Meet Leanne Alie, Head of Podcasts at The Artists Partnership

Mar 01st

Leanne Alie describes her route into the audio industry as unconventional, having started in marketing, but perhaps that knowledge of what audiences really want has shaped her success. You can often find her as the instigator for initiatives that open up the audio industry: she helped bring Spotify’s Sound Up Bootcamp to the UK; as Commissioning Podcast Producer at BBC Sounds she introduced the BBC Sounds Audio Lab open pitch; she’s worked as a consultant for several UK podcast events, and she is a trustee of the Multitrack Fellowship.

Besides these big initiatives to help aspiring producers, she has continued to make her own content for diverse audiences. As our London Keynote Speaker at the International Women’s Podcast Festival 2022 she gave us an insight to her own award-winning show, Coiled, which explored the history and culture of afro hair, and her relationship to it.

Francesca Turauskis spoke to Leanne to find out more about her career path, her new position as Head of Podcasts at The Artists Partnership, and of course trying to bring more diversity and representation into the audio industry.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FT: The first thing I’d love to know is, what was your entry role into the industry?

LA: I did have a very unconventional route into audio. I didn’t study audio, I didn’t do radio at Goldsmiths, which a lot of people have done. I was just a massive podcast fan for years. I remember listening to shows like Guys We Fucked and This Feels Terrible with Erin McGathy – I didn’t even know they were podcasts.

This is back in 2013-2014, and I was working at Spotify, doing Global Partnerships – working in ad sales essentially – because I studied marketing. At the time, Spotify was quite small in the UK, I think there were only about 300 of us, but for some reason I was one of two or three black people in the whole office and I was like, “this doesn’t seem right.”

So I got in touch with the Global Head of Diversity and she gave me a really small budget to do some DEI work in London – basically whatever I wanted. I worked together with another colleague and at first we were just doing events. Then I started working with different parts of the business.

One of the projects that I worked on was the Sound Up Bootcamp, the first time they did it in the UK (oh my god, this is a full circle thing because this is when I worked with Imriel [Content is Queen Founder] the very first time!) I worked with the podcast team looking at outreach and engagement in terms of trying to get the right people to apply for the programme, looking at what speakers we can bring in. So that was my first podcast project.

Shortly after that I did get laid off. Then I got approached by the British Podcast Awards to do some consulting work for them. The year before [2018] (and I wasn’t really aware of this until I was told) the Audio Production Awards was under massive scrutiny because only three women won an award and only one person of colour won an award that year. The [British Podcast Awards] saw that and was like, “we can’t have the same sort of thing…”. I believe Renay Richardson was like, “you should speak to Leanne about diversity stuff”. I was unemployed at the time, so of course I’ll do this.

Bear in mind, I wasn’t working in podcasting at the time, but I just loved podcasts. So I literally tapped into the two people that I knew and they just gave me a whole list of really great names to diversify their judging panel and then do a load of outreach and engagement to podcasters to encourage them to apply for the awards. I basically recommended all the podcasts that I love listening to and just started reaching out. And that was the year that George The Poet had just put out his first season of Have You Heard George’s Podcast? I thought it was phenomenal and they’d never heard of it. That year he won five awards.

Then I got a freelance job at Global as a Project Manager for their podcasts, it’s like a marketing role. I was working on the launches for shows, Full Disclosure with James O’Brien, Jennie Falconer had a show called RunPod. So I was doing all the marketing campaigns for those. Whilst I was there, it’d be very silly of me not to learn production because I had noticed that the podcasting industry was incredibly small and all the jobs seemed to be in production. How am I going to progress in this industry? So I shadowed the producers in my team and they basically told me everything I know.

Then I went to a live show of the Dope Black Dads podcast, which is an independent show, and I just said to them, “oh, I work in podcasting”. I didn’t say exactly what I did, but Marvin just assumed that I was a Producer. He called me up one day and this was a perfect opportunity to learn. So I went and produced Dope Black Dads and they also were launching another show in their little network called Dope Black Women. And I produced both of those podcasts for a year, weekly.

I do believe if I didn’t have that production experience, I wouldn’t have got a job at the BBC because I literally just applied for the [Commissioning Podcast Producer] job that I eventually got there.

FT: I love it when people say, “oh, it’s a bit unconventional for audio”, but it always sounds exactly right for podcasting. You started in marketing, do you think that has been important, even as a producer?

LA: Definitely, because one of the big things I’ve learned is you can have a fantastic programme but if no-one knows how to find it or how to listen to it, then there’s literally no point. So the marketing of the podcast has been a really important skillset that I’ve been able to bring throughout, and I’ve just had so many ups and downs and learnings in that sort of thing. So even though I kind of feel like my degree was a little bit irrelevant to what I’m doing now, the fundamental theories around marketing and understanding your audiences is something that I’ve taken throughout.

FT: You are still quite newly the Head of Podcasts at the Artist Partnership. What excited you most about this new role?

LA: I literally was saying for about the last two years, I want to run my own production company someday. That’s where I was heading. And to be honest, if I was hitting a brick wall at the BBC, I was just basically going to go off and do it by myself at some point. [Head of Podcasts] is basically a version of it because essentially [The Artists Partnership] has given me a level of investment and it’s a blank slate essentially. I get to make podcasts with their talent and they have a ridiculous roster of talent from actors to writers, directors, screenwriters, such a huge range, a really diverse list of talent as well.

I knew the challenge of running a production company was making podcasts that would be profitable, and this is what I’m doing here, but with a real focus on it. So I’m basically doing what I’ve set out to do, but under a very safe environment of an already established company, which is extremely, extremely helpful.

FT: How to make podcasts profitable is a big talking point at the moment. We have just seen Content is Queen look outside of podcasting to Innovate UK for their new Marketplace platform. It sounds like you’ve gone in a similar way in that you are looking outside of audio to do audio work. Does that resonate?

LA: I never really thought about it that way, but I guess you could say that to a certain extent, because [The Artists Partnership] didn’t have a podcast business until I was here. But, why don’t more talent agencies set up a podcasting arm? Because half the time, especially when I was working in commissioning, half the battle was getting the right talent or the right level of talent to do podcasts. If you have access to that at your fingertips, then why wouldn’t you just build a team? It just makes sense.

But in terms of the strategy that I’m thinking of here, I am looking less to broadcasters to make content, and I’m looking more at – I wouldn’t say outside of podcasting, but I’m thinking broader. Why don’t we work with TV studios and film studios and partners in the US? Because for me, the content starts with podcasts, but I’m always also thinking about what can we build beyond the audio?

FT: You have worked in public broadcasting, and you’ve worked in private organisations, and we also heard at the 2022 International Women’s Podcast Festival that your own podcast, Coiled, was a self-funded project. Have you found there are differences in the work culture and the ways in which you work across those different organisations?

LA: Yeah, the thing about ‘public service’ compared to ‘private sector’ is very interesting with public service and BBC right now, because even though they’re not making content for profitability, they are still making it to have numbers. So anything you make there still has to reach a certain amount of audience to show that people are coming to the BBC for podcast content. If the numbers aren’t there, they’re not going to reinvest in an idea, which is kind of similar to the commercial thinking in a way. But the reason they do that is because they need to show that the public funded money is being used to reach enough people. If it’s not reaching enough people, they’re not going to reinvest.

This is kind of similar to a commercial mindset in a way, but this is actually more about money. Say a show isn’t getting enough listenerships, that means it’s not making enough money, and if it’s not making enough money, it can’t necessarily sustain itself without the additional investment. And what you really want to get to is the podcast that is making enough money to fund itself plus additional revenue. So there are actually similarities there in that sense. But in the commercial world, it’s way more focused around “how are we actually driving the revenue?”.

Whereas when I was making my podcast, I just wanted to make it because I had a story that I thought was important to tell. And then it wasn’t until I was trying to make the second season – I say trying because I never actually made the second season – and I was trying to generate funding, it became extremely, extremely difficult. I tried grants, I tried pitching it to commissioners, I was told it was too niche, and then I thought my play would be trying to sell the IP. There was one product company that was interested, but they wanted to make too much creative change to the product. And because that was such a personal project for me and a passion project, I wasn’t comfortable making those changes.

Upon reflection, because I had built an audience and built a community around that podcast, I could’ve tried to do a crowdfunder or something to fund the next season – but I’d have to do that straight off the back of the first series.

FT: You have worked on DE&I in specific roles and you’ve done consultancy. Would you say it’s easier to do DE&I work when there is a specific role for it, or do you think it should be inbuilt to all roles?

LA: Yeah, the reason I don’t really do the consulting stuff anymore is because I basically got bored of telling the same people the same things all the time. I was working across different audio awards and things like that, so I did the British Podcast Awards a couple of years, [Audio Production Awards] APAs a couple of years, and I’ve got to tell people the same thing.

I found that when I was working in commissioning, it was so easy for me to bring in people that hadn’t worked with BBC before or worked with the BBC before and were from diverse backgrounds. It was easy. I was like, “I’m doing this shoot, I need a videographer, I need a photographer, I need a makeup artist”. And I was going out to actively make sure I was bringing in people who were from diverse backgrounds, and I had many opportunities to do that.

If I can so easily just build this into what I do in my work, why can’t other people do that? And that’s really how you create a sustainable level of representation within an organisation. That’s basically what Audio Lab was all about. It was all about bringing in people and ideas that were underrepresented. Because really and truly all those ideas that I commissioned then would’ve never been commissioned elsewhere. I still dunno if they would’ve been commissioned in other places now.

I personally think it’s all about building in diversity and representation into whatever you’re doing. I’m constantly thinking about it. Even with this job that I’m doing now, I’m thinking “okay, who’s the talent that I’m going to be working with? Is it representative? Who am I going to be getting to make the content?” Et cetera, et cetera.

FT: I think that will resonate with a lot of people. Like you say, if we’re saying the same thing over and over, how do we move this conversation forward? So the last thing I’d love to ask, what does equity within podcasting and audio look like to you?

LA: I think accessibility is a big thing. So people knowing exactly who they can go to pitch who they can go to for freelance work, and having transparency and equity when it comes to pay, I think is a very big thing. Because what I’ve found previously, especially speaking to a lot of producers, is sometimes the barriers to entry can be quite high in terms of just getting access to people in certain rooms, certain places. And that shouldn’t be the case really. Podcasting is a low-barrier-to-entry medium, and I think it should remain like that even in the corporate space.

I also think people more generally that are in decision making positions and in commissioning positions need to look wider than their initial scope. How are you actively going out to new production companies and producers to get your ideas? How are you actively bringing in producers that you haven’t worked with before and not just working with people that you know and trust? I know there’s associated risk with working with people that you haven’t worked with before, but oftentimes the risk actually does pay off.

I’ll give an example. When I was at the BBC working commissioning, we had a brief to do an Eve podcast and we sent out to all the usual suppliers, but I was like, “I actually want to send out to a couple other suppliers”, one of which was Don’t Skip, Christina Moore’s production company. And they gave the best pitch by a clear mile. If we hadn’t given them the opportunity to pitch, it would’ve been a completely different show. So I think it’s really important to always widen the scope of who you’re working with and always seeking out new talent.

FT: Do you think that open pitches and open invites like Audio Lab are a part of that?

LA: Completely. I think that’s why Audio Lab works so well, because I would say half the people that we even had that first year, they weren’t even connected to the podcast world, but they still had really great ideas. So how would they have been able to pitch otherwise?

I think people don’t want to do open calls because it’s a lot of work, you get inundated, but you can set up the parameters with enough people to go through those pitches properly. I find it’s a lot of work, but I think they’re definitely worth having and they do pay off.

FT: Is there anything you think would be good for the Content is Queen community to know?

LA: People ask me all the time if they should start a podcast, because there are just so many podcasts in the space, and I always say, “yes, you should always make your podcast”. Just think about what is your unique perspective. Everybody has their own story to tell, but I’d also think about what your purpose is. I don’t like making content just for content’s sake or just for talking’s sake. Think about why is it important to put this out there? Why is it important to tell this story?

I feel like there are so many podcasts out there, especially with men in particular, just talking. I feel like some people forget how much reach and influence they have. You have to be very mindful about the content that you’re putting out because you can be very influential. I think we need to be making sure we are putting out informed balanced content, which I feel like we lack sometimes in the UK space. But that’s just my two cents.

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