I have never met Nic Redman and Leah Marks, and yet I feel as if I’ve known them for a long time. That’s because they are the team behind one of my favorite podcasts: The VO Social (bolded blue text is a hyperlink). When you listen to their show, you get the feeling you’re at the kitchen table with some of your best VO friends you never knew you had.
They laugh a lot. You laugh a lot, and at the end of each episode you leave knowing that you’ve learned something vital and surprising about your business. But more importantly, you feel a sudden urge to take the girls out for a pint to talk some more.
Unfortunately for me, Nic and Leah live in UK, so that pint will have to wait. However, I did catch up with them after they learned that The VO Social has been nominated in the category Best Business Podcast at the prestigious British Podcast Awards.
Here’s how our conversation began…
From the way you describe it, your podcast started more or less as an invitation to a pub crawl. What happened?
Leah: That’s exactly it! We had both moved back up North at the same time – to the same city in fact – and were desperate for friends so we decided to badger all the voiceovers within a hundred mile radius of Greater Manchester and get them to come to the pub… we tried everything; emailing people, hounding them on Twitter, phoning their agents… and ranting on Soundcloud for a few minutes was just an extension of that.
After a while we started messing about with voxes at the pub too – recording the people who came along to the social telling us what their most ludicrous voiceover job was, that sort of thing, and then our listener figures started to grow and we realised we had an opportunity to make something really useful and creative and entertaining with and for our talented community.
I’d listened to enough podcasts to know what I didn’t want it to be – so, no long, unedited, interminable interviews, no copy and paste lists of questions – it was going to be an entertaining show for working voiceovers, dealing with topics that have an effect on our lives and livelihoods.
Part of the appeal of The VO Social is the way the two of you interact. You sound like you’re best friends. Do you talk like that in real life?
Nic: Yes! We don’t really censor ourselves, it’d be too exhausting! And that is part of the charm for the listeners. We aim to make people feel like they’re in conversation with us, like they’re our best pal too. Leah is exactly the same in real life and so am I. Ok, we probably swear a little less on the show? But that’s it.
How long do the two of you go back?
Nic: Our origin story is hilarious. Leah got in touch with me on email to let me know about a typo on my website and me, being me, thanked her and asked her out to a VO party with me in London. She’s basically followed me around ever since!
Leah: Six years of constant surveillance. That’s true love.
What do both of you have in common, and in what way are you different?
Nic: We both love food and spend a lot of time sending each other pics of food, planning what to cook and cooking things when we’re together, picking places to eat food…all the food. We’re also obviously very interested in the industry, but that’s a boring answer. We are very different personality wise.
Leah is insanely organised and methodical which makes her an amazing producer and friend. I’m very focused and get things done but am easily distracted and forget things a lot! She keeps me organised when it comes to the podcast. Leah is a pedantic nightmare when it comes to grammar which is useful I suppose… I’m not. I don’t believe in or care much about grammar, which is a controversial angle to take so she sorts me out when it’s appropriate (for more on grammar and spelling, click here to read Paul’s latest blog post).
How do you pick the topics for your podcast, and how has that changed over time?
Leah: The podcast has gone through phases, certainly. After we moved on from vox pops we started interviewing people who work either in or with an area of the voiceover industry, collecting a kind of library of job roles, and our earlier episodes deal with things like how to keep your studio engineer happy, or what it’s like to be a producer who works specifically with in-store radio.
Then around episode 27 things got completely out of hand – we went up to Scotland to interview one of America’s most familiar promo voices and the resulting audio diary set the bar from then on. We weren’t interested any more in straightforward interviews, every episode needed to be a proper exploration of a concept.
The ideas for the topics come pretty organically dependent on what we’re interested in at the time, or what events are happening that could generate an episode. A lot of the episodes are scheduled about five or six months ahead – this can be because the guest takes some convincing to come on the show, or it’s a collaboration with a big event like the Manchester Animation Festival or the One Voice Conference UK.
I’m almost pathologically afraid of being clichéd or boring, which helps make sure we push how creative we are with our content – for example, one of our audiobook narrator listeners sent in a question for the Panic Room segment about giving her male characters more depth, so we worked that up to include an interview with a trans theatre maker about how her voice had shaped her career.
We are very aware of the privileged, platformed position we are in, and so when we are developing episode ideas we ask ourselves how we can bring in a voice that doesn’t get heard enough, or share knowledge in a way that supports our listeners to get more work, or provide opportunities for our listeners to show off their skills. Some of my favourite episodes are ones that are almost entirely propped up by VO Socialites getting involved with the topic – the RP and Mid Atlantic episodes, for example, or the cocktail party where we turned a series of VO party tricks into an actual cocktail party with clinking glasses and cheering crowds!
Nic: We are very conscious of explaining any UK centric references for the sake of anyone outside the UK! Just so things make sense. But I think we’re more interested in just being us and allowing people to make up their own mind. It must be working in some way because 25% of our audience is in the US and that’s not too shabby!
The international nature of the industry means that it’s important for people in the US to know how it works in the UK anyway and that’s part of what we offer as a podcast based here; up to date insights from this side of the pond. And of course anything that is voice technique training related is useful no matter where you’re based! A voice is a voice.
Take me into your production process. On average, how many hours does it take you to produce one complete show, and what takes up most of your time?
Leah: We currently make one big episode for the start of every month and one little top-up episode in the middle, and I worked out once that I spend about five full working days a month on it, but it does feel like more than that. Recording takes no time at all, but all the episode prep, the interview prep, the edits, the monthly newsletter, the social media stuff, the commercials we make for our sponsors, event planning for the live episodes, it all adds up and up and up.
Quite a few colleagues are interested in starting a podcast. What do you want them to know before they spend a lot of time and money making one? What are some of the things you underestimated?
Leah: Well first of all, don’t be spending any money on it. If you’re a voiceover and podcasting is costing you money from the outset, you’re doing it wrong. You’ve already got the equipment, the vocal skills, the editing skills, the marketing know how – you shouldn’t need to be paying anyone else to do any of it and there are plenty of free resources like Anchor, Canva, Mailchimp etc to keep you going.
Time though, that’s the biggie. You need to be prepared to put in loads of yours if you’re going to convince anyone to give up any of theirs. Before that happens, start by working out why you actually want a podcast, then have a big think about how you can convert your particular life experience into something that can get you there. Voiceovers talking to voiceovers about voiceover is fine, but it’s been done, over and over again. What can you bring that’s new? What will get you heard by the sort of people you want to work with?
Leah: There are lots of ways of monetising your podcast, but I felt very strongly that I didn’t want to be putting the weight of responsibility on our listeners to keep us going, so sponsorship is the perfect solution. We sometimes sell tickets to live events, too, and we have some very fancy VO Social water bottles for sale on the website, but we mostly use those as competition prizes really.
We’ve had sponsors associated with the podcast for the last couple of years, and our listeners trust us not to sell them any old rubbish, so we we’ve always been very strict about who we allow to take those ad spots. We actually made a whole episode about this, called “How To Get Sponsors For Your Podcast Without Selling Your Soul”, which goes into some detail about how to persuade companies to give us money, and how to make commercials that people won’t want to skip.
After making 43 episodes, what has surprised you most about the way your podcast has been received? Do you think you’re making some sort of an impact? If so, how can you tell?
Nic: The biggest surprise for me is that it’s continued to grow and develop and change. When you’re making a podcast and happy with it in the moment, it feels like you’ll never change because you’ve finally ‘perfected’ it. But it continues to be responsive to the needs of the industry and our audience. I love that. I’m also surprised at how important a part of my professional life it has become. I can’t imagine not making it now. Impact is an interesting one to measure but yes I do believe we are having an effect. It certainly seems that way from a social proof angle.
I often have people coming in to my FB group, The Voice & Accent Hub, because they’ve listened to the podcast. We also get people coming up to us at events and thanking us for making it, that feels nice. I think the reason it has that effect though is because we’re not a podcast that was set up to sell someone’s services or a random e-book or coaching. We’re a podcast that grew solely out of a social event that we set up to serve the community. That’s what it’s continued to be. It’s important for us to keep investigating and reporting the important things that the community needs, and that’s what the listeners appreciate.
You’re also taking the show on the road with your meetups. What’s that experience like?
Nic: Oh we looove it! These days it’s very different because people know us from the podcast before we’ve met them. So it’s a lovely opener to make new friends. We’re both very social beings, no surprise, and enjoy meeting the amazing people in our industry. We also enjoy a tax deductible lunch which is very probably the main reason we do it.
Tell me about the British Podcast Awards. Your podcast was nominated in the category Best Business Podcast. Did your nomination come as a surprise, and what does it mean to you?
Nic: We screamed, didn’t we! I was just walking down the street when we found out, frightened the living daylights out of all the people at the bus stop (Click here to listen to that moment. It’s right at the beginning of the episode).
Leah: We were so surprised. A lot of the other nominees are quite famous, so it’s amazing to be mingling among them. What really blew us away, though, is the fact that despite thinking of ourselves as an Arts podcast for the past six years, it turns out we’re actually an award nominate-able business podcast! It’s an important moment, I think. The arts industry contributes more than ten billion pounds a year to the UK economy, yet it’s still frequently cast aside and dismissed as irrelevant. For that reason, the pandemic has been catastrophic for performers, so what we do being recognised as a viable business by a big important awards organisation is huge deal.
Will there be some sort of gala with a red carpet, and if so, what will you be wearing?
Leah: Yes there will! There’s a grand, covid-safe event happening in an open air marquee in London and I’ve bought a dress for the first time in about fifteen years! VO Socialites know that dressing up all ladylike isn’t something that I do often so this is big news.
Nic: I’ve got very overexcited and actually bought three outfit options so I may go a bit Beyonce and have a few costume changes by popping in and out of the portaloos. To be honest, after a year in lockdown and no social events I’m just hoping I can remember how to put on mascara and a proper bra…
In what way has hosting this podcast helped your VO career? Are the two of you more in demand as voice actors as a result of your podcast, or is that hard to tell?
Nic: It’s been wonderful for getting to talk to people who we admire and would like to work with, without feeling like you’re nagging them to listen to your demo! I’ve certainly had work from making it, even just from people listening to it then knowing I exist and recommending me to their clients. Leah has made great strides in the audio drama industry from making wonderful relationships with the movers and shakers there too.
And finally, as if one podcast isn’t enough, Nic also has another podcast. Please tell me about it, and explain why people should listen.
Nic: Ha! Yes, podcasting is addictive! My other is called The Voice Coach Podcast and it’s a weekly, short form voice technique training podcast. It offers up to date vocal health advice and week by week, practical episodes designed to introduce people to voice coaching.
Each week I add on another little bit of technique training for people to try, and it’s lots of geeky voice fun. I started it as I was shocked at the lack of actual ‘voice’ training out there in VO land. There’s all sorts of voice over coaching, marketing coaching, setting up studio coaching, but not enough about the voice itself for my liking! So this is what I’m offering to the community to fill that void.
Thank you Nic and Leah, and best of luck at the Awards!
On July 10th, the winners of the British Podcast Awards will be announced. Let’s hope the team of The VO Social will have another reason to go to the pub and celebrate. And if we’re lucky, they might turn it into a pubcast!
PS Part 2 of the interview I gave to Val Kelly, host of the “Live with Squacky” podcast, is now ready for your ears. CLICK HERE to have a listen.