Coming up with a plan
Last year, I got the opportunity to develop my first podcast from scratch as a showrunner. I’ve worked on many different shows with many creative clients over the years, but I was excited to go through the process of sitting down with a new client, learning about their brand, and leading the charge on how to help bring it to life with audio.
When I first met with the folks at Setapp, it became clear pretty quickly that they are all about supporting creators. Setapp is an app subscription service that gives users access to a bunch of cool apps that help them get stuff done and bring their ideas to life. So it made sense that their podcast should inspire listeners to build something meaningful of their own.
We pitched a few different concepts and eventually landed on a winner that was a good fit for their brand values. The result is a show called Ahead of Its Time.
The show explores the history and evolution of technology like the electric car, digital camera, facial recognition software etc. It’s centred around the stories of inventors who created these technologies, their struggle to get their ideas off the ground, and the innovators who are building on their pioneering work.
Once we found the concept, we started researching the topics. Next, we mapped outlines. Then we got chasing. And, in hindsight, that’s when things took a turn that I didn’t (but should have) seen coming.
Back to the drawing board
When you’re making a new show, it’s likely you won’t know what the show is until you are at least a few episodes into production. There is a lot of experimentation and trial and error with the show’s focus, format, tone, and storytelling style.
With Ahead of Its Time, it wasn’t difficult to find guests who wanted to be on the show. But, at times, it was difficult to find the right guests. At the start of production, we meticulously mapped out eight episodes and identified guests for each. In doing so, we quickly figured out that there were only so many people (often only one) who could speak to the experience of inventing the technology we were covering in each episode. And if that person wasn’t available, we had to scrap the episode and find an entirely new topic. This is par for the course with podcasting. But it’s important to keep in mind that this inconvenient reality of the job can also be a blessing in disguise.
Of the eight topics we chose before production, three had to be replaced because a guest who was essentially the linchpin of the episode wasn’t available. For example, we had originally planned to do an episode about the invention and evolution of the digital music player. So back in London in 1979, record stores all over the country were scamming record labels out of millions of dollars by sending them fake records and asking for refunds. This gave a British man the idea for digitally distributed music that could be stored on a device that looked remarkably similar to an early version of the iPod.
We were super excited to tell this story. We talked with the inventor, booked the interview, and found supporting guests to round out the episode. Everything was coming together nicely but at the last minute (literally a few minutes before the scheduled interview time) this guest had to pull out due to unforeseen personal circumstances. It was a disheartening moment because we knew we had to scrap the episode. It felt like weeks of research and planning had gone down the drain.
We went back to the drawing board and, to our surprise and delight, found another topic the very next day. This new episode covers the creation of eBooks and the story of inventor Michael Hart who came up with this groundbreaking technology on July 4, 1971, after watching a dazzling display of fireworks. This new episode turned out to be one of our favorites of the entire series.
We would have loved to tell the story of the first digital music player (and hopefully we will one day!) but this twist of fate forced us to find different tech and inventors who we had not thought to cover when we first conceptualized the show. In doing so, we struck gold.
Of course, having to go back to the drawing board to come up with new episode ideas in the middle of your production cycle is never the plan. You have to adjust timelines and reallocate resources which can be a major headache. But it can also force you to look for new stories in places you might have not otherwise thought to look.
Having to navigate this challenge while producing Ahead of Its Time gave me a better understanding of the show. And, as a result, I think the podcast ended up being even stronger than it would have been if everything had gone according to plan. So remind yourself at the start of production that you will almost certainly have to go back to the drawing board at some point during the series. But beyond that, remind yourself that doing so is an opportunity to reimagine the show and create something even better than you thought possible.
Listen to episode 1 of Ahead of Its Time below: