Fresh Air Production founder Neil Cowling on bringing podcast production to Tileyard: ‘We really wanted somewhere with character’

Neil Cowling, Founder at Fresh Air Production, speaks to Audio Media International about the continued rise of podcasts and how the pandemic has shaken things up…

What’s the back story behind Fresh Air Production?
For many years, Fresh Air was a radio production company. We were one of many providers of programming to the BBC, which for a long time was really the only buyer in town. Then about five or six years ago, podcasting became much more mainstream. This meant we were able to gain good audiences from being on Apple and Spotify, and those companies also started commissioning work. We made a variety of shows for Audible, and they became a client in the same way that the BBC had been for many years.

We then made a strategic decision to concentrate very squarely on branded podcasts. One of the issues with the main model of making podcasts is that it tends to be ad funded. That means you don’t know whether it’s going to pay for itself or not, which is why we decided to work directly for brands.

What attracted you to Tileyard?
We really wanted somewhere with character and somewhere that we could call home. We wanted a location with a creative vibe to it, rather than just an anonymous office space in central London. Tileyard also offers us the chance of doing lots of collaboration and meeting interesting people in audio.

What makes Fresh Air unique?
Because we come from a broadcast radio background, we all live and breathe audio and have done for a long time –  I’ve been in audio for 25 years. We didn’t get into podcasting because it was cool. We got into this because we love what audio can do and how it can tell stories, how it can capture the imagination and bring engagement that other media can’t.

We’ve grown from being a one-man-band three years ago to a team of more than 20 people now. And every single one of the team has a background in broadcast radio so, more than anything, we’re a team of audio storytellers. And I think that’s what sets us apart from most other people in the game.

What audio equipment can’t you live without?
A smartphone. The smartphone is virtually a broadcast quality microphone that everybody owns. The danger is that people might think podcasting is really easy, cheap and quick because you can do it on your phone. We’re always having to stress that you can’t just knock out a podcast by pressing record on your phone and talking. It takes a lot of research, structure and other elements and skills.

We tend to do most of our editing on Adobe Audition, or Pro Tools and we also use which helps people record HD video at the same time as recording the audio podcast. The most user-friendly way of making a podcast is via Zoom, recording the audio on a smartphone.

Has the pandemic affected the company and your way of working?
We were largely remote anyway, so the shift to remote working didn’t really affect us. We gained a lot of work from companies who had been planning to do video but had their plans disrupted by the pandemic. Not only has the last year or so opened up clients who probably wouldn’t have considered podcasts before, it has also made the guests and presenters more available, because we’re not asking them to come into central London to record anymore.

How has the pandemic affected the podcast market in general?
The initial worry was that, because so much podcast listening was done during commute time, the pandemic would have a really bad effect on listener numbers. But actually what happened is that people found new ways of listening. So, from a listeners point of view there has been a positive impact.

There’s also been quite a lot of people who’ve tried out podcasting for the first time. A lot of podcasts have emerged as a result of presenters, comedians and writers, looking for creative projects when there was no TV work happening, but also just because of the growth in podcasting in general. 

What are your favourite podcasts?
Taking Apart Terror, which is one of our own, where we dig into the details of what it takes to run a terrorist organisation – how they’re financed, how they organise themselves, what they want, why we should be scared and why we shouldn’t be scared. I also love a comedy series called Beef and Dairy Network, which is ridiculously surreal and stupid, but a brilliant half hour diversion. 

Another one of ours is The Case Files which is essentially a true crime series that we created for the law firm Slater & Gordon. We tell stories through the eyes of victims and we also talk to their lawyers. You wouldn’t really know it’s brought to you by a law firm just by listening to it. Another old favourite of mine is Dear Joan and Jericha which is a brilliant comedy by Julia Davis [and Vicki Pepperdine].

Is there a podcast that you hold up as a ‘gold standard’ reference?
The reference that we use all the time, as do our clients, is This American Life. Obviously it’s extraordinarily well resourced and it’s got an enormous team behind it, but in terms of audio storytelling, creating new stories every week, holding people’s attention, and the quality of the writing and presentation, it really is the gold standard.

What’s next on the agenda for Fresh Air?
We’ve just announced a new global partnership with Pacific Content, which is the largest branded podcast production company in North America. Their clients include top brands like Facebook, McAfee and Slack, and they’ve really been our template for what we want to create over here. Going into a partnership with them means we can work together on podcasts that speak to global audiences.

We’re also bringing in Richard Blake as our new Director of Marketing and Growth. What Richard allows us to do is to have properly quantifiable conversations about how our podcasts should be promoted and what benefits they bring to the brands. He’s been working with us for the last year on a contract basis but now he’s coming on as staff. The combination of bringing his expertise in house and what we’ll gain from our new collaboration with Pacific Content is a really big step up for us.

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