One of our primary goals at Pacific Content is to make our podcasts feel like gifts to the listening audience. To do that, the guests featured in the shows we make need to be engaged and invested in it. They need to understand what they are taking part in and be just as excited as I am about what the episode might sound like. If I can convince both the guests I’m interviewing and the client that this podcast matters to our listeners, we can produce an incredible piece of audio.
Tell Me What Happened was created for OnStar. They came to us through their award-winning agency Campbell Ewald. The show is about people who found themselves in crises and the strangers who stepped in to save the day, like the story we featured about a mother stranded in a snowstorm on a remote Canadian road who was rescued by a ranger (S1: E4 “A Helping Hand When a Winter Road Trip Goes Awry”). While some of our stories may be more extreme than what you think of when you picture the OnStar button you press in an emergency, at the heart of it we wanted to demonstrate the power of human connection. And, we wanted each episode to resound with OnStar’s mission of making the road and the world a safer place.
Finding the human connection — where to start?
Our project’s showrunner Jeff Blundell notes that the first thing you need to figure out when you’re putting together a show is what do I have access to? “We had real people who had been through real life-changing moments, speaking in their voice, telling their own stories.”
However, getting there wasn’t easy. The events of this podcast represent people’s worst experiences. Many individuals weren’t willing to relive their most traumatic encounters. Or, they couldn’t remember enough details to put together a compelling story. Sometimes we couldn’t find the person who had been rescued, or we couldn’t find the person who rescued them.
Access is fundamental.
What makes Tell Me What Happened so special is that it is so relatable. Even if you’ve never heard of the Pacific Crest Trail or have never dreamed of hiking for 10 hours, alone, and overnight (S1: E3 “A Mother’s Intuition Leads to Rescue”), almost everyone can relate to being lost at some point. We’ve all had that sinking feeling of not knowing where we are or how to get out of a situation. Being reminded that the kindness of strangers still exists is a big part of what makes Tell Me What Happened resonate so well with our audience.
To relay compassion in emotional storytelling — the kind that speaks to people’s hearts needs these key ingredients:
The first ingredient that makes this series so captivating is the willingness of our guests to be vulnerable. The guests in Tell Me What Happened shared their most frightening experiences with not only me, but the world.
More Vulnerability & Trust
To capture real vulnerability, an interviewee must trust me. I will preface my technique by saying it may not work in every interview. It very much depends on the content you’re producing and who you’re interviewing. When I’m making a podcast that tells personal stories, I start by building a relationship with my guests. Why invest time and energy into someone I might only interview for 30 minutes? To get a better interview and more thrilling content. Before the interview starts, I get to know my guest. We chit-chat, and I discover some of our shared interests or experiences. Maybe it’s that I’ve visited their city, or that I have also come face-to-face with a bear while hiking.
When I interviewed Robert (S1: E7 “Trapped by Fire, He Texts Goodbye”), I knew it would be emotional for both of us. Having fled from a wildfire myself, I knew hearing his story would require me to be vulnerable too. There were several moments where I paused and shared my own experiences. Robert commented that my openness helped him share and process his own experience. We spoke just months after he had fled for his life. Understanding what he had been through, in a very real way on my part, allowed him to share his raw emotions in a safe environment.
Knowing someone has been through a similar experience builds a bridge and creates a dialogue that allows guests to feel understood.
Stories on their own can be inspiring and entertaining. But it’s the sound design that immerses you into the story and brings it to life. Sound designers have a tough job. When timing, music, and sound effects are impeccable, the listener is transported into the scene. However, something as simple as poor music selection or misplaced verbal pauses can distract a listener and put them off future episodes.
Our sound designer, Gaëtan Harris, worked magic on every episode. His edits immersed me — I felt like I was in the car with Robert as he drove away from the flames. That particular story was challenging according to Gaëtan:
“I needed to be able to illustrate just how large and dangerous and ferocious the Lytton wildfire was. I was able to find some forest fire effects, but then I wanted to add some elements that made it sound like there was a fire on the outside of the door.”
An Understanding Guide
Choosing a host is one of the most important decisions a team can make in any podcast. In our case, the host needed to be a guide who could weave stories together, explain situations, and set the scene. They needed to be able to match the expressiveness of the guests and the theme of the show. Our host, Torah Kachur, knocked it out of the park with an emotive, relational, and factual read. In Jeff Blundell’s words, “what Torah brought was a real, almost scientific understanding of human beings need to help and their need to be helped. I think she’s aware of that as a scientist, but she’s also aware of that as a human being.” Torah was able to break down situations and explain to the audience what was happening in a way that was relatable and engaging.
What Torah brought was a real, almost scientific understanding of human beings need to help and their need to be helped.
Making a great show with thrilling stories, compelling guests, a compassionate host, and evocative sound design is of no value if no one hears it. While the production team was putting the show together, our Audience Development team and Campbell Ewald’s internal team were figuring out how to best market a show that didn’t exist yet. One of the most effective ways to market a show is to win over those folks in your own company who hold the keys to owned channels: websites, newsletters, and social media. Get them excited about the show and give them a stake in it so they’re invested like you are. Then you can start to get creative.
The show’s audience development specialist, Matt Hird, says one of the most useful tools for marketing a podcast is smart (trackable) links that allow you to know where your listeners are coming from. That’s how we know which tactics are working and how to market the show effectively.
Another key element to help a show gain traction is an audience review. Positive reviews are often the reason someone gives a podcast a chance. “I can’t wait for more episodes!! I’ve told many people about this wonderful podcast!” (J3di7, 04/22/2022). Word of mouth still goes a long way in this day and age.
It is still possible to breakthrough to an audience in a crowded podcast space. As showrunner Jeff Blundell points out, “the podcast space has a lot of really heavy, serious, sometimes sad news. And I think it’s wonderful to put something out there that is unabashedly optimistic and proudly warm and loving and friendly.” But, what makes Tell Me What Happened so successful is the intimacy it creates in being immersed in the stories of the show guests.
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