Finding contributors for your podcast, with Eliza Lomas.
BBC Earth Podcast Producer, Eliza, answers Q&A’s about how to find the best contributors for each podcast, what techniques she uses to glean the best information from their experience and knowledge, as well as telling us some of the surprising and unexpected tales that have surfaced from these interviews, and how they enrich the themes of each episode.
- How do you begin the process of finding experts and interesting contributors once the theme of a podcast has been decided on?
To begin with, themes spark ideas of who we can talk to. Our radio team in Bristol make a whole host of natural history output for BBC Radio 4 and 3, plus we’re over the car park from the natural history TV department, so we tap into the brilliant roster of knowledge at our doorstep.
After mining our own contacts, we embark on the mammoth task of finding more stories and contributors. This is mostly done online via science journals, websites and recommendations. For the rest of the year when we’re not making the BBC Earth podcast, we’re sifting and saving striking natural world stories for future series.
- Once you have decided on a topic and focus for a particular podcast, do you tailor the content from the contributors to fit the topic, or do you often find the original theme alters once you have some content to work with?
The themes are a useful jumping-off point for research, but once we’ve found good stories, we prioritise that over the theme. When we’re editing, it’s important that the story is vivid and clear. The presenter, Emily Knight, is an expert at tying together disparate stories with her script.
On rare occasions, we’ve found that the original theme doesn’t fit with the stories anymore and something else strikes us as more appropriate, but we usually stick to the theme.
The range of contributors on each podcast is always extremely varied, the only common feature being their link in some way to the natural world and the topic being explored in that particular episode. How do you go about finding such a diverse cast of interviewees?
It’s important for us that we reflect a range of expertise and places – the BBC Earth podcast shouldn’t be left solely in the domain of scientists and environmentalists of the UK and America. For this series we’ve spoken to poets, mechanical engineers, wildlife camera-people, anthropologists… and from locations including Mongolia, Ethiopia and Hawaii.
Emily and I have slightly different interests, which also helps us look for stories in different places and reflect a wider variety of voices.
What is the biggest challenge when interviewing contributors from all over the world?
Time zones! Having to work out the best time to speak to a contributor in say – New Zealand – is extremely difficult. There’s a 12-hour time difference, so right now, it’s Friday in the UK and Saturday in New Zealand, pure chaos! That being said… it’s worth it for being able to bring listeners truly global stories.
- What makes a good contributor for a podcast?
A few things… being a good storyteller is key. So the way they create images in the mind’s eye and use metaphor. Also, if they can communicate complex ideas so that even my Granny can understand what they’re on about, that’s a bonus. And finally, something more difficult to define which is just the quality of their voice. Does it draw you in and keep you listening? Then they’d be perfect.
- The stories in the BBC Earth Podcast are often told with great enthusiasm and vigour by the contributors themselves – how do you get such succinct and interesting narratives from the subjects being interviewed? Are there certain techniques you use or is it simply down to careful editing?
Editing definitely plays a big part in it. We often restructure the story after we’ve done the interview, so it’s as clear as possible. We add sound design to help illustrate it. But there are ways to get the most out of the interviewee: planning what you want the final piece to be before the interview so you can structure your questions around that; asking them to re-tell the story in different ways; encouraging them to use a lot of sensory detail… Also, they may have told this story more than once, so it helps to think of new angles to have a fresh response.
- Can you tell us about one or two favourite stories you’ve done for the BBC Earth Podcast?
Oh, it’s hard to choose – there’s something special about them all! But I really enjoyed speaking to the anthropologist Bumochir Dulam in Mongolia. It was a feat trying to set it up, but he was so kind when I finally spoke to him. He told me the story of nomad families and their camel coaxing rituals in the Gobi desert. A local musician will play the horsehead fiddle to encourage bonding between the mother and their calves.
Another highlight was going to pigeon fancier Jon Day’s house in East London. It’s rare to do these interviews in person due to geographical constraints, so it was a joy to meet Jon and his flock of pigeons in person.
When do you feel it’s necessary to steer the discussion during an interview?
As producer, I’m always steering the discussion… We have limited time booked in a studio and it’s crucial we get all the pieces of the story, so we don’t regret missing something afterwards. Also, someone may be so used to telling the story in a particular way, that it’s important to steer them away from that and encourage them to tell it in a way that has the most impact.
- As well as interesting people featured in the podcasts, there are also a host of fantastic creatures scattered throughout the series – my favourite being the lone whale in ‘Isolation’. Do you prefer letting nature and science speak for itself, or is human experience important?
It’s important to let nature and science speak for itself, which is why we often have experts on the podcast who expand our understanding of the world through their research. But nearly always, there’s something deeper going on with the scientist – their study will have affected them in some fundamental way, and that’s interesting to probe. For example, Doug Larson is an ecologist in Ontario, Canada who discovered an ancient forest living above a motorway on an escarpment. These trees were protected by being out of sight from humans and were successful because they needed little resources to survive. Studying these trees for years affected Doug’s outlook on the world and made him think about his own future, and how to live well in old age. For me, a story can be more moving when you hear how the natural world has influenced human experience.
The podcast themes are often large constructs reflecting ideas relating to the human condition – isolation, lack of control, ritual etc. When creating a podcast, how important is it to you that it connects with listeners in a metaphysical way?
The metaphysical level is where we hold our values, morals and outlook –and we can learn how others experience this through stories.
For series three I spoke to Rāwiri Tinirau about the Whanganui River of New Zealand and its 170-year battle. To Rāwiri’s people, this river is an ancestor and so should be treated as such. He told the story about how the river was finally granted personhood status in 2017. On one level, there were the facts of the story and the long-running legal case. But on the metaphysical level, there were the deep, emotional connections his people have had for hundreds of years, and it’s through bringing both elements together in a story that we can truly understand its gravity.
Questions by Chris Knowles
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