Here at Pod Bible, we really like to bring podcast producers out from their editing bays and research caves to tell you why they’re passionate about creating podcasts. I recently spoke to Sean Douglas for the Pod Bible Podcast about the National Trust podcast. But we couldn’t fit the whole conversation into the show! So here is the full interview, where we go into more detail on Sean’s role as Senior Producer for the show, what he’s most enjoyed doing and what he has yet to do…
POD BIBLE: Can you give us a little bit of an insight to the National Trust podcast?
SEAN: I like to say it’s the podcast that immerses you in art, history and adventure. And it really does all the things that you would get if you came to a National Trust property. One day we could be talking about an obscure artefact that lives in an archive in one of our buildings, the next we could be on paddleboards, paddleboarding through The Menai Strait in Wales, or the next week, we could be on the back of mountain bikes going bikepacking. So it’s really varied, but if you like adventure, if you like history and heritage, it’s a podcast that packages all of that stuff into one.
But I think the thing that most people like about our podcast is it’s really immersive. And one of the things we try to do is to make the listener feel like they’re there. And especially during lockdown, we really became one of the only ports that people could go to those places, so we’ve come up with lots of techniques that really immerse people within the podcast, and often people say “I felt like I was there” or “I can’t wait to get my walking boots on because you inspired me to go on a walk.”
POD BIBLE: You mentioned it very briefly there, how was that transition into recording and creating things during the lockdown period?
SEAN: Not easy, because probably 99.9% of our podcasts are recorded on location. So that really put a spanner in the works for what we were doing. But it gave us opportunities to be creative, and it gave us opportunities to tell stories that we couldn’t or wouldn’t have told before. So one of my favourites was an episode called ‘Meet the Silver Surfers’. It was about these people in their 70s and 80s, who had been in these groups where they were really active and then suddenly, they were plunged into this world where they had to learn technology. Even with my mum, you know, she never really embraced her smartphone. And then I was getting text messages and the emojis and all of this stuff. And so it was how these kinds of people, these grandmothers embraced Facebook to be able to see their friends. But we ended up looking at a group of people in their 60s and 70s, who would go on these virtual tours around Cuba and the Mediterranean, and because they needed exercise, they all walk in front of their TVs. So that was that was a really nice story that we told.
I think the other thing that we did, that has now become a kind of staple of our podcast, is what I call the microphone distribution network. We started sending microphones out to get those interviews that normally we would rock up with our microphones and record in people’s homes or offices. And that’s really freed us up to take the podcast global you know, so we can have interviews in America, we can have interviews in Australia with experts that really help enhance the knowledge that we have within the National Trust. So the pandemic gave us some difficulties that we had to overcome, but it’s really enhanced what we do and really pushed forward the storytelling we’re able to do now.
POD BIBLE: The show is very much geared towards being outdoors and being in the properties in quite adventurous ways. Is that something that you’ve learned to do from being the producer, or were you already in that world?
SEAN: A bit of both really. Before I did the National Trust podcast, I have a podcast called The Codpast and one of the episodes I did was about a guy who had ADHD and to deal with it, he decided he was going to walk round the coast of New Zealand, I think it took him three years. And The Codpast was an interview based podcast, but that one I did in a very narrative style. And that kind of sparked my interest in doing narrative podcasts. And when I got to the National Trust, I decided to really utilise some of the skill set that I learned from working in television, because my background is television. Rather than using shotgun mics and things, we started hiring DPA mics, so the head-worn mics that Madonna would wear. And we put all of our presenters on radio mics. So if they wanted to climb a tree, they could. It really gave the presenters freedom to really explore rather than waiting for a Producer with a microphone to point it in their direction before they spoke.
And I think when I first started [The National Trust] were doing walks, literature, authors, homes, and gardens. And I started to think, how do I how do I turn a walk into a podcast? Do I just replace the studio with the outdoors? And I didn’t want to do that. So we worked out ways of how we could really embrace and engage the listener. So one of the things is we do a recce before we record, so we know exactly what’s coming in, where things are going to happen and where the best sounds are. And where a presenter will walk over the crest of the hill and, and see a beautiful view. And then we’ll add corresponding music that does that.
But we also have two scripts: we have a script for the Producers, and the script for the Presenters. And the Presenters kind of look at this and start to get hives because there’s massive blank spaces in their script, where there’s stuff that we know as Producers, but they don’t know. So we really want our Presenters to be experiencing things for the first time on microphone. And I always say, the best way to get a sense of a place is to listen to someone’s experience in that place, rather than them knowing everything and asking questions that they already know. So that’s how we did it.
And then it just expanded really. We started small, and then, you know, we’ve started doing these quite epic episodes every year. So last year, it was ‘A beginner’s guide to bike packing’, where we do a 36 mile journey – which is not far for bikepacking, but when you are carrying your recording kit, you’ve got the Producers, you’ve got the Presenters, you’ve got the Soundman, and we’re all on bikes, travelling along 30 degree inclines…. it’s quite a feat!
POD BIBLE: For the most part, you do standalone episodes. So how do you create a show that feels very unified, but each episode is quite unique at the same time?
SEAN: That’s an interesting question, because sometimes people do go “none of the episodes are the same, what you know, how would we create a synergy?” And I think, you know, all of the all of the episodes are about the National Trust. But what I like to do is look outside the Trust. So a lot of the time, ideas will come from an article that I’ve read and I think “okay, so is that something we do within the Trust is that something we can tap into?” So, our epic episode this year has been a beginner’s guide to paddle boarding. Paddleboarding is really big, you go down the middle aisle of your local supermarket, and you’ll see a blow up paddleboard. It’s something that’s really taken off, and it is something that is done at Trust places. But also, you know, one of the things we look at is carbon neutral transport to our places. Our places can be quite far away and the logical thing for a lot of people would be to go by car. But you could hike to our places, you could run to our places, you could cycle. And there’s lots of places we’ve got electric vehicles, but we thought, why not create an episode where we paddleboard to a National Trust property. So we still incorporated some of the art and history, but actually, we incorporated that adventure into the process of getting to the property.
I think everything we do is rooted in the National Trust. But we just find ways that we can utilise things that are quite zeitgeist, but also engaging new audiences. Because I think sometimes the National Trust does have an image of, you know, cream, teas and country homes. That is what we do, we do it really well. But there’s a lot more to the National Trust and the adventure side of what we do in the outdoorsy side of what the Trust does really appeals to a wider audience. So as often as we can we really try and tap into that.
POD BIBLE: Is there something that you still really want to do with the podcast, which you haven’t yet managed?
SEAN: I’ve talked about our epic episodes – we have done a wild swimming episode, we’ve done a backpacking episode, we’ve done a paddleboard in episode. So we’ve done land and sea, we haven’t done air yet. So that’s the next one. There is one episode that we’ve been trying to do for a while, which is called the jetpack paramedic. So there is a company called Gravity that makes jetpacks and there was a test with the Yorkshire air ambulance, where they use jetpacks for mountain rescue. I think they got to someone in 90 seconds, where if the mountain crew had to climb up, it would have taken them half an hour. And that was done on National Trust land. So that’s a story we’ve been trying to do for a while. That was scuppered by lockdown, we weren’t able to finish off doing that. But yeah, something to do with air travel, whether it’s jetpacks or paragliding or hang gliding. That’s an episode that I’d really like to do…
POD BIBLE: And what is the most interesting thing that you’ve learned from doing the podcast so far?
SEAN: I mean, I think that I’ve learned a lot about myself, to be honest, in doing the podcast. I think, an episode that I did last year for Black History Month was called ‘Black hiking’. I am someone who comes from London, and I went to Cornwall as a kid, but I’ve never really embraced the outdoors until I started working for the National Trust. And I remember one of my first recces that I did, I found myself halfway up a mountain in the Peak District. And it was completely silent. And that completely freaked me out. You know, being from London, if everything’s completely silent, something badly wrong has happened. So it was very interesting to try and get used to being in the outdoors. And I remember I met a guy and I said “this is really freaky. It’s too quiet” and he was saying, “Oh, no I couldn’t hack it in London because it’s too noisy.” And my love for the outdoors has grown with the National Trust and it’s probably reflected in a lot of the episodes that we do. But I think that’s probably the thing that I’ve learned the most.
But I think, from a production point of view is just how engaged in podcasts can be and how immersive, you can get with podcasts. And my boss at the National Trust had never listened to a podcast before I came. And I got her to listen to a podcast and she was like, “Oh, this is amazing. It’s this brave new world that I’ve never heard of before.” So I think it’s just the power of podcasting, and how you can really touch people with it, and really help people transport themselves to new places, if it’s done in the right way.
POD BIBLE: And it also goes the other way, the National Trust is such a big organisation, to have so many fantastic podcasts that you do, it really does just help to elevate podcasting, which we’re always going to be happy about!
SEAN: Yeah, and I think one of the great things about the podcast is we do tell stories that you potentially wouldn’t hear elsewhere in the Trust. We do dig deep and we do podcasts that are sometimes challenging, we do pick up on challenging topics. And I think it’s a great way just to show the breadth of the organisation because you could just see the National Trust as cream teas, and in country piles, but there’s so much breadth to it, The people that we work with are absolutely incredible, super passionate, super knowledgeable, and to be able to share all of that knowledge with the listeners, and just share some of these beautiful places with listeners is a really great thing to be able to do in a way that you can’t really do with video, and you can’t really do with copy.
I always say that podcasting is halfway between reading a book and watching a film: you give people just a little bit of a clue of what something looks like or sounds like, and then their imagination does the rest. So the places that people go to in our podcast are probably even more incredible than the actual places that we record them because their imagination’s doing all the work!
POD BIBLE: We do try to give people a ‘point of entry’ into podcasts, particularly when there’s a big back catalogue like yours. You’ve mentioned a couple of good episodes in there already. But is there one particular episode that you think people should absolutely go and listen to?
SEAN: I think ‘Operation Hillside’ is a really good episode, because it is the kind of thing that we like to do: really dig deep into the subject matter and tell stories that are really surprising about the National Trust. It’s one that I can’t tell you too much about, because that will be a big spoiler. But it’s a really interesting story. And it’s a story about something that you probably know, but in a very different way. And I think, you know, one of the producers that I worked with, went to some really deep depths to find archive material and things. And so it’s just a really rich listen to that’s probably a really great one for people to start with.
Listen to Sean talk about the National Trust podcast on the Pod Bible Podcast episode #114.