How Gimlet Media’s Phoebe Flanigan Manages Complex Podcast Production
A good podcast, like any well-executed creation, makes the finished product look and sound polished, seamless, and easy. But as most creators know, podcast production can be a lot harder than it seems. Phoebe Flanigan, one of the producers of Gimlet Media’s “Every Little Thing" podcast, knows all about these challenges.
Prior to her work on “ELT,” Phoebe had a wealth of media experience in broadcasting and print, working on the kinds of long-form stories that make for great podcasts. “That’s what I was really excited about,” says Phoebe. Then, she made her way to Gimlet Media, which was “the gold standard for where I wanted to work.”
She sat down with us to share what it takes to produce a podcast with a lot of moving parts, what makes a great episode, and what’s most meaningful to her about what she does. You can listen to “ELT” exclusively on Spotify.
Breaking down “Every Little Thing”
“Every Little Thing” is a podcast for the curious. It’s a forum for people to ask about random, weird, or pressing thoughts that the “ELT” team then investigates. For example, in the episode “Is It Weird to Be Nice to Alexa?” the “ELT” team examines the dynamics between humans and voice assistants with insight from an expert who worked on Alexa’s speech experience. In another episode, “How Squirrels Track Their Nuts,” “ELT” sourced an animal behaviorist specializing in squirrels to help answer a caller’s question.
As for the process of making an episode, “It all starts with the listener question,” says Phoebe. “ELT” meets weekly as a team to listen to voicemails callers leave on the 24/7 helpline: 833-RING-ELT. For each call they decide to pursue for an episode, they find a compelling expert on the subject, construct the narrative, write the script, record their conversations with the expert and caller, then edit, mix, and ultimately turn it into an approximately 20-minute episode. Needless to say, there are a lot of twists and turns along the way.
Originally, “ELT” did not have the caller component. In its early stages, the producers would pitch their own ideas for episode topics. As the show evolved, they pivoted the structure to revolve around the helpline as the source of topics.
This shift has guided and defined the show for the past several years. “It makes it more fun for me,” says Phoebe. “And also, it means that I don’t have to come up with my own ideas, which is great. You ask the question; I’ll be your detective.” Bringing in the listeners makes it so “they essentially get to co-host a show,” which Phoebe says is one of the most satisfying and rewarding parts of producing “ELT.”
On a more granular level, each episode presents its own unique challenges. “ELT” producers sometimes encounter roadblocks, like discovering that a listener isn’t genuinely that interested in what they were calling about, struggling to find a good expert to speak about the topic, or realizing that there simply isn’t a satisfactory answer to the question. This is why it’s important to recognize when something is a dead end and to be prepared with other angles and options ready to go.
“So many things get killed along the way. I’m always juggling like five different things at once because the hit rate is super low on what’s actually going to make it through the finish line. Each stage in that process, there are moments where things can go awry,” says Phoebe.
Don’t go too deep on trying to make one thing work, she advises. This will help with time management, efficiency, and staying on schedule. “There was a point in time where we were going too far down the rabbit hole,” says Phoebe. “So we’re always refining that process, and I think it takes that trial and error because we have a whole language now of warnings. Like ‘remember that time?’ The episode subject becomes shorthand for something to avoid next time.”
Be open to changing directions or processes. Don’t get stuck on how something is supposed to go because often it will—and should—change for the benefit of the show.
Build a community
“ELT’s” community is literally what makes the show through direct audience participation. “We get to interact with our listeners in such an intimate way,” says Phoebe. “I think that’s what I’m proudest of, that we’ve been able to develop this community of people that are not afraid to call us and leave a message about their stupid thought that they’re having or the funny thing that happened to them that day. Or even if they call because they’re upset about something they see in the world.”
Even if you don’t directly involve listeners in the making of the show, you can still build a community by inviting audience feedback. Tools like Anchor’s Q&As and Polls let you source listener feedback to create or inspire content while strengthening the connection with your audience. Hosting live shows is another way to involve your listeners and grow your following—whether that’s in-person, on a live platform like Spotify Greenroom, or recorded on Instagram Live.
“A lot of times, you make a podcast or a print piece, and then you put it out into the world and you never hear from anybody again,” says Phoebe. “It’s like, ‘I guess people are listening to this. A few people tweeted.’” Q&A and Polls and Anchor analytics solve that mystery, giving you an accurate overview of the size and engagement level of your audience.
Developing criteria for what makes a great episode will help you streamline the podcast production process. For “ELT,” it includes how engaging the topic is, the quality of information or content, and interesting guests. Establishing these criteria will help identify winning elements and ensure you don’t waste time on something you can’t use.
For example, Phoebe says when her team books callers, “We’re thinking about: This person sounds like a real character. They seem funny—let’s see what they want to know. Or, this person is so invested—they obviously want to really figure this out.” They also want to gauge how flexible the guest is. She says the ideal listener will be “excited if we take them off the path of their question a little bit. Are they going to be excited to hear more? Can they ask follow-up questions and get curious?”
To help define your criteria, think about what your goals are. Is it to educate or answer a question, tell a thought-provoking story, or provide humor and entertainment?
For scheduling and organizational purposes, plan as far in advance as possible. The “ELT” team starts working on each individual episode about six weeks before the publish date. “We live and die by our calendar,” says Phoebe. “We will have a calendar mapped out for the entire year: Here are our publish dates, and here are which producers are responsible for those shows. I like to cushion in extra time because there are always so many things that can go wrong.”
Keep a high-level calendar of episode release dates and the steps along the way, including when the interviews, script, recording, and editing all need to be done.
Communication is key
Communicate with your collaborators and your audience to produce the best content and keep everything on track. “A lot of times as a producer, you’re muddling along on a story and you get really into the details and you forget: What’s really interesting about this?” says Phoebe. “Or, what’s going to grab a listener? You lose that perspective, so we have a lot of check-in points with the team, where you’re going over editorially how you think the story is going to play out, so we can give each other new inspiration.”
Summon friends, family, and even your listeners as a sounding board. Bounce ideas, topics, and stories off of them. “Look at what’s rising to the top, what are they reacting to the most, and doing that often and early so you’re able to kill things before you get too invested, or find what’s really resonating with people early on,” says Phoebe.
Beyond their community-building capabilities, Q&A and Polls are another way to survey your audience for validation or feedback on content and topics. You can ask them what they want to hear, if they would be interested in a potential expert guest or discussion topic, what they would be willing to pay for a podcast subscription, and generally, what gets them excited. This can inform the direction or strategy you take going forward and keep the wheels in motion.
The most rewarding part of podcast production for Phoebe is when it’s fun and makes her laugh. That’s also her personal metric for success.
Phoebe cites an episode with a caller “who is an owner of a wiener dog and was very upset that they’ve never won Westminster. We went behind the scenes on the wiener dog bias in Westminster and got to introduce her to an award-winning wiener dog who just took the biggest show in England. Everyone we interviewed was so funny.” That’s objectively a good time for all involved.
When you have fun, your audience has fun. “When we get feedback on Instagram or Twitter or different social accounts, or people who call the hotline after who are like ‘OMG, that really made me laugh,’ you can tell if it’s sticking with people,” says Phoebe.
Enjoying the process of making a podcast and taking something impactful away from it is fuel for driving your show forward. “Finding some kind of meaning or joy in that is so important to wanting to come back to work every day,” says Phoebe. “I don’t know if I’d be able to show up to work if I wasn’t doing it in order to call this guy who ate like 50,000-year-old mammoth meat or whatever.”
Learn from mentors in your space
Phoebe’s No. 1 piece of advice for budding podcasters: Surround yourself with greatness to find the fastest, best path to success.
“One thing I love about coming to work at Gimlet is I get to work with so many awesome people who are so much smarter than me,” Phoebe says. “If it’s something you really feel passionate about and you want to make a career out of, make sure you’re surrounding yourself with people all the time whose work you admire. Whether that’s listening to their show and dissecting how they made it or seeing if there are classes you can get involved in. Just keep growing, basically.”
Note: Gimlet Media is a podcast division inside of Spotify.