The Allusionist's Helen Zaltzman on the Pioneer Days of Podcasting
British podcast pioneer Helen Zaltzman is so modest and self-deprecating that she'd probably laugh at being called a "podcast pioneer." But it’s true: since 2007 -- two years after iTunes made podcasts available on its desktop software -- Zaltzman has produced a popular comedy show, Answer Me This!, with her friend Olly Mann. The show does so well in England it’s spun off into five comedy albums and its own book, which is pretty impressive when you consider that Zaltzman didn’t know what a podcast was when she started.
Here in America, Zaltzman is known more for her show on Radiotopia, The Allusionist. The podcast follows Zaltzman, a fanatic of the English language, as she dives into linguistic topics like small talk and puns, searching for more than what’s in their dictionary definitions. Her reporting is saturated with the light-hearted wit that she’s known for in Britain, so it’s no wonder that it was voted UK iTunes’ Best New Podcast when it began in 2015.
This week, Radiotopia is touring the west coast, taping live versions of the podcast network’s biggest shows -- 99% Invisible, Criminal, Memory Palace, and, of course, The Allusionist. Zaltzman made time to speak to Earful via phone last week, and between her dozens of jokes were nuggets of podcasting wisdom that could only come from someone with over a decade in the field.
Note: Interview edited for length and clarity.
You did radio while in university. Was that your first experience doing audio?
Yeah, I did a tiny bit, but not very much because they only opened the student radio station in my last year. Afterwards, I really wanted to work in radio ‘cause I grew up really loving it, but I could never really get anywhere. I did a tiny bit of joke-writing for some comedy shows and that was it.
When I started podcasting with Answer Me This! in January of 2007, we were doing it in order to get into radio. We thought [the podcast] would function as a demo and by episode ten, someone would give us a show. We were so naive. Back then podcasting was barely a thing. I hadn’t listened to any when I started [laughs]. I didn’t know any other podcasters and there was no real track set for how you should do it -- there wasn’t for several years.
It seemed like the podcast was a means to get other jobs. We got TV work off the back of it and we wrote a book. But I think I just wanted the job I have now, which is doing what I want. [Laughs]
It’s amazing to think that Answer Me This! started so early.
And we still felt like we were late to it.
How was it being a podcaster back then?
It was very interesting. I made Answer Me This! with my friend Olly Mann, who I had met in college. We had done this little bit of student radio together and around 2006, Olly was promoting a play he had written at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and a lot of the people interviewing him were guys with recorders, making podcasts. He thought, “God, I could be a guy with a recorder making a podcast!” And because we had done this stuff before, he asked me if I wanted to make a podcast. I didn’t really know what they were but I didn’t have a reason not to, so I said yes.
At the time I was doing freelance book editing, so I had that sensibility when you take material and you try to make it a better version of itself. Olly’s sensibility is thinking how to make something popular and then how to make it good. He was good at marketing and creating opportunities, and getting in touch with people and asking them to promote it. We were very proactive that first year about growing our audience. Obviously back then, and for many years afterward, we had to not only explain to people what the show was, but what a podcast was. [Laughs] You were marketing a whole concept.
Now people complain that there are too many podcasts and I want to tell them, “You’re really lucky! Try doing it in 2007.” [Laughs]
How was it making a podcast when there wasn’t a model to follow?
I’m actually really glad that at the time there was no path. No one had really done much, so we could just invent it. I think we had Podcasting For Dummies, which was awful and did not help at all. We had no other instructions and I learned audio editing by making it.
I’m just so glad that there weren’t all these courses and things that now people think we have to do. Firstly, that’s throwing up a financial barrier to a lot of people who I think could make some really interesting shows, who have viewpoints that we don’t hear in other forms of media. But they read stuff that says, “You need $400 for this mic, and a $1,000 for this thing, and six months to develop a pilot.”
It was so fortunate that we just had to dive in and get it done. Once we had one program, we had to make another one, and another one, and another. We decided that we’d put one out every week on Thursdays because we thought that’s when people would be plugging in their iPods and updating their podcasts. We also thought that regularity would also be important to building an audience and getting them into the habit of listening to us. But it was more important for us to get in the habit of making the show.
When you’re making that kind of show, most people get better. Listening back to yourself in the edit -- you can get so disillusioned by your own sh*tness [laughs] that you’ll never make more episodes. You can’t just wait until something goes right because that day never comes. You have to push through the pain barrier and make another one, and another one, and then you learn a lot quicker on how to be better at it. The lessons come so much faster than if you wait for some kind of divine inspiration.
Finally, is Radiotopia's Roman Mars a dictator or what?
[Laughs] No, Roman Mars is very hands off. I think he was like, "Wow, I've made all this money but I'm not going to keep it because I'm an altruistic idiot. I'm going to make it possible for other producers to do stuff."
My show (The Allusionist) didn't exist before Radiotopia. He was like, "Right, here's some money, now go do your best work." I didn't even know what that was! [Laughs] But it's extraordinary to be given that amount of freedom, even though doing that with your money doesn't sound like a sound practice at all.
Radiotopia Live comes to the Nourse Theater in San Francisco on May 11. Tickets are sold out, but for more information, visit the website.