Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
9 mins read

Lessons from award-winning podcasts: Olive Magazine’s Janine Ratcliffe

The winner of the Lifestyle category in the 2020 Publisher Podcast Awards was the Olive Magazine podcast from Immediate Media. We asked Janine Ratcliffe, Food Director and podcast host, to share some of her insights into what has made the Olive podcast so successful.

We’ll be releasing audio excerpts in a special Media Voices episode at the end of August, as well as full transcripts from all the winners at a later date. For now, here are the edited highlights…

Launching

We launched [the podcast] in April 2016. I think earlier that year, February or March, we were sitting in a planning meeting, and [the editor] Laura sat us all down and said, I want to do a podcast. I was like, ‘Okay, what like one a month?’ and she went, ‘No, no, we’re going to do one a week,’ and I just thought she was mad.

Me and Laura at the time were big podcast fans anyway, so I could kind of see how it would work. I realised it was all about the chat and the content, and you weren’t making a radio show, which I think a lot of people get confused about, that you have to have some super edited slick radio-style thing.

The idea was that we would just bring the magazine to life in a different way and all the voices that were in the magazine, either writing recipes or travel pieces, or chefs from restaurants, rather than being in print, they could get a chance to speak to us. Also giving the people who were making the podcast – which is just the editorial team – to sort of come to life as well, talk about their favourite things… their interests and their passions.

So that was really the thinking behind it. Just do it.

It was uncharted waters for us. Laura got in touch with Acast and they sent a guy over… I believe at the time he was producing Scroobius Pip’s podcast. So he came over with a little setup, a recorder and a couple of mics. And we got a room and he just said, ‘Right get into groups of two, come up with a subject, and then I’m going to record you talking about it.’

It was like our little pilot run through and then after that, we hooked up with Jack, who was our editor who worked out of the Bristol office, and he set us up with a zoom recorder and some mics, and we used to record in the video studio because it was soundproofed. It was so DIY, I can’t tell you how DIY it was!

Episode planning

At the beginning we said, ‘Let’s make it easy on ourselves. We’ll do it in three little soundbite sections.’ The idea was we try to record between seven and 10 minutes per section. It could be someone had just travelled to Rome and they could do 10 minutes on their favourite places to go visit. Or there was a poll in the news about what the nation’s favourite biscuits were, so we had like a ‘biscuit off’ about our favourite biscuits. Or it could just be me and Adam talking about barbecue recipes that were in the issue that month. 

We started off quite soft with just the staff talking and then within three or four episodes, we decided to bring in outside guests, but just talking for those short sections of time. It felt manageable, because we would have a planner, and we would say, ‘What are we going to talk about next week, have we got anyone we can bring in?’.

We’ve never really had any editing, we’ve always just let people speak, which I think for me is part of the joy of the podcast. I’m very much like, edit as little as possible, people have got a lot to say, sometimes it’s just funny. We never let it go on to the point where someone’s just completely rambling, but I think it’s nice to just let it pan out naturally. 

Interviews

When I approach someone, I don’t have questions, I just have things I want to talk about. So I’ll have a little crib sheet of themes, and I’ll make sure that we cover some of them. We might not cover all of them. But my main objective is to get the other person to talk because they’re the interesting person, not me. So I think it’s given people the space to tell the story, and to let their personality shine through, and characters as well, there’s so many characters out there. You don’t get that with the printed word or online, but on podcasts, you get like, who are these crazy food people?

I’ve had [interviews] where I’ll start chatting to them and go ‘Oh what about this, and I saw this,’ and I’ll talk about something that I’ve seen them do. And then we get into chatting and I’m like, ‘Damn, I’m not recording this!’ You just suddenly forget that you’re meant to be recording the podcast.

What I’ll do normally is send them an email to say, these are the kinds of things I want to talk about, but I’m not going to throw you any ringers, there’ll be nothing that you can’t answer. And then when we get together, especially with the Zoom thing, just warming up and saying how they are and what they’ve been up to.

We’ll chat for around 30 minutes. I think it’s a comfortable amount of time to talk to somebody, because you kind of establish where they are, the subject you want to talk about, what they’re doing in the future. Then we’ll go off on little tangents, and it gives you enough time to explore those tangents and then to come back to what you’re talking about.

I did one yesterday with Ed Kimber, he’s a regular, a baking columnist. We talked about loads of stuff, like how lockdown was affecting him, and he’s got a new book coming out. And then we started talking about how flour is going to be the next revolution… how the next thing is going to be flour varieties which act like plain flour, but actually they come from heritage grains and stuff. And I was like, this is mind blowing! But we were able to go off on that because I wasn’t trying to hold him to some kind of time constriction or script.

I always say it’s like, educate, inform, entertain, that’s always in my head. When we’re learning stuff, we’re telling people about important things. But most of all we’re hopefully entertaining them as well and giving them something that is going to perk up their day.

Recording

That video recording studio, which still gets used occasionally for video, is now set up with four professional mics and a little sound deck thing, I couldn’t tell you the technicalities of it. We still go in and record ourselves. 

To be honest, though, we get out in the field quite a lot more. So we’re still using that zoom recorder, but our last podcast person Jack told us to get Sennheiser MD 46 mics. They’re noise cancelling… they are apparently used in F1 motor racing reporting. They isolate your voice; I could be sitting talking to you in the noisiest coffee shop ever, and you’ll hear this murmur in the background, but our voices will be completely isolated. So it’s brilliant if you want to go out in the field and talk to people.

We always want to go to people rather than making them come to us, going into a chef’s kitchen and getting them to cook a recipe while you stand there chatting to them. It just brings different levels and a different experience for the listener as well.

Recording during lockdown

It’s been a real eye opener. I was really worried, because the sound quality has always been incredibly important to me. I’ve listened to some horrific podcasts by people who have actually got like, proper names and stuff. I just feel like they feel like their name is enough, and they haven’t bothered to think about how they’re recording, and it’s unbearable, you actually can’t listen to it.

But I do think that sound quality’s come on quite a lot in terms of what you can do with just recording on an iPhone, which is what we’ve been doing in lockdown.

I set up a zoom call; the face to face thing is quite important for me because when I’m talking to someone, I kind of want to see their face. I think it helps for people who aren’t used to it certainly to have a face there that they can kind of react to.

It’s that thing isn’t it with lockdown, it’s just been a constant series of adjustments when you realise that things aren’t as bad as you think they are. One of my interviewees was a woman who lives in Brussels. I was meant to meet her at her book launch, but obviously that didn’t happen, so we chatted from Brussels and it was brilliant. I was like, ‘Oh, god, this just opens up a whole new world really.’

Audience development

We’re growing all the time. In lockdown, we had a massive boost of listening figures, for example, in February this year we were on about 10,000 listens a month. Come April, we were up to 20,000. So we’d doubled.

I just looked this morning and we’re at 15,000, so it’s still holding up.

We were featured on Apple podcasts… they’d started a collection called ‘In the kitchen.’ And then Spotify randomly featured our Easy Bread podcast and that’s now the best performing podcast in the entire series of 200; it’s got like 7,000 listens on its own.

It just shows you the power of those platforms. If you manage to get on them then that’s a bit of a winner as well.

At the beginning of lockdown, we decided that we were going to do a dedicated mini series which we’ve done a few of, and these have really reaped rewards for us. We’ll make five little mini podcasts and we’ll release them across a week. We released them, I think it was the second or third week in lockdown, and we got a huge bounce of figures from them. Each of the little episodes we did, not 30 minutes, we said between 12 and 15 minutes… much more soundbite-y.

Research

Basically it was just, what are people looking for? What are people going to want to know going into lockdown? We thought the bread thing is going to be massive because we’d already heard about flour shortages. It was kind of like how to make easy bread without yeast and different kinds of flour – you can use self raising flour, and plain flour if you couldn’t get bread flour. We talked about a lot of flat bread and soda bread and things like that.

Then the health thing. We’ve got a nutritionist, Keri, who is absolutely brilliant, and I thought, we need to tell people that it’s okay. Their diets are going to be slightly shifting, they’re not going to be able to get what they normally get, but she can tell us about how eating tinned fish is brilliant for you, or that you’re frozen veg is just, if not more nutritious than the veg that you get from the market.

We planned for how useful we can be at this point in time. What are the things that people are going to be searching for? Can we cover it for them, so they don’t have to go back through 100 episodes, well 200 odd episodes now, and find what they need.

Monetisation

The series thing, it’s not something that’s new. We did one at Christmas, trying to cover things that were really useful… we did a whole masterclass on turkey – buying it, cooking it, resting it, making leftovers from it.

Previous to that we’d done one with Activia which is one of our best sponsors that we ever got. We got quite a decent amount of money. We did a gut health series, but we did it really responsibly – we said to them, if we’re going to do it, we want to bring in a proper nutritionist, and we want to talk about different aspects of gut health. And it was absolutely brilliant. It was such a good little series. 

We’ve been sponsored by the Pink Lady photographer awards. Last year, we had David Loftus who’s a really respected food photographer on the podcast and we had such a brilliant time. He told me loads of hilarious stories that I wasn’t expecting to come out… he was quite indiscreet! It was brilliant.

And that was actually sponsored by them, but it didn’t feel at all like we were shoehorning something in, and it just felt really natural that we were celebrating how food photography’s evolved from when I first started to now, which is huge. 

It’s finding those natural partners where you can both get something out of it.

The Olive Magazine Podcast team at the Publisher Podcast Awards in March

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world

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