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Jacob Hawley: On podcasting


Jacob Hawley: On podcasting

Comedian Jacob Hawley was around at the launch of BBC Sounds, with his podcast Jacob Hawley: On Drugs. In this feature he reflects on his experiences in podcasting over the years, and gives advice for what he would do differently if he were to do it all again…

In 2018 The BBC launched BBC Sounds, a new audio platform to host audio, radio (both live and pre-recorded), and podcasts. I was in the right place at the right time, a young comedian who had got to the final of the BBC New Comedy Award the year prior, so when the staff at the BBC’s W1 offices were told there was a budget for new content and a mission to find ‘new talent’, I was one of the lucky few to get the phone call to ask ‘hey, fancy making a podcast?’.

It was a call that changed the direction of my career and indeed the direction of my life at that time. Six years later, with thousands of pounds of license fee’s payers money having gone in and out of my account, an ARIA award win at London’s palladium and six different series of podcasts under my belt, I look back and wonder ‘When I answered that call, did I even know what a podcast was?’

I pitched a few ideas back in 2018 but the one that stuck was to make a show about drug use in the UK. Jacob Hawley: On Drugs was born, a kind of gonzo journalism comedy/documentary podcast where I as host would travel the UK, interviewing people, performing stand up and having conversations, all with the objective of investigating how people use drugs in Britain.

My name was above the door, and indeed I hosted it, but I was partnered by a producer named Nick Coupe. Nick had been working in-house at the BBC on a mix of radio, TV and online projects for years, and I don’t say this to be kind, but I basically struck gold in being fortunate enough to make the show with him. Thanks to Nick, the show had everything; backing music, stings, artwork done by some feckless East London graphic genius, he found us huge guests to interview, he recorded me performing stand up and chatting to my mates and cut it all up into snappy, beautiful half hour episodes that discussed everything from drug laws, people shitting themselves in front of DJ’s, even conversations with the parents of a lad I went to school with who’d OD’ed on MDMA.

We made a show. We made a hit. We reached 12th in the iTunes charts, had millions of downloads, were featured in broadsheet newspapers, we had adverts going out on TV. It was the highlight of my young career. But at the time, I didn’t stop to think that, actually, we hadn’t made a podcast at all. We’d basically made a really, really good Radio 4 show, but we’d done it on a topic that Radio 4 wouldn’t have dared to touch, and in their infancy, BBC Sounds were naive enough to broadcast.

And then lockdown hit. I received no support money from the government as I’d only been self-employed two years, Nick the producer was in a similarly precarious position, so we drafted a new idea about a lockdown themed series and had it commissioned in a day. Financially, and for a short while I thought I’d won the lottery again; I could make the show remotely, we were getting huge guests because no one had anything else on, and our numbers were still strong. I couldn’t have known that, actually, lockdown was the end for what I was doing.

Within those months where we were all locked up at home, every man and his dog started making podcasts. James Acaster partnered with Ed Gamble, Rob Beckett with Josh Widdicombe, Danny Dyer with his daughter, stars of the screen dropped down a league, formed deals with Acast et al, and found success. When the masks came off and the doors opened with lockdown lifting, these guys had taken over the top of the charts, they’d made their branded deals, and they were finding it easier than they used to find doing TV… so why would they stop?!

People of my profile could no longer compete with the celebrities who’d taken over the top of the podcast listening charts. But cleverly, the other people on my level of profile were no longer trying to. Rather than trying to become megastars with broadcasters like the BBC behind them, podcasters on my level bought podcast mics off Amazon, downloaded Garage Band and just did it themselves. Podcasting became punk rock. You make it yourself, you put it out yourself, you find an audience by yourself, and they love you, for doing it all yourself. I watched my peers commit to a low-fi method of production but more importantly, a level of authenticity. And despite my efforts, despite journalists (nudged by the BBC’s PR teams) describing me as ‘authentic’, you can’t be ‘authentic’ and also make the kind of shows we were making, for the kind of money I was earning, with the level of production and editorial input that the BBC insisted that our shows had.

By the end of lockdown I was making the third in my series of BBC Sounds podcasts, a show about pornography and sex entitled Jacob Hawley: On Love. We made most of the show whilst dodging the protocols that come with a pandemic, we visited a porn site whilst wearing masks, the irony wasn’t lost on me and my producer that we were essentially making a show about intimacy whilst it was illegal to be too close to people.

The show did okay but numbers had been dwindling for a while. There was still an appetite for it from the listeners and the BBC, but as is often the case, things, and people, were moving on.

As I’ve already described, the whole landscape of podcasting had changed to essentially what it is today – shiny floor shows made on big budgets, with high profile hosts, funded by ads, OR basement, patreon funded, punk rock style shows that represent the alternative. I was a man with no profile making a show with a big budget that couldn’t be funded by ads. I was neither one nor the other, I didn’t fit into either category.

Also, as you’d expect with a show that was essentially a man in his 20s presenting shows on drugs and sex to a largely Radio 4 audience, we’d rubbed a few people up the wrong way, and the BBC were starting to get a bit tired of it. ‘Balance’ was the key word and the commissioners made sure I was kind to everyone, understanding of every viewpoint, and essentially didn’t nail any colours to any masts on any topics, to avoid potential complaints. That didn’t stop me writing things on my personal social media accounts that would sometimes wind people up. I was in a room once with Tim Davie, the director general of the BBC and a former Tory candidate. I don’t imagine an expensive show about drug use made by a lefty comedian who often tweeted things that wound up the older generations of the listenership was at the top of the list of things he wanted to recommission.

Things essentially came to an end because people moved on, our commissioner left as BBC Sounds cut their budgets for original content, our Exec moved back toward Radio 4 and my producer correctly found his place in the loftier world of television. I pitched a few new things to new people but the truth was I never loved the ideas I was throwing around and there was no longer either the space or appetite for someone like me doing what I could do.

What I should have done is carried one with what I was good at. I should have found a low budget way of continuing to create Jacob Hawley: On Drugs. I should have retained the IP and my own access to the RSS feed so that I could continue making the show with my name on it and getting it to the people who enjoyed it (I actually looked into the possibility of this and, despite the show having my name on it, I didn’t own it, and thus I wouldn’t be able to keep releasing shows under that name, despite that name being my name). I should have just begged Nick to keep making it with me on the side of his new job. My agents should have protected me with these rights upon signing contracts, but then, this had never happened before, podcasting was so new. These things happen.

And then I think about this sometimes and think, maybe not. I remember reading the reviews of the show on iTunes once, naturally paying attention to the only negative one I could find at the time (I’m sure there have been more since). The only two star review I could find basically said ‘it’s a fine show, but I just wish they’d hired a different host’. Now, I promise I’m not just personally hurt that this guy had enjoyed my show but specifically not the sound of, well, me. What jumps out is the fact he referred to me as the ‘host’. The host?! It was my fucking show! The whole thing was my idea! It literally had my name on it! It wasn’t the one show, they hadn’t just hired me to front it.

But here’s the thing, when you sound that well produced, when you spend that long doing different takes of the voice over, when everything is that well packaged… it isn’t really your podcast, is it? It’s the BBC’s. They’re paying for it. They’re editing it. Indeed, they had an awful lot of say on what I could and couldn’t say.

That was the lesson I took away from the whole experience. Sure, its great if your podcast sounds good, if it looks good, if its advertised well. But that’s not what a podcast is supposed to be. That’s a radio show, a TV show.

The point of a podcast is the listener should be able to get closer to you than they would if they were watching you on tele or hearing you on the radio. There should be a shorter gap between your idea and their ears, there should be less edits, less lawyers saying whether you can or can’t say something.

I didn’t give up on podcasting, but this realisation lead me to changing direction, and like many fallen stars who’ve been dumped by the BBC, I embraced punk rock.

I now make a show in my spare room, with two microphones, one that I stole from a mates warehouse, one that I bought online and I’m pretty sure doesn’t fully work. I film it on my phone.

It’s called The Screen Rot podcast. Me and one of my best mates, and indeed one of my favourite comedians, Jake Farrell. The objective of the show was simple – make something that replicates the way we make each other laugh on Whatsapp. For years I’ve been sending Jake the dregs of social media on Whatsapp, mainly as a wind up. I send him Instagram’s Nutter Of The Week, the weirdest bits of Tik Tok, and he will chastise the content, and then me for sending it to him.

That’s our show. Each week we find a different content creator. And we take the piss out of them. And we take the piss out of each other.

It doesn’t have millions of downloads, it has thousands. It will never be in a chart or listed as ‘most listened to’. But a few hundred people really love it. They message us constantly about it, they have a go at us if we’re not harsh enough on the content we’re discussing or indeed on each other. They interact with it more in their small numbers than the millions of people downloading my BBC shows ever would. They know for a fact that no one else could host it, because honestly, why would they want to?! It’s maybe not a hit, it has a cult following rather than a huge following, but most importantly, it’s a podcast. And its ours.

The Screen Rot Podcast

Listen to The Screen Rot Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other popular podcast apps >>


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