My guest today is Dave Robison, founder and host of the Roundtable Podcast.
SCy-Fy: How do you prepare for a show, Dave?
DR: Each episode of the RTP starts with a “creageous” (creative and courageous) Guest Writer submitting a request to be on the show. Part of the Guest Query form includes a list of authors/editors the Guest Writer would like to Guest Host their episode. I like to think of the RTP as the “Make a Wish Foundation for Writers”, and I reach out to most of the potential hosts our writers request. Stephen King and Neil Gaiman haven’t answered my emails – yet – but I continue to hold out hope.
SCy-Fy: Just on that – any tips for getting high-profile guest hosts on a show?
DR: For the most part, I’ve found the ones that want to be contacted will have a “Contact Me” link on their website. If they don’t, the chances of getting them on your show drop significantly.
Be polite and respectful of their time. Accept the possibility that they may decline and end your invitation emails with “regardless of your decision, I appreciate your consideration and wish you great success in the coming year” – and mean it!.
Don’t just copy and paste your invitation emails… articulate your specific need and how the person you’re inviting is uniquely qualified to fulfill it. This serves to indicate you’re interested in them, not someone like them, and that’s much more appealing.
SCy-Fy: So in the end, the guest hosts stop playing hard-to-get…
DR: Eventually, we’ll find a good match with a willing Guest Host and we schedule a recording date and time. I always schedule a dress rehearsal with the Guest Writer to practice their story pitch prior to the recording. This provides the Guest Writer with an opportunity to try out their pitch – which helps reduce the recording jitters a little – plus I can help tweak or refine their presentation.
We only give our Guest Writers eight minutes to pitch their idea, and I know from experience that that’s not a lot of time. It can be tricky to figure out what to focus on and what’s extraneous to the actual brainstorming. It’s not just about getting all the information out there… it has to be comprehensible to the rest of the brainstorming team. Most of them are hearing it for the first time, so deluging them with a full cast list, the name of every town and mountain range, the complete pantheon of gods, and every event in the story is overwhelming. I help the Guest Writers focus their pitch on character arcs and the key events that describe it.
SCy-Fy: Meanwhile, the guest hosts are lining up at the door.
DR: Exactly… after we send the virtual stretch limo to bring them to our luxurious virtual studio.
While that’s going on, I start researching the Guest Host. In the early episodes of the podcast, I started creating elaborate introductions summarizing the events and influences in the Guest Host’s life. Now, it’s a signature event in the interview segment of the podcast. My goal is to put all the background information already covered by every other interview right up front and clear the way for some new conversational terrain.
SCy-Fy: How do you approach that?
DR: I read interviews and listen to podcasts, trying to piece together the childhood, education, and professional arc of the Guest Host. After a few hours on the internet, I usually have 4 or 5 pages of excerpts that comprise the big moments in their life. Then it takes another 3 hours or so to decide on the theme of their life story (Alethea Kontis’, for example, was a fairy tale, while Christof Laputka’s was a superhero comic), organize the events in sequence, and write out my 2-page introduction.
At that point, I’m ready.
SCy-Fy: Very comprehensive. What are your future initiatives?
DR: The answer to that could fill an entire blog. I’ll try to keep it brief.
I have several projects in the works, plus a few personal pursuits that have caught my imagination. Rather than develop them separately, I recently founded a new company titled Wonderthing Studios. It will be launching in March 2015 and it will be the “parent” organization for all my endeavours.
The Roundtable Podcast will be produced under Wonderthing and I’ll be doubling the production cycle, putting the extra episodes under a Patreon feed. In addition, I’ll be offering my story development and brainstorming services on a contractual basis.
My vocal work will also be made available through the studio and will include story and book narration as well as the development of audio promos for books and organizations. I hope to ultimately expand this into a promotional platform where those promos are then easily distributed to relevant podcasts and broadcasters world-wide.
Other projects under the Wonderthing banner will include Vex Mosaic, a monthly e-magazine featuring essays from authors, screenwriters, musicians, and artists that explore how geek culture reflects and influences the wider world, and The Shattered Worlds, a collaborative shared-world storyverse where everyone is invited to explore and add to the world, creating characters and stories to expand the canon of tales by which the universe is defined.
All of these projects will have podcasts, YouTube channels, e-books, and other media events to expand and explore their many facets.
I’m going to be very busy.
SCy-Fy: Sounds like it! What do you think will be the major future challenges for podcasts generally?
DR: I think the technologies of podcasting – and the audience’s acceptance and adoption of those technologies – will continue to progress. Creating and distributing podcasts will just get easier. The challenges of the future will, I think, be the same challenges of the present: acquiring/expanding a listenership, monetization, and making the time.
SCy-Fy: Making the time is an issue for everyone, I guess, so let’s take the other two points you mentioned – building an audience and money.
DR: Building an audience in podcasting isn’t really about marketing, in my opinion. There are hundreds of ways to get people to learn about your podcast… the real challenge is getting them to tune in, and then getting them to tune in again. How THAT happens is the subject for an entire blog post, but a clearly articulated idea, good production quality and high “value” to your content are all contributing factors. I think the strongest asset for any podcaster is to respect the audience and their time. If you’re Neil Gaiman, you can ramble on about shopping for milk and people will find it charming. If you’re not Neil Gaiman, shut up and get on with it.
SCy-Fy: And the money aspect?
DR: Once you have a consistent 500+ downloads per episode, I think you can assume you have “an audience”. Once that happens, there are three basic mechanisms for making money with a podcast: donations, subscriptions, and advertising. The challenge is that all of them require a larger investment of time and effort to pull off and, sadly, none of them will generate enough revenue to allow anyone to quit their day job.
SCy-Fy: Can you see that situation changing in future?
DR: Someday, someone will replicate the television model and create a “podcast network” where listeners are provided easy and convenient access to a wide range of quality in-demand podcast content. Such a network would command hundreds of thousands of click-throughs and that kind of traffic can attract large advertisers, which in turn could be used to support both the network and its constituent creators. It will never be as big as television, but I can see it being as big as radio.
SCy-Fy: Do you have a philosophy of podcasting?
DR: I’m wary of anyone who says, “I want to be a podcaster”. Podcasting isn’t an end, it’s a means to an end. If, on the other hand, you say, “I absolutely LOVE cooking and want to do a podcast about it,” I’ll totally tune in. I think audiences turn to podcasts to experience and share a compressed burst of passion and excitement, a sharp, targeted slice of some aspect of life. Comic books, a favourite TV show, gaming, sports, movies… every successful podcast is built on the foundation of a shared passion. It might be shared by only a few dozen people, but I consider a committed audience of a few dozen to be a greater success than hundreds of listeners who only tune in once.
SCy-Fy: Advice to anyone wanting to present a podcast?
DR: My best advice is to be very clear about your intent. If you’re just playing around, trying out something new and maybe finding a few kindred spirits out there in the podosphere, that’s fabulous. The beauty of podcasting is that there are no gatekeepers and the cost of entry is very small.
On the other hand, if you have something important to say – and “important to YOU” is the only relevant criteria – and you want to be heard, then respect yourself, your message, and your audience. Listen to successful podcasts both in and out of your subject area, figure out what makes them work and if/how you can employ the same tactic, and implement those aspects into your own podcast.
SCy-Fy: Points to watch out for?
DR: Time zones. Holy crap… time zones. The internet is a global thing and you may have guests in different time zones. When you schedule anything, make sure you always include the time zone you’re referring to (i.e. 7pm Central Time). If you’re working with someone many time zones away, do them the courtesy of working out the time zone math ahead of time (“We’ll connect on Skype at 7pm Central time… that’s 2pm your time”). If you’re not sure what the time difference is, look at your clock, then go to Google and enter “What time is it in [guest’s town or country]”. Do the math, remember it, use it.
Also, don’t expect your guests to have ever heard your podcast before, so prepare your guests for what to expect. If you’re going to interview them, work up your questions in advance and send them to your guest a few days ahead of time. I guarantee you’ll get a much better response. If you have different segments on your show, explain them to your guest, clearly articulating the objective of each segment. The fabulous “Functional Nerds” podcast always has a segment called “Picks of the Week” where every guest picks a cool thing they discovered or are enjoying. You can bet the hosts (John Anealio and Patrick Hester) notify their guests in advance so they aren’t caught fumbling for something to share.
Finally, use your own sense of pacing and style. If you feel like you’re rambling during the podcast, then you can assume your listeners came to that conclusion way before you did. If you catch yourself fumbling over a section (introducing and ending your episodes are the most common), then practice it off-mic. Script it out, make it clean and sharp and – most importantly – consistent. Creating catch phrases or questions allows regular listeners to recognize and engage with the structure of your presentation. This is a kind of reward for their loyalty, an inside secret shared only with the faithful.
SCy-Fy: Things that have kept you going in hard times?
DR: There are three things I can rely on to sustain me through whatever mayhem is messing with my mojo: my love of the creative process, the loyalty of our listeners, and the effort of my guests and co-hosts.
There have been many times when I hit the record button convinced an episode was going to suck. I’m always wrong. As soon as we start engaging with each other, there is an excitement that builds almost immediately. Everyone in the conversation is invested in the writing process and we’re all eager to share our discoveries or explore our unique perspectives. It’s an adventure every time and you can’t help but be infused with excitement when you’re doing something you love.
Feedback from our listeners is a huge inspiration to carry on and do my best. When it’s midnight and I’m still mixing the episode for the next day, there’s a strong desire to just pack it in. But if I do that, I know I’ll be breaking a promise. Our listeners look forward to our shows and the last thing I want to do is disappoint them. They invest their time and support into the show and I will do everything I can to make sure it’s worthy of that investment.
And I’m not the only one who “works” on an episode. The Guest Hosts and Guest Writers invest their time and energy and the co-hosts do the same. We all created something unique during the recording, something that couldn’t exist without each of us committing ourselves to that span of time. If that doesn’t happen, that spark of creative energy dies, lost in the hard drive of oblivion. I will always do my best to honour the commitment made by my guests and co-hosts, even if it means I lose a few hours’ sleep.
The other thing that gets me through those hard times is the absolute conviction that they will never happen again. If I’m staying up late mixing episodes, then I will adjust my schedule to get it done sooner. If an interview is going poorly, I’ll figure out why and make sure the next one will be better. “Bad” things are temporary and also opportunities to learn and improve. They are a test of your resolve and your commitment to your message and your podcast. I love what I do and it’s important to me, so – short of a global apocalypse – I’ll find a way to make it work.
SCy-Fy: Any controversy so far?
DR: Not really. There have been rare occasions when a listener took exception to the way we addressed some cultural aspect of a story but, more often than not, the listener’s comments illustrated a blind spot in my own perceptions. The current initiatives towards gender, cultural, and sexual diversity have exposed a few deep-seated behavioural patterns and assumptions I wasn’t aware of. Those comments helped me realize those assumptions and try to address them.
Other than that… hey, it’s a podcast about writing. There are a hundred cults, sects and religions regarding the best/correct/proper way to do anything in the writer’s craft. There are always disagreements, but usually they are directed as fuel for the discovery engine and not a point of contention.
Besides, we always make sure everyone knows that everything we say may be complete bullshit. The actual writing of the story is always in the hands of the writer and they have the final say on what to keep and what to set aside.
SCy-Fy: What have been the most popular shows you’ve presented so far?
DR: Our recent interview with K.C. Wayland, creator and producer of the “We’re Alive” audio drama, was the most downloaded episode in Roundtable history. In terms of total downloads over time, our interviews with Seth Harwood and Christopher Moore and our Roundtable Discussion about Transmedia Storytelling have all been big hits.
SCy-Fy: Can you name a personal favourite episode?
DR: … I can’t. Really. I learn something new every time I connect with a Guest Writer or Guest Host. Each new perspective is like opening a door in a treasure vault. Remember that scene in “National Treasure” – spoilers, by the way – where Nick Cage lights the gunpowder torches and reveals the vast hoard of gold and relics? That’s how I feel during every episode of this show. You can’t make me choose between the Hope Diamond and the Crown Jewels.
If I had to choose, I’d use a response I’ve heard from several authors we’ve had on the show… my favorite episode is the next one I record.
SCy-Fy: Which forthcoming books, films and TV shows are you most looking forward to reading or watching?
DR: I have become a huge Kameron Hurley fan. I’m enjoying Mirror Empire immensely and I’m looking forward to the next installment of that series.
Michael R. Underwood is launching an intriguing project with Tor.com called “Genrenauts” which sounds utterly intriguing. I love how Mike sees and articulates contemporary culture and this project is a perfect vehicle for him to wax rhapsodic on the topic.
I’m a nerd, so all the Marvel and DC movies look awesome, but I’m especially looking forward to the Wonder Woman movie. Actually, I’m looking forward to how the movie will be received by the genre fiction/geek communities. I can only assume the screenwriters on that project feel like every knife, sword, gun, cannon, and particle accelerator in the universe is pointing at them, daring them to screw it up. I hope it’s fabulous.
I’m also intrigued by Hollywood’s recent fixation on Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity. “Chappie” looks like an intriguing tale, as do “Ex Machina”, “Colossus”, and “Vice”.
As for TV… the only thing on my radar at the moment is USA’s “Dig” and the impending release of the next season of “House of Cards”. And I really hope “Agent Carter” becomes a full on-going series… it’s been brilliant so far.
SCy-Fy: Any last words?
DR: I’m grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts. Your questions have inspired several paths of personal and professional exploration that I wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I hope my answers inspire a few in your readers as well.
One last piece of advice that has been proven to be true time and time again… you find what you’re looking for. So, if you make sure you’re looking for amazing stuff, you will find it.
SCy-Fy: Thank you, Dave, and good luck with all your projects!