Along with the way we consume television, the way we talk about television has changed radically within the past few years. Person-to-person watercooler discussion has given way to all manner of cyberspace chatter, from comment sections on TV recaps to 140-character exchanges on Twitter. And one of the fastest-growing online outlets for our national TV conversation are podcasts.
Roughly a decade old, podcasting is currently in the midst of a boom period, and television is one of its most popular topics. Take a quick scan of a podcast provider like iTunes or Stitcher and you’ll find hundreds of TV-dedicated shows, from general round-ups to deep dives into specific series — Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and House of Cards among them. Part recap, part analysis, part geekgasm, these podcasts give a show’s fan base another outlet to talk about the most recent episode or the season as a whole.
One series that enjoys an exceptionally strong voice in the podcasting realm is Outlander, the Starz hit overseen by Ronald D. Moore and based on Diana Gabaldon’s popular historical adventure/romance novels. Type “Outlander” into your iTunes search bar and a number of different podcasts come up, the most prominent being Moore’s own Outlander podcast, where he provides an insightful, incisive behind-the-scenes glimpse into each episode of the series. It’s a tradition that dates back to his days on the acclaimed Battlestar Galactica reboot in 2004, when Moore became an early podcast adopter, and one of the first showrunners to use the medium to speak directly to fans. “The idea for the [Galactica] podcast came from Sci-Fi.com [now Syfy.com],” he tells Yahoo TV. “They called me and said, ‘There’s this thing called a podcast — would you be interested in doing one for the show?’ And I literally had never heard the word before.”
He went on to produce post-show podcasts for almost every episode of BSG’s four-season run, and devoted additional installments to writers’ room story meetings and roundtable discussions. “It became part of the production process for me — the last thing I would do for an episode was to record the podcast and then put it to bed after that.” So when the time came to launch Outlander on Starz, he told the network that he planned to incorporate a regular podcast into his duties. Unlike the BSG era, though, he’s not the only one yakking about Outlander for podcast consumption. We spoke with the hosts of three notable Outlander podcasts to learn some of the tricks of their trade, just in case you’re looking to get into the podcasting game.
Ron Moore was one of the first showrunners to harness the power of podcasting.
Rule #1: When you launch a podcast, experience isn’t required, but passion for a show definitely is.
Even before Outlander premiered on Starz in August 2014, 32-year-old Rhode Islander Mary Larsen had a feeling that the series was going to be a big deal. As a die-hard fan of Gabaldon’s book series, which has chronicled the exploits of accidental time-traveler Claire Randall since 1991, she never doubted its potential to connect with a passionate cross-section of viewers, even those — like her husband, Blake, also 32 — who had never read a page of the novels. “The thing about Outlander is that you can’t pinpoint it to any one genre,” she explains. “It’s not romance, it’s not sci-fi. There isn’t a niche where it’s just going to be one type of person watching the show. Also, there’s a built-in fandom that has been waiting to see these characters onscreen. I knew there was an earthquake waiting to happen.”
Not wanting to let the proverbial ground vanish beneath their feet, Mary sold Blake on starting an Outlander-themed podcast to coincide with the show’s launch. It was the third podcast the duo had launched out of their Rhode Island home; the first, ParentCast — a parenthood (not Parenthood) themed series about their experiences as new parents — commenced in February 2014 and The Living Reminders, which is devoted to the HBO drama The Leftovers, followed in June. Outlander Cast posted its first episode on August 6, three days prior to the show’s August 9 premiere date and quickly became the Larsens’ most popular podcast. “It’s been our biggest podcast both because of our own enthusiasm for the show, and also the enthusiasm of the show’s fans,” Mary says, with Blake chiming in to add, “It’s like taking Twilight and multiplying it by almost 30 billion. The fans of Outlander are absolutely rabid.” (None of the podcasters we spoke to would reveal any stats about their number of downloads — more on that later.)
Even if you’re not there to catch the first wave of a show’s popularity, it’s possible for a neophyte podcaster to jump in later. Unlike Mary, 30-year-old Brooklynite Moji Isabel Fagbemi had never heard of Outlander when she randomly stumbled upon an episode of the series in the weeks following its debut. But she loved what she saw — loved it enough to take the podcasting plunge and record her thoughts for the world to hear. “I realized I could talk about Outlander forever and ever,” she remembers. “Unfortunately, none of my friends were watching the show! So I said, ‘I need to talk about this and I don’t care if I’m just talking to myself.’”
Turning to Google, she pieced together a crash course in how to make, edit, and post podcasts and had her series, Outlander Mistress, became available on iTunes and Stitcher by late October, a month after the TV show aired its midseason finale. “It’s funny, I’m also a writer, so you’d think writing would be easier. But podcasting is different because you get the person’s voice and their personality. That’s what made me want to go in this direction as opposed to a [blog]. If I could talk about Outlander for two hours I would, even though I might lose my voice.”
Rule #2: Find your niche, and then your voice.
Following Moore’s example, more and more showrunners have recognized the value of podcasting and frequently pop up as guests on various podcasts to discuss their series. But Moore remains one of the few to anchor his own podcast, breaking down each episode by himself or occasionally with a guest — usually the show’s costume designer (and his wife), Terry Dresbach. His presence positions the podcast as the official, authoritative word on Outlander, a characterization he says he agrees with. “From my perspective it is — this [podcast] is how the showrunner presents the show. Of course, there are a lot of other people involved with different perspectives. And the truth is, if I went back and watched it later, I might feel differently. It’s how I feel about the series at that moment in time.”
With the role of official “Outlander Authority” occupied, the other Outlander podcasts seek to fill different niches. Fagbemi approaches Outlander Mistress as a forum to address random topics that catch her eye during the course of an episode and to ask silly questions without feeling ashamed. “My route is to bring my personality to it — if people listen to me, it’s like their listening to a friend.” The Larsens, meanwhile, have shaped Outlander Cast to be a meeting place for the larger Outlander community, devoting a sizeable chunk of each episode to fan feedback and other forms of listener engagement. “We knew we wanted the fans to interact with us, but early on, we were so consumed with creating content that we forgot the interaction,” Blake says. “With each passing podcast, it’s switched. We went from being 90 percent content and 10 percent engagement to doing a complete 180.” Entertaining the listeners is another high priority, which is why they’ve incorporated such elements as a “kilt rating” and “boob count” into their recaps of each Outlander episode. “It gets people talking, and listening, and laughing,” he adds. “Nobody will listen if it’s all business all the time and nobody will listen if it’s all jokes all the time. It has to be a fine mix.”
If there’s another podcast that comes close to matching Moore’s authoritative tone, both the Larsens and Fagbemi agree that it would be The Scot and the Sassenach. Overseen by self-proclaimed “story nerds” Lani Diane Rich, 43, and her husband Alastair Stephens, 36, the podcast distinguishes itself from the Outlander pack with its intensive, mirco-level focus on how the show’s writers construct the narrative of an individual episode and how that relates to the arc of the series as a whole. (The podcast’s other hook is suggested in its title; the Aberdeen-born Stephens is the Scot, while his American bride — a novelist herself — is the Sassenach.) “When we started the podcast, Alistair had never read the books, and I was a big fan, so the [early episodes] were mostly about how I knew the books and he didn’t,” Rich explains. “During the midseason break, he read the book and studied it and basically knows it better than I do now. So we’re now coming at the show from this very analytical place; we’ll spend 15 minutes talking about one story choice. We didn’t think anyone would care, but people enjoy listening to us nerd out! That was a nice surprise.”
Rule #3: Listen to the “competition” (unless his name is Ron Moore).
Since The Scot and the Sassenach, Outlander Cast, and Outlander Mistress offer three distinctly different conversations about Outlander, the hosts say they can and do tune into each other’s shows without any experiencing any sense of rivalry or repetition. Fagbemi and the Larsens count themselves as avid fans of The Scot and the Sassenach, and Rich and Stephens tune into Outlander Cast on a weekly basis, and also recommend Outlander Podcast and A Dram of Outlander. “We’ve all got our own unique voices and are serving different parts of the community,” Stephens says, adding that he and Rich consider themselves to be close friends with several of their fellow podcasters, including the Larsens.
There is one Outlander podcast that’s off-limits in the Rich/Stephens household and that’s Ron Moore’s, although the two insist that it’s nothing personal. “It’s about setting any knowledge of the production aside and treating the show’s text as text,” Stephens explains. “That’s a difficult thing to do in fandom, because there’s this huge desire for background information. But we want to steer clear of that and treat the finished product as a story unto itself.” For his part, Moore doesn’t listen to their podcast — or, really, any podcast — either. “It’s not one of my habits of media consumption,” he says. “There was one Outlander podcast — I don’t recall which one — that the studio forwarded to me once and I listened to it. It wasn’t in sync with the episode and digressed in various places, but it was interesting to hear them chatting about the series.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Larsens are avid followers of Moore’s podcast, although they make a point of tuning in only after they finish recording their own. “I want our reactions to be genuine — I don’t want to be affected by Ron’s explanations,” says Blake. Whether they subscribe to Moore’s podcast or not, all of the hosts do agree that they’d love to have the showrunner on their respective shows as a guest. It’s not outside the realm of possibility, as Moore confirms that he’s open to appearing on a fan-made podcast, even though, as he says, “I’d probably get myself in trouble.” Declares Blake Larsen, “I’ll do whatever it takes! If he wants me to dress up in a chicken costume and do a chicken dance, I’ll do it.”
Rule #4: The network doesn’t have to know who you are, but it helps.
They may not have landed that Moore interview (yet), but Outlander Cast has played host to several members of the show’s staff, including composer Bear McCreary, director Anna Foerster and, most recently, writer Matthew B. Roberts, author of the buzzed-about episode “The Reckoning,” wherein Claire received a memorable (and controversial) spanking. In the beginning, Mary jokingly says that she “stalked people on IMDB” and directly e-mailed or tweeted at them in order to get them on Outlander Cast. The podcast has since graduated to arranging interviews through Starz as a traditional media outlet would. (According to Blake, Starz does require them to submit a list of questions beforehand, and they comply in order to, as he puts it, “facilitate that relationship.”) A few years ago, the network may not have even responded to their requests, but the shifting media landscape — coupled with the strength and devotion of Outlander’s fanbase — has made Starz open to engaging new and different outlets. The network even invited the Larsens to be on the red carpet for Outlander’s midseason premiere in New York City, with Moore and the show’s cast in attendance.
As it happens, Fagbemi was also at that event, though as a ticket-holding fan rather than an invited guest. “I was standing on line with the other fans, and one lady asked me, ‘If you record a podcast, why are you with us?’ Being a new person in the game, [the idea of] contacting industry insiders is a new concept for me. It’s something I have to get used to.” The Scot and the Sassenach team has similarly put off establishing any official relationship with Starz, but that hasn’t stopped them from booking interviews independently. In November, Rich recorded a lengthy discussion with Outlander co-executive producer, Anne Kenney, a meeting that was facilitated via Twitter. “All of our fans were tweeting her [about us] and we said ‘Hi’ and wound up having this conversation.” That chat led directly to Rich’s recent interview with Matthew Roberts, who broke down “The Reckoning” on The Scot and the Sassenach the week before his Outlander Cast appearance. (Rich says that Starz approved both interviews, but wasn’t involved otherwise.)
“Outlander Mistress host Moji Isabel Fagbemi has found an outlet for her Outlander obsession through podcasting.
Rule #5: Prepare for a significant time commitment, emphasis on the word commitment.
As one of the few Outlander podcasters who is a solo act, Fagbemi enjoys the freedom of not having to plan her recording routine around another person. With that power, however, comes the responsibility of ensuring that Outlander Mistress sticks to a regular schedule, something that she admits she’s struggled with in the past. “One week, I’d had a horrible week at work, but I also wanted to get the podcast out. I ended up recording it, but I thought I sounded so tired that I apologized for it on the next podcast. And that’s where I realized that I had to be more disciplined and record it every Sunday before the work week starts. Because once it does, it gets insane.” Fagbemi’s increased familiarity with the recording and editing process — she tapes Outlander Mistress on a worktable in her home that’s crowded with a mic, mic stand and headphones, and edits on the free-to-download audio editor, Audacity — has helped reduce the turnaround time as well. “I’ve definitely seen a difference between now and when I started. The show is a bit more polished and better edited and it’s getting out there a lot quicker.”
Rich and Stephens have also recently streamlined The Scot and the Sassenach production schedule, with an assist from Straz. For the first half of season, the couple would start switch to Starz on Saturday at 9 p.m. to watch and live-tweet the latest episode, watch it again immediately afterwards to take their notes, occasionally watch it a third time, and then enter their home office/podcast studio for a nearly two-hour recording session that started around midnight. Since Outlander returned from its “Droughtlander” hiatus, though, the network has started releasing each new episode earlier in the day via its OnDemand service, a move that, intentionally or not, is a boon to weary podcasters. Thanks to this new viewing option, Stephens and Rich now watch the earlier OnDemand airing multiple times, record the podcast — which is typically posted the following day — and still tune in at 9 p.m. to live-tweet alongside fans, using the hashtag #TSatS. “I love Starz for doing this, and I encourage that behavior,” Rich says, happily. “I don’t want to stay up until 2 a.m. doing a podcast!”
Though they recognize the convenience of being able to tune into Outlander early, the Larsens have kept to their traditional routine of waiting until 9 p.m. to watch the show and recording Outlander Cast on Sunday evening. “The show is only released in SD earlier in the day, and in HD at 9. We’re snobs, so we wait until 9,” Mary laughs. “Then we spend the rest of the night talking about the episode on social media and on Sunday, after our child has gone to bed, we record.” Editing generally takes about an hour and the show is posted online that same night. “So much of our podcast is built around interaction, and we want to hear other peoples’ feedback. We’ve found that we need to let an episode settle for a good 12 hours to formulate the comments we want to include in our show.”
Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens get their “story nerd” on while recording an episode of The Scot and the Sassenach.
Rule #6: Focus on listener engagement, not listener numbers.
One of the current challenges to monetizing podcasts is that there’s not an established rubric for how to measure success. The number of downloads is the most commonly cited statistic, but as Stephens points out, a download doesn’t necessarily equal a devoted listener. Instead, social media — Facebook, Twitter etc. etc. — is where a podcast can get a better sense of its reach and impact. “Downloading is a passive thing,” he explains. “You can subscribe to a podcast and it can just grind away and accumulate episodes. It’s really about the community that exists within your sphere on social media, and also comes to your website.”
That’s why Stephens and Rich tend to pay more attention to the number of people who have joined the Storywonk forums — and the number of patrons who donate to the network via the fundraising site, Patreon — rather than the number of people who download episodes of The Scot and the Sassenach. Even Starz emphasizes the social media reach of Moore’s podcast. In an e-mail, the network’s executive vice president of marketing, Alison Hoffman, told Yahoo TV: “Our tweet sharing Ron’s podcast was the most-engaged organic post in the week following premiere, and fans have expressed how they go back and rewatch the episode while listening to the podcast for a deeper viewing experience.” According to Stephens, the other reason that download stats aren’t always helpful is that most podcasters are reluctant to share them publicly or even with each other. “I can’t tell you how The Scot and the Sassenach is doing in relation to other Outlander podcasts or other podcasts in general. Everyone keeps [download numbers] quiet and I’m not sure why.”
Of course, it’s hard not to get hung up on the download numbers, particularly when the blockbuster podcast Serial made headlines last year for scaling the unheard of height of 40 million downloads. In the early days of Outlander Cast, Blake Larsen remembers checking and re-checking how many people were downloading episodes, before learning to direct his energies elsewhere. “It seems important when you start, but it’s really not. Engagement is. After a recent episode of Outlander, I asked fans on our Facebook page how many kilts they would give the episode. And within an hour, a thousand people had seen that message and we had over 75 comments.”
Fagbemi looks forward to the day when Outlander Mistress generates that kind of response on social media. As one of the newer podcasts to come along, she’s still working to establish herself within Outlander fandom, though she says that she has received several e-mails and reviews from listeners. In the meantime, she relies on her download numbers — which she swears she only peeks at once a week — to tell her whether she should continue recording. “It’s nice to have that figure. I was excited when I broke a hundred downloads and then I broke a thousand downloads, and it was like, ‘People are listening to me!’”
While attending the New York premiere of Outlander, the Outlander Mistress snapped this shot of the cast.
Rule #7: Consider building your own network.
Outlander Mistress, Outlander Cast, and The Scot and the Sassenach are all independently owned and operated podcasts, and, in the case of the latter two, they exist under the umbrella of the hosts’ self-managed podcast networks. Rich and Stephens founded the Storywonk network in 2010 and now oversee five podcasts — among them Dear Mr. Potter and Dusted, covering Harry Potter and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, respectively — with a new one, Star Trek Slap Fight, on the way. Meanwhile, the Larsens’ three ongoing podcasts, ParentCast, Outlander Cast, and The Living Reminders, are grouped under their Tall Mom Media online content company. “The idea of a podcast network is absolutely vital,” says Stephens. “When you’re producing multiple shows, it’s great to have that kind of coverage. It’s not about promotion and publicity — it’s about a certain perceived legitimacy. Anyone can podcast and that’s a great thing. But being part of a known brand gives you that vital leg up in the first weeks when you’re being noticed by iTunes.” Blake Larsen similarly sees the value in operating an independent network. “I like the freedom of having our own content — it’s ours.“
Rule #8: Don’t quit your day job — at least, not right away.
Even if you’re name is Kevin Smith, Chris Hardwick, or even Ron Moore, podcasting alone isn’t enough to pay the bills, which is why those three gentlemen are still generating movies and/or TV shows. Similarly, Blake and Mary Larsen aren’t setting imminent retirement dates from their respective jobs as a commercial real estate developer and a teacher/film studio executive coordinator. “People who do podcasts and think they can get rich from doing it [will discover] that it’s not going to happen unless you’re very, very lucky or you work really hard,” Black cautions. “I come home from my day job and then we work until midnight [on our podcasts] because that’s what it requires. It’s a labor of love, and that’s what’s best about it.”
Having already changed careers once from HR to finance, Fagbemi sometimes fantasizes about switching tracks again to full-time TV commentating, but recognizes that’s unlikely, even though she’s observed that her skills are in demand in her workplace. “I’ve been watching TV forever, and every morning I go to work and [my co-workers] always ask me about something [they’ve watched]. It’s weird that something I do for fun, people are coming to me as if they’re seeking professional advice!”
Rich and Stephens are probably the closest to being able to call themselves professional podcasters. In addition to her career as an author, (she’s currently writing magic-themed romance novels under the pen name Lucy March for St. Martin’s Press), Rich teaches screenwriting at Syracuse University in upstate New York, while Stephens handles the day-to-day operations on Storywonk, producing all of their podcasts and overseeing the web design. “We kind of created this job of ‘story expert,’” Rich laughs. “We don’t have lots of money; right now [Storywonk] is a small mom and pop shop.” But Stephens adds that they plan to keep on building the business as long as there are interested listeners. “This was a side project for us. We love recording podcasts and we keep adding more shows because there’s a demand for them. We’ve grown out in a very natural way. In the sense that [we can make] our day jobs talking about story, that’s absolutely the goal.”
Outlander airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Starz.