13. Christopher Phin: Becoming a podcasting hero

After 16 years in magazines – as a writer, editor, editor-in-chief and publisher; Christopher Phin has for the last year been leading the creation of a podcast strategy at Scottish publishers DC Thomson Media. Now publishing eight podcasts, with more in development, he’s energised by the opportunities podcasts give to strengthen relationships with audiences, to find new audiences, and to deliver highly engaged audiences to commercial partners. And, just as importantly, to give teams within publishing companies the chance to do something fun and exciting.  He was the recipient of Publisher Podcast Hero of the Year award in 2020 at the Publisher Podcast awards.

Chris talks to Sue Stockdale about how he managed to create a dream job in podcasting, what he loves about this medium of communication, and how he predicts the future of podcasting will evolve. To find out more about Christopher Phin see his LinkedIn Profile or on Twitter @chrisphin



Sue Stockdale 0:00
Today on Access to Inspiration, I’m talking to Chris Finn, Head of Podcasts at DC Thompson’s the publishers. Now he could be described as a real life hero, having recently picked up the podcast publisher Hero of the Year award. So welcome, Chris.

Christopher Phin 0:27
Hi, Sue, thank you so much for inviting me.

Sue Stockdale 0:29
What was it like them to go up on stage and pick up a Hero of the Year award?

Christopher Phin 0:34
It was surreal and very odd. I mean, we didn’t know that award existed. So this was the inaugural publisher podcast award started by a team of people behind the Media Voices Podcast to recognise the work that professional publishers and independent publishers all the way down to one person bands are doing with podcasting. So it’s an award specifically for folk in the media industry. And there’s a whole bunch of categories as you’d expect, but we didn’t expect there to be this Publisher Hero of the Year award. At the point at which they started talking about this award I was actually composing a tweet, I wasn’t paying attention. I was composing, composing a tweet. And then I got the award, which is lovely because it was an award for somebody in the industry who is shaping best practice and being enthusiastic and sharing, good practice, stuff that is beneficial to my company’s workflow. practices. So it was very, very warm and lovely to recognise for that.

Sue Stockdale 1:43
Well, it’s great that you know what we’re speaking today because I’m sure there’s a lot you can share with our listeners about what’s happening in the world of podcasting. So we’ll, we’ll come on to that in a little bit. When I began to discover a bit more about you, Chris, I read on your LinkedIn profile that one of your contacts had had said this quote, I don’t ever think I’ve described a work colleague as inspirational, but I can think of few other words that better fit Chris. So that really made me curious, because our podcast is about inspiration. So what do you think makes you inspirational to other people?

Christopher Phin 2:01
It’s very hard to understand what about oneself It’s really hard to take a good objective view of yourself really. That was a comment left on my LinkedIn by a former colleague, Paul Hudson. And so I can only quote from what was in the rest of that which was about enthusiasm and curiosity. And indefatigability and a desire to keep keep working, keep doing good stuff, and that’s definitely true.

Sue Stockdale 2:23
Thinking about the word inspiration who inspires you Chris?

Christopher Phin 2:26
The the answer we’ve kind of come to expect and not from your podcast obviously Sue, but in broader media and context the answers we expect our sporting heroes and Nelson or you know, it’s these kind of semi mythic figures – but for me it’s a indefatigability thing it’s people who get knocked down and come back fighting or, or who are brave in how they conduct their their personal lives. There are people like my wife who has had a whole raft of challenges in our life but has really kept punching. I’ve got a trans friends who have gone through a very difficult time of it but keep pushing, keep moving forward, and in those situations it’s very hard to, to stay positive but they keep putting love and creativity out into the world.

Sue Stockdale 3:20
It’s about a kind of a set of values, perhaps traits of personality that are the things that really inspire you. I’m sure that during your work career, which I’d like to find out a little bit more about, I know that you’ve had challenging times, perhaps yourself. You’ve had great opportunities to pivot moments that have taken you into new places to tell us a little bit more about what’s been your career journey to land up doing podcasting.

Christopher Phin 3:35
So I’ve been in magazine publishing all my professional career and that was certainly not planned. I did a degree in graphic design and had every intention of going into some sort of design field. But I was always into tech and computers and Apple tech in particular. I graduated from university, I was reading a magazine that I liked and subscribed to called Mac user. And saw they were advertising for a sort of menial entry level position on the magazine, applied and that’s kind of the start over and that took me to London. I lived there for five years, I think the opportunity to work on a rival magazine in Bath and I worked there for seven years. And then I got a little disillusioned and threw my toys out the pram and left and went self employed which in these current trying circumstances gives me a little bit of a head start because I have worked from home for 18 months for a period. So I have some experience of that, as we all know are having to build and, and I never really intended to work freelance. I like having a salary. I like being part of a company part of a team. When I left my previous job, I did just leave it I didn’t leave to go do something else. It was just a no I’ve had enough this I’m gonna leave. And I actually find that I quite enjoyed freelancing. And I enjoyed the flexibility once I sort of embraced it and leaned into it, and I enjoyed the kind of variety of work I was doing. And I might well still be doing that well enough the fact that DC Thompson reached out to me to bring me up to Scotland to head up a business unit within the company here one they acquired a few years before and i did that for a while, and then it was restructured. It blended into another another part of the team which left me with a loose end. And the company very generously said, take some time and have a think about the things you could do to help out in the company because we realise you’ve got some useful skills. When we circled back around to that conversation to okay, so what are you actually going to do? I suggested at that point that we should introduce some kind of podcast channel within DC Thomson. And I’m very fortunate that my boss our chief exec, who said yes, to that suggestion, he himself loves podcasts. So if I didn’t have to convince somebody of what podcasts are, why they’re good, so that was a real stroke of luck. That Mike said yeah, podcasts are great. We definitely should be doing something in that space. So go and create that and that was a little over a year ago, and in that time, we’ve had about 100,000 downloads across the portfolio. We have eight shows with more development, and it’s been an amazing experience working with across the portfolio of titles we have at DC Thomson.

Sue Stockdale 6:10
So it sounds like you’ve created your own job. And I’m imagining then that with that interest in technology and your insatiable curiosity that I get a sense that you have, you’re able to combine those two things in what sounds like the dream job?

Christopher Phin 6:21
I’m having an absolute ball. I really am. It’s a great chance to build these workflows and build this best practice and skill up. I personally had a little whisky podcast called scotch that sort of sporadically goes into deep hibernation for years at a time and then I sort of revive every now and then. And so I’ve done a little bit of that, and I’m a big consumer of podcasts, but I hadn’t done any serious audio production, audio engineering work before and so, that was great. And the first time you load up a professional audio workstation like Edition from Adobe, which is what we use. It’s terrifying because it’s a very complicated tool to look at. And there was certainly a period of a few weeks where it felt quite overwhelming. But now that we have those workflows in place. Hitherto before everyone started working from home to the corona virus, and the workflows for some of our podcasts were very, very quick. It could be up within about 10 minutes of finishing, editing because we’re sort of marking points to edit during the recordings, which is to jump in and do those bits there was templates or presets and it was a slick process. And I get really excited by that I get excited by how I can do some hard work up front so that the deliverables become much easier as we go forward. The teams I work with across our newspaper magazine and radio divisions within DC Thomson, that they don’t have a huge ask on them, they almost literally just show up talk for 20 minutes and then leave. And and I can facilitate them to produce some really good work and I’m doing stuff in the background, we’re working with the teams to make sure they understand is a good radio technique and they’re being encouraged to be informal. And, you know, we’re doing a lot of producer stuff behind the scenes, but that tails off as a team’s lean into it, that that hand holding if you like really tails off and you can be much more self starting.

Sue Stockdale 8:04
So you’re really making it easy for people within the group to turn up and give of their best work because you’ve built up a lot of upfront work yourself

Christopher Phin 8:11
Yeah absolutely now that everyone’s working from home. We haven’t missed a beat. We’re still producing all of our podcasts with, we’re using a solution called Zencastr, which is similar to the Squadcast you and I are using right now to record this podcast, where we have our teams in different places. And we’ve ordered a couple of dozen microphones that are all sitting with them. Even in that context, I’m always on the call with them. I’m always there in the background to coach them, you know, so if there’s a if I can hear an audio fault coming through or if I can see an point where theres a problem I’ll cut in and just take them back to the cue point and put those markers in so when I come to edit. It all just sounds really slick.

Sue Stockdale 8:50
So it does sound like you you’ve managed to grasp this technology very, very quickly and really be a pro at using it and producing podcasts. Who comes up with the ideas for the podcast series then is it down to you?

Christopher Phin 9:02
It’s a mix in some cases be me in some cases will be driven by our commercial teams who can see some opportunities. In some cases that will come from the editorial teams themselves coming to me with some ideas and then we’ll do a bunch of development work, we’ll definitely record some dummys, some pilots that are not for public consumption but its a kind of thinking out loud exercise. It’s a way of reifying what you have in your mind. Because I struggled to this day to understand that people don’t often have an awful lot of imagination. So they quite often needed things to be concrete in front of them to understand what it is you’re talking about, you can’t just say, there’ll be a podcast for 20 minutes that does this and this, they need to hear it. So producing those pilots is quite key, because it means that you can work through the sort of production workflow, the logistical headaches of it, but it also means you’ve got a final product that you can put in the ears of stakeholders or whoever it happens to be, so that they can listen to it and you can all react to it. It’s a fascinating process, all the teams I’ve worked with, hosts, have all gone through the process of being very nervous, very giggly, very tense as they start. And so you kind of have to trust that your audience is going to kind of grow with you. Once you’ve got those kind of three or four episodes under their belt, they’re really starting to lean into it and have fun with it and, understand how, especially for a company like DC Thompson, we’ve got a lot of very important news brands, very respectable and respected news brands. And so there’s quite a culture shift there and getting those journalists to deliver their stories in a more human and less polished way. Its certainly been true that a lot of teams I’ve worked with have wanted just to deliver 300 words of copy and then stop talking. Because that’s kind of the mindset and the rhythm that they’re in. And so and so that’s been a fun challenge to sort of break that down a little bit.

Sue Stockdale 10:54
I almost get a sense it as you’re describing it, Chris, that podcasting brings a degree of authenticity that other forms of communication don’t have?

Christopher Phin 11:03
Well that’s definitely true. Yes, that’s that’s one of the absolutely key things that podcasting can do it. You know, a byline in a newspaper or in a magazine is not just a few pixels on the screen, there is a person there and at a time when trust in the media is challenged. and being able to people out from behind their keyboards and put in front of a microphone, I think is a really key thing. I used to work with a chap at Future called Grant Bremner who was our Head of TV there, who had a phrase that immediately I understood and I immediately adopted as my own, although I always credited him as I just have. And that was authentic, but not amateur. You can’t be over, over slick and too highly produced because people want that connection with an actual person. But by the same token, it cant be so ropy or rough around the edges that you damage the perceived or authority of the brand, or that you just genuinely produce something that is not pleasant to consume. So authentic, but not amateur is a really good little mantra, I think, and there’s something absolutely true with podcasting so the studio we have at DC Thomson is not a it’s not a room. It is a flight case. So I have a Peli flight case with beautiful I must say beautiful custom cut foam inserts and trays and stuff for all my podcasting kit. But the point of that is that it can be deployed anywhere. And we deliberately use what are called dynamic microphones so that they reject a lot of the room tones or echoes and reverb all around you so that even in really horrible audio environments, glass meeting rooms, you can still use them there. You can use them in the middle of a busy office. So the point there was to put something that is put together a mobile studio that we could deploy anywhere we needed to. Again, that’s something nimbleness of production i think is quite key. And being able to bring the studio to the teams that are working with them has been has been wonderful. And I’m talking to you right now using one of the microphones that we use at DC Thompson, because it’s not used just now, because we’re not using our main podcast studio. But you can hopefully hear that it sounds good.

Sue Stockdale 13:04
Yeah, it’s working pretty well, in our conversation, I would say. Almost a really simple question, Chris, what do you think the purpose of a podcast is?

Christopher Phin 13:09
There’s a lot of answers to that I’m going to give you the one that didn’t need jerks in my brain and it is to turn a dull activity good. So I’m thinking from the point of view of a podcast consumer, first and foremost, a podcast listener, the thing to do is turn dull activities good. So traditionally, the major consumption metric for our podcast is the commute. So most people have a half hour to an hour long commute. And not anymore right this second as we record this, but generally they do. And the thing about podcasts is, rather than thinking, oh, I’ve got to cram onto the tube and and be pressed up against somebody’s sweaty armpit for 40 minutes what you might think is oh, great, there’s a new episode of I can’t wait to go and listen to it. Similarly, if you’re driving for work, or if you are doing the dishes, if you’re doing housework, let’s say and listen to podcasts it means that those those times I would ordinarily be dreading I mean dreading strong, but low level dreading that are a chore, suddenly turned into some And in fact, I can see it really happening right now. Because I’m working from home and have been over three weeks as we record this. I am not commuting. So my podcast consumption is way low. And I really miss them. Because I don’t have that window of opportunity in my day to consume the podcasts I love.

Sue Stockdale 14:32
So it sounds to me as if it’s an activity that’s done alongside something else. Rather than a discrete activity and on its own.

Christopher Phin 14:41
Yeah, that’s definitely true. The reason I love this medium so much is that there is literally no way of being more closely intimate with an audience. You listen to this podcast right now there is a very good chance are you’re listening to on headphones. And if you are, the sound of my voice is currently emanating from the centre of your skull. That’s how it sounds to you the voices come from the centre of your skull, you cannot get closer to somebody for that. So you have this incredibly intimate relationship with with an audience. And for a whole meta reasons is an incredibly exciting thing.

Sue Stockdale 15:12
As you say, it’s about the closeness you get to the audience. That’s key for you and it makes it really beneficial. Looking at your career as a journalist initially, and now a producer of podcasts. And that sense of the ability to get in somebody’s head in a way, my sense is, there’s a consistent theme that seems to be important for you around sharing, Chris. Whether it’s sharing good practice, sharing knowhow it’s just and I can see you nodding as we’re speaking here. Tell me a bit about what’s important for you about sharing.

Christopher Phin 15:40
I think that’s really true. I’m glad you picked up on I’m flattered you did. No man is an island. No person is an island. I think it’s important that we do work as collaboratively as possible. And that doesn’t mean to say you have to physically be proximate, you could collaborate over slack or Zoom or everything else that everyone in the world is finding out, I guess a sort of responsibility to help everyone do their best work is key. It’s funny, my wife at one point in her career was a teacher. And at the time she was a teacher a lot of my time was spent writing tutorials on how to use tech really. And it occurred to me it’s in a moment one day that actually the job that she and I do are very similar. It’s a teaching job and it’s not a, as all good in school teaching should be it’s not a didactic thing. It’s not about do this, then this then this and it will be all okay. So it’s an empowerment thing and it’s a conversation around giving people the knowledge and the tools they need to, to do a really good job. he world locks down under coronavirus. we’re discovering the transformative role that tech can have. And I’ve seen countless examples on people’s social media of, elderly relatives finally being the thing that pushes them to getting Skype set up on their phone or wherever. And I’ve seen very lovely outsider art instructions beside mobile phones of press this button to turn on. When the screen looks like this, it’s on. Tap this icon to start a video call or whatever. And at its best it can be a very common community building, too. And that all feeds into that sense I have, that it’s, a good thing to, to share and to, to work together.

Sue Stockdale 17:25
One of the things that was reminded me of Chris was was earlier in our conversation about this idea of kindness. And another way of describing sharing may also be pay it forwards. when you found you know, developed a great podcast, you found a good bit of tech is about your desire to pay it forward, and then help the wider world get the benefit of that knowhow as well.

Christopher Phin 17:45
I think as well over the last maybe 10 years, the broader narrative in society about privilege has begun to finally sink in with me and I am a white middle class cisgender male, I don’t in the slightest claim to be seen and I fall far short of my own ideals very often, but I do consciously make an effort to ensure that I don’t have ever turned down a student coming to me asking for help or to answer some questions I’ve never. When somebody tweets me asking for help with something. I’ve I almost every single time, Ive gone out of my way to try and help. Given that I’m in such a privileged position, and I’m very fortunate to work for the company I work for who has, a good long term vision for stuff and so gives me the space to create some interesting projects. I am insured from the vagaries of what’s happening to the world. Just now by the fact they’ve got a very good employer. All that privilege means that I am particularly conscious of the duty I have to share what I can and to help the people I can.

Sue Stockdale 18:52
Give us your take on where you think the future of podcasting is heading.

Christopher Phin 18:57
It’s heading in a an odd place its at an inflection point just now. for a long time podcasting started in this mid 2000s, early 2000s, and over that, very short period of time it just almost for the entirety of that duration it bumbled along not very much and it was very much reserved for the geeks. I count myself among them. But, those massive explosions in popularity and huge increases in consumption engagement driven in part, I think by big crossover shows like Serial a true crime podcast that really did absolutely huge numbers. And we’re getting to a stage now where the typical demographic of of a podcast are completely digitally literate, they are more confused by the notion of broadcast TV schedules, all that growth has meant that is an industry at an vulnerable part of its development because there are a lot of commercial interests in place. And one of the biggest ways those commercial interests are being reified is in the siloization of podcasting. So for most of podcasting history, podcast directories which for most podcasting history was just Apple and some other ones that mirrored whatever Apple was doing. it as a completely free and open spec as it still is, but you could submit any RSS feed to Apple and they would almost always just list it for free. But now we’re seeing Spotify making investments of hundreds of millions of dollars into podcasting. It because, the engagement metrics IE how long people listen to podcasts for are off the chart, one of the most popular podcasts in the world, the Joe Rogan experience which regularly tops two hours, sometimes three hours long. Companies like Spotify are seeing the immense opportunity there and they’re trying to wall off a little bit of podcasting so that they can have their subscribers in there.You see sites like Luminary starting up as a paid for podcasting solution. You see globo making big moves in that direction as well. I fear. Well, I see I fear, you know, the business person in me thinks I can see the sense in this. And I’m thinking about this as well in my strategic thinking for DC Thompson. But the consumer in me doesn’t like the idea of getting to a place with podcasting that we’re at now with video where you have to have, half a dozen subscriptions of three, four or 599 a month. In order to be able to watch anything. The disintermediation of that and media consumption stuff for video is unpleasant. It’s quite user hostile. I fear that we’re in that place with podcasting. But to give you a happier answer to that, I think we’re at a place where we are only just at the foothills of the popularity of podcasting. And people keep saying to me, even now oh, there’s too many, how can you possibly differentiate ourselves? You know, the opportunity here is vast as people get switched on to podcasting, as working patterns change. And as media consumption patterns change, that thing of having a really one to one relationship with your pals of just sort of dropping into a conversation with people and learning some interesting is great. I think the intimacy and authenticity as you said, of of the medium means that we are going to see not just continued explosive growth in the listening hours and the number of shows and the vibrancy of those shows. We are gonna see people doing things with a format that I can’t even dream of just and I’m incredibly excited to see what those things are.

Sue Stockdale 22:25
I have my final question. What’s your favourite podcasts to listen to Chris?

Christopher Phin 22:30
there are so so many. One of the ones is still gives me immense joy. It’s a podcast called Fortunately, with fi and gene. And it’s the sort of podcast that everybody thinks they can do. And nobody can because nobody else is Jane Garvey and Fi Glover. So it is a an interview based podcast, but the interview with a celeb of some kind, is the second half. And the first half of the podcast is just Jane and Fi just sitting with coffee and chatting. Fi Glover and Jane Garvey are consummate podcasters with decades of experience between them. And they’re also just charming and lovely. So that take that as a recommendation if you haven’t heard that. It’s just a warm bath. Deeply calming balm in these most unsettling of days.

Sue Stockdale 23:18
Wonderful you’ve left us in a very common, peaceful place there, Chris, with your recommendation on that podcast. It’s been lovely to speak to you today. Thank you so much for your time.

Christopher Phin 23:28
Absolutely. My pleasure. So thank you so much again for inviting me.