I’m a huge fan of Twenty Thousand Hertz. I had it featured in my first recommendation round-up andI’m still amazed when I encounter fans of 99 Percent Invisible, Reply All, and other cerebral podcasts that haven’t yet heard of Twenty Thousand Hertz. Their lack of fame is probably because they have remained independent without the big backing of a large production company to lend their marketing muscle to increase exposure. They’re also a perfect example of the podcast discoverability problem I’ve previously written about.
Here’s a little secret about Discover Pods. The idea originated after a group of my friends — major podcast fans themselves — decided to share the five podcasts they enjoy most. Despite being great friends, somehow the topic had never come up and to our surprise the podcasts were wide-ranging and new to a lot of us. This enclosed word-of-mouth recommendation setting led to me starting Discover Pods. If we’re great friends and podcast fans and we’re just now having this conversation, there must be tons of others out there needing to have the same.
Twenty Thousand Hertz was included in my five recommended podcasts to my friends.
As one of the few podcasts that remain on my must-listen queue, I was elated to get the chance to speak to Dallas Taylor, host of Twenty Thousand Hertz. I, like many current Twenty Thousand Hertz fans, first heard of the podcast through a cross-promotion from 99% Invisible that replayed an early Twenty Thousand Hertz episode to their subscribers. Curious about his relationship with 99% Invisible, where their stories come from, and ultimately the difficulties for an independent podcast to gain ground against bigger budget production companies, I got a chance to ask all these questions and more. Below is a transcript of our conversation lightly edited for clarity.
Discover Pods: First things first, how’d you get into podcasting?
Dallas: I’m a sound designer and I’ve been a fan of podcasts for many years. Back in the day it seemed like most podcasts were a couple of guys talking about tech, but then over time they became really creative and beautiful unto themselves. And of course, like a lot of people, I fell in love with 99% Invisible. 99% Invisible was not only beautiful to listen to, but it also changed the way I spoke about and marketed my own business. Up until then, many people viewed sound design as being a very technical thing, but I was more romantic about it. And 99% Invisible really transformed how I communicated the emotional impact of sound in my business..
But [99% Invisible’s] Roman [Mars] does an amazing job of sound shows already and I really didn’t want to step on his toes. I gobbled up every sound-focused show that they did. It’s the one topic that I would never miss. But, over the years they moved into other wide-ranging topics like architecture and other human design elements. I felt like there was a place to do a show only about sound.
Working at a sound studio, there were a lot of little stories about sound we’d discuss internally. I really didn’t hear about these stories anywhere, and if I did, they were in article or in video form. But really, the most effective way, in my opinion, to be able to tell these sound stories was through sound.
I’ve been at Defacto Sound for eight years. The company’s pretty well on track and I wanted to do a project that brought the team together and was our own passion project. It felt really vulnerable making something that could be critiqued by our own clients. It felt like a risk in a lot of ways.
DP: You mentioned your work at Defacto and wanting to bring the team together to tell these stories. Was Twenty Thousand Hertz a content marketing endeavor for Defacto? Was it ever intended to help drive business for Defacto Sound?
Dallas: Not really. If I wanted to do something that really drove business directly to my company, I would probably do a podcast about producing for advertising agencies or marketing. I’d probably do an interview show where I interviewed popular Producers. But I wanted to go beyond that. This show is much more about getting the general population interested in sound, just like they’re interested in their other four senses. I definitely want a general audience, and if the audience is big enough to the point where a small fraction of those people might send work to Defacto, then great! Even more importantly, though, was bringing our internal team together creatively to make our own thing and stretch our own creative muscles.
I want to make content that our clients make. Because everyone we work with have to speak to an enormous audience. Most of the projects we work on are video projects with audiences from 100,000 to millions of people. It takes a special talent to speak to a lot of people, and that was something I wanted to do with sound. Could 100,000+ people actually be interested in a show only about sound?
DP: That makes a lot of sense. And to touch on something you said early about specifically 99% Invisible, I think I first subscribed to Twenty Thousand Hertz after they ran a snippet on the NBC Chimes episode. What’s your relationship like with that team? Were you able to negotiate the cross-promotion or was it more of “I like what you’re doing, here’s what we’re doing,” thing?
Dallas: It was completely informal and completely organic.
Many years ago, I think in the first year or two of 99% Invisible, I shot Roman and email that said, “Hey, I’m going to be in San Francisco. I love your show. We’re coming out for a big sound designer convention for video games. And I’d love to grab a drink and just say hello.” Because he’s obviously super into sound and utilized sound in a really beautiful way \he was just like, “Yeah, cool. Let’s meet up.”
After that, it was a very informal relationship for years. We would like each other’s kid pictures on Facebook mostly.
Eventually, I started to get the bug to do a podcast about sound.
I started making the show, and bumped into Roman at Third Coast Festival last year. At that time we had posted two episodes, just a couple hundred people listened to it. The Voice of Siri, which now has over 750,000 listens, and NBC, which has been listened to a ton. But at the time, whenever I posted Siri it was like 250 downloads, and then NBC came out and it was a couple hundred downloads. Roman was super complimentary of the show (which made me feel like a million bucks). And then, very naturally, he wrote and asked if I’d be interested if he replayed it on 99% Invisible” And that’s how really that came about. Very simply, and organically. I was blown away for him to even ask.
I’m really thankful that he did that because that really launched the entire audience that we have now. I have no idea if we would even still be doing the podcast had that not happened.
DP: That’s great to hear. I’m clearly one of those people that discovered it through that marketing channel, so I’m glad for both of you, having that relationship and exposing people and the masses to it.
Dallas: It’s worth even mentioning at this point … This is something that I’ve learned pretty recently is to talk to people. All of these podcasts are on their own insular island. It’s not like all of your favorite podcast’s hosts are just hanging out all the time, talking about what it’s like to be on top of the podcasting world or something. That doesn’t exist. More often than not, even on popular shows, it feels really isolating. And I’m not even calling my show a super popular show. The reality of what it feels like is it feels like you just put tons and tons and tons and tons and tons of work into something, you put it out there, and then you get really minimal feedback.
Even with tens of thousands of people downloading a show, I get surprisingly little feedback. f you’re a podcaster, talk to other podcasters. If you’re a fan, communicate with the podcasters. No matter who they are. Most of the time they’re just a bunch of normal people that you can have conversations with and throw ideas out there. Then, occasionally a cross promotional spark might happen.
DP: It’s good to hear and it goes nicely into my next question because with all your episodes, you have all these different forms of contact methods. Whether it’s the voicemail or your Twitter handle or your email. It seems like you’re one of the more approachable podcast hosts. You said you strive to answer as many as that come in. Do you dedicate a certain part of your day, having this full-time day job, to engage with your fans, and how has the listener support been up til now?
Dallas: The listener support’s really great. We do categorize some of the types of feedback we get in, so not necessarily every email comes to me directly. If it’s a show idea and it’s just like, “Hey, here’s a cool show idea,” usually that will just go straight to Samantha who’s our coordinating producer. But if there’s anything of substance or someone’s really giving really great feedback or nice things, usually that’s going to be passed along to our entire team or me.
I thrive off of people’s communicating with me. It’s really nice to hear when shows resonate with people. I really get fuel from people communicating with us through Twitter or through Facebook or through email. Because that’s really the encouragement fuel that I need to keep moving forward. Hearing someone say, “Hey, on that one particular episode that you worked on I got teary,” or, “I just had a huge epiphany on this other episode,” or, “I heard this episode and totally thought you might consider doing this other episode.” is why it’s worth doing.
And I would say without the listener feedback, it’s really hard to want to keep doing it, to be honest.
It also validates the things that we are creating behind the scenes that we don’t have a real testing ground for. We might do something that we think is funny or quirky but we only have a few people to evaluate it, So it’s amazing to have 10 people write in and say, “That one moment here was just so funny and quirky.” And I know if it spoke to them then I know that spoke to a bigger audience. It’s just nice to know that some of the things we’re trying to communicate is actually landing with people.
DP: That makes sense because you’re putting all this time into stuff and then you’re throwing it over the fence. I’m sure getting that communication back is the proof point that you’re looking for that it did something and people listened.
Dallas: That’s exactly what it feels like. We make a thing, we put all this time and energy into it and then we post it to a website. After that, it just vaporizes into the universe unless someone writes us.
DP: You mentioned 99% Invisible and Radiotopia. With the other large podcast productions out there, Gimlet, just raised a massive amount; NPR. Do you experience any challenges being a large independent podcast without the production and marketing muscle that other podcasts may have?
Dallas: As far as production, I actually have a huge advantage in my opinion. The sound design talent here at Defacto Sound is some of the best in the world, so production value isn’t even something we think of. It just comes naturally.
As far as support from marketing, I don’t know. Gimlet and Radiotopia are fantastic at, essentially, being curators of content. If you listen to anything on Radiotopia, there’s a good chance you’ll love the other shows in the network. Same for Gimlet.
With other networks, it seems to be more about ad sales than anything. I will say the appeal of having someone handle ad sales for the show is very, very appealing. The freedom of being completely independent is also nice too because I just have no one to answer to. There are no cooks in the kitchen. There’s no approval process. If there’s an advertiser that I want to work with, I reach out directly. I’m also negotiating directly with the brands that are advertising on the show. There’s no middleman between me and the brand. If I’m talking to Blue Apron or Squarespace or Audible, I’m talking directly to the person who handles that account. Not 5-6 layers of people.It’s not
As much as I love the freedom, I’m still open to the network idea. It just has to be a mutually beneficial situation. There seems to be a podcasting bubble emerging, with new sources of money coming in from untraditional sources. As interesting as it would be to take the money and run, so to speak, I’m more interested in a healthy, long-term show. This show speaks about topics that are deeply embedded into my soul, and nothing is more important than the content. If the right network is interested in that, I’m happy to chat.
DP: Occasionally I’ll be blissfully ignorant about specific things that annoy other people, but once it’s brought up, for some reason I just can’t get it out of my head. Things like papyrus font or glass bricks. And thanks to you, the credit card reader chip beep, when you’re going to a POS machine is just absolutely the bane of my existence. Are there other sounds in your day-to-day life that you just absolutely can’t stand?
Dallas: A couple days ago I was in the airport and whenever you go to get your baggage from baggage claim, there’s this alarm system with an actual yellow police looking alarm thing. Right before the baggage claim carousel kicks on, it goes completely haywire. It sounds like the nuclear apocalypse is about to happen. I understand the point of getting people’s attention, but this sound in downtown Washington D.C is terrifying. It sounds like a war is imminent.
The sound of car horns are horrible and it’s making us worse human beings. We don’t have any options for saying different things with our horns. It just makes people mad and it’s making people aggressive and frankly, it’s hurting people’s health.
If you’re walking on the sidewalk and someone bumps into you, everyone goes, “Oh, I’m sorry. Excuse me. Pardon me,” blah, blah, blah. If you honk at someone, it’s the pedestrian equivalent of flipping someone off, purely because of how aggressive the sound is. Why don’t we have a couple different horns on our car with different meanings?
DP: You recently did an episode about noise pollution and just reducing the everyday noise, but you also did an episode on manufactured car sounds, the engines and things like that. I believe I read somewhere in Europe that electric cars have to have fake engine sounds because people aren’t looking when they cross the street because they’ve relied on listening for the sounds.
Do you think as a society we’re at a point where we’re reliant or we have some expectation on these everyday noise pollution sounds to get through our day-to-day life?
Dallas: Yes, for sure. I do think we’re reliant on a lot of those things, but I don’t necessarily think that that’s an argument for keeping them. It’s more so that we’re just evolving as a society. And electric cars make sound (tires on pavement, whirrs), it’s just that all of the sound that’s around the car is even louder.
We’re programmed to accept the sounds around us, without thinking about how we’ve evolved and how unnatural they are. For example,if you’re looking at your cell phone at midnight and trying to go to sleep you have all this blue light. And you’re like, I can’t go to sleep but I’m just browsing Reddit constantly to try to make myself go to sleep. Well, up until 15 years ago it was unheard of to put a screen a foot away from your face when you’re trying to go to sleep. And that was 10, 15 years ago, and then the rest of human history before that. We don’t really think about these things that we’re doing. And that goes for sound too. All of the sound that’s around us is pretty unnatural and didn’t really exist up until very recent human history. We should probably, at least, think about them.
DP: After doing the episode on accents, are you more appreciative and/or critical of movie accents than you were before?
Dallas: Not really. I think I feel more guilty about spending so long removing my Southern accent. I grew up in Arkansas. I left almost 20 years ago, and ever since I’ve really tried to remove the accent altogether. I’m kind of sad that I spent so much of my adult life trying to remove that “sense of place” that was built into my accent.
DP: When you travel back to Arkansas, does it come back fast?
Dallas: Maybe a little bit. Whenever I’m with older people, I’ll let it come out a little bit more. It’s comfortable to have an accent. You make people comfortable and they’re more comfortable with you if they hear that similar way of speaking.
If you speak a certain way, that’s totally fine, embrace it. It’s part of who you are, it’s how you connect to the world, it’s how you connect to your family, how you connect to your friends. And it’s perfectly fine. And for those people who do have preconceived notions about the way someone speaks (Boston, NYC, Texas, Alabama, California, etc..), chill out. It’s totally fine.
DP: I’ll finish up with maybe an easy one. What are your favorite podcasts that you listen to that you see them and you got to listen to it that day or that week?
Dallas: Reply All. I don’t know what it is. It’s such a release for me. It’s highly produced but comes across very, very casually. And I don’t tend to find myself really enjoying people sitting around talking. But that’s not what Reply All is. You do have the PJ and Alex banter, which is really cool to be apart of, but there’s so much substance to the content and the depth of what they’re saying. I never know what I’m getting into. And that’s the trap that I want to make sureTwenty Thousand Hertz doesn’t get into. I want people to end an episode with a laugh but then another one with a cry. With another one being like, oh that was interesting. With Reply All, you can start it and you don’t know where it’s going. It could be super emotional, it could be super funny. And I just love that adventurous aspect of it.
Of course 99% Invisible. It’s just perfect in length, style, pace, cool factor. Every producer on their staff brings their own character but they have this, I don’t know, footprint among everyone that’s just so beautiful. I’m not typically into really long content because now that I’m getting older, I have kids and I have less time to really partake in long pieces of media content. I just want things to be short, concise, to the point, and with emotion. I just don’t know of anybody that really made design sexy before Roman Mars. I’m sure there are people out there, of course, but he just articulates it so beautifully to give designers and engineers heart. And I just love that mission.