If you’ve never worked on a branded podcast, it’s natural to have a few questions about what it’s like to make one.
- From a production and creative standpoint, how does the experience compare to working on a non-branded podcast?
- How much independence and freedom do you have really as a producer or host?
- Why might you want to work with a brand and how do you know when you’ve found a good partner?
Today on the blog, I’d like to address some of these questions and share part of a conversation I recently had with Sonari Glinton, host of the Bring Back Bronco podcast that we recently made with Ford Motor Company.
Sonari is a veteran radio journalist and spent years as a transportation and business correspondent with NPR. Bring Back Bronco was his first branded project, so we asked him about the experience, what he learned from it, and how working on Bring Back Bronco compared to other kinds of audio storytelling he’s done in the past.
Steve Robinson: How did you get involved with Bring Back Bronco? What sold you on the project?
Sonari Glinton: [My friend and colleague] Travis Wright works with Ford’s ad agency. Travis and I know each other from the public radio world. He wondered if I would be interested. I have always been interested in telling the story of an individual car or product. I’ve long wanted to do a podcast that told insider stories about the car business. In terms of audio storytelling, we haven’t yet touched the surface of how we can tell stories about cars and also use cars for storytelling. I love Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka Click and Clack, the Car Talk guys. They were colleagues of mine at WBUR-FM (Boston’s NPR news station) and NPR. They were inspirations for me, personally and professionally. I’d love to be the Bobby Darin to their Sinatra. This was my chance.
That said, I was also OBSESSED with [the Ford Bronco]. I don’t know if I would have done a podcast about that many other cars. I really have been obsessed with Broncos for a long time. Long before I did this podcast, I would search for and post pictures of vintage Broncos I found in daily life. I joke that Travis had me at Bronco. I don’t think I’d have been as excited if it had been about the Explorer.
Did it take a little while for you to warm up to the idea of a branded project?
Well, one of the things that made this a little different was that I had a personal connection. I had literally thought about doing my own podcast about individual products, individual cars. That had been a fantasy of mine. And there are only about three or four cars that I thought were actually interesting enough to do a show about. The thing that was difficult is my own family’s personal relationship with Ford. And that was sort of ironic. My mom worked there, and I worked at a Ford plant. I had a healthy journalistic relationship with Ford beforehand — kind of antagonistic in some ways. I honestly wanted to know the story and thought it was interesting; I didn’t need to be convinced. When they first proposed the idea to me, I was like, “Oh, really? They’re going to let us do this?” And I was really kind of surprised. The key to me was people weren’t going to be in the room. It felt to me like any other story and I treated it the exact same way. And I also knew for a fact that this was something that my mother and her friends and my family members would listen to. They wouldn’t care about a This American Life story, but I knew everybody in my family would listen to Bring Back Bronco.
What was it like working with Ford? What did that relationship look like?
[Pacific Content Producer] Jeff Blundell really exemplified the classic example of a producer who is like a ship’s captain. It’s not enough to get from point A to B without drowning. Jeff was able to pick the right point of sail and communicate the changes of course without getting us drowned or even sick. Jeff was the main go-between and kept me genuinely oblivious to what was happening. At no point was I asked to change something controversial. There were literally months of conversations about the O.J. episode which I purposely was not a part of. The spectre of O.J. Simpson almost did this project in, but in the end I think those episodes make the series. Ford has a lot of experience making cars and we have a lot of experience making stories. The top executives realized that no one would invest their time listening if the company didn’t bare itself. I have more than 40 years of history with Ford; it will always be complicated. From the moment I started reporting, I’ve been open about that complication. I think it adds a depth and layer to my reporting about the economy. There are many more Ford and Detroit stories in my future. In a funny way, it’s my destiny.
This was your first time making a branded podcast. What was the experience like? How did it compare to other work you’ve done in the past?
I was working on this podcast while there was a reckoning going on in newsrooms across the public radio world. This was the most personal, longest, and least fraught project of my journalism career. That says a lot because I was often the sole black man in many major newsrooms. What I love now and have always loved is making radio, using sound to create movies in the listener’s mind. Audio storytelling is what turns me on. Podcasts like this break the medium out of narrow confines.
What should a potential host ask themselves before working with a brand?
I think it’s important to think of what is expected of you. Is it something you can put your name behind? I remember going to a training session with [This American Life host] Ira Glass when I started out. He said when dealing with editors, “You need to pick one or two things in a story that you love that you will fight or quit over.” I’d add to Ira that you should make those things known upfront. As my friend and financial planner says, “Open and clear accounting leads to long friendships.”
Has this experience changed your perspective on branded podcasts? What did you learn?
To be honest, I didn’t have an opinion of branded podcasts. I am listening to a bunch of podcasts now as a juror for an award. I feel like every minute of every podcast needs to justify itself; it should be inherent why it’s keeping me from listening to Rihanna! Some friends in the podcast world need to learn the lessons of brevity and focus and storytelling. To paraphrase Louis Armstrong, there’s only two kinds of music: good and bad. There are only two kinds of podcasts: good and bad. The bad ones tend to be long, self-indulgent and lacking in quality and focus. They take you nowhere. If anything Bring Back Bronco takes you for a ride.
Note: the above exchange has been edited for clarity.
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