Finding Success in Podcasting When Coming from Other Professions

Amy Westervelt, Photo by Isabella Reyes-Klein
Amy Westervelt, Photo by Isabella Reyes-Klein

Think podcasters must leave all learned skills behind once they switch careers? Think again.

Podcasters, as a group, are no longer regarded as the niche audio hobbyists they were a mere decade ago. These days they represent an essential and highly respected segment of the professional media landscape—spanning kids programming to audio fiction to serious investigative journalism. A whole field of trailblazing workers perform roles that were nonexistent a generation ago, which is why it's not uncommon to find players in the podcast industry that have long and impressive backgrounds in other fields. For instance, Dax Shepard may be an established comedian and actor but recently, fans of his are tuning in to listen to his wildly popular podcast Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard.

As with any profession, newcomers to the studio have a learning curve to navigate, but many also bring along skills that directly translate to the world of podcasting—and enrich it. We spoke with several creators who transitioned from another field to see how their previous careers prepared them for podcasting.

Using journalism reporting skills

Amy Westervelt, creator and host of Drilled: A True Crime Podcast About Climate Change, came to audio after a career in print journalism.

“Six or seven years ago I was driving around listening to NPR, and I thought, ‘I wish I could do radio,’” she says. “I emailed my local NPR member station and asked if I could volunteer in exchange for audio training … After a month, they hired me as a staff reporter and I really fell in love with writing for audio and how it made me rethink writing for print.”

Now in its third season, Drilled is the audio equivalent of a longform print investigation. Westervelt relies on the same techniques she uses for print writing to gather her material.

“The reporting part is the same. I do a lot of documentary research, so finding archives, digging through them, searching through libraries—and then I also try to find people who were working at particular companies during particular time periods,” she says. “I often use parts of the Drilled reporting for print pieces.”

When piecing podcast episodes together, Westervelt has learned to mold the story into peaks and valleys in order to end episodes with as much suspense as possible. She says she practiced this type of editing when she wrote her first book, but podcast work has sharpened her eye for organization and juicy cliffhangers.

“You really need to link each episode to the next to keep pulling people along,” she says. “The big difference is that sound can sometimes do in a couple of seconds what the written word needs many pages for, particularly when it comes to conveying emotion.”

Her life in print did not train her, however, to develop the restraint podcasters must call upon during dramatic interviews. “It's extremely hard for me not to audibly emote when people are telling me things, especially if those things are quite sad, or if they are surprising to me,” she says.

Podcasting is especially rewarding to writers like Westervelt partly because her work can be measured through detailed analytics, which isn’t always an option in the print world. Using Spotify for Podcasters, she was surprised to learn that her audience skews slightly male.

“A lot of times the assumption is that a woman-hosted podcast will draw a primarily female audience,” she says. “The reason I'm particularly pleased by this stat, though, is that by far climate denialists are more likely to be men.”

Knowing how to connect on an emotional level

In April of 2018, Cara Wagner suddenly found herself caring for her father after he was diagnosed with cancer; Jean Ross is a registered nurse and caregiving business owner who provided Wagner with valuable assistance. Ross and Wagner eventually developed the idea for Hidden Patient, a podcast that serves as a roadmap for people who find themselves in comparable situations.

“Jean and I finally landed on a podcast because this is probably the most digestible form for caretakers to take in,” Wagner says. “They don't have time to do a workbook. They're literally flying by the seat of their pants every single day. They're exhausted.”

Previously, Wagner had worked in marketing and public relations for more than a decade. Faced with the need to map out an entire show from a back-of-the-envelope idea, she flexed her marketing muscles to craft compelling messages that shaped Hidden Patient’s storyboards.

“I’m always looking for a unique way to highlight what's going on, and how we could connect with a specific audience,” she says. “Very early on I might have come to Jean with a preliminary list of things that I felt encompassed all the aspects of caregiving. The emotional journey—you go through grief, and you go through denial—and all the [practical] things that you need to know all fit into buckets.”

Ross found that the emotional labor nurses must perform is great preparation for hooking the audience whenever she's creating an episode; in both cases she has to earn trust and connection in a matter of minutes so that she can do her work effectively. “When you’re taking care of a patient, you’re a complete stranger,” she says. "In five minutes I have to connect with that patient and earn their trust to guide them.”

—Zach Brooke