What makes a good podcast?

It’s a question Irish man Dylan Haskins is doing to best answer in his role with BBC Sounds. He also tells Eoghan O’Sullivan about Second Captains’ upcoming look at disgraced swim coach George Gibney
What makes a good podcast?

It’s a question Irish man Dylan Haskins is doing to best answer in his role with BBC Sounds.

He also tells Eoghan O’Sullivan about Second Captains’ upcoming look at disgraced swim coach George Gibney

The BBC, to much fanfare earlier this year, announced a slate of 20 new podcasts. They ranged from shows hosted by big names such as James Acaster and Fearne Cotton to true crime to series on gaming and identity. It was a diverse, impressive list, and a shot across the bows of other podcast networks as well as the critics of the British state broadcaster.

Perhaps the standout show among the new announcements, particularly from an Irish perspective, is Where Is George Gibney?, an investigation, led by Mark Horgan of the Second Captains podcast team, into what happened to the Irish Olympic swimming coach charged with 27 counts of sexual abuse of young swimmers but who never stood trial. It was years in the making and is due for release in May.

Dylan Haskins, 32, from Dublin, was brought in to work as an executive producer on the show for the BBC and, last July, got the role of podcast commissioning executive at BBC Sounds. He says Where Is George Gibney? is a local show, an Irish show, but one with universal themes.

“It has dimensions related to the US and to the UK,” he says over a Zoom call from his home in Hackney, London, where he is working remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s to do with power and abuse of power and the power dynamics that allow abuse to happen.

Haskins has high praise for the show. “It’s world class in the level of production and storytelling and I do think that Irish audio documentary makers, in particular, are up there with the best in the world. I think there’s a real intuitive sense of how to tell a story and how to tease a story out and that’s kind of second nature to a lot of Irish people as well.”

Haskins — as one of the key members of the BBC Sounds podcasts team, which is led by another Irishman, Jason Phipps - has helped steer the constantly under-fire broadcaster through the increasingly murky waters of the ‘new media’ world.

GLORIOUS GEORGE

There are a lot of podcasts vying for your attention and desperate to be listened to. One of the big successes in the show in the BBC portfolio is Have You Heard George’s Podcast? It’s the baby of George Mpanga aka George The Poet, a 28-year-old spoken word artist from London who opened the BBC’s broadcast of the royal wedding in 2018. It defies categorisation, at once artful yet steeped in social issues, veering from deadly serious to philosophical, all bathed in a love of music.

“We’re just really excited to be working with him and to see what he does next with that,” Haskins says of Mpanga, a co-producer on the podcast with Benbrick.

It’s a real partnership with the two of them… It’s a unique setup; a lot of podcasts have big production teams. And they’ve got a bunch of different people who work with them and support them, but a lot of it is just the two of them sitting in a studio till all hours.

Haskins remembers listening to the first chapter of George’s podcast while driving around Cork, his mind blown. “It was the first thing that I heard that if you were to ask somebody, what’s the difference between a podcast and a radio show. They’re all audio, but this was something which fundamentally was made for the medium of being heard in your ears with your full attention rather than kind of background or on the radio or whatever.”

Though only in his early thirties, Haskins has had a long journey to get to where he finds himself. Speaking out for the arts and culture, he ran, at the age of 23, in the Dublin South-East constituency in the 2011 general election, being eliminated in the fourth count with an impressive 4% of the vote (Labour’s Ruairi Quinn topped the poll with 15.5%). Hegraduated from his Trinity College Dublin course, classical civilisation and art history, the following year and soon moved to London.

Having worked on reports for RTE’s flagship arts show Arena, he developed a podcast with Other Voices, the imaginatively titled Another Voice; began the endearing Soundings podcast with Lisa Hannigan; and made an episode for RTE’s acclaimed Documentary on One, ‘The Murderer, Me and My Family Tree’, broadcast in August 2015. A placement, through the Arts Council, on the Clore leadership programme in the UK led to a secondment to the BBC and his current role.

COMMISSIONING CRITERIA

Dylan Haskins
Dylan Haskins

Asked about how the BBC Sounds team commissions a podcast, Haskins is clear on a key element. “One thing I really don’t want to do with anybody’s stuff is turn it into a BBC-sounding podcast. We want stories being told in the way that you might not expect to be on the BBC.”

For him and his colleagues, a good podcast reflects the diversity of the lived experiencesof their target audience have. “And what that means in non-jargon is we don’t want a kind of generic presenter going and talking to somebody who has a certain experience and then making a podcast about that. We want the person with the experience making the podcast.”

Haskins references three of its podcasts as examples: After: Surviving Sexual Assault, 1800 Seconds on Autism, and NB: My Non-binary Life. They’re authentic experiences, he explains.

You take out the mediation, you don’t need somebody to go and talk to this person as another — you just make that person that host and they tell the story.

Haskins is effusive about the remit of public service broadcasting and its importance. He gets animated discussing the Panorama podcast series that is in the works. It will be a traditional investigative/current affairs film, but accompanied by a 10-part series that “will be told in all of the ways that you would expect a podcast to be told”. He adds that it’s about “being able to tell the stories in a different way. So trying to bring together the experience from a more traditional media but reinventing that in a newer medium that might actually suit it very well.”

As for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its impact, Haskins is pondering what we need from podcasts at the moment - he thinks it’s escapism, entertainment, something to laugh at - and is working two to three months down the road. As well as that, he is mindful of a particularly young audience: Pupils stuck at home from school.

“We we are looking at what we can do to create educational podcasts especially that will be for young people at different [levels and groups] that might have a connection to the curriculum.”

HOT TAKES

First podcast you loved?

Serial season 1. Before Serial, podcasting was still pretty niche. Hard to believe it’s almost six years since it single-handedly converted millions to the joy of podcasts and led the way for dramatic true crime storytelling.

Favourite podcast ever?

In The Dark season 2, the Curtis Flowers case. Through rigorous journalism, the team from APM Reports catapulted an unbelievable story of injustice and racial prejudice all the way to the US Supreme Court and showed the social impact investigative podcasts can have.

Best you’ve worked on?

Have You Heard George’s Podcast? (BBC Sounds). Now is the perfect time to start listening to this multi-award-winning, genre-defying podcast from George the Poet. Stick on your headphones and start with with the episode ’Sabrina’s Boy’ for an introduction.

Favourite Irish podcast?

Second Captains — the best sports podcast in Ireland. Five days a week, funny, smart and covering all sports — the guys pioneered a new model of listener–funded podcasting.

One to watch out for?

United Ireland — launched last year by Una Mullally and Andrea Horan, weekly episodes look at an issue thematically connected to a county in some way.

One to look forward to?

Where is George Gibney? — coming next month. Over the past two years, Mark Horgan has travelled across continents speaking to the people [accused abuser] Gibney tried to silence for decades, as well as those who tried to help him.

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