Just keep meeting people! - Podcast producer Matt Hill
At the heart of Matt's freelance success are other people. Sure, of course he's good at what he does. He's not just made podcasts, he's both made and seized opportunities. But more importantly he's made connections when he's met people.
Put simply: the more people you meet, the more chance you have of working with them in the future. Be that fellow freelancers or potential clients. Just keep meeting people!
We also chat about building a business and family, great customer experience, producing his own independent podcasts and not just entering or winning awards, but co-founding the awards for his industry - The British Podcast Awards.
Keep scrolling for links to what Matt's up to and a transcription of this episode.. but first he's that box your email address would love to look good in...
More from Matt
Who the hell is Steve Folland?
Steve's a freelancer helping businesses use and make video & audio content in much better ways. Find out more at stevefolland.com, track him down on Twitter @sfolland or lay a trail of cake and he'll eventually catch you up.
Check out Steve's Being Freelance Vlog that documents his weekly wanderings and wonderings as a freelancer.
Transcription of freelance podcast interview - Matt Hill of Rethink Audio
Steve Folland: Matt Hill, who is a freelance podcast producer at Rethink Audio. Hey Matt!
Matt Hill: Hi, Steve!
Steve Folland: Thanks for doing this. I hear your name on so many podcasts but never your voice, so...
Matt Hill: I force them to put my name on the end. It's part of the contract.
Steve Folland: That was going to be one of my questions later on.
Matt Hill: There's no contracts (laughs).
Steve Folland: But I'm intrigued. How did you get started being freelance?
Matt Hill: Yeah, my freelance career predates my time in audio actually. I was originally in a theatre company straight out of university. We set up a small theater company, and we toured around the country for a few years until we all got sick of each other. And then I retrained in radio, but it kind of gave me a good grounding in just even the real basics of setting up a bank account for a company and applying for grants and expenses and all that kind of gubbins. And so, when I made the plunge into radio and did a little bit of retraining and did an MA, it was much easier to feel like freelancing was a good idea.
Matt Hill: Of course, that's not what I did. What I actually did was I applied for lots of jobs and ended up working at Channel 4 Radio. Which of course, doesn't exist and no one's ever heard of because it lasted about six months. And it was after that, that I went, "Well, I'm not gonna try getting a permanent position anywhere ever again," because this industry is pretty ... What's the word I'm looking for? There's nothing permanent about it, I would say. So I decided at that point that if I was ever gonna survive in the industry, I should probably have more than one employer.
Steve Folland: Matt, so when would that have been, just to put this in perspective?
Matt Hill: Channel 4 Radio was 2008 to 2008. That's its gravestone right there.
Steve Folland: So you've worked for six months on something that never aired. So how did you go out, then, and get your freelance clients? How did you prove yourself?
Matt Hill: Well, what was glorious about those six months was that I was tasked with listening to as much international content and non-BBC speech programming as I could and report back anything that we could buy in and license to fill the holes in the schedule that couldn't be supplied by new Channel 4 programming by independents. So, I would like to think I was one of the early listeners to Radiolab and CBC radio, programs like Wiretap.
Matt Hill: I'd share these with the office to give them a sense of what was out there. And so I had a really good grounding of international radio. This was non-BBC intelligent speech radio. And also the beginnings of the kind of podcasts that now have now grown out, so things like Alex Bloomberg on Planet Money and This American Life. I was listening to his stuff and now famously Gimlet and that listening experience allowed me to have a bit of a broader idea of what a podcast could be and crucially how to make one. Which, at the time, not a lot of audio producers I knew could do such a thing.
Matt Hill: So, I thought that if I couldn't get another gig with a network, it would be a good time to try and branch out and try and do podcasting. Do that quality of work but do it in a format that didn't involve having to get it past a commissioner.
Matt Hill: So, although I was pitching things through production companies for Radio 1 and 1Xtra and things like that, as a lot of budding producers would do, I knew that that wasn't necessarily going to pay the rent. You're likely to get one or two of those documentaries made a year, so I needed to find other ways of making money.
Matt Hill: And from that, I stumbled into the sights of a producer called Francesca Panetta, who was working at The Guardian, but wants to make an app based on her own podcast called The Hackney Podcast. And so I ended up working with her to build an app, which explored Hackney, a sort of audio tour of Hackney, using the sounds and entities that she'd recorded for that podcast.
Steve Folland: Wow, okay. So-
Matt Hill: Quite a lot there. Sorry, yeah!
Steve Folland: So that gave you an entry into The Guardian?
Matt Hill: Yeah. Well, The Guardian had had massive hits like, maybe two or three years prior to this with the Ricky Gervais Show, but they'd also, off the back of that, launched a whole bunch of shows based on different desks, journalist desks. So, media and sports and politics and science, most of which is still going today, and it was an opportunity for them at The Guardian to train journalists in broadcast in quite a cheap, effective way.
Matt Hill: So when I ended up working on just covering holiday shifts at The Guardian on various magazine shows, you got to know the journalists, and you slowly ingratiate your way into the hub. I ended up working very quietly on their Media Talk podcast. And I say quietly because there was no contract, there was no formal agreement. I just got handed it one week, and it wasn't really taken off me for quite a few after that. So, The Guardian were very much the forefront of it, and a lot of newspapers had to play catch up with them.
Steve Folland: So would you have been emailing ... How did you get in front of these people in the first place? Was it like sending out loads of emails, getting rejected, or was it hanging around the right people and trying to make connections?
Matt Hill: The two-pronged attack, which was like ... After Channel 4, I basically grabbed the emails of all the indies that we'd been contacting, and I'd done a, probably relatively amateur, reply all to everyone to say, "If you're looking for a recent grad with some ideas, say can I pitch some ideas to you in the coming week for a coffee?" So, I met a lot of independent companies like that. And then the project with Fran Panetta, which got me into The Guardian, that was basically, we did it for free for a bit and then we got an arts counsel grant, then there was just a point where I haven't got any work coming in and I just asked around quite obviously, "Is there any, any possible way I can get a shift or two at The Guardian because I really can't pay the rent this way."
Matt Hill: She was very kind and sort of just gave me, you know, showed me the ropes in the studio and stuff and introduced me to a couple of other producers. It just allowed me enough options that when they needed a holiday shift covering, at least I knew the kids and I knew a couple of the staff. It just meant that I got a call when they needed someone to come in.
Matt Hill: I suppose that those early days, when you don't have any contacts, the idea that you're available, particularly during the holidays to cover, that's really important to people. Then it's about emailing occasionally and just making sure that your name is in the front of their mind. 'Cause, they might meet a hundred people like you and it's just about, I suppose, being the last one to email, so that, "Oh, we'll give that one to Matt or whoever."
Steve Folland: Just again, timeframe-wise, when were you getting your feet in and being the last one to always email at The Guardian?
Matt Hill: That's around 2010. It wasn't too long after Channel 4, so that ended in December. In 2009, that was my year of trying to crack the BBC in terms of pitching documentaries to different companies. I came up with all sorts of ideas, which failed to meet the cut. But, I got a couple through an independent, which just gave me a couple more credentials. If you do stuff for the BBC, it's seen as a stamp of quality. But once I'd got those credits, I didn't necessarily feel the need to keep going back to the BBC unless I had a really strong idea. I made the decision only a couple years after being at The Guardian not to really pitch the BBC anymore and just to focus on trying to find other avenues for audio, which some were presented to me and some I pitched. That really helped, I think, in terms of giving me a bit more focus.
Steve Folland: So, talk us through how your career evolved from there.
Matt Hill: So, tell me the rest of your story, Matt. Yeah ...
Steve Folland: Well, I introduced you as Matt from Rethink Audio, but at the moment, you're a sort of ad hoc freelancer at The Guardian. So, that feels like quite a big gap in these eight years.
Matt Hill: Sure. In a way, my hand was forced in a way, and some of it was by design. As I said, I ended up on this show called Media Talk. The purpose of that show was to go through the week's media news for a media-savvy audience. The Guardian had the Media Guardian brand and it was every Monday in the paper and had its own mini-site online. The podcast was part of that so you knew that everyone listening was interested in the media because they worked in it. And as such, the people would invite them onto the show and the people I got to know were from other publishers. What ended up happening, and this is the by accident part, is that I ended working on a show, which was a perfect showcase for what podcasts can be and do.
Matt Hill: So, we'd invite the editor of Broadcast Magazine on to talk about the week's news and then after the recording, she would take me to one side and say, "Are you freelance? Would you mind coming and doing something like this for just the TV industry for us?" So, that was my first proper gig outside The Guardian, was I went off and did a program for Broadcast Magazine called Talking TV, which is still going now. That just started getting me thinking that the best way to show people how simple it is to podcast ... and so cheap to produce as well, in a way, compared to video where everyone was talking about at the time ... was to basically just invite them on to a show.
Matt Hill: So, that's what I ended up doing. We got shows with Vice that way. We got shows with Prospect Magazine. By inviting them onto Media Talk and then, subsequently, Media Podcast. It became a way of meeting clients, showcasing what we did, having a product that they could hear without having to, then, spend any money or really do anything other than come and see how it was all done.
Matt Hill: I don't know when there was a conscious decision to start inviting people who I'd like to do podcasts for, but it must have happened about three years ago, three or four years ago. Since then, I'm not saying it's the only way I've done it but it's been a great Trojan Horse into having a wider conversation. A lot of the time, when you're pitching to a commissioner, whether you're pitching to a client or someone, I think there's very much a feeling that you need to make it feel like it was their idea all along. And part of that soft, softly, softly approach is to be able to invite them on under different auspices, really, and then let them slowly come to the idea themselves.
Steve Folland: It's one thing, though, to invite them, isn't it? And it's one thing to meet them. But to gain their attention, it's quite a relationship being built there. People might think that the relationship is between the guest and the presenter of those shows. Obviously, you're there making the most of the opportunity.
Matt Hill: Yes, I suppose so. The job of a producer, really, is to be the glue that sticks all together and I think that's as much a social thing as it is a practical editing thing. A lot of my time is often spent making sure there's water in the recording room, or making sure everyone is well-briefed, or have a quick phone chat with everyone beforehand. So, there's a lot of contact and a lot of just making things as easy as possible for people.
Matt Hill: My dad's been self-employed for most of my life as a carpenter in the Midlands. I've always kind of known that part of the way that he gets work as a sole trader is to just be really nice to his clients and make sure that he hoovers up the sawdust. He made sure that when they get home, it's as pristine as it was when they left, which in his line of work a lot of people don't do. If you can mark yourself out as just the easy person to work with, then you're likely to get another call the next day or the next week or whenever it happens.
Matt Hill: I've just tried to take a leaf out of that book, really, and just make sure that the relationships I'm building with people are based on honesty and trust and just being as friendly as you possibly can.
Steve Folland: Yeah. When did you go then from being freelance producer Matt to being Rethink Audio?
Matt Hill: I really procrastinated over that for a couple of years, really, because I was doing a lot of work and I was doing it myself. There just came a time when I couldn't quite fit it in the week, which is a glorious privileged position to be in. I wanted to bring in other people. I always liked working with other people and I've ended up in an industry where you can spend a lot of time on your own editing things. So, the opportunity to work with other people was really kind of lacking for a while. I just felt if I could bring in other freelancers to work with and to help them grow as producers and to try and create a little cabal of freelancers that I respected and wanted to work with, that we could create a little podcast production company.
Matt Hill: The other thing that made that more pressing was that me and my wife started a family and, therefore, we needed to make sure that I could take time off, maybe work less, and as such, still have the contacts and the clients happy and that everything was still as reliable as before. Having people to step in to my shoes and maintain that quality was really important to me.
Matt Hill: And so, it was really about two years ago that I started using that Rethink Audio brand and setting up as a limited company and working more with freelancers. Once you do that, then it becomes easier to start accepting more work. So, I started saying yes to a lot more things because I knew that I had the team around me. Or, as well, freelancers, that could do that work to the same standard as I'd expect. Again, no grand plan, just necessity. It came out of that. And then once you get a feel for it, it becomes really second nature.
Steve Folland: It must feel great when you know that those freelancers that you've found yourself working with are gonna do the same quality job that you would do.
Matt Hill: Yeah, but crucially, a different job as well. I really enjoy that, is that you have one way of doing things. For me, personally ... it's not that I don't have more than one idea, but I have the feel for how a podcast should be and that's how I want it to be. But, I'm always constantly surprised by the different editorial decisions people make. I'm always delighted by how they make me feel in terms of it's just a completely new way of working.
Matt Hill: So, the kind of freelancers I'm trying to bring on board to work with are, it's important to me that they're not the same as me, as well. That we're broadening out our offering and that we can do different types of work. To give you a good example, having acquired some contacts at Vice, I did a pilot for them, which was all right. We did a few episodes, but it didn't feel very Vicey. I brought in a freelancer called Sam Bonham who is younger, more clued-in to Vice culture than I am. He really took it to a new place and it sounds great. There are subjects that I wouldn't cover and I necessarily wouldn't feel comfortable covering, but they justify it. They do it really well. They bring something else to it. That's a whole new dimension to what I do now, which I really enjoy, just learning off other people.
Steve Folland: I guess creating that company structure then creates other issues. One might be that you got into this for the love of creativity. But suddenly you might just be managing other people doing the projects. Another one might be that you could fall into the trap of just charging the same amount that you would have charged for your own time and not actually factoring on profit or things going wrong. Stuff like that. Did you find that?
Matt Hill: Yeah, both those things ring true. On the money side, I didn't necessarily have to increase the rates, although in new commissions I do. But in terms of the established ones with the people I've been working with for years, it was more about efficiency, really. That if I had someone available who could edit for me, then they might be able to squeeze in two or three edits in a day, where once if I was doing a recording and edit, that would take up a whole day. So, if you've got someone whose job is solely to edit for a day, they're gonna squeeze more into that time than I would if I was running around and trying to edit. So, that created some efficiencies.
Matt Hill: On the management side, I've been really painfully aware of falling into that trap, particularly because there's a long history of radio independent companies that start up in a bedroom, and then they become a company with people and then end up shrinking back down to one person in their house again. You don't want to end up becoming a manager for so long that you forget how to do your job and stuff. So, I still make a lot of the stuff that we produce or I still have a hand in it. I try and work with people who are relatively self-sufficient. I love the training aspect. I find that is a slightly different tool set than the management side. But if I can squeeze all my accounts into one day a month, I'm a very happy man.
Matt Hill: In terms of the practicality of it, it's more a question of when you are making things still, that they're the things you really want to make and that you ask freelancers who welcome the work to do the stuff that you would prefer to pass on to other people, so that really, you're getting the best of all worlds. You're making things you really want to make and you're managing great people to make other great content.
Steve Folland: Within this story, so far of course, you're still producing things for brands or media companies. But actually, from what I can see and have heard, of course, from Rethink Audio, you've started making your own podcasts. As in, they're not linked to any particular brand. Right?
Matt Hill: Yeah. I think that's one of the crowning or defining aspects of podcasting, really, is that it's an independent media. It's great for clients because there's a low bar to entry. They don't have to really pay a large amount of money to set up. But for me personally, it's been a real opportunity to take those shows, which ... they're not the same shows ... but when I would pitch something to Radio 1 or Radio 4 or 5 Live, I kind of knew in my heart that there wasn't really a place for it on the schedule. There's only limited bandwidth and they can't dedicate it to a whole new idea. They have to keep people tuned in all day, or that's the intention. And so, the idea of creating shows, which had a loyal audience that you knew were there, but you could do them through your own means was always the dream.
Matt Hill: From the very start, one of the very first things I did was using some of my old contacts in theater. I set up a podcast ... I suppose it was a network ... which did drama and poetry and spoken word. That is actually one of the things that got me noticed was ... we got a Sony nomination for that ... I think we were one of the only ones who ever got a nomination for drama outside the BBC. Since then, we've done shows about true storytelling and the start of The Moth, which, again, came from listening to things through Channel 4 Radio.
Matt Hill: And then later, through meeting Olly Mann who presents the Media Podcast, we started making a show together about four years ago called The Modern Mann, which is a magazine program, which we both agreed we'd love to have heard on the radio at any point in our lives but haven't. So, we decided to go about trying to make it. The beauty of a magazine show is that you can split it into parts so that there's different features every week and you've got these very natural ad breaks. So, we knew that if we did try and find advertising, that we had these quite natural places to put it. And that's because it's loosely based on the idea of a GQ, that kind of magazine that advertisers would get the kind of audience we're reaching, which I think is easier sometimes than trying to sell stats. So, yeah. We've had some success with that, which I'm really happy with.
Matt Hill: I should say, actually, that this all started ... the independent stuff really took off when we took the Media Podcast independent. That was just a real wake-up that actually there was money to be ... a combination of listener-supported programming as in like Kickstarters or patrons or just donations through the website, and actual advertising could actually sustain a podcast. They operate on quite low budgets depending on the production you've got to do. But it's entirely possible to fund a podcast through listeners and advertisers as well.
Steve Folland: It's awesome. We've put links up in beingfreelance.com of course. For that matter, we had Olly Mann as a guest a couple of years ago.
Matt Hill: Oh yes. Yeah.
Steve Folland: Probably just as you were starting there, I think, or in the second series. So, yeah, I put links on his episode as well. So, for Media Podcast, you just mentioned it just quickly. So, that was with The Guardian. Did they just decide to stop making it and you went, "Well, hang on a sec. Maybe we could make this." Is that it?
Matt Hill: Yeah, quite reasonably, The Guardian said, "Well, it's not got the figures of FootballWeekly." In fact, I think it had probably one percent of the figures of Football Weekly. And so they decided they wanted to drop it from their portfolio. And I just rather cheekily requested that we be allowed to take it elsewhere. Because you had a niche audience. No one else is gonna listen to a Media Podcast apart from media professionals ... that we could sell it to a sponsor because there are people who are just media-focused companies that would just want to reach those people.
Matt Hill: And so, that's what we did. I think it was a Kickstarter that got that thing going. Enough of the listeners came with us to our new home to make it worthwhile. But, that just gave me a really good sense of just the idea of just because a podcast is niche and may even have quite a small audience, if it's reaching audiences that are hard to reach, then actually it can be quite valuable.
Steve Folland: As all of this has gone on and you've built up your reputation, this links back to what I said at the beginning. The fact that you have your name frequently ... I don't know if it's always ... mentioned at the end of a podcast. They actually say, "The producer was Matt Hill" or "Matt Hill from Rethink Audio." Was that a thing that you consciously pushed for or was it just something that happened from a hang up of how BBC does programs where they mention who the producer is?
Matt Hill: I took advantage of the radio convention. And also crucially, Steve, you've got to remember, I'm writing the scripts a lot of the time. So, not to get all Anchorman on it, but there is a certain amount of, if they see it written down, and they don't object, they will say it. I think it is good to have that kind of brand recognition. When I started putting the Rethink Audio parts on the end and, similarly, when Sam was doing Vice or Cheeka (Eyers) is doing Talking TV or something, being able to put the Rethink Audio there just helps create, I suppose it's optics, isn't it? You're more than just one person making a show. It feels like there's a team of you. I think that's good for business to feel like you're part of a quality organization.
Steve Folland: Yeah. So, everything's going grand for you and you choose to launch the British Podcast Awards, wasn't it?
Matt Hill: Yeah, me and Matt Deegan set up the British Podcast Awards last year, which went pretty well. We were very happy with it. It kinda exceeded our expectations in terms of profile, which wasn't a given. You could argue that it's the sort of media that couldn't have happened five, six years ago, but it seems like now is the time that people are happy to talk about podcasts.
Matt Hill: We had a discussion on the Today program the day of the awards about the rise of podcasting in Britain and the rest of the world. When the Today program decide they want to do something, it's because it's acceptable all of a sudden. The timing was pretty good and crucially the entries were amazing. Such a mix of established players like the BBC and Absolute and the big commercial radio players. The newspapers like the Guardian and the Times and New Statesmen and periodicals. And then this huge tranche of independents. Bettering producers, comedians, musicians, celebs working off their own back, sort of creating things to take on the big boys. That, in itself, feels like a great story. It was just a real privilege to be able to host it.
Steve Folland: Do you think organizing those awards helps your business? Looking at it from that ... other than the fact that you're clearly passionate about the industry and it would be a good thing to be involved with. Can you see where it directly helps you? 'Cause probably it's quite tricky for your own shows to win it. That might feel awkward...
Matt Hill: Yeah, so I couldn't enter anything last year. We want to make sure it feels it's all beyond reproach, so making sure that there wasn't any conflict of interest was really important. It is tricky, 'cause my role generally is to stay in the background of shows. You don't hear me on mic. I try and write in the voice of our presenters. It was kind of the same with the Podcast Awards, except I suppose that, like the Media show, the Media Podcast and Media Talk, it just affords you the opportunity to meet people. There are people I've met now at the BBC who are specifically to do with podcasting. The networks like Acast and Audioboom that I didn't really have much contact with before, including the very elusive staff for Apple. Those are really great contacts to have.
Matt Hill: So I think, again, just in terms of the networking opportunities, it's really good. But above that, everyone now has that opportunity because if you come to the night, if you get nominated or if you just buy a ticket, you have the opportunity to go and meet the person from Apple, the person from Acast. Even if you don't do a podcast now or you just want to get a bit more publicity for the one you've had for years, the Podcast Awards doesn't just open the doors for me or Matt or anyone, it opens the doors to everyone and I think that's ... Getting everyone in the same room together is beneficial for all of us.
Steve Folland: It's like you organize the meetup to end all meetups.
Matt Hill: Yeah (laughs).
Steve Folland: So, to bring it back from talking to all the big people in your industry to talking to the small people within your house, how does work balance with being a dad and a husband?
Matt Hill: Partly because I've always been freelance, I've quite enjoyed the opportunity to mix it up a little bit and to have the occasional day off in order to do something with family or see friends or whatever. Pre-family, that meant I could work at weekends if needs be, or whenever. Now, it's fit the other way and I'm quite strict about trying not to work evenings or weekends.
Matt Hill: But crucially, the other thing is, because I've got this great group of freelancers that I work with, I took the decision to go down to four days a week in order to spend more time with my daughter. And, because of the fact that I work from home maybe a couple days a week anyway, I feel like I've got the balance quite good. It's a really good place to be and I feel like it's a real privilege to be in it. It's not through some sacrifice in the sense that you do have to turn down some work or find someone to do it and do it at cost. But, ultimately, it just feels a lot better to be in that situation, I think.
Steve Folland: How do you cope with working from home? Do you have a set room to do it in or ...?
Matt Hill: Yes. I'm speaking to you from it now. It's just a little office.
Steve Folland: I'm very impressed that I can't hear any screaming or ...
Matt Hill: She's asleep in the room next door. Let's see how it goes for the rest of it!
Steve Folland: Now, if you could tell your younger self one thing about being freelance, what would that be?
Matt Hill: It's hang on in there, which sounds very much like that cat poster. What I think I mean is that at the start of your career, you don't really have any contacts. So, that's the reason you're not getting any work is the lack of contacts. The more people you meet, the more chance you have of working with them in the future. So, just keep meeting people and it will work out.
Steve Folland: Nice, yeah. It's all the people you've met and all the times that you have hoovered up the metaphorical sawdust that's made the difference.
Matt Hill: Yes, indeed.
Steve Folland: Matt, thank you so much. It's been really great to chat to you. And all the best being freelance.
Matt Hill: Thank you very much, Steve.