Toni Cowan-Brown on Tech, Politics, and Creating for 2 Podcast Communities

Good morning yenizens!

Although it was a “typical” weekend, I had a bout with my anxiety monster that took me a while to recover from — I wasn’t even sure if I’d get around to this morning’s issue to be frank.

But, I did. Whoot. Small wins are big wins, sometimes, am I right?!

To infinity & community,

— john

Today let’s hang out with Tony Cowan-Brown! She’s building community in a number of different forms using a number of different tools and when I first starting listening to her Uanpologetic Women Podcast… I was hooked.

For the uninitiated, UWP is an entirely unscripted conversation between Sorcha Rochford and Toni as they chat through current affairs, pop culture, tech, and how the two actually got there.

That’s not the only show she’s running either — she’s got Another Podcast (pun-intended) with Benedict Evans where they approach the medium in the same way: Honest, candid, and lively chats that clearly showcase a warm and long-standing friendship just below the surface.

Another worthy subscribe, if you ask me.

You can learn more about Toni’s interest in the intersection of tech and politics via her website and track her inquisitions and curiosities via Twitter.

I sent her a few questions… so, let’s dive in!

Toni, you’ve had a fun career spanning a handful of projects and companies in a variety of interests and segments… how do you think about “career” and what have been some of the highlights thus far?

I love this question!

The way I think about my career has evolved quite a bit in the past few years. My biggest takeaway has been not to chase the corporate ladder but rather go after what feels right – even when everyone else around you tells you otherwise.

I also realized that I was never going to be an expert in one specific field, I’m too curious about too many things and always need to understand how things work and come together.

Not only is that okay — to not be an expert in one thing — it’s actually very valuable. In every new job I’ve started I’ve been able to bring to the team all my knowledge and understanding from my previous job which not only helps me stand out but also allows me to bring a whole new perspective to things.

This is how I’ve been able to get promoted so much faster in every job. being able to understand multiple areas and stakeholders is hugely valuable in today’s world where all areas seem to be converging — tech and politics, tech and policy, politics and pop-culture, etc.

My highlight has been the following: for every job I’ve had I have been hired for who I am and what I’ve created on the side – content or projects. Not for my CV or extensive education (I went to uni for 7 years). Never hold back on putting the content you are proud of out there for others to enjoy. Don’t be shy you have a point of view and an experience that no one else but yourself can share.

We can’t get anywhere without strong relationships and community — how have both of those impacted your trajectory and path? Who have been the more significant folks involved? What have been some of the hardest lessons you’ve had to learn?

Without actually realising it I’ve been building small communities around me for a very long time — I just never thought of it as a community.

In my case, I love questioning things and people. As such, I’m constantly asking people about the things that they love and are great at. That’s been my way of engaging with strangers (initially) and creating community. That and constantly sharing my content.

Others have their own way of engaging and creating strong relationships and community. The trick is finding what works for you and doing it naturally —the moment you force yourself and you realize that it doesn’t feel right, it won’t last and you know that it won’t succeed.

The hardest lesson (and the most important) I have learned is that community, like strong friendships, require authenticity, trust and showing up consistency.

Take away one of those elements and it falls apart.

What is your “podcast (tech) stack” and what are some tips for newbies who are thinking about starting one?

The thing that I wish someone would have told me is to think about the phases of your production because then your tech stack and needs start to become clearer.

When you start, you simply don’t know what you don’t know. And hence you don’t know what you need.

Those four phases are:

  1. Recording
  2. Editing
  3. Hosting
  4. Distribution and marketing

Here are the specifics:

Yeti Nano

Recording: I use the Yeti Nano Mic (but really in the beginning even your built-in mic will do as long as you find the right space to record).

I use Zoom so I can see my co-host and I’ve used to use Ringr to record the audio. Note: I really try to get individual audio tracks from each speaker directly which gives me clearer audio, even if things might disconnect temporarily.

Currently, I’m using macOS-native Quicktime to record (both me and my co-host do it separately on each end) so it doesn’t mess around with each other’s audio settings and mic. Ringr has tried to be “be smart” about this but isn’t always effective.

Editing: I use Audacity to work on the background noise. Then I take both individual tracks and upload them into Descript

I’m going to praise Descript here because what they have done for this space is short of incredible! Their most impressive feature is their text to audio edits, allowing a user to edit the audio by simple editing the text itself.

Basically, your audio gets uploaded, then transcribed, and then you can delete the text, move words around, even add words (using dubbing) to edit your audio track. It’s a whole new way of editing audio and it is truly blissful!

Transistor FM

Hosting and Distribution: You then need to host your podcast somewhere that creates an RSS feed for you that you can then push onto all of the distribution platforms.

There are many great hosting platforms such as SimplecastTransistor and once that is set up they will help you distribute your podcast onto all of the big platforms such as Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Amazon, Overcast, and more.

Marketing your podcast: And finally, there are a bunch of clever things you can do to market your podcast such as do audiograms which are short snippets of your podcast with audio and text that are easy to share on social to create interest around your podcast.

What is one of the more surprising things that you’ve learned about yourself while running a podcast and being an entrepreneur?

I learned quite a few things actually, the first is that I now know that I’m terrible (really, really bad) at asking succinct questions; I’m working on that now and I have also noticed a tendency to not finish my sentences entirely — partly based on a fear and/or insecurity of taking up too much air time — another opportunity for improvement.

On the positive-side it’s been great to confirm that I’m an intentional and gifted listener and can, for example, sit with a guest in complete silence and reflection, which can often deepen the moment that we’re sharing.

I’ve discovered that I enjoy the podcast format greatly because it allows for context, nuance, complex sharing — all things that I feel are often missed in today’s bite-sized and fast-paced world.

Your background also includes being a regular guest on BBC London — what are some things “big (audio) business” is doing well regarding community and what could they be doing better?

Indeed and as I write this, I actually just got off a panel discussion on BBC Radio 4 for The Media Show!

Fun Fact: The BBC producer asked me what my audio stack was because he wanted to replicate this for other guests so I guess I now know that my audio engineering decisions are legit!

One thing “big audio” is doing well right now, is adapting to the changes and embracing the new tools available to them. It’s amusing to me that an institution like the BBC radio that has been around since the 1930s is now using the same tools — like Zoom — that podcasters are using today.

Not only are they embracing the new tools, but they are thinking about new ways to engage with their audience by delivering additional content.

Because of audio’s simplicity as a content medium, it’s often seen as boring and not innovative enough but I do think there are many ways nowadays for the audio business to innovate — it’s just a question of understanding the news tools and platforms available today and how consumer’s behaviors are evolving.

There is a lot more to come especially when you think about how to create efficient ways for listeners to engage with the content creators directly.

What podcast technology or platform or tool do you need the most right now? What’s lacking in the space?

There are two things that have been top of mind for me recently…

The first point is that I would love a more complete platform, which I know is dangerous because you can end up with a platform that does everything but it’s all mediocre. 

Anchor is actually a perfect example of an incredibly powerful platform for new podcasters (that’s where I started 3-4 years ago). It truly is the easiest way to start a podcast but it quickly gets restrictive.

As I’ve shared, I currently record dual-track audio on one platform, my co-hosts and I join Zoom because I do believe that the result is so much better when we can actually see each other.

Then I go to another platform to clean the tracks, then another to edit… I would love a platform that offers great video quality and individual audio tracks (of great quality obviously).

There are a few platforms looking into this but the video quality isn’t quite yet there. And if I were to be really picky, I would want this same platform to be the tool I use to then edit my podcast.

Basically a Zoom + Ringr / QuickTime audio + Descript combo.

The second opportunity that I see are in the area of “missed engagement” opportunities and channels available directly on the podcast platforms. Instead of inviting your listeners to engage with you elsewhere (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, and other networks), why not have them engage with your content right there and then?

I know this is something that Anchor offers but right now most the bulk of listeners are elsewhere. If you look at what the Chinese podcast apps are doing it’s pretty incredible!

It’s very similar to what they created with audiobooks and e-courses: There is a whole universe around the content and it’s all extremely interactive and very much focused on the creator, their universe, and the actual content.

There are so many ways to engage with the creators and we’re not seeing much of it here in Europe and the US.

Simplecast Analytics

Peter Thiel Question: What important truth do most folks disagree with you on?

Don’t value someone’s work and worth based on how long it took them to create it. There are exceptions to this but most of the time, time spent on something doesn’t make it more valuable.

And as you spend more time in one field, your ‘production time’ often gets faster but that doesn’t mean the quality isn’t there, quite the opposite.

Finally, who should we interview next?

I really enjoy Delia Cai who has a great newsletter that I’m subscribed to!