From Print Journalism To Podcasting: Q&A With Wailin Wong Of The Distance Podcast
June 7, 2016
Wailin Wong hosts Basecamp's podcast, The Distance. Prior to that, she was a print journalist. She'll be speaking at the 2016 Podcast Movement Conference. We asked her a few questions about the evolution of her career.
1. For people who may not have heard it, describe The Distance podcast. How did it evolve into a podcast?
The Distance is a podcast that does 15-minute narrative stories on long-running businesses. More specifically, we tell the stories of privately held businesses that have been operating for at least 25 years without taking outside investment. The Distance is fully underwritten by Basecamp, a Chicago software company whose founder and CEO, Jason Fried, is passionate about building businesses for the long term-a philosophy that's often passed over in the tech world in favor of superfast growth and quick exits. He initially conceived of The Distance as an online publication and hired me to run it, so before The Distance was a podcast, we published one longform feature story about a business every month, with photos and video.
The Distance evolved into a podcast because it was difficult to build an audience with just one longform story a month, and we wanted to see if a new format would help us grow and sustain an audience. We also felt we could put out audio stories more frequently while taking up fewer company resources than what the written stories required. The written stories involved me, two freelance editors, a designer, a photographer, a video producer and an illustrator. And I was the only person dedicated full-time to The Distance. The designer, photographer and video producer all had other responsibilities at Basecamp. That was too many people and too much time for a project that wasn't drawing a lot of readers. The podcast is more streamlined-it's me, my co-producer Shaun (Basecamp's video producer who I mentioned earlier) and Nate Otto, a talented Chicago artist who does our illustrations. For a couple of months, we were releasing both a written story and an audio story, but then we decided to focus entirely on the podcast and go up to two episodes a month. Right now, we're doing 15-minute episodes every other week and mini episodes on our "off" weeks.
2. This podcast is produced by the software company Basecamp. How does a podcast fit into Basecamp's business strategy?
Basecamp and Jason Fried are very much about the long game. Jason talks frequently about wanting Basecamp to be around for many years, and also about wanting to learn from entrepreneurs who have figured out how to build businesses over the long term. He wants to hear those stories and mine them for wisdom he can apply to Basecamp-and he wants those stories to exist in the world so that other people can learn from them too.
3. You crossed over from journalism to business. Tell us what that transition was like.
For what it's worth, I still consider myself a journalist. The way I find stories, report them and write them is completely unchanged from the way I worked at my previous jobs at legacy media outlets (Chicago Tribune and Dow Jones Newswires). What's changed is how I'm paid for my work. Instead of being employed by a media company, I'm now employed by a software company that believes in the kinds of stories we're telling at The Distance, and trusts me enough to give me complete autonomy over how the stories are put together. I do think a lot about what's considered the "business" side of journalism, that is, how to grow the audience for the show. But I'm not trying to bring in money for the podcast via outside advertising. And marketing/sales/business strategy for Basecamp the software is not part of my purview at The Distance. There are other folks at the company who do that stuff, and we work very independently of each other. (I should also note that we don't cover Basecamp customers in the podcast.)
4. You also crossed from print journalism into podcasting. Tell us about that transition.
This was a fun transition! I was really daunted at first, having spent my entire career on the print side-I mean, my undergrad concentration was in newspaper reporting. I am basically a fossil. I love doing audio and I still have a lot to learn, but I'm getting better with each story. I had to rethink some of my interviewing techniques. I very rarely recorded interviews as a print journalist, so I was used to going into interviews with just a notebook and pen. All of a sudden, I was carrying a recorder and a shotgun mic, with no extra hands for a notebook to write anything down. I had to learn how to work the recorder and check my levels and hold the mic very close to a person's mouth. I am basically in cold sweats all the time about getting good tape. I also had to train myself not to say "Oh!" and "I see!" and "That's interesting!" over the person I'm interviewing-all those little social niceties-to get good tape. Now I just smile and nod vigorously and feel kind of like a weirdo about it. Needing to get good tape also means that I evaluate potential story ideas based partially, at least, on whether they'll yield good audio. Whenever I can capture good wild sounds that help a story come to life-the hum of a machine or something-it's like a little goldmine. I didn't think about this kind of stuff as a print reporter.
Writing an audio script has also forced me to develop some other writing muscles. The linearity of audio means I'm thinking even more about structure than ever-how to guide a listener through a story and keep them interested.
5. What's the most surprising thing you've learned in your time as a podcaster?
I was surprised at how much I enjoyed doing audio stories once I stopped being so anxious about everything and just started doing it. I was also surprised at how accustomed I grew to the sound of my own voice.
6. What advice do you have for fellow journalists who are looking into entering the world of podcasting?
The mic needs to be really close to the person's mouth. Like, so close that they might flinch and spend most of the interview trying to scoot away from you. Just accept the fact that things will sometimes get super awkward. Also, remember to record room tone!
You probably do not have vocal fry, and even if you do, your listeners can get over it. Your voice is fine.
Listen with a critical ear to A LOT of podcasts and reverse engineer the ones you admire to figure out how they structured their stories and how they got that piece of magical tape.
Don't ask yes/no questions. That's good advice for any journalist, not just audio ones, but getting a bunch of yes/no responses on tape is really a death knell for audio.