Catching Up With: Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids' Dan Misener


Every week, we catch up with a Canadian podcaster and their podcast to talk about what’s new, their favourite podcast moments, and what’s still to come. This week: Dan Misener.

Dan hosts the award-winning Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids podcast and live event, where adults read their childhood writing of all kinds. He’s a former CBC Radio producer, and is now the Head of Audience Development at Pacific Content, a Canadian company that makes original podcasts with brands.

You’re the first white guy on this blog series! How does it feel?

I am most excited about the future of podcasting when I think about the voices I haven’t heard yet. So I am reluctantly happy to be part of this series!

When I’m talking to people internationally about what’s going on in Canada and who’s doing exciting stuff in Canada, I often point them to Vocal Fry, because of the mission, the mandate, and the focus on underrepresented voices. What you’re doing and the kinds of work you’re trying to foster are really really important, because goodness knows the world and the podcast industry needs fewer white guys pontificating on the future of the podcast industry!

How have the people you’ve talked to internationally reacted to hearing about our mandate? Are there initiatives in other countries doing similar things?

I think [Vocal Fry] it’s part of a growing awareness that what podcasting has looked like for the past ten years is not what it’s going to look like over the next ten years, or what it should look like over the next ten years. I think a lot of what I see happening here in Canada is mirroring some of the initiatives that I’ve seen in other parts of the world. Most recently, I think of the partnership that Google announced with PRX, which is similar in mandate, and has pretty significant dollars behind it. And Google as a platform, their ability to shine a spotlight on new voices, I think it’s potentially very powerful.

Some people I’ve interviewed have talked about how underrepresented voices have been represented in podcasting from the get-go. It’s interesting to hear you describe growing representation as a shift!

I think about the growing professionalization of podcasting. In 2018, there are more people than ever who have podcasting as their job. That is a very different state of affairs than it was five years ago, ten years ago. Along with the professionalization of the industry comes money, bigger budgets, greater expectations around things like promotion and audience development.

My background in radio and audio storytelling is tied to CKDU, which is the campus community radio station in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I grew up. One of the things that I really loved about campus community radio is exactly the thing that I love about podcasting. There’s a very low barrier to entry. It is a platform that, in theory, gives everyone a level playing field. What I see with more money coming in [to podcasting], is that that level playing field is getting less and less level — because if you want to compete for ears, and if you want to become one of the seven or so podcasts on average that people say they listen to regularly, somebody who’s got a gigantic marketing budget, or distribution channels that you don’t have access to, makes that level playing field a whole lot less level.

This distribution of resources in the industry seems to be centred around the U.S. Is this an inevitability? How can we make a better industry for podcasters in Canada?

I worked at CBC for about 10 years, and I think a lot of the people who currently work in podcasting have their roots in public radio, or adjacent kinds of work. In a lot of ways, that’s a good thing, because the public radio system here in Canada teaches you how to tell stories, and it tells you how to get really high quality content both from an editorial and a technical perspective.

The liability that a lot of former public radio people have is being in this privileged position of not having to think about how anybody’s going to get the stuff that you make. When you have the power of the tower behind you, and it’s not your job to think about the marketing of the show, and that puts you at a disadvantage. I am regularly on the receiving end of phone calls from public radio people in Canada who are thinking about jumping ship and starting their own thing as an indie podcaster. Often, in their heads, it seems, the competition is other Canadian podcasts — because in broadcast, the competition is other stations on the dial in your region. The competition is not other Canadian podcasts, it is every other good thing that someone could choose to listen to! Including music, including audiobooks, including all of it.

That’s the mindset I would like to see more of — Canadian shows thinking internationally.

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Is there a piece of childhood writing from Grownups Read Things They Wrote As Kids that has stuck with you?

My favourite pieces of writing are the ones that get at the complicated nature of growing up, and the mix of emotions that you feel. When you’re a teenager, you’re not often feeling one thing at a time, you’re feelings lots of things, all at the same time.

We did a show in Victoria, B.C., maybe eighteen months ago, and a woman in her nineties got up on stage and read a letter that she had written to her dad, who was serving overseas during the Second World War. It was a holiday letter. She was probably fifteen or sixteen when she wrote it. But it could have been written by any teenager who was missing their dad over the holidays. So this mix of holiday fun, and joy, and spirit, but at the same time feeling like her family wasn’t complete — these are sort of universal things that we go through.

I like at the readings that get at how messy life really is, because so often when we’re trying to tell a story on the radio, we try and package it up, in a simpler form than it really is.

The show itself has a mix of tones — from really funny to at times serious or scary. When you’re editing the material recorded at your live shows, how do you choose what ends up on the podcast?

What we’re going for with the podcast is different from what we’re going for with the live event. With the podcast, what we’re trying to do is show as broad as possible a range of experiences of growing up. We want as much diversity as we can possibly get in a half-hour episode. And that means lots of different readers from lots of different backgrounds, it means different readers at different ages. We like a diversity of form, in terms of the childhood writing. And one of the reasons that we travel with the show is to get a variety of perspectives from across the country. We’re really lucky in that we’ve been able to travel to every single province and territory — with one exception [Nunavut].

We’re aiming for as wide a range as possible. When an episode works, it’s because it’s got that really broad range.

At Pacific Content, you make podcasts with brands. What are the challenges and rewards of that, versus making a passion project podcast like Grownups?

The biggest difference I see when working with brands is that brands have amazing abilities to build audiences quickly. They are not starting from scratch. Some of the companies that we work with are very forward-thinking companies that have traditionally marketed products or services, but they don’t necessarily have a whole lot of experience marketing a media product like a podcast. And that’s really what our role is, is teaching brands to think less like product and services companies, and thinking more like media companies. That, in a lot of cases means helping them use these amazing channels — social channels, apps — that they have access to to tell people about the show that they made. We like to say that brands have audience development superpowers.

You write a lot about podcast distribution and marketing. In your experience, are there any common knowledge gaps that new podcasters have when it comes to these areas?

The mistake that so many shows — indie, professional, or otherwise — make with audience development is they think about it as Step Two after the show’s already been made. My argument is that audience development needs to be baked into every step of the process. As you are coming up with an idea for a show, you need to be thinking about who it’s for, and how you’re going to reach those people. As you are doing your research and writing, interviewing people and chasing guests, you need to be thinking about, “Who are these people that we’re going to be featuring on our show, and how can we use their existing networks to spread the word about the episode that we’re making together?” The promotion has to be baked in from the very beginning. The marketing of the show is part of the show.

For someone who is getting into podcasting and is intimidated by the marketing side of things, where should they start?

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned podcaster, the question that I want people to ask themselves is “What am I uniquely suited to do?”

“What is the show that only I can make?” “What is the perspective that only I have?” “Who are the guests that only I have access to?” “What is the format that only I can come up with?” “What is the thing that I can do best that nobody else can do?”

On the marketing side of it, it’s the very same question. “What are the networks that I can tap into that nobody else has access to?” “What are the channels I can use that only I have access to?” “How am I uniquely suited to reach people?”

I don’t know what the answer is for everybody, but thinking about what your superpower is is a great place to start.

If you’re looking for concrete resources, I would encourage people to look for community, and think of the people around them and the people in various podcasting communities as resources to lean on. There are communities of people that are all trying to get better at this. I would encourage people to become engaged with people whose taste you trust, and whose support you can rely on.

Are you observing any trends that might indicate the future of podcasting? What are you excited for?

When you look at the last ten years or so of podcasting, it has grown out of the traditions and formats and legacy of broadcast radio. For the first many years of things like the Apple Podcasts charts, you’d look at the shows that are dominating, and it was mostly public radio-influenced shows. It was This American Life, Invisibilia, that kind of stuff. Here in Canada you’d look at the charts and it was a whole lot of CBC programming. People making podcasts right now are working to shape a brand new medium, and the exciting thing for me is to push at the edges of what that thing can be.

I am excited for the stuff that I haven’t heard yet, the voices I haven’t heard yet, and the formats that haven’t been invented yet. The new formats are not going to come from people who build their career within a traditional broadcaster, or within a legacy media organization. I believe it’s going to come from people who grew up with podcasts as a medium in their infancy and are excited about the possibility and unencumbered by the legacy.

That’s looking pretty far ahead!

We’ve been doing Grownups for about twelve years. It’s been a podcast since 2008. We get readers at our live events who were teenagers when the podcast first started, and they’re now adults who are reading on our stage!

The medium has been around for a decade and a half. There’s that quote about it taking a generation of people growing up on a medium for a medium to find its true voice and to establish its conventions, and I don’t think we’ve hit that point. The first radio plays seemed a lot like stage plays, and the first TV shows seemed like radio plays with pictures. The first podcasts seemed an awful lot like radio, and I can’t want to get out of that!

-Elena Hudgins Lyle