Nov 8, 2020
My guest today is Caroline Crampton. Caroline is a freelance writer and podcaster. Among other things, she edits The Listener, a daily newsletter that curates the best podcasts. In this conversation, we focus on Caroline’s curation workflow.
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Jorge: Caroline, welcome to the show.
Caroline: Thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you. For folks who don’t know you, can you please tell us about yourself?
Caroline: So, I’m a writer and a podcaster based in the UK. I started out my career in print journalism, but obviously things have changed a lot in that industry, and my career has changed a lot with it. So, I now work completely for myself and I’d say I don’t have so much a beat as such I have a lot of curiosity. So, I’ve written a book that’s about the Thames estuary that is kind of a nature book. I make a podcast that’s about detective fiction from the 1920s. I’ve done reporting work about all manner of politics and social affairs. And increasingly in the last few years, my work has been in newsletters and recommending and reporting on very niche aspects of the podcast industry.
Jorge: That’s super intriguing. As someone who hosts a podcast and the newsletter myself, I’m very keen to unpack what that means for you.
Caroline: Yeah, so there are two main email newsletters that I contribute to. The first one is called Hot Pod and it’s…. well, we call it “the trade publication for the podcast industry.” That’s what it’s grown into. It was founded by my colleague Nick Quah, back in 2014, the summer of the Serial podcast, which I’m sure many of your listeners will be familiar with.
And he was writing it himself for several years. And then sort of towards the end of 2018, he brought me on as the second writer. And obviously I’m contributing from the UK; he’s based in the US. That’s enabled us to broaden our coverage and bring more people in and generally expand things really. So yeah, we act like a trade publication would in any other industry, I suppose, but because podcasting is so new and so distributed, there are people doing it all around the world and people doing it for all different reasons as well. You know, people coming from professional backgrounds in radio, people coming from no experience in media whatsoever and just jumping in as a hobby and everything in between. And all the different subjects and topics as well that, it can be quite… it’s both a great challenge to cover something like that, but also a source of endless excitement, because you never know who you might get to speak to you next week.
Jorge: You mentioned two publications. So Hot Pod is one, right?
Caroline: Hot Pod is one, and The Listener is the second, which is a daily podcast recommendation newsletter. I both source the episodes to recommend and write the whole email and everything that we feature in it. And that grew out of a company called The Browser, which has been going for a long time now and its main email newsletter is written by a guy called Robert Cotrell, who just has the most incredible background in journalism and media and everything that’s interesting on the internet basically. The Browser has existed for I think over 10 years at this point, recommending articles; five articles a day that you won’t find anywhere else and that you won’t be able to stop reading once you’ve clicked on them. A couple of years ago now, I started working with them on adding audio picks for that community. Out of that work has grown an entirely separate newsletter called The Listener, in which we recommend podcast episodes in the same way that The Browser recommends articles.
Jorge: So, that makes me think that you must listen to a lot of podcasts.
Caroline: Yeah, I really do. I don’t tend to keep an active tracker or anything like that, but I definitely less than for a couple of hours a day, I’d say.
Jorge: I’d love to find out more about that. But before we started recording, you also told me that you host a podcast yourself.
Caroline: I do. Yeah, it’s called Shedunnit, and it’s about the very niche topic of 1920s and 30s British detective fiction. So, we’re talking Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Poirot, all that kind of stuff.
Jorge: So, given your experience sorting through all of these podcasts, I’m wondering if you developed criteria that you can share with us as to what constitutes a good podcast.
Caroline: I think the biggest thing is, I like to be surprised. And I can be surprised in any way. It doesn’t necessarily mean information that’s new to me. It can be surprising in the style that something’s told or surprised in the tone of something. An example, just recently I recommended a podcast that was aimed at people who play amateur chess tournaments. Not something that I do. Not something I’m involved in. Not a world that I know very much about, but I found the enthusiasm and the specificity of the two people on the podcast in the way they were reviewing different pieces of software that you can use to help you organize your tournament, especially online. I just found that so surprising and charming, that I wanted to recommend it. So it doesn’t necessarily mean a big budget or a huge revelations or anything like that. But just something that for me is out of the ordinary.
Jorge: I’m super curious to jump into the newsletters — the curation process that goes into that — because it sounds to me like your work entails listening to a lot of stuff and then somehow finding the gems that you want to share with your readers/listeners. And I have just a lot of questions about that as someone who can barely keep up with media myself. How do you do it?
Caroline: Well, you’re right. That is exactly what it’s about is filtering out the gems, and particularly, part of the mission of The Listener is to recommend things that people wouldn’t be able to find otherwise… that wouldn’t stray across their path naturally either in their sort of recommendations or on the front page of the podcast listening app that they use. Things that take them outside of their media diet, essentially. So, I’m constantly myself battling against that, because the way that the internet works these days is you consume one of something and it says, “Hey, would you like three more of that?” I’m constantly trying to think beyond that and find ways around it myself.
So, the process starts actually not in my headphones, as it were. It starts on my screen where I just try and capture as many different feeds as I possibly can. And at this point I’m just looking for, anything and everything. And I have an RSS reader where I organize everything and I put things in folders by topic and category and so on, so that I can find things again, basically. And then before I start actually listening, I’m filtering by how many episodes does the show have? Does it have a particular series that I’m interested in? Is this something where the audio quality is just so poor that I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it? So, I’m doing a sort of initial filter at that stage. And then, I move on to adding episodes that I want to consider for recommendation into a giant never-ending listening queue. And then that’s what I’m listening to whenever I have time. And it’s from that, that I’m drawing the episodes of the eventually make it into the newsletter.
Jorge: So, the way that I’m hearing this is you find out about the shows through an RSS reader and/or your web browser. And are you collating those in any way? Do you have a queue of shows that you want to listen to? How does that part of it work?
Caroline: Yes. So I have a lot of different sources that I’m drawing on to add things into that RSS reader, other email newsletters, the things that the makers of apps are putting on their front pages, stuff that people are recommending to me word of mouth, things that my friends and family like and enjoy, things that I see people talking about on Twitter, things that are getting written up in publications. Also, I have a very long running and overflowing Google form where… it just says, “Do you want to recommend a podcast to me? Put it in here?” I quite often sift through that because there’s lots of things that end up in there that I would never have found otherwise. I also have a colleague helping me, Lindelani Mbatha is our international editor and he also is just feeding me anything good that he finds from where he’s consuming media in South Africa. So that gives me a completely different perspective from another place. He’s seeing the world differently to me and all of that then ends up in my RSS reader.
Then I use a website called Listen Notes. I absolutely love this site — I think it’s brilliant — which is a podcast catalog, I suppose, in its simplest form. But crucially for me, it has the ability to create custom RSS feeds. It calls them your “Listen Later” feed by default. So, I have “Caroline Crampton’s Listen Later,” and to that, I can add any episode of any podcast and it generates for me an RSS feed for that queue, which I can then add to my app. So anytime I add a new episode to that Listen Notes feed, it pops straight into my app without the need for me to go and search for a show and subscribe or anything. I’ve just got one organized linear feed, essentially, of everything I want to try out for the newsletter.
Jorge: That sounds fantastic. I wasn’t aware of Listen Notes. It might be worth recapping for folks what RSS feeds are, because so far, you’ve mentioned both the newsreader and podcast itself, right? Can you give us a brief overview of that?
Caroline: Yeah. So, RSS is actually very old internet technology. It’s sort of one of the building blocks of the internet. And RSS just stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” And it’s a very straightforward collection of code that creates an instance that updates every time you add a new article or MP3 file. You can add basically anything to an RSS feed. And people have over the years built different apps to capture the product of that syndication. So, what I use in my web browser, I use an RSS reader called NewsBlur, but there are lots of different ones, just essentially an interface that organizes all of those updates that are being sent by all those different feeds. A podcatcher of any kind, whether it’s Apple podcasts or Pocket Casts or Overcast or whatever is essentially the same thing. It’s an interface through which you’ve told it that you want to run all of these RSS feeds and it’s alerting you every time an update arrives.
Jorge: And in the case of this very podcast, The Informed Life, if you go to the website, we provide a link to the podcast’s RSS feed, which you should be able to plug into any of those apps to actually listen to the shows. One aspect of RSS as a technology for getting information to people, is that — as you hinted at in your description — it prioritizes chronology over other organization means. For example, if you’re subscribed in a podcatcher, you will care about the latest episode, right? And you will be notified when there’s a new episode of the show. In my experience, the interfaces of these tools don’t tend to be as useful for looking for older content. And I’m wondering in your curation process, how do you balance the discovery of new shows… You were talking earlier about things that might be surprising; I don’t know if to call it serendipitous. But if you’re using RSS, I would expect that that would increase the likelihood that you would be listening to shows from the same… two episodes from the same shows? I’m describing what happens to me, when I subscribe to RSS feeds, it’s like I ended up reading the things that person X is writing in their blog, or I end up listening to episodes of the same podcast, even while some might be more interesting to me than others. It’s always favoring the recency. I’m wondering in the act of curation, are there ways to overcome that or is that an issue for you at all?
Caroline: Its definitely something that I’m aware of. And it’s one of the reasons why I use a web-based RSS reader to store all of the podcast feeds that I’m currently filtering and considering rather than just subscribing to them in a podcast app, for instance, because podcast apps are built exactly as you say: to show you the latest releases because that’s the behavior that they expect from their users. Whereas I want to be able to easily scroll down everything or flip it the other way up and look at it as something from the beginning or one reason why I like NewsBlur as my RSS reader over some others that I’ve tried is it has quite a good advanced search and filtering system, so I can say, “I only want to see posts or episodes from 2017 or from after 2018.” It allows me to put in search queries that help combat that issue of everything being in chronological order. I also organize feeds into folders. So, like I have a folder that’s just for podcasts that are about food. So, when I’m looking at the upcoming recommendations for the newsletter, I like to try and keep it as varied as possible on a few different factors, chronology being one of them, or age of publication, but also, where in the world was the podcast made? What style? Is it a conversational show or a narrative documentary type or something in between? Who’s making it? How long is it? All these different things and I’m trying to make sure that there’s a mixture at all times. So, you’ll never get a newsletter that just has three, hour-long conversational podcasts featuring only Americans, you know? It will always be varied and different. So, I might think, “Oh, well, you know, for next week, I really want a food podcast that’s maybe from South America. That would be here a really great addition to what we’ve already got.” I’ll go and look in my food folder and scan back through what’s there. I might do some searching for some key words of country names or cuisines or something, and that will help me focus in on some episodes that I then want to listen to in order to make the final selection.
Jorge: When you said podcast from South America, I’m assuming that all the podcasts are in English. Is that a fair assumption?
Caroline: Almost always, yeah. Just because that’s the language that I speak best. I have recommended a few podcasts that exist for language learning. So, they’re in other languages, but they are people speaking slowly or explaining or that kind of thing. And I’ve also recommended a great podcast called Radio Atlas, which is a project that subtitles podcasts in other languages. It’s a video podcast but it doesn’t have any visuals if you know what I mean, it just has the subtitles. So, it means that, someone like me for whom English is my main and only language, it means I can listen to any podcasts that they’ve recommended with the subtitles.
Jorge: Well, that’s fascinating. I’m going to have to check that out. What’s the frequency with which The Listener comes out?
Caroline: There’s an addition every weekday.
Jorge: That makes me think that you have to sort through a lot of different podcasts. And when you were describing the process, I got the sense that there’s a part of the process where you’re looking at, like you said, stuff on a screen, right? So, I would imagine like the description, the length of episodes… you talked about how many episodes the show had released. I would expect that those are all things that you can see on the screen without having to listen to the shows. But there are other aspects that you were talking about that made me think that when the shows have made it past an initial set of filters, you have to actually listen to the shows. I’m wondering how much time do you spend listening to podcasts and how do you make the time, basically, to be able to keep up that volume?
Caroline: Well, this was one of the things I was apprehensive about when first discussing whether we wanted to launch this newsletter, because I was concerned that in order to do it well, yes, I would need to listen to so many podcasts and would there physically even be time in the day, let alone with life and work and everything else. So, we did a couple of trial weeks where I tried it not for publication, just sending to one of my colleagues every day, just to see if it was possible. I was actually really surprised at how much time in the day could have podcasts in it that didn’t currently.
I don’t set aside two hours a day where I just sit there with headphones. I don’t have that luxury, but I listen while I’m walking my dog. I listen while I’m cooking. I listen while I’m exercising. Pretty much any time that anyone might be listening to podcasts, I’m always listening to podcasts. And yeah, there is enough time, I was happy to discover. But it does mean I need to be very systematic and very organized to make sure that I’m getting through enough and that I’m listening to a wide enough variety.
Also, I keep notes as I go. I write notes in my phone. So, when I finished an episode, either straight away, or as soon after as I can, I will just make some notes about it. Because otherwise, if I know I want to recommend it, I might not have time to actually write it up for the newsletter for a few days or a few weeks. And I don’t want to forget those initial impressions I had upon listening to it.
Jorge: You’ve just touched on a subject that I wanted to ask you about, which was exactly that this: how do you keep track… especially, the image of walking the dog is one that I can relate to. I do that as well. And I actually love walking and listening to either podcasts or audio books. And one of the challenges that I always run into is that I will listen to something that I want to keep track of because it either sparked an idea or it’s something that I want to blog about later. And I find that I have to take the phone out of my pocket, open up the note taking app or the “to do” app, you know, write a note to self and in the process of doing that, I’ve lost track of what I’m listening to. So, what I’ve resorted to doing is speaking into the air, like a mad person, because the smart assistant in my phone will interpret the trigger phrase, which I will not mention here, and I will say, “take a note” or “remind me to,” or what have you. But it’s a very imperfect system for me. And it seems that that is central to your work. I’m wondering how you do it and if there are recommendations for how to do that better?
Caroline: I’m in the same situation as you. I have to say it has got easier now that my dog is older. When I first got him and he was just pulling me all over the place, there was just no opportunity to pause and take my phone out and make a note or set anything going or anything like that, because I was just being yanked about all over the place. He’s now three years old and is calmed down enough that he’s quite happy to have a sit down on a street corner while I make a note or whatever. So, that’s easier.
I do a combination of: I use Google Keep to write little notes to myself if there are any particular moments that I want to revisit. When I write up the eventual recommendation, I’ll try and just notice where the play head is in the app and go, “at 25 minutes in that podcast, this person said that,” that sort of thing, so that if I want to jump back to it, to remind myself, I can, without having to listen to the whole thing again. I have a Google Pixel phone and I really like the — it’s quite recent edition actually, it came with an OS update, I think — I like the voice recorder app, because it now has inbuilt transcription and uploading to Google Drive. So, if I’m in a situation where for whatever reason, I don’t want to type into my phone or I’m not able to, I do the same, I just start talking to it. And I can, just in the same app, I can scroll through what I’ve said as text or upload it to Google Drive so I can access it on another device. And that can be really helpful to talk through some thoughts or talk to myself about it, but then be able to locate what I was saying and paste it straight into a newsletter, if I think it’s good enough.
Jorge: One of the advantages that I see in curated collections of items — like the ones that you are creating — is something that you touched on earlier, which is that you are getting recommendations from a person, as opposed to some kind of algorithm. You talked about, like the stuff that is surfaced in the stores, right? Which I think at this point, we all realize that those are driven by algorithms, and usually they will try to create some kind of profile of you and your tastes and will try to serve you up similar things. And the advantages that I see in what you’re doing is that rather than depend on these algorithms that are tailored to serve you more of the same, in the curation process, what you’re doing is you’re reflecting a particular taste or worldview. I’m wondering, as someone who is not just a curator of podcasts, but a podcaster yourself, if and how the curation process has influenced your own approach to podcasting and how you select the subjects that you will podcast about, or that you will write about, if that is a thing?
Caroline: Yeah, I think it is a thing. It’s mostly influenced me in a practical sense in that now being somebody who does curate podcasts for a living and listen to them, I have come to an appreciation of quite how many press releases and alerts and so on people who do this do so, you know, someone who reviews podcasts for a publication or something. I get dozens a week, messages and emails from people saying, “Hey, check out my podcast!” I’ve really come to appreciate the value of a very pithy and well-written approach. I in no way begrudge people sending me those emails, because often I find interesting things to listen to.
We all just want to share our contact with more people. That’s perfectly fine! But the emails I get that are very easy to read and to the point and have a very clear… “and if you’re interested in checking it out, here’s where you can do that…” element to them, I’m just so much more likely to click on those links or remember those shows. At the beginning, it was astonishing to me what a small proportion those well-written and short emails are. I get so many where it’s actually quite hard to dig out what the name of the podcast is; it comes in like the fifth or sixth paragraph or something and I just don’t have time for that.
So, I’ve given talks at conferences before about ideas for growing your podcast and that kind of thing. And one of the things I always like to include in the deck is, a friend of mine who actually became my friend because he initially sent me a really good email about his podcast before we even knew each other, and that’s how we first got in contact. With his permission, I share that email and just say, “You know, this email was so good. Not only did I listen to his podcast, but now I’m friends with this person. Send emails like this! Don’t send confusing or rude ones. Or long ones.”
Jorge: Oh, that’s great. And you’ve posted that? Is it public?
Caroline: I think it’s on my website. Yes, I can make sure it’s visible.
Jorge: I’ve noticed, as a result of the — I’m attributing this as a result of the pandemic — that my listening habits have changed. When I was working in offices and I had a commute to offices, I would devote a lot of my commute time to listening to podcasts. As commutes have gone away, my podcast listening has diminished significantly and I’m starting to feel guilty at how many un-listened episodes there are in my podcatcher. I’m wondering if you have any tips for folks, other than subscribing to The Listener for how they might find podcasts that they might find interesting, or that might add value to their lives.
Caroline: I think that is something that a lot of people are facing. You’re definitely not alone in that. The data over the last six months has shown that people were listening less initially. And then once listening did start to creep back up again, it had a different profile. People were no longer listening in the mornings and evenings for their commutes, but far more people were listening at lunchtime, for instance. Lunchtime has become actually a really big time for podcasts to drop, rather than very early in the morning, so you catch people on their way to work. I find that quite delightful in a way. I like to think of people all over the world, sitting down to their sandwiches with a podcast. But I do think that it’s okay for your tastes to change.
I very much recognize that guilt, that the episodes are piling up, you haven’t listened to them and you feel bad. So, first thing I tend to encourage people to do is just be really honest and unsubscribe to the ones that don’t work for you anymore. And that doesn’t mean that you are saying that they’re bad, or that they’re not as good as they used to be, just that they’re not for you right now. Maybe you’ll come back to them another time. There’s a very famous and popular podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, which I do not understand how people keep up with that podcast. He puts out a two-hour episode every other day! Even I, with my very high podcast listening, if I was trying to keep up with that one, I would not be able to do my job. So, I do think that you might decide that it’s not all for you.
And then the other thing I recommend doing, is thinking about the kinds of topics that you want to engage with. Start from the other end. I think often we start from like, “What is a good podcast?” And then you try it out to see if you like, which is just totally fair. But you might also like to think, “Well, I’m trying to feel a bit more escapist right now. Like I’m not so interested in focusing on the news. What audio drama is there that I could try or I’m into spooky stories right now, what is that I could try?” So be very focused in your searching and look in particular genres because they can get a bit overwhelming to just scroll and scroll and go, “Well, there are all these podcasts, how do I know if any of them are any good or that I will like them?” So I like to sort of narrow things a bit like that, if that makes sense?
Jorge: Yes, it does. That’s a really valuable advice. And I think after our call, I’m going to delete a bunch of podcasts from my podcatcher or unsubscribe from them.
Caroline: I definitely have experienced that guilt feeling. But I had a very fortuitous thing happen — I didn’t feel like it was fortuitous at the time — where I used to use a different podcast app, and I don’t know why maybe there was a bug? Maybe there’s something wrong with my phone? But just one day I opened it and it had wiped everything! All of the shows I’d subscribed to and my whole listening history, everything was just gone. And I was a bit taken aback and upset about that. But in the process of rebuilding my subscriptions list, it meant that I shed a lot of shows that I wasn’t really that interested in anymore more. And it meant, I felt therefore, like there was space to add some new things that I did want to try. And I’m not saying you should delete everything, but I do think that people get into a rut or a habit with their apps and their podcasts and so on. And sometimes it can be quite good to just force yourself to reevaluate it.
Jorge: Well, that sounds like an invitation for folks to curate their own feeds and the information that they let in. And I think that that is a very good place for us to wrap up the conversation. So where can folks follow up with you?
Caroline: I have a website, which is carolinecrampton.com, where there are links out to the various different things that I do. And you can find my social media and so on, if that’s interesting to you. Also The Listener has a landing page, thelistener.co and you can see some sample additions, you can see some testimonials from people, you can try it for free and you can subscribe if it seems like the kind of thing you’d be into.
Jorge: Fantastic! I’m going to include links in the show notes to all of those. Thank you so much for being with us and for sharing your knowledge and insights.
Caroline: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been great.