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Taking the podcast to new heights - Saints of Somewhere

Have we reached peak podcast yet? The format which debuted over a decade ago has come of age in the last few years with phenomenal listening figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yet innovative and engaging podcasts, especially those that experiment with new formats are rare outside the US. Which is why we have been intrigued by the Saints of Somewhere podcast. A high-end beautifully created podcast, it takes high profile guests (which so far have included fashion designer Henry Holland and Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh) and asks them to name their saints - the people who have influenced them most.

 

SOS podcast Irvin Welsh ()

 

The quality of the presentations and the intelligence and insight of the guests makes Saints a compelling listen. Here we quiz the team behind the podcast about how it came about, what their aspirations for the future are and how they intend to monetise the episodes.

What was the catalyst that made you start Saints of Somewhere? Who came up with the idea and how long did it take before the first podcast was recorded?

It was a reaction in part to the ‘filter bubble’, how algorithms are increasingly driving culture. We wanted to create a world where you couldn’t always see what was coming. A place where you could be challenged, side-swiped and explore unchartered territory.

As a team our backgrounds span film, advertising, fashion and journalism and we converged around a desire to deliver inspiring stories that audiences would truly get lost in. A place to shut down the visuals - all the white noise - and simply listen. The world we live in gets crazier by the week, but asking our guests to talk about their lives through the prism of their ‘saints’ feels like one small way of both escaping and making a little sense of some of it.

We’d all long been podcast junkies. We love the modernity of audio - the immersive quality, the intimacy it allows and the fluidity. It’s the perfect place to tell these stories. That said, it’s clear the reach of what we’re doing naturally extends and spins off, most obviously, into documentary, factual TV and publishing.

In spite of a tiny budget, the intention was always high end, high production. It took a few months to get up and running, get the site live, to make sure the brand and messaging were watertight and pin the production process down. Once that was done, we were out of the blocks.

 

SOS article header ()

 

Long form interview podcasts are already popular in the US (I'm thinking Ezra Klein Show, WTF with Marc Maron, The Turnaround etc.). What made you decide to go for this interview style? Do you think the UK scene is comparatively small in this particular format?

When they’re done brilliantly, by the likes of Marc Maron, these interviews can be insanely captivating. They pull everyone - the host, the guest and the audience - along together through a gamut of emotion, often into places they never expected to find themselves. From funny and beautiful to life-affirming and, sometimes, heartbreaking. We wanted to put our own spin on that.

While we bow to the Queen of this type of format in the UK, the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, there aren’t too many others like it here at the moment, particularly with the kind of production values and quality control we aim for.

Explain how you came up with the Saints format? What are the key benefits of structuring the podcasts in this way? Are there any drawbacks?

Everything came together at the same time as we were trying to find a name for the podcast. Ultimately we’re about channeling inspiration and a crucial part of that was getting into our guests’ defining moments and relationships while making sure they would feel relaxed, enthusiastic and safe enough to talk candidly. Meanwhile we were playing around with a tonne of names all based tonally around this feeling of getting lost in other people's inspirations, falling down rabbit holes that were almost like a personal recommendation engine. The guests reveal places, books, ideas, that an algorithm would never have thrown up and there was always this thought that there would be stories within stories, content within content. When we arrived at the name 'Saints of Somewhere' everything clicked into place. Name, brand, format became one. 'Saints' felt like a good catch-all term for inspirations of one stripe or another. And that's 'saints' in the secular sense of the word - there were a few misunderstandings along the way at first!

How do you go about choosing guests?

They’re a real mix - artists to activists, world class athletes to rock stars - but all have built incredible lives in some way or another, which crucially they are prepared to talk about at length with candour. Beyond the general principle of ‘accomplishment’, we have a guest criteria but more as a steer than a strict rule. In general there are three headings our guests fall under: cultural pioneers, individuals who’ve forged ahead in the face of extreme adversity or those who are so high profile people will want to listen. All of our guests seem to have enjoyed the experience and have given their time graciously and for nothing.

 

SOS podcast Kim ()

 

How long does it take typically to create one podcast? What's the process?

The straight studio format isn’t the right vibe for us. So much is revealed about a person if you can talk to them on their own turf. We always try to record at their home or studio with just our presenter, sound producer and them. Guests are more relaxed and there's often stuff to bounce off, like Clive Stafford-Smith's 100+ books on Robin Hood nestling on the shelf which we wouldn’t necessarily have known about. When someone says such and such inspires them, as Clive did with Robin Hood, it's great to turn around and go 'oh yes, he really means that!'

Interviews usually take an hour or so in the person's house and then we edit from there. If you listen in the order they’re posted, you’ll hear that the edits have gotten tighter and tighter as we've gone on. We've become way more rigorous as we’ve hit our stride.

What do you think mainstream publishers can learn from high-quality podcasts like SOS, that place such a premium on quality and an ad-free user experience?

We’re not about to try and lecture huge, long established businesses. All we can share is what we’re striving to put out there: Captivating content that truly engages listeners. Even in the perma-scroll era of Google and Facebook there’s an appetite for meaty, in-depth content. If we look most strikingly towards TV, you either pay for it with ads, which can have creative consequences, or you pay for it with subscription and keep brands out of the equation. The unfortunate thing with podcasts, especially when you're new, is that you have to give it away for free. Maybe that will change down the line, but brands typically remain part of how cultural content gets made. The question then is, whose brand values align with the values of the SOS brand and can we work out a way of playing nicely with one another.

So far you have resisted the temptation to place ads on the podcast? Do you have plans to monetise SOS in the future?

We're thinking long and hard about the next phase. There are numerous directions to move in. Going down the freemium route is one: get the podcast for free but monetise all the spin offs. Formatting for TV and so on is another. As is partnering with an overall sponsor for a season or number of eps. We’d be very happy to hear from anyone in the FIPP community with ideas for proposals.

What is the key lesson you have learnt from producing SOS? What has surprised you?

Just how open, generous and engaging people are when they're talking about the things that have inspired them. They all really want to tell the world about them, thank them, show gratitude. It’s hopeful and positive without being worthy or saccharine. We’ve also been pleasantly reassured - perhaps particularly those on the team also working in film - at how quickly and economically you can make something of real quality, get it out there and build an audience.

After Serial in 2014, despite being around for a decade or so, the medium of podcasting just exploded. Do you think we've hit "peak podcast"? Will the medium continue to grow in popularity and output?

Audio in general is going to continue to grow. It's driven by technology and also a consequence of being beholden to it. We used to sit around and read a lot more but now our lives are either too busy or we have our face in Facebook. Listening to podcasts, books or talk radio on mobile fits in around our busy lives, without feeling like we’re dumbing down. Our mission moving forwards is three fold. 1. Sustain and grow the brand 2. Feature a more diverse mix of guest, and 3. Make some content that appeals to Gen Z and Gen Y to get more of them listening. That's a whole new audience.

***Registration for DIS 2018 (19-20 March in Berlin) is now available. Save hundreds of euros by registering with our 2018 launch offer, available until 30 September 2017. Secure your place here***

***Have a story to tell? Contact Cobus Heyl at cobus@fipp.com with speaker proposals for 2018. Include a brief description of the topic, why it is innovative and relative to our audience of top media people, and the name and brief biography of the proposed speaker. Media such as videos of previous presentations are also welcome***

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