Pod Bible recently spoke to two of the hosts of Burn It All Down, aka “the feminist sports podcast you need”. Based in the USA, this podcast mixes sports journalism with culture, opinion and activism. It breaks down the week in sport and culture for listeners, and recently reached 1 million downloads. Jessica Luther and Shireen Ahmed take us through some behind the microphone stories, and reflect on how the podcast has changed in the last three years.
When Burn It All Down started in 2017, what made the group decide that a podcast was the right medium for this particular discussion?
Jessica: It all initially started as a private DM group on Twitter put together by Shireen Ahmed. The point was initially and throughout to encourage each other’s work and to commiserate about being women in sports media, a very male-dominated field, but naturally turned to us discussing and debating issues at the intersection of sports and culture.
Shireen: A podcast was suggested by former co-host Julie DiCaro. She worked in radio and felt it would be a good fit. We all have very distinguished voices but live in different parts of the US and Canada. A podcast was something we could do remotely and from home. Plus, no one was offering us a T.V. show.
How do you all feel podcasting has changed in the 3+ years you’ve been creating your program?
Jessica: Podcasting continues to grow as a medium. There is more diversity in sports podcasters than what we were seeing 3+ years ago. Burn It All Down recently joined a sports podcasting network, Blue Wire, which is not necessarily something we could have even conceived of 3 years ago, either that such a network would exist or that our very feminist, very pointed sports and culture podcast would have a place on such a network.
Shireen: The video and audio quality have improved hugely for those who do not have access to a studio (ergo: us). I know little about technology but I also appreciate Aaron (Jessica’s husband) advising us diligently to restart our computers.
How has the program itself changed over its lifetime?
Shireen: We took a break for August and recharged. We hadn’t had a break since we started. We are very committed to this show and love our team greatly. But getting a break was essential. Martin Kessler is our producer extraordinaire, along with Tressa Versteeg, who produces our interviews. We changed the format so the interviews are stand-alone and I think that works well. Shelby Weldon came on to do our social media and website roughly 18 months ago and has been a wizard. She has revamped our website, created marvelous social media posts and been on top of everything on our social media accounts. We are very lucky to have a team as talented as ours. We are all so beautiful and smart.
Jessica: The first major change was the co-hosts ourselves. Within the first few months of production, Julie DiCaro left BIAD to pursue other opportunities and we were very fortunate to add Dr. Amira Rose Davis to our co-host quintet. It’s hard to imagine the show without her at this point. We have also subtlety shifted the format over time, though the basic framework — a weekly podcast during which a combination of the co-hosts, whoever is on that week, talk about an issue or issues within sports, metaphorically burn things that week in sports that have made us angry or sad, uplift women and non-binary athletes and people in sports doing great work, and interviewing someone within the sports world with an interesting story to tell — has remained constant. But we added on “hot takes” (get it?) for special episodes that are more timely even than a weekly show can be or are more narrow in scope. Most recently, when we brought on our producer, Martin Kessler, during our break in August 2020, we decided to break the interview off into its own episode each week, and streamline the main episode so that it comes in as close to 45 minutes as we can get it. We wanted space for the interviews to breathe instead of cramming them into a show and we wanted to tighten up the conversations we were having each week.
What is it like creating a podcast as a team? Do you create episodes with each person assigned a task, or do you all participate in every aspect of the show?
Shireen: It was a lot of collaboration, discussion, and discussion in Slack. Google docs and calendar helped us strategize. The team got even stronger when Amira came on board. She recently got us hooked on Asana for project management software. We all have different ways of operating and that’s something we have had to adjust to and work out. There is a lot of trust and mutual respect. That’s the only way it can work.
Jessica: It can be challenging to create as a team but mainly, it’s very good and very rewarding. We are definitely better because there are five co-hosts. We each have our own expertise and experiences that we bring to the discussions and interviews, and that only serves to make what we do more well-rounded. As for each episode, every week, one co-host is in charge of the episode (this is on a rotating basis and based on each person’s availability that week). They are in charge of shepherding everyone participating in that week’s recording through the brainstorming process, leading the pre-production meeting, and hosting the episode itself. We all participate in interviews: contacting people, scheduling them, doing the interviews themselves. And our producers then do the editing to tighten all of this up and create a final product we all are proud of.
What is your relationship like with your producer/editor and how important are they to Burn It All Down?
Shireen: MARTIN KESSLER IS THE MOST TALENTED AND DEDICATED PRODUCER ON THE PLANET!
Jessica: For most of the life of the program, we were our own producers. We record every Sunday and the goal is a Tuesday turn around. Whichever person was the lead on that episode would write up editorial notes — where to cut audio, where to add bumper music, etc. — and we’d send it off to We Edit Podcasts, a service that would then, per the name, edit the podcast. Last year, we hired the talented Kinsey Clarke, who is now with Vogue’s podcast team, as our first-ever producer. We worked with her for a few months and we learned more about what a producer can do for us. In August, Martin Kessler came on as our senior producer and he has helped us tighten the show up, has shown us how important pre-production is (we were mainly relying on post-production changes up to this point), and has encouraged us to bring in outside audio to enhance the listening experience. Even more recently, we hired Tressa Versteeg to work with us on the interview episodes and she now edits those for us.
I think it’s safe to say that we have learned that producers and editors are incredibly important to putting out a quality product and for keeping us focused on track. I have always been proud of Burn It All Down but am more proud of what we are creating now than ever before. I know our producers are a large part of that.
In the past, podcasts had often been referred as a place for mostly white men to discuss sports like associate football or the NFL, and was not thought of as a medium welcoming to a diverse array of voices. How have you seen this change during your tenure as a show, and what do you hope your contribution to that change is?
Shireen: Our existence challenges that exact notion. We are redefining what Sports Talk can be. It can be anti-oppressive; it can be smart; it can be relevant; it can be funny; and it can include other people than white, cis het men.
Jessica: I second Shireen’s comments here. Our continued existence and success is our contribution — showing that you can put together a sports show where women are the co-hosts, where we almost exclusively interview women and non-binary folks, where we are explicitly feminist in our analysis. I think we are seeing more of this kind of work as time goes on and I like to think we have helped that along.
What is the relationship between Burn It All Down and the listeners? How do they factor in to each new episode you create?
Shireen: We get a lot of emails and suggestions- particularly about The Burn Pile. Some of them we try to incorporate, and we also take the interview suggestions into account. We love our listeners. We call them “Flamethrowers” and they have been so dedicated and invested since day one.
Jessica: We love our listeners. They are so passionate and dedicated. We have long had a Patreon and without the financial support of our patrons, what we do would be impossible. We try to use that platform to give them behind-the-scenes access to the production of the show, to us the hosts, to additional discussions you can’t find anywhere else, things of that nature. There’s little that can make my heart soar as high as it does as when someone tells me they listen and love the podcast because I know we wouldn’t be here without those people. We hope they understand that, too.
During the lockdown and the halting of live sports, how did you decide to go on and keep creating content, and what drove you to continue?
Jessica: Well, in short, we did it because for 3 years we have always done it. As my co-host, Lindsay Gibbs, has said before, Burn It All Down is the one truly consistent thing in our lives. I think I was the one to say that I worried we’d run out of topics to cover and things to burn, but I was proven wrong week after week. Of all the many things laid bare by COVID, the importance of sports to our society was one of them, and so we continued to have things to talk about even as live sports stopped.
We are human, too, though, so we did end up taking a month-long break in August 2020 — our first ever since we started. But that point, lots of sports had already returned in some form so we were back on the content train.