My Favorite Episode: Helen Zaltzman of Answer Me This!

Martin Austwick, Helen Zaltzman, and Olly Mann, Photo by Teri Pengilley
Martin Austwick, Helen Zaltzman, and Olly Mann, Photo by Teri Pengilley

Solving listeners’ problems got a little more interesting when the hosts turned the mics over to their families.

When we asked Helen Zaltzman to choose her favorite episode of the dispute-settling podcast Answer Me This! her response was quick: “Oh god.” On that program, which was launched in 2007, Zaltzman, co-host Olly Mann, and her husband, Martin “The Sound Man” Austwick, respond to listeners’ questions, helping solve petty (or not so petty) problems and resolving disputes in a hilarious, engaging way.

Zaltzman chose the show’s 200th episode, in which the trio traveled around England to have their family members take over the hosting duties. Parents, nieces, nephews, and a sibling answered the questions in their own unique ways, highlighting what makes the show so beloved: It’s funny, personal, and extremely honest. Speaking from Brighton, England, she explained what made this one so special for her, the team, and their audience.

Spotify for Podcasters: You chose episode 200, which is quite the milestone.

Zaltzman: Yes, that was at the end of the fifth year of the podcast, so 2011.

What is your release schedule?

At the time, we were doing 40 a year. We would do weekly with a few breaks, but because I have so much work now, we do an original one each month and then halfway through the month, we play one of our old paywall episodes with a bit of commentary at the beginning where we apologize for bad things we said when we were younger. I certainly felt a bit of that when I was listening to this episode. My God, I was reeling at some of my mother's bad advice. She's the kind of person that gives the impression of being extremely sensible until you ask for an opinion about certain things. Then, all bets are off.

This does have a lot of family in it.

Olly’s dad died a few years ago and it was funny listening to him again, because it just felt very vivid and immediate, like I was back in that place where we were sitting with him and Olly's mom, talking. My dad is still around, but he's increasingly got dementia and has fairly advanced Parkinson’s. My nieces and nephews were aged three to five at the time, so that was pretty cute.

I just liked having the multi-generational answers to the questions. It was so unusual for us because we're close in age and don't have guests very often, and you get all these opinions that you're not expecting. It was very enjoyable hearing what Olly’s grandma's opinion is on how to decorate your home. It would be very different from what Olly or I would say, And my nieces and nephews gave advice about weddings. It's not good advice, but it’s interesting what you fix on in a different stage of your life. For the listeners, it was just an insight into who we were and how to make sense of us as the product of parents.

You collectively have really funny parents.

Yeah. Martin's mom, in particular, was in terrific form. It was like seeing a new side of her when we recorded that! It’s usually Martin’s dad who's the extrovert, but he was quite shy on the mic. She was just blazing through.

What was the listener response?

They were very excited. I think they thought my dad was really funny. My dad has always been really funny, but I don't have much of that documented, so that was great to go back and listen to. At the beginning, he did a joke that really made me laugh. It was so him. He was always making the kind of jokes where he would say something quite slowly, quite low-key, but would just be these silly gags. You can still see his mind whirring away now about whether there's an opportunity to do a gag, but it's a lot harder for him to say stuff.

What’s it like going back to listen to this one?

It was mostly very sweet. It is also strange listening to myself in the past. I don't love that there is a lengthy record of myself publicly available, because I listen back to any of it and I just think God, you’re such an idiot. At this time I was 31 and I had hoped I was less of a dipshit by then, but no.

What lessons can you share with other podcasters?

One thing that amazes me that people don't do more is when you come up with your name, check that no one else is using it. This is so elementary and people just don't, and it really pisses people off.

But, I started out so long ago that I feel like my advice for beginners is that I should duck out and be like, “Grandma doesn't have anything relevant to say anymore.” But I think there are certain aspects where it's just like all creative work—you have to give yourself permission to do it. In podcasting, it might not seem as daunting because conversation is something we do anyway as humans, but then when you listen back to it, then you think, I hate myself and I'm not as amusing as I thought I was. That can really stop you in your tracks. And a lot of people hate their own voices, as well, and I would say, “Push through that pain barrier.” Just force yourself to make them, release them, and then make another one and another one. It will improve. But also, don't be surprised if it takes years to actually get to where you think you should be.

-Melissa Locker