As a long-time podcast listener, one of the most interesting things about this medium has been how it has evolved from its simpler, more chat-based origins into a form that can accommodate a wider variety of genres from comedy panel shows, to thrilling true crime documentaries.
One particularly ambitious podcast project is currently being undertaken by one of our animators, Will Marler. Will’s Straight from the Lungs podcast is an audio documentary series drawing on his own experience with cystic fibrosis to create a platform for a diverse array of stories from those affected by the condition in the US and the UK.
We sat down to talk about what it takes to start up and distribute an independent podcast, the challenges that Will has faced along the way, and about the impact that Straight from the Lungs has had so far — four episodes into its fourteen-episode run.
Ember: What first inspired you to start Straight from the Lungs?
Will: The idea behind Straight from the Lungs is that I’m uniting loads of different people from the UK and the US to share their stories. Because, when you google CF (which you will invariably have to do if — for example — you’re a parent of a child who’s just been diagnosed), the problem is that you can find two extremes: one is really bad, so stories like people losing their lives or images of people in hospital with breathing tubes and feeding tubes… or, the really good: seeing people climb Mount Everest or whatever.
In terms of the mainstream media, a lot of it is very sensationalised. There are no real, everyday stories, readily available. So, people might know about it but then have an incorrect knowledge. They might think it’s just like asthma or that you can catch it. So it’s about teaching a mainstream population, but also sharing stories that can help people. Not only people who have just entered the CF community by having a child diagnosed; but people who are in the CF community, giving advice, hope, and education for them.
Ember: Why did you feel that it was particularly important to look beyond just your own personal experience of cystic fibrosis?
Will: The thing about CF is that it’s very individualised. So, it’s something where — if I only used myself in the podcast — I would only really be able to talk about my personal experience. I wouldn’t be able to speak about cystic fibrosis as a whole because every person’s CF is slightly different. There are different symptoms, different things that can be developed from it.
For example, you can get cystic-fibrosis related diabetes and bone problems and all that sort of stuff, which I personally have no experience of at the current time. So I can’t really talk about that, whereas I’ve spoken in the podcast to people that have these different symptoms and different experiences.
Ember: In terms of accomplishing these goals, what was it about podcasting that struck you as the ideal medium?
Will: I studied film and animation at university, and that’s really my usual set of tools and skills. I’d started listening to a podcast called 99% Invisible, which is about design and architecture, and I just thought: I wonder if anyone’s done this for CF.
Everyone’s got a podcast, it seems, and there are so many varied topics. But I thought, I’ve never actually come across a podcast about cystic fibrosis. I looked, and it turns out there are podcasts about it. There were three or four, but none of them had a format that appealed to me.
There are a lot of podcasts in which people just have a recorded conversation like we’re having right now. I’m not a huge fan of those, because I feel like we can do so much better. Without an enormous amount of knowledge, you can do a lot to edit something together into something a bit tighter. I’m equipped with the knowledge of editing video and audio, so I felt confident to be able to record these interviews in a way that it more like an audio documentary than a podcast, in the traditional sense.
In particular, one of the big things that podcasting afforded me relates to how — in the CF community — we are medically advised not to meet up with other people with CF because off cross-infection risks. So automatically, the very people who should be meeting up and sharing stories and supporting each other can’t do that.
So podcasting is a great way to bridge that gap. This is something that could be done by video conversations or vlogs, but there’s something about audio in particular… when someone’s talking directly into your ears — you’re not looking at their face, you’re just trying to listen to them and concentrate — it almost feels like they’re in the room; or like they’re on the phone.
I’ve not done much work to clean up the Skype or phone conversations that you hear in the podcast, because I don’t want to hide the fact that I can’t meet up with these people. I want it to be obvious that there’s a distance between us, that’s being bridged by this podcasting format.
Ember: One of the unique aspects about podcasts is that it’s quite an intimate listening experience.
Will: Definitely. The thing that really separates podcasting from traditional radio is that it’s up to the listener when they listen to it. It’s much more of a personal experience, so it’s less like you’re talking to a wide audience, and more like each individual listener is being spoken to on an individual basis.
Although I interviewed a lot of people for the podcast, I’ve removed a lot of that “interview” aspect. If I remove me from the situation, it’s not the interviewee talking to me… it’s them talking to anyone who’s listening. Ultimately it’s their story; I’ve not got anything to add. It’s funny how something as basic as just removing me from the picture can create that type of feel, and hopefully make it sound more personal.
Ember: Straight from the Lungs is certainly an ambitious project. As you said, it’s more like an audio documentary than a traditional podcast: how was the process of realising the initial idea?
Will: I didn’t start this project with an enormous idea in mind: I sort of had a general idea of what I wanted to do, but the first part of the process was talking to my first contributor, Charles. He was doing a campaign on Twitter and had had some TV interviews, and that’s how I came across him. I contacted him, had two hours interviewing him… and then I just sort of went from there. I didn’t try to steer the conversation in any particular direction, but he led me on to the next person and it went from there.
With each interview, I got a better idea of how the podcast would feel, but instead of having this grand ambitious plan, I let the plan organically develop through the process of collecting these interviews and then having ideas or finding crossovers of people talking about certain subjects. After doing about 20 or so interviews, I was naturally able to pinpoint these recurring subjects and think: “OK, I need to start off with an introduction to CF, then talk about diagnosis, and then treatment, and then school…”
So, it was almost like a lot of the process was done for me, in a weird way.
Ember: For anyone else seeking to put together a podcast independently, what are some important things to consider?
Will: I was fortunate enough to be an associate for Birmingham City University — I’ve done some teaching there in the past, and I still have access to their facilities, including their professional radio studios, which is where I record all of my voiceover for Straight from the Lungs.
But if you just want to get started: if you’re interested in podcasts, chances are you already have a smartphone or a computer with a built-in microphone. I think to get started, they’re perfectly fine. If that’s all you’ve got, it’s all you’ve got.
When it comes to editing: I use Adobe Audition to edit things together. But, again, there’s free software available — GarageBand on the Mac, or Audacity. These tools are readily available these days.
One of the big lessons I learned when I was at uni is that technology and fancy effects or pristine fidelity can’t save a bad piece of content. If your content is boring, or it’s badly researched… no amount of top-quality producing can make it good.
If you’ve got something you want to say — whether you want to teach the world about something, or you’ve got some narrative ideas, or you just want to go to the pub and record something with your friends talking about something you care about — then just grab your phone, record it, edit it together, put it online, and see what people think.
Look out for the forthcoming second part to this interview, in which we talk further about podcast distribution, developing an audience, and what insights Will has gained from embarking on this project.