Interview With Mignon Fogarty Of The Grammar Girl Podcast
February 23, 2016
I had the good fortune to see Mignon Fogarty, host of the Grammar Girl podcast, keynote at last year's New Media Expo in Las Vegas. Her podcast has been a breakout success and led her to numerous other opportunities, including books, television appearances, and a podcast network. I asked her to tell me about her podcasting journey.
1) How did you get involved in podcasting?
Photo Credit: David Calvert
Back in 2005 or 2006, I heard about this thing called podcasting, and I started listening to podcasts. I love technology, and it struck me that podcasting was to radio what blogging was to newspapers--a way to go directly to the audience - and I wanted to experiment with it. I was working as a science writer and editor at the time, so I first started a science podcast with a friend from work, Adam Lowe. We interviewed scientists and talked about the science news of the week and produced a show called Absolute Science for about eight months.
2) Explain the concept and the format of the Grammar Girl podcast.
Absolute Science was taking an extraordinary amount of time - about 20 hours per week - and since I was a freelancer, time really was money. Much as I loved producing the show, I couldn't justify it after a while. When I started Grammar Girl, I was looking to create a simpler show so I could keep my toes in podcasting but spend less time on it. That's why there is just one host, no guests, and the show is scripted which cuts down on editing time.
I also found that as a listener, I was gravitating to shorter podcasts that didn't waste my time. For example, I liked Matt's Today in History, which was a short, scripted show.
I saw my editing clients making the same writing mistakes over and over again, so I thought that providing a quick friendly writing tip every week might be useful and would tie in with my editing work.
3) How did the Grammar Girl podcast grow its audience?
The growth was fast and unexpected. I recently went back and looked at the early stats, and the show had almost half a million downloads in the third month after I launched.
As far as I know, the growth happened almost entirely by word of mouth. The show was featured on iTunes, but Absolute Science had also been featured and got nowhere near that kind of growth or traffic. The initial growth was also before my first big media mention, which was in The Wall Street Journal. The only notable growth driver I've ever been able to identify in those early months was word of mouth. I got many e-mails from listeners who loved the show and said they had told all their friends or co-workers about it.
Since then, I believe my commitment to consistency and engaging the audience have been big parts of the success. For the first three or four years, I worked at least 60 hours per week (often more), much of that time answering listener and reader questions by e-mail and on social media, and of course, doing the research to make sure my advice was good and credible. An intern once marveled that I am "relentless" on social media. I also wrote seven books in six years, and I tried to make Grammar Girl content available everywhere people might want it.
I've eased up the last few years because I took a job as the chair of media entrepreneurship in the journalism school at the University of Nevada, Reno, but today, I believe the completeness of the archive contributes to the success. I've released more than 500 podcasts and have many more short articles on the website. If people have a question about language, they're very likely to find an answer on my site, and they've learned that they'll be able to find and trust the answer.
4) What is the revenue model for the podcast?
The podcast brings in revenue through advertising, but it also helps me earn money in other ways. For example, we turn the transcripts of the podcast into web pages and earn advertising revenue there. I made an iPhone game called Grammar Pop and a card game called Peeve Wars. I've written books, I make training videos with partners, and I give talks and training sessions at businesses and universities a few times a year.
It's really important to me to have multiple revenue streams. That way, if advertising drops or the games don't sell as well as we had hoped one quarter, for example, the other areas are there to buffer the drop or make up the difference.
Although I'll always think of myself as a podcaster first, I think of Grammar Girl as a brand, and the podcast is just part of that brand.
5) What's the biggest challenge you've faced while podcasting? How did you deal with it?
I've been podcasting for almost 10 years, so the biggest challenges have been finding new topics and keeping myself interested.
I've brought in guest writers more the last few years because they have fresh ideas and can cover topics like linguistics in a way that I can't. Bringing in those more complicated topics helps keep me interested because I'm learning something too. I also added a segment to the podcast that is called the "tidbit" that often looks at things that have a more "Wow, I didn't know that!" feel than an immediate practical purpose. For example, we might look at a word that has an interesting origin or a new word and how it is evolving. But to stay true to the origin, the podcast always still has a useful quick and dirty tip too.
6) What is the Quick and Dirty Tips Podcast Network? How did it develop?
Because I was an early employee at a few dotcom start-ups in Silicon Valley, when Grammar Girl took off, I realized the show could be the anchor for a network of shows on different topics with a similar scripted quick-tip format. I recruited a few of my friends to host shows (my co-host from Absolute Science became the first Modern Manners Guy, for example), and by 2007 I had grown the network to six shows.
At that point, I realized I couldn't grow the network to its full potential by myself. I had started looking for partners when I was approached by John Sterling at Macmillan, initially about a book deal because he had seen the Wall Street Journal article about Grammar Girl. As we talked, it became clear that we both saw the potential for the network and Macmillan was looking to get into digital businesses, so in addition to doing a book deal, we also partnered to grow the Quick and Dirty Tips network. I still own Grammar Girl, but it operates as part of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, which is owned by Macmillan. Today the network has 15 active shows, and a team at Macmillan led by Kathy Doyle handles day-to-day operations.
7) You were on Oprah. Tell us that story.
Oprah wanted to do a segment answering viewer questions about language, and when the producer started looking for sources, two people in one day told her if she was doing a show about language, she had to get Grammar Girl. It was all because of the podcast. It was March of 2007, and Grammar Girl was really in the air back then. Besides the Wall Street Journal article, I had been featured on CNN and USA Today and a bunch of other outlets. I don't think it's a huge stretch to say that Grammar Girl was the Serial of 2007. If there was a story about podcasting, Grammar Girl was in it and was usually the lead. Adam Corolla was the Serial of 2009. It's funny to see all the stories out there now that make podcasting sound like it's completely new.
One of my biggest weaknesses is that I don't like being in the spotlight. My favorite thing is to produce my show. My first thought when I got the call from The Oprah Winfrey Show was "Can I say no? Can I get out of this?" And of course, the answer was no--I'd be crazy not to take the opportunity. For years I felt like I was going to throw up every time I had to do radio or TV interviews, but I've had a lot of practice and I'm a lot better at it now.
8) What advice do you have for radio broadcasters looking to get into podcasting?
Radio people have such a leg up compared to people with no audio experience. They know how to make audio and do it on a schedule. They shouldn't get carried away with equipment though. For podcasting, you don't need the same kind of high-end equipment you have in a radio studio. For years I produced my show with a $100 Snowball mic. The other thing is to make sure your show has an authentic voice. Of course, there are different kinds of podcasts and the highly produced shows are popular, but I think in podcasting, people want to connect with the hosts as individuals. You don't want to waste listeners time blathering away about your life for minutes on end, but they want to feel like they know you and they're getting an inside view. The podcasts I like have a more informal sound than most radio shows.