Engage! Develop a sign off and inside jokes. We did a listener poll to see If our fans wanted to be called “Slushies” or “Peeps” and “Slushies” won! (It seems to be a “thing” in the podcast world that fans get a name, like “Dumb People Town” calls their listeners “Townies.”
As part of my series of interviews about “5 things you need to know to create a very successful podcast”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kathleen Volk Miller.
Kathleen Volk Miller has written for LitHub, NYT Modern Love, O, the Oprah magazine, Salon, the NYTimes, Family Circle, Philadelphia Magazine and other venues. “How We Want to Live,” an essay, was chosen as the penultimate piece in Oprah’s Book of Starting Over (Flat Iron Books, Hearst Publications, 2016). She is co-editor of the anthology, Humor: A Reader for Writers (Oxford University Press, 2014). She is co-editor of The Painted Bride Quarterly and co-host of PBQ’s podcast, Slush Pile. She has also published in literary magazines, such as Drunken Boat, Opium, and other venues. She holds “Healing through Writing” workshops, and other memoir classes. She consults on literary magazine start up, working with college students, and getting published in literary magazines. She is a professor at Drexel University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of your “personal backstory? What is your background and what eventually brought you to this particular career path?
I have been a professor my entire adult life and started working for Painted Bride Quarterly, the magazine that is the centerpiece of our podcast, when I was in grad school. It’s been a HUGE part of my life.
Since about fourth grade I knew I wanted to be surrounded by books and writing and people who love those things, though I never could have known the shape it would take.
Can you share a story about the most interesting thing that has happened to you since you started podcasting?
Our podcast consists of editorial board members reading submissions to the magazine aloud, then discussing them, just as we would at an editorial meeting. I call it a mix of highbrow literary explication and full-out jackassery. We editors have known each other a long time and so we know exactly how to tease each other, tales we can bring up, ways to make each other crack up.
Anyway — — the consistently most wonderful thing about the podcast is how grateful the poets and other authors whose work we discuss are. They use words like “I am honored” and they thank us over and over again. They say they haven’t had that kind of attention paid to their work — -ever!
Also — a lighter thing that we love is that Marion Wrenn is on the podcast and “dialing in” from Abu Dhabi. When we are together people actually get excited for us because they know how much we love and miss each other. In our own circle, like literary bookfairs and stuff, people have recognized us by our laughs!
Can you share a story about the biggest or funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaways you learned from that?
We are all so busy that sometimes we’re getting materials to read on the show right before we go into the studio. One time we called an author by the wrong name through an entire episode. Once we realized it, I had to say her name on an audio file and our sound engineer spliced it back in. It sounded TERRIBLE! My voice sounded like one of those robot voices! The poet was pretty important (not that everyone isn’t important, but…) and I had no choice but to ask to speak with her and tell her what happened. She said don’t worry and go ahead and release the episode. We did and she wrote after she listened and said she thought it was HYSTERICAL and she was glad it happened!
Obviously, not everyone is going to react like that so now we make extra sure we’ve got the name correct, and we’ve even written authors and asked them to give us phonetic pronunciations if the name looks tricky. (We get submissions from all over the world.)
How long have you been podcasting and how many shows have you aired?
We’ve been doing this for three years and we have released 79 episodes! Our three-year anniversary is March 27.
What are the main takeaways, lessons or messages that you want your listeners to walk away with after listening to your show?
I guess we have two objectives: 1) That our readers and authors see how much care we give each submission. We have a democratic editorial policy that we’re super proud of and we want folks to witness that as well. 2) Being a writer is tough and rejections come frequently; we do the show to lift the veil on the editorial process and let people see that we’re just a bunch of humans, trying our best!
In your opinion what makes your podcast binge-listenable? What do you think makes your podcast unique from the others in your category? What do you think is special about you as a host, your guests, or your content?
We try to be funny and real, not just “literary” with a capitol L. We believed early on that we should be ourselves and people/fans really do get to know us as characters. I’ve had people say how much the love Jason’s smarty pants comments or Tim’s curmudgeonly behavior.
We are happy to report that NO ONE ELSE is doing what we do, i.e. reading and discussing and voting on work on a podcast. Most other literary podcasts are doing interviews or reading stories or poems. I believe our show is a little looser than that — — it’s more like friends talking, really.
So many fans who like the show say they feel like they’re laughing and learning at the same time. Teachers use it in their classrooms, which we never expected.
Doing something on a consistent basis is not easy. Podcasting every work-day, or even every week can be monotonous. What would you recommend to others about how to maintain discipline and consistency? What would you recommend to others about how to avoid burnout?
Our podcast is every other week, so it’s a fairly easy turnaround. I don’t know how it would ever go “stale” since we discuss new work on every episode. That said, we’ve done a few special episodes like from the floor of the Associated Writing Program’s Conference, and we’ve recorded our own live events. We’ve also had many “guest editors” be on the show with us. Technology is so amazing that people can be anywhere in the world and on the show! Use technology to all of its limits!
What resources do you get your inspiration for materials from?
We get about 300 submissions a week, and then we cull through those to find work that has “meat on the bone” for a good discussion.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now shift to the main questions of our discussion. Is there someone in the podcasting world who you think is a great model for how to run a really fantastic podcast?
I love “Radiolab”, like everyone else! They do a great job with pacing, sound bites, and dramatic tension, no matter the topic.
The “Science of Happiness” is probably less well known, but I love their premise and it’s always fresh.
“Buy the Book” is terrific and the hosts are very real and direct and funny.
What are the ingredients that make that podcast so successful? If you could break that down into a blueprint, what would that blueprint look like?
The number one thing would be to be yourself, allow your character/personality to show. If you try to develop a “podcast persona” I think you’ll fail because listeners will see through it — -they will feel the artifice. There’s something really intimate about being a voice in someone’s head — — I think most folks are listening using ear buds or headphones so the voices are literally in their ears. Reducing someone to a voice means you have NOTHING else to fall back on. That voice better be real.
You are a very successful podcaster yourself. Can you share with our readers the five things you need to know to create an extremely successful podcast? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)
- Be yourself: (See so many of my answers above. Your listeners are going to WANT to think of you as someone they know, as a friend. Be warm and personable and talk like you’d talk to a friend.
- Be consistent in your release dates. People like the comfort of knowing when there will be a new episode.
- Engage! Develop a sign off and inside jokes. We did a listener poll to see If our fans wanted to be called “Slushies” or “Peeps” and “Slushies” won! (It seems to be a “thing” in the podcast world that fans get a name, like “Dumb People Town” calls their listeners “Townies.” I think all of this is another form of engagement, making people feel like they’re in a club.
- Come up with a good idea in the first place! Think of something that will always be fresh so that neither you nor your listeners will ever grow bored.
Can you share some insight from your experience about the best ways to: 1) book great guests; 2) increase listeners; 3) produce it in a professional way; 4) encourage engagement; and 5) the best way to monetize it? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)
- Everyone likes to be complimented and thought of as an expert. “We’d really like your insight on….” “Because you are so well known as….” That kind of thing.
- Get your show on every single platform! You want to be able to say, “Find us wherever you get your podcast…”
Make stickers and stick them everywhere as well as give them out at appropriate events/venues. Get related podcasts to refer to yours by sending them a note about how great you think THEY are!
- I’m afraid that we do have the luxury of having a sound engineer at Drexel University do our editing and other techno needs. BUT, we see ourselves as professionalizing the podcast by releasing things regularly, having intro and outro “bumpers” (the music that might play at the beginning and ending), having a sign off, and an intro that remains pretty consistent.
- See esp #3 and #1 directly above
- I’m afraid we are not monetized. The sponsorships you hear on all of the podcasts give such a tiny, tiny portion of sales — -we don’t think it’s worth it and we don’t want to advertise the same products that so many other podcasts are advertising, vis a vis fake narratives about how much the hosts LOVE the product! We do plan on hitting up some very targeted entities for sponsorship soon, however.
For someone looking to start their own podcast, which equipment would you recommend that they start with?
We love ZOOM! And Yeti microphones. People cannot believe that we’re in three different cities (and one of us is 6000 miles away).
Ok. We are almost done. 🙂 Because of your position and work, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I could wave a wand and make a change it would be that everyone simply be more grateful for what they have, and to see the good, the absolute magic, in everyday life. It’s so much more pleasant to be pleasant rather than angry and pessimistic! I truly believe an act as small as paying a compliment to a stranger in an elevator has a positive ripple effect. *I teach “Healing through Writing” and “Develop an Attitude of Gratitude” courses and try to live my life with a cup overflowing mentality, as well as influence others to have the same outlook.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing your time and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.