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‘The wild west of media’: Stephanie Okupniak on ‘A Life Lived’ and the art of podcasting

Acclaimed podcaster and Sky News producer Stephanie Okupniak tells Audio Media International editor Daniel Gumble about her A Life Lived podcast series and the various challenges and opportunities facing the ‘wild west of media’…

“Sadly, the birth of my inspiration came from other people’s deaths,” Stephanie Okupniak says thoughtfully as we discuss the origins of her excellent podcast series A Life Lived over a Zoom call from her London home. For the uninitiated, A Life Lived delves into the lives of deceased icons from the worlds of music and film via those who knew them most intimately. From Prince, David Bowie, Whitney Houston and Kurt Cobain, to Alan Rickman, Joan Rivers, Carrie Fisher and Muhammed Ali, Okupniak’s podcasts push beyond the iconography of her subjects to shed as much light as possible on the human beings beneath.

The idea was born out of her full-time job as a journalist and producer on Sky News’s breakfast programme Sunrise, a role which saw her increasingly producing obituary pieces for some of her musical and cinematic idols. Her journalistic skills and a long-held passion for podcasts began to fuse, prompting her to begin work on a project that would see her eulogise her heroes and their work while revealing seldom seen sides of their personalities.

Okupniak’s fascination with podcasts stems back almost 10 years, some eight years prior to the inception of A Life Lived in 2018, which we will revisit in greater depth later. She was an early adopter of the medium, long before it established itself as the fiercely competitive, supremely popular platform it has since become. Even today, her excitement and enthusiasm are immediately apparent when she describes her introduction to the medium.

Over the course of our conversation, she discusses her route into the industry, the art of making a great podcast, and why podcasting is the “wild west of media…”

What was it that first made you want to become a podcaster?
I loved the medium. I have for over 10 years. Initially with podcasts it was radio programmes being converted into podcasts, so for me having very hectic lifestyle it was a really great way of catching up on programmes like This American Life on a digital platform at my convenience. The real beauty of podcasting is the infinite creative opportunities. I was enjoying the alternative style of storytelling – switching between first and third person, getting creative with special effects, using interesting music. And I liked that the subject matter was open to interpretation and different dynamics. In any media you need to focus on who your demographic is, and that begins the framework of the architecture of the podcast.

Did your job as a journalist inform the way you approached podcasting?
I’m a journalist by trade. I work for Sky News and I was working on their flagship breakfast programme Sunrise. So my shifts started at around 11pm and I’d work through the night for the breakfast programme. Again, you have to think about the demographic. The breakfast programme is family consumption, so you need to consider that this is the mum juggling five kids with her hair in rollers trying to make breakfast, so things need to be child-friendly, interesting enough to grab that woman’s attention and they need to be succinct because she doesn’t have much time. Or, it’s the working class guy who has a job that is labour intensive and exhausting, he’s got one eye open and a lot of stress in front of him, so it needs to be catchy, succinct and accessible. That’s not the time when you start throwing economic statistics at somebody or laying down very scientific terminology about COVID. So I started to apply that knowledge to podcasting

So what inspired you to launch A Life Lived?
I’m American and I was one of the few journalists on the floor at Sunrise over the age of 30. Most of them had come from grad school and were brilliant journalists but they didn’t know who people like George Romero were, or they didn’t know someone like John Hurt just by name. If I mentioned Harry Potter or Night Of The Living Dead they would know, but if I just said the name they wouldn’t. Anyway, these people were dying and we would get the announcement and in most cases we wouldn’t have a pre-made obituary on-hand to supply. So the executive producer, knowing I’m a cinephile, would approach me with the news, and I’d be like ‘give me an hour and an editor’!

That summer, lots of amazing documentaries came out – Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, Alexander McQueen – and I was watching them in movie theatres. I turned to my fiancé and said “I wonder if there is an obituary-based podcast’. There wasn’t. So I decided it was something I really wanted to do. I wanted them to be obituaries that made you think differently and see something different in people. I pitched the idea to a podcasting company called Muddy Knees Media and they loved it. We set out to make a pilot and based it on Sir Roger Moore. He transcends generations, is timeless with James Bond and lived most of his life in the UK, so finding people who knew him personally was a little bit easier. That was key. No matter who we were going to speak to, we didn’t want this to be just some film professor talking about the relevance of James Bond. The people we spoke to needed to know the person in some way. It didn’t matter if it was their hairdresser or whatever, everyone we spoke to would have known the subject personally.

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Has the success of the series enabled you to go full-time as a podcaster?
I make little to no income on the podcast and still work full-time for Sky News. That’s something that needs to be made very clear about podcasting. There is no money to be made unless you have one of three things: a celebrity voice who is a constant contributor; a solid sponsorship from a major brand; or an established programme with a large following, so a radio or TV show with an established audience that has a podcast off the back of it. It is the wild west of media at the moment, because you can get really creative and it’s available to all demographics, but you don’t have the network to manage and distribute it. So, if you look at the TV schedule for any network there is a flow of demographics – families early on, more senior citizen TV in the afternoon, younger viewing later in the afternoon, then big news, and it ends with the more racy TV for adults like Game Of Thrones or Fleabag later in the evening. That is based on when those demographics are most likely to be tuning in. Podcasting doesn’t have a schedule or a managing network, you have to pro-actively look for what you are interested in. The only marketing you can get is if someone pro-actively shops the marketing for you.

How did you record your podcasts once you’d decided to begin work on the series?
I was using the sound studios that Muddy Knees Media have on their premises, but for the first series I travelled across America for seven weeks to record interviews. I had to use my own equipment for that, so I used a Zoom H2 Dictaphone, a whole bunch of SD cards and two Marantz microphones. They were lightweight, durable and sounded great, so I took those all over America. In the event there was someone I couldn’t meet in person I would record them on my laptop via Skype or FaceTime. And I only record the audio using software called Audio Hijack. In series two, I would say about 75 per cent of my script I recorded with that equipment under my duvet – the sound quality is great! All the editing is done with Adobe Audition. But nothing will ever replace recording in a sound studio. I would always have a producer listening to me. I hate listening back to my own voice, so having a producer guiding me on what sounds good or how I can change things is so helpful.

And how do you get these people to talk to you? Presumably that can be quite difficult at times?
Well, it takes about a year to make a series. So the first thing I have to do is secure who I am going to focus on in a series. In series one I pitched around 20-25 ideas for 15 episodes and then worked with Audio Boom on who would be in those episodes. But because I over-pitched I reserved some of those ideas for series two. Getting people to talk to you can be really tough. You’re talking about people who have died, and in some cases very tragically. The people who I’m speaking to are still grieving and for them to talk to me… why would they do that? So series one was really difficult, convincing people that this wasn’t some sort of TMZ spin-off was a challenge. But I was lucky and I got some big people to talk to me.

Then there is the other challenge, which is having no budget. No one is giving you money for research and wining and dining your guests, so I had to always make it clear I had no money to pay people for an interview.

What have been some of your favourite episodes?
This morning I was listening to the latest episode, which is about Gene Wilder. That man has meant so much to my life. I always try to have a minimum of two contributors per episode, but if I have one interview that is strong enough then that can just stand alone. And for this episode it’s his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. Gene Wilder didn’t have any kids and he treated his nephew like a son. And Jordan sounds just like Gene, and he’s telling me these stories, these beautiful, intimate little moments from his childhood with Gene and it’s just beautiful. Yes, you want to hear about the parties and Studio 54, but I also want to know what did he do to relax? There is a moment in the episode where Jordan says he remembers late at night he would wake up and come downstairs and his uncle would be playing Mozart on his grand piano in the front room, smoking half a cigarette and drinking a cocktail. I can close my eyes and I can hear the notes and I can smell the tobacco, and that’s what you want for your audience with a podcast. You want them to experience that moment.

How have you gone about growing your audience?
I have no answer to that. Unless your podcast is already hooked with a network or a programme that’s already really big, the only way to really grow your podcast is social media. I’m not a fan of social media but I have to be able to promote the podcast. In the latest series, I knew Alan Rickman would be popular but I didn’t realise how popular he would be. I didn’t think he would be on the same par as Carrie Fisher or David Bowie, but he has been by far the most popular episode of this series. In series one the most popular episode was Muhammed Ali. The reason for that was because I got the boxer Johnny Nelson to contribute and he shared my link on his social media and tons of people listened to it, so that gained some interest, but they were all boxing enthusiasts. They aren’t necessarily interested in Kurt Cobain. So it changes on an episode-by-episode basis; it’s not something that necessarily grows over time. The reason the Alan Rickman episode has been so popular is Harry Potter fans. I tagged Professor Snape and everyone who has shared it has had some kind of Harry Potter themed tag as their Instagram or Twitter tag. You have to find something that drives the popularity of each episode – Star Wars for Carrie Fisher, anything Marvel-related to Stan Lee.

How has lockdown impacted your process, and what kind of effect has it had on the podcast market in general?
It’s been a challenge because it’s difficult to get research done while my whole family – I have a one-year-old and a two-year-old – is home. It’s very difficult to remove myself from a situation long enough to read a book, find someone’s contact details. It’s even more of a challenge to write. To make a 30-minute episode I need 12 pages of script, with the excerpts from an interview. Alan Rickman was 50 pages. And the money I make from the podcast is nothing compared to the work I put into it. It’s not even minimum wage. On the other hand, it has made getting guests a little bit easier because everybody is at home.

As for what lockdown has done for podcasting, it has driven listenership up but it has driven the opportunity to make money down. It’s a passion project and I wanted to have a creative voice to talk about things I’m passionate about. But to have any expectation on making money…

What are some of your favourite podcasts?
For levity, How Did This Get Made? The premise is films that are critically slammed or notoriously bad, or films that were once loved but are no longer relevant, and a group of comedians just talk about them. Right now, I’ve been really connecting to New York Magazine’s The Cut. It’s a female driven podcast and it’s very, very good. Criminal still surprises me on a daily basis. But my inspiration has and always will be This American Life. Nothing can top their very unique storytelling. It is their success that has established the potential of podcasting from an educational perspective, from a journalistic perspective, from a storytelling perspective, from a sound production perspective, they were incredible risk takers and I love what they stand for.

And lastly, do you have any tips for people thinking of launching their own podcast?
Definitely educate yourself on social media. Putting so much work in and having no one listen is heart-breaking, so if you want your podcast to be out there and heard, find out how to best market yourself on social media.

Also, pace yourself. Do a little bit every day. Don’t dedicate a whole day to it and then walk away for ages. It’s something that needs to be nurtured and taken care of, and if you neglect it and it starts to fray at the edges you’ll find it very quickly unravels in front of you. If you pace yourself you will find joy in the continuity. But also give yourself a break!

You can listen to A Life Lived here.

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