in this business?
C.C. Paschal 05:20
I came to audio production out of being an arts reporter, a print arts reporter, and I started working at a local radio station, where my first job was as the editor of a radio show that was with this multicultural youth journalism organization. So there, I really honed the editorial side of the production skill set--so, you know, gathering ideas for pitches, doing research, booking, writing scripts, and things like that. And also handling like web copy, and social media, anything that had to do with the communication about what the show itself is, how it functions, and then sort of the directorial angle of how to book a show in a way to make the point that you're trying to make with whatever episode you're producing. So once I then went to NPR as an intern at Morning Edition in 2012, the senior supervising producer of Morning Edition at the time--who was my boss, who hired me--noted that I already had a strong editorial skill set, and that I should really focus on the production aspect of things, like actually cutting tape, and mastering--whether it was Pro Tools or whatever different digital audio workstations that we might be using--and just really getting a handle on live engineering productions, being able to shepherd recordings in, and that also is like... That's where some of the complex problem solving can come in sometimes, especially like, because everyone will have a different setup, and you have to figure out if people are in different time zones, and this person has... When I talked about the restraints, you know, like, Suzy is on a boat in Alaska and in a different time zone, and has to connect with your host, there's a third party somewhere that you need to patch in, but they don't have a landline. You have to like... [Laughter]
Nick Quah 07:16
It feels like there's a lot of firefighting involved in this. [Laughter]
C.C. Paschal 07:20
Exactly. Keep the trains moving.
Nick Quah 07:23
How about you, Emmanuel? Because you're now firmly in the narrative podcasting space, does that require taking, like, a very different path or something?
Emmanuel Dzotsi 07:32
When I first got into this business, I got into audio wanting to work in public radio for like public radio talk shows as a producer. I was a production intern. That job, as like a talk show interview producer, I think is, for public radio, is very similar to the job of a producer for like an interview two-way show for a podcast in some ways, where as a producer, you're coming up with ideas--pitching ideas for like, what the hosts or hosts talk about, or whoever it is that they're going to interview. You're ultimately booking those people, reaching out to them, writing interview questions, prepping with hosts--you're doing a lot of the stuff that C.C. was talking about in terms of writing the copy, all that kind of thing--you still do all of that as a narrative producer. [Laughter] You know what I mean? It's like...
C.C. Paschal 08:20
One thousand percent.
Emmanuel Dzotsi 08:21
You still have to do the pitching, and the booking, and that kind of work. What's different, I think, often what you end up doing as a narrative producer, is what you have to do once the interview's done, you know what I mean? Often the amount of work you're doing in terms of cutting down an interview, and what the end product is, looks very different. So when you're editing, sort of like a two-way interview podcast, you're going to be doing, I think, a lot more work than people realize, right? It's more than just making an interview shorter, of course. You're depending on the show, trying to bring out certain themes in the conversation--themes in a conversation that you probably beforehand have prepped, that's a thing we do in narrative podcasting producing as well--but also, maybe you're looking at opportunities for music, you're thinking about when the ad break is gonna be, you're thinking about times where you want to bring in archival tape or like news tape to help bolster a two-way conversation. Those are sort of the building blocks of how we do narrative podcasts as well. Except, you know, depending on your narrative podcast, you're also having to think about writing. [Laughter] And what your host is saying. But no, I think it's like, often both skills are very similar. And that's why a lot of younger producers or interns who come over to the narrative podcasting space, when they join these narrative podcasting shops, we normally start them out by training them on just being like, "Hey, can you cut this two-way interview for me?" "Can you book these people?" Those are just sort of the basic building blocks of being a producer, I think, no matter what the job is.
Nick Quah 09:57
So what a lot of people who are new to audio may not know is that, as producers, you're often writing for someone else--you know, like a host. What's that like?
Emmanuel Dzotsi 10:08
I mean, like, I worked for a couple of years with Sarah Koenig, very, very much like a writer's writer for the radio. She would mostly just like write most of her own stuff. But like, in terms of giving notes as a producer, like in a group edit, and things like that, I'd often find myself trying to sort of like ape her writing in small ways--not that I could ever do that--and writing like a version of that, that, to be honest, back then, was not that great and that she seldom used. [Laughter] But now I feel like, as a host, and as someone who's produced a little bit more, yeah, it is sort of like inhabiting the voice of the person. A lot of it, I mean, is just being able--I think it's a skill that any people who do any sort of writing for audio pick up, whether you're a producer, if you're a reporter, if you're a host--is just like learning how to write the way somebody talks. And just like understanding that, and just kind of maybe hedging it by saying, "Oh, something like..." and hoping that they just kind of take it. [Laughter] Because ultimately, as the producer, I think you want them to take your note, you want them to use your language. And I feel like we say, "Oh, use something like..." as a way to not get our feelings hurt when inevitably the host kind of rewrites it to sound more like their voice.
C.C. Paschal 11:16
Yeah, I think that's especially like, when you are writing for hosts, especially over a long period of time, sometimes their voices get stuck in your head. Like the first host that I ever had to write for was Steve Inskeep at NPR's Morning Edition, who has a very distinct--but it is not my--voice, but like, I hear it! It's just like me and Steve just jamming in my head, like... [Laughter] So it was great, and you know, as a producer, like kind of what Emmanuel was saying about, like, you want to protect your feelings from getting hurt. But it's also like, such a good little win, when your scripts get through unchanged. And you're just like, "Hahaha! I know your head better than you!" I don't know, it's a weird kind of mind space to be in. But yeah, to understand not only how someone would say something, but... I think Michelle Martin's another example of a host that I worked for where I like... you just can't. She's just so singular. She has such her own voice that the best you could do would be like, "Okay, well, here's the skeleton of like... Here's the argument that you're writing, and here are the things to know." And it was almost like writing for her was more almost like bullet points than actual prose. Like, you have to let the magic happen.
Nick Quah 12:27
Coming up: what C.C. and Emmanuel would change if they ruled the podcast industry.
Nick Quah 12:47
Emmanuel has worked as a producer for about six years now. And C.C. has been in the game for about 10 years. And since they've started their professional careers, they both say that the most glaring problem to becoming a producer is access.
C.C. Paschal 13:00
There is this sort of chicken and egg thing in podcasting, specifically narrative podcasting, where it can be really hard to break into if you don't have previous narrative experience. But at the time, in 2017, there weren't a whole ton of narrative shops.
Nick Quah 13:14
Yeah, it's one of those problems, you kind of get the opportunity for experience without already having experience.
C.C. Paschal 13:19
Exactly, exactly. And so your opportunities were pretty limited outside of like, being a perennial intern--which I'd already done--and I didn't have the resources to go to a place like Salt, or do a bunch of documentary study. Things like that, again, is kind of a thing that is informed by like, privilege, and stability, and not just being an intern for years trying to scrape by. So I decided to take that opportunity to just self-study. So what I was able to do was to create the beginning of a body of work, and then that's what I took to Gimlet to be like, "Okay, look so I haven't worked on like a fancy show, but like, here's a thing that can prove to you that I understand the conventions of narrative, I understand how to build a story. I understand how to storyboard, I understand how scoring works," and things like that.
Nick Quah 14:03
What about you, Emmanuel? What was it like for you, starting out?
Emmanuel Dzotsi 14:06
A good friend of mine always has this thing that I think about a lot, which is like, "For so long, I was just trying to get into the room, and then after that, I was really just trying not to get fired, and it's only now that I started to think about what it all means." And I think that's really true, and I think it is really hard to get into our business. And the way it's set up right now, and it was... For me, I felt like, in a lot of ways, I definitely had an easier path than other people in terms of getting in. But even so, it still felt like kind of difficult. I mean, my way of getting in and just to the door was just as an intern, which people do, but I wasn't even necessarily the right kind of intern at first to become an audio producer, right? I was an intern for talk shows, basically. And those were great because I did learn a lot of the basic building blocks of producing--I learned how to book, learned how to write interview questions, I also got to hear people live on the radio, just kind of like, talk to callers, talk to people, so I understood who was a good talker and who wasn't, and how to kind of craft the interview. But ultimately, I remember at some point, I had to make a choice where it was like, "Well, I have to find some way to like, get the skills for narrative stuff." I think, yes, you have your Salts, you have your Transom...
Nick Quah 15:25
And you're talking about the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine and the Transom workshops, which teaches production and narrative journalism skills.
Emmanuel Dzotsi 15:32
It was like, in my mind back then, there were like a few sort of like--and this was, again, probably a similar time, I don't know, like, 2015-2016 when I was just sort of like, "Okay, I know that nobody would hire me to do any of this kind of work, but I am interested in narrative stuff, even just as a skill to have one day." And so, for me, I was not quite as brave or confident to be like, "I'm gonna make my own thing!" and learn from that experience, although I wish I had been. [Laughter]
C.C. Paschal 16:01
I don't know if brave or confident were... I mean, maybe brave, but definitely not confident. You know, it was almost desperation.
Emmanuel Dzotsi 16:09
C.C. Paschal 16:09
Because it was so hard, right? It was like, "Well, I have literally nothing to lose, and at the very least, I'll gain some knowledge."
Emmanuel Dzotsi 16:16
C.C. Paschal 16:16
Maybe about what not to do.
Emmanuel Dzotsi 16:17
No, totally, totally. And I think that's a good point. It was like, you have to get that experience somewhere, and the barriers of entry into our industry are so high that, yeah, sometimes that's like just what you have to do, is just make your own stuff, oh, until somehow magically, you get a part-time gig. It was like, the people I knew who were sort of quote-unquote "making it" at that point where people who'd interned for a while at different shops, bounced around, trying to pick up skills wherever they went to do stuff, and then eventually, it was like, oh, somebody went on maternity leave, and like, they covered for that.
Nick Quah 16:49
Emmanuel Dzotsi 16:49
Or, like, "Oh, The Takeaway is hiring, like, a temp producer," or something. And like, you do that for a couple of months. And then like, you would temp until you couldn't temp anymore, and then you either became a freelancer, or one of the places that you temped at, you ended up working for. For me, I think I got super lucky. I was prepared to do all of that. But then I applied to the This American Life fellowship after having interned at WBEZ. The whole point of that fellowship is sort of aimed at people--at least was back then--aimed at people who, if you were coming from a radio background, you kind of just needed that one sort of all-inclusive apprenticeship experience to just like, come out of it and be able to do the thing. Right?
Nick Quah 17:33
Emmanuel Dzotsi 17:34
And so I did that, and just kind of treated it like a grad school, where I was just like, "Okay, after this, I'm only trying to apply to sort of like entry-level jobs, and like, sort of those sorts of experiences." Because I felt confident that, "Oh, right, I'm at a shop where I'm working a crazy number of hours a week, I'm learning from all of these really cool people in our industry, and to be frank, also connecting with people in the industry." And I think often, for a lot of people, they might not have the This American Life experience, per se, but you might have a Gimlet sort of extended, either temp experience or internship experience that is like that for you--or Pineapple, or some other shop--or it could be working on something of your own that like, really, really gets your name out there. And somebody here is like, "Oh, right. We hear something, and here's the ways in which we'd love to work with you."
Nick Quah 18:27
So what I'm hearing is that even though it's easier to get your stuff out there, it's still really difficult to get a stable, decent paying job with benefits as a podcast producer these days. Has that gotten any better? Or any easier?
Emmanuel Dzotsi 18:39
Yes and no. And what I mean by that is like, I think, yes, in that there are tons of new shows, tons of places that want producers, and need it even, for narrative stuff. Like that's clearly a thing. And I think it's still a producer's market in that I think there are still somehow--not somehow--there are still, because of the barriers of entry to our industry, not actually enough people to do all of those jobs. Right? And I think it's one of those things, that it's a problem that the industry has created for itself. We should be clear about that. But I also think that while there is a producer's market, there's always going to be a learning curve with newer organizations, or places that are newer to the audio space, on how they treat their producers. I do think we are in the middle of a pretty big sort of reckoning over what a good work environment looks like for producers across the board, no matter where you work. And I think time will tell on how that actually works out, especially for large institutions, like the one I work at, but like, I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic because eventually these are problems that you're seeing not only for producers, but ultimately for the places that would want to hire new ones.
Nick Quah 19:56
C.C. Paschal 19:58
There are, structurally, a lot of challenges within our industry, like so many industries and all parts of media, I believe, that have been touched by, you know, abuses of power, and racial inequity, and all of the things. Like, we have all of these diversity initiatives, and I can speak from, you know, basically 10 years of being a diversity hire, there's all these questions about how to get talent in. There's also the thing about how do we retain talent, and how do we help talent grow? So you have all of these people from diverse backgrounds coming through all of these companies and getting these opportunities, but it can actually be extraordinarily difficult for them to remain because the price is so high, right? Like the time commitment, the amount of resources and life structures that you need to have in place in order to really be able to show up and do your best work in the way that these places demand, on this time cycle of having, you know, production is a rigorous, rigorous grind. And it's great when your resourced for it, But, at least in these early years of trying to figure out how to retain and build, you know, there weren't a lot of opportunities when I was coming up to have people in leadership that I could go to if I was experiencing difficulties at any level, or in any part of my job. And it was only like, with time that I've seen those issues begin to be rectified, or at least begin to be acknowledged, across these organizations. So it's, um... But along the way, it definitely contributes to high levels of burnout, I think. So that's something that's huge within our industry that we don't really talk about, because, again, the grind culture has become inseparable with what we do. And there's also like, there's an emotional toll of that grind, as well. As narrative producers, especially, we're really tapping into our emotions all the time in order to make the sort of content that listeners can truly connect with, right? And I think that's something not to be underestimated, as well, you know? And that can take a different kind of toll, especially if you're a journalist of color essentially working on the frontlines of cultural reporting in an era of so much violence and uncertainty, you know?
Nick Quah 22:08
Yeah. Hmm. This is a very broad, possibly unfair question, but let's say you're appointed, like, podcast industry czar...
C.C. Paschal 22:20
Oh yes! [Laughter] I'm ready! I'm ready.
Nick Quah 22:22
And you're put in a position to at least implement some changes or policies to sort of improve conditions a little bit, and just improve conditions of producers a little bit--flow, recruitments, etc., etc. What would be the top, let's say, two changes, you'll make?
Emmanuel Dzotsi 22:39
The top two changes I would make in the whole industry, like, to start?
Nick Quah 22:43
Emmanuel Dzotsi 22:44
I would, one, pay interns way more than we pay them, because I think the thing that struck me when I entered this industry, but has never really left me, is just like that the expectation is that actually, you should be doing an internship as the first step in your career, like as a fully-grown adult, whether you've come from college, or you've come from an experience commensurate to that. It's just the idea that you shouldn't get to actually be starting your career with, like, an actual real job. And I think the sooner we move to that, the better. [Laughter] And I think it would help attract a lot of people to our industry, and keep them in, who are just like... I think it's easier to justify doing an internship, one, when it's paid, but also when you're younger, or like, if you're at a place where you're just like, "Yeah, my peers who want to become engineers, they're also doing internships during college." I think it's harder to justify that once you've graduated. I think that's one thing I would change. I think the second thing that I would change... I think one of the things that's so great about organizations like Transom is that we've been able to be a bridge for a lot of folks. And then they've acted as that experience people can have between sort of like learning about the industry, and maybe their first internship experience in it, and becoming a professional. I would love for there to be more organizations like that.
C.C. Paschal 24:05
If I was czarina, though, I would say... [Laughter] Non-binary czarina--I would definitely focus on management training. I've been astounded the number of shops that, like, you get promoted into management if you're good at your job of being a creator. And I think there can often be an assumption that that means that you'll know how to manage a show, or manage people, and that's not true. [Laughter] So I think that management training is something that helps everyone and builds stronger teams where there's more trust. And so I think that that would be definitely a huge thing, like like number one. And then the other thing that I would do is more along the content line. When we're talking about diversity, I've, in my observations in a decade of being in public radio and now podcasting, one of the most confounding things that we do is how we approach diversity, it feels so backwards to me, like, "We're just going to make the diverse content for the diverse people!" And then once you you have producers making that content, a lot of times, once it goes through editorial, it's like, "But how do we make this understandable to, you know, this nice lady, and this white lady in the suburbs with her kids in the back of the car?" You know? We're still centering white audiences and white audience experiences as the base when we're talking about who our audiences are, and we don't actually name it. And so that becomes that much more difficult in terms of just being able to tell stories in ways that that really actually feel authentic to the communities that we're actually trying to attract as new listeners. In the same way that literature has had its movements to decolonize, and really have more of a comparative approach to the medium, I think that that helps make the medium stronger. And listeners, their expectations are malleable, they want to grow through their experiences of listening. So I don't think that there's anything wrong with challenging or presenting new paradigms that then frees us up from some of these sort of hackneyed conventions that often... It really kind of forces us to focus more on the the pain, and trauma, and suffering of marginalized people instead of the whole breadth of their experience.
Nick Quah 26:27
Okay, before we wrap up, last thing. C.C., you've been working on a book about podcasting, and producing, and all that, right? Could you tell us a little bit more about it?
C.C. Paschal 26:36
As you mentioned, I am writing a book, Audiocraft, which will be out later this year through Routledge. And that's really exciting to me. It's actually an academic press. And I was approached to write this title about two years ago, and I was maybe about a third of the way through before the pandemic started. And then like, everything changed, you know? I was like, "Alright, well, the business model part, that's out the window." But what I was actually most excited about with this book was talking about all of these sort of theoretical underpinnings and sort of really discussing and dissecting the cultural lens and the formal aspects of podcasting that make it such an effective medium for communication and really just presenting subjective, journalistic narrative experiences. So I've been really excited to just dive into that. Right now, specifically, I'm thinking about an essay that I'm working on about a Black history of narrative audio, like how long have Black voices been on tape, and how our agency has shifted over time in that medium.
Nick Quah 27:42
Emmanuel and C.C., thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really, really appreciate it and I learned a lot from this conversation.
C.C. Paschal 27:49
Thanks for having us.
Emmanuel Dzotsi 27:50
Yeah, thank you so much. It was a real pleasure.
Nick Quah 27:59
Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, James Trout, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.