Beyond borders 🌍
How to grow an international podcast
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There’s a lot of received wisdom and best practice that seems to govern our work as producers. Like: your target audience should be as narrow and niche as possible. Or: listeners won’t stick with your show if you regularly change up the format.
The Europeans is one show that’s had a lot of success in not following these rules. Hosted by Katy Lee, a journalist based in Paris, and Dominic Kraemer, an opera singer living in Amsterdam, the award-winning podcast explores European politics and culture. Now in its fifth year, it was recently shortlisted for the Prix Europa.
I chatted to Katy and Dominic to hear how they built a pan-European audience, where they get their funding, what it was like to make a visual podcast, and how they shift between chat show and narrative formats.
What were the motivations for starting the show?
Katy: The idea was sort of permeating in our heads through a lot of 2017. Both of us are British people who lived on the continent and had lots of friends from different European countries. And then Brexit happened. Watching the British media coverage of Brexit, it really felt like Europe was presented as this monolithic and very boring thing; like it's just a bunch of old white men making decisions about your lives that you're never going to understand.
So we wanted to make a show that tried to make Europe feel a bit more accessible. Existing media coverage tended to be wonky and boring, and aimed at people who lived inside the Brussels bubble. That wasn’t us. We were interested in trying to understand the EU and life in Europe better.
How do you choose which topics to feature in each episode?
Dominic: It’s kind of embarrassingly random. We now have a team of four. So there are two producers, Katz Laszlo and Wojciech Oleksiak, in addition to us. And we are spread across the continent: Poland, Amsterdam and Paris.
We have a conversation each week about what we find interesting, and what we think is being under-covered by the mainstream media. We often try not to talk about the things that are at the top of the headlines. We also get help from our listeners. We have this really engaged community of Patreon supporters who send us suggestions every week, from all over the continent.
Katy: It's been really good to have producers with different backgrounds, because we are both Brits, and we do have blind spots.
Who’s listening to your show?
Katy: Our audience is largely made up of Europeans who speak pretty decent English. We've been surprised by how many Americans listen to this show - about a third comes from the US. We get lots of messages from Americans saying [for example], “I am third generation Latvian”. There's a lot of people with European heritage who are really interested in reconnecting with that part of their own personal story and understanding the continent a bit better.
Dominic: When we started this podcast, we didn't know if there was an audience that would want to listen to a podcast every week about Europe. It was an experiment to see: Does anyone feel European, really? Is anyone interested in knowing what's going on beyond their borders? We were quite encouraged and pleased to discover that yes, there are people who want that.
It must have been difficult to build the listenership when you were targeting any European who’s interested in news. How did you grow your audience?
Katy: Yeah, it's been very piecemeal over the last five years. Certainly in the beginning we actively going after a British audience. They still make up about 20% of our audience. And we do get really nice messages from British people saying, like, “this is a moment in my listening week where I get to feel European and connect with what's happening on the continent”.
But beyond that it was really just word of mouth. It’s been pretty organic. We were also written about in Buzzfeed, the New York Times and the Financial Times early on, which helped.
Let’s talk about your approach to hosting. You have an engaging back and forth – how much of that is scripted?
Katy: These days it is a fairly scripted show. When you're talking about a country that isn't your own, you really can't get it wrong. Our integrity rests on us being super accurate about these countries.
Dominic: We each have separate scripts, and we prepare completely separately. We research different topics. And then [during recording] the other one plays the kind of naïve person who doesn't know what's going on. We manage to retain the spontaneity that way. But then sometimes it becomes a bit more scripted. It feels vulnerable to say that!
Katy: We wanted the show to have the feel of two long distance friends who are having an interesting conversation about the continent that we live on. So we did want it to feel intimate and engaging.
You mentioned your Patreon supporters. How is the show funded?
Dominic: At the beginning it was not funded. We did it for free for quite a while. Then as we started growing, we wanted to bring on producers. So we started our Patreon, which has been really quite successful. We've got a really good percentage of Patreon supporters to the number of listeners.
We also started applying for grants. Most of our money comes from those two sources. As a journalistic project, we can apply for journalism grants here in Europe, and we've been lucky enough to get some of them. And as a creative outlet, we also sometimes apply for more artistic grants.
Katy: We have run ads in the past. But it's almost always been people who have come to us and said, “We think your show is a good match for our audience, can we run an ad on your show?” If we had the time and the resources, it would definitely be a good thing to go after more.
The podcast has been running since 2017, during a period when the news cycle has been overwhelming - to put it mildly. How have you approached that?
Dominic: We really try to look after ourselves, and our audiences too. One key way in which we do that is by trying to keep the balance of the show between serious and lighter or sillier content. So even if it's a week when everything's so gloomy, we make ourselves hunt for some more uplifting or lighthearted stories, just to make the serious stuff easier to digest.
We’ve also had a rule from the beginning that we wouldn’t mention the B word - Brexit. We did that with COVID too, from the start of the pandemic. That was particularly difficult in the first few weeks, but we got loads of really nice messages from listeners saying, “Thank you for continuing to talk about the other stuff that's going on in the world”. Not that COVID isn't important, but people needed a break.
Your mini-series This Is What A Generation Sounds Like offered young Europeans the chance to develop narrative episodes, telling stories from their part of the continent. Your producers mentored the young folks in audio, and episodes are then turned into ‘visual podcasts’. Episode one, Josh and Franco, about a father and son from Southern Italy, was shortlisted for this year’s Prix Europa.
Katy: We've been making it very slowly, over two years. That's partly because these stories take a really long time to make, and partly because you have to ask the protagonist for a huge degree of trust. They are telling you often their most intimate life experiences. The series has taken us everywhere from Minsk, meeting a former political prisoner, to talking to an immigrant in Amsterdam about his experiences of arriving by boat across the Mediterranean.
We are working with Are We Europe magazine. They are making these really beautiful visual versions of the audio podcast. Seeing these beautiful pieces of audio take on a whole new visual dimension, it's been amazing.
When we make our audio podcasts, we do not make them considering that somebody is going to be setting images to it. So it’s a real challenge for the designers to come in, and bring it to life in a different way. But the ones that have been made so far are stunning - they’re gorgeous.
Dominic: We've also been able to show the Josh and Franco film in loads of film festivals around Europe. So it's quite amazing for us as a podcast to have had this episode that now goes on to have a life in cinemas and get a wider audience. It’s been shown in Italy a lot - it has Italian subtitles - which is also really important for us, that we’re not just catering to Anglophone audiences.
What are you thinking about when you’re choosing the stories and characters to pursue for that particular series?
Dominic: We really wanted to find individuals who had a personal story to tell, that also was in some way indicative of a larger story from across the continent. There's one story about a Romanian teenager moving to Berlin. It was a really good illustration of what it's like to experience this famed freedom of movement within the EU, from a teenager's perspective.
We did a big call out for pitches, asking young people to send one-minute voice memos with an idea of what their story would be and what how they would like to tell it. We received hundreds of amazing responses. We wish we could make many more of these, because so many people have such unique and interesting stories to tell.
Katy: It has been important for us to include stories from different corners of Europe. The most recent episode took us to a really remote corner of Georgia. The other thing that was important from a producer's point of view is– these are half-hour stories that you're spending with one person. So it's got to be someone that you want to hear from.
It’s quite a big format change from your usual episodes. How did you navigate that, and what’s the reaction been?
Dominic: Loads of people love it. Some have discovered our podcast because of these [mini-series] episodes. Lots of our regular listeners really like it as well. And then a few people think, “hey, just do the normal thing, bring back the weekly chatty show”.
We worried about it for a while and thought, is this too much of a tonal shift? And then we realised … it's totally fine. We don't see a shift in our listener numbers really significantly.
Katy: I think it's fine to embrace! The amazing thing about podcasts is that you can mess around with formats as much as you like. It’s a kind of fun, middle ground between doing things that are more ambitious, and also understanding that part of the reason that people really like our show is because it's friendly, it's familiar.
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A quick note for my readers down under: I’m going to be in Australia and New Zealand for much of December and January (specifically Melbourne, Wellington and Dunedin). If you’re interested in meeting for a coffee, or know any other audio makers who would be, drop me an email! 💌